They were eleven years old when they met for the first time. My mother, Ruth, told me she could remember waking to a lavender scent of freshly laundered linen and the crash of angry waves on a windswept beach. My Aunt Nicola once revealed to me that she, too, remembered waking up that first morning at my great-grandmother’s house, feeling claustrophobic in her tiny bedroom and counting the depressing drip, drip, drips of raindrops plopping from a broken drainpipe onto a concrete ledge outside.
Mum and Nicola are cousins. I can just imagine them eyeing each other up across the breakfast table, making wary conversation about school, hobbies and the latest stories in girls’ comics. Mum says she felt self-conscious in her home-made, shapeless gingham blouse and shorts, her hair in plaits as her new cousin tucked her loose, blonde hair behind gold-studded ears. Aunt Nicola once showed me a photograph of them on that first day. She had worn a pretty white sundress with an embroidered bodice and although they both had plimsolls on their feet, Mum’s were scruffy, black lace-ups while Aunt Nicola’s were unblemished and pure white.
On that first day they had played Monopoly because it had been too wet to play outside or go to the beach. Mum had shook her head in disbelief as she told me that Nicola had never before played Monopoly. She had spent nearly all her life living in Singapore, where her father worked, and she hadn’t even heard of it. In fact, Aunt Nicola hadn’t known much about anything, other than the names of old men who sang in old-fashioned pop groups such as the Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Although enchanted by Aunt Nicola and her cosmopolitan lifestyle, Mum confessed to being bored on that first holiday together at Great-Grandma’s house. Once Nicola had been taught to play Monopoly, all she wanted to do was play indoors. Mum has two brothers and so she was a bit of a tomboy when she was a child – I know she loved being outside in the fresh air and still does. For the rest of that week, even when the weather had brightened, Aunt Nicola had pleaded to stay in and play Monopoly with Mum or bake cakes with my Great-Grandma. Mum says she supposes it was the type of thing she had never done before, with being an only child and brought up abroad.
My mother had not known the meaning of the word claustrophobic at the beginning of the week, but by the end of it she had certainly learned how it felt. Aunt Nicola laughs her head off when she tells me how she had cried and sobbed so much when she had to leave after that first holiday with Mum, it had made Mum put her fingers down her throat and pretend to throw up.
Although Nicola’s parents had the wealth to put the world at her feet, she only ever wanted what belonged to my mother. Now I suspect she wants the most precious thing of all and I am dreading hearing what she has to say to us tomorrow, when we meet up in the seaside town where it all began, forty-five years ago.
The glorious summer sunshine kisses Mum’s newly highlighted hair with warmth, blown almost immediately away by a slight cooling breeze as gentle waves suck the sand from beneath her toes. Her new hairstyle makes her look younger and suits her. I’ve been saying for ages that she ought to get her hair cut shorter in a more modern style.
“The cry of seagulls always reminds me of the time I stood on this beach holding hands with your father for the very first time,” she says. “We were fifteen – very young, I know – but we had known each other since I started coming here with Nicola. It was on the day of my grandmother’s funeral and the three of us had gone to the pier for an ice-cream after the wake.”
The gulls screech and call to each other, soaring way above us. Circling. Watching. My dad, Dave, lived in the house next door to Great-Grandma’s house. I look over my shoulder to where his parents – my grandparents – still live. Whenever Mum talks about her childhood with Aunt Nicola she always puts herself down by saying things like “she was much cleverer than me” or “she was the pretty girl with the glamorous name while I was just a Plain Jane.”
“I still don’t know why your dad chose me over Nicola,” Mum says with a grimace as she pats her new hairstyle into place. “I was nothing special.”
My dad tells me how much he loves mum all the time, shaking his head in frustration because Mum has never quite believed him. I often wonder if all this trouble is because he tells me how much he loves her, but doesn’t say it to her any more. He always asks me to buy birthday and Christmas presents for her. It’s me who chooses the cards with soppy words – not him. He’s a man of few words, my dad, but I know he loves Mum, despite Aunt Nicola’s simpering manner when she is around him, gazing up at him with adoring puppy-dog eyes. I think she’s leading him astray, headlong into a mid-life crisis. Up until the last few weeks, Dad never seemed to notice this behaviour. It all went straight over the top of his head. He’s never encouraged Aunt Nicola, no matter how much she flirts around him. It always used to make me smile when he pulled away slightly when she kissed him goodbye on the cheek, like a schoolboy straining to escape from the peppermint-scented kiss of an elderly aunt. Just lately, though, he hugs her tightly and doesn’t pull back. Last night he even stroked her hair. I saw the special, shared look between them. There’s something going on – I just know.
