I’ve been following Charli Mills’ prompt for a piece of weekly flash fiction and after the first couple of weeks I have been developing a story through these challenges. I’ve decided to post them here as a collection for those interested. The last piece, because of the prompt to which it relates, leaps ahead a little. In the nature of this exercise the story may move back and forward and I will try and fit the pieces in their correct chronological spot.
This is a summary of the story so far: the detailed chapters follow:
The story so far
After her father, Peter, dies, Mary North discovers she has a half-brother, Rupert. Her father’s affair with Angela wasn’t known to Mary’s mother (who is already dead).
When Rupert begins to contest Peter’s will, Mary’s discomfort becomes active dislike. Then Angela dies and Rupert withdraws the action, causing Mary to question her feelings.
In Peter’s papers Mary finds she was adopted. Rupert tells her Peter was her father and her mother, Mandy (Amanda) Johns died giving birth to her and a twin. Mandy was Angela’s cousin.
Penny, Mary’ daughter likes Rupert and, despite Mary’s agonising wants him to be an active family member. Mary however despises him. Paul, Mary’s husband tries to act as peacemaker. Penny has a dog, called Peter after her grandfather.
Mary begins the process of selling her father’s house. A vision of him takes her to the rockery where human bones are uncovered. The police begin tests. Mary is convinced it is her dead twin.
When the results come in, the body is shown to be of African origin, a mutilated corpse of a young boy. The police dig the whole garden and find no more.
The twin, who Mary thinks of as Sharon, comes to Mary in a dream confirming she is dead and promising to be with Mary. However Mary’s aunt Gloria, her mum’s sister, senses Mary perturbation pointing out Sharon was the name Mary gave to an imaginary friend when a child. Mary does not know if her twin is dead or alive. Her half brother has her father’s old diaries which reveal Mary’s mother (as she thinks of her) did not know who her real mother was nor that her father was her father.
During her depression while finding out these family secrets Mary learns she is pregnant.
She catches her husband, Paul looking at pornographic images on the computer and begins to doubt whether there is anyone, especially any man, who she can trust.
Mary gets pregnant and has a girl, Charlotte. She visits Ireland and believes she has found her sister – who she learns is called Katherine Potts – but it is a false lead. She and Rupert grow close and employ a detective to track Katherine down.
Meanwhile Paul becomes increasingly disillusioned with her perpetual hunting. Eventually the Detective tells them to visit Galway.
Peter stared at the letter in his hand; he had done it again. Got all the way from car to post box and forgotten to post it. He would forget himself one of these days.
Milton whined from the back; he had forgotten to walk the bloody dog, too.
Sighing to himself, Peter climbed out and made for the phone box. Halfway there he remembered he hadn’t wound the window down. Poor Milton, it was so hot.
He hesitated fractionally and then set off again. He would only be a few minutes.
The stroke, when it came, was huge.
Dog days and Phoenix nights
It was morphogenesis; Milton was in flames but not in pain. Peter smiled. What next for the bulldog?
‘He’s smiling, Mum.’
‘It’s the sun. When they turn Grandpa to the window, it looks like he’s smiling.’ Mary moved past the bleeping machines. ‘Here, I’ll move this.’
A horn grew from Milton’s head. Peter knew now; a unicorn. The flames engulfed the dog, leaving the horn pointing skywards. Peter felt happy at last.
‘There.’ Mary pulled the drip stand from the window so the sun filled Peter’s face with light. ‘I wish, he’d give us a sign.’
‘He’s peaceful, Mum.’
The tears of gods
Mary rubbed her back. Packing her father’s belongings took forever.
‘Are you tired, Mum?’
Mary forced a smile. ‘Exhausted.’
‘Dad said you need rest.’
‘Maybe a walk. Later. When the rain stops.’
‘Does it rain in heaven, Mum?’
‘I don’t know.’ Was there heaven? She hoped so.
‘Will Grandpa Peter get wet?’
‘He wouldn’t mind.’
‘He’d use it to get out of chores and go fishing.’ She glanced up at the hunkering clouds. ‘Eh, Dad?’
Peter looked down and nodded. Too right. ‘Milton. There.’
The dog-cum-unicorn leapt in the water, horn to the fore, and speared the salmon.
‘Let’s put them on the grave, Mum.’
Mary held the bunch tight, unable to move. That aroma; it couldn’t be her father’s aftershave. She sniffed the flowers; not them. ‘Can you smell anything?’
Penny nodded. ‘Grandpa. It’s getting stronger.’
‘Because he’s here, Mum.’ The girl took the flowers from her mother.
Mary straightened up. He hadn’t left her. He’d always be here, if she needed advice. Thank heavens she had let Penny bring her.
‘Thanks, Dad,’ she whispered.
‘Come on, Mum.’
Behind a cloud, Peter watched Milton spear another can with his horn. He loved Old Spice.
‘…History? It’s just one f***ing thing after another’ Rudge in The History Boys by A Bennett
Mary opened the desk drawer. What a mess. She needed help with Dad’s estate.
Underneath some bills she found a postcard: Brighton, postmarked 1984. ‘Darling Peter, we have to stop.’ Signed: ‘Angela’.
Mary remembered the strange woman at the funeral, calling herself Angie. ‘We need to talk’. Giving her a phone number.
Memories flooded back.
Mum crying. ‘Why with Angela?’
Seeing a list of Dad’s standing orders. ‘£100 to Ms A Simmonds each month.’
A trip to town. Bumping into a woman and red-haired boy. Dad embarrassed. Boy’s hair like Dad’s in those old photos.
What a mess.
Mary shuddered. His hands were sticky with sweat; it felt like he’d wiped himself dry on her.
‘It’s brilliant to meet you at last. It’s been far too long.’
Rupert Reeves. Her half-brother, though when she looked at him her mind screamed, ‘Dad’s bastard’.
Even his voice seemed to ooze over her, coating her in damp guilt. ‘Why did our parents never introduce us?’
She tried a smile. ‘It was difficult.’
‘Your mother, yes? She couldn’t forgive, could she?’
Later Mary stood under the shower and scrubbed herself raw. Why did he assume anyone would forgive her father’s affair?
Rupert sounded desperate. ‘Please Mary. Come with me.”
Yes I know.’ Damn him, she thought; even after death her father controlled her.
Later as Rupert, her half-brother, fiddled with the hire car, she thought of her dad. Just the same. Efficient but a bit of a prat.
Her eyes stung; she swallowed. She wouldn’t give either of them the satisfaction.
They walked miles, in the shadow of the Cuillins. ‘Here.’ Rupert took out the urn. ‘You first.’
She scattered ash and heard music. Rupert’s ipod. Wild Theme. Dad’s favourite. Tears coursed her cheeks. She no longer cared who saw.
‘I was passing, Mary.’ He put a foot in the door. ‘We need to talk. My mother’s not well…’
‘Uncle Rupert!’ Penny pushed past her mother. ‘Come in!’
Rupert handed Penny a bag. ‘Peaches.’
‘You remembered.’ She hugged him, before biting into a succulent fruit. Juice dribble down her chin.
‘Get a cloth.’ Once Penny had disappeared to the kitchen, Mary said, ‘You will not buy your way into our lives.’
Penny bounced back, her cheeks smeared with sticky juice.
‘He can’t stay.’ Mary shut the door.
Penny glared at her mother ‘What’s wrong with you, Mum?’
‘Come on, Mum. They’re here.’
Following Penny, Mary eyed Rupert and his mother.
While Rupert and Penny bought drinks, Mary sat opposite Angela, surprised how Angela had aged.
Angela said, ‘Thank you for coming. I wanted you to have this. It was your grandma’s.’
The ring was beautiful. ‘Your father should never have given me it.’
Mary nodded. Her anger – how could he have given this to his mistress – was tempered by the touching gesture.’
‘He said the stones matched my eyes. Fool.’
‘Careful, Mum. Your face has cracked. That’s a smile.’
‘It’s not. It’s wind.’
Through the glass, darkly
Mary hated herself for her indifference to Angela’s, her late father’s mistress. She wanted to hate her but just felt empty.
In her father’s study she stood in front of the mirror, staring at his picture’s reflection. ‘Why, Dad?’
Water ran down the mirror, like tears, distorting his face. His lips moved. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Peter pushed through the miasma that separated his world from Mary’s, willing her to understand. They’d told him it would take all his courage, all his strength to make the bridge. If only he had had found the courage and strength before he died.
‘Rupert’s contesting the Will?’
‘Yes Mary. He says he and his mother were dependant on your father so should inherit something.’
Mary, her face neutral, seethed inside. Her bloody father and his affair. She couldn’t blame Rupert. He was just feeble.
The lawyer was waiting.
The lawyer looked surprised then smiled. Mary glared at him. He only cared about his fee.
She called her husband, Paul, and explained.
‘Well, if you’re sure. I didn’t realise you had it in you. Your Mum would be proud of you.’
Mary said nothing. She wasn’t doing this for her mother.
‘Mrs North? This is Penny’s form teacher, Miss Marks.’
‘Yes?’ Mary turned away so not as to be overheard.
‘Penny says her uncle is collecting her from school today. As we have never met him we like to check…’
‘What? Now, listen to me…’
Mary wished the solicitor wasn’t listening. When she finished, he asked, ‘Sorted?’
‘Far from it.’
‘Were you talking about Rupert?’
‘Yes, my bloody half-brother. I have to go.’ She stood and said, ‘He said Penny had asked to see his mother. Can you believe that?’
To Mary’s surprise he said, ‘Yes, I think I can.’
‘Leave me ALONE!’
The door bulged as it slammed shut. Mary’s daughter’s muffled sobs were replaced by Carly Simon.
‘What’s up?” Mary flinched when she felt her husband’s hand.
‘She hates me.’
Paul listened. ‘She’s got your taste in music.’
‘It’s not funny.’
‘Why would she hate you?’
Mary didn’t answer. She pressed against the wood. ‘What was that?’
‘I didn’t hear anything.’
When Mary opened the door, the room was empty, the window open. ‘See?’
‘But where’s she gone? What’s going on?’
‘Bloody Rupert, that’s where.’
Paul hesitated. ‘Oh for god’s sake. This has to end, Mary. Now.’
Something to chew on
‘Where are you going, Penny?’
‘Great Aunt Angela is dying…’
‘She’s not your Aunt.’
‘What is she then?’
Mary couldn’t say ‘Grandpa’s mistress’.
‘Please Mum. She’s old and ill.’ A tear slipped down Penny’s cheek.
Rupert answered. ‘Do you want to help with supper?’
Mary watched Penny spoon food into Angela’s slack mouth. She looked dreadful.
Rupert whispered urgently. ‘She needs proper care.’
Mary nodded, understanding why they had challenged her father’s will. ‘I…’
Angela started gagging, her eyes bulging. Rupert lunged for his mother as Mary pulled Penny from the room.
‘What have I done, Mum?’
Signposting the future
Mary sat in the pew, wishing she was anywhere but here. Her daughter leant on Paul, her father’s, arm. She ached not being able to comfort Penny but the truth was she didn’t care Angela was dead.
