My Oedipus Complex by Frank Connor
When you are aged about five or six; you are the most important person in your world and, naturally, you expect your parents to understand this and to follow your wishes in everything.
But young Larry has a lot of trouble getting his parents to behave in the right way…
Father was in the army all through the war – the First World 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 uniform staring down at me. Sometimes in the early morning, I heard the front door bang and heavy footsteps marching away down the street. These were Father’s entrances and exits. Like Santa Claus, he came and went mysteriously.
In fact, I rather liked his visits, although there wasn’t much room between Mother and him when I got into the big bed in the early morning. He smoked a pipe, which gave him a pleasant smell, and shaved, an interesting activity I had never seen before. Each time he left a few more souvenirs behind – buttons and knives and used bullets – packed carefully away in a box. When he was away, Mother used to let me play with these things. She didn’t seem to think as highly of them as he did.
The war was the most peaceful time of my life. The window of my room faced southeast. I always woke at first light, and felt I was rather like the sun, ready to light up the world and be happy. Life never seemed so simple and clear and full of possibilities as then. I put my feet out from under the blankets – I called them Mrs Left and Mrs Right – and invented situations for them. They discussed what Mother and I should do during the day, what Santa Claus should give me for Christmas, and what steps should be taken to brighten the home. There was that little matter of the baby, for example. Mother and I could never agree about that. Ours was the only house in the road without a new baby, and Mother said we couldn’t afford one until Father came back from the war, because they were expensive. That showed how silly she was being. The Geneys up the road had a new baby, and everyone knew they didn’t have much money. It was probably a cheap baby, and Mother wanted something really good, but I felt she was being too choosy. The Geneys’ baby would have been fine for us.
Having arranged my plans for the day, I got up, went into Mother’s room and climbed into the big bed. She woke and I began to tell her what I had decided. The bed was so nice and warm that I usually 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, said a prayer for Father at the church, and did the shopping. Mother had all her friends praying for Father, and every night, before going to bed, I asked God to send him back safe from the war to us. It’s a pity I didn’t know what I was praying for!
One morning I got into the big bed, and there, sure enough, was Father. As usual, he’d arrived like Santa Claus. But later he put on his best blue suit instead of his uniform, and Mother looked very pleased. I saw nothing to be pleased about, because, out of uniform, Father was far less interesting. But she only gave a big smile and explained that our prayers had been answered. We all went off to church to thank God for bringing Father safely home.
Well, I couldn’t believe what happened next. When we came back, he sat down and began to talk seriously 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.
But when I went on talking, she said impatiently, ‘Do be quiet, Larry! Don’t you hear me talking to Daddy?’
This was the first time I had heard these awful words, ‘talking to Daddy’, and I couldn’t help feeling that if this was how God answered prayers, he wasn’t listening to them very carefully.
‘Why are you talking to Daddy?’ I asked.
‘Because Daddy and I have business to discuss. Now don’t interrupt again!’
In the afternoon, at Mother’s request, Father took me for a walk. I discovered that he and I had quite different ideas of what a walk in town should be. He had no interest in trains, ships, or horses, and the only thing he seemed to enjoy was talking to men 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 was forced to stop too. I tried pulling him by the coat and trousers, but he was amazingly good at paying no attention to me. Really, it was like going for a walk with a mountain!
At teatime, ‘talking to Daddy’ began again, made worse by the fact that he now had an evening newspaper. Every few minutes he told Mother some news out of it. I didn’t feel this was fair. I was ready to do battle with him any time for Mother’s attention, but using other people’s ideas gave him an unfair advantage. Several times, I tried to talk about something else, but with no success.
‘You must be quiet while Daddy’s reading, Larry,’ Mother said. It was clear that either she really liked talking to Father better than talking to me, or else he had some terrible power over her.
‘Mummy,’ I said that night in bed, ‘do you think, if I prayed hard, God would send Daddy back to the war?’
‘No, dear,’ she said with a smile. ‘I don’t think he would.’
‘Why wouldn’t he, Mummy?’
‘Because there isn’t a war any longer, dear.’
‘But, Mummy, couldn’t God make another war?’
‘He wouldn’t like to, dear. It’s not God who makes wars – it’s bad people who do it.’
‘Oh!’ I said, disappointed. I began to think that God wasn’t quite as wonderful as people said he was.
Next morning I woke at my usual hour, feeling ready to burst with ideas and plans for the day. I put out my feet and invented a long conversation. Mrs Right talked of the trouble she had with her own father until she put him in the Home. I didn’t quite know what the Home was, but it sounded the right place for Father. Then I got up, went into the next room and in the half-darkness climbed into the big bed. Father was taking up more than his fair share of the bed, so I gave him several kicks. Mother woke and put out a hand to me. I lay comfortably in the warmth of the bed with my thumb in my mouth.
