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 Strange Small Town – Week 48 of the 52 week short story challenge

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It was a funny little place; lacking the charm of the nearby yachting village or the charismas of the larger and well-know yachting town upstream. As teenagers involved in the sailing scene, we were dismissive of the place. It was ‘touristy’; shops decked out with brightly coloured buckets and spades, inflatable rings and airbeds, rock with a generic county name through the inside and boxes of fudge and toffee bearing pictures of grazing ponies.

It was a place for passing through and rarely stopping. A place inhabited by holidaying grockles and nouveau riche who had bought their holiday homes without realising that the town was quite a way from the sea. Our village, the village where we stayed in the summer, sailed out to the castle and camped in the boat park. Apart from the yacht clubs and the pub, there was nowhere else to spend your money and any other entertainment or supplies good be acquired in the big town – without having to pay over-inflated tourist prices.

I remember one summer in particular. I still have the photographs of us all lounging outside OUR yacht club – there was great rivalry between the two clubs. Hair stiff and bleached from hours sailing, half-worn wet suits (it was easier to leave the bottom half on and wriggle out of the top).  Clutching half pints of rough cider and feasting on freshly made crab sandwiches. Nothing else really mattered that summer.

One of our group had very rich parents who owned a holiday cottage across the road from the pub. We took it in turns to sleep there or in hastily erected two man tents in the boat park once the clubs were closed. We knew that we weren’t supposed to be there but provided the tent was packed away before the morning sailing started, the older members of the club turned a blind eye.

Not that it was peaceful sleeping in the boat park; people ignored the sign ‘Frap your halyards’, and a s a consequence the night was punctuated with the sound of unfrapped halyards tinkling against masts. Hedgehogs and foxes rustled their way round the boats, looking for dropped sandwich crusts and half-empty crisp packets. The sun disturbed our fretful dozing and spurred us on to collapse the tent and stagger across the road to the cottage for coffee and toast.

The summer came to an end – as it always does  – and we departed to our various courses and jobs. That summer could never be repeated anyway. In moving on, we jolly sailors lost touch with each other and other entertainments replaced the joys of sailing.

The village never lost its charm for me; enhanced by discovering that one of my favourite authors had written a trilogy of books loosely based on family life in Little Village and Big Village, with the Island across the sea playing an integral part. I made subsequent visits; with friends, with groups of children I was responsible for, and ultimately with my own husband and family. It became a place of pilgrimage; somewhere to go and lose the troubles or celebrate happiness. There was a stark contrast between the still quiet waters around the harbour and the crashing waves out on the
Spit. Waves that were so ferocious that year in and out, new methods of prevention had to be found to prevent the sea encroaching on the houses nearby.

I found out very early in our relationship that my husband had also sailed from the village – though at a different time from me – and that he loved it as much as I did.

 

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Winding the time clock on, our children became adults and needed less entertaining on holidays, so when the opportunity arose to spend two summer weeks in a cottage in ‘my’ village, we jumped at it. Part of me was worried that the village would have changed, that it would no longer be the magical place I remembered – that we both remembered.

It was like stepping back into a time capsule. The pub was still there – although it had added an extra wing and a conservatory – but the cider was just as good and the sandwiches – made from freshly caught crab – was wonderful. We could see the boat park from our bedroom window; people were still neglecting to frap their halyards, and although we didn’t have the credentials to venture into either of the yacht clubs, we didn’t need to sleep in tents either. I had my favourite author’s books on my Kindle and delighted in spotting thinly disguised landmarks as we walked the dog along the harbour side and around the various beaches.

It was a wonderful fortnight. We caught up with family and friends; the tiny backyard was the ideal venue for a family get together in the sunshine. The dog loved his seaside walks and I achieved a lifelong wish. I had sailed out to the castle on many an occasion – and  came back the same way, but I had never walked the mile and a half along the shingle bank, nor taken a ride on the little ferry boat that tied up at the harbour wall.

The strangest revelation of our holiday was the exploration of Big Village.

It wasn’t full of grockles and holiday shops anymore. Charity shops rubbed shoulders with a wine bar and a delicatessen. The Co-op was stocked with normal food and there was no sign of sticks of rock or boxes of fudge. At the suggestion of friends, we ventured further to the beaches further away from Little Village, and found some beautiful examples of Art Deco architecture along the sea view.

Big Village wasn’t such a bad place.

On our last day we met up with our lovely friends for a long and leisurely brunch in the sunshine at a cafe on the beach. A very happy start to the process of packing everything back into the car and heading North for home.

It was good to go back to Little Village and find it just as beautiful and enchanting as I had found it before. Better to still was to roam around Big Village and find that it wasn’t such a strange small town after all.

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Near Death – Week 45 of the 52 week short story challenge

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‘Hello?’

‘Hello? Can you hear me?’

I’m pressing the button on this pendant I wear around my neck but nothing happens. Usually when I press it I get a crackly voice from the other end telling me that I have come through to the ‘We Care Service’ and what did I want?

I don’t use it often because I have difficulty hearing what the woman is saying and now, when I really need it there is nothing.

Not even the reassuring beep that tells me that although the line is busy, they will get back to me as soon as possible.

Nothing.

I can just see the clock from here. It’s still early; six o’clock and the time when I would usually be up making my first cup of tea. something to set me up for the day as I sit and listen to the news on the radio.

I could watch the news on the television that my granddaughter bought me but I prefer to listen early in the morning. I don’t want the intrusion of strangers in my house yet.

Today I would welcome anyone to my house.

Today even the lad who has been burgling houses in our area would be welcome. I would tell him where to find my money, my wife’s jewellery, my medals even, if he would call 999 as he leaves.

The floor in the hallway is cold. I should have had carpets fitted but my wife was always proud of these tiles. Minton she said they were and she wouldn’t dream of having them covered up with some old carpet.

I could have had the carpets fitted when she died, when there was only me to think of but every time I look at these tiles I think of her.

I see her as the young girl I carried across the threshold of our house; as the mother of our daughter, tired but proud in her hospital bed, and then I see her bringing our baby girl home to the bedroom I had so lovingly painted pink in her honour.

She did us proud our girl; married well and presented us with grandchildren. I had never thought of our daughter as being traditional but she named her children after her mother and me. Keeping the memories going she said. A legacy.

I never thought I would outlive her, and her mother.

When I came home from the war my lungs were useless; poison gas, cheap tobacco and a cough that never really went away. As if to remind, I cough now and the pain from my legs wracks my body.

I used to have people who came in to check on me. Cheerful young women who did my washing and made me meals. Someone to talk to four times a day; not as good as my wife, who never seemed to stop talking but at least they filled a part of the void when she was gone.

Now they are gone too. Cuts in social care.

