Welcome to the World of Taupe

 

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WARNING – this one really is totally fictional – my family is wonderful.

I suppose the rebellion started seriously on my fiftieth birthday, although my sister-in-law Lizzy had been winding me up from the moment she first appeared in our front room clinging coyly to my younger brother’s arm. She simpered and paid saccharine compliments to my parents; pretended to be interested in my little sister’s doll collection and when she wasn’t talking, she was gazing at my brother with puppy-dog eyes.

They were all smitten.

I wasn’t.

Lizzy seemed to realise this very quickly and whilst she was always ‘sweet and lovely’ to me when anyone else was present, her comments inevitably held a barb.

‘I do love your hair that colour – it suits an older skin – what dye did you use?’

I hadn’t dyed my hair at all.

‘Of course, you’re at the age now where purple is the only bright colour you can get away with – although it makes you look a bit …washed out.’

She was only three years younger than me and a good five years older than my little brother.

When I first met her, she reminded me of Amy from ‘Little Women‘ – self-centred and obsessed with clothes, hair, make-up – oh and did I mention – herself? She snatched my handsome and charming brother from under the noses of several younger and much nicer girls but unlike Amy, age did not improve her behaviour.

She was always attractive; big brown eyes, curly dark brown hair that settled itself into the kind of tousled curl that we all tried to achieve with perms but ended up in tight corkscrews for a month before dropping into sad waves. Her figure fell into the realms of petite but with an impressive cleavage, a tiny waist and pert apple bum cheeks that perched themselves seductively on my brother’s knees . She did try sitting on my father’s knees once, but the look my mother gave her made her shoot up and settle on the sofa with an apologetic ‘Oops’.

I was in the last stages of planning my wedding when Lizzy started seeing my brother. I made it quite clear that I was in charge and didn’t need any assistance (apart from my mother) but Lizzy was insidious. Once she realised that I had not fallen under her spell, she whispered ideas into my mother’s ear, knowing that they would be passed on to me as her original thoughts.

No. I did not want a horse and carriage to take me to and from the church – and while we are at it – I wanted the church up the road that I had passed every day on my way to school – not the overblown cathedral in the centre of the city which had no parking and was the wrong denomination anyway.

Nor did I want a flotilla of teeny bridesmaids in varying shades of deep pink tulle and crystals.

I had plumped for a lunchtime wedding with an afternoon reception, so that we could drive off to our honeymoon hotel in daylight. Lizzy (via my mother) felt that this was rather cheap and that we should have a disco and evening buffet. She had pointed out to my mother that the afternoon reception could be for close family and the evening event could be opened up to the rest of the family and ‘our’ friends. She even drew up a list  of who should attend which event but she missed a trick with this because my mother – instead of copying the list in her own hand – gave it straight to me with slightly pursed lips.

Not surprisingly Lizzy had excluded my favourite relatives from the afternoon, and bumped up the numbers in the evening by including a host of unknown people who were ‘dear friends’ of my brother – who looked at the list and shook his head in puzzlement after only recognising one or two names.

I won.

I had the elegant old black and silver Bentley for my wedding transport, we married in my favourite church, and my best friend and little sister were my only bridesmaids –  in blue silk dresses that matched the cornflowers in my bouquet – and could be worn again for parties and special occasions.

We made sure that all the relatives were invited to my afternoon reception, together with good friends that we knew. Lizzy sulked throughout but I didn’t care. She was eventually persuaded not to wear white.

It was my day.

Of course, when Lizzy married my brother – it was the event of the century that put my brother’s bank account into the red and milked every possible penny out of Lizzy’s elderly father as well.

It was pinker and frillier and more over the top than your average gypsy wedding; Lizzy had difficulty walking in her overblown and diamante-encrusted dress. Even my brother – who usually took Lizzy’s whims with heavy pinches of salt – was a little perturbed by her excessive Bridezilla demands.

To be fair, she didn’t shout and swear when thwarted; her little lips formed a semi-permanent pout, her little feet stamped a tarantella until my brother and her father consented and stumped up more cash.

I escaped being maid of honour in florid pink frills, but only because I was heavily pregnant with my first child at the time. Lizzy had been heard to mutter that I got pregnant deliberately just to spoil her wedding.

I didn’t but I almost wished that I had.

The one-upwomanship continued; I had two boys with gas and air, Lizzy had two girls by elective sections because she didn’t want ‘down there’ messed about with. My boys were bright, funny and very active, her girls inherited their mother’s hair and pleading eyes, as well as her methods of getting their own way. Males were putty in their hands and even my mother gave in once they lisped ‘Pwease Gwandma?’ and fluttered their eyelashes at her.

Should you really use mascara on the eyes of three and five-year olds?

My husband (not in any way influenced by me of course) had a deep and profound intolerance for his sister-in-law but lately I had found a new ally in my never-ending battle against Lizzy; my little sister was now a willowy teenager with Gothic tendencies. She loathed everything that Lizzy liked and was openly rude to her in a way that I envied and could never rebuke her for. This usually resulted in my sister being sent to her room by my father, whilst Lizzy sobbed prettily into a lace handkerchief and was attended by my doting (and slightly cross) brother and the two mini-Lizzy girls.

