Chocolate in Summer: A Short Story.

I’d like to thank Lindsay Bamfield of Australia for her short story submission “Chocolate in Summer”, a touching story about the complex relationship between a woman and her mother-in-law. It was originally published in a small anthology in the UK called Greenacre Writers Anthology Vol 2.

Lindsay Bamfield relocated from UK to Australia in 2019. Her mother was Australian and she has always been in touch with this aspect of her heritage. Lindsay is a mother and is now grandmother to an Australian. She has written a number of short stories and flash fiction and non-fiction articles. She has been published in Hysteria 6 AnthologyStories for Homes 2, Reflex FictionGreenacre Writers AnthologyMslexia, Writers’ News and Writing Magazine as well as on a number of literary websites

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Chocolate in Summer

Seated at the grand piano, Margot became the woman she might have been rather than the one she was. Gone was the carping woman craving her headache pills; in her place was a maestro.

‘Oh, how wonderful. You’ll have some help,’ people cooed when I muttered through clenched teeth that my mother-in-law was coming to stay. How they thought it was helpful to be driving over a hundred and fifty miles to the airport, with a two-month old breastfeeding baby in tow, I couldn’t imagine.

   She spent the entire six weeks moaning. The bedroom was too hot, too cold, the baby cried, my cooking was terrible, I didn’t iron Patrick’s shirts properly.

   ‘She’s asking for Gentleman’s Relish,’ I said to Patrick. ‘What the hell is that? I’ve never heard of it.’

   ‘Oh yes, she used to love it on toast,’ he said, frowning over our bank statement. ‘She used to put a little jar of it in my school tuck box every term. I’d sell it to one of the older boys because I hated it, and bought sweets from the tuck shop with the money. She never packed sweets. You can probably get it at Fortnum’s.’

   ‘Are you insane? Do you really expect me to high-tail it to London to get a jar of something for her bloody toast?’

   But make the journey I did, for Margot must be appeased, although nothing would ever make me good enough for her son.

‘Have you put Toby’s name down for Patrick’s prep school yet?’ she asked one Sunday lunchtime while I was clearing the table.

   ‘Margot, he’s barely three months old,’ I said. ‘Rather premature, don’t you think?’

   ‘These good schools are subscribed years in advance,’ she said curtly.

   ‘Besides which,’ I said, ‘I do not intend for my son to be sent away to school, even if we could afford it, which we can’t.’

   ‘Patrick, surely you can’t want your son educated in a state school?’

   ‘I rather think I do, Mother,’ he replied. ‘I have no wish to put Toby through what I endured.’

   I didn’t hear the end of that conversation because Toby began to wail, much to my relief.  I hurried off to placate my son who would not be sent away at the tender age of eight when, I hoped, he would still be wanting a story, a teddy snuggled into his bed and a goodnight kiss.

Each year, two months of summer were utter misery. As he grew older, even Toby began to dread the visit from Grandma: her headaches that demanded his utter silence; the outings that were curtailed because she felt unwell; the meals that must be just so.

   ‘Give me a hand,’ Patrick yelled down the stairs one Saturday before the impending visit. ‘I need you to hold the ladder. It’s wobbling.’ I switched off the iron, glad to have respite from squirting steam over the curtains from the spare room, Margot’s room, and plodded up the stairs, pushing my damp hair behind my ears. 

   I held the ladder while Patrick inexpertly painted the room in his mother’s favourite colour.

   ‘She’ll like this,’ he said as he rolled the paint on. ‘She found the greens too bright.’ He was being tactful; ‘nauseous’ was the word she’d used. My carefully chosen two-tone green room disappeared under a coat of magnolia-meets-mushroom. The curtains would look quite wrong now but at least they would be dust and crease-free.

A month later, I heaved Margot’s luggage up to the room. She was already lying on the bed in the delicate pose of a dying martyr.

   ‘Pull the curtains,’ she ordered. ‘There’s too much sun. Where are my pills, I think a headache is coming on.’

   ‘Do you like the new colour?’ I asked as I slid the curtains closed, banishing the few rays of sun to have graced our summer that year.

   ‘It’ll do.’

   ‘I’ve made your favourite cake so pop down for tea when you’re ready.’

   ‘I couldn’t possibly eat cake. My digestion. Some cucumber sandwiches, I think.’

   ‘I’m afraid I don’t have any cucumber. How about tomato?’

   ‘Tomato? With my delicate stomach? Good gracious girl, you should know this by now. Just run out and fetch a cucumber. It’s hardly too much to ask.’

It was when we visited my new neighbour who had invited us for coffee, that the ground shifted. Standing in their airy living room was a grand piano. Enormous, shiny and proud, it took up most of the space. Margot drifted towards it and trailed her fingers on the keys.

   ‘Do try it, if you’d like to,’ trilled the neighbour.

   To my astonishment, Margot seated herself on the padded stool and began to play. Music rippled from beneath her fingers as effortlessly as breeze on water.

   That was the day I first saw her smile.

‘I’ve bought Mother a piano. She’ll like that,’ said Patrick a couple of weeks before the visit the following year. ‘It’s only an upright, because the living room won’t take a grand.’

   Nor would our fragile bank account. I said nothing for I knew he would trot out his mantra: ‘don’t be too hard on her, she had a difficult time bringing me up on her own…’ and I would have to refrain from reminding him that he spent term-time at boarding school and many of his holidays at his aunt’s house.


