READING FOR CHILD
AND YOUTH CARE WORKERS
Irish writer Frank OíConnor explains,
My Oedipus Complex
Father was in the army all through the war Ė the first war, I mean Ė 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 morning I heard the slamming of the front door and the clatter of nailed boots down the cobbles of the lane. These were Fatherís entrances and exits. 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, and shaved, an operation of astounding interest. Each time he left a trail of souvenirs Ė model tanks and Gurkha knives with handles made of bullet cases, and German helmets and cap badges and button sticks, and all sorts of military equipment Ė carefully stowed 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 come in handy. When his back was turned, Mother let me get a chair and rummage through his treasures. She didnít 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 illumine and rejoice. Life never seemed so simple and clear and full of possibilities as then. I put my feet out from under the clothes Ė I called them Mrs. Left and Mrs. Right Ė 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 hadnít 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 Mother said we couldnít 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 couldnít afford seventeen and six. It was probably a cheap baby, and Mother wanted something really good, but I felt she was too exclusive. The Geneysí baby would have done us fine.
Having settled my plans for 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 long strange shadows that made them seem unfamiliar; rigid and painted.
After that I went into Motherís room and climbed into the big bed. She woke and I began to tell her of my schemes. By this time, though I never seemed 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 the kitchen, making the breakfast.
After breakfast we went into town; heard Mass at St. Augustineís and said a prayer for Father, and did the shopping. If the afternoon was fine we either went for a walk in the country or a visit to Motherís great friend in the convent, Mother Saint Dominic. Mother had them all praying for Father, and every night, going to bed, I asked God to send him back safe from the war to us. Little, indeed, did I know what I was praying for!
One morning, I got into the big bed, and there, sure enough, was Father in his usual Santa Claus manner, but later, instead of uniform, he put on his best blue suit, and Mother was as pleased as anything. I saw nothing to be pleased about, because, out of uniform, Father was altogether less interesting, but she only beamed, and explained that our prayers had been answered, and off we went to Mass to thank God for having brought Father safely home.
The irony of it! That very day when he came in to dinner he took off his boots and put on his slippers, donned the dirty old cap he wore about the house to save him from colds, crossed his legs, and began to talk gravely to Mother, who looked anxious. Naturally, I disliked her looking anxious, because it destroyed her good looks, so I interrupted him.
"Just a moment, Larry!" she
said gently. This was only what she said when we had boring visitors, so
I attached no importance to it and went on talking.
In the afternoon, at Motherís request, Father took me for a walk. This time we went into town instead of out in the country, and I thought at first, in my usual optimistic way, that it might be an improvement. It was nothing of the sort. Father and I had quite different notions of a walk in town. He had no proper interest in trams, ships, and horses, and the only thing that seemed to divert him was talking to fellows as old as himself. When I wanted to stop he simply went on, dragging me behind him by the hand; when he wanted to stop I had no alternative but to do the same. I noticed that it seemed to be a sign that he wanted to stop for a long time whenever he leaned against a wall. The second time I saw him do it I got wild. He seemed to be settling himself forever. I pulled him by the coat and trousers, but, unlike Mother who, if you were too persistent, got into a wax and said: "Larry, if you donít behave yourself, Iíll give you a good slap," Father had an extraordinary capacity for amiable inattention. I sized him up and wondered would I cry, but he seemed to be too remote to be annoyed even by that. Really, it was like going for a walk with a mountain! He either ignored the wrenching and pummeling entirely, or else glanced down with a grin of amusement from his peak. I had never met anyone so absorbed in himself as he seemed.
At teatime, "talking to Daddy"
began again, complicated this time by the fact that he had an evening
paper, and every few minutes he put it down and told Mother something
new out of it. I felt this was foul play. Man for man, I was prepared to
compete with him any time for Motherís attention, but when he had it
all made up for him by other people it left me no chance. Several times
I tried to change the subject without success.