Mum pulls her feet from the suction of the sand, licks the salt from her lips and steps back from the water’s edge, her sandals swinging by her side.
“You go on ahead,” she says, with a sigh of resigned sadness lurking around the edges of her voice. “I’ll meet you and Nicola in the cafe in a few minutes – I just need to fetch an old book from the car.”
Reluctantly, I walk away. I don’t want to leave her. I want to stay by her side and protect her.
Ten minutes later Mum joins us at the café on the pier.
‘So … did you finally get him to agree?’ Aunt Nicola quizzes as she dabs a tiny crumb of chocolate cake from her lip with a serviette wrapped around an immaculately manicured red fingernail.
Mum lifts the lid from the pot of tea before swirling it around with a shiny teaspoon. She looks up and smiles and my heart fills with love for her. I know she is trying to drive down horrible feelings of fear and anger that are bubbling beneath her calm exterior. My eyes prickle and water. I hate what is happening to my lovely Mum.
‘The trouble with my Dave,’ Mum replies, ‘is that he is too conventional. He doesn’t like being in the sun and says he won’t like the food. He has always hated the idea of a foreign holiday.’
Aunt Nicola stretches her neck a little, casts her eyes momentarily towards the ceiling and then shoots Mum a thin smile. When she does that, I always wonder what secrets that little smile betrays. I know Aunt Nicola and Dad share a single, dog-eared page in the book of his past that doesn’t include Mum, but that was years ago when they were teenagers. My parents have been married for nearly forty years now – it really doesn’t matter that Aunt Nicola tried, unsuccessfully, to steal Dad from her all those years ago. Well, it wouldn’t matter – if only she wasn’t still trying.
‘Dave is a wonderful man,’ Aunt Nicola gushes, ‘but I think he might be scared of flying and won’t admit it.’
I can’t stop my lip turning up slightly into a sneer. There’s little room for any doubt or explanations about what they have been up to for the last few weeks behind Mum’s back. I know Mum knows something is going on, too, because she hasn’t been herself just lately.
Mum pours the tea, not looking up at her as she speaks.
‘It was just a pipe-dream, this idea of a cruise. We’ll have a couple of weeks in Devon instead.’
Mum’s voice dissolves shakily into a sigh as she tries to hold herself together. She bites her lip as Aunt Nicola subconsciously twizzles the wedding ring on her finger. Mum slides the tea across the table towards her.
‘Do you remember when we were sixteen,’ Mum says. ‘And you dyed your lovely fair hair black and told everyone your name was really spelt with a ‘K’ instead of a ‘C’?
Aunt Nicola laughs, and her face transforms in my mind’s eye to the girl in an old photograph: the smouldering, darkly alluring ‘Ni-koh-lah’, whose pale skin, heavily made-up eyes and thick dark fringe had made her look like an Egyptian goddess. The closest Mum ever got to teenage rebellion was wear hot-pants, cut her hair indecently short and call herself Ruthie.
Aunt Nicola turns to me. ‘Thank goodness you can’t do anything with your name, Dee. I’ll never escape from the Nicola with a ‘k’ jokes, and your mum will forever be Ruthie, even though you hate it, don’t you, Ruth?’
‘We didn’t even get a proper honeymoon, so I’m not surprised he won’t entertain the idea of a cruise,’ Mum says absent-mindedly with a sad, faraway look in her eyes. ‘He doesn’t really like going on holiday.’
Aunt Nicola continues to talk to me. I want to ignore her, but instead I look at a point just over her shoulder and force a smile through my teeth. My lips start to quiver.
‘At the time I felt so sorry for your mother with her register office wedding, sandwich reception in a pub and rain-sodden honeymoon weekend in a dreary hotel. I might have had the white satin and diamond-studded wedding every girl dreams of, but my first marriage was a complete disaster and life with your Uncle Rodney wasn’t much better, God rest his soul.’
I look at Mum. My heart is doing somersaults and I feel a physical ache because I love her so much. Why on earth is Aunt Nicola talking about Mum’s wedding when she is about to tear her marriage into tiny pieces?
