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

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Bring it all back home – Day 4 – Named and shamed – Ronnie’s story

Tuesday morning, the boys are in bed, Hub and I are off to the sticks.

My much-missed step-dad Ronnie had a history that I only picked up in small pieces over the years.  I knew that he had an older brother who had done the dirty on him in some way, that he had left Ronnie with debts that my Mum spent two years fighting with tax man over – and won – GO Mum!   I also know that my Mum tracked his relatives to Mallorca and wrote to them asking them to get in contact with Ronnie – not about the money but because they were his family.

She must  have got too close for comfort because they moved to Australia.  Always indomitable, she tracked them down again and wrote to them – again.  Still no response.

Ronnie  married my Mum back in 1972 when he was a hospital porter and she was on the hospital switchboard.  They were great friends with two couples who Ronnie had known for many years.  I heard about them but only met one of the couples and that was a long time ago.  Even after they moved up North, Mum kept in touch and they exchanged Christmas cards.  One couple parted company but that’s Sylvia’s story and not mine to tell.  When Mum died from a stroke in 2009, Jean, one of  the other couple, also had a stroke but she was more fortunate and although she has some paralysis on her left-side and has to use a wheelchair, her faculties are still razor-sharp.

Ronnie  kept in touch with Sylv and got regular updates on Jean and her husband Bruce.  He sent her one of our family Christmas cards every year so although we had never met, she knew what we looked like and what we’d all been up to.

It wasn’t easy summoning up the courage to phone and  tell her that Ronnie had died.  She made it a lot easier for me though.  We talked a great deal about Ronnie and Mum, and I promised that I’d look out some photos of Ronnie and visit her when we went down South in August.  Listening to that real Hampshire burr made me feel even more determined  to fulfill a promise that I made to Ronnie when Mum died – to try to track down his family down one last time.

Sylv was all I’d hoped she would be and was delighted with the photos, but confessed that it was Bruce and Jean who knew more about Ronnie than she did.  So she phoned them and five minutes later the three of us were off into even deeper Hampshire to pick Jean’s brains.

As soon as I saw them the memory of their faces and voices came back.  I still have no idea of when or where  we met but they hardly seemed to have changed.  Compared to Farty’s dithering and Mutti’s deafness, here were three people in their late seventies- early eighties who were very much on the ball and ready to fill in the gaps of Ronnie’s life for me.

So – set this down – Ronnie Milnthorpe was born in Romsey, Hampshire and had an older brother called Derek.  Their mother came from Cleveleys near Blackpool and was said to be a very astute businesswoman.  They owned a greengrocery business  in Commercial Road, Southampton and lived in a big house at the Bassett end of Burgess Road. Their father worked as a draughtsman on Spitfires at the Supermarine factory in Woolston, Southampton.  Ronnie was said to take after his dad, kind-hearted and a bit of a dreamer but always a stickler for payment if you came into the shop and wanted just an apple or something. Bruce used to deliver fruit and veg to the shop  and that’s where his friendship with Ronnie began.

Derek was called up and joined the army; the day after his eighteenth birthday Ronnie was on a train to Warrington to join the RAF. While they were away their mother died – no details known  – but shortly afterwards their father died and some said it was from a broken heart.  Derek – as the older son – was released from the army and came home to run the shop. At that time he was devoted to Ronnie apparently.

Derek met a girl called Doris; no need to name where she came from but Derek was definitely considered a catch in her eyes.  She fell pregnant and they got married; their son was called Raymond and later they had a girl called Sandra – or Sandy.  Doris didn’t like Ronnie.  Whilst he was still in the RAF she got Derek to sell the house that had been left to both sons jointly and used the money to buy a big house in Bullar  Road, Bitterne.  the house has been knocked down now and flats put up in its place.  When Ronnie came home Doris refused to let him live in the house that was half his and he was sent to live on the other side of town in a B&B.  According to my trio of informants, Derek loved his brother but it was Doris who ruled the roost.

They sold the house in Bullar Road and moved to Crawley where Derek opened a betting shop.  The greengrocers was sold to buy more betting shops, and all this happened whilst Ronnie was gravely ill in hospital.

According to Jean, Ronnie was walking past a pub when a fight broke out inside, spilled out onto the pavement and Ronnie was knocked to the floor banging his head against the concrete paving.  He was in a coma and by the time he recovered, his livelihood was gone and all the wordly goods left to the two brother had come into Doris’s scheming hands. Ronnie went from being the owner of his own shop to being a poorly paid porter living in a council flat.  Cheers Doris.

Derek sold his four betting shops to the William Hill chain at a tidy profit; he sold the house in Crawley too and without telling Ronnie where he was going, he packed the money into a suitcase and drove to Newhaven with Doris and the children. They travelled overland avoiding major ports and eventually settled in Mallorca.

I have a postcard of Mallorca from Ronnie’s niece Sandy, dated 22 August 1969.  Ronnie’s birthday.  She says that there are no birthday cards in Mallorca so the postcard will have to do.  She says it is lovely there and that she’ll be sorry to leave. She signs it from Sandy, Mum and Dad – wonder what happened to Raymond?

Years later Mum and Ronnie went to Mallorca – ostensibly for a holiday but Mum wanted to try to  find Ronnie’s family for him.  By that time she had convinced the tax man that Ronnie had played no part in Derek’s fraud and that all the money owed and the proceeds from the sale of the businesses and house had gone out of the country in Derek’s suitcase.

Jean, Bruce and Sylv all blame Doris.  Apparently she and Derek didn’t just do the dirty on Ronnie, there were several other business partners that they left high and dry as well.  As far as we know, Sandy married and stayed in Mallorca, Derek died and Doris went to Australia with Raymond who had been set with an electrical business there.

I want to get in touch with Raymond and Sandy.  To tell them what a lovely man their uncle was and how they have really missed out on not having him in their lives.  He may have lost his blood family but courtesy of my Mum, Ronnie became a much-loved part of our big family.  He made a success of his life and despite being left with nothing because of the conniving Doris, he dabbled in stocks and shares and showed that he had indeed inherited some of his mother’s business acumen.

If my Mum, without the doors that have been opened by the Internet, could track down Ronnie’s family, then I’m sure that I can too.  Too late for his inheritance – that’s long gone – and thanks to his common sense they have no claim on his estate now – that goes to the people who loved him.  To his real family. Here’s to Ronnie – Here’s to us.