SPRING IN THE COUNTRY
Every time he told Teresa a lie he went over to Peadar's house to sit
and watch him run the clippers up the back of the neck of whatever boy
was in the cutting chair, and feel the strong steady fingers tilting
the head this way and that as he went from the right
temple all the way round to the left.
Ciaran had first come to Peadar's over a month ago when Teresa sent him
to have his hair cut. Coming from the city he thought it funny that the
barber should live up a narrow laneway half a mile from the nearest
house. The cottage had three rooms and no electricity. The middle room
was the kitchen and the parlour and the cutting room. It
was warm early spring that first day and the door was open and the hens
wandered in and picked among the hair for things to eat. Sometimes
Peadar would shoo them out and close the half door but that made the
room darker and he had to lean nearer to see what he was
He never lied about anything important to Teresa. There was nothing to
lie about except where he had been or who he had seen or if he had
changed his underpants or washed behind his ears. He could see that she
was trying to be his mother but his mother never asked him questions
that needed a lie for an answer. She only asked when he had
somehow invited her, and she knew the right questions. But Teresa knew
It had been his uncle's idea to send him to the country for three
months, to learn Irish in a native speaking rural community. 'It'll
make a man of him,' he'd heard him tell his mother, 'knock the little
girl out of him, living with strangers.' Ciaran thought it would be
adventurous. All the books he'd read had been set in the country,
villages of evacuated children, kidnappers coming into schools,
scientists betraying their country. The village was near the sea, so
there would be boatloads of smugglers and dozens of secret caves.
But the local boys distrusted him. He could tell from the start that
they expected him to behave as if he was bored and wanted to tell them
how wonderful the city was. When he didn't, they thought he was a snob
and ignored him. There were one or two fights, but his small size and
vicious temper sent him into maximum aggression immediately, whereas
they wanted to build up slowly with a bit of taunting and pushing. They
soon learnt he was not to be trusted to play that game either.
Teresa was the first adult he had ever called by her first name alone.
At home everyone was uncle this or aunt that or Mr or Mrs or even Miss.
A title-less adult? Never! But no one called her Miss O'Connell, so how
could he? She had met him from the bus in her white cardigan. He knew
that the diamonds sewn into the front weren't real but still he had
never seen anything like it.
He'd cried when she left him alone in the dining room that first
afternoon to eat his fried egg and rasher. Everything tasted slightly
of turf smoke, which, by itself was not unpleasant, but it brought with
it an immense loneliness, which returned again and again
over the first month. There was nothing he really missed from home but
the country didn't want him either.
Teresa spoke a lot of English to him. She was supposed to speak only
Irish. That's what he'd been warned, even by Teresa herself. But then
she would go ahead in English, speaking it cautiously, pronouncing each
word like one of them was a foreigner. But she was also aloof, as if
everything was an instruction and she hated him.
When she spoke Irish she raced ahead carelessly and was more friendly
but he could only pick out a word here and there. That was how he
started to lie to her. She would say something and ask if he understood
and he, understanding only some words, would nod and hope he got it
She seemed to believe him no matter what he said and he often wondered
what she really thought. The first time he lied, he lay in bed awake
worrying that she would find out. But by the next time, he'd already
been to Peadar's for a hair cut and when she asked him something about
his homework, he nodded, left the house and found himself going back to
watch the barber working.
Somehow being allowed to call her by her first name gave him a power he
was not used to with adults. It was the same for Peadar. It seemed to
be about them not being married. But also they both said things to him,
which he thought ought only to have been said to other adults. Like the
day she whispered to him that she was going to marry the man sitting in
front of the fire. Teresa was fussing over him when Ciaran came home
from school. She had the bottle of Powers on the table and tea and cake
and ham sandwiches. Shop bread it was too, not her home-made griddle
cake or the rough brown that Peadar gave him hot and covered in melting
The man was introduced as Mr Stanton and when he was gone she told
Ciaran about her wedding plans and asked him what he thought of him.
'Why don't you marry Peadar,' he asked, 'and he could live here, his
house is so small.' And she got haughty and said; 'Mr Stanton is from
the city and has a beautiful house, even bigger than this one. And
besides, Peadar will never marry now because he's too old and the
brother has to be considered and he did asked me years ago and I said
Teresa said all this quickly, as if she had been thinking it herself or
had said it before. But the most interesting bit had been the words
'the Brother' and he asked but she said nothing and pushed the
remaining ham sandwich towards him and put the Powers bottle in the
press under the stairs.
Teresa decided that because it was spring, all the out-houses and sheds
needed to be white-washed. Every day for the following week when he
came home from school she had the basin stirred and the brush ready for
him, so he was too busy to go near the barber. He was just finishing
the hen house and looking forward to Teresa telling him how great he
was, when he heard her shouting at him. 'Did you leave the gate open?
Look at the hens, running everywhere.'