Three rows in front, Rupert shook in his grief. In half-profile, he looked like her father. His father too, though she hated that.
He turned and mouthed, ‘Thank you.’
Paul had called him typical Cancer, more worried about Penny than himself. She thought him a self-serving little shit. She stood for a hymn, willing this charade over. She was a typical Scorpio.
The Price of Freedom
‘When will you drop this vendetta, Mary?’
That’s what Paul had said. It wasn’t like she was free to choose. She hadn’t asked for an illegitimate half brother contesting their father’s will. She had been patient, tried to explain. But all Paul had said was, ‘What about me? What about Penny?’
It hurt, the suggestion she was dragging them along. She wanted to say it was her problem and she would sort it, but the gaunt look on Penny’s face told a different story. Her father had created this prison but she had taken her family inside with her.
‘We’ll be in the car.’ Paul and Penny, husband and daughter walked outside.
Mary closed her eyes, imagining a life without folds and shadows. Without lawyers and email and unwanted relations. She picked up her coat. Scotland and a break. A chance to stop thinking, to let in some light.
Penny waved hard, almost as if the draught would pull Mary over. Paul pointed up. ‘The blue skies won’t wait forever.’
Mary slammed the front door. ‘Blue skies?’ She smiled. ‘We’re going to Scotland, not the Seychelles.’
‘It’s not the location. The blue sky is in your smile, love.’
The fear of fear itself
‘What is it?’ Paul carried two wine glasses onto the terrace.
Mary pushed the paper across the table. A birth certificate.
Paul scanned it. ‘How long have you had this?’
‘I found it when I cleaned out Dad’s desk.’
‘It doesn’t mean anything.’
Mary looked away.
‘Peter loved you…’
‘Don’t.’ Mary slapped a midge harder than strictly necessary. ‘Why did he never say? He knew I’d find it.’
‘He didn’t expect to die. Maybe he planned…’
Mary stood, taking her glass. ‘Planned? He schemed.’
Paul, alone, re-read the paper. Mary was adopted. So only Rupert was Peter’s real child.
Head above water.
‘It’s lovely, dad.’ Penny ran to the yellow rowing boat. ‘Where are we going?’
Paul looked at his wife, Mary. ‘To say bye to grandpa. His ashes are scattered near here.’ He glanced at Mary. ‘Ok love?’
Mary’s eyes reflected the fathomless blue of the loch. She watched her daughter chat happily to the boatman. Did it matter if she was adopted or flesh and blood like Penny? It was about love, wasn’t it? Unconditional love. That’s what’s makes a parent and her father had given her that.
‘Let’s say goodbye. Properly this time. And then let’s go home.’
One step forward
Mary sorted through the holiday post; Paul made tea. He said, ‘The lawyers?’
‘What’s he want?’
‘He has dropped the court case.’
Paul sighed. ‘Thank God. That’s it then, is it?’
Mary folded the letter carefully. Why did he think everything could be so neatly tied up? Had he forgotten she was adopted? Rupert, her half-brother was her Father’s only natural child.
‘Are you ok, love?’
She let herself be held. ‘I need to know, Paul.’
Paul stroked her hair.
Mary wiped her eyes. ‘We’d better have him round.’
Paul shivered as a cloud crossed the sun.
‘Penny needs cheering up. She’s been miserable since Scotland.’
Paul touched his wife quickly. ‘Course not. But we did promise.’
Mary nodded. For sure they needed to do something. ‘Does he have a name?’
‘Penny can choose.’
‘He’s mine? Wow!’
‘You can name him.’
Penny said immediately. ‘Peter. Look, he has grandpa’s eyebrows.’
Mary stared. It was true. They were just like her late father’s. The dog held her gaze and winked. No-one else noticed. Mary spoke slowly. ‘When did you say he was born?’
‘Four months ago.’
Mary nodded. When her father died.
Walking the Dog
The rutted path made Mary stumble; she didn’t mind. Cursing the dog was like cursing her father; good for her lungs and it let her think.
She had seen Rupert. He said Peter was her real father which meant he had an affair before the one with Angela, Rupert’s mother. Oddly it didn’t shock Mary; any more than that the woman she called ‘mother’ had accepted Mary as her own.
Mary imagined her mother’s reaction: calm, practical, no emotion; nothing to upset her ordered existence. Mary was different. She kicked the tyre tracks. She would find her real mother.
The beat of a butterfly’s wing
Peter the dog dropped the ball at Mary’s feet. Mary smiled. “It was your predecessor that started this, you know.”
The dog wagged his tail. When would she throw it?
“Him dying, dad’s heart. That kick started all this.”
One silly mistake, not leaving the car window open, had unleashed chaos.
Mary hurled the ball as far as she could. She knew it would come back to her. The ball was hers to control now. Only she could bring order. While Peter searched in the grass she pulled out the copy email. Her birth certificate. The hunt was on.
Taking the Piss
‘Closer Uncle Rupert! You too Mum.’ Penny waved for Mary to move nearer.
Reluctantly Mary and her half-brother stood side by side.
While Penny adjusted her camera, he whispered, ‘How’s the mother hunt going?’
Mary detected a smirk in his voice.
‘You worked out father’s secret yet?’
Mary began to speak when she noticed some spilled tea had left an embarrassing stain by his fly.
She surprised him by taking his arm. ‘Try now, Penny.’
She hoped the angle worked. In any case, she intended to ensure he pissed himself for real by the time she finished her research.
Mary hesitated before opening the email. Dare she look? She’d had enough shocks already. She regretted rising to Rupert’s jibes. Her bloody half-brother.
‘Mandy Johns is your mum, right? Well she’s also my mum’s cousin.’
He told Mary. ‘She died of eclampsia hours after you were born.’
He showed her a photo; Angela and Mandy were almost identical.
‘There’s more,’ he’d said but she’d thought, ‘Sod you, I’ll not rely on you anymore.’
It had taken her weeks. She scanned the email.
….our records show in 1967 Amanda Johns gave birth to twin girls….
Mary ran for the toilet.
Sweet and sour smoke
‘Mum, are you smoking?’
Mary dropped the cigarette, grinding it out. ‘Sorry, love.’
‘I thought you’d given up?’
‘I had. I…’
Mary marvelled at how like Mary’s mother Penny sounded. She had had a way of tightening her mouth emphasising each syllable; Penny was the same. Mary smiled. It was oddly comforting, having someone else take charge.
Penny held a little bottle. ‘I’m putting this on the cigarettes. Like you did to stop me chewing my nails.’
Later when Mary lit up, she felt real joy; such a sour taste had never tasted so sweet.
Hanging the decorations
‘Let’s do the decorations today, mum.’ Penny rubbed her hands. She loved the tradition of dressing the tree.
While Mary fetched the box and Paul put the tree in the stand, Penny disappeared to her room. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘Uncle Rupert gave it to me. He got it from Grandpa.’
Mary googled at the hand carved Santa hanging from red string. Didn’t her half-brother realise how this much would hurt?
‘Let me,’ she said.
While Paul fixed the star and Penny the tinsel, Mary coiled the string into a noose, hiding the loop in a groove. ‘All done.’
‘Be an angel.’ Mary held out a tray to her daughter.
When Penny left Rupert said, ‘I wasn’t expecting an invite after what happened.’
Mary swallowed; she wanted to say it was only because of Penny.
‘Peace offering.’ He smiled sheepishly.
As Mary opened the parcel he added, ‘Dad’s diary. They were in a box in mum’s attic. I found them a week ago.’
- The year she was adopted. Why had Angela – her Dad’s mistress – had his diaries and not her mother? She flicked it open and read her dad’s spindly script. ‘An angel granted our wish today…’
Mary let the last rays of the year’s sun warm her face. Paul held her hand. ‘Bit of an annus horribilis,’ he said.
‘New year’s resolutions?’
‘Find this twin sister I’m meant to have.’
‘She’s probably dead. They’d have kept you together, surely?’
‘Now maybe. Not back then.’
‘Bury the hatchet with Rupert?’
Her loathsome half-brother. ‘Maybe.’
Paul held out a box. ‘I know it’s early but twenty years married means platinum.’
She held up the ring, smiling. ‘Grandma’s?’
‘Yes. The band was so worn I had the stones reset.’
Mary kissed her husband. ‘My diamond geezer.’
Paul approached Mary, standing by the rockery. He said, ‘All clear. We can sell your dad’s house at last.’
Something in her stance made him hesitate. He noticed the strewn rocks. ‘What happened?’
‘I thought I’d have one last look at the garden.’ She stifled a sob.
Paul squeezed her shoulder.
‘… I saw him. Just there.’ She pointed at the earth.
‘I know it wasn’t really him. But then I saw these rocks had fallen. I went to put them back and…’
Paul looked where she pointed. Small bones poked out of the ground. ‘Bloody hell.’
Mary watched the policeman step carefully around the rocks. Peter the spaniel scratched the glass, wanting to join the digging.
‘Mrs North? Can we continue?’
Mary ground out the cigarette and sat at the table.
The policewoman said, ‘You have a twin?’
‘I think so. We’ve never met.’ She squeezed her nose.
‘We don’t know if the bones are human yet.’
Mary nodded. They would be.
‘How long did you parents live here?’
‘My paternal grandfather built the house in 1929.’ The door opened; another policeman waved the questioner outside. Mary heard, ‘There’s another one’ before the door closed.
I am Mary
Mary studied the grains in the table top, like they contained a hidden message; if she concentrated hard there would be some explanation for the whys and whens that pushed at the inside of her head, thoughts like a drowning child clawing, scratching desperate to find a way out. The clock slipped silently into an uncertain future. What had the policemen found? Were they human remains? Surely they were just long forgotten pets? Couldn’t they just tell her that? If she knew that she could work on another thought.
‘Mrs North. Can we take a swab? For DNA testing?’
Mary let the sun caress her. Paul watched, worried and she said, “Do you ever know another person? I thought I knew dad. He was my hero. Omnipotent. The war, the battles with illness. Sanitised snippets, like a highlights show. Some doubts, little dustballs in the corner – they made him fallible, more human, you know? They were never so bad I couldn’t forgive him. Always. But this? He’s dead and there’s this whole other him I knew nothing about. Adulterer, father of my twin who might be buried in the garden. What am I going to do, Paul? What?”
Deeper than the witching hour
What woke her, she couldn’t say. Sitting on the toilet, peeing away her dreams, Mary sensed movement in the shadows from the street light. ‘Hallo?’ Who said that?
Some part of her brain her told her to be scared, but she wasn’t. Whoever spoke was friendly. How did she know the speaker was a she?
‘Hallo Mary. It’s Sharon.’
But you’re dead.
‘Not to you’
No. Where are you?
‘I’m here. I’ve always been here. That’s what twins do. Stay close.’
How did you die? How…?
‘Mary, Mary. Wake up. Why are you shouting? Who’s died?’
Good news? Bad news?
Mary sat, conscious of her hands vibrating. ‘Am I mad, doctor?’
‘Mad? No.’ Dr Penfold tapped at the keyboard. ‘The blood test was fine. You’re a healthy woman.’ He paused. ‘You might be anxious. You are…’ Another pause. ‘You’re pregnant.’
