Sean O’Faolain’s other women
An extract from Julia O’Faolain’s memoir ‘Trespassers’
“Your mother,” said Sean grandly, “is punching above her weight. She doesn’t realise that she couldn’t survive without me. And what’s worse, having issued her threat, she’ll be too proud to climb down. So it’s up to you to get us out of this mess. You’re the only one who can.”
This struck me as a mean passing of the buck.
“Why should I believe him?” I asked myself, and felt outrage both on her behalf and my own. But though his appeal might be a bluff, it seemed dangerous to call. Between us, I feared that he and I could indeed back Eileen into a corner and provoke her into some sort of craziness.
Could we, though? Truly?
What made me think we could was a small secret of my own, a shy memory of how, when I was six, I had been in love with her. There is no other term for my feelings at the time. Shortly before my brother’s birth, I became excessively attached to her, and something, I forget quite what, tipped this state of mind towards recklessness. Perhaps she had been talking too happily about the new baby she planned to bring home from the Hatch Street nursing home or had shown off her preparations with too much pride. There was, I remember, a softly draped and canopied cot in which I would have enjoyed sleeping myself, if it had been big enough, with next to it a Moses basket heaped with crocheted coatees, bonnets and tiny shoes. All new!
The sight made me so jealous that I went straight into Eileen’s garden, where I picked and ate a selection of brightly coloured berries that I had been warned were poisonous. “Attention-seeking” I suppose this would now be called or, more charitably, a “cry for help”. In the end it failed as both, when the berries turned out not to be poisonous after all. Nobody knew I’d eaten them, and I don’t even remember being sick.
Dangers of jealousy
In 1955, though, what the embarrassing old memory brought home to me was the danger of making people jealous. At the same time, I began to wonder whether, despite what Sean thought, Eileen might do very well without him. Better perhaps. She could still go beagling in Wicklow with her friend Lily and to point-to-point races and country-house auctions. Couldn’t she?
For all I knew she might be happier. Maybe. But I couldn’t risk being wrong, even though she was still an attractive woman who, I knew, had in their early years as a couple been its livewire.
But now he was a successful writer and public figure, while she was a middle-aged housewife, and I wasn’t worldly enough to judge her chances of – well, what? Didn’t people speak of “making a new life”? In Ireland, that didn’t happen often. Not then. Not for women.
And Sean back then was still dangerously good-looking. Someone might snap him up. They would certainly try. Quite recently I had noticed women brighten in his presence. He was burning with energy, long-legged and lean, with good cheekbones and an amused smile. There are photographs to prove it.
For all I knew, however, he might have invented the story about her threatening to leave him. He was a fiction writer, after all. Impish and a bit of a tease! When bored at a party, he was quite capable of opening a woman’s handbag, if he found one left on a chair, and shamelessly examining the contents. I had seen him do this more than once. If caught him rifling through it, he would laugh easily, claim that this was research, then chaff the bag’s owner about secrets he would pretend to have found.
Next, he might argue that writing and living needed to feed off each other. A good way to write a short story, he sometimes told young writers who came to tea, was to bring two narrative ideas together, make them interact and see what would happen. How could I be sure that he wasn’t doing this very thing with Eileen’s life and mine? “Leave him, or she’ll leave me,” was how he had started our conversation. “I’m appealing to you for her sake.”
Was this true, though? He could be manipulating me, just as Irish governments manipulated voters when they appealed to national pride, then forestalled further argument by banning abortion, divorce and contraceptives, and stepping up the censorship of films, newspapers and books.
To survive in such a place, and report unwelcome truths, you needed to develop guile. Sean did, and the one time he used it on me was when he persuaded me to test myself and my French lover by staying apart for a year to see if we would keep faith with each other. We didn’t, of course. Each of us blamed the other. And my parents’ marriage staggered on for another three decades. Then they died within three years of each other.
] ] ]
So how, to come back to my question, when looking back on a delusive and deluded country, can I trust my own memory, or tell whether I saw anything clearly in the first place?
Wondering about this, I try to remember my young self. “She’s easily flustered and highly strung!” That was what my mother warned my husband to expect when she met him first, which was two years after I and my Frenchman broke up, and four years after I began to doubt Sean’s omniscience and savvy.
I had had doubts about these earlier, when he gave me a golden rule to help me decide whether or not to go to bed with a man. If I was to avoid self-dislike and moral squalor, I should, he advised, do so only when I was at least starting to fall in love. Properly, truly in love, he specified. This, in the Ireland of the day, seemed benignly permissive, but it paralysed me. Am I in love, I would ask myself when the moment arose, then take my emotional temperature and freeze.