A brisk young woman came to visit me, and decided that my care package was too large for my needs. I didn’t need all this help as I was obviously self-caring. I didn’t need to go out to lunch clubs; the transport was very expensive and they were closing down the day centres anyway. She gave me this pendant but was at pains to tell me that I would have to buy the new batteries for it.

I have batteries in the fridge but I can’t reach them.

I can’t reach the telephone.

I can’t reach the door.

I can’t go on.

I can’t.

I can’t give up.

Today of all days.

I look at my coat, hanging out of reach on the coat hook.

I can just see the poppy.

I should be getting my breakfast and making myself presentable so that when my granddaughter comes to fetch me for the parade, she will be proud of me and the part that I played.

So tired.

All I want to do is sleep.

To sleep and have the pain go from my legs.

What legs?

I can’t feel them.

I should be able to feel them. To feel the pain that has kept me awake at night for over seventy years. There is no pain. Just cold.

I look at the clock again. Where has the time gone? I don’t remember being asleep but four hours have passed since I last looked.

I want to sleep. It’s time for me to join the people who I love and miss. This is no place for old men like me – we may have been seen as heroes once but now we are just a burden on the state – a burden that the taxpayers can’t afford according to that brisk young woman.

So tired.

‘Grandad?’

The sound of her key in the door pulls me back from the place where pain has gone and there is just a soft glowing light that draws me in.

‘Grandad? Hang on in there. I’m calling an ambulance. Don’t leave me Grandad.’

It isn’t time yet. Her hands are warm as she tucks a blanket around me. Her hands are warm like her mother’s and her grandmother’s, and while I long to feel their touch again this beautiful girl pulls me back to the present.

I open my eyes and focus on her face. She looks tired and worried so I do my best to smile as if I was okay. The poppy on her coat is close to me and I reach out to touch it.

‘Not yet then?’ I ask.

‘Not yet. Not today of all days. Love you Grandad.’

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The Year I was born – Week 44 of the 52 week short story challenge

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This is a short, short story today because my fingers are busy doing NaNoWriMo – my ninth successive year with eight successful contributions behind me.

One of these days I will get around to editing the work and looking for an agent. I promise myself this every year but as 2016 has been so lousy, maybe this is the right time to start off a more productive new year.

I could have just worked my way through the Wiki page but when I looked there were only a few things that jumped out and had any influence on me and my life.

My birth took place on a council estate in my Mum and Dad’s bedroom at approximately 1620 hours and while my older siblings were watching ‘Popeye’ downstairs with my Dad. As a consequence my Dad wanted to have ‘Olive’ as my middle name. My Mum had different ideas and she won.

I had a mop of black hair when I was born and strange slanting eyes – so unlike my siblings that my Mum was convinced I had Down’s Syndrome. She eventually confessed her fears to the visiting midwife who told her to stop being so daft.

Very obligingly, my hair fell out a few days later and I turned into the blonde tot pictured a year later in the picture above.

My eyes turned out to be extremely short-sighted but this wasn’t discovered until I was eight years old. I had been a full-time spectacle wearer up until a year ago when I had cataract surgery on both eyes. My lens replacements mean that I only need specs for close work and my long-sight is on a par with the eagles (not the group).

I was born on the day that Berry Gordy Jnr founded Motown records.

A month later the music died when a plane with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper (and their pilot Roger Peterson) crashed into a mountain in Iowa.

Fidel Castro became president of Cuba and women in Nepal won the right to vote.

Barbie made her debut in March; I always had Sindy dolls, although I did briefly own a Tressy – ‘her hair grows’  – well it did until my big brother and I investigated the outsize belly button that retracted her hair. Bald and unloved she went in the bin. We were callous children.

Various things happened throughout the summer – Cyprus gained independence and joined the UN – and the first Xerox machine was introduced to an adoring public. We no longer adore copiers and printers – we just shout at them.

The Twilight Zone premiered on telly and Asterix the Gaul was born.

November saw the completion of the first stage of the M1. It took another thirty years to complete it. More pertinent to me in my later life  – the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN.

I spent ten years working in child protection. Things have not improved over time and now that I am out of the official social care sector I feel sad that my ex-colleagues have so few resources to protect those who so badly need their support.

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One Character – Week 39 of the 52 week short story challenge

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There was a girl I knew at school.

Her name was Karen.

I didn’t know her well – we were in different classes and in different streams.

In an effort to be non-judgemental the streams were named after colours, but everyone knew that Red was the top stream, Blue was the middle stream and Green was the bottom stream.

I was in Red class, Red stream – eventually. During the first few days of my attending secondary school they managed to lose my records and so I was put in Emerald class, Green stream.

Not only that but they put me in the remedial class.

It was quite nice at first. We had our own little room in the old part of the school. We had a lounge area, some tables and a small kitchen area where our teacher – Mrs W – made us warm (but not hot) drinks.

We also had biscuits.

My friends were  a bit jealous.

I spent the first day colouring in.

I spent the second day colouring in.

I spent the third day colouring in.

Mrs W could see that I was getting a little bored and allowed me to cut out pictures for the others to colour in. The scissors were blunt ended.

This was when I met Karen.

She had a mop of mousey curls, a squint and her school uniform looked as if it had been made for someone much smaller and older. She was a quiet girl; most of my companions were quiet apart from one girl who rocked in a chair and occasionally screeched.

Mrs W and I learned how to calm the girl down after a few days.

My Mother did not think that I should be spending my formative years colouring in so she went into school with me after my first week.

The headmistress; a large, round woman who wore a lot of pale pink Crimplene, listened to my Mother with a patronising look on her face.

‘I’m afraid all mummies think that their girls should be in a higher set.’

My Mother, red hair sparking, said that she wasn’t moving until the demon headmistress had phoned my primary school and asked for my records to be sent over.

The headmistress phoned and was put through to my old headmaster; a lovely man who was so respected that he had a street named after him many years later. I liked him and he liked me. He told the headmistress about my academic achievements and even said he would drop my records over on his way home.

I was promoted the next day.

Being in the top class of the top stream was hard work and there was very little colouring in.

The scissors had points though.

One of my new classmates knew Karen. She wasn’t very nice to her; sneering at her old clothes, and on one occasion when Karen failed to respond to her teasing, this girl even pulled Karen’s curly hair.

My new best friend Georgina, and I pulled the nasty girl off and I took Karen back upstairs to Mrs W, who was quite pleased to see me.

She even let me make Karen a warm drink.

I wanted to know why the nasty girl had picked on Karen, and I got the answer from another girl who had been to the same primary school.

Karen lived in a children’s home.

That was why her clothes were old and didn’t fit.

That was why no one had sorted out her squint.

That was why she was so quiet.

I am ashamed to say that apart from saying ‘Hi’ in the playground or in the school dinner hall, I didn’t see much of Karen after that.

I was too busy being the school rebel and avoiding the headmistress.

