A Reminder of Sin: A short story by Caroline England

Caroline England was born in Yorkshire. She studied Law at Manchester University and stayed over the border. Caroline became a partner in a Solicitors practise and instigated her jottings when she deserted the law to bring up her three lovely daughters. In addition to the publication of her short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses, and her first novel, A Slight Diversion, by ACHUKAbooks during 2012, Caroline has had short stories and poems published in a variety of magazines. 

A Reminder of Sin

By Caroline England

She couldn’t describe the pain to me or to the doctors, save to say that it was like going through labour, only worse because there was no let up at all; a searing spasm which lasted for hours some months, for days in others. I cared for her the best I could and there were times when I caught a glimpse of the person she once was, the beautiful, smiling, vivacious girl I had befriended. But with a face etched with pain she no longer looked like that girl. She had test after test at first, but the doctors could find nothing wrong physically and so she gave in, not only to them, but to the curse.

Sara and I had been friends since third year university. I hadn’t liked her for the first two. I had observed her from a distance and I knew she wasn’t my sort: too loud, too polished, too popular, too beautiful. Everyone wanted a piece of Sara, which was why I always held back, even when we found ourselves being the only two survivors in Mr Simmons’ Latin tutorial group.

Do you think it’s the stutter?” she asked, looking around the empty room on the third week. “I rather like it. I find myself anticipating the next word and feeling very clever when I get it right.”

I couldn’t help but smile, I’d been thinking along those lines myself. “Or maybe it’s because he’s so bloody boring. It’s Helen, isn’t it? Why are we still here, Helen? Come on; time to escape before he arrives.”

Do you like it when a man goes down on you?” Those were Sara’s first words when we finally found an empty table in the refectory. I didn’t get chance to reply. “Or, perhaps, a woman?” She stroked her silky mane and looked directly at me for a moment with big blue eyes before smiling. “I haven’t decided,” she said, before polishing off my plate of chips.

That was Sara for you. You could never quite pin her down; sometimes she’d regale you with too much information about swapping chewing gum and bodily fluids with a complete stranger, and then at other times it was difficult to see through her fog of hint and innuendo. On this occasion, like many others, I wasn’t entirely sure what she hadn’t decided about, but it didn’t matter, being with her was like being trapped in the centre of a full blown gale in summer. It was exhilarating.

Sara met Adrian on her first day as a trainee at Murchison and Son, Chartered Accountants. She knew it was a terrible cliché, but she said it to me none the less, hours after they had been introduced.

“He’s the one, Helen. I’m sure of it,” she said, eyes shining.

The wealthy boss, Sara, how predictable,” I replied. “And besides, if he’s already married, isn’t that going to be a little tricky?”

I noticed Sara’s cheeks were pink, but her face was calm, with a determined set of her chin. I had never really seen her this way before and I couldn’t but help feel a pang of loss. She was usually so animated and flippant, her enthusiasm for one lover merging with the next. “No, he was married. But she died. Not long ago, apparently, so I’ll have to tread carefully with this one.”

Gloria wasn’t what I had expected. Taller, glamorous, much younger. Not a crooked nose or stoop in sight.

You’ve met her then,” Sara whispered as she chopped up tomatoes with surprising efficiency. “I think she left her broomstick at home today. She’s almost being nice.”

That was the first time I met Gloria. I met her again three times, twice at the christenings of her subsequent grandsons. We spoke each time and I thought she was pleasant, in a lady bountiful type of way. She wore a different wide brimmed hat on each occasion which partially hid her face, making it difficult to gain eye contact, rather like someone wearing sunglasses. But she was very tactile, holding the top of my arm a little too long as I stooped to kiss her cheek under the brim of her hat, and then linking her arm through mine as we strolled through the garden.

I was impressed; she could remember everything I had told her about myself from the previous christening, which was too much. I didn’t generally talk so much, not about myself at any rate and it was flattering, tremendously so, until by the third christening I realised that all the information she was extracting wasn’t really about me, but about Sara.

The woman’s a witch. No really, Helen, she’s a witch, a real witch, there’s no doubt about it.”