  

The Almost Mothers by Laura Besley

I picked Margot up at the airport and drove the weary miles home. Toby sat meekly in the back, listening to her interminable moaning. The car was stifling and hot because the fan no longer worked. Her damn piano had taken the last of our spare cash, so the fan would stay broken. I opened the window but she complained about the draught. We sweltered in silence.

   ‘Did you bring me a present?’ asked Toby when we reached home.

   ‘Little boys who ask, don’t get,’ was her reply. His face crumpled. Later, she relented and handed him a package. His excitement was palpable only to disappear on looking at the gift.

   ‘What is it, Grandma?’

   ‘It belonged to your grandfather. Now let your mother put it away safely until you grow up. It’s an heirloom and very valuable so you must treasure it.’

‘She gave him a tie-pin,’ I hissed at Patrick, when we were in bed. ‘Who gives a six- year-old a tie-pin?’

   ‘She means well, don’t be hard on her,’ was all he would say. I turned away from him dreading the next six weeks.

   But that summer Margot played her piano, and I saw a different woman. She taught Toby a few simple tunes and to her delight, he showed aptitude for her talent which had evidently skipped a generation. Their heads bent over the keys, she demonstrated a patience I could never have guessed at. The music allowed the time to pass more quickly and sometimes she smiled. Her pills remained unopened.

   ‘Toby is shaping up nicely,’ she said at dinner on the last evening of her visit. ‘You must arrange professional lessons for him.’

   Thinking of the red figure on our latest bank statement, my lips tightened, but I said nothing.

   ‘This casserole is very good,’ she went on. ‘Is it from the recipe book I gave you?’

   ‘No, it’s based on one from my mother.’

   ‘Oh. Well, even so, it’s very nice. You’re learning.’

When Patrick died in a car crash, she came immediately I contacted her.

   ‘I’ll make my own way from the airport, you don’t need…’ she left the sentence unfinished.

   As we met on the doorstep neither of us spoke but we understood that for the first time we shared Patrick without being rivals.

   ‘It was an accident, wasn’t it?’ she said the evening after the funeral when everybody had left.

   ‘Yes, of course, I explained–’

   ‘What I mean is,’ she interrupted, ‘it wasn’t like his father? An accident that wasn’t quite as accidental as it appeared.’ Her voice was quiet.

   For a moment I wondered if she was trying to tell me that she had pulled the trigger when Robert died in a shooting accident.

   ‘It was recorded as an accident,’ she said, ‘but Robert knew guns inside out. He’d been using them since he was a teenager on the estate. They had these shoots, pheasant, grouse, the glorious twelfth. That was common in those days. Robert was dogged by black depressions. Patrick didn’t know about them, being away at school. I tried to prevent him seeing that. I’d send him to my sister if they came on during his holidays. It was when he was away that it happened. Was Patrick ever…’

   ‘No, Margot, I never saw Patrick depressed. Sad, worried and angry sometimes, but never depressed.’

   ‘Thank God. I couldn’t tell Patrick the truth. I think some of our friends may have wondered but it remained unspoken.’

   And then Margot wept and for the first time I felt not resentment but compassion.

She stayed with Toby and me while I sorted through Patrick’s financial affairs and adjusted to a new life just as she had done so many years before. But unlike her, I had no secrets to stifle. My grief was her grief and hers mine, and there was a perceptible thaw between us.

   She told Toby about his father as a little boy, and then told us both her own story.

   ‘I was talented enough to be a concert pianist but I needed professional training,’ she explained. ‘I was to go to the Royal College, but then the war broke out and I worked for the war office.’

   ‘What about after the war?’ I asked.

   ‘We no longer had money for my training. My brothers had been killed and I had to help in the family business until I got married. Then my hands were full. You couldn’t harp on with fantasies in those days, not once you were married and had a child to look after.’

   ‘It sounds hard to have lost your dreams.’ I said.

   ‘Dreams are like chocolate in summer,’ she said shortly. ‘They melt. Besides, I still had my piano and I played at home.’

   ‘Yes, Patrick told me how you played, and that you tried to teach him.’

   ‘He didn’t have the ear,’ she said. ‘Or the patience.’

Toby took to the piano that summer and played non-stop. After Margot returned home, he continued playing and made up compositions. One he called Chocolate in Summer. ‘Because our dreams have melted too, haven’t they, Mummy?’ he said.

   Margot sent me the money to pay for his lessons.

***

Toby’s daughter is playing with his old boxes of Lego that I brought down from the loft. I have just finished decorating her cake with ‘Happy Birthday Sasha’ piped in pink icing and six pink candles. Her mother pours a glass of wine for me. Sasha’s big presents are waiting for when Toby joins us after work so he can watch her unwrap them.

   He arrives on the dot of six o’clock and swoops his daughter up into his arms, giving her a twirl, then he sits at the piano and plays ‘Happy Birthday.’

   ‘Again, Daddy!’ she laughs.

   He pays a slow, dreamy version and then a fast, silly one, delighting the birthday girl.

   I look at him, so like his father in appearance, and wonder if he would have realized his talent without his grandmother’s tutelage that terrible year.

   My heart still bursts with pride as I recall his first concert as a soloist, and wish so much that they had both lived to see it. Only Toby and I knew that beneath his jacket he wore a gold tie-pin that had belonged to the grandfather neither of us had known.

   We eat the birthday tea as Sasha tears open her presents with the enthusiasm of a happy little girl. Not an heirloom in sight.

   Afterwards, Toby sits at the piano again and plays, just as Margot had, whatever comes into his mind, as the mood takes him. He is playing ‘Chocolate in Summer.’

   I never thought I would miss her.


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