Short Story

Posted on May 9, 2017






Caroline heard them before she saw them.  The car whooshed and crunched across the gravel drive and she took off her apron and bunged it onto the floor of the utility room to be washed later.  The giddy scratching of dogs’ feet sliding over polished wooden floors, was accompanied by frantic yaps as Jasper and Digby tried to decide whether to welcome their beloved master home, or rip the throat out of the stranger who was emerging from his car.


‘Shut up, Dogs!’ yelled Caroline but they took no notice.


The front door was thrown open and Caroline hastily ran her tongue across her front teeth to remove any lipstick that might have lodged there.


‘Here we are!’ said Guy.


‘Hello, hello.  Welcome, welcome,’ said Caroline as she walked into the hallway with her arms out stretched and then, ‘Get down, Digby,’ as the portly Labrador leapt up to greet the party.


‘Hello Mrs Littleton,’ said a tall but slight, young woman standing before Caroline whom she could hardly bring herself to look at.


‘Hello!  How lovely to meet you at last,’ she said.


‘You too,’ and the two women came together awkwardly, not knowing whether to shake hands or embrace.  Simultaneously they seemed to make the decision to go for it, and ended up kissing each other and some of the awkwardness disappeared.


‘Now,’ said Caroline, ‘Get down, Digby! Silly dog! Is it Olivia? Or Livvie? Or Liv?’


‘Liv is fine,’ said Liv, ‘it’s what Barnie calls me anyway.’


‘Hi Mum,’ said Barnie and he put his arms around his mother and lifted her off her feet.  He made a roaring noise and squeezed her with ursine ferocity, making her emit a snorting sound that was supposed to indicate disapproval but was riddled with delight.  ‘It’s so good to be home!’ Barnie said.  ‘I thought we were never going to get here.’


‘I’m sorry you’ve had such a pig of a journey,’ said Caroline, back on terra firma.  ‘It must have been everyone heading for the coast – one ray of sunshine and the hoards descend.’


‘I got you these,’ Liv said as she shyly proffered a small bunch of cornflowers that looked like it needed a drink and a lie down.


‘Oh how lovely, look at these Guy, how lovely.  Digby, will you get down?! I love Cornflowers, always have, ever since I was a little girl.  Now, let me get you a cup of tea, you must be gasping after that slog.’


‘Yes, it was a bit of a nightmare, still we’re here now.  Thank you so much for having me Mrs Littleton.’


‘Oh, Caroline, please!  It’s Caroline and Guy, we don’t do formality round here, do we Guy?’


‘Certainly not.’


‘You’ll find we’re very laid back,’ Caroline went on, standing the cornflowers in the sink.  She would snip the ends off later and find just the perfect vase to put them in from a collection stored in the pantry in descending order of size.


‘Let’s get the kettle on and get you settled.’  Caroline turned to the Aga and placed a kettle onto the heat.  ‘Now Barnie, we’ve put Liv in the pink room so can you show her where she’s sleeping?  I’ve put some towels out for you Liv, but if you need anything just say or better still help yourself. Mi casa es su casa, as they say en Espana.’


‘That’s so kind Caroline, thank you.’


‘In fact, Guy, why don’t you get Liv’s things from the car and pop them up there for her so she can relax.’


Liv tapped a small satchel-like bag that was draped across her body.  ‘It’s OK,’ she said, ‘I‘ve got everything in here.’


‘Oh,’ said Caroline and her mouth stuck momentarily in an O shape before she turned again to the Aga in order to grab her oven gloves.


‘Now that’s what I call travelling light, very impressive,’ said Guy.  ‘My old commander would give you a medal for that.’


‘You’re like Mary Poppins,’ said Caroline but instantly remembered that Mary Poppins’ bag was huge and contained a hat stand and an aspidistra and she couldn’t remember what on earth her train of thought had been.


Liv smiled politely.


‘Come on, I’ll show you where you’re sleeping,’ said Barnie, who had grabbed an apple and was biting down on it noisily.  ‘This way m’lady.’


‘I’ll have a cup of tea ready for you when you come down.  I’m saying tea, but would you prefer a cup of coffee?’


‘No, I’m fine thank you.’


