To celebrate the centenary of the birth of Maeve Brennan, we're delighted to present her celebrated short story The Clever One, taken from The Springs of Affection, an essential collection of Brennan’s Dublin-based short stories reissued by The Stinging Fly Press in 2016 with a new introduction by Anne Enright.
Also: Listen below to an RTÉ Book Show special on Maeve Brennan:
Not long ago, I was staying in Washington, DC, with my younger sister, Deirdre, who is married and has four young children. It was spring. We sat in her large, pleasant living room, with the trees all fresh and green outside on Garfield Street, and the shrubs bursting into bloom—white, pink, blue, yellow—in her garden, where the children were giving themselves wholeheartedly to some raucous game, and we began to speak, as we often do, of the time when we two were small together. There is less than two years between us. Our childhood was spent in Dublin, most of it in a small house in Ranelagh.
‘The first time I remember seeing you,’ I said, ‘was before we went to live in Ranelagh. It was when we were living in the house on Belgrave Road. You must have been about eighteen months old, I suppose. Someone was holding you in their arms, and you snatched Emer’s cap off her head and threw it in the fire, and she cried. It was a new woollen cap she had.’ Emer is our older sister. ‘I don’t remember that,’ Derry said, but she looked pleased at the thought of the burning cap. ‘I don’t remember Belgrave Road at all.’
‘The next time I have a clear memory of you,’ I continued, ‘you must have been about three. We were living in Ranelagh. I went into the front bedroom and found you wandering around in your skin, crying for someone to dress you, and I dressed you.’
‘I don’t remember that,’ Derry said.
‘Well, do you remember when you were six or seven and almost got St Vitus’s dance? You kept shaking and dropping things all over the house.’
‘Oh, I remember that, all right,’ Derry said, smiling.
All the time we were talking, she was hemming a pink cotton dress for her older daughter. I looked at her hands, so steady and sure with the needle, and I thought of how we had all feared she would lose the use of them.
‘You were never able to help with the washing up,’ I said, ‘for fear you’d break all the cups and saucers. When you weren’t dropping things, you lay on the bed with your eyes wide open, not able to wake up. You looked awful. You gave Mother a terrible fright. She got the woman from next door in to look at you.’
‘I remember all that,’ Derry said impatiently.
‘But you were asleep,’ I said.
‘I was no more asleep than you are now,’ she said. ‘And I was no nearer getting St Vitus’s dance than you are now, either,’ she added, this time with a touch of defiance.
I stared, or glared, at her. ‘What do you mean?’ I cried.
She looked me straight in the eye, but the colour began to rise in her face.
‘Do you mean to tell me you were putting it all on?’ I cried, sounding almost as thunderstruck as I felt. Derry’s delicate health had loomed as importantly in my childhood as the Catholic Church and the fight for Irish freedom. The first word I ever remember hearing about Derry was that she had been underweight when she was born and that her health was precarious. My mother always dressed us exactly alike, and people used to call us Mrs Brennan’s twins, but I was the large, hardy twin and she was the thin, pale one, always with me, and always silent, while I talked endlessly. Remembering how strongly all this had shaped our childhood, and the way it had determined everything between us and around us, I naturally was aghast to hear her now, more than twenty years later, calmly tearing it all away. I decided that she was joking.
‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’ I said.
‘I am not,’ she said.
‘But why did you do it?’ I asked.
‘Well, for one thing, I always got out of doing the washing up,’ she said. ‘And I was always too delicate to go to school much, if you remember.’
‘All those washing ups I did,’ I said. ‘And do you mean to say you never told anyone at all about it?’
She gave me an exasperated look. ‘That would have been pretty silly, wouldn’t it? The whole point was that no one knew.’
‘And you’ve kept it a secret all these years,’ I said.
‘To tell you the truth, I hadn’t thought about it for years, till you brought it up just now. Of course, I really did have colds sometimes, and I did have those terrible chilblains in the winter time.’ She began to laugh, and so did I, but not very heartily.
Just then, two of her children began a battle under the windows, and she ran out to investigate them, leaving me to think about her duplicity all those years ago, when she was so small and frail it would have taken a strange-minded person to accuse her of the least offense, let alone of keeping the house in an uproar over her health for years on end. I was more admiring than anything else, because I hadn’t really minded doing the washing up alone, since I always received high praise from my mother for doing it, but I was stunned to think that Derry had been capable, so young, of thinking up and carrying through such a black and complicated plot, and of not speaking about it to anyone—not even to me.
It was then I remembered that this was not the first time she had set me back.
The first time it happened, she was not more than seven and I was almost nine. In those years, as I say, I was larger than she was, and I won’t say I bullied her, but I did boss her around. All her life, I bossed her unmercifully until the moment of which I am about to speak, and I suppose that even after that things did not really change very much between us. I remember I had a favourite game called ‘sitting on Derry’. I used to make her lie flat on the floor while I sat on her stomach and stared into her face, grimacing in a manner that we both considered terrifying. It was a simple game, but I suppose she must sometimes have grown weary of it.
I felt superior to her and protective towards her because she was so tiny, and because she hated school and never did well in her lessons, and because she got ugly, painful chilblains in the cold weather and I never did, and most of all because she was shy. As a matter of fact, I never gave her a chance to say a word. People were always told that I had the brains in the family. ‘Derry has the beauty,’ they used to say, ‘but Maeve has all the brains.’ I believed every word of this. I used to look at Derry and think solemnly about my brains and about how I never had any trouble in school and always got good marks. In games, I always hammered myself into the lead, while Derry played off by herself somewhere, and I was always first to enter myself in singing competitions, although I had no voice, and in reciting contests, although I had no eloquence. I had even made up my mind to be come an actress, but I had not spoken to anyone at school or in the family about my ambition, for fear of being laughed at.
However, one day Derry and I were sitting together in the back garden of our house in Ranelagh. It must have been summertime, because we were sitting on the grass and there were forget-me-nots and London pride in bloom in my mother’s flower beds. We had a bead box on the grass between us, and we were stringing necklaces and enjoying my conversation.
‘When I grow up,’ I said to Derry, ‘I’m going to be a famous actress. I’ll act in the Abbey Theatre, and I’ll be in the pictures, and I’ll go around to all the schools and teach all the teachers how to recite.’
I was about to continue, because I never expected her to have anything to say, but she spoke up, without raising her head from her necklace. ‘Don’t go getting any notions into your head,’ she said clearly.
I was astounded. Where had little Derry picked up such a remark? I had never said it, and I was not sure I had ever even heard it. Who had said it to her? I was astounded, and I was silent. I had nothing to say. For the first time, it had occurred to me that little Derry had brains. More brains than I had, maybe, even?
The Springs Of Affection (with an introduction by Anne Enright) and a collection of Maeve Brennan's New Yorker pieces, The Long-Winded Lady (with an introduction by Belinda McKeon) are both published by The Stinging Fly Press.