by Sandra Arnold
‘She never actually married Horace,’ Dad lowered his voice. ‘They live in sin. Don’t tell your mother I told you.’
But the thrill of sin was too much for a twelve-year-old to keep to herself and as Dad wouldn’t be drawn further, I waited until Mum was at her most vulnerable—gutting herring in the kitchen, eyes closed so she couldn’t see the fish guts spilling out onto the bench—and asked her straight out.
‘Living in..?’ Her eyes shot open then she spotted the fish’s liver and fixed her gaze on the ceiling. ‘Wherever did you get that idea?’
‘Dad said. He said that’s why Great-aunt Violet’s daughter’s in the looney bin.’
At which point Mum decided it would be better to tell me the truth. She squeezed her eyes shut, whether because of the fish guts or the story, I couldn’t tell. There’d been a row between Violet and her intended. A rebound wedding to Frank. Instant regrets as she realised her mistake. Three children, broken bones and multiple bruises later Violet was loaded onto a London-bound train by Gran who’d given her the money for the fare and who later smuggled two of the children out of the house while Frank was at work and put them on a London train too. But he made sure they didn’t get Margaret, the youngest. When Margaret had her breakdown he had her locked up in the mental hospital and refused to give Violet a divorce. When she met Horace she changed her name to his by deed poll.
‘I don’t agree with Aunt Violet’s…living arrangements…’ Mum said, one eye opening to add emphasis. ‘But I have to admit Horace is a good man. And by the way, Margaret is in a mental hospital. Don’t call it a looney bin. Give things their proper name.’
Two years later, Great-aunt Violet brought Margaret to visit Gran.
‘I do think Aunt Violet should have stayed in London,’ my mother whispered to my father. ‘There are still people around here who know she…well, anyway…it doesn’t do to have that kind of scandal raised again. People will gossip.’
While Mum and Gran and Great-aunt Violet talked, I watched Margaret rocking back and forth in her chair. Occasionally Great-aunt Violet looked at her and stroked her hand, but Margaret ignored her and carried on rocking.
‘What’s wrong with her?’ I asked them.
‘Nothing,’ all three replied at once.
When I was fifteen and my brother Tim was twelve, we went to visit Mum’s friend Mavis. Mavis’s brother John lived with her. On this visit I noticed something about John I’d never noticed before. Back home I was trying to think of the right words to ask Mum if what I suspected was true when Tim piped up, ‘What’s wrong with John?’
‘Nothing,’ said Mum.
‘He’s retarded,’ I said.
Mum clapped her hand over my mouth. When she calmed down a bit she whispered, ‘Don’t go saying that word again. Mavis would be mortified if she knew.’
‘Well, what’s the proper word?’
‘I don’t want to hear any more about it,’ said Mum.
I waited until another fish-gutting day and cornered her. Eyes closed, she explained that when John was born he was deprived of oxygen for too long. Incompetent midwife. Because of his learning and behavioural difficulties the family kept him at home. He’d never been to school. Nobody had ever suggested there was help available because that would have meant having to admit there was something wrong with him. With one eye open Mum repeated her warning not to use the R word again.
My seventeenth birthday was very different to what I’d once thought it would be. No cards. No party. No presents. A hospital in another town. A long way from home. Before he was whisked away I saw his face. The world spun off its axis and I knew I wouldn’t sign the adoption papers. I lined up all the words I could think of that would block my mother’s arguments. I braced myself for her fury.
My family appeared in the doorway at the exact moment the nurse put him in my arms. Dad flushed bright red and looked at the floor. Mum’s eyes opened wide. Wider than I’d ever seen them.
Tim grinned. ‘So…this is your little bas –.’
Mum’s glare stopped him mid-sentence. ‘The word is baby. Bella’s son. Your nephew. My grandson.’
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally. Her flash fiction appears in numerous journals including Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and New Flash Fiction Review, and in the anthologies, Sleep is a Beautiful Colour (National Flash Fiction Day, UK, 2017), Fresh Ink (Cloud Ink Press, NZ, 2017) and is forthcoming in Bonsai: The Big Book of Small Stories (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018). One of her stories has been nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize and another for the 2018 Best Small Fictions.
Learn more at www.sandraarnold.wordpress.com.