The garden was well overgrown now, but the memories came flooding back. I remembered the days when it was full of flowers, and we kids used to run round and around the laburnum tree in the middle of the lawn, then collapse in a heap laughing.
I was always packed off to stay with my Aunt during the school summer holidays, while my mother slogged away in her hot, stuffy office in London. I didn’t mind, in fact I loved it. I was an only child living in a flat in London. I didn’t have many friends down there, as I was sent to a ‘better’ school miles from where we actually lived, and never had time to make friends with any local kids. My older cousins teased me a lot, of course, when I went to stay with them, but that didn’t really bother me much. I just loved the freedom of the country.
I was allowed to ride around the village on my cousin’s old bike with my cousin Janet and my aunt, and we would cycle to the local market to pick up provisions every morning. Then, after a quick lunch, my aunt would have her hands covered in flour, making delicious pies for our supper. Her steak and kidney pies were to die for, but my favourites were her fruit pies. I would go down to the vegetable garden and help Uncle Bert pick apples, raspberries, rhubarb or gooseberries for the pies, and peas and beans for our supper. I remember sitting on the lawn in the sunshine afterwards making daisy chains, while Uncle Bert dug up the potatoes. Aunt Martha would bring us out some of her wonderful homemade scones and jam, and a jug of homemade ginger beer. Then I would pick some sweet peas from the garden for her to decorate the supper table.
Every morning I would go down with Uncle Bert to look for eggs and feed the chickens. Late in the evening, I would help him round them all up before he locked them up for the night. They were happy days; seemingly endless sunny days. Do we ever remember the rainy days of our childhood?
Now, out of the blue, I had received a letter from my Aunt Martha’s solicitor to say that she had died and left her house to me. To me! Why to me?
Here I was, three weeks later, in her overgrown garden, so different from how I remember it, fifty years ago. How had it got so overgrown? My cousins still lived in England. Uncle Bert had been in a wheelchair for years before he died, so why hadn’t my cousins done something about his lovely garden getting overgrown? They had plenty of money by all accounts, so they could have afforded to get a gardener in, if they hadn’t time to do it themselves. I wished I had been around; I wouldn’t have let it get like this. My uncle loved his garden, and I imagine he would have been broken hearted to see it so neglected. But now it was mine, and I would try to get it back into shape. I wondered what would greet me inside the house, as I slipped the key into the lock.
I was greeted by the old familiar furniture, now worn and shabby. My aunt used to lovingly polish her house every morning before going to market in the old days, but now it was neglected and shrouded in dust. Had no-one even been in to help her, when she was old and arthritic either? Why had my cousins not got someone in? I thought I was beginning to understand why my aunt had left the house to me, and not to her own children.
I walked into the sitting room, and there, propped on the mantelpiece, I spotted an envelope addressed to me, in my aunt’s shaky handwriting. I opened it with some trepidation, and gasped as I began to read its contents.
My dearest Jenny
You may be wondering why I have left my house to you in my will. I must explain it all to you now before I die. Please forgive me for not telling you any of this before, but I am sure you will understand when you have read all I have to tell you.
First of all, you must understand that during the war things were very different. We had to take all the happiness we could, when we could, because we never knew whether we would ever see our husbands, lovers or each other again. I am not making an excuse for what I did, and I’m not proud of it, but I’m just offering you a reason for my misdeeds that I am about to confess to you.
I met your Uncle Bert before the war started. I was very young, and I married the first man that asked me. He was always very good to me, of course, but he was boring. And I was bored, being just a housewife. After I had your cousins, James and Janet, I was discontent. I used to envy your mother down in London with her exciting job, and her independent lifestyle, and I resented your Uncle Bert who seemingly didn’t want to do anything other than grow vegetables when he came home from work. How ashamed I am now to have had those thoughts.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, when your mother was in hospital giving birth to your elder sister who died, I went down to London to visit your mother in hospital, leaving your cousins here with your grandmother. Your Uncle Bert was at war, but your father had come home on compassionate leave. I hate myself for it now, but while your mother was still in hospital, after dinner one night your father and I had a few drinks, and ended up in bed together. We both have regretted it ever since, and it has never happened again, but for that moment in time we were lovers.
That should have been the end of it, but unfortunately, I discovered I was pregnant. As your Uncle Bert would have known that it wasn’t his baby, I kept it quiet as long as possible, and wore loose dresses so no-one would know I was pregnant. When the time came for you to be born though, I again went to visit my sister, your mother, and told her that I had an affair and was pregnant. She wanted to know who the father was, but I would never tell her. However, Emily had lost her own baby nine months before, and had been told that she would never be able to have another, so we agreed that she and your father would adopt you. It seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time, and everyone would be happy, we hoped.
Unfortunately, as time went on, you became more and more like your father. There is no mistaking his red hair. In one way, that was a blessing, as no-one ever suspected that you were anyone’s but your father’s daughter, and as your mother and I looked alike, no-one else ever knew that you were adopted, not even your grandmother. But your mother couldn’t help but notice how like your father you were, and eventually accused me of having had an affair with her husband all those years before. I had to admit it to her eventually, and inevitably we fell out irrevocably, as you know. Your mother thrashed it out with your father, and eventually forgave him. But your mother couldn’t live with the constant reminder, and that was when they migrated to Australia to start a new life, taking you with them. It broke my heart to see you all go.
I have loved getting your newsy letters, they have kept me going all these years, but I was devastated never seeing you again. When you said that you wanted to return to live in England now your parents have both died, I was hoping that you would come to live with me. But then I got diagnosed with this dreadful disease, and I knew that I would not live long enough for you to finalise your parents’ estate in Australia.
Your cousins have both married well and have all they need. So you see, I am your birth mother, and that is why I have left you my house in my will. I do hope you can forgive me.
Your loving Aunt Martha.
Part written during our creative writing meeting as a ten minute tale from a first line prompt, and submitted to helium.com as flash fiction.
Completed with a letter of explanation to make a short story