‘Whose turn is it now?’
Suzie looked round the table and pointed at her aunt.
‘Auntie Carole! Come on Auntie Carole. You must have a secret tucked away?’
Carole felt a cold shiver down her spine and did her best to avoid looking at her mother who was sitting next to Suzie.
‘I might have to think about that Suzie. Move on to someone else while I do?’
Suzie looked disappointed but turned instead to her Uncle Paul.
‘How about you Paul?’
Squeezing his wife’s hand, Paul looked as if he were dredging up a past memory.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘Before I was courting your Auntie Marie, I actually fancied her friend Deborah. In fact I thought I was going to the pictures with her but she never turned up. Luckily I bumped into Marie, invited her to the pictures instead and the rest is history.’
Marie punched him in the arm.
‘You never told me that! You told me that you were going to meet up with some mates who let you down! I didn’t even know that you fancied Deborah!’
He squeezed her hand again and smiled.
‘I did say it was a secret. I didn’t tell you because once I’d spent the evening with you I didn’t fancy her anymore.’
‘Did Deborah ever tell you why she didn’t turn up?’ Suzie asked.
‘She went out with a guy called Tommy instead. You knew Tommy didn’t you Carole? He was in the same gang as you and your friends for a while.’
Another chill went down Carole’s spine and she began to get a sickening feeling in her stomach. It was the mere mention of his name that caused it. That sparked a far too vivid memory of his dark curly hair and his dark brown eyes. She glanced over at her mother and saw the barely perceptible shake of the head.
They were conspirators.
Carole and her mother.
Keepers of a secret that no one else knew about.
‘Whatever happened to Tommy?’ said Paul. ‘He was always hanging around and then, when I came back from America there was no sign of him. I suppose he gave up on Carole when she went off to stay with your Great Auntie Meg in Wales. It would have been a bit of a trek for him – even on that old motorbike he had – but I thought he was really smitten with you Carole.’
‘Ancient history darling,’ said his mother. ‘Come on birthday girl, choose another person with a dark and desperate secret.’
Suzie grinned, loving the attention, loving the fact that she had her family around her on this special day. She looked round the table again.
‘Daddy? Have you got a terrible secret?’
Her father took in a deep breath which made his wife hold hers in fear of what would come next.
‘Okay. I have never told anyone this but when I was a bit younger than you Suzie, I pinched some eggs from the farm next door. There was a stack of boxes outside on a table and a honesty box. Your Grandma had sent me out to buy eggs but I spent the money on tobacco so I had to pinch the eggs instead.’
‘I’m shocked Dad!’ said Paul, trying to keep a straight face. ‘Did you get caught?’
‘No. I had a birthday the following week and I used some of my birthday money from my sister Meg to put in the box. That’s the only thing I ever pinched and I spent the whole week feeling dreadful.’
‘Your turn Suzie? What secrets have you got hidden away?’
Trying not to blush now that the wrong kind of attention was turned on her, Suzie gulped and turned to her Auntie Carole.
‘I went into your room to try on one of your dresses once. I saw a box of letters in your wardrobe and I was going to look at them but I heard Mummy calling me so I sneaked out again. Who were the letters from Auntie Carole?’
Her mother interrupted before Carole could speak.
‘I expect she means the letters that you and I sent each other when you were in Wales Carole. We used to write to each other every week without fail. I got rather lonely without either of my children at home. I didn’t know that you’d kept all those letters Carole. How sweet of you.’
The expression Carole saw on her mother’s face was anything but sweet and she knew that she would have to find a new hiding place for the letters that held her secrets.
‘But then I came along,’ said Suzie ‘And you weren’t lonely anymore.’
‘You were a bit of a surprise but you were also a blessing my darling. Daddy and I had you all to ourselves when you were a baby.’
‘Life in the old dog yet, eh Dad?’ said Paul winking and leering. His wife punched his arm again, a little harder this time and pulled a face at him. He shook his head in bewilderment, but made no more comments.
‘Have you thought of anything yet Auntie Carole?’
Carole took in a deep breath, far deeper than her father’s and squared her shoulders.
‘I do have a secret. There’s only one person in this room that knows my secret apart from me and it’s one that I’ve kept for years.’
‘Tell me?’ Suzie jumped up and down in her seat. Her mother got up from the table.
‘That’s enough now. I need to clear the tea things away, and didn’t you say that you and Marie were going on to friends this evening Paul?’
This time Marie kicked him under the table, and Paul, knowing his wife’s methods of non-verbal communication, nodded.
‘Come and help me wash up Carole dear.’
Now silent, Carole followed her mother from the room. Her father fetched Paul and Marie’s coats, then with Suzie holding possessively onto his arm, walked them out to the car and waved them goodbye.
Paul was quiet at first but once they were clear of the house, he stopped the car and turned to Marie in puzzlement.
‘What was all that about? All the punchings and kickings?’
Marie shook her head.
‘For an intelligent man you are incredibly dim at times.’
‘How old is Suzie?’
‘Fifteen. You know she is. It’s her birthday today.’
‘And where were you when she was born?’
Correct. And where was Carole?’
‘In Wales with Auntie Meg? She went there to recover from glandular fever.’
‘Glandular fever was it?’
‘I don’t know. I wasn’t here. She seemed fine when I went off to do my gap year in America and then I come back to find that she is in Wales herding sheep and my mother has had a baby. At her age!’
Marie looked pityingly at her husband.
‘Have you never wondered why it is that your parents, you and your sister are all fair with blue eyes, and Suzie has curly black hair and brown eyes?’
‘My God! Are you saying that my mother had an affair?’
Marie raised her eyes heavenwards.
‘You really are slow on the uptake sometimes Paul. Not your mother. Your sister. Carole.’
‘No! Who with? Some Welsh bloke? That would explain the colouring.’
‘Tommy. I saw the expression on Carole’s face when you mentioned his name so I didn’t say anything about what happened to him.’
‘What did happen to him?’
‘Motorbike accident. Well some say it was an accident, others say it was deliberate because Carole had had been sent away. Your parents wouldn’t tell him where she had gone and I don’t suppose he knew about your Auntie Meg living in Wales.’
‘But – but – if the baby was Carole’s how did Mum get away with pretending it was hers?’
‘Cushions, I suppose. People were a little surprised but a late life baby isn’t unusual. Your Mum and Dad went to Wales to see Carole for a fortnight and miraculously came back with Suzie. No one questioned it.’
‘So Suzie is my niece, not my sister?’
Marie nodded and put her hand on his knee.
‘What do I do Marie? What can I say?’
‘Say nothing. It isn’t your secret after all. I think that Carole came close to telling me once but your Mum came in and interrupted us. You love Carole and Suzie don’t you?’
‘I expect that they will tell Suzie one day – but it’s up to them. Apart from which I have a secret that I’ve been aching to tell you all afternoon.’
‘Oh no. Not more revelations!’
She took his free hand and placed it on her stomach.
‘This is the best kind of secret. I did a test this morning. I’d like to keep it a secret for another couple of weeks though?’