Mary nodded slowly. She felt herself float, watching the scene from above. The doctor’s eyebrow rose, testing the news to see if it was good or bad. The sweat on her neck, chilling in a light breeze. A voice filled her head, a comforting voice. Mary replied. ‘Shh Sharon.’ Her twin, her dead twin breathed again and Mary shivered.
Aunt you worried?
‘Aunt Gloria, can you really read tea leaves?’
‘Yes, Penny. Easy.’
The girl watched while she made a pot and poured four cups. Mary stared outside, lost in her own world. Paul, Penny’s dad smiled as he drank.
‘You will have a new boyfriend by May.’ Gloria smiled; Penny scowled. Gloria looked at Paul’s dregs. ‘You’ll lose something important. Probably the second time.’
Penny smiled, ‘Your wallet! Again.’
Gloria eased Mary’s cup from her. She frowned. ‘Mary, you must ignore her.’
‘Who?’ Penny looked anxious.
‘Sharon. Mary’s imaginary friend.’
Mary looked amazed while Paul sighed. ‘Please no. Not again.’
An arm outstretched
‘Your mum never knew.’ Mary’s Aunt Gloria sipped tea. ‘About the twin.’
‘I don’t know her name. Sharon was your imaginary friend.’
‘Do you know what happened to her?’ Mary shivered; she hadn’t told Gloria about the bones in the garden. ‘She is dead, isn’t she?’
Gloria sighed. ‘Have you asked Rupert?’
Her hated half-brother.
Gloria wiped her mouth. ‘This is killing you, isn’t it? Come on, let’s go and see him and get to the bottom of all this.’ She enveloped Mary in her grandmotherly bosom. ‘Poor thing. Your dad was many things, but not a monster.’
‘How did it go?’
Mary sat still, a grin slipping unbidden across her face. ‘Gloria made me feel lighter, you know?’
Paul nodded. ‘Did you learn much?’
‘No. But I don’t mind. I think, even if those bones are my twin… well let’s see.’
Paul let her speak in her own time.
‘No one knows if she’s alive. I believe Rupert. Dad’s diaries don’t mention her, only me. It looks like Mum knew who my birth mother was, though not Dad’s… affair.’
‘Can we bottle Gloria?’
Mary hugged her husband. ‘From here on, I just need you and Penny.’
Deep pools, strong eddies
The little coracle spun in circles, whirlpooling towards destruction.
‘Mary. You were away with the fairies.’
Mary turned off the tap and dried her hands, watching the dirty suds disappear down the plughole.
‘It’s the police. They’re in the lounge.’
Mary nodded. She steadied herself, suppressing the drowning feeling.
‘Mrs North,’ the sergeant looked sombre. ‘As I said, they are human remains but the child is not a relative.’
Mary felt a flood of relief. ‘Who?’
‘We don’t know but from the DNA the child is African and…’ he coughed. ‘We think he may have been a ritual killing.’
Colouring the memory
‘I thought you’d thrown that dress away?’
‘I just wanted something bright.’ Mary flattened a rough crease with nervy fingers.
‘Will you be alright on your own?’
Mary didn’t answer. Logic said yes; she knew nothing of the dead child. But her stomach churned. What did the police think about her father’s role?
Paul smiled. ‘The blue suits you. Matches…’
Paul nodded. ‘Ok, let’s say turquoise.’
Mary started to smile then burst into tears. Paul stroked his wife’s hair. ‘Shh.’
Gulping air she said, ‘Mum’s favourite broach was studded with turquoise stones. I miss her so badly.’
Blood will out
‘Have the police told you?’
‘Yes Rupert. They have interviewed me…’
‘So why not tell me? Christ Mary, our father wasn’t some religious nutter.’
‘I know, but they…’
‘They said you called them, that you found the body?’
‘Yes. We were preparing for the sale…’
‘And no word to me? Dumping me in it like this? They pulled me out at work, you know?’
‘I’m sorry.’ Mary squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t need Rupert’s hectoring. ‘Why not come round? We can decide what to do.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘He was our father. That makes us family, doesn’t it?’
Know your father
In her dreams, Mary saw her father standing by the rockery while an unidentified man buried the child’s torso. Even in the dream she knew her father wasn’t involved in the killing or the mutilation but why was he there at all? She told her half-brother.
‘He trusted people. They took advantage.’
At first Mary thought Rupert mad but after a while she saw what he meant. For a year after her mother died he would help anyone who needed it – a charity overload. For a time the house was full of all sorts. Maybe one of them..
‘I’m sorry Madam. We have to dig up every part. There may be more bodies. ‘
Mary shuddered. Not just the idea of more deaths but also the destruction of her parents pride and joy. The policeman was still talking. ‘When was the cherry planted?’
Mary hesitated. She knew exactly. On the fifth anniversary of her mother’s death. When they’d decided to use her ashes as the first foodstuff. She explained.
Even the policeman looked pained. ‘I’ll see if we can re-pot it for you.’
Mary couldn’t stop the tears. So much death yet losing this tree mattered most? Why?
Darkest before the dawn
Mary stared at what was once her parents’ garden but now looked like the Somme. Figures in white suits, like choreographed aliens moved slowly between trenches. A group were struggling to raise a tent to protect the current working area.
She heard her half-brother say, ‘They’ve not found anything. The detective said they should be finished by the weekend.’
Mary watched the clouds roll in, the first of the promised rain dropping on the turned earth. Finished by the weekend? ‘It’ll never be finished.’
Her husband put his arms around her waist. ‘Yes it will; you wait and see.’
Listing towards the future
Mary didn’t like lists; her father’s endless lists dominated her childhood.
Today they were the only way to manage her tumultuous life. Penny’s schooling, book-keeping for Paul, the police, her father’s estate. Even Rupert her irritating half brother. She gave each a heading, listing their needs.
She took her pad and pencil outside to enjoy the sunshine; she ignored the despoliation of her parents’s garden. The police had been thorough; every inch was dug.
She turned the pencil over and rubbed out the full stop after ‘Rupert’; she added a semicolon.
On a new line she wrote ‘Me’.
Better than par.
Mary didn’t know where to start restoring her parents’ garden, now the police had finished. There were the terracotta edging pieces for the flowerbeds, the plants and turfs, roughly stacked in a corner. The police hadn’t said anything about helping. And now Paul had gone away on business.
Just what she didn’t need. Her half-brother. She could just make out his eyes, like an old-fashioned Chad, peering over the gate.
She pulled it open. Rupert stood back, grinning. “I told them at the golf club about the mess. They all admired dad so they said they’d help.”
‘Paul? What are you watching?’
Mary’s husband closed his laptop. ‘I just clicked a link. It…’
‘Paul?’ Mary could hide her horror. Tears speckled her lashes. She watched his mouth open and close before she hurried away. She didn’t grab her coat or close the front door but kept walking. All she could think was ‘how could he?’
He found her in the shelter overlooking the beach. She wouldn’t look at him. ‘Was that porn?’ It was said to hurt and it did.
‘What do you think? Don’t you know me?’
Did she know anyone? Her father? Her husband?
Choose any colour
‘I was researching ritual killings. I wanted to know more about the boy they found. Why..?’
‘They were having sex.’
Paul closed his eyes. ‘Yes. I’d only just clicked on the link. They were communing with the devil. They kill young boys to pacify…’
‘You didn’t have to watch. You…’
‘Christ, Mary, it’s not like I fancied any of them.’
She glared. ‘Why? Because they’re black?’
Paul gripped the table. ‘No, because they’re not you.’
Mary shuddered, sobbing. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Me too. He was someone’s child, someone loved him.’ He rubbed her stomach. ‘Like we will love ours.’
Mary saw the gynaecologist. ‘I’m worried about your weight, Mrs North. It’s fluctuating a lot.’
Mary listened but stayed silent.
‘Are you sleeping alright?’
No, but she said nothing.
‘At your age, pregnancy is potentially more, erm, challenging. You need to take more care of yourself. Both of you.
Mary nodded. She thought about her list, where she had added ‘me’. She realised it should have been ‘us’.
She broke from her daydream. The picture was becoming clear.
He pointed. ‘Long legs.’
‘Like my father.’
‘Do you want to know the sex?’
‘It’s a boy, isn’t it?’
Rupert called, ‘She’s taken a turn for the worse. Her cancer is back.’
Mary dreaded visiting. Letting herself in, Gloria’s call was as usual cheery. But her face was grey. She say Mary looking. ‘Cheekbones like Garbo. About time.’
Mary wept and felt guilty that it was Gloria comforting her. ‘Who will I talk to?’
‘Paul’s a rock. Rupert too…’
Mary shook her off.
‘God’s still here.’
‘I don’t believe in him anymore.’
Gloria put a hand on Mary’s stomach. ‘I’m here, every time you need me. Just talk, dear and we’ll be listening.’
‘I’ll try. Both of you.’
Unraveling he knots in life’s knitting
Rupert looked smug, Mary thought but bit her tongue for Paul’s sake.
Rupert took his time. ‘We know you were one of twins. I have found the birth certificate.’
Mary looked up. ‘Sharon?’
Rupert shook his head. ‘Katherine.’
Mary felt a huge sense of loss; she was so sure. Aunt Gloria said it was just Mary’s childhood imaginary friend.
‘Is she’s dead?’
‘It’s not that easy – it’s not an uncommon name – Katherine Johns.’ But he was smiling
‘What about adoption?’
Rupert pushed an official looking slip towards Mary. Paul nudged her, ‘Good grief, go on before we all self-asphyxiate.’
‘Remember this one?’ Paul held out a photo.
‘It was a Sunday. You caught the sun, out on the water.’
Paul nodded. ‘We should take the children.’ He looked pointedly at Mary’s stomach.
Mary traced the steps to the water with her finger. ‘Do you think she’s still there?’
‘Rupert will find out.’
Mary held Paul’s hand. ‘I can’t believe she was living in the same village we stayed in on our honeymoon. We might…’ Her eyes filled.
Paul said quickly, ‘Remember that woman renting the finishing tackle…’
Mary stared. ‘Yes! You commented on her eyes.’
‘Green like yours.’
‘Can you drive, Paul? My stomach is getting in the way.’
‘Not long now, Mary.’
‘Not soon enough. My ribs feel tenderised.’
Paul held the car door. ‘Sure you’re ok with this?’
‘I want to see the family home one last time before it’s sold.’
‘Well, lookee there. The rambler’s in flower.’
‘Dad loved this; an old English rose he called it. Its scent is… OW.’
‘Those thorns are vicious. Mary, you ok?’
‘Hmm. It’s gone right into the knuckle. Damn. It’s swelling already.’
‘Paul, I’m feeling odd. Can you get me some water? I…’
A wing and a prayer.
‘It was an allergic reaction to the rose spray.’ Paul explained to the neighbours. ‘She needs rest.’
Mary sighed. People were kind but couldn’t they leave her alone? She could barely stand unaided just now; Paul set her up, with a blanket and a book and left her to enjoy the feeble sunshine.