Every morning at assembly (I went through an atheist stage where I pointedly refused to sing hymns and kept my eyes open during prayers), I fantasised about running up the steps to the stage and pushing the headmistress off.

In my fantasy she bounced like a giant rubber ball.

She bounced down the school hall and out of the double doors, finally fetching up against her office door.

It was just a fantasy.

Luckily the deputy headmistress took me for English and had my back when things became awkward – usually about my interpretation of school uniform.

Time passed.

I took my ‘O’ levels and I passed.

I went on to the local Tech to do my ‘A’ levels and I passed again.

After a brief flirtation with drama school, and working in bars, I ended up volunteering in a children’s home.

I began to understand what life must have been like for Karen.

The home was run by an older couple who treated the children fairly well but it was always an institution – never a home.

After three months of volunteering, I got a permanent job as a houseparent at another establishment. The staff team was younger; less rigid and I began to understand how we could change things to make life better for the children and young people we were caring for – and we really did care.

I spent ten years working in children’s homes.

I never forgot Karen and I did my best to make sure that those in my care had clothes that they liked – and that fitted.

I took them to medical appointments and I did my best to sort out issues at school.

Most of the staff I worked with tried to make the children’s lives as close to a home life as possible.

Sometimes we succeeded.

I qualified as a social worker and I watched as the homes were closed down because the current thinking was being ‘in care’ was unacceptable. Children were sent home to parents who didn’t know how to care for them and didn’t really want them anyway.

Some children were fostered and life improved for them. There were others who no amount of good fostering could help.

In those cases the children drifted into disaster and the foster parents became disillusioned.

It was while I was taking time out to raise my own family that the scandal broke in my home town.

The officer in charge of a children’s home was arrested for child abuse.

Physical, sexual, financial, psychological – you name it. He did the whole lot.

He was the officer in charge of the home where Karen was placed.

It wasn’t a life for her and the other children she lived with.

The abuse went on for years until someone had the courage to stand up and shout.

It wasn’t Karen.

The officer in charge was found guilty and sent to jail.

So was his wife and two other members of staff.

I’m sorry Karen.

Sorry that I wasn’t more of a friend to you.

Sorry that I didn’t understand what you were going through.

I never forgot you though, and now I understand.

That was why your clothes were old and didn’t fit.

That was why no one had sorted out your squint.

That was why you were so quiet.

 

 

 

Scientific Discovery – Week 37 of the 52 week short story challenge

‘Erwin! Erwin! Where are you?’

He could hear his mother stumbling up the stairs, so he pushed the box under his bed and went out to meet her.

‘What is it Mother?’

She looked at him, knowing that the innocent expression on his face was usually a sign that he had been up to something.

‘Have you been in your grandfather’s study?’

Erwin opened his eyes widely, knowing that it made him look even more innocent. He shook his head.

‘Are you sure?  He says that some of his bottles have been moved around. Have you touched them Erwin?’

‘No Mother.’ Erwin looked down at his feet, unsure if he could keep up the pretence for much longer.

‘Hmmm. I must insist that you do not go into that room. Your grandfather keeps some very dangerous chemicals in there. Promise me Erwin.’

‘I promise Mother.’

‘Get ready for church now. Don’t pull that face at me. We are going to church whether you like it or not.’

Erwin followed her sullenly down the stairs. He hated going to church; hated his mother’s devotion to her religion almost as much as his father did. His father opted to stay home on the grounds that his own religion did not agree with that of his wife’s, but Erwin was still considered a child and had to do as his mother told him.

As if having to go to church wasn’t enough, Erwin had to wear his best  – and extremely uncomfortable clothes. His collar was starched and stiff; the bow tie pulled it even closer to his neck. The suit was made of wool and it itched wherever it touched. His shoes; new and shiny black leather, were rigid on his feet and his toes felt cramped and uncomfortable. Having to sit in this discomfort was torture enough but for two and a half hours the preacher droned endlessly about original sin and retribution.

Erwin made a promise to himself that if he ever had children they would not have to go to church. He also decided that if he was going to be accused of being steeped in sin, he would do what he could to deserve it.

The moving of the bottles in his grandfather’s study had been done with a purpose. Erwin had only removed an old empty bottle but he had identified exactly what he needed.  Row on row of glass bottles contained liquids with exciting names and he had moved the bottle that he required so that it was hidden at the back where it wouldn’t be missed. He just needed an opportunity.

The opportunity came that afternoon. His mother was having a rest in her room, and his grandmother had gone to hers. His father had retreated to his workshop and Grandfather had fallen asleep in the sitting room, full of food and with the cat asleep on his lap.

The cat and Erwin hated each other. It loved his grandfather, tolerated his mother and anyone that fed it, but anyone else who approached it, or tried to move it from the furniture, would be greeted with a hiss and a slash of claws. It saved its worse savagery for Erwin however, who bore the scars of those razor sharp weapons.

It was the work of a moment when everyone was out of his sight, for Erwin to slip into the study, pour half the contents of the bottle into a spare and replace the original. He closed the door, breathed a deep sigh of relief and crept quietly upstairs to his room.

He pulled the box out from under his bed and after wrapping the bottle in an old blanket, he pushed the box back out of sight and lay on his bed with one of his many books on the chemistry and physics beside him. The first part of his experiment was complete.

Erwin decided it would be better to wait for another couple of days, although he moved the box into his wardrobe in case one of the maids was feeling particularly house proud and chose to sweep under his bed.

His grandmother spent the morning teaching him English; Father was at work, Grandfather was at the university and his mother was out visiting one of the ladies from the church. Erwin waited until his grandmother had gone for another lie down, before grabbing the box from his wardrobe and putting it into the middle of the room with the lid open and the bottle uncorked. He used the blanket to wrap round his hands before going in search of the cat.

It was fast asleep in a pool of sunshine on the sitting room carpet. Erwin threw the blanket over it and gathered it up before it had realised what was happening.

He ran upstairs, put the wriggling, spitting cat into the box and shut the lid quickly putting his heaviest atlas on the top to keep it shut.

Erwin knew what would happen. Putting a cat in a box with an open bottle of poison could only have one outcome. If only he could think of a way of using a separate force to shatter the bottle – a separate force that could detect life – or death.

The box stopped shaking and Erwin felt sure that he knew exactly what the cat’s status was.

He still had time to smuggle the box downstairs and out into the woods at the end of the garden.

He opened the box and took out the bottle, thrusting it deep into the pile of rubbish that the gardener had amassed for a bonfire.

The cat’s motionless body was thrust deep under the rhododendron bushes, and Erwin finished his tasks by breaking the box up and putting it amongst the other pieces of wood on the bonfire.

When his mother returned, she found an innocent Erwin studying the books his grandmother had given him to read.

She looked around the house suspiciously but nothing seemed out of place, so she took off her hat and coat. It was later in the day after she had wandered round the garden that she realised that something was missing.

