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Short story – Family saga

Short story - Family saga

Musn’t grumble

I’d always fancied a cruise. Even as a little girl, I used to gaze in wonder at films on the television of big ocean liners leaving port, their passengers crowding the balconies, waving excitedly at someone or no-one in particular on the shore. I would dream that one day, I’d be on a ship like that, sailing off to somewhere warm and exotic.

Of course, my parents could barely afford to take my brothers and me on a week’s holiday in a caravan in north Wales. The closest we ever got to cruising was hiring a pedalo and bumping up and down on the waves at Llandudno.

As a teenager, I dreamed of meeting an older man who would fall passionately in love with me and whisk me off on a Mediterranean cruise, where we’d spend a week or two being pampered and indulged on the high seas. How exciting, I thought. How romantic, how sexy that would be!

I did eventually meet my ‘older man’. Ken, his name was. Lived a few doors away with his mum. I’d known him all my life but had never really spoken to him until that fateful day when the tyre on my bike had a puncture. He was standing on his doorstep smoking a cigarette and saw me pushing it home. He came out to help me, intercepting me half-way up the street. After he’d expertly fixed the puncture, I was so grateful I asked him what I could do in return and he said, bold as brass, ‘Come to the pictures with me tonight!’

I was just twenty. He was nearly thirty. We married the following year.

I didn’t mind that he wouldn’t let me work. He said it was a man’s job to earn the money. I kept myself busy in the little house we were renting, keeping it clean and tidy, the way Ken liked it. I couldn’t grumble. Money was tight though. Ken gave me a notebook, with instructions to write down everything I spent. It was a ritual we followed every Friday night: Ken would look at the notebook and ask me questions about what I’d spent, giving me tips on how to make the money go further. Then he would ceremoniously hand over next week’s housekeeping allowance. He gave me what he thought I needed to run the house and pocketed the rest. I never saw his wage packet, never knew how much he earned.

I asked him about it once, but you’d have thought by the look on his face that I was asking him if he was having an affair! I never asked again.

When the babies started coming, things got even tougher. He still gave me the same amount of money each week and still expected me to account for every penny. I had to ask him for money when I needed clothes or a hair-do. He never actually refused me, so I couldn’t grumble, but he always handed it over grudgingly, as if he was disappointed with me.

Just after our youngest started school, Ken got a promotion at work. ‘Well done,’ I said to him, anticipating a nice increase in my housekeeping. It didn’t happen. He claimed that there was no extra pay with the new job, just the glory of having a supervisory role. I didn’t believe him.

We had a quiet life together, no dramas or upsets. Ken never messed around with other women like some of my friends’ husbands did. And he never raised his voice or his hand to me. I couldn’t grumble. But there was little passion or excitement and no prospect of the cruise I’d always yearned for. ‘Waste of money,’ he’d say if I mentioned it. ‘And you’d only get sea-sick.’

No, Ken’s only passion in life was stamp collecting. The only time I ever saw him animated was when one of his precious First Day Covers arrived. His face used to light up like a child’s on Christmas morning. I didn’t understand it – ‘Postage Porn’, I used to call it. Ken wasn’t amused.

He kept all of his stamps in a tin box under the bed. He forbade everyone in the house from touching it, even our little Philip who was showing some interest in his father’s hobby and longed to share it with him.

When the kids grew up and left us, I was bereft. Ken didn’t seem to notice that the kids had gone, let alone that I was grieving. He continued to keep me short of money but he had by now at least dropped the weekly expenditure audit, so I suppose I couldn’t grumble.

I often paused to wonder what he spent his money on. He wasn’t a profligate man. Apart from his love of stamps, he didn’t smoke, hardly drank and never gambled, as far as I knew. No, I couldn’t grumble. There were worse husbands in the world.

I was only fifty-five when he died. He was just sixty-five and a few weeks away from retiring. He got up one morning, walked to the bathroom and collapsed, calling my name as he crumbled onto the cold, hard floor. Massive heart attack the doctors said. Went out like a light. It was such a shock, though I suppose I couldn’t grumble – at least I didn’t have to nurse him through some terrible disease that took him slowly and painfully away.

I cried when I saw his tin stamp box under the bed some months later, when I was feeling strong enough to start clearing out his things. I opened the box and carefully lifted out album after album of his beloved stamps. I couldn’t believe how many he’d collected over the years, bless him.