Mum sighs and cups her chin in her hands. ‘We don’t even have any proper photographs. My parents said we could either have a professional photographer or a cooker for our tiny flat, so we plumped for a cooker and my Uncle Reg took photos, but they didn’t turn out properly’
‘I remember your flat,’ Nicola says with a giggle. ‘Didn’t we have some fun? And what about your parents’ faces when we painted the walls purple and orange.’
‘It wasn’t their fault we couldn’t afford a photographer,’ Mum continues defensively. ‘They were quite hard-up. They couldn’t afford to give me a big wedding, but we did appreciate the cooker.’
‘Oh Ruthie,’ Aunt Nicola says as she grabs Mum’s hands over the table. ‘Until we met, I was so lonely. You are the sister I never had.’
I have to get away. I just can’t bear to hear any more of this. They are trying to show solidarity in front of me, so I will accept the break-up of my parents’ long and previously happy marriage. It’s absurd. I feel so much anger towards Aunt Nicola. I don’t trust myself to speak.
I jump up and my chair scrapes rudely on the wooden floor.
‘I’ll be back in a minute … I just need the loo,’ I mumble. Mum looks up at me, concerned.
“I need you to be with your mum tomorrow afternoon when she meets Nicky on the pier in Westsea,” Dad had said to me when I called round with my children after school yesterday. “I’ll be there, too, but I’ve got an appointment and will probably be a bit late.” He shook his head and wouldn’t tell me why he wanted us all to meet at the café on the pier. “Thanks Dee,” he had added awkwardly as I reluctantly agreed. “I’ll join you all as soon as I can.”
Aunt Nicola spent yesterday morning with Dad while mum was at work. I know this because I was spying on them from my friend’s house over the road. Then they had blatantly gone off somewhere in the car, giggling like teenagers, not even bothering to hide their affair from the neighbours.
He’d also called her Nicky. He’s never called her Nicky before. It’s obvious the three of them have arrived at an amicable agreement and have asked me here today because they want to be civilised about it all. I am an only child and Aunt Nicola has never been able to have children, something that caused her great pain in the past. She’s doted on me all my life. Now I am married with children of my own, she dotes on them, too.
I know Mum has let herself go and doesn’t fuss too much over her appearance, but she is growing older gracefully while Aunt Nicola is forever clutching back at her fast receding mis-spent youth. Mum has always been the rock in our family and Aunt Nicola the seagull that perches on it from time to time. Now the seagull has turned into a predator, wanting to steal away everything that belongs to Mum, just like she did when they were children.
The atmosphere is so tense you could play a tune on taut heartstrings. I sit back down, feeling like an intruder. If Dad doesn’t arrive soon, I don’t think I can take any more. They are still talking about weddings.
‘There are some things money can’t buy,’ Aunt Nicola says to Mum, who I can see has been crying while I was in the loo. ‘I might have had the new house, the car and the rich husband, but you not only married a wonderful man, but you had the love, laughter and the family I always craved.’
I begin to feel quite sick and light-headed. Mum reaches into her handbag for a tissue, but pulls out a tatty old hard-backed book instead. ‘Do you remember this?’ she asks Aunt Nicola. ‘You borrowed it from me on that first day at Grandma’s house and couldn’t put it down.’
The book is ‘Five are Together Again’. I’ve seen it before because it’s personally signed by Enid Blyton and Mum used to show it to me when I was little. It’s one of her most treasured possessions.
As Aunt Nicola opens up the book her face brightens. I follow her gaze. Dad has just walked into the café.
‘Hello,’ he says, his eyes fixed on Mum. ‘Sorry I’m a bit late. Had some stuff to sort out for work.’ He puts his hand on Mum’s shoulder and squeezes it.
‘You OK?’ he whispers, thinking I can’t hear him. Mum nods. She has found a tissue in her bag and is holding it to her nose.
Aunt Nicola jumps up. ‘I’ll get you some tea,’ she trills, fussing over him. ‘And a cream horn to go with it.’
When she returns to the table, she takes the book from my hands. I’ve been studying it intently while my parents make polite conversation with each other about the weather, the state of paint on the pier railings and the lack of dog poo bins on the sea front, and silently seething that Aunt Nicola knows Dad’s favourite cream cake.