‘I’ve laid up something to eat in the garden,’ Caroline went on. ‘This might well be the full extent of British Summertime, so I thought we should make the most of it.’


‘Great, Mum, thanks,’ said Barnie.  ‘I’ll just show Liv where she’s sleeping and then we’ll come and find you.’


Guy and Caroline watched the couple leave the kitchen and then heard them thunder up the stairs giggling.


‘What do you think?’ Caroline whispered.


‘Delightful, absolutely delightful, I don’t know what you got yourself in such a state for.’


‘I know, I just want her to feel welcome.’ Caroline said, squatting down and withdrawing a tray of freshly made muffins from the Aga.


‘They look fantastic,’ said Guy, ‘what are they?’


‘Raspberry and white chocolate.’


Guy rubbed his hands together with glee. ‘I’m starving.’


‘How can you be starving?  You only had lunch an hour ago.’  Caroline had made a batch of her split pea and ham soup and heated up some cheese scones which she’d cut in half and allowed knobs of shiny butter to glide lazily across.  They’d had a rhubarb yoghurt for pudding and it was only half past three now, so how Guy could be so ravenous she couldn’t understand.


Caroline removed the muffins from the baking tray and put them out to cool by the open window.  She looked across her garden towards the little orchard at the back of the house.  In the spring it was covered in daffs, that was the time she loved it most she thought, but today it looked about as good as she’d ever seen it.  Her eye was drawn to the bird table and she made a mental note to refill the half-empty bird feeders.  If it continued to be this warm they would heat up the pool.   When the kids had left for uni, she and Guy had told themselves that it wouldn’t matter and that they would try and swim every day but of course they hadn’t and the cover was still over the pool in mid-June, whereas when the kids were home it would barely make it beyond March.


A breeze came in through the window and her pretty kitchen curtains ballooned slightly before being sucked gently back through the frame.  Caroline again thanked the genius who had invented those handy little weights that you clipped to the edge of a tablecloth when eating outside, that prevented it from flying off and taking a bowl of Gazpacho with it.  She’d found them in her gardening catalogue in the ‘al fresco’ section.  They were in the shape of pineapples and she pictured them now swinging daintily from the white, linen cloth she had used for tea that afternoon.


She lifted the kettle and poured boiling water into a teapot, swirled it around, emptied it and then filled it again. Then she put in five heaped spoonsful of tea.  She put the teapot on the tray, was going to put a tea cosy on, but then worried Liv might think her old fashioned and so thought better of it.


‘Shall I take that out?’ asked Guy, lifting the tray and crossing the kitchen.


‘Thank you, darling, that’s very kind,’ said Caroline, and started to arrange the muffins on a plate.


‘Muffins!!’ crowed Barnie as he entered the kitchen once more.  His hand darted out to steal a little nub of white chocolate nestling in one of the fluffy folds of cake.


‘Hands off,’ said Caroline, and smacked the back of his hand.


‘They’re still warm,’ said Barnie, ‘yummy.’


Liv had followed him into the kitchen, she’d brushed her hair and was wearing Barnie’s jersey. ‘Good idea,’ said Caroline, ‘there’s a bit of a breeze out there.  Now, Guy’s taken the tea things out into the garden, is that OK for you?’


‘I’m fine honestly.’


‘As I say, I can make a pot of coffee if you’d prefer.’


‘I don’t really drink tea or coffee…’


‘Oh… Not a problem,’ Caroline began burrowing into a cupboard.  ‘I’ve got some Elderflower cordial somewhere.  It’s absolutely delicious, especially on a day like today.  There’s a woman in the village and she makes it herself.  Set up a little company and is selling it all over.  Well the deli in Petworth anyway.’


‘No honestly, just water will do me fine.’


‘I can’t just give you water.’


‘Honestly, it’s no trouble,’ Liv said and Caroline reluctantly opened her fridge.  She reached for a slender, blue bottle of mineral water that she had been planning to put on the table that evening.  She’d get some ice and some slices of lemon and Liv could have a really refreshing drink of water that cost a pound a swig.


But as Caroline turned around, Liv had helped herself to a tumbler and was filling it with tap water, tepid tap water.  She turned to face Caroline, made a little ‘cheers’ gesture and took a sip.