‘Erwin Schrodinger! What have you done with your grandfather’s cat?’

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At Sea – Week 32 of the 52 week short story challenge

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It was the first Tuesday of the month and just after eight o’clock in the evening, so the venue had to be Simon’s Wine Bar, because that was where Jo, Lea and I met up. We had been meeting here since the wine bar opened three years ago, and before that we had frequented a number of different bars and restaurants on a reasonably regular basis – holidays, childbirth and objecting partners excepted.

We had been friends from schooldays; Joanna, Leanne and Georgina, shortened to Jo, Lea and Gina over the years. We met for the first time, when standing in serried ranks in the school assembly hall, we were sent to our allotted form tutor and marched off to the classroom that was to be our base for the next five years.

Situated in the older part of the school, parquet flooring, dark wooden cupboards with sliding doors and piles of dust in the deepest recesses. We didn’t realise it at the time but we had been lucky enough to acquire Mr Beck as our form tutor. Out of all the first form tutors, he was undoubtedly the most human and easy-going.

At the time there were only four male teachers in our girls-only school; lovely Mr G who taught chemistry and was considered too scatty to have a form to look after, Mr Beck who taught physics and technical drawing, and the two religious education teachers; the Rev and the Perv. They only worked part-time and it was always a relief to walk into the classroom and find that the Rev was on duty. He at least was a real vicar whereas the Perv was a Methodist pastor who liked to massage the shoulders of girls that were too afraid of him to object.

Needless to say, he never laid a hand on me, Jo or Lea; according to our other friends we exuded an air of arrogance and rebellion. Whilst some teachers did their best to split us up we always managed to be sitting together for the next lesson like three magnets. This only changed when we had to make choices about the future and select our options for the final two years of school. Lea was artistic and creative, so art, pottery and needlework were easy options for her. Jo was the scientist, and whilst she had been known to connect up the Van Der Graaf generator to the classroom door and shock her less observant classmates – or student teachers – she was Mr Beck’s favourite and could do no wrong in his eyes.

I was used to the teachers looking at me in a funny way. My brain and I had the capacity to stun when sufficiently motivated  but I was always a rebel in my own lunchtime. No cissie uniform for me; I stalked the halls in jeans and Doctor Martins, daring any foolish teacher to reprimand me. It’s hard to be a rebel when there is no challenge though. I was the writer, the historian and psychologist. I was one of the first students to tackle the social psychology course and it was partly due to my high marks that the course – together with philosophy and sociology – was added to our curriculum.

Jo and I stayed on for sixth form but Lea went off to study hairdressing and beauty techniques. Her mother ran a couple of salons across the city and it was a given that Lea would step into her mother’s shoes one day. Had she been as much of a rebel as me, she might have objected but she was always the most compliant of us – and the most elegant and well-groomed. When her classmates were suffering from greasy hair and adolescent acne, Lea, having access to an endless range of beauty products and being blessed with clear skin, sailed through her school days with unnatural poise.

Jo went on to medical school and became a GP. I chose a university up in that London and lived a Bohemian lifestyle that resulted in me being left with two small children, a heap of debts, a pile of half-written novels and a deep spiritual wound inflicted by my poet lover who went off to the US to find himself. Fortunately my parents welcomed me and their grandsons home and I managed to scrape a living for the three of us by writing articles for women’s magazines and promising myself that I would finish my novels one day. By the time my boys were in their mid-teens, I had bought us a tiny terraced house laughingly described as an ‘artisan dwelling’, Lea was still single but had expanded the beauty salon chain and Jo had married a police sergeant and given birth to twins very shortly after. Family planning was never her thing – but then it hadn’t been mine either.

The three of us kept in touch throughout the years and once we were all back living in the same city, the monthly meetings began in earnest. As befitting her role, Lea remained elegant and beautiful, I had streaks of grey at my hairline – a  consequence of being disorganised and leading a life bedevilled by constantly having to unearth football boots, chemistry books and clean clothes from the  dark caves where my boys could be found, so that they wouldn’t get into trouble at school. They still got into trouble for their rebellious attitudes and a refusal to conform but I knew who to blame for that. Jo’s face was etched with worry lines even before the twins turned up; I commiserated with her over the posset stains on her shoulders and the fact that none of her pre-pregnancy clothes fitted anymore.

It was Tuesday and the three of us were sitting at our favourite table with a bottle of red wine breathing and three glasses ready. It was a few minutes before Jo and I put our own worries and thoughts aside in order to notice that something was wrong with Lea.

She poured out the wine and took an unusually inelegant gulp before squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath.

‘I have a problem, girls.’

Jo and I looked at each other, mentally assessing which one of us would ask the question. Under the table we did rock, paper, scissors. I usually beat Jo by wrapping her rock with paper but on this occasion she pulled a sneaky scissor trick and so it was me that put on the sympathetic face and asked. ‘What’s up Lea? How can we help?’

Jo kicked me under the table.

Lea put down her glass. ‘I think I’m in love.’

Double relief for Jo and myself. We started to smile and formulate congratulations but something in Lea’s face stopped us.

My turn to ask the questions again.

‘Who with? Do we know them – him – her?’ I hedged my bets. Lea bristled.

‘Him of course! No you don’t know him. He’s offered me a job too.’

Jo and I did a double take.

‘But you have all the salons. You don’t need a job. What kind of job?’

Lea looked at me pityingly. ‘I have good managers in all my salons. I need a change. I’m SO bored.’

‘What kind of a job?’ Jo echoed my questions. ‘Who is he?’

Lea took another gulp and another deep breath. ‘His name is Daryl. He is the entertainments manager on the Ocean Princess and he has asked me if I want to take on the beauty salon concession. It means signing up for a year and although the money isn’t wonderful, it would mean that I get to visit Florida, Italy, Spain – the itinerary is vast. The chance to get a real tan, evenings off, dinner at the Captain’s table, what more could a girl want?’

‘But, you’ve never been abroad Lea. Do you even have a passport?’

‘I know. I’ve always been too busy. I want to do something else with my life. You and Jo, you have children, Jo has a husband. I need a change. Can you sign my passport form Jo?’

‘Daryl? How did you meet him?’ I was a little miffed that she hadn’t asked me to sign her form but then I wasn’t really that much of an upstanding member of the community really.

Lea looked a little guilty. ‘I caught him trying to poach my staff.  He was a bit embarrassed and took me out to lunch to apologise. We got talking and well … you know.’ She finished lamely.

‘How old is he?’ Jo had the bit between her teeth now and the inquisitorial GP in her took over.

Lea blushed. ‘Twenty-five.’ she muttered.

‘That’s ten years younger than you. He’s a toy boy!’ I knocked back my wine and emptied the rest of the bottle into our glasses.