Yesterday, she had watched the blue tits feeding their young. Today she noticed movement by the fox gloves. She shuffled to the flowerbed, feeling shaky. A small chick had fallen. It took all her strength to slip it into the nest. Would the little thing survive?
A book of memories
‘Seen this?’ Mary held up a battered book.
Paul took it, reading the title. ‘Nursery rhymes and children’s games. This yours?’
‘I remember dad reading from it, even after I was too old. He just loved making silly voices.’
‘You’ll be able to do the same for our baby.’
‘I wonder what he was thinking, when he read to me? About my twin?’
Paul opened the front cover, squinting at the faded writing. ‘To Mary and Sharon. Much love Gloria.’
Mary grabbed it from him. ‘I don’t remember this.’ She met Paul’s gaze.
‘Your imaginary friend?’
‘Or my twin?’
‘Are you Mary North?’
‘Sorry to disturb. We’ve bought 52 Rose Street. And, well, we found this.’
The woman fumbled in her bag, smiling apologies. ‘We’re doing a few things. Modernising, you know. We’ve been clearing out the attic. Filthy of course.’
Mary felt her embarrassment. She knew she was removing Mary’s parents from their home.
‘It’s a locket. There’s a catch…’
Suddenly, the pewter pendant sprang open, revealing a sepia picture of two chubby babies.
‘Is one you?’
Mary caressed the silky smooth surface and nodded. One of these girls was her twin.
‘Were you identical twins?’
‘You’re getting warmer…’
Rupert, Mary’s half-brother, wiped his forehead. ‘Too dammed hot for me.’
Mary smiled. ‘Me too. Heat and pregnancy don’t mix. Penny loves it, though. Dad did too.’
Rupert nodded. ‘So Paul said you’ve found some things about your twin?’
Mary showed him the locket and the book. ‘She was Sharon. Aunt Gloria lied when she said that was my imaginary friend.’
‘Don’t be hard on her. She had reasons. And we’ve something to work on.’
‘True.’ Mary rubbed her back. ‘I suppose we might just be getting warm at last.’
‘Rupert nodded. ‘Soon we’ll be very hot. You see.’
Mary allowed herself a long slow breath, a sign of taking control back over her body. The midwife touched her hand and Mary opened her eyes. ‘A girl.’
She felt Paul move from her side. Mary held her breath until he appeared holding out their daughter. She gasped at the angry red wrinkled face. ‘She’s just like you,’ he said, laughing.
Mary stared at the furious face. She reminded her of her father. The child’s expression changed, colour draining as she struggled to breathe. Then, before anyone could move she coughed away her breathlessness and, to her mother, smiled.
Refracting one life through the prism of another’s
‘This is my niece? Beautiful.’ Rupert smiled, his smile clearly genuine.
Mary hesitated then held out her arms. Rupert took the child expertly. He put a gentle kiss on her head. ‘Thank you, Mary. Sharing your family means a lot. I…’
She put a hand on his sleeve. ‘Shh. It doesn’t matter. Not now.’
He fumbled in his pocket. ‘I’ve been through father’s journals. I found a picture of you and…’
Mary raised her face to him. ‘That doesn’t matter either.’
‘No, not to you. I get that.’ He turned and said to himself. ‘But it does to me.’
An empty chair
‘Don’t sit there.’ Rupert, her half-brother’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. ‘It’s for… It’s her’s.’
Mary knew he meant Sharon, their long missing sister, without him saying. ‘Why Rupert? Are you doing this for me? Because you don’t…’
‘No.’ He spoke sharply. ‘For you, me, her, dad…’
‘He’s a victim, too.’
‘He’s the reason…’
‘No, Mary. We don’t know, do we? Not all the whys and whatevers.’
‘He abandoned her. I know it. I…’
‘You don’t know. You can’t. And until we find her, her story, our story, that chair will remind us not to judge.’
Offering a hand
Penny pointed to what seemed like a heap of leaves.
Gradually Mary’s eyes saw what her daughter saw. A small bird, sat still but not lifeless.
‘It’s fallen. Can we help it?’
Mary checked; the nest was empty. ‘I think it’s been abandoned. Best..’
‘No! We must do something.’
Summers peeled away and she was ten again; her father picked up the blackbird they hit with their car. She sat with it, nursing it. It was hopeless but her father had understood she had to try.
‘Of course.’ She thought of her missing twin; had someone picked her up?
Back to the future
‘Sore?’ Paul massaged Mary’s back.
‘Hmm. I need a better chair.’
‘What you reading?’
‘Rupert’s notes. He’s determined to find my twin.’
‘What’s he found?’
‘She was definitely Katherine not Sharon. That’s my imaginary friend. Katharine was adopted by a family called Potts.’
‘They moved to Ireland in 1984. He’s going to see what he can find. He wants me to go too.’
‘What about you?’
‘Would you mind? I’d take the baby but you’ll have Penny.’
‘You know I’ll do whatever you need?’
‘Course. Covering your back has always been my priority.’
Know your onions
‘Two onions please, Penny.’ Paul waited. ‘That’s disappointing.’
‘They’re all shrivelled. Why, dad?’
Paul shrugged. ‘Don’t know. I did the same last year and they were huge. Nature’s always throwing up surprises, not all good.’
Mary thanked Rupert, her half-brother and closed her phone. He was trying so hard to find her lost sister. She’d underestimated him. When they met, after she realised her father had had an affair, she’d hated him. He seemed condescending and untrustworthy. But he wasn’t, just unsure. They were both victims of their father’s selfishness. Sometimes life throws up surprises, not all bad.
Mary peered out of the tent at the rain. ‘More like a waterfall,’ she thought, given rain should come in drops. Behind her Penny squealed ‘snap’! followed by a groan from her husband Paul. Mary squinted at where their car sat. Between it and the tent the grass had gone, replaced by a moat. Any moment, she thought and they’d float. She rocked her baby and smiled.
A hand touched her shoulder. ‘Perfect break, eh?’ Paul nibbled her neck and she shivered. ‘Gross, dad.’ Penny pushed him and he rolled over, laughing.
Her family: Mary was saturated with love.
In another’s shoes
Paul put down the phone. ‘The police. They wanted us to know that child they found – it wasn’t a ritual killing. The family had come from West Africa; it was their way of burying their dead.’
‘But the child had been dismembered.’ Mary shuddered. ‘I don’t understand it.’
‘If you’ve been brought up in a culture where it’s the only way to behave, how do you know different?’
‘You just should. It’s barbaric.’
‘It wasn’t that long ago we drowned witches. Maybe we need to empathise a little more, love. Put ourselves in their shoes.’
Mary nodded uncertainly.
The Scent of the Past
Penny ran into Mary’s bedroom. ‘Mum, where’s that green scarf?’
‘Where did you put it?’
‘It was, like, April, mum.’
‘There’s that red one…’
‘It was Grandpa’s.’
‘It’s only a scarf.’
‘It’s all I have left of him.’
Mary held her daughter. ‘There’s all that’s in here.’ She tapped Penny’s head. ‘You never lose that. You might think you’ve forgotten what he looks like, but then you smell something – tiramisu and he’s there pulling that face.’
Penny laughed. ‘He hated that. He said it was like eating dung.’
Mary nodded. If only she hadn’t lost her faith in him.
‘I hate you!’
Mary watched her daughter run indoors in tears. In an instant she was back thirty plus years to a similar argument with her mother over being dressed ‘inappropriately’.
She petted the dog who offered her two devoted brown eyes. ‘Are you the only one whose love is unconditioned?’ The dog nodded; she laughed.
‘What’s funny?’ Paul put the tea down.
‘Why are dumb animals the only ones who don’t make you work for their love?’
Paul eased himself onto the floor next to the dog and looked up at his wife. ‘Who are you calling dumb?’
‘How did Milton die, Mum?’
Mary blinked at her daughter. ‘Milton? Grandpa’s dog?’
‘He died the same day as Grandpa, didn’t he?’
Mary hesitated, shifting the baby’ weight. ‘The heat. Grandpa never expected to be more than a minute posting his letter…’
‘Did he suffer?’
Charlotte started mewling and Mary offered her her little finger. Did Penny mean her father or Milton? ‘I don’t think either did.’
Penny’s usually smooth forehead puckered. Instantly, Mary felt guilty. It was much easier at Charlotte’s age. Having to grow up and face reality was hard.
‘Mum, I want to become a vet.’
Mary didn’t move. She stared at her old family home. ‘Why are we here?’
‘Coincidence. The Shaws live at 52.’
‘You could have warned me.’
Paul took her elbow. ‘Come on; we’re late. You can stare in the windows when we leave.’
She rounded on him. ‘I don’t care about their taste in wallpaper, Paul.’
He blocked her view of number 12. ‘I thought you’d be interested not spooked.’
How to explain when she didn’t understand herself. It wasn’t the bricks and tiles she saw, but the memories, the ghosts trapped in the shadows and reflected in the glass.
The benefit of the doubt
‘Hey, what are you doing?’
Mary turned at her daughter’s voice. Immediately her maternal instincts rose alongside her hackles. ‘Let her go!’
A shop assistant pulled Penny away from the fruit section.
‘Are you her mother?’
‘I most certainly am. What…?’
‘She was stealing the grapes.’
‘I was just trying one, Mum. It…’
‘Penny! How could you? I’m terribly sorry.’
‘This time, madam….’
‘Yes of course.’
In the car, ‘Penny you know that was wrong…’
‘Grandpa always tasted the grapes to make sure they were sweet. No one stopped him. It’s not fair.’
‘No, Penny, it isn’t.’
The luck of the Irish
Mary climbed into the cab, while Rupert went to the far side. She wondered if this whole trip to Dublin to try and find her twin was a mistake. At least being with Rupert had, so far, been easy. Fun even. Though leaving Charlotte and Penny hurt.
‘So what are you two planning?’ The cabbie sounded cheerful. ‘Bit of romance?’
Mary snorted a laugh and Rupert joined in. She said, ‘We’re siblings. Looking for a long lost relative.’
‘Yes. Katherine Potts.’
The cabbie laughed. ‘Never. My aunt is Kate Potts. She’s English. Adopted…’
Mary shook her head. ‘Coincidence…’
At last. At rest.
Jerry stopped the cab. ‘Don’t be shocked.’
‘About Katherine. She’s different.’
Rupert gripped Mary’s hand, whether for his or her comfort she didn’t know.
‘She’s had a hard time. Fostered several times, adopted twice.’
Rupert sounded angry. ‘Why?’
Jerry pulled a face. ‘No one’s fault, she was born like it. It was long ago, across the sea.’ He shrugged.
Mary stared at the rain on the windscreen, her father’s words echoing down the years. ‘My perfect angel.’ Was that why they kept her, not Katherine?
‘She found a final resting place with my grandparents.’
Fishing for the Truth
Mary sat, holding Katherine’s hand. The woman stroked Mary’s fingers. Jerry and Rupert hung back.
Katherine’s 80 year old mother entered the room with a tea tray. Katherine stopped her stroking and clapped her hands. Mrs Potts explained, ‘She loves giving the cups to visitors. The tea is quite cool because she’ll probably spill a little. It’s a good distraction.’
