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?’

 

 

 

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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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