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?’

 

 

 

Advertisements

‘An Open and Shut University’

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
(Reinhold Niebuhr - 1892-1971)

If you don’t want to read my whinge – look away now.

Back in October 2012 I was 9/10 of the way through my final module for a degree in psychology.  I had only the final exam to go and then the prize that I had spent six years, thousands of pounds and as many hours working for would be mine.

I wanted this degree so much – not just for myself but for my Lovely Mum, who had been interested in psychology long before it became fashionable.

A week before the exam I was involved in an accident that left me in a great deal of pain, with an infection that wouldn’t go away, poor mobility, stress, anxiety, deterioration in pre-existing health issues, the loss of my job and career, and in a horrendous situation where I was stopped from talking to many of my friends and colleagues.

Legal constrictions prevent me from writing any more about that horrific year but those who know us will understand the impact the accident has had on me and on those I hold most dear

I went ahead and took the exam because I thought it was too late to cancel.  The combination of pain, strong painkillers and antibiotics put me on another planet and I fell asleep during the exam. I’d already managed to get Lovely Friend very lost in the middle of a not nice bit of town when she took me for the exam.  Apparently I had the sat nav upside down. I don’t remember much about it.

Not surprisingly I failed the exam and was offered a resit  – for a mere £97.00. My GP didn’t feel that I’d be fit to take the exam in April 2013 and I was booked to take it a year after my original exam  – in October 2013.

I was studying for another course and was relieved when the exam venue was changed to one closer to home.  The exam for that course went well and so I felt optimistic about my resit – especially when I found that I passed, and passed well.

Because it had been a year since I’d studied the resit subject I was told that I would have extra tutorial support.  It never materialised and I had great difficulty getting any information that other students taking the exam had access to. I dug out my books, drew up a revision plan and set to – optimistically – despite all the other hassle that was still occupying my time.

I tried so hard to revise but for the first time in my life, the ability to retain information had gone. I would sit for hours going over my notes and reading the course books but pain would intrude after an hour or so and taking the painkillers sent me to sleep. Subjects that I had found so interesting and enjoyable a year before now seemed to swim on the page in an unintelligible sea of words.

At the time of the resit I was embroiled in the legal wranglings that I’ve been gagged about – so needless to say  – my mind was elsewhere most of the time.

When I went into the exam hall – same place that I been to earlier in the year and successfully passed an exam – I felt nauseous.  Hot, cold, y head began to swim. I turned the exam paper over and my mind went blank. I hadn’t taken any painkillers in case they made me fall asleep in the exam again so three hours of sitting still took its toll .  Halfway through the exam I had to go out to the toilets and throw up.

I did my best. I answered all the questions. I tried to pull every piece of information out of my fuddled head.

It wasn’t good enough. I failed.

I was told that the only way I could get my degree was to take the whole year again. Not only had the fees had gone up, but this seemed so unfair given that I had passed all the coursework and the residential  school section of the course.

There was one other chance to salvage my degree – aegrotat credit.

This is a bare pass that is awarded if a student is no longer able to continue their current studies due to ill-health, are on the last course for their degree and are permanently unfit to study. You don’t have to have a terminal illness – but apparently it helps.

I discussed this with my GP.  We were both of the opinion that the content of the course had become so linked with the stress of the past year that no matter how many times I took the exam, I would not be able to pass due to the physical symptoms I experienced.

I applied for the aegrotat credit and they turned me down because they didn’t believe that I wouldn’t be able to study any more. They suggested that I took the course again.

In desperation I wrote to the vice-chancellor – who NEVER deals with this kind of situation. I was passed back to student services who advised me to get further medical proof regarding the permanent cessation of my studies.

I paid for another letter from my doctor.

They rejected it on the grounds that the phrase ‘for the foreseeable future‘ doesn’t mean permanent.

They offered me the opportunity to progress to a level 2 complaint but said that I would need further medical evidence.

