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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Another Planet – Week 21 of the 52 week short story challenge

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‘I thought Millie was coming with you today.’ said  Angela as she sipped her mocha latte with two extra shots of espresso.

Selina tossed back her freshly coiffed blonde hair and flicked an imaginary speck of dust from her designer slacks. She did her best to avoid coffee fads and had a small cup of green tea cooling on the table in front of her.

‘She’s packing. She’s been packing for the past week. Every time I go into her room to talk to her she says that she’s packing.’

Angela pursed her lips. ‘Isn’t she living in halls? They don’t have that much room do they?’

Wincing as another sore point was touched, Selina concentrated her attention on her newly manicured fingernails. She had demanded that the nail technician concentrated on making her nails look as effortlessly natural as possible, and she was almost satisfied with the effect.

‘I’ve seen the university booklet and yes, the rooms are rather basic but at least she has her own en-suite. The kitchen is shared with six other students but I doubt if Millie will be doing any cooking. There is a restaurant in the same block and a laundry but I couldn’t find anything about service washes and cleaners.’

Hiding a grimace behind her coffee mug, Angela couldn’t help wondering if Millie had been totally truthful with her mother about student life.

‘Of course, I wanted her to stay home and attend Chester University. We offered to buy her a little car to make life easier but she was insistent that this was the only university that did the right course for her. It’s going to be so difficult having her living so far away.’

Selina sighed and put on the wounded mother look that she had been perfecting ever since Millie had announced her  plans for the future .

‘What is she going to be studying?’

‘Languages. Apparently this university has an excellent exchange system where she can spend her final year in France or Germany. Not quite the finishing school I would have liked for her but I understand that she could make some impressive contacts for her future career.’

‘Remind me – what does she want to do when she leaves uni?’

‘When she graduates from university Millie is looking to join Michael’s firm – her natural aptitude for languages will make her a valuable asset. Of course the other option was for her to go straight into working at the firm but Michael felt that she could do with getting more qualifications first.’

The expression on Selina’s face led Angela to believe that the decisions about Millie’s future had not been made as calmly as indicated. Angela liked Selina’s husband Michael. He was an easy-going chap who smiled at Selina’s excesses, ran a large and efficient export business, and spent much of his time travelling abroad.

‘When does Millie start? Won’t you be lonely without her?’

‘We are driving up on Saturday.’ Selina sighed and examined her nails again. ‘I wanted to go on Sunday but Millie says she needs time to settle in before lectures start. Why you should want to settle in to a student bedsit when you have a perfectly beautiful suite of rooms at home, I have no idea. I wouldn’t say that Millie is an ungrateful child but I do wonder sometimes if she really appreciates all that Michael and I do for her.’

*******

The packing excuse had worn thin and Millie knew that there was a limit to how many times she could back and repack her designer suitcases. There was an unopened box from Harrods that contained pillows, two duvets,  Egyptian cotton bedding and towels that Millie’s mother had assured her were a beautiful shade of cornflower and very soft. Millie hadn’t bothered to look in the box. She would far rather have gone to Asda or Tesco to get her bedding like the rest of the first year students. Another box contained cooking utensils, pans and crockery. Her father had intervened when Selina had been looking at bone china and Le Creuset. Unlike Selina, he had attended university and was far more practical in his outlook.

Millie loved her father. He understood her and did what he could to protect her from Selina’s extravagance.

‘She does love you sweetheart, she just doesn’t understand why you don’t have the same tastes as her.’

Millie had pulled a face. It was bad enough having your clothes bought for you, but Selina’s taste ran to expensive, elegant clothes that were more suited to a middle-aged woman than an eighteen-year old girl. Unbeknownst to Selina, Millie had been clothes shopping courtesy of a generous allowance from her father, and had arranged for her best friend Julia to put the more appropriate clothing in with her own clothes.

Selina didn’t know about Julia; didn’t know that Millie and Julia were best friends, that they were going to be on the same course together at University or that they were going to be in the same student flat. Millie had known from the first that Selina would not approve of Julia’s burgundy hair, her tattoos and piercings, her love of Steampunk and cosplay.

