Short Story: ‘Ali’s Family’ – Author is Gaylene AtkinsNZ ©2013.

As I haven’t popped up a blog post, or book review for a few weeks I thought you’d like a short story from my archives just for a change of pace. I wrote this one five years ago for an RWNZ short story competition. It didn’t place. But it’s still a story I like. Hope you enjoy it too.

 

THERE he was two rows from the front and halfway along the pew, I couldn’t have missed him; a familiar sensation whooshed through me ending with that intense gut-tightening feeling that’d made me leave in the first place. He stood tall and straight-backed, head-up at a proud tilt as he looked forward to the minister, singing; shoulders above everyone else. I’d come here with the hope of seeing him as much as paying my last respects to Violet Imogen Carter.

The hymn being sung, now a rising crescendo. While everyone was standing it was easier to lumber my way down the aisle and into the pew as if I had every right to be there, without causing too much of a stir by being late. Smiling to various people may have looked inappropriate to some, but never for Aunty Vi. ‘A genuine smile shared with loving warmth cannot be misread’ was one of her standard lines. To top that, I could clearly hear her saying, ‘and better late than not at all, eh dear?’ If she were here to speak, she wouldn’t have just been talking about my attending this funeral service for her either.

The last verse of ‘How Great Thou Art’ was almost at its conclusion. As some of the mourners lifted their voices in unison to another level for the final rousing chorus I inched and crabbed sideways along his pew, nudging and saying ‘excuse me’ until I was within one person of him.

He’d filled out. His mourning suit fit his ‘new to my eyes’ muscular frame, the once coal dark hair now greying at the temples and above his ears and cut much shorter than I remember him wearing it. It suited him perfectly.

I used to know the shape and form of every naked dip and hollow, the smoothness of his skin; eyes shut; hands roaming, fingers caressing. Then to have that touch returned; gently pulling me forward to hold and frame my face, as he looked at me, intensely, as if I were a precious cut crystal jewel or valuable piece of art and he wanted to commit the memory of the moment every single time, before he kissed me.

And to him, I guess I was worth it. Then.

I’d known the many facets of my personality had caught his interest a long time before we got to the kissing stage. The sun and rain, the blinking rainbows of colour that made me who I was, often reflected against the plain white walls of my bedroom as we discovered the basics of being human. Seeking comfort in one another as we learnt about sex on our journey of discovery. That first kiss had been twenty-one years ago. I’d been a skinny sometimes-introverted fifteen-year-old the first time we’d had sex; a hormonal driven teen with mood swings and manipulation tactics in place. To me, he’d been a butterfly—emerging from the ugliness that was sometimes an eighteen-year-old boy’s only way forward into manhood. I helped his transition. He showed me how to have some light in my dark.

Stepping around one more singing mourner, I managed to squeeze myself in beside him. He glanced at me as I opened the service sheet and tried to sing the final few words of one of Vi’s favourite ‘churchy songs’. There had been a momentary flicker of something in his dark green eyes. Interest? Maybe it was a smile of relieved recognition. I hoped so.

As the hymn finished, I sat carefully. He remained standing and then moved past me, touching my cheek on the way; a soft feather like stroke as he got around my now awkwardly spread knees. Glancing down at the order of service, I knew he was giving the eulogy without having to see it confirmed. I blinked back salty tears and studied the sheet anyway. Sure enough, there it was, Eulogy—Dominick Boyd-Carter. My eyes roved and traced every letter of his name, fluttering heart and breath uneven as goose bumps tattooed up and down my spine.

The smooth cadence of his voice filled my head and took me on an old journey. I closed my eyes and indulged the sweetness of those memories for a second before opening them again to focus on him.

“Violet Imogen Carter wasn’t ‘just’ my mother. She was so much more for all of my life and that of many others. I’m honoured that she requested that I give this, her final speech.” He waved the sheaf of papers at us, “Mum wrote this and told me I could add to it if I wanted—but only if it was funny.” There was a murmur of laughter and whispers of how like Vi that was, from those around me.

“Vi was born to be a mother. She loved children and fostered over one hundred of us with as many as eight children in their farm-house home at any one time. She was a tough disciplinarian and she dished that out with equal measures of love. We all had our jobs and responsibilities within the framework of the home and on the farm. Bill was her rock and dearly loved husband for over sixty years. Their love showed me that being good-parents, in a strong relationship, was possible. Bill’s sudden passing away two months ago set this day in motion. Her heart broke along with her will to go on without the love of her favourite man to share each day with.”

I baulked and choked back more tears. My heart really began beating rapidly now. How come I didn’t know Bill had died?

