Sunday, 15 March 2020

story excerpt - An Invitation

Here I am sharing the opening to a longer short story - An Invitation.

The sketchbook page was inspired by Aunt Nora in the garden..... The complete story will be included in a collection (Crayon Poems and Other Stories) to be published later this year.....

An Invitation (except)

She had no time to open the morning post. Elizabeth went into the garden shed to fetch her bicycle. She must visit her four aunts, who shared the family home, bringing them supplies and checking on their needs. Her older husband Henry called them ‘the aunts’. It seemed that they were, in Henry’s mind, one thing: a distraction. If Elizabeth had to rush to the aunts she could not continue to type up Henry’s book, or make tea, or scold her step-children for creating too much noise in the garden when Daddy needed to write his book with the window open.

A bright spring day, with so much bird song that rushed in her ears as Elizabeth cycled along the lane. Agile and healthy, she cycled at speed, for this stretch of road that linked one village to the next was dead flat. On a windy day it could be exhilarating, her brown hair blowing free, but today there was a warm stillness and Elizabeth, loaded down with parcels, worked hard to maintain speed. What would the aunts do when she was, herself, too old to pedal like this? She did not wish to think too far ahead.

Elizabeth cycled by a row of pretty, squat cottages before reaching the larger stone house at the end of the lane. Aunt Nora was digging in the front garden. Tall foxgloves swayed as if dancing under the weight of bees, so early for this time of year. Aunt Nora waved a clump of weeds, spraying herself with soil. ‘Hello Flossie!’ she called. It was Aunt Nora who had once asked: ‘But doesn’t Henry have a pet name for you? Surely, surely?’ When Elizabeth had explained that really no, he only ever called her Elizabeth, all the aunts had shook their heads, exchanged glances.

‘I expect the kettle is on,’ Aunt Nora said. She was the most agile aunt with keen dark eyes, swept back hair tucked beneath a little headscarf. They went inside, through a rotten wooden porch, Nora taking the clump of weeds with her, only to dump it in a pretty blue-and-white bowl in the hallway. Elizabeth could hear the piano, one of Aunt Gillyflower’s wandering tunes. ‘I expect the kettle is on,’ Aunt Nora said again and they went into the kitchen to find Aunt Mattie curled up in the fireside chair like a cat.

Aunt Mattie had once been a lanky girl with thin hair and nothing much had changed about her, except that she had aged. As a poet, dedicated to her Art, she often took on the personality of animals, sometimes an object, whatever took her fancy. Today she might be a cat, tomorrow a library book insisting it be returned to the library, the next day a rose soaking in the bath. Their mother, many years ago, had accused Mattie of being ‘fashionably individualistic’. This was, her sisters felt, a flaw only their mother could detect for their mother had been a science-minded woman with no creative spark.

‘Hello Aunt Mattie,’ Elizabeth said and Mattie the cat purred a little, then whapped a paw in Elizabeth’s general direction. ‘I see, like that is it?’ Elizabeth said and put her parcels on the kitchen table.

‘Oh, did you remember the butter?’ Aunt Gillyflower asked, coming in from the adjacent piano room. She was the baker of the aunts. A woman almost as wide as tall, though taller than Nora, she had bright dyed red hair and painted red lips. She still taught singing and piano to young people but was now more selective with her time, taking on only pupils she considered to have ‘promise and/or panache’. She was the most gregarious of the sisters and had a wide circle of friends, some more imaginary than others.. ‘I do hope you remembered the butter, and the eggs - oh and is there such a thing as blue food colouring? Or how do I make blue? I’ve been asked by one of the people at the hall to bake a cake for her nephew’s birthday.’

‘The people at the hall - can’t they bake their own cakes?’ Aunt Nora asked, filling the cold kettle.

The aunts now bickered about the people at the hall - a strange lot that Elizabeth had never been introduced to or really knew much about - indeed, in recent years she had come to understand there was no hall, unless referring to the old estate house that had been converted, over twenty years ago, into flats. But still, the aunts bickered. Elizabeth took the opportunity to look inside their fridge, put various things inside, took various moldy things out. It would not be easy to remove the grim black cauliflower without someone stopping her, insisting they might simply wipe it a bit. The aunts still had their childhood wartime ways.

‘You can’t make blue, dear me, you simply can’t!’ Aunt Peg said now, stepping in from the garden, holding a very wet piece of paper. ‘I should know!’ Aunt Peg was the visual artist of the aunts, though she seldom allowed anyone to see her work. Today, it appeared, she had been painting. She folded the saturated paper and placed it inside her apron pocket. ‘Primary colours. Oh hello Flossie, how’s things?’

‘Fine thank you, Aunt Peg, how’s the painting?’ Elizabeth said.

Aunt Peg, the tallest, with thin arms and a little bun of greying dark hair, took a moment to consider things. ‘Not bad, not bad.’ She looked inside one of the bags Elizabeth had bought into the kitchen, took out an apple and polished it on her flat chest. ‘Not bad.’
‘I am pleased to hear that,’ Elizabeth said, for this was the best anyone could expect.

Before leaving Elizabeth was given a tour of a new flower bed in the back garden. Aunt Nora and Aunt Peg had worked together on this little patch of pansies, forget-me-nots, ferns and euphorbia, mostly ‘borrowed’, seedlings pinched from next door’s garden.

‘How well we have worked together!’ Aunt Nora said, bending down and holding a pansy’s face to the sunlight. ‘See how he smiles? Of course, I did most of the heavy work.’

‘Tosh,’ Aunt Peg said. ‘I did the design work. I did the sketches!’

Elizabeth tried not to roll her eyes. She had to get home to prepare supper before the children came home from school. The aunts had stopped insisting she bring the children to visit, for they knew the children would only tell tales to their father. Tales of Mattie wanting to cut their hair, aunts bickering, playing the piano too loudly, dressing up in ancient hats and putting on variety shows. The children were not so much disinterested as baffled by and a little wary of the aunts.

(end of excerpt)

**all rights reserved (c) Cathy Cullis 2020

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