‘Are you hungry?’ said Caroline.  ‘I hope you’re hungry’ and left the kitchen.





‘Well that’s extraordinary!’ Guy was laughing and shaking his head. ‘I left in ‘79 so we would have over-lapped by a year at least.  And your surname is Bannister you say?’  He half-closed his eyes, repeating the name hoping to jolt some long-lost memory.  ‘Bannister…  Bannister… I don’t suppose you know what house he was in?’


Liv shrugged, ‘Not a clue I’m afraid.  I’ll ask him though.  In fact, I’ll send him a text now.’  She jumped up from the table to go and find her phone.


Guy exploded again. ‘Extraordinary!  You know I think I do remember a Bannister.  Bunny Bannister.  Excellent cross-country runner.  Had a rather gorgeous mother I seem to remember.’


‘Like mother, like daughter,’ said Caroline and she leant over and squeezed Barnie’s hand.  ‘She really is very lovely.’


‘I know,’ said Barnie, grinning, ‘I’m so bloody lucky.  That’s why I had to pop the question so sharpish; didn’t want some other bugger to get in there before me.’


‘Quite right,’ said Guy.


‘Sorry – it must have been a hell of a shock for you two.’


‘Don’t be silly-‘ Caroline smiled and was interrupted by her husband.


‘I said to your mother, when did Barnaby ever do anything by the book?  If anyone was going to have a whirlwind romance, it was that boy.  Honestly, we’re delighted for you.  Absolutely bloody delighted. Any thoughts of a date yet or where you might want it all to take place?’


‘No, I think we’re still just getting used to the idea.’


Liv wandered back into the garden looking at her phone screen as she sent a text.


‘We were just talking about the wedding,’ said Caroline.  ‘Where do your parents live? Would you have it at home.’


‘Well Dad’s in London and Mum lives in Wiltshire with my stepfather, just outside Devizes.’


‘Is that where you grew up?’ Caroline asked as she poured tea into little tea cups that had belonged to her mother-in-law, of whom she had been inordinately fond.


‘Yeah, well there once my mum married again and in Chelsea with my dad.  Best of both worlds really, although I don’t think I’d have said that in my teens, I hated being stuck in the country then.’


Caroline plopped three sugar cubes into her husband’s tea.  He’d given it up at about the same time as he’d started running five or so years ago, but as the running had waned so the sugar intake had been restored.  ‘So you’ll probably have the wedding in Wiltshire?’


‘God no!’ Liv guffawed and she leant forward and clasped Barnie’s shoulder.  ‘I think we’ll just go for something quite elegant and understated.  My dad’s pretty central and all our mates are there so it kind of makes sense.  We don’t want a massive fuss.’


Caroline nodded, ‘Very wise,’ she said, ‘Very wise,’ relieved that she hadn’t blurted out her planned offer of having it at Starlings with marques, dance floors, a band, amuse-bouche, possibly a horse and carriage and every decent B&B in the county booked out for months in advance.


‘We thought you might want to have it here,’ said Guy with a mouthful of flapjack.


‘They don’t want it in this old dump!’ Caroline sounded rather shrill. Starlings was a very pretty house sitting in the shadow of the village church.  It had once been the vicarage, had a bit of land at the back and a beautiful garden at the front.  It was very similar to the house where Caroline had grown up.  In the Seventies it had been converted into a small prep school but thank goodness someone had snapped it up in ‘84 when the school had gone belly-up, and once again restored it to a family home. Fulham felt like a very distant memory now, Caroline couldn’t believe she’d stuck it out there for as long as she did.  ‘You can carry me out in a box,’ she’d said on the day they moved into Starlings.


‘You haven’t eaten anything,’ said Caroline to Liv.  ‘Come on, you’d really be helping me out if you’d finished off that last bit of shortbread.  Otherwise Guy will have it and he’s had more than enough.’


Barnie leant over, nicked the piece in question and tossed it into his mouth.


‘You know me,’ he said, ‘I can’t stand waste.’  Everyone laughed and Caroline tutted indulgently.


‘It’s not my fault!  It’s your shortbread!’ Barnie turned to his mother. ‘Do you remember that red tin you used to send me at school, crammed full of shortbread?  Now that was a good day, the day that tin arrived from home.  I was the most popular boy in the house.’


