What Grandparents tell you

The museum was packed with giggling schoolchildren, jostling together to look at the exhibits on display.
Niamh turned round to make sure the twins  Declan and Aiden, were following and told them to keep close. At seventeen they thought they were too old to be seen with their parents.
Mike, her husband, was reading the guide book that  their eldest son, Colm had given him, his eyebrows raised and his mouth hanging open.

He turned to her and said in a low voice, ‘This Rasputin fellow seems to have been some sort of Casanova’.

Niamh rolled her eyes and stared at the picture of a man with a lot of facial hair.

‘He looks a bit like a leprechaun with that beard. What does it say about him?’

Aiden came up and peered over his shoulder.

‘Bit big for a leprechaun, he was massive.

Come on dad, what does it say, it all sounds a bit lewd.’

Mike cleared his throat and put on his best teacher’s voice.
‘”Rasputin was a Siberian religious mystic who became attached to the Tsar’s family as a healer to their young, hemophiliac son.” Things all got a bit out of hand when he became too attached to the Tsarina Alexandra.’

There was a snort from Declan, ‘Well if she was anything like Irina I can see why, these Russian girls are really hot.’

For the first time that day Niamh felt herself relax.  She had felt in need of some light relief.
‘Irina is lovely, and you’re right the girls here are very attractive. The guide we had at the Winter Palace was lovely, my heart ached when she told us about the Siege of St. Petersburg, how her grandfather had passed on so many terrible stories of survival, licking the glue of the wall paper in desperation.’

She was surprised to feel Aiden put his arm around her, he normally shrugged her away these days.
‘Oh mum, you’re so sensitive, it’s your special relationship with the little people, with the leprechauns. Don’t you remember when we had to revive you with a glass of vodka after we’d been to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam?’

Niamh smiled at his attempt to cheer her up, ‘I think it was tomato soup, not vodka Aiden.’

It was true about the leprechauns though, but she’d keep that to herself. She knew her family would laugh at her. When she was a little girl she spent her summers in Rosscarbery with her beloved Nanna Fianna.
As they watched the beautiful sunsets Nanna would tell her stories of troubled times, of war and strife, of brave men who tried to change life for the better and how women would help their men and protect their children. Walking along the stunning sandy beaches and watching the ebb and flow of the water nanna would make her believe in rainbows and crocks of gold, treasures waiting for whoever looked hard enough.

After Nanna passed on, Niamh’s mother Kyla had never wanted to go back to Ireland and soon after Niamh had met Mike at the school where she taught Art. She looked across at Mike who looked up from the guide book and grinned at her.

‘There’s so much to learn about Russian history, up till now I only knew about Doctor Zhivago and the cold war from James Bond films.’

Declan laughed and slapped his father on the back,

‘Good old dad, you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Russians. Grandad told us that if the Germans had won the Battle of Stalingrad, it’s now called Volgograd, he’d have been done for it. The Sergeant Major, or whatever he was, told them to grab whatever weapon they could, to defend themselves when the enemy arrived, all Grandad had, was a mallet and a spanner.’

Mike gaped at his usually taciturn son in amazement, ‘How on earth do you know that? He’s never told me.’

Aiden shrugged his shoulders, ‘Maybe you never asked him, dad.’

Niamh looked at her watch, ‘I think we’d better get going. Colm said they were coming to meet us outside this museum at 3pm and it’s nearly time.’

The gardens of the museum were beautiful and as they sat and waited for Colm in the warm June sunlight, Niamh reflected on what had brought them all here. She and Mike had been so thrilled for Colm when he landed his job at the National Gallery and was put on the team in charge of the painting by Titian from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. They’d all been swept along by his enthusiasm and listened enthralled as he talked about the painting called ‘The Flight into Egypt’. It had been bought by Catherine the great in 1768.
Irina had been on the Russian team and when Colm brought her home to meet them they had all been enchanted.

At Christmas Colm had asked Irina to marry him and now they had all come to St. Petersburg to meet her parents and see where she had grown up. They had had a quick tour of the city and were going for lunch with Irina’s parents.