‘Oh, this does bring back memories. Didn’t we have a great time here when we were kids,’ Aunt Nicola says, stroking the cover of the book. ‘We were the …‘
I stare at my reflection in the window as the three of them reminisce about their childhood adventures, deliberately not listening to their conversation.. They say I look like Great-Grandma. I don’t remember her, though. She died before I was born.
‘Dee,’ Aunt Nicola says, and I pay attention again. ‘I … we … have something to tell you.’
I swear I am going to die right here in the café on the pier. I feel light-headed and my heart is pounding so fast in my chest it is hurting. I look at Mum. Her eyes water, and a solitary tear spills over her eyelid and disappears into the fine lines around her eyes. Dad reaches across the table and grasps Aunt Nicola’s hand tightly in a grip of solidarity. Mum looks away and I try to gulp down a lump that has materialised in my throat.
‘But before we tell Dee,’ Aunt Nicola continues as she withdraws her hand from Dad’s grasp, ‘I have something for you, Ruthie.’
She pulls an envelope out of her bag and slides it across the table to Mum. In the envelope is a torn out page from a cruise brochure. ‘I’ve bought you both a two-week cruise in the Caribbean to celebrate your Ruby wedding anniversary. You’ll have to cancel that guest house in Devon.’
My thumping heart flips. What on earth is going on?
‘Nicky …’ says Mum, wiping her eyes which are now filled with shock and disbelief. ‘We can’t … it’s too much. Are you sure? And what about you, Dave? I thought you didn’t want to go on a cruise.’
Dad grins. ‘I have a confession to make,’ he says. ‘I knew yesterday, when Nicky popped by with some brochures. She managed to convince me. I told her it was far too much money, but she insisted, didn’t you Nicky, and dragged me down to the travel agency to book it there and then.’
I smile a huge, fat smile as my parents pore over the page, their heads together, giggling like children reading something they shouldn’t.
‘Of course I’m sure,’ Aunt Nicola says. ‘Which brings me onto the real reason we are all here.’
I look up, puzzled. I now have absolutely no idea what is going on.
She turns to look at me. ‘Dee, my lovely, ‘ I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. I have cancer – something I’ve shared only with Dave and Ruthie since I found out. They have been fantastic and your dad has been taking me to the hospital for radiotherapy appointments. We thought it could be cured, but last Friday, I learned it is a little more serious than I first thought. There isn’t much more that can be done, so sadly, I might …’
Her voice fades and her voice crumbles. My brain seizes up. I can’t think of anything but screaming out: “No. No. No” but nothing comes out. I want to swallow but I can’t. I have got things completely wrong and I feel ashamed, shocked and scared for Aunt Nicola, all at the same time.
Aunt Nicola grabs my hand and grips it tightly.
‘But please don’t be sad for me, Dee. I need us all to be happy and to carry on as normal for as long as I can. You are the only family I have and I need you to be strong for me. Please?’
Dad puts his head in his hands, covering his eyes. He takes a deep, shuddering breath before smoothing back his hair with both hands, something he does when he is deeply worried and trying to maintain his composure.
I hear myself speak. I want to cry but can’t. I have somehow stepped outside of myself and have shoved the wailing, weeping woman under the table out of sight until she can be alone with her emotions.
‘I knew something was wrong,’ I say, shaking my head. ‘I am so, so sorry, Aunt Nicola.’
My parents look at each other with a mixture of love and pain in their eyes. Dad puts an arm around Mum’s shoulder and grab’s Aunt Nicola’s hand over the table. The three of them are in a world only they share – a special tripartite world that spans the last forty years and it doesn’t include me, even though I have been a big part of it.
‘Thank you for this, Nicky,’ Dad says simply. ‘You know we will all look after you. We can fight it together. Everything will be fine.’
‘I love you both so much,’ Aunt Nicola says to my parents. ‘I always have, all my life. I just want the two of you to have one, special holiday to celebrate forty happy years together.’
I suddenly understand. Something happened here, on this pier. I remember back to the dog-eared page in Dad’s life that has never been a secret and know that, on this pier all those years ago he made a very difficult choice between two lovely young women, and he chose Mum.
‘And anyway,’ she says, winking at Dad. ‘I had to get you to give me a kiss somehow, Dave, even if I did have to buy you a luxury cruise.’
© Annie Ireson, 14.2.13