Caroline nodded, remembering queuing for hours at the post office with the red tin wrapped in brown paper and tucked tightly under her arm.   She offered Barnie the last muffin and he stuffed it into his mouth in one.


‘Honestly, where does he put it all?’ Caroline looked at Liv.  ‘When he was little his sister used to say he had hollow legs.’


Barnie banged his knuckles against his thigh and pretended to listen for an empty clang.  They all laughed again. ‘Are you sure you’re not hungry?’ Caroline asked Liv one last time.


‘I don’t actually eat sugar,’ said Liv.  ‘I haven’t for over a year now.’


Caroline went to open her mouth but no words came out.


‘Really?’ said Guy.  ‘How fascinating.  That must have been tricky when you were travelling.’


‘Much easier really,’ said Liv.  ‘The minute you get away from a Western diet you realise how unnecessary all the sugar we pump into stuff really is.  It’s a poison of course but we’ve all grown so used to it we don’t even notice how much we’re consuming.’


‘Liv’s starting a course in September, learning all about nutrition, it’s her thing,’ said Barnie proudly.


‘Is it a degree course?’ asked Guy.


‘No, it’s at a private college, my dad’s very kindly paying for it, but the course explores the areas I’m interested in.’


‘Such as?’ Guy raised his eyebrows.


‘Well, as I said, comparing Western diets with those from other less developed parts of the world.  There’s a historical angle too, basically looking at how we managed to get everything so wrong and the ways in which we can put it right.’


‘Fascinating,’ said Guy again.


‘You’re not vegetarian are you?’ asked Caroline, picturing the beautiful piece of topside beef she had prepared for that evening.


‘Easy Mother!’ said Barnie, ‘She’s not a complete freak.’


Guy gave a hoot of laughter and Liv said, ‘No, I really love meat, just not-’


‘That’s a relief,’ said Caroline.  ‘I’ve got a superb piece of topside for tonight.  The butcher in the village is really first rate, isn’t he Guy?’


‘Absolutely top notch,’ agreed Guy, nodding his head.


‘I told him we had an honoured guest and I wanted something a bit special.’


‘Oh dear,’ said Liv and twisted her mouth and looked at Barnie.


‘Live doesn’t actually eat red meat,’ he said and put the palms of his hands up. ‘Mea culpa, I should have let you know all this. Sorry Ma.’


‘Not a problem,’ Caroline realised she was squeaking. ‘I’m sure I can do you some fish.  Or something with a chicken breast.  Not a problem at all.’


Liv winced. ‘Please don’t go to any trouble,’ she said.  ‘I’m sure I can fill up on veg.’  She turned to Barnie and gave him a playful whack across the arm.  ‘I told you to tell your mum.’


‘I know, I know, I’m such a useless bastard I can’t imagine what it is you see in me.’


‘And just at this precise moment in time, neither can I,’ said Liv and whacked him again.


Guy stood up and began to collect up the plates.  ‘Come on Barnie old man, let’s see if you can redeem yourself by loading the dishwasher.’


‘It’s the least I can do,’ said Barnie.  ‘You girls sit tight and relax.’


‘Thank you, Darling,’ said Caroline and Barnie bent down kissed the top of her head.


As the men strode back to the house, there was a pinging sound and Liv looked at her phone.  ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Dad didn’t arrive till ‘81 so Guy wouldn’t have known him.’  Then she snorted.  ‘And apparently he was asked to leave pretty promptly.  Now that’s something he hasn’t owned up to before.’  She squealed as she read the remainder of the text.  ‘I shall be having words with him about that.’


‘I think Guy got up to all sorts,’ said Caroline, ‘he just never got caught.’


‘Oh with Dad it would have been drugs,’ Liv laughed and Caroline tried to sustain a queasy smile.



‘Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, children with rotten teeth, tumours, birth defects.  The rise in the numbers of stomach cancers alone ought to be enough to make everyone re-think their diets immediately.’ Liv was speaking as Caroline entered the dining room.  She had decided to save the beef and had made a superb coq au vin at short notice.  She lifted the weighty lid of the casserole dish triumphantly, and a waft of warm, brothy air rose and hovered above the table.