There was a shout from Declan as he caught sight of his brother and then they were being introduced to Irina’s parents Vasily and Oksana.

Irina and Colm acted as interpreters as they were taken to a restaurant that served typical Russian food. They held hands and smiled at each other, delighted to have their families together.
Plates of caviar, salmon baked in pastry, salads and vegetables appeared on the table.
Declan and Aiden drained the small glasses of vodka with relish, for once Mike and Niamh relaxed their drinking rules. They learned to say cheers and good health in Russian, smiling broadly.
At the end of the meal Vasily stood up and raised his glass saying how happy he was that his daughter had found a man that loved her, that shared her passion for Art. Then men moved towards the bar area and declan and Aiden followed. Irina and Colm held hands and went to the small dance floor.

Niamh squeezed Oksana’s hand and smiled at her warmly. She spoke slowly so Oksana could understand.

‘You have a beautiful daughter Oksana, I am so happy she will be my daughter-in-law.
You also have a beautiful city. There is so much beauty, but also pain, I feel it you know.’
She paused, maybe she was confusing Oksana who watched with a furrowed brow, but when she spoke it was in a whisper and in clear English.

‘I feel it too, Niamh. I know you have visited The Rasputin Museum.’ Oksana sighed and their was pain and sadness in her voice.

‘My babushka saw him you know, she saw it all. That night she couldn’t sleep and was watching from her window. I have not told Irina about that night, it is not good to burden the young with painful tales, it is better that they have light hearts.’

Tears sprung to Niamh’s eyes and she put her arms round Oksana. There was such warmth and kindness in the embrace, two women from different worlds feeling the burden of the past and wanting to protect their young.

Niamh looked up to see Mike looking at her, she smiled at him, reassuring him that all was well.

Maybe one day soon she would have grandchildren, she might even take them to Rosscarbery and tell the stories that Nanna told her about the troubles there,  about what she had seen from her window. It was all a long time ago now.
She knew she would tell them about the leprechauns, about looking for a pot of gold. She would tell them how she had lost her father when very young and her mother had never got over it. She would tell them about how meeting Mike was like coming home, how happy he had made her, how important it was to make a happy home for your children.

Declan and Aiden appeared in front of her. They held out their hands to Oksana and her.

‘Come on you two, let’s join Colm and Irina on the dance floor.’

The two women looked at each other, smiling. They understood each other more than any language could express.

September entry: Short stories

  1. The Red Sweater

Jenny got on the bus feeling very self-conscious. She had worn black from head-to-toe ever since she left school five years ago. She hadn’t been able to get a job with her poor A-level results and her eating problems had started again. Jenny’s mother had run off to live in Spain with a man she worked with when Jenny was six years old and life had always been so lonely for Jenny and her dad. Now he’d got himself a girlfriend, Lucia, not much older than Jenny. She was a nurse at the clinic where Jenny had to go for her eating problems and had started coming round to their house with cakes and making hot meals for them all. Lucia had given Jenny a red sweater for her birthday last week and today she had asked her to take her little dog Trixie for a walk in the park while she was at work. Lucia was so kind and friendly that Jenny had found herself agreeing and now here she was on the bus and on her way to the park. As they were going out of the door Lucia had tied a red bow on Trixie’s head the same colour as the new sweater. They’d giggled as they looked at themselves in the hall mirror and Lucia had taken their photo. As Jenny moved along the bus she noticed that people were smiling at her. An unfamiliar sensation crept over her as she sat down and placed her handbag on her knee. She felt the warmth of Trixie’s little body and a glow seemed to settle itself in her heart. It was happiness. (270 words)

 

2) Stories from Le Bar Marché- Mme. Rose

(This story is part of a series of stories inspired by a café in France)

Every Wednesday morning at eleven o clock Mme Rose would shuffle through the tables of Le Bar Marché and sit down at Laurent’s section. He knew how she liked her café au lait and always kept her an almond croissant. He made her feel safe. Her instinct told her that she could trust him. She hadn’t always had this gift, of being able to tell if someone was trustworthy… Walking down the aisle on her father’s arm all those years ago she had really believed she was going to live happily ever after. She loved Didier so much, couldn’t bear to be apart from him and wanted to make him happy.