‘Are you really in love with him Lea or is it just the idea of sailing off into the sunset?’ Jo was still in her professional guise.

Lea looked at her watch. ‘I asked him to come and meet you. He’ll be here at nine o’clock.’

This was sacrosanct. Tuesdays were for the three of us. No exceptions. Ever.

I ordered another bottle of red and we didn’t bother to let this one breathe. I was the wordsmith and mine failed me for the moment. Jo concentrated on scratching a patch of posset she had discovered on her leggings. Lea was silent.

‘When will you go?’ I said eventually.

‘I haven’t signed any contracts yet but the next sailing is from Southampton at the end of the month and they need to have a manager in place before they sail. I think I want to do this girls, but I need your help. I trust you more than anyone else and if you think – well – if he isn’t the right one for me…’

This was a new element to our friendship. Lea had always been very choosy about men and neither Jo or I had ever sought an opinion on our partners – although I often wished I had.

Daryl arrived exactly at nine o’clock. He was handsome – in a theatrical way – he had good dress sense, an immaculate hair style and a tan that hadn’t come from a machine. He was charming, attentive and nothing like any man Jo and I had ever met before. He didn’t exactly sweep us off our feet but we could understand how he had captured Lea’s heart. The wine and the shock made us both dull and sleepy. Lea sparkled in Daryl’s presence.

Lea and Daryl went on to a club. Jo and I went home to our families in a taxi; we both felt old and boring.

By the end of the month Lea had sorted out her salons, signed up for a twelve month concession on a cruise liner and organised both her work and social wardrobes. Daryl continued to be the love of her life and though we cried on our last evening together, Jo and I wished them both well.

Lea was a great success as the manager of the beauty salon.

Daryl turned out to be less of a success; they had only been at sea for three days when Lea discovered him snogging one of the dancers backstage. He protested that he was just comforting her because she was homesick but the dancer told a different tale and within a few hours Lea had testimony from a parade of young girls who had fallen prey to Daryl’s charms.

He was offloaded in disgrace at Fort Lauderdale after breaking a few more hearts, by which time Lea had come to the attention of an aging but handsome millionaire who had signed up for a cruise to take his mind off the death of his wife. He signed up for another cruise when that one ended and carried on cruising until Lea finally agreed to terminate her contract and sign up to being his wife.

Lea sends us letters from her homes in the US. She never forgets our birthdays or those of the children. We think that she is happy. We hope that she is. We try to meet up on Tuesdays Jo and I, but it isn’t the same. Now it’s us that are at sea.

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Nostalgia – Week 26 of the 52 week short story challenge – halfway there

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The scene in the photograph is idyllic; a long garden with flowered borders and a neatly mown lawn. At the end of the lawn is a large tree and under it, a group of children cluster around a young girl. I am one of those children and looking back up the garden to the house, I can remember seeing all the grown-ups looking out at us with glasses of champagne in their hands.

The house belonged to my grandparents. The celebration was for the twelfth birthday of my cousin Caroline, it is she that is sitting like a queen in our midst. She is chubby for her age and the pink be-frilled party dress that my aunt has dressed her in makes her look like one of those crinoline ladies that people put over their toilet rolls.

She is an only child and spoiled rotten. We are a large family. Our grandparents had seven children and nineteen grandchildren ranging in ages from my cousin Andrew aged fourteen, down to our newest cousin Rachel. She is only a few months old and is back in the house with the grown-ups and half a dozen other under-twos who can’t be let loose in the garden.

One of my aunts emigrated to New Zealand; she and her husband don’t think that Caroline’s birthday party merits uprooting their four children in order to make a long and very expensive journey to England. They are off the Christmas and Birthday card list as far as my grandparents are concerned.

We’ve only had a twenty minute drive to get here and I didn’t think it was worth it either. It was my birthday a month ago and my grandparents didn’t even turn up at our house on the day; they were busy doing something or other with Caroline.

Caroline’s father jumped ship when she was three years old. His wife, my Aunty Suzy, had spent every last penny he earned on Caroline and herself. He had grown exhausted by Suzy’s excesses and, finding a sympathetic ear, went off with his secretary. Suzy and Caroline came to live with our grandparents and the rest of the family were knocked back into insignificance almost immediately

My Uncle Charlie fell out with Suzy some years ago, so he, his wife and their two children are absent as well. Like all his other brothers and sisters, Charlie felt that Suzy and Caroline were running through the family inheritance as fast as they could but he was the only one to stand up to her. Suzy is the apple of her parents’ eyes; she could do no wrong and Caroline has inherited all of her most toxic traits.

My grandparents were not bad people. They loved all their children and grandchildren – just not equally.

I am back in the present day. I am tired and tetchy. I have to juggle a demanding job, a neurotic ex-husband, two daughter at universities and my mother. I don’t want to look at photographs but it is the only thing that makes my mother happy nowadays.

My mother, her memories faded by time, looks at the photograph and smiles.

‘That was such a happy day.’ she says as she touches the faded photograph with her forefinger and turns the page of the album.

‘Was it?’ I say, doing my very best to keep my voice even. ‘Don’t you remember what happened after that photograph was taken?’

She shakes her head and I am in a quandary. Dementia has robbed her of her memories and although I want to shake her and share my memories, I can’t and I won’t, but I remember it all so clearly.

Caroline presided over our group because she did that in everything, but as today was her birthday she had even more special powers. She had been given a book on palm reading – when I say given – I mean demanded from her grandparents. She had decided, after reading a few pages and looked at some pictures, that she was now an expert and would read all our palms.

She started with Andrew; technically the eldest but we all knew that he was different. He was quiet, fascinated by insects and animals, and today we would probably say he was at the lower end of the autistic spectrum, but in those days he was just different.

He very reluctantly held out his grubby hand. Caroline looked at it with disgust and made some pretence at tracing the lines without actually touching them.

‘Hmmm, your lifeline isn’t very long. Can’t see you living past your mid-thirties. No children and a failed marriage. You really haven’t got much to look forward to have you?’ Caroline smirked and motioned Andrew to move away from her.

I was the next oldest.

‘Come on Trisha. You aren’t scared surely?’

‘No thanks.’ I managed a brief smile and backed away.

‘Coward! The twins next then.’ She beckons Sally and Tom over, knowing that at eight years old they are still under her power. She fails to find anything interesting in either of their hands and waves them away to join Andrew on the outskirts of the group.

She deals with my four year old cousin Alice in a very imperious fashion, knowing that her mother and Alice’s mother aren’t on speaking terms at the moment either.

Apart from myself, that leaves one child – my beloved baby brother Gerald. He is three years old and a beautiful but frail child. He has spent much of his short life in hospital and we are devoted to each other. Unfortunately he has yet to realise that the golden-haired, pink-clad Caroline is to be avoided. He breaks free of my grasp and runs to her when she offers him a sweet.