Michael had met Julia and thoroughly approved of her as a friend who could share freedom with his only child. He had to pull a few strings in order to get them in the same flat, and as he explained to Millie, it was a question of just not telling Selina things rather than blatantly lying about what was happening.

‘What her eye doesn’t see, her mind won’t grieve over.’ One of Michael’s oft-quoted maxims and one which defined the smooth-running of his relationship with his wife.

*****

In order to accommodate Millie’s luggage, as well as Selina’s essentials, Michael had borrowed one of the Range Rovers from work. Selina would rather have arrived in the Rolls, but had to acknowledge that it didn’t have the required storage space. She sat, rather uncomfortably in the passenger seat, whilst Millie sat behind her, in a position to exchange swift grins with her father but protected from her mother’s endless questions by earphones and feigned sleep.

Julia had been texting her all morning, having arrived early and already unpacked. It had been agreed that Millie would let Julia know once Selina had finally left the building. It was so difficult trying to keep her excitement in but Millie had learned over her eighteen years that expressing anything other than mild interest in anything, was guaranteed to get Selina’s hackles up in opposition.

The complaints began as soon as they arrived on campus. Selina peered out of the window and disapproved of the proximity of the student bar. The halls looked rather drab and ordinary. Why wasn’t the car park closer to the entrance? Did they really have to carry Millie’s luggage up two flights of stairs and go through three security doors to get to her flat? Was there no porter to do this? Or at least a lift!

Millie and Michael stayed silent and carried the luggage upstairs whilst Selina appropriated her daughter’s only (and very inferior) office chair and sniffed at the recently bleached en-suite shower room. Refusing her mother’s offer to unpack for her, Millie looked around the little room and exchanged another covert smile with her father.

‘Let’s leave Millie to it darling, there’s a nice little restaurant I’d like to take you to but it will take us a good hour to get there.’

Torn between wanting to continue dominance over her daughter, and the desire to be taken out for a meal by her adoring husband, Selina acquiesced gracefully and after bestowing a vaguely maternal hug, went off to wait in the car.

Michael gave his daughter a much warmer hug; he was going to miss her.

‘I’ve set up a shopping account for you sweetheart, and topped up your allowance. Let me know if you need anything. If you can manage to phone your mother tomorrow, my life will be much calmer.’

‘I know Daddy. I won’t go mad but I may need to buy some ordinary stuff for the kitchen – and maybe bedding – but that can wait till tomorrow.’

‘Buy what you need and donate the other stuff to charity. I can’t see your mother wanting to spend much time in your room or the kitchen. Next time we visit she will undoubtedly want to take you out for a meal – or to shop!’

‘God forbid! Julia says we can trade in some of my clothes at the uni charity shop. Was Mum always like this Daddy?’

Michael felt that it was time to tell a few hidden truths; he hoped that Millie would understand and not judge her mother too harshly. He sat down next to her on the unmade bed.

‘Your Mum isn’t like other people. I knew that when I met her, and I knew that I would have a hard time explaining to you one day. We’ve always been honest with you about the fact that Mum and I couldn’t have children so we adopted you.’

Millie nodded. Not possessing her mother’s genes had never really been an issue.

‘Your mother – came from a different place. She had to learn how to speak, act and dress from books and magazines – quite expensive and high class magazines.’

‘Well that explains quite a few things, but where did she come from Dad?’

‘I don’t really know. I found her wandering on a beach in New Zealand when I was on a business trip. She seemed so vulnerable – and lovely. She had no paperwork, communicated through sign language, just had the clothes she stood up in. I’m afraid that I am responsible for the way she is. I pulled a few strings, got her a passport and brought her back to England. Your Aunt Jane took care of her and that’s where she lived for six months – in a cottage out in the country, reading endless copies of the Tatler and Agatha Christie novels. She learned very quickly, I fell in love with her and we married. You know the rest.’

‘That doesn’t explain about where she really came from though Dad?’

Hastened to his feet by the sound of Selina tooting the car horn, Michael kissed Millie on the top of her head.

‘She isn’t of our world sweetheart. She comes from another planet.’

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