The first time it happened she thought that she had tripped over something and bumped her head. Then she had looked up and seen her husband’s face. Cold hard eyes within a mask of vicious fury. Something broke deep inside her then, an unbearably painful feeling of loss and hopelessness ripped through her very soul. These wounds had never healed she just had learnt to manage them. It took a long time. Instead of trying to make her husband happy all her energy went into not making him angry. One day when the attacks were particularly frequent she had tried to confide in her mother-in-law to seek some help. The beseeching desperate look she got had told her all that she needed to know. She had to break the circle. She had to protect her son, to show him that there was another way of being a man. Her weapons became humour, love and kindness. It was like rowing a boat on a lake knowing that a monster lay beneath and could strike at any time. When her son graduated and left home to live with his girlfriend she felt relief wash over her.
He was safe now. She felt immense sadness too. It wasn’t meant to be like that. For all those years she had thought it was all her fault, only her problem. Now it was talked about a lot , it was all in the open. There was even a Day each year dedicated to it, world wide. Once on a television chat show someone had said that it was always unacceptable, it was never the woman’s fault, a man must never do that. She had cried then, deep body wracking sobs , thirty years of tears in one afternoon.
She pulled out her purse and placed a generous tip on the table for Laurent.    410 words

August entry – Creative Writing: Rediscovering sensations on Elba

Rediscovering sensations on Elba

With one deft movement Alessandro parked the mini bus between a row of oleander bushes and a tall chestnut tree. He pointed towards the beach and waited for the gasps of admiration and delight that he knew would come from his captive audience of tourists as they took in the sight of the soft white sand and turquoise sea. He never ceased to take pleasure in the enthusiastic reactions to his island home and stood up to smile at them all, opening the door and telling them to be back in two hours.

Alessandro held out his hand to help the English family down the steps. The woman, Penny, was looking very hot and her ample flesh bursting out of her tight sundress was a dangerous shade of red. Her blonde hair was frizzy and unkempt and her mascara was smudged around her eyes. She turned and gave him a smile of great sweetness and when she thanked him, he was struck by the kindness in her eyes. Alessandro’s father would probably have given her a discreet pinch on her bottom and sent her on her way with renewed faith in her feminine attributes, but that sort of thing wasn’t allowed any more.

Her husband Paul waved away Alessandro’s offer with an impatient swipe and stuffed his phone in his pocket with a furtive glance. The son Ben, stumbled after his parents and walked behind them with his eyes down.

Alessandro sighed and looked across to the beach café. He could see Silvia, his girlfriend handing out ice creams, her generous curves enticing the fathers to buy two large scoops of coffee and vanilla ice creams and hurry off licking at the cornets as they raced across the hot sand back to their families. She beckoned him over and served him his favourite iced coffee.

‘You’re late today Ale! I’ve missed you. When you’ve finished come with me across the bay for a Spritz.’

Ale nodded, sipped his coffee and covered her hand with his.

‘This group are really interested in the history of the island and have been asking lots of questions about Napoleon, Maria Countess Walewska, his Polish mistress and why he would ever have wanted to leave such a beautiful island.’

Silvia kissed him and then went back to serve a group of children who had just finished a game of beach volley and Alessandro closed his eyes.

Penny watched the exchange between Alessandro and his beautiful girlfriend, the way they looked at each other and their graceful movements. She was painfully aware of the contrast between the young girl’s tanned and supple body and her own, plump and reddened by the sun. Ben was sitting hunched over his phone, his hat pulled down and his whole body tense and distant. Paul was rolled on to his side and she could tell that he was messaging on his phone again.