We lived within our means and tried not to feel envious when Lizzy boasted about their new house with its hot tub. On the rare occasions we were invited round, we sat nervously on the edge of their slippery pale pink Italian leather suite and prayed that our rambunctious boys wouldn’t break anything. The house (a five-bedroom detached with integral garage and a be-decked and be-paved garden because Lizzy didn’t do gardening) was a monument to pink, silver and black. Every room had at least three mirrors so that Lizzy could admire herself from every angle; after all, the small fortune that hadn’t been spent on the house or female clothing, was invested in Lizzy’s improved cleavage, her nipped chin and tucked buttocks.

Sitting there, in my cleanest jeans and said purple shirt, sipping a glass of very dry Prosecco and glaring at my reasonably well-behaved sons, I realised that envy was the last emotion that Lizzy caused me to experience. I decided not to fight against something that meant so little, and as I tried to relax back against the spiky, sequined scatter cushions, I knew that this was not what I wanted in my life.

Back to my fiftieth birthday. My parents had offered to host a birthday party but Lizzy jumped in and said that it would be too much for them ‘at their age’ and as they had just finished decorating their newly built orangery, she and my brother would be delighted to host the party.

How could I refuse? Well, I could have done but not without upsetting my parents and my not-so-little brother. Good living and business dinners had given him a paunch and a more than slightly pompous air. He had taken over his father-in-law’s accountancy business and appeared to be making a go of it. To think that I used to have to help him with his maths homework!

We dressed in our best. My husband and my older teenage boys were pried out of their jeans and into clean chinos and shirts. I wore a dark green lace dress that had been sitting in my wardrobe waiting for a suitable event. We collected my parents and sister – the joys of having a people carrier – who were also glammed up a bit. My sister had changed her Doc Martens for a pair of red sparkly Converse boots and was wearing black velvet instead her customary leggings and an oversized tee-shirt.

I coveted those Converse boots.

We thought we were attending a family affair so finding the driveway full of upmarket cars was a bit of a surprise. Lizzy seemed to have invited most of the local gentry and other influential people – to my fiftieth birthday party.

I smelled a rat and so did my husband and little sister.

We were ushered into the ‘orangery’ which Lizzy had now renamed the ‘Atrium‘ as there were no indoor orange trees to be had. The table was laid with a range of vol au vents and dainty finger foods. A hired butler circulated with a trays of drinks and an expression of extreme disdain.

To quote my youngest son – ‘This is a bit posh Mum. When can we go home?’

Once we were all settled with drinks in our hands, Lizzy tapped a fork on her glass to get more attention. She shimmered in silver lame that matched the window blinds and smelled – rather metallic.

‘Thank you all so much for coming here today to celebrate my older sister-in-law’s fiftieth birthday. Come over here dear, and let me give you this very special present.’

She beckoned to me, and reluctantly I handed my drink to my husband and went to join her centre stage. She handed me a gloriously beribboned and wrapped box. I actually felt a little excited, and having moved aside a platter of very pink King prawns, I put the box on the table and undid the ribbon.

As I lifted off the lid I glimpsed something that cut me to the core.

Taupe!

My least favourite colour.

Taupe.

The colour of old age; of sensible clothing, of a farewell to fun.

Taupe.

A memento mori shade.

I started to put the lid back on, my face in a rictus grin.

Lizzy yanked the lid out of my hands and like a magician, simultaneously pulled a garment out of the box.

I wish it had been a rabbit.

It was a cardigan.

A taupe cardigan.

Accompanying it was a pair of taupe Crimplene slacks.

Even my mother didn’t wear Crimplene – or taupe.

Lizzy laughed her affected little laugh and patted my hand.

‘Well, you are getting on now. You really should dress your age.’

Words failed me – which was just as well because they didn’t fail my little sister.

She pulled the offensive garments from Lizzy’s hands and threw them on the marble floor. She stamped on them with her sparkly red boots, emptied her glass of champagne and then swept the entire platter of King prawns – Rose-Marie sauce and all – on them as well.

‘You can stick your world of taupe crap where the sun doesn’t shine Lizzy. My sister is far too young for that rubbish and you know it. You are a pretentious prat. No one really likes you, your children are spoilt brats and you’ve ruined my brother.’

My little sister turned revealing the red flashing LEDs on her heels, and stalked out of the room. My husband and sons followed her out, meek in the stunned silence.

Mutely, I followed too.

When we climbed back into the car, my little sister handed me a gift-wrapped box.

A pair of sparkly red Converse boots with bright purple laces and flashing heels.

Goodbye to the World of Taupe.

 

 

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A Secret – Week 40 of the 52 week short story challenge

‘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.’

‘What? What?’

‘How old is Suzie?’

‘Fifteen. You know she is. It’s her birthday today.’

‘And where were you when she was born?’

‘In America?’

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?’

‘Of course.’

‘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?’