Next morning I woke at my usual hour, feeling like a bottle of champagne. I put out my feet and invented a long conversation in which Mrs. Right talked of the trouble she had with her own father till she put him in the Home. I didnít quite know what the Home was but it sounded the right place for Father. Then I got my chair and stuck my head out of the attic window. Dawn was just breaking, with a guilty air that made me feel I had caught it in the act. My head bursting with stories and schemes, I stumbled in next door, and in the half-darkness scrambled into the big bed. There was no room at Motherís side so I had to get between her and Father. For the time being I had forgotten about him, and for several minutes I sat bolt upright, racking my brains to know what I could do with him. He was taking up more than his fair share of the bed, and I couldnít get comfortable, so I gave him several kicks that made him grunt and stretch. He made room all right, though. Mother waked and felt for me. I settled back comfortably in the warmth of the bed with my thumb in my mouth.
"Mummy!" I hummed, loudly and
I began to snivel. I couldnít concentrate, the way that pair went on, and smothering my early-morning schemes was like burying a family from the cradle. Father said nothing, but lit his pipe and sucked it, looking out into the shadows without minding Mother or me. I knew he was mad. Every time I made a remark Mother hushed me irritably. I was mortified. I felt it wasnít fair; there was even something sinister in it. Every time I had pointed out to her the waste of making two beds when we could both sleep in one, she had told me it was healthier like that, and now here was this man, this stranger, sleeping with her without the least regard for her health! He got up early and made tea, but though he brought Mother a cup he brought none for me.
"Mummy," I shouted, "I
want a cup of tea, too."
Mind you, I meant that. I knew pennies
were a serious matter, and I was all against having to go out and beg
like the old woman on Fridays. Mother laid out all my toys in a complete
ring round the bed so that, whatever way I got out, I was bound to fall
over one of them. When I woke I remembered my promise all right. I got
up and sat on the floor and played Ė for hours, it seemed to me. Then
I got my chair and looked out the attic window for more hours. I wished
it was time for Father to wake; I wished someone would make me a cup of
tea. I didnít feel in the least like the sun; instead, I was bored and
so very, very cold! I simply longed for the warmth and depth of the big
feather bed. At last I could stand it no longer. I went into the next
room. As there was still no room at Motherís side I climbed over her
and she woke with a start. "Larry," she whispered, gripping my
arm very tightly, "what did you promise?"
I understood it only too well. I wanted
to talk, he wanted to sleep Ė whose house was it, anyway?
The injustice of it got me down. I had
convicted her out of her own mouth of inconsistency and
unreasonableness, and she hadnít even attempted to reply. Full of
spite, I gave Father a kick, which she didnít notice but which made
him grunt and open his eyes in alarm.
I was so astonished that I stopped
screeching. Never, never had anyone spoken to me in that tone before. I
looked at him incredulously and saw his face convulsed with rage. It was
only then that I fully realized how God had codded me, listening to my
prayers for the safe return of this monster.
At this he lost his patience and let fly at me. He did it with the lack of conviction youíd expect of a man under Motherís horrified eyes, and it ended up as a mere tap, but the sheer indignity of being struck at all by a stranger, a total stranger who had cajoled his way back from the war into our big bed as a result of my innocent intercession, made me completely dotty. I shrieked and shrieked, and danced in my bare feet, and Father, looking awkward and hairy in nothing but a short gray army shirt, glared down at me like a mountain out for murder. I think it must have been then that I realized he was jealous too. And there stood Mother in her nightdress, looking as if her heart was broken between us. I hoped she felt as she looked. It seemed to me that she deserved it all.
From that morning out my life was a hell. Father and I were enemies, open and avowed. We conducted a series of skirmishes against one another, he trying to steal my time with Mother and I his. When she was sitting on my bed, telling me a story, he took to looking for some pair of old boots which he alleged he had left behind him at the beginning of the war. While he talked to Mother I played loudly with my toys to show my total lack of concern.