Everything seemed to have gone wrong at once. She had become middle-aged and frumpy, her husband was always working late, her son had transformed from a cuddly affectionate little boy into a sulky, taciturn teenager and her widowed father had needed constant attention.

An unaccustomed feeling of anger rose within her. She leaned across Paul to peer at his phone. He tried to hide it but she was too quick and grabbed it from him. She read the message, saucy and hinting at a great intimacy. She stood up, screamed and then hurled the phone into the sea, heedless of the stares of the people around her and stalked off across the beach.

Something about the island had seeped into her, awakening sensations that had become unfamiliar to her. All that talk about Napoleon and the way the island had embraced his flamboyant presence, his beautiful Polish mistress that came to keep him company, his sister and her naked swimming. Then there were perfumes and the legends and the way Alessandro had made them all aware of an atavistic sensuality and appreciation of all that the island offered.

Without realizing it, she had arrived at Paolina’s rock. Alessandro had pointed it out from the road. He’d told them how the islanders had been enchanted by Napoleon and his entourage. His favourite sister had been the only one to help him when he was exiled to the island, helping him with money and organizing parties and balls to entertain him. The islanders had been encaptured by Paolina’s habit of nude swimming and dedicated this rock to her.

Penny looked down into the clear crystal water. There was no-one around. She took off her sundress and slid down into the water. She sighed in relief as the cool water calmed her sunburn. Her body felt light and free, she twirled around reveling in the feeling as the water flowed around her. She felt part of something wonderful, she felt like laughing. All her worries flowed out of her into the sea, her legs brushed against each other, her arms floated up and she lay back, aware of all her senses, the gentle lapping of the sea, the cry of the sea birds, the sweet smell of the Mediterranean herbs, the cool softness of the water, the salty tang on her lips, the deep blue of the sky above.
A shadow fell over her and she looked up to see Paul watching her. She beckoned him to join her, like a siren tempting her prey.
She watched as he undressed without turning away and as he swam up to her she saw desire in his eyes. She put her arms round his neck, her heart beat fast. She didn’t know if she would be able to forgive him, or if he even wanted her any more, but she would enjoy this moment and keep it close to her to help make her strong again.

Ben carried on texting on his phone without looking up as his mother stormed off and then his father followed. He shook his head. His family seemed to have fallen apart. They used to have such great holidays together, building dams and fishing in the lake District and Cornwall, making sandcastles, building fires on the beach. It was his mother’s idea to come to Elba. She said she wanted to celebrate his GCSEs. There wasn’t much to celebrate, he hadn’t done well at all, just scraping enough to get into the Sixth form. Ben knew he could have done better. His phone pinged, another text from Will Fowler. He had failed his GCSEs and wanted Ben to leave school like him. He also wanted Ben to help him with his deals. Will had started to shoplift and found other ways to make easy money and was trying to get Ben to help him.

On the tour of the island Alessandro had shown them the prison at Porto Azzurro. He had looked straight at Ben as he told them the origin of the name of the little hill top town called Capoliveri. Alessandro had explained it came from Latin words caput (head, or perhaps cheif place) and liber (free). He’d talked about Romans and Etruscans, slaves and prisoners. He took them to an old mine and gave them a hammer to extract some iron ore from the earth. Against his will Ben had found himself listening intently, riveted by Alessandro’s story-telling that brought the history of the island to life. He mentioned freedom again and again. When he stopped he invited the group to breathe in deeply, to smell the pines and the herbs, to look at the great expanse of sky and feel the warm sun on their faces. Then he told them to close their eyes and imagine being in a cell, locked in with a key.
Ben had shuddered with fear and then opened his eyes in alarm.

Now sitting on the beach he watched his parents return, holding hands and his mother giggling like she used to. He stood up and walked towards them

‘Would you two like an ice cream before we get back on the bus, I’ve got some money from Grandpa left?’

His father slapped him on the back, then drew him towards him, putting his arms round the three of them, he laughed.

‘Why thank you Ben! Coffee and vanilla for me please!’