‘You needn’t.’ Mary hated this.
Mrs Potts smiled. ‘We’ve thought about finding out about her background but assumed, you know, given the way she is. Now, where’s the swab. Katherine, open your mouth. I just want a little wipe.’
A frozen moment
Mary’s hands shook; the feather-light envelope seemed heavy in her fingers. Part of her wanted to run: home, away, anywhere. Part wanted to see proof of what she felt to be true; that Katherine – the happy smiley Katherine of hugs and sighs – was her sister. She and Rupert had hardly had enough time to understand her and her family, yet she had taken a piece of Mary’s heart.
She opened the door; five faces stared at her, like some family diorama in the Museum. A frozen moment, heavy with portent.
She slid her finger along the seal.
Mary imagined the eyes boring through the lounge door. It opened and Rupert stepped out.
‘Yes. How are they?’
‘Not sure. Stunned. What do you want to do?’
‘I should go on, shouldn’t I? I didn’t realise how this would affect me. One minute I have a sister, the next she’s a stranger. And they think I’m a fraud, getting their hopes up.’
‘They do. I’m to be her carer, once they’d gone. A prayer answered they said.’
‘You should go home. You need some peace.’
‘I won’t forget Katherine. I need to tell them.’
Dancing back to the future
‘They led you a merry dance, over that DNA test.’
‘It was tragic really. Her parents invested so much hope in the result…’
‘I suppose. Katherine really was sweet. Oh Paul…’
Paul held Mary as the tears flowed. She whispered into his ear. ‘I will find my sister. I will.’
In the background, a song came on the radio. Paul eased Mary to her feet. ‘Remember this?’
She smiled. ‘The Palais. 1991. You were drunk.’
Slowly, clumsily they circled the living-room floor, each recalling a past moment when the future seemed closer than right now.
What’s the bigger crime?
‘Everybody does it.’ Penny’s face told of her fury.
‘Illegal downloads are a crime. It’s piracy…’
Penny made a ‘W’ sign and stormed out.
Later Mary knocked and entered Penny’s bedroom. ‘What is it? Come on, I know you.’
Penny avoided eye contact, shrugging. ‘Like you care what I do? I get you have to look after Charlotte but traipsing all the way to Ireland? What about me?’
Mary stroked her daughter’s foot, pleased she let her. ‘Ok but that doesn’t excuse theft…’
Penny snatched her foot away, tears forming. ‘She’s the thief, stealing you. Your sister’s the pirate.’
The world next door
‘The new neighbours have arrived. They’ve two girls. Har… and… Jai…’ Mary grimaced. ‘I didn’t really catch their names.
Penny rolled her eyes. ‘God you’re such a racist, mum.’
‘Penny! That’s awful. They’re just a bit unusual.’
‘You call Mr Khan, Mr Can. And..’
‘Nonsense. Anyway, I’m pleased they’ve come…’
‘Well I know something you don’t. They’re Sikh.’
‘I saw a man with a turban earlier. Kiran told us about that in class.’
Mary laughed. ‘I’ve a lot to learn. Shall we take them something? Jam?’
‘Muuuum. Chocolates and wine.’
‘Wine? Do they…?’
‘Oh yes, Kiran said…’
‘You remember what you gave me last year?’ Mary adjusted her paper hat.
‘Dad’s diaries. Did you read them all?’ Rupert, her half-brother squashed a belch. ‘They were pretty mundane.’
‘He revealed more than he intended. Mostly daily minutiae but then he’d agonise about mum, or me. Knowing the background now you can see what he was thinking.’
‘But he hid the important things. What happened to our sister.’
‘It’s darkest before dawn.’
Rupert smiled. ‘So you still want to find her?’
‘We have to. It’s the only way to lighten the load I’ve been carrying this year.’
Supporting local industry
‘Mrs North. Jasmine and Penny have been plotting I understand.’
Mary looked at her next door neighbour, a petite, strong jawed woman with deep unreadable eyes. ‘Please it’s Mary.’
‘Jasmine said you needed help in your café and I mentioned…’
‘I’d love it, if you can spare the time. Pay’s not great…’
‘Don’t you need references? I’ve not done this before and…’
Hansa took Mary’s hand. ‘Honestly a familiar face would be so welcome while we get up to speed. But are you sure?’
Mary smiled. ‘I always make a point of supporting local industry. I’d love to.’
The café was quiet; Mary took the mug from Hansa. ‘Mum would be horrified.’
Hansa wiped the table. ‘Why Mary?’
‘A mug not a cup, milk in second.’
‘Mine hates me working. Quite the rebels, aren’t we?’
‘We fought constantly,’ Mary sighed. ‘It’ll be different with Penny.’
‘Don’t you think the fights toughened you?’
‘I suppose. I just wish she could have admitted she was wrong once in a while.’
‘I wonder what Penny will say.’
Mary smiled, ‘Oh she already thinks I’m wrong all the time. At least, when I make mistakes with Penny, they’ll be different ones.’
The Truth behind the Myth
‘Once upon a time…’
‘Please, mum, give me a break.’
‘I was talking to Lotte, Penny.’
‘Can I tell her a story, mum?’
Mary smiled. ‘Sure.’ She snuggled the baby and closed her eyes.’
‘Once upon a time, there were two sisters and one went missing. The other was determined to find her lost sister so she gave up everything, neglected everyone to find her.’
Mary shuddered. Is that how Penny sees things?
‘Finally, despite every setback she found her darling and brought her home. And everyone understood and lived happily…’
Mary hugged her daughter, soaking her with her tears.
Sometimes a dog’s the best listener
‘How old was grandpa’s dog when he died.’
‘Milton? 77 in dog years.’
‘Same as Grandpa.’
‘And Peter’s my age in dog years.’
Mary looked at her daughter’s worried face. ‘And you’re both young and healthy.’
‘That’s a coincidence isn’t it?’
‘I don’t want him to die.’
Mary watched Penny draw another circle. She wondered what had brought this on. Finally Penny stood and sat in the dog’s basket. ‘Listen Pete. If you die then I’ll be sad but we have to try and be happy.’ She looked at her mother. ‘That’s right, mum, isn’t it?’
Bad luck comes in threes. Overnight rain, a burst water main and a blocked drain. Hansa’s cafe flooded. The mess, the stench, when Mary arrived were dreadful. Hansa sat on a chair, stoney-faced. ‘This will take forever. I’m not sure I have the energy.’
It wasn’t a one man job. ‘You call the insurers. Leave this to me.’
‘Go. Now.’ Once alone Mary called Rupert her half-brother. ‘You remember the posse you organised to clear Dad’s garden last summer? I need them for a friend?’ Mary explained the problem.
‘On it now. Put the kettle on.’
Powerful bureaucracies across the generations
‘Mum, why can’t I go. It’s not fair.’
‘Mr Johnson, why can’t we have seats outside? It’s not fair.’
‘Penny, I understand but it’s just the way it is.’
‘Mrs North I understand, but those are the rules.’
‘But Joey’s mum spoke to school and they agreed…’
‘But the cafe next door has permission…’
‘The school rules are clear…’
‘The highway regulations state…’
‘Mummmm. Why can Joey go and I can’t?’
‘What did they do to be favoured…?’
‘Sometimes that’s just the way it is, Penny.’
‘I hope you’re not suggesting impropriety…’
‘I hate you!’
‘If the cap fits…’
Heart of the matter
‘This health check is routine for a woman of your age…’
Mary growled inwardly.
‘… a blood test, a stool sample, BP, heart and lungs, your BMI score.’
The doctor wrapped the blood test band around her bicep and studied the read out. ‘147 over 87. That’s rather high, Mrs North. Have there been any changes in your lifestyle recently?’
Mary knew. The change sat on her bedside table. A letter from the private detective she and Rupert her brother had employed in Ireland to track down her sister. It was enough to make anyone’s heart start to race.
Lending a hand
‘Shh.’ Mary stilled the grizzling baby. ‘She’s teething. You don’t mind?’
‘Libraries can’t afford to these days. Do you need a hand?’
‘A map of Ireland?’
‘You can use the computers.’
‘I prefer a map. To see the bigger picture.’
As the librarian found the map, he asked, ‘Holiday?’
‘I’m trying to trace my twin sister.’
‘Are you from there?’
‘No. I’ve just heard she may have lived in Galway.’
‘Good luck. Can you sign the petition? Against closure.’
‘Of course. We mustn’t lose the library. It’s too important.’
‘Ah well, if only people would see the bigger picture.’
The Monster in the Room
Mary moved the map and re-read the detective’s letter for the umpteenth time. She could see the seaside cottage, imagine the blond girl leaving for school.
‘How’s it going?’ Paul, her husband stood in the doorway, red pinny incongruously tied to his waist.
‘There’s so much here. It’s her, I’m sure. I spoke to Rupert. He said we need to go back.’
Paul regarded his wife with affection. ‘Of course if it looks like it’s her. Dinner in ten.’ He turned away, hiding his grimace. If it gets this monster off your back, he thought, it’ll be worth it.
The One and Only
Rupert sighed. ‘We’ll have to stop.’
Mary nodded. ‘If we don’t find our sister this time, we’ll give up.’
The little seaside village in Galway felt cold, despite the sun. No one had heard of the Potts family or a girl called Katherine. The detective had been sure was their home.
The van stood by the store as they emerged. ‘Potts? No, but… Maud McGonnel had an aunt – a Potts. They lived here for a few years in the 80s. Try Newbay. They went there.’
As he drove off, Mary smiled at Rupert. ‘It only takes one.’
Sometimes adventures aren’t all they’re cracked up to be
Mary and Rupert had finally found their sister, Katherine. She lived and died in Newbay, cared for first by adoptive parents and then her sister, all now dead. Her grave was tidy and they laid flowers. It seemed she had been simple – that was the word used.
‘Mrs North?’ The man was nervous, turning his hat in his hands.
‘There’s something you should know.’ He spoke slowly, barely making eye contact.
‘The Sisters of Mercy?’
The man nodded. ‘Back then it was the only answer.’
Mary stared at Rupert. He sighed, ‘The adventure continues’.
She felt so tired.
He means well
‘Yes, we can access records.’ The young man adjusted his specs. ‘What details do you have?’
Rupert squeezed Mary’s hand. She nodded at him but didn’t want to be distracted. They mustn’t leave out any detail.
The young man finished typing and sat back. ‘A lot of the records are still being transferred from the paper details. So… ah here we are. Katherine Potts. Oh dear.’
‘What is it?’
‘I’m not sure. Can you bear with me?’
Mary and Rupert exchanged a look of concern.
The young man said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re here to help you find your twin.’
Round and round
‘I hate homework.’ Penny glared at Mary. ‘Why do you make me do it?’
‘It’s just the way it is.’
‘Great. So the abused becomes the abuser, huh?’
‘Penny! That’s an awful thing to say.’
‘What did grandpa say? What goes around, comes around.’
Mary wiped her hands. ‘Ok, stop. Don’t do it.’