I went back to my GP – who not unreasonably was rather peeved that his wording had been questioned.  We put together a letter that we thought would be acceptable and in it he emphasised that it wasn’t just the difficulty in concentrating on my studies, the pain and stress of sitting through three hours in an exam hall, but it was primarily the fact that the content matter had become so inextricably linked with the accident and subsequent issues that it had caused a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. He also felt that the stress of wrangling with yet another bunch of bureaucrats was having an adverse effect on my overall health and preventing me from getting better.

I sent off the letter.

On Friday I received the reply.

It is with regret that they have turned my application for aegrotat credit down again because they still don’t believe that I am unable to continue my studies permanently.

I can progress to a level 3 complaint if I want to.

They even came out with a heap of sanctimonious claptrap about their compassion and understanding for students with disabilities and that they could make alternative exam arrangements for me should I wish to take the course again and give them some more money.

I don’t understand their logic.

I have no intention of studying with this organisation again – ergo – permanent end of studies.

Both exams were failed by a couple of points and I had done all the work to pass the rest of the course.

I have provided them with more medical evidence than you can throw a stick at – and despite the fact that the people making the decision are not medically qualified – or psychologists even – they have the power to rubbish everything my GP has told them and branded me a liar.

Do they think I am going to sneak back and take another course if they give me the degree I have worked so hard for?

Is it really just about the money or have I come across some petty-minded group of administrators who move the goal posts according to their whims and don’t like giving in?

Hub and I have talked and I think it is about time I drew a line under this farce.

I learned a great deal in the past six years, so the knowledge for the degree is mine and nothing can take that away.

The establishment that I have been studying with has shown a total lack of compassion, understanding and integrity so – is their degree really worth the paper it is printed on anyway?

In my opinion they have moved away from their original ethos and become greedy and grasping in an effort to compete with other educational establishments.

I want no more of it then.

To be honest, I never use the string of initials after my name that I’ve earned over the years.

I need to think about my health, my family and friends – not a bunch of anal retentives wandern amongst concrete cows  whilst they make up rules to suit themselves.

Shut the door  – close that particular book – and move on.

With particular thanks to Paul McGee  – The SUMO Guy

http://www.thesumoguy.com/

Oh and Flower, if you are still reading this and are about to put a another thinly disguised rant about me on FaceAche – don’t bother – just unfriend me please – time you moved on too.

 

 



 

 

 

Bring it all back home ….Day 2 ….Running in the family

I am blessed with a large family of aunties, uncles and cousins.  I love them whole-heartedly and unconditionally.  I miss being able to see them when I want to because they are all down South and we are up North. We meet up at weddings, funerals, and back in 2009 when we rented a different house in Hamble, an impromptu open house day where everyone brought food, drink, and especially Pimms.  It was a fine day.

My Mum was one of five; the oldest girl.  When we were growing up we met all our cousins at various functions – my Dad was the youngest of thirteen so I had dozens of cousins that I rarely knew – but we had the most to do with the children of my Mum’s two sisters; Auntie R and Auntie P.  Auntie R had three boys of similar ages to me and my sibs, then ten years later beautiful blonde twin girls.  Auntie P had a boy, then three girls, all young enough for me to able to say – on far too many occasions –  ‘Ha! I used to change your nappies when you were little!’

At various stages of my life I have stayed with them and we have played pivotal parts in each others lives.  We are a family of mild eccentrics and largely, we have acquired partners that complement those peculiar quirks that make us who we are.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the celebration of diversity has always meant more to me than the suspicion that you so often encounter with people who can’t cope with change.  I like unusual, original, bizarre – which is just as well really.