When everyone was settled back on the mini bus Alessandro clapped his hands to get their attention. He could see the English family sitting together, smiling and looking at him with interest. They looked different, lighter and happier.
He had one more story to tell them on the way back to the hotel.

‘Many of you have asked me why Napoleon would want to have left this beautiful island. Well, legend has it that when Napoleon arrived at Waterloo he was asked that question and his famous answer was, ‘I’d run out of beer.’

The men laughed and the women rolled their eyes, they could all relate to that.
Alessandro proceeded to tell them the legend of Napoleon’s beer. His sister Paolina made it for him specially, gathering malt and hops and adding honey made on the island. He grinned as he told them about the bee stings on Paolina’s bottom and was pleased to see Penny blush and Paul give her a squeeze.

He stopped the minibus at a shop near the hotel where they could buy Napoleon’s beer to take home and drink with their friends and tell the legends of his island home.

1580 Words

May-June story: Onions make you cry

Onions make you cry

It was the onions that did it. It always was. Tears streaming down her face, Sally tried to wipe them away with her apron and carry on chopping the onions.

‘Are you alright Auntie Sally ?’ Joe’s voice was full of concern.

‘Is it your bad knee? Is it your varicose veins? Is it your hip replacement?’

Sally laughed and smiled at her nephew through her tears. His mother must have drilled him about her ailments.

‘No love, it’s just the memories that come back to me when I’m peeling onions.’

There was a snort from across the kitchen table. Joe’s big sister Ellie was painting her nails with black polish and sticking little skulls on top with one hand and with the other she was tapping away on her phone. She looked up at her auntie, a scowl on her face and when she spoke her voice was full of scorn.

‘Yeah Joe, she’s sad about losing the competition for the best onion tart in the village fete.’

Sally turned back to the chopping board a heavy feeling of sadness in her heart. What had happened to the sweet little girl so ready to smile and give cuddles?

Her nephew Nick had warned her about Ellie and how difficult she had become. The children were staying with her while Nick and his wife Marie had gone on holiday to save their marriage as he had put it. They had been living in Singapore for ten years and recently moved to London. It seems they both had such high powered jobs that they had lost touch with each other. Nick had begged Sally to have the children, the nanny was on holiday and his own parents, Sally’s younger sister and her husband were living in Spain . Ellie was furious at giving up her half term and her city life. She was just fifteen and Nick had said something about her getting in with bad company. Joe was six years younger and when they arrived that morning had burst into tears when his parents left for the airport. Sally had hugged him tight and tried to soothe him. She hadn’t seen much of the children over the years and had been looking forward to the chance to get to know them better.

Now they were sitting round the kitchen table, their school books spread in a messy heap, while she prepared the lunch.

‘Is that it Auntie Sally? You lost the onion tart competition? ‘ Joe looked bewildered.

‘No darling,’ she chuckled, ‘ it was a journey I went on once, a long time ago, a road trip with a very handsome French young man.’

Ellie put down her phone with a clatter. Her lip curled and her pretty face was full of disdain.

‘Where did you go? France?’

Sally had perceived some interest in her niece’s voice and went to sit next to her at the table. She leaned forward and looked straight at her,

‘We started off in France. I had just finished studying at the university in Paris when I met Jean-Paul at a party. Before the night was over I was so in love with him that I would have followed him to the ends of the Earth. He had a friend that had driven to Australia on a motorbike to a place called Darwin and was helping the people rebuild it after a major earthquake. Jean-Paul asked me if I would go with him and  so I did.’

Joe looked astonished, ‘ Australia’s at the bottom of the world, you can’t just drive there. ‘

Sally told Ellie to open her atlas and look at the route. Surprisingly she obeyed, struggling to hide her eagerness.