I didn’t have a clue what to do with them. I couldn’t just throw them away. My son Philip suggested I take them to a dealer to be valued. He said some of them looked like they might be worth something.

The dealer, Mr Ellis, said he had not seen such a fine collection in years. Yes, I thought, I went without all my married life so that he could waste his money on small squares of paper that he hid under the bed! Anyway, Mr Ellis told me that some of the stamps were very valuable and one of them – he told me to sit down before he said this – was worth a small fortune…

***

A glass of chilled champagne in my hand, I look around my stateroom, taking in the large bed, the flat-screen TV, the glass doors opening onto the private balcony. And beyond that, the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean.

No, I can’t grumble.

Short story - Family saga

Mr Johnson – an extract

When Johnson arrived his mother, Mavis, was in the lounge, staring at the black and white TV. She looked up as he stooped to kiss her on the forehead, then resumed watching. It was an old cowboy film.

“D’you want me to change the channel?” he asked.

She made no reply apart from a fleeting frown. He looked at her eyes, and realized they were quite still. Whatever held her attention, it was not the ancient cowboys with their neat 1950s haircuts and white teeth.

He sat down in an armchair opposite her and waited for her to pay him some attention. Then he got up to turn the sound down. The theme music began to play and the credits came up. The episode came to a close with a final trumpeted flourish.

“Tea,” she said, quietly. And, in a harsher voice, “Want some tea. Thirsty. Nobody brings me my tea any more. You get it.”

She looked angrily at him, as if he had been denying her plaintive requests.

“OK, Mum, I’ll go and make you a nice cup of tea,” he said, trying to mask his irritation.

“If it’s too much bother, dear, a glass of water will do…” He winced at the sarcasm. She had always had a waspish tongue, unhoneyed by age.

He disappeared into the kitchen and put the kettle on the gas stove. He sniffed the milk in the fridge and ate a greying sugar lump. The TV had got louder again.

“Two sugars, remember,” she shouted over the blare of an advert. “You always forget the sugar – and make sure it’s hot!”

There was an old tin of tea in the cupboard. Fortnum and Mason’s. The gold letters were flecked with rust. An old Christmas present, he thought. The tea smelled musty when he opened the tin.

“How much longer you going to be?” Mavis shouted again. “Make sure you use the tea bags. Can’t stand bloody tea leaves in the bottom of the cup.”

The kettle whistled. He poured the boiling water into the teapot and whisked it round with the spoon, something she strictly forbade.

“It’s mashing,” he shouted back. “I’ll be with you in a mo. Do you want a biscuit?”

She did not reply. A new burst of music signalled the lunchtime news. Well, it would be something to watch.

After a few minutes he appeared in the lounge holding a tray aloft, rather theatrically, like a waiter in a high class restaurant. With a flourish he placed it on the coffee table in front of her. She eyed the contents beadily.

“What about the biscuits? And the sugar?” Grunting, he ambled back to the kitchen.

When they had settled, and he had once again turned down the volume on the TV, he smiled at her sweetly.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Mum. I’m a bit short again…”

She raised her tea cup to her lips with her little finger raised, and gulped. “Short of what? You know I haven’t got much to live on…”

“I’ve had some big bills recently. The car failed its MOT, and they’ve cut Carol’s hours.”

“I’m not surprised,” she snorted derisively. “She’s lucky to have a job at all, the way she carries on…” Johnson ignored this last remark. He could not afford an argument.

“It would really help, if you could tide me over with…” he paused, wondering where to pitch it. Too low and she would think he could rustle the money up elsewhere; too much and she would think he was being greedy.

“Go on, spit it out,” she rasped.

“A few thousand,” he said, feeling suddenly brave.

The doorbell rang. Mavis smiled triumphantly. “That’ll be Dean, come to do the garden. Go and let him in…”

Johnson stood up, and then paused. “Say yes first…”

Her eyes narrowed. “Not now, dear,” and then, raising her voice, “Come round the back, Dean. It’s not locked.”

He could hear Dean wheeling his lawn mower on the concrete path to the side of the house, a grinding metallic noise. The noise of defeat.

Dean appeared at the kitchen door, a wiry man in his 40s with thinning hair, a tattoo on each arm and a suntanned face. He was wearing shorts.