Grabbing his hand, she looks up at me triumphantly.

‘Gerry’s lifeline is very short Trisha. No marriage and no children but then he was never expected to last very long was he?’

I pull Gerry out of her grasp and with him under my arm, I carry him back to the house. My mother can see something is amiss and takes me aside. When I tell her what Caroline has said, she calls my father over and he starts gathering up our belongings.

‘Leaving so soon?’ Suzy purrs. The other children – and Caroline – have come in from the garden and Caroline has lost no time in telling her mother HER version of the incident.

‘It’s just a bit of harmless fun darlings. Caroline didn’t mean to upset Trisha, but you have to accept, she does get upset SO easily.’

Nevertheless, we leave, followed speedily by the rest of the family visitors. The birthday tea untouched, the birthday candles on the cake have not even been lit. Yet again, Caroline and Suzy have split the family.

My darling brother Gerry died a month later, and whilst we knew that Caroline was not the cause, I still blamed her for his death, and went on blaming her whenever anything went wrong in our lives.

My cousin Andrew got married just before his thirtieth birthday. We all thought there was a chance of success because she worked with adults with learning difficulties and seemed to understand him. She certainly understood the benefits system. Andrew became very depressed when his bride of a year left him. A neighbour found him unconscious after overdosing on the pills that were supposed to help. He never regained consciousness. Thanks Caroline.

My grandparents were so wrapped up with Suzy and Caroline that they barely noticed our absence. As they grew older and more frail, Suzy put them in a care home. She had very cannily arranged power of attorney for both of them, and had them change their wills so that she was the sole beneficiary. We didn’t even know where they were until they died – within a few days of each other. The solicitor contacted us to tell us the outcome of their wills.

It was just a formality.

It didn’t take Suzy long to run through the money, and then the house had to be sold. Caroline was in private education and the bills for her dance classes, elocution and etiquette sessions had to be paid.

Caroline lost weight; she became willowy and glamorous courtesy of costly nips, tucks, breast augmentation and a nose job. She treated her mother with contempt, especially after their inheritance was no more. Suzy aged badly after this, sold up the smaller house that she and Caroline had moved to, bought a small retirement flat for herself and rented an apartment for Caroline up in London.

‘Caroline has so many good friends in London and she needs to finish her courses if she wants to settle there.’

Famous last words Aunty Suzy. Where were Caroline and her good friends when you were diagnosed with terminal cancer?  If you had gone to the doctor sooner; if you hadn’t spent all your money on Caroline and her wonderful lifestyle, if you hadn’t raised one of the most selfish, hateful women I have ever met.

Suzy died penniless last year and we clubbed together for her funeral; her remaining sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces – even those who still live in New Zealand.

My mother sits in the armchair in my front room. She spends much of her time there in a rosy cloud of nostalgia, looking at pictures of the old days.

The old days.

The days before Caroline got involved in sticking cocaine up her nose.

The days before she got involved in drug smuggling for her ‘good friends’ to pay for her nasty habits.

The days before she was found dead in her rented apartment. The police broke in after the landlord advised that she hadn’t been paying the rent and there were a lot of flies around. No sign of those good friends now.

It is time for another funeral. We have had to club together again. Caroline wanted a pink hearse with horses but we can only afford the basic package. I’m hoping that my mother will have forgotten about the pink hearse and the death of her only son when she cries at my cousin’s funeral.

 

Pink Hearse

Summer Solstice- Week 25 of the 52 week short story challenge

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‘Come with me my love?’ he said. ‘Come with me and we’ll celebrate the coming of summer. We’ll dance and sing. We’ll watch the moon rise and the sun come up the next morning.’

He made it sound so magical, but then he made everything sound magical.

‘Please?’ he said, taking my hands in his. Such strong hands with long, slim fingers. A musician’s hands and he knew just how to play me.

‘It’s going to be special this year. Not just a full moon but the Strawberry Moon. It takes years to come around and who knows if we’ll see another one?’

‘Why is it called the Strawberry Moon?’ I asked. He was six years older than me and he knew so much more than I did.

He smiled. Squeezing my hand and looking deep into my eyes.

‘Come with me and you’ll understand.’

That smile. It was so sweet but mysterious and I felt so drawn to him.

Four months.

I will always remember the first time I saw him. I was transfixed.

I’d gone to the student union with some friends to see a group play. Not that I attended the Uni, I had a few more years of school to go, but the bar staff didn’t really care how old you were anyway.

The concert itself was mediocre. A group of men and women dressed in hippy clothes; they danced, sang and acted out some poetry but after an hour of perching on a rough wooden scaffold board, we decided it was time to slip out quietly and head for the bar.

That was when I saw him. He was tall; a good head and shoulders taller than those surrounding him. His mop of brown curls dipped past the collar of his worn but clean denim shirt. His jeans were tight in all the right places, and he was leaning casually against the bar, pint glass in one hand, guitar case clutched in the other.

There were lads clustered round him as well as the usual group of worldly girls who frequented the bar – but didn’t attend the Uni.

He was smiling. That slow smile that I came to know so well. Then as I was gazing at him, our eyes met and his smile grew wider as I blushed. In hushed tones I asked my friends if they knew who he was but they were as fascinated as I was.

He drained his glass and I felt desperately sad at the thought of him leaving. Instead he opened up the guitar case and took out his guitar. Perching on a bar stool he began to play. I ignored my friends. I had to watch him. Had to watch those long fingers plucking at the strings and when he began to sing ‘Light My Fire’ in a low but very clear voice, I was mesmerised.

He played half a dozen songs; they were covers but he made them his own and despite his friends asking him to play some more, he shook his curly head and nodded in my direction. This was a man who knew how to leave them wanting more.

Picking up his newly filled glass, he came over to our table and pulled up a chair.

‘Hi, I’m Tommy. And you are?’

‘I’m – I’m Giulia.’ I gasped and blushed again.

‘It’s good to meet you Giulia. Did you enjoy the group?’ His voice had a very slight American twang to it.

I pulled a face about the group.

‘I thought you were much better.’

‘Why thank you. Can I get you a drink?’

My still-full glass of barley wine was sitting in front of me. It tasted foul but it was cheap and more potent than beer or lager. I could make a bottle last all evening if necessary. I shook my head and pointed at the glass.

‘No thank you.’ My mother would have been so proud of my good manners.

‘Is that barley wine?’ he picked up the glass, sniffed it and wrinkled his nose in disgust. ‘Do you really like that stuff?’

‘Not really, but it’s cheap and everyone else drinks it.’

‘Would you rather have a Coke or some orange juice then?’

‘I’d love some orange juice.’

He turned to a friend who was at the bar.

‘Can you get me some orange juice for the lovely Giulia please?’

In seconds the drink was in my hand and I sipped it gratefully. It was a taste that would always remind me of Tommy.