'It wasn't me.' He said. Trying to think of someone else to blame or
some explanation. She told him to round up the hens and to put the
white-wash and brush away. He looked at the hens enjoying their freedom
and, hoping they would return when it was time to be fed, went over to
He sat and watched the barber finishing off an old man with hair as
blond as straw and longed to feel the cold steel of the clippers
inching up the back of his own neck. When they were alone he asked
Peadar why he had never married and he replied that no woman would ever
'What about Teresa, did you ever ask her?' And the man looked at
'Indeed I did,' he said, 'but it wasn't to be.' The man gave a sort of
backwards nod that reverberated down his body and Ciaran felt impatient
with him, wondering why he hadn't tried some other woman. Then he
risked the question he'd been putting off. 'Who's 'The
'Mairt?n', the man said, taking the brush and sweeping the blonde hair
into a pile and placing it carefully on the fire. It flared, giving a
boost to the turf and died back instantly.
'Mairt?n,' he repeated. 'My brother, he's in there,' and he pointed
towards the room behind the fireplace.
'But that's your room,' Ciaran said and the man nodded.
'Aye,' he said, 'and Mairtin's too. Isn't he inside in the bed all the
time and grateful for the company at night and don't we keep each other
warm in the winter when its cold and only hard work or half a dozen
sweaters would keep a man warm?'
Ciaran wanted to see Mairt?n but the barber said 'no,' the man wasn't
to be disturbed. He left and went home. The lad seemed to tell no lies
for a fortnight or more and his hair was slow to grow, so he had no
excuse to visit Peadar, but it didn't stop him thinking about the two
brothers above in the cottage and the image of them huddling together
for warmth in the winter. He desperately wanted there to be an
adventure in it all and wondered perhaps if they might not be spies or
smugglers really. And then Mairt?n died. Ciaran came in from school one
day and was told to go up to Peadar's and pay his respects.
The house was full of people. The cutting chair was occupied by an old
woman sipping sherry and she was taking a pinch of snuff as he walked
through the door. People were nodding and calling it a happy release
and saying how it would change the Peadar's life. The barber gave him a
glass of orange and took him into the bedroom. The bed reminded him of
his mother's back in the city. Large, with the same fretwork pattern on
the headboard. In the hollow in the middle was a man in a brown habit,
his head propped on pillows and his hands crossed on his chest. He'd
expected rosary beads but there weren't any. If anything Mairt?n looked
younger than his brother. His face hard and stern, like a school
teacher who hated boys. Ciaran thought it strange to be looking at a
dead man he'd not been allowed to see alive. He felt nothing except
interest and then wondered where Peadar would sleep that night.
'In Mammy's room,' he said, indicating the room back beyond the living
room. 'We usually save it for guests,' he said, 'but I'll stay there
till after the funeral.'
In the woods above the house he could hear wood pigeons calling all day
and sometimes the cuckoo and he wondered if he'd ever see one. His
letters to home were formal and filled with notes on the differences
between the school in the city and in the country. Teresa always had
jobs for him to do and he never objected and felt proud when he'd
finished. She didn't change towards him and still spoke mostly English
in an aloof and cold way. But sometimes she took him to the Galway,
twenty miles away, to do her shopping and coming back on the bus
carrying her bags, he felt special and treated.
At the beginning of his last week Teresa was in very bad humour. She'd
heard that Mr Stanton had decided to move to America and there was the
possibility that he'd marry Teresa's sister Peg who was a nurse in
Boston. She shouted at Ciaran and told him off for not being home
earlier from school. She said it was his fault for gossiping about her
at school and in the village. She made him get water twice from the
well and collect the cows earlier than usual. After tea she sent him
down to the river to wash himself and when he came home again declared
his neck not clean and sent him back. He ran all the way to Peadar's,
wondering what could have upset her so much. Surely she'd been not
married for so long, she must be used to it.
He hadn't been to the house since the funeral and it was dark by the
time he got there. At first he thought the place was empty and imagined
Peadar out for the evening, happy to be free of his burden. But as he
got nearer he could see there was an oil lamp burning in the middle
room. It was on the table where the meals were prepared and the washing
basin sat as usual, but full of dirty dishes. Peadar was sitting in
front of the fire the stick he used to encourage the cows along the
road, clutched like a fishing rod, tickling the tip in the ashes that
had fallen out onto the hearth. His elbows were on his knees as he
leaned near the fire. Every few seconds he would shake his head
backwards in a sort of angry resignation. It reminded Ciaran of the way
horses lifted their heads as if to escape from whoever was trying to
back them into a cart.
Although it wasn't very bright in the room the window was near enough
to the fire to see that Peadar was crying. He wasn't bothering to rub
the tears away but they were falling onto the ashes. Ciaran could
imagine them making little indentations and sending up tiny
He went back to the river and washed his neck in the cold running
water. The bubbles breaking over the rocks mixed with the suds and
caught the spring moon light. He dried himself and headed back to the
'Your a stupid boy,' Teresa said when he walked in the door and slapped
his face. 'Get up to bed.'
He didn't know why she had hit him. She must have found him out in a
lie. She'd be glad now he was going home. He cried into the pillow,
reminding himself of Peadar as he'd last seen him. Whatever the slap
was for, he must have deserved it. But he'd have to make it up to her.
There was only a few days left and he didn't want to go home. The city
was a long way off and his mother's delicate health and the adults that
he had to call 'aunt' and 'uncle' and 'Mr' and 'Mrs's were nothing to
do with him.
He'd have to convince Teresa that she'd made a mistake. It was the only
way she would ask him back. He would always be coming back. He was at
home here. He was a country boy now. But it would depend on Teresa. He
had to stop her from hating him.