‘No, you’re right, you need to break the circle. If you don’t want to, don’t. You’ll explain to your teachers, I’m sure.’
Mother and daughter stared at each other. Penny sighed. ‘Ok I’ll do it.’
‘You can always circle back later.’
‘Ha bloody ha, mum.’
There’s close and there’s too close
Rupert hopped from foot to foot. ‘Well?’
To Mary he was like a child asking a parent for approval. ‘It’s fine.’
‘You don’t like it? The bedroom? Too small?’
‘Really, it’s good.’ It was delightful so why wasn’t she saying so?
‘I’ll tell the agent to keep looking.’ He turned and ran his finger along the built-in bookcase. ‘Shame really…’
Looking at his slumped shoulders and thinning hair she saw, not just her half-brother but their father. He turned, surprising her. ‘I’m determined to move close. You’re my only family now.’
She nodded, her question answered.
The sting in the tail
Mary sighed. Rupert. This time she needed him. ‘Can you watch Charlotte? I’ll drop Penny at her dance class. Tea after.’
She was delayed and hadn’t brought her phone. In the kitchen she found a scribbled note on the fridge said ‘hospital’ with Rupert’s number. There were 8 missed calls on her phone.
‘It was a bee sting. She began to swell. Mum was allergic so I knew the signs. They’ve given her adrenaline; she’ll be fine.’
Mary sat in traffic her mind a jumble. If she was going to have a guardian angel, why him?
The Insidiousness of Love
‘Oh Rupert, it’s me.’ Mary held the phone tight to her ear. ‘I thought you’d like to know Charlotte is fully recovered.’
Mary squeezed her eyes shut, willing him to speak but the silence echoed. ‘Would you like to come round for supper?’
‘This is really kind. You didn’t need to.’
Mary thought he looked like a naughty schoolboy; all he needed was a cap to turn in his hands. She smiled and hugged him. He tried to step back but she held on. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been terribly mean.’
He smiled. ‘Worn you down, have I?’
Hope wrapped in a smile
Penny hesitated before pushing the doorbell. She heard the clip-clop of heels as someone approached the door. ‘Yes?’
‘Is Helen in?’
The woman frowned. ‘Who are you?’
‘Penny. She’s in…’
‘Are you one of the girls who did this?’
‘Who is it Mum.’
‘Someone called Penny. She says…’
A girl similar to Penny stepped into the gloom. Penny squinted into the dark, wondering at the reception she would receive. She heard a sob and hurried forward to hold her friend. Over Helen’s shoulder she saw Helen’s mother. She smiled and Penny smiled back. Maybe it would be alright.
‘Mum, what does it mean? Are we going to leave?’
‘I don’t know, Penny. I didn’t think it would come to this. We’ll just have to be stay calm. But don’t worry. It is not something you need to worry about.’
‘Mum, you said we’d stay, we’d be alright.’
‘Our landlords changed their minds. We have to leave.’
‘It’s not fair. It’s our home.’
‘No, it isn’t fair, but it’s a chance to do something different. We have each other. And our home is where we are, where are hearts are. That’s what makes us strong. We’ll be fine.’
Sometimes, all you need is the air that you breathe
‘Is he homeless mum?’
The man sat on stained cardboard.
‘Can we give him something?’
‘We shouldn’t, Penny. He may be an addict.’
They studied the man. Mary started as Penny marched over and crouched down. The man raised his face. He nodded as Penny reached out; the man took her hand. Mary could see his was filthy, the nails ingrained with dirt. Penny, normally so fussy, didn’t flinch.
When Penny returned she was crying.
‘That was so kind, Penny.’
‘He said he’s been there four days and I’m the first person to stop let alone speak to him.’
Mary stood by the door. ‘How’s he doing?’
‘Shh mum. He’s a set and a break down.’
‘Shall I go? Maybe I’m bad luck.’
‘That’s silly.’ Penny looked forlorn.
As Mary turned Mabel slunk into the room. She purred as she rubbed against Penny’s feet; then she jumped onto Penny’s lap. ‘Mabel. Go away… HE’S BROKEN BACK!’
Mary smiled; the cat settled while Penny absently stroked him.
Two hours later a scream brought Mary back. Penny, smiling, punched the air in delight as Mabel hopped down and left the room, her job done. As she passed Mary she winked.
Mary jumped at the sound of broken china followed by incoherent rage. Moments later her husband appeared.
Mary sighed. ‘What’s happened?’ Her mother-in-law was staying and things hadn’t gone well.
‘She’s not used to spicy food, right? Well, it seems last night’s curry caused a bit of an upset stomach.’ Paul paused.
Mary waited, knowing there was more.
‘She had a slight accident and was worried that you might find out and think badly of her. I told her not to be so silly.’
‘What exactly did you say? I’m guessing you’re paraphrasing.’
‘I said ‘shit happens’.’
‘What did you mean, Penny? ‘She was lost in the dessert.’
‘I meant desert, Miss Layton.’
Penny’s teacher laughed. ‘So your character isn’t lost in a pudding then?’
Penny felt her face burn. She hated English, hated her teacher, hated school. She could feel everyone staring at her, either laughing with the teacher or grateful it wasn’t them being picked on. She had never felt so alone or lost. Like her character, in a desert: alone with no hope.
‘C’mon Penny, let’s get a hot chocolate fudge. Forget about the old bag.’
Penny smiled at Amla. She wasn’t alone.
Offices can be Fun
‘This is my room.’
Paul stood back, wondering what Penny would say. She’d looked forward to Kids at Work but he feared she assumed the fact he spent hours here meant it must be exciting.
She clutched the hot chocolate (‘Cool. It’s really free?’) and sat at his desk. She tapped his computer. ‘What games do you play?’x
He smiled. ‘I don’t. I read, I have meetings. I…’
‘It’s a conference phone. It..’
‘Cool. Can I call Amla?’
Paul picked up his paper while his daughter conducted a seven way call. Offices can be fun, it seemed.
The sound of silence
‘Mum, Alma’s cat Lily is ill. Can I go round?’
‘Of course, Penny.’
Penny walked quickly the three streets to Alma’s. Her mum opened the door. ‘In the utility. She likes the warm.’
Alma knelt on a chair by the boiler, her hand tucked under the cat’s head. Alma’s lids looked heavy with recently shed tears. ‘She’s purring. Listen.’
As Penny leant in close, she could hear the cat’s erratic rumbling.
Later, Penny told her mum how Lily quietly slipped away in the afternoon. ‘We knew when it went quiet.’
Mary hugged Penny. Sometimes, she thought, silence isn’t golden.
Plus ca change
‘What is it?’ Mary glanced at the door hoping Penny didn’t hear her father.
‘An old school friend’s died. Jerry Slade. 49 years aold’ Paul laughed shortly. ‘When we were ten we agreed to become train drivers together. To Mary he looked wistful. ‘I guess I thought we’d be friends forever.’
‘His parents split and he went off the rails a bit. I last saw him at a reunion about fifteen years ago.’
‘Didn’t you want to renew the contact?’
‘He’d changed. We both had. Nothing lasts, does it?’
Mary kissed her husband. ‘We do.’
Playtime isn’t always fun
Paul sipped the wine. ‘I was the only kid who hated break.’
Mary blinked. ‘What made you think of school?’
‘Jerry’s death. He couldn’t wait for break. Me, I always felt safe in class. No-one picked on me there.’
She rubbed his hand. ‘You were the kid on the outside?’
‘It was like I was the only kid.’ His eyes saw only the past. ‘Jerry led the games. He decided. I was desperate to be included.’ He laughed sourly. ‘Maybe he helped. Maybe that made me self-sufficient. Jerry always struggled afterwards if he wasn’t the one in charge. My turn on top.’
Dealing with departures
Paul nodded. ‘I feel a fraud going to Jerry’s funeral. I barely knew him.’
Mary held his hand. ‘So don’t go.’
He shook his head. ‘No. I feel guilty, how I ignored his overtures. Now I know how tough things got, I just wonder. If I’d called him…’
‘Shh. It wouldn’t have mattered. If it helps, then go.’
Paul stood by the door. A woman stared. ‘Paul North?’
‘And some. Mrs Marchand now. Why does it take a death to bring people back together, eh? Come on, lots of old faces, lots of old memories.’
The best laid plans…
‘Oh bloody hell.’
‘What’s wrong?’ Mary put down the cup.
‘That bloody dog. Look.’
Mary stifled a giggle. In the carefully pressed sand that Paul had spent hours levelling a set of canine paw prints stood out.
‘I spent hours getting that right.’
‘Maybe we should all make a footprint. Like they do in Hollywood.’
‘I’m making a patio, not Sunset sodding Boulevard.’
Mary waited until he smiled. ‘It’s a point though. Maybe Penny and Charlotte could leave hand prints when you do the concrete. Nice memory for them.’
Paul nodded. ‘Those sort of memory triggers are so important.’
Learning from the birds
‘Next Colin will fly over there; we’ll entice him back with a little treat.’ The handler moved his hand and the eagle hopped across.
Penny’s eyes were wide with excitement. ‘How does he make him do that, dad?’
Paul said, as the bird soared high. ‘No idea but I’m not sure you ‘make’ them. It takes team work.’
‘But he’ll come back, won’t he?’
‘There must be a risk he won’t. It needs trust. Like any relationship.’
Paul watched as she gasped at the bird’s dive. If only it was so easy with human relationships, he thought.
Reading between the lines
Penny read from the paper. ‘Local man, Sam Dobbs was found guilty of threatening Chin Lo. Dobbs claimed Lo was cooking monkeys but Magistrates found Lo had said ‘Try a flying monkey’, a new cocktail and not, as alleged ‘Try a frying monkey.’ She looked at her father. ‘That’s so funny.’
‘I’m not sure Mr Lo would find it funny being threatened.’
Penny looked upset. ‘No. I didn’t think.’
Paul kissed his daughter. ‘It’s written for laughs. Not your fault. Do you know what such misunderstandings are called?’
Penny frowned. ‘Isn’t that racist?’
Paul laughed. ‘Touché.’
Memories, where life doesn’t end
Penny looked thoughtful when she returned from school. ‘Dolly said they sprinkled her grandpa’s ashes at his favourite place.’ She looked tearfully at her mother. ‘She said it gave them a memory of him. Mum,’ the tears began to flow, ‘I can’t remember him. He’s gone.’
Mary hugged Penny. ‘He hasn’t.’
Penny frowned. ‘Come on.’ Mary pulled out a box. Penny smiled. ‘It’s grandpa’s scent.’
‘I kept some things, reminders. You take something and keep it in your room. When you see it you’ll remember him.’
Later Mary looked in Penny’s room; a scarf sat draped around the mirror.
Come on baby, light my fire
Mary stoked the bonfire, sending smoke everywhere.
Penny wrinkled her face. ‘Yuk, mum. That stinks.’
‘Fusspot. I loved bonfires. We cooked potatoes and bananas and all sorts.’
‘I bet they tasted disgusting.’
‘Ok, I’ll show you.’
Twenty minutes later, they sat together with silver foil tubes balanced in their gloved hands. “Be careful. Just unroll it carefully.’