‘Mummy!’ I said loudly and happily.
‘Sssh, dear!’ she whispered. ‘Don’t wake Daddy!’
This was a new development, which threatened to be even more serious than ‘talking to Daddy’. Life without my early-morning discussions was unthinkable.
‘Why?’ I asked crossly.
‘Because poor Daddy is tired.’
This seemed to me a very poor reason. ‘Oh!’ I said lightly. ‘Do you know where I want to go with you today, Mummy?’
‘No, dear,’ she sighed.
‘I want to go to the river to catch some fish, and then-‘
‘Don’t-wake-Daddy!’ she whispered angrily, holding her hand across my mouth.
But it was too late. He was awake. He reached for his matches, lit one and stared in horror at his watch.
‘Like a cup of tea, dear?’ asked Mother nervously.
‘Tea?’ he cried angrily. ‘Do you know what the time is?’
‘And after that I want to go up the Rathcooney Road,’ I said loudly, afraid I’d forget something in all these interruptions.
‘Go to sleep at once, Larry!’ she said sharply.
I began to cry. Father said nothing, but lit his pipe and smoked it, looking out into the shadows away from Mother and me. It was so unfair. Every time I had explained 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 care for her health!
He got up early and made tea, but although he brought Mother a cup, he brought none for me.
‘Mummy,’ I shouted, ‘I want a cup of tea, too.’
‘You can drink from my saucer, dear,’ she said patiently.
That was the end. Either Father or I would have to leave the house. I didn’t want to drink from Mother’s saucer; I wanted to be considered an equal in my own home. So I drank it all and left none for her. She took that quietly too.
But that night when she was putting me to bed, she said gently, ‘Larry, I want you to promise me that you won’t come in and disturb poor Daddy in the morning. Promise?’
That awful ‘poor Daddy’ again! ‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Because poor Daddy is worried, and doesn’t sleep well.’
‘Why doesn’t he, Mummy?’
‘Well, you know that, while he was at the war, Mummy got our money from the post office? Now, you see, there’s no more money for us at the post office, so Daddy must go out and find us some. You know what would happen if he couldn’t?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘tell me.’
‘Well, I think we might have to go out and beg, like the old woman outside the church. We wouldn’t like that, would we?’
‘No,’ I agreed. ‘We wouldn’t.’
‘So you’ll promise not to come in and wake him?’
I really meant it. I knew money was a serious matter and I didn’t want to have to beg, like the old woman. So when I woke the next morning, I stayed in my room, playing with my toys for what seemed like hours. I was bored, and so very, very cold.
I kept thinking of the big, deep, warm bed in Mother’s room.
At last, I could bear it no longer. I went into the next room and got into the bed. Mother woke at once with a start.
‘Larry,’ she whispered, ‘what did you promise?’
‘But I was quiet for ever so long!’ I said miserably.
‘Oh dear, and you’re so cold!’ she said sadly. ‘Now if I let you stay, will you promise not to talk?’
‘But I want to talk, Mummy,’ I cried.
‘That has nothing to do with it,’ she said, with a firmness that was new to me. ‘Daddy wants to sleep. Do you understand?’
I understood only too well. I wanted to talk, he wanted to sleep – whose house was it, anyway?
‘Mummy,’ I said with equal firmness, ‘I think it would be healthier for Daddy to sleep in his own bed.’
That seemed to surprise her, because she was silent for a while. Finally she said, ‘Now, you must be perfectly quiet or go back to your own bed. Which is it to be?’
The unfairness of it made me angry. I gave Father a kick, which she didn’t notice, but which made him open his eyes.
‘Go to sleep again, Mick,’ she told him calmly. ‘Now, Larry,’ she said to me, getting out of bed, ‘you must go back.’
This time, in spite of her quiet air, I knew she meant it, and I knew I had to fight back, or lose my position in the home. As she picked me up, I gave a scream loud enough to wake the dead.
‘That damn child!’ said Father. ‘Doesn’t he ever sleep?’ He turned to the wall, and then looked back over his shoulder at me, with nothing showing except two small, mean, dark eyes.
I broke free from Mother’s hold and ran to the furthest corner, screaming wildly. Father sat up in bed.
‘Shut your mouth, you young dog!’ he said violently.
I was so surprised that I stopped making a noise. Never, never had anyone spoken to me like that before.
‘Shut your mouth yourself!’ I shouted, mad with anger.
‘What’s that you said?’ shouted Father, jumping out of bed.
‘Mick!’ cried Mother. ‘Don’t you see he isn’t used to you?’
‘I see he’s better fed than taught! I’ll smack his bottom!’