‘You have the most incredible eyes Giulia. They are like a cat’s eyes, green and very observant.’

The cynic in me sighed because I had heard this before. Next he’d be saying how my hair was like a raven’s wing and my skin the colour of warm honey.

My mother’s eyes, my father’s hair and complexion. She was an innocent girl from Ireland who came over to work as a nanny and was swept off her feet by an Italian sailor who she met at a dance.

They met, they married and they created me. Joy was short-lived however because my father went back to sea after I was born and I never saw him again. He was killed in a brawl in some sleazy bar. We never really knew the details. As a consequence we were very close, my mother and I. We had no secrets.

At a time when my fellow schoolgirls were spotty, pale-skinned and very self-conscious, I had a permanent tan, long glossy black hair and my mother’s green eyes. I was used to people looking at me but put it down to my being unusual rather than attractive.

Tommy failed to mention the skin and hair though. He asked me questions about my life and told me about his. He was twenty-one, worked in a music shop in the town, lived in a student house with his friends at the bar, and had spent some time living in America with his father. When he wasn’t working, he played his guitar in local pubs and clubs.

Then he asked if he could walk me home.

He handed over his treasured guitar to the housemate who had brought my orange juice over and I waved goodbye to my friends.

He took my hand in his. We walked through the grounds of the Uni, down the hill to the little bridge and under a weeping willow tree he kissed me.

It was a good three miles to my house but I didn’t want the walk to end – ever – but it did and I knew that my very protective mother would be watching anxiously for my return.

Tommy wrote down my address on the back of my concert ticket and tucked it into his jeans pocket. Lucky ticket. I had already memorised everything that he had told me. We parted on the corner of the road – out of my mother’s sight.

Tommy was working at the music shop the next day but being Saturday, I was free to meet him for lunch without having to embroider a tale of meeting friends for my mother.

Four months. We saw each other nearly every day; I had to get a bus to town from school and then another bus to my home so it was easy enough to break my journey and see Tommy at the shop. My mother was used to me taking my time to get home. I didn’t exactly lie to her about where I was but Tommy became my first ever secret.

My friends were envious; they wanted to know every detail. Had we done ‘it’ yet? If we hadn’t done ‘it’ yet, how far had we gone?

Tommy was a gentle man; aware of my tender years and lack of experience – he was my first real boyfriend after all – he never pressured me. I knew from his ex-girlfriends – and there were many – that he had definitely done ‘it’ with them.

Especially Angie. Angie had long straight blonde hair and big blue eyes. She wore a tailored black velvet blazer, skin-tight jeans and a black tee-shirt sequined with a crescent moon and stars. She was older than me and epitomised cool. I only met her the once; our paths crossed as I was going into the toilets. Sobranje Black Russian cigarette in hand, she looked me up and down, sneered, blew smoke in my face and stalked off leaving me choking, embarrassed and confused.

I asked Tommy about her reluctantly. He hugged me and said that the world was full of Angies but there was only one Giulia for him. I felt loved. I felt special.

‘Come with me?’

More than anything I wanted to go with him and see the Strawberry Moon; to dance in its light and to watch the sun come up.

I knew that my mother wouldn’t let me go, so I began to make plans. Plans that involved collaboration with my best friend Joanna and the possibility of a sleepover. Joanna wasn’t that keen but she was a good friend, and as she lived some distance from my house, there was little chance of my mother ‘dropping in’ to check on me and we didn’t have a telephone at the time.

I smuggled clothes to Joanna’s in advance. Part of me was excited but part of me felt guilty about keeping this secret from my mother. Tommy blew it all away though, with his soft pleas and his gentle smile.

The fateful day came at last and my mother walked me to the bus stop, carrying the overnight bag that I would be swapping for a rucksack when I got to Joanna’s. I hugged her but couldn’t look into her eyes, those piercing green eyes, because I knew that she would see my secret.

Tommy and his friends picked me up in an old car that they had borrowed. I squeezed into the back seat with Tommy and two girls who, already high on something, giggled for most of the journey and then fell asleep until we reached our destination.

There was an air of party already; tents were being erected, campfires built, guitars strummed and old friends greeting each other. Tommy had acquired a tent and a sleeping bag from somewhere. He put it up quickly and we stowed our rucksacks and Tommy’s guitar inside before joining the rest of his friends.

We danced. Tommy played his guitar and we sang. We watched the amber-coloured moon rise and drank rough cider from paper cups. When the celebrations had died down, like many of the others we went back to the tents.

No need to go into the detail but it was a night I will never forget. We did ‘it’ under the Strawberry Moon. Tommy and I became one and fell asleep in each other’s arms.

The sound of a flute woke us later on and climbing out of bed, we saw the sun rising and we joined the others as the longest day of the year began.

It was a very long day.

We drove home at lunchtime; it was a much quieter journey but Tommy dropped me off near Joanna’s and we arranged to meet at the shop the next day. Joanna met me at the door and I could tell from her face that something was wrong. My mother sat on the sofa in the front room. Her face was both sad and angry. Joanna’s mother called a taxi to take us home.

I was grounded initially; hoping that Joanna would get a message to Tommy and that she could pass his on to me but my mother already had it covered. My mother made me promise not to contact Tommy, and I, made guilty by her sadness and disappointment, did as I was told. Two days after the solstice my mother and I were on our way back to Ireland to stay with her family. My mother came back on her own a fortnight later to sort things out with the house and to give in her notice at work.

How she knew at that early stage that I would be pregnant, I’ll never know. Sod’s law that I – the good girl – would get caught out on my very first time. My mother’s family closed ranks around me and my beautiful baby girl was born into our midst.

I called her Summer.

I never heard from Tommy again, or Joanna, or any of my friends. My mother cared for Summer and I went back to school and passed my exams with excellent results. Apart from Summer I had little else to think about.

In my mind I had decided that Tommy had got back with Angie, and I tried to be happy for them.

I trained as a nurse and just as these things do, I fell for a doctor. He was kind and clever, and prepared to take on Summer as part of the package. He met with my mother’s approval as well as the rest of the family. We moved to California when Summer was ten years old and I spent hours on the beach under a very yellow sun.

Summer grew up to be an artist and a musician. She met a fellow musician on Venice Beach and they had three beautiful children. They were living my dream. There are grey streaks in Summer’s brown curls but her fingers are long and clever.

My mother died four years ago and kept a secret to the grave. When we visited for the funeral, my aunt presented me with a box tied with a red ribbon. It contained Tommy’s letters to me; one almost every day at the start, then tailing off as he failed to get a response. All professing his love for me and his bewilderment at me disappearance. My mother told my friends that we were going back to Ireland but didn’t give them an address. She left a letter for me apologising for her secret but also saying how proud she was of my success, of Summer’s success and of the beautiful babies.