Penny did as she was instructed; the chocolate and butter melted with the brown sugar creating a sticky sauce for the hot banana. Penny tried a tentative spoonful.
‘Do you like it?’
‘Wow! This is sick.’
‘I’ll take that as a yes.’
Mary hurried forward, followed by Paul. ‘If they’d let me park where I wanted… Not allowed indeed.’
Mary stopped by a row of empty seats, guarded by a boy. ‘Hi Tim. Can I…?’
Tim blushed. ‘Sorry, they’re for my grandparents.’
‘Oh of course.’ Mary turned towards the back.
A woman passed her stopping by Tim. She ushered two children forward. ‘In here…’
‘We need these seats. Curtain’s nearly up.’
‘But they’re taken.’
‘Tsch.’ The woman pushed passed. ‘Not allowed I suppose.’
Tim’s family reached the row; no one argued with Alice. Paul smiled. ‘This’ll be the real drama.’
The Art of Looking
‘Here, love, have a butcher’s.’
‘What’s he mean, mum?’ Penny eyed the stallholder as she whispered to Mary.
‘It’s rhyming slang: butcher’s hook, look.’
‘I don’t get it.’ Penny frowned.
The man had a permanent scowl, it seemed, intimidating Penny. ‘What’s you dad wear when he goes to work?’
‘Pyjamas. He works at home. Mum goes to her office.’
The scowl deepened. ‘What you go up to bed?’
‘My bedroom’s by the front door.’
He looked at Mary. ‘She’s hard work. Are you interested in anything specific?’
Penny scowled back. ‘We’ll have a good gander and let you know.’
(in case you are not sure, the man was going to suggest a city whistle for her dad’s business attire – whistle and flute, suit; and she would go up the old apple to bed: apple and pears, stairs)
The Devil’s in the Detail
‘Why did you call me Penelope?’ Penny said, apropos of nothing.
Mary smiled. ‘We just liked the name.’
Paul laughed. ‘Your mum had a fixation with Lady Penelope.’ When Penny looked blank, Paul, said, ‘Thunderbirds. Your grandma had a doll and gave it to mum.’
‘You named me after a doll? Susan got hers from her grandma and Ginny from some tennis player. At least they were real.’
Paul and Mary exchanged a look causing Penny to leave in a huff.
Later Penny watched old episodes on YouTube. Even though you saw the strings, Lady Penelope was rather cool.
Man in the Moon
Penny closed the book. Her sister, Charlotte slept. Penny went and found her mum, Mary. ‘When did I stop believing in the Man in the Moon, mum?’
‘Course. Don’t be silly.’
Mary smiled. ‘You’re sure, are you?’
Penny frowned. ‘There’s no air.’
‘I know but can you be sure? That there’s no life there?’
Penny sighed. ‘It’s like Santa, and the tooth fairy. You want me to believe because it’s cute. But I’m 14.’
‘So you know, for sure?’
‘Stop it, mum.’ Penny turned away. ‘You’re being ridiculous.’
‘It’s worth holding onto a little doubt, sometimes, love.’
‘This is nice.’ Mary put down the tray of tea things and smiled at Sarah her cousin, nursing her baby. ‘Penny, can you put your phone away please?’
Penny scowled at her mother.
Sarah snorted. ‘Remember when your dad sent us upstairs because we wouldn’t making a din?’
‘We dismantled the beds and made a den.’
She looked at Penny. ‘I think your grandpa might have liked your phone. Keeps you quiet.’ She patted the seat next to her and Penny moved across. ‘But he mostly liked a good conversation on a cosy afternoon. So who’s your latest boyfriend?’
Shake, Rattle and Roll
‘What’s this, Dad?’
Paul looked up from the box he was sorting. ‘Goodness, it’s your grandpa’s football rattle.’
‘What’s that?’ Penny eyed the contraption suspiciously.
Paul smiled, taking it. ‘Eagalllesss!!’ He bellowed and spun the rattle. Penny covered her ears. Paul laughed. ‘Football grounds were full of that noise in the 60s and 70s.’
Penny pulled a face. ‘I prefer those trumpet things you hate.’
‘Vuvuzelas? They’re awful.’
‘You’re just old-fashioned.’
Paul nodded. ‘Like REM and Beyonce are different I suppose. One’s tuneful and the other mush.’
Penny went back to her box. ‘We can agree on that then.’
‘What are you doing, Penny?’ Miss Castle stood in the door, looking shocked.
Penny stood by the whiteboard, a felt tip in her hand. On the board the words ‘Bitch’ stood out. ‘I…’
‘Wipe it off and go to Mrs Hind’s office.’
‘How could you, Penny?’ Mary looked furious.
‘I was protecting Nadia. The others made her write it.’
‘Others?’ But Mary knew who Penny meant. She hugged her daughter. ‘Nadia’s new, isn’t she? What did Mrs Hind do?’
‘Detention. It’s worth it.’
‘Well done. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. Shall we ask Nadia round?’
Rationing Information: the Teenage Years
‘We’re going to a quarry. For geography. You need to sign a form.’
‘What are you going to see?’
‘The quarry. God.’ Penny’s look spoke volumes.
‘I know. But there must…’
Penny shrugged, and turned back to her phone.
The next day, Mary heard Penny talking to Nadia. ‘It was cool. All these strata, going back millions of years. They found a dinosaur there, like whole.’
At dinner Mary asked, ‘So, how was the quarry?’
‘Like a big hole. What’s for tea?’
Mary smiled; one day they’d share things again, once they’d both grown up a bit.
And On The Seventh Day…
‘Mum, are you a feminist?’
Mary titled her head. ‘Sure. Not the burning bra sort.’
Penny pulled a face. ‘Eww. You didn’t?’
‘No but your grandma might have.’ Mary shook her head. ‘We made posters once, and hats. Your grandma loved making things.’
‘What was the protest?’
‘Nuclear weapons. Seems a long time ago. I was ten. Grandpa stopped me going but grandma went. She cooked for the campers. At her happiest doing that. Creating.’
Paul looked up. ‘She was pretty good at creating a fuss too. A pacifist but never passive.’
‘Can I get a pussy hat, then?’
‘These Rocks Don’t Lose Their Shape..’
‘Why are boys so stupid?’
Mary studied her daughter. ‘Stupid?’
‘Jack. I thought he was different. But all he’s interested in is Pokémon cards.’
‘Does that make him stupid?’
Penny frowned. ‘No, but… all boys do is collect stuff. They’re not interested in people.’
‘Maybe that’s generalising…’
‘But they do!’
‘So do I. Tea pots.’
‘They pretty. And useful.’
‘True. At least cards are easy to store. Not like when I first knew your dad. He collected rocks.’
‘Rocks? What for?’
‘Their colour, their rarity…’
‘Exactly. They’re never useful.’
‘Rocks or boys?’
Penny laughed. ‘Both!’
The urge to call them back was almost overwhelming. Mary rocked Charlotte and focused on Penny, following Paul across the cliffside. He was confident, Penny less so, but determined nonetheless.
Mary shut her eyes, travelling back decades: another cliff, another daughter following her father. This daughter, her, slipping on the wet mud, falling, landing hard aware of the likely pain of the impact (there wasn’t) and her own mother’s screams. Her father, all worried face saying ‘not to fuss so.’
‘Mum, look!’ Penny and Paul stood on the top waving.
Did you ever really let go of your children?
What comes first: the cloud or the silver lining?
Mary focused on changing the baby while Paul pulled out the picnic. ‘You didn’t need to climb up there.’ She couldn’t look at him.
‘It was safe enough.’
‘Is ‘safe enough’ your standard? I had kittens.’
He put his arm round her waist. ‘She was terrified at the start and buzzing at the end. You know, she saw this rainbow, reflected in a puddle, when we finished. It was her pot of gold, challenging herself like that.’
Mary sighed. Was she the only one to worry the next cloud might be the one not to have a silver lining?
Who is watching who?
‘It’s just a painting. It can’t watch you.’ Mary smiled at her daughter’s scowl.
Penny turned away. ‘It just does, like it’s possessed or something.’
‘You watch too much TV. Well the wrong sort.’ She followed her daughter into the kitchen. Penny had picked up her father’s laptop bag. ‘What are you doing?’
Penny said nothing until the computer was on the table. ‘There’
‘What’s that?’ Mary studied the piece of tape on the edge.
‘Dad says it’s to stop anyone watching him through the internet.’
Mary picked it off. ‘You’re both as bad as each other.
‘Oh for f…’
‘I’m trying to migrate my website and it’s an utter disaster.’
Penny, his daughter, laughed. ‘First world problem dad. Be glad you have power.’
Paul growled. ‘Easy to say.’
‘We had a new kid in school today. From Darfur. His English is amazing. He said he learnt it from listening to music.’
Paul switched off his laptop. ‘You’re right. I don’t know when I’m born.’
Penny hugged him. ‘Glad you’re getting perspective.’
Mary barked as laugh. ‘All it means is he’ll get his people to fix it at work. He hasn’t migrated that far.’
The Honeymoon Period
Rupert sipped the tea. ‘She’s a nightmare. Total dragon.’
Mary smiled; Rupert always exaggerated the downsides. ‘It’s a bit early to decide that.’
Rupert shrugged. ‘As a new boss, you’d think she’d find out what we can do first. Allow a honeymoon period for settling in.’
‘Well I hope it’s better than my honeymoon. We lost the luggage, Paul broke his toe on the first day and I got an infected mozzie bite.’
‘Not really; we got to spend a lot of time in our room.’ She winked.
‘Muuuuum that’s gross.’
Mary laughed. ‘Every cloud, you know.’
Artists Are Golden
‘Mary smiled to herself. ‘Oh, a silly dream.’
Paul hugged her shoulders and peered at the brochure. ‘Away artist retreat. You exploring your creative side?’
‘Stop teasing.’ She closed it.
‘No, I’m not. It’s just, I never thought….’
Her face was unreadable. ‘When I was 15 we had to choose our O Levels. Because I was good academically I was told I couldn’t do art. Dad, too, wasn’t keen.’
‘I never knew.’
‘Yes, well it’s a silly dream.’
Paul picked it up. ‘A great man had a dream once. He was right about that too. Come on.’
Self Belief is a Precious Commodity.
‘You’re really good.’
Mary couldn’t hide her shock. The woman, Sally, was the class star. She had an exceptional eye for imagery – that was what the rather fearsome Brian had said after the first day. ‘Not really. I’m at sea mostly.’
Brian joined them. ‘Stay there then. It’s great.’
Mary wished the encouragement could come with a smile.
Mary looked at her painting. To her it seemed a mess. They were just being nice.
‘Here,’ Brian called the class to Mary’s easel. ‘See how Mary’s addressed the subject.’
Mary stared forward, face burning. She wasn’t ready for an audience.
‘What’s up mum?’
Mary forced a smile. ‘My old school friend Jean is going abroad. I’ll miss her.’
‘You’re friends on Facebook aren’t you?’
‘Oh yes. I’m old school.’
‘Ha! So you’ll see her posts.’
‘It’s not the same.’
‘You Skype when dad’s away?’