Uncle Bill and Aunty Vi had been the first adults I’d ever trusted. At almost thirteen, I knew it had been a struggle for them to take me on. I was the oldest foster child they had ever had. At first, I hadn’t wanted to help with the younger children, or the chores for that matter. Vi was patient with me. She let me revert into my shell from time to time but somehow the magic of her ‘ordinary-ness’ always won me over. Again and again.

She was the first person to see and understand that I needed specialist treatment; a ‘head-doctor’, as she called it. Having multiple personalities caused by my need to escape previous trauma, was not something every day ordinary people usually dealt with. But Vi coped with me and the ‘others’ with her usual good humour and extraordinary determination. Over time, and with a lot of help, I was able to phase out the nastier ‘others’ and concentrate on the ‘good’ one. Most people would have said ‘no’ without any thanks, and sent me back. Not Vi and Bill. They treated me and my ‘other good sister’ equally.

Looking up I caught Dominick’s eye as he came back down the aisle toward his seat. I’d zoned out and missed most of his eulogy? As he got closer, it was clear he was going to sit down on my right, not on the left where he’d been previously. I moved along the pew a fraction, glancing sideways at the young person to my left. How could I not have realised? My stomach pitched and rolled downward, all breath stalled in my throat as I held myself in place by sheer force of will.

The young person beside me smiled back as Dom’s hand reached for mine as he sat, his hard thigh pressed against my leg. The rest of the service rushed by in a blur of more silent tears.

There was soon movement as the final blessings for peace and safe passage into the next life were intoned for Violet. Pallbearers stood to take their places. I had inadvertently sat down amongst several of them.

Before I knew it, I found myself outside in the late morning sunshine. It was easy to stand back and watch the crowd as they surged forward to place flowers and other tributes on Vi’s simple pine casket, now reposing in the hearse. I couldn’t bring myself to do the same.

“She’s chosen a cremation too. Then her and Bill will be scattered on the farm together. Under the oldest Kauri tree on the farm, the one over-looking the sea. You will remember it too I guess?” He’d come back to stand beside me.

How could I forget the place where he’d first kissed me. The rest came weeks later. “I didn’t know about Bill—I’m sorry—I should’ve been here for her. You. And…” The words whispered out of me. The pain and sadness of not seeing her that one last time was intense. Gripping.

“You’re here now Ali. That’s all that matters. And I reckon they’ll both be pleased to know it was Vi’s passing that finally got us back together.”

“I’ve never been ‘together’ with anyone.” Even I could hear the wistful tone in my voice.

“You want to be though. And all these years we should’ve been. Vi and Bill knew that.” His voice trailed off as he turned to speak to someone.

He was right. I’d run away from Vi and Bill. And him. It’d been cowardly. And until this moment I hadn’t realised how much it’d hurt everyone. Me most of all because I’d chosen to be alone. I swiped at the edges of my eyes as I faced him.

“Sasha, Tim, meet your mother. Ali—meet our twins.”

Dom’s hand drew me forward, his free arm slipping around my lower back, encircling me. His grip was so familiar, yet not. Strong—supportive and a man now not the boy I’d left. My last twenty years flashed at high speed thru my brain; these beautiful young people were living proof of what I’d missed out on.

The twins had been almost a year old when I’d left; I could feel my heart somersaulting as Sasha smiled at me and then I heard my daughter speak for the first time. A soft caring voice. No judgement. No criticism. Calm acceptance.

“You’re even more stunning in person than in Dad’s crinkled up wallet photos.” Then the young man I’d sat next to, the image of his father, spoke. “Nana Vi was an extraordinary woman who told us you were too. She also said you’d come back to us when you were ready. And that we had to keep believing that. She understood your need to run. She taught us to have patience.”

The forgiveness, trust and love shining out of three of them had all words freezing in my brain. Finally, courage had me reaching for a hand of each twin and looking from one to the other. “I’m so sorry in many ways. In others, I’m not. You had the three best parents possible. Vi and Bill stood by your Dad and you two.”

Dom’s grip firmed around me as he rubbed his left hand back and forth across my lower spine and hip area. Instinctively he seemed to know where I needed some gentle pressure to be applied. It was blissful relief; for a few seconds.

“Please don’t run again Ali. Stay. Come home with us. Come back to the farm.”

“How can I? Look at me.”

“I am.” His smile was unwavering and my undoing. As the nagging lower back pain that had plagued me for the past twelve hours hiked up another notch, my waters broke. I tightened my grip on my two grown children and leaned sideways; into him.

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