“What can I do for her ladyship? A bit of mowing? Some pruning? A bit of digging here and there?” He grinned, as if talking in sexual code.

Mavis looked at Dean’s legs admiringly. “You really look after yourself, don’t you Dean? I hope the little wife realizes just how lucky she is…” Mavis’s tongue flicked back and forth along her lower lip.

“There’s too much of me for her,” Dean said. “And a man needs his freedom.” He looked at Johnson, expecting some male support, but Johnson said nothing.

When Dean was working, Mavis insisted on moving to a chair by the window so she could watch him.

“He doesn’t understand plants, dear. He pulled up my sweet peas last week. Best to keep an eye on him. I don’t get many pleasures in life.”

Johnson wondered whether to broach the subject of money again, but decided to wait until Dean had gone.

Dean was in no hurry. He strolled up and down the lawn, stopping every few minutes to empty the grass cuttings onto the compost heap. After a while, Mavis knocked on the window as the lawnmower rumbled into range.

“Feeling thirsty, sweetheart? Would you like a coffee and biccy?”

“OK, darling. That’ll do nicely…” Dean shouted over the noise of the mower. He turned it off, rolled himself a cigarette and blew long plumes of smoke into the crisp autumn air.

“I always liked a man who smokes,” Mavis said pensively. “Like Bogart in Casablanca. Makes me feel all tingly.”

“Daddy never smoked,” Johnson observed.

“No, he wouldn’t. Liked to count the pennies, did your father. Always kept me short.” Mavis tutted disapprovingly. Her husband had left her comfortably off but that didn’t make up for all the holidays not had, the dresses not bought, the smart car never owned.

“Well, at least you’re not short now, Mum. You’ve no financial worries.”

“How would you know?” Mavis said, still watching Dean. “It’s not cheap living here, keeping everything together. And the shares aren’t worth half what they used to be.”

She paused, and turned to look at Johnson. She gazed into his eyes unflinchingly. “Course if you were careful, like Daddy, you’d manage on what you’ve got.”

“Muuuum…” Johnson whined. “You know I don’t earn much.”

“And why might that be? ’Cos you’ve never tried to better yourself. With all that education, you could have followed Daddy into the City. You wouldn’t be asking for my money then…”

Johnson sighed. It was the same old record. But he knew that, if he could endure it, she might soften.

She looked at him bleakly. He felt like a mongrel in a dog shelter, being looked over and found wanting. She despised the sadness in his eyes.

He cleared his throat. “Teaching is an honourable profession,” he said with a rhetorical rotundity. “It changes lives…”

“Well, them as makes their bed must lie on it.” She cut in before he could launch into a paragraph, and resumed gazing at Dean as he stamped his cigarette butt into the grass and fired up the mower again.

“I want to be alone now. You can go. There’s a few notes in the tin. Help yourself. I don’t know why you bother to ask. But leave enough for me to pay Dean. And make him a cup of tea before you go.”

Johnson kissed her on the forehead, and squeezed her wrist. He made Dean a mug of strong tea with four sugars, just how he liked it; then reached up to a silver coffee tin on the upper shelf and counted out £500 in crisp £50 notes. That left £50 for Dean, which was more than enough.

As he opened the front door to leave, Missy the black cat sidled past him and strolled into the lounge.

“Where have you been, you little rascal? Mummy’s been calling for you…”

Short story - Family saga, Short story - Humour

The day I learnt…

The day I learnt my Mother didn’t care, my Father couldn’t count, but my baby brother could say my name.

It was a hot, lazy summer, full of blue skies, buzzing insects and inertia. That incessant heat, and our listless boredom, meant we spent a lot of time squabbling. And since there were eight children in the family, that was a lot of bored, squabbling kids for my mother to deal with.

So my parents decided we needed a change of scene to break the mood. They agreed to make a weekend of it, which to us was a full summer holiday, and so we were all thrown into the Datsun Sunny estate and headed off to Dublin. The fact that there were ten of us in a car that was a five-seater mattered not a jot in those days. There was no such thing as health and safety, or seatbelts, or even rules about how many children you could put in a car boot for that matter. It was more a case of sit there and shut up. And we did, because my mother was extremely agile, she could deliver a sharp slap on a bare knee without even having to turn around from her luxurious position in the front passenger seat.