‘It doesn’t always work so well…’
‘DM? Hangouts? Whatsapp?’
‘Are they nightclubs?’
‘Ha ha. You’re really funny today.’
Mary looked back at the email that had caused her gloom. ‘That’s me. A bundle of lols.’
Penny sat next to Mary. ‘Seriously, there are tonnes of ways to keep in touch.’
‘But do they serve coffee?’
The Only Truth
‘Mum, do people really believe the Genesis story? Mrs Ryder says they’re Creationists but that’s stupid.’
Penny looked surprised. ‘You’re an Atheist. You don’t believe…’
‘But that doesn’t make me right.’ Mary smiled. ‘No, I don’t believe in God and Adam and 7 days of creation. But unlike homework I can’t prove or disprove it.’
‘You can rely on there always being homework. It’s existence is never in doubt. What’s yours?’
‘Write a creation story.’
‘Ok so if it’s not Genesis, what is it?’
‘And what’s that?’
‘Exactly, love. Different folks, different strokes.’
Ring For Mother
Mary stared at the box, momentarily lost.
‘Mum? Can you find it?’ Penny peered over her mother’s shoulder. ‘There they are.’
Mary fished out the string. ‘Yes. Your Grandma’s pearls; she gave them to me when I was 21. I…’ She sobbed.
‘Mum? What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing.’ She looked at Penny. ‘Your grandma wanted you to have her wedding and engagement rings, after she died, only..?”
‘They disappeared. Somewhere been her collapsing and her… dying. I didn’t notice until it was too late to follow it up.’
‘Don’t worry, mum.’
If only it was that easy, Mary thought.
Life Gets Complicated
‘Penny come here.’
Penny looked at her form teacher’s stern face, mystified at her tone.
‘Did you call Melanie a freak?’
‘I…’ Penny’s face flushed. ‘I just said her belly button was weird.’ Everyone had laughed, even Melanie. She’d showed them after all. ‘Is she upset?’
‘Melanie doesn’t know we’re talking. Someone else told me.’
Penny felt anger swell inside her chest. Sophie.
Miss Johnstone sighed. ‘She has an umbilical hernia. Just be a little careful what you say. You don’t know who might be upset.’
Penny held her gaze. ‘If Mel doesn’t care, why should anyone else?’
Oil and Water
‘Mum, I want to volunteer to help the environment.’
‘What prompted this? Not that I’m against it.’
‘We watched Deep Water Horizon in Geography. The oil industry is awful. We need to have renewables and non-pollutive power.’
‘Are you going to protest?’
“Protest? Like online?’
‘No. A march, a sit-in? That’s what we did. To make people sit up.’
Penny picked up her sandwich. ‘What did you protest about?’
‘Stopping Cruise missiles. The miners. You grandpa hated it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Did it make a difference?’
‘I think I want to do something useful.’
‘Did you have rationing, mum?’
Mary laughed. ‘How old do you think I am?’
‘Soz mum. It’s a school project.’
‘Your grandad said he saw his first banana when 9 and tried to eat the skin.’
‘Was it awful? Did he starve?’
‘Some say people were healthier. Not much sugar for starters. He hated whale meet, though.’
‘I bet he was pleased when it ended.’
‘It was then he found his comfort food. Bread and dripping.’
‘A slice of bread wiped round a roasting tin, soaks up the fat and meat juices.’
Penny’s face was a picture.
A bargain’s a bargain, whoever you negotiate with
‘Mum, can I get a job?’
Mary peered over her glasses. ‘Have you something in mind’
‘The village clothes shop.’
‘In principle yes.’
‘Great. What do you mean? In principle?’
‘Well, what are the hours, the pay. Is it legal at your age? What about your school work, music practice..’
‘Ok. I get it. I can’t, can I?’
‘If you’re giving up so easily you don’t want it then.’
‘That’s not fair.’ Penny looked furious.
‘If you’re going to work in retail you need to know how to sell your product…’
‘Forget it. I should have asked dad.’
‘Mum what is adult content?’
‘You know. Stuff that only adults should, see or hear.’
‘Oh yeah. Soz. Silly.’ Penny sniggered. ‘It’s con-tent, isn’t it? Not content. You know like dad after a curry.’
Mary smiled. ‘The content of the curry makes him content.’
‘What makes you content, mum?’
‘The family being happy.’ She smiled. ‘Your grandma was the same. She always said if we were happy, she was content.’ Mary thought back to her mother’s last days, when she knew she was dying. She’d been content then. It angered Mary then, that acceptance. Now maybe she understood it.
‘What shall we play? Rounders? Frisbee? Wheelbarrows?’
Penny and Mary exchanged a look as Paul pulled a ball from the bag. Penny giggled. “I’ll look after Charlotte, mum. You can be dad’s stooge.’
‘Stooge?’ Paul put hands on hips. ‘Is that what that school teaches.’
‘Love the double teapot, dad. What about a sand sculpture?’
Paul smiled. ‘Best one gets to choose the ice cream.’
‘Does everything have to be a competition, dad?’
Paul began digging. ‘Hmm?’
Mary whispered to her daughter. ‘Give it an hour and he’ll be fast asleep. Then we can go and get some tea.’
‘What you doing love?’ Mary slipped next to Paul, hunched under a blanket in the conservatory. ‘It’s barely light.’
‘Darkest before dawn,’ Paul sounded rueful.
‘Couldn’t sleep? Work?’
Paul stared at the smear of red in the sky. ‘Penny told me I was unfair to you. 3 years since your dad passed and I go to the pub.’
‘No she’s right. Looking out for you.’ He smiled. ‘The dawning of womanhood, eh?’
Two hours later Penny found her parents snuggled on the sofa, asleep. She rubbed her eyes, grinned and went to make them all some tea.
I Maybe Be A Dreamer
Rupert steepled his fingers. ‘My dreams? Goodness.’
Penny sat at her uncle’s feet, rocking her baby sister.
Mary shared a grin with her half-brother. ‘Mine were cliched. Ballerina, show jumper.’
Penny waited. Finally, Rupert said, ‘I didn’t know it then, but finding you. A family.’
‘You had your mum.’
‘Oh and I was happy but now, well, it’s better.’
Penny frowned. ‘Does that count as a dream? I mean, looking back?’
‘A retrospective dream? What do you think Mary?’
‘Why not? Especially if it comes true.’
Penny smiled. ‘We’ll make it a thing. Our thing.’
‘Yes, a family thing.’
Dodging the Question
‘For pity’s sake, when will anyone ask?’
Mary glanced at Susan, who said, ‘Ask?’ The three women had known each other since antenatal classes.
Naomi waved a hand. ‘About… Sorry, you’re both lovely, but…’
Mary said, ‘We didn’t, you know, think you’d want reminding.’
Naomi glared. ‘Reminding? My husband’s dead at 44; I’m reminded every time I wake up.’ She shook her head. ‘I’m sorry; everyone’s really nice, sympathetic but you assume I want to move on, not talk about it. And I do but you two,’ she waved again. ‘I need more, if I’m not to come apart.
Hope Is A Four Letter Word
‘Mrs. North? Greg O’Connell. I tracked down your sister to the Sisters of Mercy.’
Mary felt a familiar cloud cast a chill shadow. ‘I remember.’
‘They’ve found the records. At last, eh?’
Mary couldn’t speak.
‘Bit of light at… sorry, I’m rambling. A beacon of hope, maybe. Katherine Potts. Your sister, right?’
‘She had a daughter, who was adopted. The family was from Dublin. Mrs. North? You there.’
‘Is she… alive?’
‘That’s why I rang. Do you want me to keep looking?’
Mary shut her eyes. Could she stand more disappointment? Was this beacon really bringing good news?
Words On The Stairs
‘I don’t know, Paul. I really don’t.’
Penny listened to her parents from the shadows on the landing, her face pressed to the balustrade.
‘It can’t do any harm to ask him to find out if your niece is alive, can it? I mean if it’s another dead end, that’s it and if not…’
Penny noted her father’s tone; almost pleading. He wanted Mary mum to continue. Her mother’s voice, in contrast, sounded flat. Emotionless. Penny stood and walked downstairs. She held her baby sister in her arms. ‘We want to know mum. And you do too. Don’t you?’
‘Where were you just now?’
‘You were miles away.’
‘I feel I’ve been gone ages.’
‘You had that thousand-mile stare.’
‘Dad was like that. He’d sit on his rocker and disappear somewhere. I used to think how important it must be.’
‘Life, the Universe…’
Mary laughed. ‘And everything. Something like that. I thought if he was that far away it had to be really big.’
‘And you? What were your big thoughts?’
‘Me? I wasn’t thinking about anything, not really. Just an empty head.’
‘I guess sometimes they’re the most profound moments.’
‘I miss him, Paul.’
Mary shivered, regretting her choice of coat. Remembrance Day parades brought back memories of the cold like no other.
As the last note of The Last Post drifted away, Mary read the names on the War Memorial. She’d never studied them before. Two Thompsons, three Greys and Nanjo Castille. Now that was an odd name for a Surrey village in 1918.
Who was he? Spanish immigrant? South American dissident? Did anyone else see his name and wonder? Maybe a writer would take it to embed it in a story, giving him a life beyond his current chiselled anonymity.
The Care Bearing Of The Spotlessly Declined
‘Why so glum?’
‘Mrs Twistelton says I don’t care enough to be in the orchestra.’
Mary stopped writing. ‘Do you?’
‘You hardly practice.’
‘Everyone is in the Orchestra.’
‘Maisie, and the girls.’
‘Ah! Maisie. I hear her name a lot.’
‘Once I wanted to be a cleaner – I know, me – because Daisy Fullerton had a cleaning job that paid for her cool clothes. Hated it. I learnt.’
‘I needed to care about myself and what I really wanted.’
‘It’s different now.’ Penny wandered off.
‘Really?’ Mary said to the space vacated by her daughter.
The After Party
As the lights went up, Mary gathered her things. A woman she didn’t know stopped by her seat.
‘Are you Penny’s Mum? She was excellent.’
‘Thanks. Sorry, have…?’
‘Millie’s Mum. Amelia. We lose identity with kids don’t we?’
Mary smiled at this nervy woman. ‘Mary. Penny mentioned a sleepover?’
‘Oh she did? Thank heavens. I wondered. You have an airbed?’
‘Of course. How many…?’
‘Thirteen. Gray thinks me mad.’
Me too, thought Mary.
‘It’s our first since we moved here. I want it to go well.’
‘Being a parent is just another performance, isn’t it. Only without a script.’
And this is the very end, based on Charli’s futuristic prompt. How Mary gets there? Well you need to wait and find out.
It was 97 years since she had last thought about ending it. The day she had found out about Dad’s affair. Now she was 125, the Max. She should go. Just think it and the Vivapod shuts down.
Mary hated deciding. She’d chosen to be part of the world brain. 2082 when her kidneys failed. ‘You can die or you join Omni.’ They took her body but with Glutox and RealView she didn’t notice; last week it was like she was on Mars for the Independence Day celebrations. If only Penny had chosen. Missing her had always been real.