Summer had always known about Tommy. Had always known that she was different and she pored over the letters for hours when we came back. She wants to know what happened to Tommy but I am not sure.

So tonight, I look up at the Strawberry Moon with my youngest grandchild asleep on my lap. I ruffle his soft brown curls and my mind drifts back to a magical night in 1967 when I watched the sun rise for the summer solstice.

 

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Birthday – Week 23 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I can remember every moment of your birth-day – and that of your younger brother who was considerably bigger than you but slipped out with an ease and speed that caught the midwife on the hop. More of him another time.

Before you were born I had two miscarriages. I wasn’t sure if I could carry a pregnancy to full term; if I would ever know what it felt like to hold my child in my arms, to watch him or her grow into an independent person.

So when we got to the thirteen-week scan and could see your little heart beating, your Dad and I (and your Grandma) finally dared to hope that our dreams might come true. They didn’t do scan pictures in those days but your Dad had come prepared and was allowed to take photos of the screen.

We christened you Parsley. After Parsley the Lion, a character in one of our favourite children’s programmes – The Herbs. It wasn’t until the twenty-week scan that we found out that you were a boy and you became Robin. Robin Goodfellow. Robin the Hooded Man. His friends are more than fond of Robin. All our hopes and joys were invested in you.

This pregnancy was different.  All the symptoms that had been missing in the previous two pregnancies were there; the nausea, going off certain foods, craving other foods – especially cod in cheese sauce and crunchy cornflakes with strawberries.

You don’t like fish.

We went to National Childbirth Trust antenatal classes. All first-time parents, all nervous and full of questions – except for the immaculate health visitor with the designer bump and gorgeous husband who was planning a water birth at home. She knew it all – and she made sure that we knew that she knew it all.

Fast forward to the day before your birth-day. Things felt different. I started fussing and nest building. The labour bag was packed and unpacked a dozen times and when my waters broke – luckily after we had been shopping at Sainsburys and put it all away – we phoned the hospital and were told to come on in.

You were in no rush though. Your Dad and I spent most of the following morning trudging round endless hospital corridors in an effort to get labour started. It was more diverting than lying on a hospital bed and feeling uncomfortable. The words of our antenatal teacher rang in my ears. ‘Keep upright as much as you can and let gravity do the work for you.’

The nurses on the ward would have preferred me flat on my back and well-behaved because they kept losing me.

Our consultant – who bore a striking resemblance to Maggie Smith – turned up at half-past two in the afternoon and although she smiled, we could see that she was slightly disappointed that you weren’t likely to make an appearance before she clocked off for the day.

We went into the labour ward around six o’clock that night. You were on the way. I tried to remember all the things our teacher taught us. Then I got told off. I was doing the empowering grunting thing. ‘Don’t waste your energy screaming – grunt and push.’

The midwife told me I was frightening the other mummies with my Neanderthal noises. I ignored her and carried on. Gas and air made me bold. Your Dad grinned and got the odd whiff of gas and air.

You gave us a bit of a fright when you finally emerged at half-past seven (in time for Coronation Street according to Grandma). Your APGAR score was low because you had managed to wrap the umbilical cord around your neck – not once, nor twice but three times. Liberated and unwound, you pinked up nicely and let out a yell. The midwife let go of the end of the cord and – according to your Dad because I was out of it by then- it flick-flacked around and sprayed the ceiling. Tennessee Chainsaw Massacre apparently.

Your Dad had you to himself for the first hour of your life. The midwives weren’t happy that all the placenta had come away so I had to go to theatre and have a ‘scrape’ under general anaesthetic. By the time I came around  I was back on the ward with you and your very proud Dad.

I never drink full fat milk and I’m not enamoured of egg sandwiches but these were offered to me and nothing ever tasted so good.
Your Dad went home to bed and I tried to sleep. You were in a cot beside me and I kept one hand on your head all night to make sure you were real and no one could take you away.

We had to stay in hospital for three days; I had stitches and you were jaundiced. It was torture because we lived so close to the hospital that I could see our house. Every night your Dad stood out in the garden and shone a torch so I could see he was thinking of us. I knew that.

We escaped on the fourth day and I can remember lying on our bed at home, feeding you and devouring Kentucky Fried Chicken. We were told to get you out in the sunshine to get rid of your jaundice.

You got sunburn – the yellow turned to pink and your ~Dad went out to buy a sunshade.

We didn’t do too bad for new parents; we only forgot you once. I’d strapped you into your car seat and left you at the top of the stairs for your Dad to bring down and put in the car. It wasn’t until he started the car that I realised something was missing. You slept through the whole thing so I don’t think you were mentally scarred.

Our theme song was ‘Kooks’ by David Bowie. You came to live in a lovers’ story. We hope you haven’t been sorry.

The antenatal class met up again six weeks after you were born. We shared our birth stories and showed off our babies. We tried not to look smug when the golden couple turned up with their screaming baby (and not very pretty). The water birth at home had to be abandoned and she was rushed into hospital for an emergency C-section. All that expense! Unlike her baby, the mother was very quiet during our catch up session. She looked rather unkempt and her husband’s tee-shirt had sick marks on the shoulder – just like the rest of us now.

So the birthdays came and the birthdays went. You were a left-hander and you skipped to school because you loved it so much. A prodigious reader;I had to buy two copies of each Harry Potter book when they came out because you didn’t want to wait till I had finished it. I always finished first but you said this was because I didn’t have to go to school and lose valuable reading time.

Senior school followed primary school, and we were told that you were officially a National Gifted and Talented Youth.  You made your own path – avoiding games and PE as much as possible  – but you were a very strong swimmer which made up for it. When everyone else was wearing an extremely short school tie, yours was a more respectable  – and acceptable – level because you didn’t care about such things.

You had your group of friends and parents’ evenings were embarrassingly wonderful for all of us. Dad helped you with your German and I dredged the depths of my mind for my GCE French. The maths and sciences were beyond me.

You aced your GCSEs and went onto college to do your ‘A’ levels. I panicked when we didn’t get a call from you after you got your results. I had visions of you throwing yourself into a canal in despair because you hadn’t got A stars.

I shouldn’t have worried. You sauntered in and showed me your results. All A stars. What was the fuss about Mum?

University was a foregone conclusion. So was your first-class honours degree in Chemistry and now you are studying for a PhD with a long title that I can never remember. Something to do with amino acids.

You are a teacher. A mentor. A scientist. You also mix a mean cocktail and know how to have a good time. Your knowledge of politics astounds me and I value your advice (and your cocktails). You are a bit more of a dedicated follower of fashion since the school tie days.

We don’t see that much of you because you are a hundred miles away and have your own life to lead but you know that you have surpassed our expectations and that we are very, very proud of you.

Robin Goodfellow. Robin the Hoodied Man. His friends are still more than fond of Robin.

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