After a fun-filled weekend in Dublin, which we spent mainly in the hotel swimming pool, it was time to head home. My parents decided that, rather than drive straight back home on the Sunday, we should visit somewhere on the way. It sounded pretty boring to us but, as it meant delaying the sardine-like trip home in the car, we gave in and agreed to spend some time touring the gardens and stately home of Powerscourt, just outside Dublin.

We all piled out of the car and hurtled off in different directions, with threats of grievous consequences ringing in our ears from Mum and Dad whose constant fear was us breaking something they couldn’t afford to pay for.

But after a while of wandering, I grew bored looking at flowerbeds, so spent most of my time throwing gravel into expensive fountains and counting the willies on the bronze statues of naked Greek men. I got to ten willies before getting bored with that too.

It was a relief when my parents, with the skill of experienced shepherds, started to round us up, count us in and channel us towards the car park and my father’s pride and joy, the bright orange Datsun Sunny estate.

As I was the first one to arrive I stood by the car, hanging onto the car door handle in the gesture which clearly signalled first come, first served, first choice is a window seat. As boredom overcame sibling rivalry, I looked idly around and saw that there was a tiny gift shop nearby. That was when I remembered I still had a ten-pence piece in my pocket, saved and not yet spent.

‘Mummy, can I go to the sweet shop please while we’re waiting?’ I begged. She was distracted, scanning the horizon for the rest of the tribe, while muttering under her breath. She always said they weren’t bad words, they were prayers. From what I could tell, her favourites – Jesus, Mary and St Joseph – always got a mention. So I promised to be quick, and scattered gravel under my feet as I sped off.

I blinked in the gloomy darkness of the shop which was in stark contrast to the bright summer’s day outside and, as my eyes adjusted, I saw some bags of sweets in amongst a dusty display of leather bookmarks, wind-up Virgin Marys and alcoholic-looking leprechauns.

So I grabbed my favourite Tiger Tots sweets, which I knew cost ten pence, and stuffed them into my jeans’ pocket while planning how I could secretly eat them in the car going home without anyone finding out and forcing me to share.

I came out into the bright sunshine and had to blink and cover my eyes from the cloud of gravel dust coming up from some car wheels that sped past. ‘They’re in a hurry,’ I thought. A few seconds later I opened my eyes again and blinked away the dust, just in time to see a bright orange Datsun exiting the main gates at the other side of the park.

‘Well,’ I thought. ‘Dad was right and Mum was wrong. Bright orange must be the new colour for cars, seems there’s a few of them about.”

It was only when I turned back into the now-empty car park that I realised it was our car and my family that I had seen drive out of the gates like a bat out of hell.

A quick stab of panic was quickly replaced by the quiet confidence that, any minute now, they would realise their mistake and come tearing back, full of anxiety and remorse, resulting in a tearful reunion and possibly me even getting to sit up front with Mum. So I sat on a fence where I could see the gates. Ah how my family’s faces would be filled with smiles of relief and hot tears of love on seeing me sitting there and knowing I was safe.

In fact it took them over two hours and a sharp U-turn in Dundalk on their part, with ten sets of the rosary and red eyes cried out of tears on my part, before they did eventually screech back in a spray of gravel.

They didn’t even get out of the car. Just the back door swung open and my Mum shouted to me to get in the car and that I’d already made them late. That’s when I realised I did have a few more tears left.

In between gasping sobs, I managed to stutter out what I thought were the key questions: “W-w-why did it take so l-l-long for you to realise I was l-l-lost? W-w-weren’t you worried? Did nobody notice I wasn’t there?’ I stammered, while smearing hot tears and snot around my face.

‘We didn’t realise you were lost. It was Baby David who noticed, asking where you were. We kept telling him to be quiet and go to sleep,’ came the tart reply from my mother. This resentment was echoed by the rest of the family, who muttered and grumbled darkly about the journey now taking twice as long as it should have.

‘W-w-w-what? You didn’t even notice I was missing? There’s nine of you in the car and only Baby David noticed?’ My relief at being found turned to shocked indignance that only Baby David had missed me.

My heart was broken by their cruel dismissal as I looked around at the disinterested faces turned away from me. Until I looked at Baby David, who smiled his little dimpled smile at me and reached out a chubby hand for his reward – a Tiger Tot sweet. He has always been my favourite ever since.