Seeing that she had the children’s complete attention Sally closed her eyes and returned to the Paris of nearly fifty years ago.
Jean-Paul had done all the organizing. they’d set off one Spring morning, the roof down on their Volkswagen beetle. The road was their home, the small car their protective shell. They had worked their way through France and Italy, in vineyards, restaurants and hotels, selling doughnuts on the beach in France, coconuts in Italy.
By the time they reached the Yugoslav border they felt confident enough to continue to Australia. Their passports and papers were all in order and the border guards waved them through with cheerful smiles.
Driving across Yugoslavia they felt for the first time like strangers travelling through foreign lands. While in France and Italy they had chattered constantly, words tumbling out of their mouths in a quest to find out all they could about each other. The interior of the car seemed to have absorbed their intimacy and felt like a cocoon. Jean-Paul gripped the steering wheel and stared at the road ahead as the scenery changed from familiar Alpine scenery to long straight roads of endless forest. Whenever they stopped for petrol and a meal they were immediately surrounded by locals asking direct questions. They soon picked up a sprinkling of Serbo-Croat and were greeted warmly at each stop. They slept in the car in the light of the petrol stations with the lorry drivers and sat in a circle sharing French Marc and Plum brandy called Slivovica.
Jean-Paul was full of French charm and everyone they met warmed to the young couple. Their notebooks were soon full of addresses and promises to keep in touch.
Once they crossed into Greece they drove all the way across a rather barren and mountainous region to the Turkish border eager to feel the exotic charm of the Orient.

Sally opened her eyes and smiled at the children. They were gazing at her with rapture.

‘Find Turkey on the map now Ellie. I loved this country from the start. It was like a magic gateway. It has a foot in Europe and a foot in Asia. Istanbul which used to be the imperial capital controls the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Jean-Paul had some friends staying there and had invited us to their hotel. We had our first proper bath and dressed up for a special dinner where we saw the most beautiful girls dancing, it was the first time I had seen belly dancing. The women explained all the special meanings behind the moves, to do with fertility, water and life forces.
We drank special Turkish coffee and the most delicious little cakes, I can taste them now.
The next day though, we were longing to get back on the road. The car had become our refuge and our friend.
We entered Iran and then onto Afghanistan. We passed through wheat fields, sugar plantations, fruit groves, high plateau great mountain ranges. Jean-Paul was an engineer and so we visited various sites where they were building dams to take water to the cities and restoring canals. Here too everyone we met treated us with kindness and curiosity. We had been told to take care crossing from Pakistan to India but when we stopped to show our passports the guards from both sides were all in the same bar, laughing and drinking together. Most of them spoke perfect English. They just waved us through.
When we arrived in India we started having trouble with the car. We got as far as Bombay, nowMumbai and Jean-Paul made enquiries to see if we could get a boat to Australia. After lengthy negotiations and lots of Gauloises, the captain of a cargo ship agreed to take us. They hoisted the car up in a net and gave us a small cabin.
As we set sail and stood on the deck watching the sultry coastline of India it seemed like the end of the road.’

The back door slammed and they all jumped.  A tall, handsome man appeared, holding out his arms.

‘Look at you, Joe, haven’t you grown, and I would have never recognized this glamorous young lady!’

Joe was the first to recover and ran to him.

‘Uncle John,  Auntie Sally’s been telling us a story about her driving to Australia with a French man.’

There was a giggle from the table, Auntie Sally stood up to take the Onion Tart out of the oven and then went to join in the hug.

‘Oh Joe, Uncle John is the French man, ‘ she squeezed her nephew and ruffled his hair.

Mais, oui, c’est moi’ John beamed around him and winked at Ellie, who started to smile but then stiffened, put on her usual scowl. and mumbled,
‘Well why haven’t you got a French accent, and anyway I still don’t see what onions have got to do with driving round the world.’

John pulled up a chair and gave a Gallic shrug,

‘You cannot spend all that time in a car with a romantic English girl and not lose your accent. As for the onions, the boat that took us to Australia from India was chock a block full of onions, they were rolling around all over the place and we kept finding them in the car for months afterwards.’

Sally laughed, a loud and joyous sound that made even Ellie smile,

‘And that is why I often make onion tart, to remind us of our youth and our road trip and bring back all the wonderful, happy memories.’

 

1549 words