Guy was gently sniffing the stained end of the cork of the bottle of red wine he had decanted earlier.  They’d had fish as their first course and the white had been a triumph.


‘I mean nutritionally speaking we are a ticking time bomb and nobody seems to care,’ Liv went on.


‘Not exactly true,’ said Barnie, ‘I mean you can’t open a Sunday supplement without being bombarded with articles telling you what lurks in your frankfurter or fifty ways to get your child to exercise.’  Liv shot Barnie a venomous look and he shut up.


‘Fascinating,’ said Guy.


Caroline sat down, spread her newly laundered napkin across her lap and gestured for everyone to help themselves.  ‘I said to Guy earlier, I mean I never really had a career but if I was your age, I would probably be doing something like your course.  I’ve always been fascinated by food and nutrition.  You might say it’s my passion too.’


‘Really?’ said Liv, spooning the smallest portion of chicken imaginable onto her plate.


‘Yes, and you know when my father was very poorly, we had to go and see a nutritionist at the hospital.  The chemo meant that my poor dad really couldn’t manage much.  His mouth was very sore – he’d got all these terrible ulcers you see – and he had no appetite.  But of course I just wanted to feed him up and get him well.’


‘When was this?’ asked Liv and Caroline registered that the girl wasn’t having any Potato Dauphinoise at all, but that the broccoli seemed to be a hit.


‘Oh about three years ago.  Was it three years?’  Caroline looked at Guy and he nodded solemnly.


‘Anyway, we were dreading it and really quite uptight about the whole thing and we met this young man and he really was super, such a help.’


‘What did he say?’ Liv put her hand over her wine glass to prevent Guy from filling it.


‘Well, I can’t remember that much really.  He was just very understanding and positive and I thought what an interesting job he had.’  Everyone nodded.


‘Oh I remember one thing he said,’ Caroline gulped at her wine and went on.  ‘Dad could just about face beans.  Heinz Baked Beans, and the young man said that if he wanted to eat them morning, noon and night then it wouldn’t kill him and that actually baked beans are just about the most nutritious thing you can eat. It gave us such a lift at the time and we stopped off on the way home and bought about a hundred tins.’


‘But they’re full of sugar,’ said Liv, her lip curled in disgust.  ‘I can’t imagine who would advise a sick person to eat what is basically beans in syrup.’


‘Oh, well I think it was just in the absence of anything else…’  Caroline saw very clearly her beloved father sitting at her kitchen table hunched over a bowl of baked beans, frail, emaciated and trying hard to swallow just one mouthful to please her.


‘Is that the sort of thing you’d like to do, Liv?’ asked Guy.  ‘Work at a hospital or something along those lines?’


‘Well no,’ Liv smiled shyly at Barnie.  She sat up in her chair and was clearly excited to share her plans with Barnie’s parents, who leant forward eagerly.  ‘What I really want to do is start up my own blog, just outlining what I eat each day, about the choices I make and where I source stuff.  And that’s with a view to starting up my own line of ready-meals.’


‘Fascinating,’ said Guy.


‘You know, just have something on the market that is sourced responsibly, that has no sugar or gluten or all those things that leave you feeling sluggish in the middle of the day and are well… dirty.’


‘I see,’ said Caroline as she burst a bloated shallot with her fork.


‘I have a few contacts that I can go to for investment – friends of my dad’s in the city and my Godfather’s on the board of one of the big supermarkets – and I know it must sound like pie in the sky to you-‘


‘Excuse the pun,’ said Barnie.


‘Excuse the pun, but I think there’s a real gap in the market and as you say, Caroline, it’s my passion.’


Barnie was smiling proudly.  A small crystal cup held the salt and he used a mini silver teaspoon in his large clumsy fingers to transfer it to his plate.


‘I don’t think anyone ever told him not to season his food before he’s even tasted it,’ said Caroline, raising a critical eyebrow at her son.


‘Yes,’ Liv agreed, ‘and it’s probably stuffed with salt already. I’m sorry to say this, but he has the manners of a typical English public schoolboy – ketchup on everything and get it down your neck before Matron comes and it’s lights out and we get a beating.’


‘Oh and I suppose you convent girls weren’t twice as bad,’ snorted Barnie.


‘No, we weren’t, we were perfect in every way as far as I can remember.’