He created a
terrible scene one evening when he came in from work and found me at his
box, playing with his regimental badges, Gurkha knives and button
sticks. Mother got up and took the box from me.
But as time went on I saw more and more how he managed to alienate Mother and me. What made it worse was that I couldnít grasp his method or see what attraction he had for Mother. In every possible way he was less winning than I. He had a common accent and made noises at his tea. I thought for a while that it might be the newspapers she was interested in, so I made up bits of news of my own to read to her. Then I thought it might be the smoking, which I personally thought attractive, and took his pipes and went round the house dribbling into them till he caught me. I even made noises at my tea, but Mother only told me I was disgusting. It all seemed to hinge round that unhealthy habit of sleeping together, so I made a point of dropping into their bedroom and nosing round, talking to myself, so that they wouldnít know I was watching them, but they were never up to anything that I could see. In the end it beat me. It seemed to depend on being grown-up and giving people rings, and I realized Iíd have to wait. But at the same time I wanted him to see that I was only waiting, not giving up the fight.
One evening when he was being
particularly obnoxious, chattering away well above my head, I let him
I was no end pleased about that because it showed that in spite of the way she gave in to Father she still considered my wishes. Besides, it would put the Geneys in their place. It didnít turn out like that, though. To begin with, she was very preoccupied Ė I supposed about where she would get the seventeen and six Ė and though Father took to staying out late in the evenings it did me no particular good. She stopped taking me for walks, became as touchy as blazes, and smacked me for nothing at all. Sometimes I wished Iíd never mentioned the confounded baby Ė I seemed to have a genius for bringing calamity on myself.
And calamity it was! Sonny arrived in the most appalling hulla-baloo Ė even that much he couldnít do without a fuss Ė and from the first moment I disliked him. He was a difficult child Ė so far as I was concerned he was always difficult Ė and demanded far too much attention. Mother was simply silly about him, and couldnít see when he was only showing off. As company he was worse than useless. He slept all day, and I had to go round the house on tiptoe to avoid waking him. It wasnít any longer a question of not waking Father. The slogan now was "Donít-wake-Sonny!" I couldnít understand why the child wouldnít sleep at the proper time, so whenever Motherís back was turned I woke him. Sometimes to keep him awake I pinched him as well. Mother caught me at it one day and gave me a most unmerciful flaking.
One evening, when Father was coming in
from work, I was playing trains in the front garden. I let on not to
notice him; instead, I pretended to be talking to myself, and said in a
loud voice: "If another bloody baby comes into this house, Iím
Mind you, I intended it as a solemn warning, but its effect was quite different. Father started being quite nice to me. I could understand that, of course. Mother was quite sickening about Sonny. Even at mealtimes sheíd get up and gawk at him in the cradle with an idiotic smile, and tell Father to do the same. He was always polite about it, but he looked so puzzled you could see he didnít know what she was talking about. He complained of the way Sonny cried at night, but she only got cross and said that Sonny never cried except when there was something up with him Ė which was a flaming lie, because Sonny never had anything up with him, and only cried for attention. It was really painful to see how simpleminded she was.
Father wasnít attractive, but he had a fine intelligence. He saw through Sonny, and now he knew that I saw through him as well. One night I woke with a start. There was someone beside me in the bed. For one wild moment I felt sure it must be Mother, having come to her senses and left Father for good, but then I heard Sonny in convulsions in the next room, and Mother saying: "There! There! There!" and I knew it wasnít she. It was Father. He was lying beside me, wide-awake, breathing hard and apparently as mad as hell. After a while it came to me what he was mad about. It was his turn now. After turning me out of the big bed, he had been turned out himself. Mother had no consideration now for anyone but that poisonous pup, Sonny.
I couldnít help feeling sorry for
Father. I had been through it all myself, and even at that age I was
magnanimous. I began to stroke him down and say: "There!
At Christmas he went out of his way to buy me a really nice model railway.