This story is by Denise Regga and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Every second week I accompanied the family to their country house in a village not far from the city. As the heavily laden Renault cruised to a stop, the kids tumbled out from either side of me, allowing my squished hips to spread out comfortably. I sighed with relief and scrambled awkwardly into the open, stretching and yawning as I inhaled the sweet aroma of the lavender flowers that peppered the bushes at the base of the Provincial home. A wall of ivy covered one end, reaching like growing mould to the steep, red-tiled roof. The kids were already flying up and down on the trampoline as their dad Henri opened the boot and began unpacking. I followed his British wife Susan into the house, opening the shutters and letting the evening light pour in.
On Saturday morning I could hear the erratic sound of cartoons long before I showered and made my way downstairs. On seeing me, Susan looked up from her Figaro and rolled her eyes, gesturing towards the two little faces staring in hypnotic wonder at the fast-changing images.
I grinned. “Hey guys! Who wants to go exploring?”
Their heads turned sharply as the screen went dark before them.
“Off you go,” said their mother, replacing the remote and turning back to her magazine.
We played ‘tag’ and did handstands and cartwheels on the grass, giggling and chasing each other through neat rows of spruce into the surrounding fields. Coming to the bottom of a valley we found a stream and followed it until we arrived at a small concrete dam. I climbed up, turning to help little Chloé and then watching Jonah scramble to the top. I wasn’t paying much attention until I saw him moving closer to the edge of the two-meter drop than I was comfortable with. I turned to face him as one foot slipped, and he started to tumble forwards.
“Joe!” I screamed.
He looked up at me innocently, still standing on two steady feet on the wide block. “Move back from the edge.” I said loudly, waiting for the sound of my heart to subside in my ears. My tone must have startled him, because he did as he was told.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have yelled,” I said quietly. He didn’t reply.
“Can we go back now?” said Chloé, looking wide-eyed from one to the other. I nodded, helping her to climb back down. I reached for Jonah with my spare hand, but he had begun trudging up the hill with his hands in his pockets.
Back at the house, he settled in front of the upright piano and began to play his made-up tunes. The childish, yet melodious notes filled the room, somehow complementing the long rays of sunshine that were streaming in, making the dust dance.
Sitting behind Chloé, I ran my fingers through her long dark hair, working out the knots and tangles while she scraped a pink plastic brush across her doll’s matted web of pale yellow.
“There you go,” I said, as the last patch of roughness gave way and my digits moved unobstructed through the silky strands. “All done.”
“Tennessee is all done too.” She held up the figurine. “She’s ready for her match!” She picked up a plastic visor and squished it over the unwieldy coiffe. I wondered if the name was a geographical reference, or a made-up adjective given because the doll wore a tennis dress and came with a racquet.
Chloé went off to show her parents and I squeezed in next to Jonah on the piano stool. He stopped jamming and looked up at me.
“Hm,” I said, placing my hands onto the keys. “Let’s see if I can remember anything from six years of lessons.” I straightened my back and pretended to throw back tuxedo tails, and then began Greensleeves, the left hand moving through simple arpeggios as the right trotted out the melody.
Jonah grinned. “Don’t you know how to make something up?”
I shrugged. “Not really. Here, I know a song that you can jam to.” I started up the opening bars of Heart and Soul. Without any prompting, he launched into it, playing whatever he felt like, and staying beautifully within the register of the song.
“You got skills, kid,” I said as we finished, briefly squeezing his shoulders before going into the kitchen for some water.
Susan was bustling about, and the smell of baking bread and warming camembert made my mouth water. Chloé sat perched on the bench, her Barbie lying forgotten in the corner. Her dad was talking to her in French and she was giggling like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“That is so cool,” I said to Susan.
Henri gave a low chuckle. “When zey were small, zey would translate,” he said, rubbing Chloé’s knee as she swung her leg. “Parce que Papa ne parle pas anglais, n’est-ce pas ma cherie?”
I raised my eyebrows at the little girl. “What did he say?”
She giggled. “Yes, you do Papa.” She looked at me. “He does talk English. But he talks funny. Me and Joe can talk best.” She threw her arms out expansively and knocked the glass I had placed on the bench onto the floor. It exploded with a loud bang into sharp, pointed shards that spread across the tiles.
She looked up, her eyes shimmering. In a flash, I was transported to my dad’s kitchen, and I was five years old, shrinking in on myself and trying to wind back the clock by just a few moments so I could change the trajectory of my arm and avoid the inevitable outcome. I anticipated the outpouring of rage from Dad, screaming at me for my carelessness and sending me in tears of shame to my room.
“I’m sorry,” I began. “I shouldn’t have put it-”
“It’s OK,” said Susan, calmly loading the larger pieces onto a metal brush pan. I stood speechless as she emptied them into the bin and swept the rest up. “You should probably hop down.” She lowered her daughter onto the floor.
“It’s OK, it was an accident. Go and sit up for lunch.”
I took Chloé to the bathroom, trying to shake the last of the memory from my mind.
When the sound of running water ceased, we heard shouts emanating from the living room. We made eye contact briefly before returning, her hand wrapped around my pinky finger. Jonah had his back to the piano stool, and he was shouting at his dad, tears threatening to burst the banks of his eyes. I didn’t dare ask Chloé what they were arguing about, but I started to get an idea when Susan joined in.
“You can keep playing after lunch, Jonah,” she said, her voice even and low.
“I don’t want to keep playing!” he screamed, turning on her vehemently, “I want my cards! Where are they?”
Henri said something in French, and I recognized the word Paree in the middle of it, so I figured his beloved Pokémon cards were back in Paris. Jonah raised his volume even more, and I hurried Chloé to the dining table to wait it out.
That night sleep wouldn’t come. I shook off the brief fear of trouble that had always accompanied disturbing my parents after bedtime and got out of bed, moving to the window and peering into the darkness. The heavy clay tiles sloped sharply below and above the second-floor opening. I held my breath and listened, but the big house was silent, so I dug a smoke from its hiding spot and carefully squeezed onto the thin ledge between the shutters and the glass, folding my knees up and swinging them sideways before pulling the window almost closed behind me.
Goosebumps prickled my skin in the cool night air, and the smooth scent of the surrounding pines reminded me of Christmas. I carefully lit the cigarette and took a shallow drag, blowing the smoke into the quiet night and leaning back onto one side. The sky was a mass of bright, shining stars, and the arc of the Milky Way was clearly visible this far from the city lights. It was peaceful, if a little precarious.
Taking a deeper drag, I thought back on the day and the family’s gentle approach to discipline. Rather than joining their son in a screaming match, both parents had remained calm, and waited for his tantrum to finish before Henri took him outside for a heart-to-heart. I could hear his deep voice resonating around the property, and I spied Jonah’s spiky brown hair over the top of the lavender, moving in mute agreement with whatever his father was saying. Was this what ‘happily ever after’ actually looked like? I wondered. It was so different from my parents’ approach. Whenever they exploded, I told myself I shouldn’t let it bother me, but no matter how I tried, my eyes never dried so quickly.