‘That’s not what your mother says,’ teased Barnie.


‘Well what would she know,’ snapped Liv and the table went quiet.


‘Fascinating,’ said Guy. ‘I do think it’s hard to see the wood for the trees sometimes and separate what is fashion and what is genuinely good advice when it comes to food.’


‘God yes,’ agreed Liv, ‘that’s why I’m doing this course. I mean it’s independent, not tied to any university or any so called’ – she curled her fingers in the air – ‘’experts.’’


‘Yes, I think that’s very wise,’ said Guy.


‘When you have children it gets worse,’ Barnie slyly laid his hand across Liv’s as Caroline spoke, ‘I mean one minute it’s drink apple juice it stops asthma and then the next don’t drink apple juice it’s full of acid and sugar.  It’s five a day and then it’s seven a day.  It’s low fat milk and then full-fat milk and the advice seems to change on a daily basis and you feel as if you’re standing on quick sand.’


Everyone agreed and then Liv looked at Caroline sideways.  ‘You’re going to think I’m mad,’ she said and smiled nervously.  ‘Barnie’s used to this aren’t you?’


Barnie groaned.


‘What is it?’ said Caroline, stumped.


‘Well this is absolutely delicious and I’m really enjoying it…’ Liv said looking down at her empty fork.


‘Yes?’ said Caroline.


‘But you haven’t got any Tabasco have you?’



‘Did you mention church?’ Caroline asked, peeling her knickers down across her thighs.  They were the sort that redistributed your fat to less obvious parts of the body and she could swear that by the end of the evening her earlobes were enlarged.


‘Yes, they seem perfectly happy to come along.’  Guy was taking the cufflinks out of his shirt cuffs and placing them in a little leather box next to his bed.


‘I know I’m old fashioned, but you don’t think she’s planning to wear that skirt do you?’


‘Well I doubt she’s brought a change of outfit in that little bag.  Why don’t you lend her something?’


‘Oh don’t be absurd Guy,’ Caroline gave her husband a withering look.


‘Well lend her something of Sukie’s.’


Caroline began taking off her make-up, sweeping cold cream across her face with cotton wool pads.  ‘She hasn’t kept anything here for years.’


‘But her room’s stuffed with clothes.’


‘Yes, but I don’t think it’s going to be much use, unless Liv’s happy to attend the Sunday Service in jodhpurs with a rosette on each nipple.’


Guy laughed.  ‘Might cheer the vicar up a bit.’


Caroline pulled her nightie over her head and made her way to her sink to brush her teeth.  She looked at herself in the mirror as she did so.  God, she looked old.  And so tense.  A wave of utter despair took her unawares.  She felt her eyes fill with tears but she began brushing resolutely, waiting for the feeling to pass.


Guy looked across.  ‘What the devil’s the matter with you?’


‘Nothing,’ said Caroline irritably through bubbles of toothpaste.  She spat spitefully into the sink, bobbed her head down to suck a mouthful of water from the tap and then spat it out with equal vigour.


‘Nothing, it’s just….’




‘Well, I know I’m being silly, but I’d let myself get excited about having the wedding here.  I’d even planned the flowers in the church.  I’m disappointed that’s all.’


‘Well perhaps once she sees it tomorrow she’ll have a change of heart. What girl doesn’t dream of getting married at somewhere like St Matthews?’


‘Girls like her,’ said Caroline bitterly.


Girls like her?’  What do you mean by that?’ Guy paused on the brink of stepping into his pyjama bottoms.


‘Girls like Liv don’t want that sort of wedding.  Girls like Liv want to get married somewhere trendy.  We’ll be lucky if we get an invite.’


‘What’s brought all this on? I think Liv is utterly charming.  She hasn’t put a foot wrong.’


Caroline got into bed and as she pulled up the covers she drew her knees into her chest and buried her head in her hands.  ‘It’s not going to work,’ she moaned.  ‘I have such a terrible feeling about her. I bent over backwards to be nice but to girls like Liv I’m just some stupid, fat, washed-up old bag.’


Guy was dismayed.  ‘You’re being ridiculous. I don’t see how she could have been nicer.  She’s educated, intelligent, her father went to Harrow for God’s sake.  What on earth can you possibly have against her?’





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