Susan’s Secret

Man with python to illustrate romantic short story Susan's Secret


In this romantic short story, Susan’s grandson has some exciting news, but that leaves him – and his gran – with a tricky problem to solve…

“Can’t Oliver come home on the train?” Susan asked plaintively when Claire told her mother she wouldn’t be able to visit her the next day.

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you, Mum?” Claire sighed, gazing around her mother’s sitting room. “I mean, when I was at uni you weren’t ferrying me back and forth half way across the country every few weeks, were you? But I’ll pick you up on Good Friday and then you’ll be at our house until Easter Monday, so that will be a bit of a break, won’t it?”

“I’d rather sleep in my own bed,” Susan said in the same querulous voice. “It’s only half an hour, surely Tom could drop me back home each evening, couldn’t he?”

Claire sighed again.

“That would mean Tom – or I – would be driving for two hours a day, which is not how we want to spend Easter weekend, Mum,” she said firmly. Not to mention not being able to have a drink at all over the holiday, she thought. “You’ll be fine in our guest room. And Oliver and his girlfriend will be with us, so there’ll be plenty of company. You’re always saying how lonely it gets at home.

“And you know,” she added bravely, “you could drive yourself. The car’s just sitting in the garage, still taxed and everything, and it’s not as if you’re incapable. They said not to drive for six weeks after your hip replacement, and that’s five months ago now.”

“I still don’t see why Oliver can’t come on the train,” her mother repeated, changing the subject. “You spoil that boy. He’s nearly twenty-five, for heaven’s sake. He shouldn’t be relying on you for lifts.”

Claire hesitated. She’d have to explain, even though it would undoubtedly bring on another bout of moaning – or possibly hysterics. She took a deep breath.

“It’s just that Oliver has a pet, and he can’t manage it on public transport.”

“Nonsense! A pet? I thought he lived in a flat? And was at lectures all day? And surely a cat basket isn’t difficult to cope with, is it? He’s a young strapping lad.”

“It’s not a cat, Mum. Petronella lives in a rather large terrarium. And it’s very heavy. She’s a… snake. A python. A Ball python, to be precise.”

Her mother stared. Claire braced herself and waited for the scream.

“A python?” Susan shrieked. “Why haven’t you told me this before?”

Because I knew how you’d react, Claire thought glumly.

“A real, fully-grown python? But that’s… fantastic! And will Oliver let me hold it, do you think? I haven’t held a proper big snake for… it must be sixty years! Not since I was eleven or twelve! Oh, this is so exciting!”

It was Claire’s turn to stare. She wasn’t sure which of the many questions galloping round her brain to ask first.

When have you ever held a python, Mum?


“Thank goodness for that.”

“It was an anaconda.”

“I need another cup of coffee,” Claire said, feeling suddenly weak at the knees, “and then maybe you’ll explain.”

When she returned from the kitchen with the coffee, she looked expectantly at her mother.

“I wasn’t supposed to tell you,” Susan said, almost whispering. “I promised my father I’d never tell a soul. He thought it would bring shame down on the family.”

“You’re going to have to tell me now. Otherwise I’ll be imagining he imported snakes illegally or something.”

Two spots of colour appeared in Susan’s cheeks.

“Your grandfather would never, ever, do anything illegal, you know that!”

“It seems that I know very little,” Claire said, her eyebrows raised.

Her mother harrumphed, but eventually spoke.

“Well, I don’t suppose it can do any harm telling you now. It was my mother. Your grandmother. She ran away to the circus when she was sixteen.”

“She whaaaat?”

“You heard me. She had an act with snakes. Pythons, anacondas, anything really, as long as it was big. Then, when she was nineteen, she met my father.

“He insisted that she had to give up the circus. He didn’t think it was respectable. And… well, my mother was pregnant, and he’d offered to marry her, but only on condition…”

“That she left the circus,” Claire finished, her head in her hands.

She wasn’t sure how many more surprises she could take today from her hitherto rather dull mother.

“So how come you got to hold snakes?” she asked as an afterthought.

“Oh. Well my mother left the circus, but she couldn’t bear not to see ‘her snakes’. They were her babies. Anacondas can live for thirty years or more, did you know?”

Claire shook her head wordlessly.

“So she used to go and see them while my father was at work. And once I was six (and old enough to keep a secret) she used to take me with her. Eventually I was allowed to hold them. Just the anacondas. She said I had a real way with snakes,” Susan added proudly.

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to meeting Petronella…

For the next few days, Claire could think of nothing else. Her severe old grandma, a circus performer! And pregnant! It was beyond belief.

But the most surprising thing was the change in her mother. She was immeasurably brighter.

On Good Friday, when Tom had collected Susan (who was looking happy and excited, for a change), Claire had barely said hello before her mother was running – yes, running – up the stairs to see Petronella, who was ensconced in Oliver’s bedroom.

The terrarium took up a lot of the space in the small room, and it was a bit of a squash by the time Oliver and Susan were both inside. Oliver shut the door firmly.

“Jenna isn’t keen on snakes,” he said apologetically. “She’s my girlfriend. You’ll meet her this afternoon – she’s coming on the train. She didn’t want to squeeze into the car with a snake.”

