It takes time away from home for Angela to appreciate everyone is different… thankfully!
“Can you cut the crusts cut off, like Grandma Pat does?” Harriet, aged six, pouted on Saturday morning as Angela stood with a bread bag in one hand.
The kitchen felt oddly alien to her since she’d returned home. She’d been visiting her poor sick mother, laid up after a fall involving a conifer hedge and some clippers, only popping home when she could. Now to complicate things further her husband was away on business. The simple fact was they’d needed Grandma Pat to step in and help out.
“We give the crusts to the birdies,” Harriet added.
“Really.” Angela laughed uneasily, thinking of overweight pigeons. “Well, Mum’s back for a few days now and when Mum’s home we eat the crusts.”
Harriet screwed up her face…
“But I don’t want to eat them.”
“Of course you do, silly. You’ve been eating crusts since the day you were born. Well, almost…”
Hanna, aged seven, hurried into the kitchen, holding an apple aloft.
“Mum, can you peel my apple?”
“Like Grandma Pat does, I suppose?” Angela queried.
Harriet’s blonde brows lifted. She froze as outside the window a magpie landed on the fence and started chattering to itself. She pointed.
“Mummy! There’s only one. One for sorrow. I don’t want to be sorry.” She saluted with one chubby hand. “I salute you, Mr Magpie.”
OK, Angela thought, as Hanna did the same. Yes, things here at home were definitely becoming increasingly… strange.
Pat was boyish and skinny, not how you’d envisage a fifty-five-year-old mum-in-law. Actually, she looked like a keep-fit instructor in her track suit and trainers as she stood the next morning in Angela’s lounge rearranging the bookshelf – by colour.
“There!” She stood back, her trainers squeaking on the laminate floor. “Isn’t that wonderful?” She beamed over her shoulder at Angela.
Angela supposed a wrestling match over books was a bad idea.
“Er… yes, great. Thanks for coming over even when you weren’t needed.”
“I thought you might like a bit of a rest since you’re on your own here. Have you got your clothes all packed?”
Angela was due to return to her mother. She’d left a neighbour in charge for now. “Yes, I’m all set for tomorrow.”
“That’s good. Families should look after each other.”
Angela’s eyes widened as Pat started to rearrange the ornaments on the mantle. Suddenly the cats wanted to be with the other cats, and the china dogs wanted nothing to do with them.
“These are so lovely,” she said admiringly.
“They were my grandmother’s.”
“Are they safe out here with the kids running about? Have you thought about packing them away until they’re older? You know how boisterous kids can be, especially now they have a new helicopter.”
“Sorry? They have a new what?” Angela gasped.
“They’re the latest thing.” Pat laughed as a crashing sound came from the next room.
On Wednesday, Angela returned home once more.
Her stomach in knots, she slotted her key in the lock and pushed the front door open. She felt oddly as if she was entering a house she used to haunt. She flinched as something fawn came barrelling towards her.
“Surprise!” Pat and the kids appeared from the kitchen.
Angela froze. The poodle yapped. The kids made a huge fuss of him and their hopeful faces turned to her.
“Please, Mum. We can keep him?” they asked in unison.
“No, no we can’t. It’s not fair to keep a dog here. Not when we’re out all day during the week. We’ve discussed pets a billion times.” She glared at her mother-in-law. “Explain to the kids why we can’t keep him, Pat,” she said, every anguished word rumbling through her chest.
She retreated to the lounge, clenching her teeth
Pat hurried in.
“I’m so sorry –” she began.
“I didn’t want to complain,” Angela said shakily. “You’ve been so helpful – but this isn’t your home, and we do things our own way here.”
“Of course you do,” Pat said. “I didn’t even think. Oh, don’t worry about the dog. I’ll be happy to keep him – and I’ll put everything back just the way you had it.” Her eyes filled with tears.
Angela nodded and wiped at her own eyes. “Thank you.” She gasped as a rather large penny dropped. “Oh,” she said, wide-eyed with horror. “Oh no!”
“Whatever’s the matter?” Pat asked as Angela ran for the door.
“Mum, it’s me!” Angela yelled when twenty minutes later she hurried into her mum’s house. In the kitchen, she opened the cutlery drawer, rattling all the knives, forks and spoons into a tangle. Why did I even tidy them up?
She moved the kettle back to where it normally stood right by the toaster. Only the toaster was now on the other side of the room. She made a harried grab for it.
I rearranged them all without even thinking about it!
“What are you doing back so soon?” came her mum’s tight voice from the lounge. “I thought we agreed you’d stay at home at lot more now?”
“Just a quick visit, Mum,” Angela yelled as she pulled the tea and coffee caddies out of cupboard and set them back on the countertop.
She rushed into the lounge. On the shelves all the books stood in alphabetical order. She started to mess them up.
“How about a cuppa while I’m here, Mum? Or a sandwich? I’ll cut the crusts off, if you like. How about I cut them into tiny little triangles as well,” she offered, self-consciously moving an ornament back where it had been.
I’ve been doing exactly the same thing as Pat, bar buying a helicopter and getting a dog, Angela scolded herself.
“You hate them like that,” her mum said. “You always say it’s like being at a children’s tea party.”
It’s your house, Mum, and it’s lovely just the way it is
“Each to their own,” Angela replied. “It’s your house, Mum, and it’s lovely just the way it is. It’d be awful if we did everything the same way, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes.” Her mum blinked, taken aback. “Yes, yes, it most definitely would.”
They shared relieved smiles for a long moment – smiles not unlike one another’s… and yet completely unique.
We’re sharing a short story collection from our archives every Monday and Thursday during August. Look out for some heartwarming family fiction – and remember, there’s exciting new fiction every week in My Weekly magazine, too. Sign up for a money-saving subscription here.