‘Smack your own!’ I screamed furiously. ‘Smack your own!’ At this he lost his patience and started smacking me. I was so shocked at being hit by someone I considered a complete stranger that I nearly went crazy. I screamed and screamed, and danced in my bare feet. Father, looking clumsy and hairy in nothing but a short army shirt, stared down at me like a mountain ready for murder. It was then that I realized he was jealous, too. And there stood Mother, crying – we seemed to be breaking her heart.
From that morning on, my life was a hell. Father and I were openly enemies. There were many battles between us, he trying to steal my time with Mother, and I trying to steal his. When she was sitting on my bed telling me a story, he pretended he needed her to find a pair of his boots. While he was talking to Mother, I played loudly with my toys. One evening when he came in from work, he found me playing with his souvenirs, and became terribly angry. Mother took the box away from me.
‘You mustn’t play with Daddy’s toys, Larry,’ she said firmly. ‘Daddy doesn’t play with yours.’
Father looked at her, quite shocked. ‘Those are not toys,’ he said crossly. ‘Some of them are very valuable.’
I just couldn’t understand why Mother was interested in him. In every possible way, he was less likeable than me. He had a workman’s accent and made noises while drinking his tea. I thought it might be the newspapers that she liked, so I invented some news of my own to read to her. I tried walking round with his pipe in my mouth, until he caught me. I even made noises while drinking tea, but Mother said I sounded horrible. It seemed to be connected with that unhealthy habit of sleeping together, so I spent a lot of time in their room, but I never saw anything unusual going on. In the end, I stopped trying. Perhaps it depended on being grown up and giving people rings. I would just have to wait to find out.
But I didn’t want him to think he had won. One day I said, ‘Mummy, do you know what I’m going to do when I grow up?’
‘No, dear,’ she replied. ‘What?’
‘I’m going to marry you,’ I said quietly.
Father gave a great noisy laugh, but I knew he must be worried. And Mother was pleased. She was probably glad to know that, one day, Father’s hold over her would be broken.
‘Won’t that be nice?’ she said with a smile.
‘It’ll be very nice,’ I said confidently. ‘Because we’re going to have lots and lots of babies.’
‘That’s right, dear,’ she said calmly. ‘I think we’ll have one soon, and then you’ll have someone to play with.’
I was really pleased about that. It showed that in spite of being in Father’s power, she still considered my wishes. And anyway, it would show the Geneys that we could have a new baby too.
But the reality was very different. What a disaster it was! Sonny’s arrival destroyed the peace of the whole house, and from the first moment, I disliked him. He was a difficult child, and demanded far too much attention. Mother was simply silly about him, and thought he was wonderful. As ‘someone to play with’ he was worse than useless. He slept all day, and I had to be quiet all the time to avoid waking him. It wasn’t any longer a question of not waking Father – now it was ‘Don’t-wake-Sonny!’ I couldn’t understand why the child wouldn’t sleep at the proper time, so whenever Mother’s back was turned, I woke him.
One evening, when Father came in from work, I was playing trains in the front garden. I pretended I hadn’t noticed him, and said loudly, ‘If another damn baby comes into this house, I’m going to leave.’
Father stopped at once and looked at me.
‘What’s that you said?’ he asked sternly.
‘I was only talking to myself,’ I replied quickly, a little afraid. ‘It’s private.’
He turned and went inside without a word. I intended it to be a serious warning, but its effect was quite different. Father started being nice to me. I could understand that, of course. Mother was quite sickening about Sonny. Even at mealtimes, she’d get up and look lovingly at him in his little bed, with a foolish smile, and tell Father to look too. He was polite about it, but he looked puzzled – you could see he didn’t know what she was talking about. It was painful to see how silly Mother was. Father wasn’t good-looking, but he had a fine intelligence. He knew that Sonny was nothing but trouble, and now he realized I knew that, too.
One night I woke with a start. There was someone beside me in my bed. For one wild moment I felt sure it must be Mother – she had understood what was best for her and left Father forever. But then I heard Sonny screaming in the next room, and Mother saying, ‘It’s all right, dear, it’s all right, Mummy’s here.’ So I knew it wasn’t her. It was Father. He was lying beside me, completely awake, breathing hard and angry as hell.
After a while, I realized what he was angry about. What had happened to me had just happened to him. He had pushed me out of the big bed, and now he himself had been pushed out. Mother had no consideration for anyone except that unpleasant child, Sonny I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Father. I had been through it all myself, and even at that age, I was prepared to forgive and forget. I began to stroke his back and say, ‘It’s all right, dear, it’s all right.’ He didn’t seem to like it much.
‘Aren’t you asleep either?’ he said in an angry whisper.
‘Ah, come on, put your arm around me, can’t you?’ I said, and he did, in a sort of way. Cautiously, I suppose, is how you’d describe it. He was very bony, but better than nothing.
At Christmas he made a big effort and bought me a really nice model railway.