Whilst the older generation have whittled down a bit and are no doubt having a celestial garden party at this very moment, my generation has remained blessedly intact.  Things were touch and go when we nearly lost my almost Twin  – my Auntie R’s second oldest .  We were born a month apart and for a long time he found it hard to forgive me for being born first – especially when we were about three or four, bridesmaid and pageboy at Auntie P’s wedding, and I squeezed his hand too tightly as we walked down the aisle.  As an obnoxious almost teenager I used to pull his hair and give him migraines, but always a gentleman he rarely retaliated.  He got swine flu – Christmas 2010 and was very, very ill.  He was in my thoughts daily and the combination of his indomitable strength and the family forcefield pulled him through in the end. A life without him in it would be  unthinkable.

The last time we met en masse was July 2011 for a handfasting and wedding.  It was a beautiful day and my Ronnie loved every minute of it.  There was time to talk and for the next generation to tentatively get to know each other again.  One of the best bits was to see my Twin, high wide and handsome, and almost completely recovered.  The photographer climbed up to a vantage point in the house where the wedding was held,  and managed to take one of those panoramic photos where you can spend hours with a magnifying glass trying to identify everyone and still failing to work out who that was in the fuschia fascinator – assuming that it was a fascinator and not a horrible growth on the side of someone’s face.

In short – my family are brill.

Before leaving home we sent out e-mails, texts and some snail mail to let everyone know that we were visiting down South again and when. Responses trickled in.  Day 2 of our holiday was the designated open house and being a bit better off than three years earlier, we just said bring yourselves and some booze – we’ll feed you.

Bearing in mind that Lovely Hub and I had only seen pictures of the garden here and had arrived in the dark the night before, drawing back the curtains and revealing a sunny conservatory that opened on a not too big but not too small enclosed garden  the next morning – was bliss.  We breakfasted, left the boys in bed and hit Tesco with a vengeance.

By the time we got back the boys were beginning to surface and ablute – much disgust from CB because we only had one bathroom and he had to wait for his older brother to shower first.  Hub and I ignored the whingeing, laid out the food (Hub) and prepared the Pimms (me of course).

There were eighteen of us at one stage; my Twin brought his four boys and there was a commingling of cousins and second cousins that worked harmoniously – apart from me chasing CB round the front garden with a stick – I was smiling therefore it was playfighting.  The sun shone, the drink flowed, the food was consumed.  A semblance of American football was played out in the garden by those with more energy and inclination, CB’s flight simulator kept the small boys (and the big ones) occupied when they weren’t running, eating and drinking. Us olders just ate and drank and talked and laughed; raised a glass to absent friends and in particular to Mum and Ronnie, just as we had three years before about half a mile up the road. My big sis brought back the crate containing Mum’s jewels and bric-a-brac ready for us to tote it around the rest of our relatives to see if anyone else wanted a memento.  It seems a lifetime since I loaded all the little boxes and bubble-wrapped packets into the crate but in reality it was only two months ago.

Our last guest – one of our beautiful twins – left at 2300 hrs – ish.  We put the world to rights and caught up on lost time whilst Hub and the boys tidied up around us  and battened down the hatches for the night – well UB did – CB had retreated to his bedroom with his laptop – the strain of having been sociable all day too much for him.  Hub, UB and I walked our guest  up the rutty unmade road to her car.  A pothole found me and with a definite feeling of deja vu, down I went.  Full force on the knee that had almost recovered from the football boots incident of the week before.

Got up.  Brave face.  Waited till I got back indoors before having a permitted whinge and snivel,  and the application of stinging antiseptic wipes to get rid of the gravel. More than slight feeling of relief that I’d packed some First Aid stuff and that it all seemed to be just surface damage anyway.

From the first guests – including the youngest – our splendid great nephew H at only 9 months – to the last –  it was a great day.  Whatever my sons say the falling over at the end bit was due to pot holes, darkness and my general clumsiness.  Nothing at all to do with the vast quantities of Pimms consumed – Hub was dispatched to the local Co-Op for more supplies during the evening – we didn’t even consider the possibility that the Hamble Co-Op wouldn’t  sell Pimms.

Perish the thought.