Susan frowned.

“Oh dear. Not a match made in heaven then,” she murmured.

“No,” Oliver said slowly. “This might be your only chance to hold Petronella, I’m afraid. I think I’m going to have to sell her.”

“Just because of Jenna?” Susan said sceptically.

“It’s really not her fault,” Oliver said, leaping immediately to his girlfriend’s defence. “She’s lovely. And she really can’t help it. She’s apologised countless times, but every time she sees Petronella she literally begins to shake. She’s terrified. And… I haven’t told Mum yet but… I want to marry her, Gran. Don’t say anything, will you?”

“Don’t worry, I’m very good at keeping secrets,” Susan said with a small smile.

She sat on Oliver’s bed as he opened the tank and gently lifted the python.

“She doesn’t know you, so she’ll probably shoot straight under the bed,” Oliver warned.

But the snake didn’t.

Susan put a hand out tentatively, her fingers gliding along its beautifully mottled markings. The snake lay there, placid.

“Wow, Gran! It took weeks for Petronella to trust me like that. You must have a real gift…”

Susan was still smiling as she came down the stairs again.

“Mum, you left your stick down here,” Claire said anxiously.

“Don’t be silly, dear. I don’t need a stick! My hip operation was months ago.”

Claire and Tom exchanged exasperated glances.

A few minutes later Oliver left for the station to meet Jenna’s train, and returned twenty minutes later, leading a very tall and beautiful girl into the house. He couldn’t, Susan noticed, keep the smile off his face. He was obviously totally smitten, and his grandmother could see why.

When Susan talked to Jenna, it was even more apparent why he would want to marry her: she was friendly and intelligent and equally besotted with Oliver.

Jenna or Petronella…? She had thought that it would be a hard decision, but now she saw that, for Oliver at least, it wasn’t.

“But you’re not a fan of reptiles, I gather?” Susan said to Jenna, when they all sat down to dinner.

“Not really, no,” Jenna replied, trying to hide a shudder at the very thought. “I feel dreadful, because Oliver loves Petronella so much, but even thinking about her makes me panicky. I have tried to find some sort of treatment to rid me of this stupid phobia – maybe hypnotism or something – but…”

Sweetheart, you don’t have to do that. I’ll… I’ll find Petronella another home. You never know, if I could find someone not too far away, perhaps I’d still be able to visit her…

“But won’t you be job-hunting as soon as you’ve qualified?” Susan asked, in a business-like tone. “You won’t know where you’re going to be living, will you?

“No,” she continued, without giving anyone else a chance to speak, “the only sensible thing to do would be for Petronella to come and live with me. There’s plenty of room, and I would be absolutely delighted to have her. And,” she added with a twinkle in her eye that none of them had seen for some time, “That way I might get to see rather more of my grandson than I have of late!”

“But Mum,” Claire began hesitantly, “surely you need some time to think about it. You shouldn’t rush something like this.”

“Don’t fuss, Claire. I have thought about it. I’ll probably need to change my little car for something a bit bigger, of course. I thought I could arrange a few visits, or lectures, to local schools, the scouts, maybe playgroups, that sort of thing. Oh yes, and the WI. Get rid of this prejudice people have against reptiles.”

The whole family was staring at her, open-mouthed.

“Wow, Granny, you really have thought about it,” Oliver said, his eyes shining. “Would you really take her?”

“Now just hang on a second,” Tom said, looking worried. “What if you find you can’t cope with her?”

“Who else is Oliver going to find with as much experience as I’ve got?” Susan asked scathingly. “Of course I’ll be able to cope.”

“You should have seen Granny upstairs just now,” Oliver said to his father. “Petronella was practically eating out of her hand.”

“I think if you’re going to start doing organised visits and lectures and so on,” Jenna said, joining in for the first time, “you could have some T-shirts printed with Susan’s Snakes, and have all the ‘S’s drawn as serpents. What a good thing your name’s Susan!”

Claire watched, dumbfounded, as Oliver, Jenna and Susan spent the entire afternoon making plans and drawing up lists. She couldn’t remember when she’d last seen her mother so animated.

By Monday, everything was arranged: Oliver would drive his grandmother and Petronella home in his father’s car, and settle the python into her new surroundings.

Everyone, Claire thought, looked happier. She and Tom would no longer be ferrying their son and a snake about. Jenna looked quietly contented, Oliver was looking inexplicably ecstatic and Susan – well, her mother seemed to have a new lease of life.

As she and Oliver were leaving, Susan took her daughter’s hand.

“I don’t know whether I’ll be able to see as much of you now that this has happened,” she said, frowning. “You have looked after me wonderfully well since my hip was done, but from now on I’m going to be rather busy with Petronella… and anyway,” she added thoughtfully, “you’ll be busy yourself, organising the wedding, won’t you?”

There was a pregnant pause.

“Oops,” said Susan with an unapologetic smile, “maybe I’m not so good at keeping secrets after all…”

Enjoy these romantic short stories:

Allison Hay

I joined the "My Weekly" team thirteen years ago and, more recently, "The People's Friend". I love the variety of topics we cover both online and in the magazines. I manage the digital content for the brands, sharing features and information on the website, social media and in our digital newsletters.