I laughed at Sara’s usual hyperbole. “And you know this how?” I replied. “Found her book of spells in the cupboard with the Dresden?”

Sara had met her future mother in law for the first time that weekend. “Really, Helen, I’m serious. It’s the eyes.” She looked at me with a troubled frown. “There’s something strange about her. She doesn’t like me.”

Strange indeed,” I replied and it struck me for the first time that Sara wasn’t used to being disliked. She looked pensive, almost on the verge of tears so I put my arms around her and pulled her close.

Come on Sara. She’s only human,” I said. “Don’t you think being up the duff by her son has something to do with it?”

Oh, different fathers, of course.” It was Sara’s stock reply when people commented on how different the three boys looked. And they did look different at first glance, though all shared the Murchison nasal intonation and blue hooded eyes. Typical of Sara, she liked to see that moment of confusion and hesitation before the person realised that it was Sara’s idea of a joke. Sara’s teasing always seemed incongruous, considering her own gullibility, but she had long since given up on me because I knew her so well.

I had been through Sara’s three pregnancies step by step, from conception to birth and each stage in between, including holding her hand at ante natal clinics when Adrian was absent, which was more often than not, so I immediately knew from Sara’s pasty face that she was pregnant again. I had been away for a few weeks on a Conference, but I couldn’t help being more than a tad disappointed that she hadn’t already told me.

That’s great news,” I said carefully. “You love babies. You are pleased, aren’t you?”

Sara dropped her gaze and shook her head and I instinctively knew why she had kept the news from me.

Well, Adrian doesn’t need to know…” I said slowly, battling to keep a strange heave of emotion from my face.

Sara shrugged and looked away. “Suppose the baby has brown eyes, what then?” she asked.

How bloody insensitive, putting you here.” The words came out a little too loud, but I was angry for Sara because she had no energy to be angry for herself. I glanced up the ward at mothers feeding their babies, fathers looking tired but happy, grandmothers arranging flowers and small siblings looking bored.

Gloria knew, you know.”

It took me a moment to follow Sara’s train of thought. “She knew about the baby’s brown eyes. Didn’t say so in so many words but told me a story. About a curse, infidelity. I wasn’t really listening.”

Oh, Sara. You’re just upset. You’ve been through a terrible ordeal but its over. You’ll get over it with time. Maybe try for another.”

But Sara pulled back her hand. “I wasn’t really listening because she scared me. She looked at me with those eyes and I thought of the first wife. How did she die? Does anyone know? And the curse; she said that it lasted as long as one could bear children. Every month, a reminder of sin, she said. So maybe it isn’t over.”

I almost laughed then, wanted to say it was a load of rubbish and that it sounded very much like an accurate description of menstruation, but Sara interrupted, her face severe. “Helen, I’m scared, really scared. Can I come and live with you? I don’t trust them…”

And so I pulled back from my laughter and took her soft hand in mine. “Don’t worry,” I said. “You know I’ll always be here.”

I met Gloria for the final time at Sara’s funeral. She didn’t wear a hat, but as I might have expected, her eyes were hidden by huge sunglasses. There were surprisingly few people in attendance, considering how loved Sara had been through the years. Her three tearless boys stood by their father, hands behind their backs, as the coffin was lowered into the ground. They looked comfortable in their pinstriped suits, more Sons in the making for the Murchison brand.

Gloria slipped her arm through mine as we strolled away from the grave.

We have so much in common, we must keep in touch,” Gloria said, glancing at me with a smile. “Love and hate, it’s a fine line,” she added, wafting a wasp with a leather gloved hand. “Sara used to call me a witch, you know. She thought I could read her mind. Which is ridiculous, of course.”

We continued our saunter towards the car park. A chauffeur stood by the open door of the Bentley. “Money can buy many things, but the power of suggestion should never be underrated,” Gloria said as she stepped elegantly into the car and removed her sunglasses. She had fine eyes, I noticed, but nothing more. “But then you knew that already, didn’t you? Unrequited love’s a terrible thing, I believe, betrayal even worse.” She broke the gaze with a blink and slipped her sunglasses back into place.

I didn’t miss a beat. “Gloria, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said, then closed the car door with a satisfying thud.

© Caroline England

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