By Frank O'Connor
Father was in the army all through the war—the first war, I mean—so, up to the age of five, I never saw much of him, and what I saw did not worry me. Sometimes I woke and there was a big figure in khaki peering down at me in the candlelight. Sometimes in the early morningI heard the slamming of the front door and the clatter of nailed boots down the cobbles of the lane. These were Father’s exits and entrances. Like Santa Claus he came and went mysteriously.
In fact, I rather liked his visits, though it was an uncomfortable squeeze between Mother and him when I got into the big bed in the early morning. He smoked, which gave him a pleasant musty smell, andshaved, an operation of astounding interest. Each time he left a trail of souvenirs—model tanks and Gurkha knives with handles made of bullet cases, and German helmets and cap badges and buttonsticks, and all sorts of military equipment—carefully stored away in a long box on top of the wardrobe, in case they ever came in handy. There was a bit of the magpie about Father; he expected everything to comein handy. When his back was turned, Mother let me get a chair and rummage through his treasures. She didn’t seem to think so highly of them as he did.
The war was the most peaceful period of my life. The window of my attic faced southeast. My mother had curtained it, but that had small effect. I always woke with the first light and, with all the responsibilities of the previous day melted,feeling myself rather like the sun, ready to illuminate and rejoice. Life never seemed so simple and clear and full of possibilities as then. I put my feet out from under the clothes—I called them Mrs. Left and Mrs. Right—and invented dramatic situations for them in which they discussed the problems of the day. At least Mrs. Right did; she was very demonstrative, but I had not the same control of Mrs.Left, so she mostly contented herself with nodding agreement.
They discussed what Mother and I should do during the day, what Santa Claus should give a fellow for Christmas, and what steps should be taken to brighten the home. There was that little matter of the baby, for instance. Mother and I could never agree about that. Ours was the only house in the terrace without a new baby, and Mothersaid we couldn’t afford one till Father came back from the war because they cost seventeen and six. That showed how simple she was. The Geneys up the road had a baby, and everyone knew they couldn’t afford seventeen and six. It was probably a cheap baby, and Mother wanted something really good, but I felt she was too exclusive. The Geneys’ baby would have done us fine.
Having settled my plansfor the day, I got up, put a chair under the attic window, and lifted the frame high enough to stick out my head. The window overlooked the front gardens of the terrace behind ours, and beyond these it looked over a deep valley to the tall, red-brick houses terraced up the opposite hillside, which were all still in shadow, while those at our side of the valley were all lit up, though with longstrange shadows that made them seem unfamiliar; rigid and painted.
After that I went into Mother’s room and climbed into the big bed. She woke and I began to tell her of my schemes. By this time, though I never seem to have noticed it, I was petrified in my nightshirt, and I thawed as I talked until, the last frost melted, I fell asleep beside her and woke again only when I heard her below in thekitchen, making the breakfast.
After breakfast we went into town; heard Mass at St. Augustine’s and said a prayer for Father, and did the shopping. If the afternoon is fine we either went for a walk in the country or a visit to Mother’s great friend in the convent, Mother St. Dominic. Mother had them all praying for father, and every night, going to bed, I asked God to send him back safe from...