Auntie Mary by Joy Clews (2nd)

Aunty Mary by Joy Clews

 Auntie Mary’s gone a bit funny. It must be true because my Mum says so and she’s always right.

Mum and Auntie Mary are sisters. You wouldn’t think so – they look different and they act different. My Dad says they’re chalk and cheese. He’s always coming out with funny sayings like that. When I asked who was the chalk and who was the cheese he said it was time for me to go upstairs and do my homework. I think I know what he means though. Mum wears lipstick, flowery dresses and scent. Auntie Mary wears slacks and jumpers and smells really clean. She’s quieter than Mum but when she says something I always listen. If I had a sister I’d want her to be like Auntie Mary.


We visit Auntie Mary on the first Sunday of every month. I sit in the back of the Anglia and look out of the window, watching the busy roads turn into fields. It takes ages, at least half an hour. When I was little we’d have to stop the car on the way because I was travel sick. That doesn’t happen now I’ve reached double figures. When we get to Auntie Mary’s house the door opens straightaway. I used to think it was magic. She gives me a soap-smelling hug but never says anything daft like ‘look how you’ve grown’. There are lots of vegetables in her garden so I suppose she’s used to seeing things grow. Some of the cucumber and tomatoes go into our sandwiches. We always have sandwiches for tea. They’re on thick bread and not cut up into little triangles like Mum does them. There’s always cake for afters. Mum and Dad think that Auntie Mary bakes them but I know that she buys them from the WI stall at the Saturday market. It isn’t a secret, it’s just that we’ve not mentioned it to anyone else.

I like it best when we finish tea and she takes me into her library while Mum and Dad sit in the sitting room reading the Sunday papers. It isn’t really a library, that’s just what we call it. It’s a little bedroom that’s bursting with books. They’re everywhere, filling up the shelves and in wobbly piles on the window sill and carpet. When I was little I made a sign for the door out of a piece of cardboard. I covered it with drawings of books that I’d coloured in with felt tip pens. It was a birthday present for Auntie Mary. Mum gave her a flowery blouse wrapped in tissue paper but I think she preferred my sign. I’ve never seen her wear the blouse. My sign is still on the door. Dad says that me and Auntie Mary are like two peas in a pod. I like that saying.


One Sunday the front door didn’t open like it usually did when our car pulled up in the driveway. We had to ring the bell and stand outside waiting. When Auntie Mary came to the door she had two spots of red like little apples on her cheeks. She said she was sorry for the delay. A new neighbour had popped in. When we walked into the sitting room there was a tall man standing by the mantelpiece. He shook hands with Mum and Dad then his long white fingers came towards me. No one had shaken my hand before. It made me feel very grown up. He said that his name was Lewis and he was pleased to meet us. Auntie Mary told us all to sit down while she made the tea. I sat in my usual chair next to the bureau. Lewis sat opposite, where Dad usually sits. Dad didn’t sit down. He looked out of the window, jingling the coins in his trouser pockets. Mum followed Auntie Mary into the kitchen. I could hear her whispering in a loud voice. No one spoke in the sitting room until Lewis cleared his throat and asked Dad about the journey. I knew it was rude to stare but whenever I could I had a quick look at Lewis. He reminded me a bit of my teacher, Mr Beeston, except Lewis had a softer voice and kinder eyes. I couldn’t imagine him throwing chalk at me.

No one was normal that afternoon. Mum and Lewis did most of the talking. Mum asked lots of questions and he answered politely. Dad hardly said anything which is unusual for him. Auntie Mary kept jumping up and down, pouring more tea and passing round the sandwiches. The red spots on her cheeks grew bigger as the afternoon went on. I wondered if she’d got a temperature. Perhaps she was coming down with something.

After tea she turned to me and asked if I was ready to go to the library. Lewis looked puzzled.

“Is it open on Sundays?” he asked.

That made me laugh. When Auntie Mary explained this was a special library Lewis asked if he could come too. I didn’t mind. I felt a bit sorry for him, having to answer all Mum’s questions with Dad just sitting there, ignoring him. The three of us went upstairs and squeezed into the little room. Auntie Mary asked me about the books I’d brought back. Lewis just listened, his body all folded up on a pouffe. Later, he asked what my favourite book was. When I told him he opened his eyes really wide and said that was his favourite too. We all laughed. Auntie Mary looked happier than I’d ever seen her look before.

When it was time to leave Lewis stood with her in the front garden and waved us off. As soon as we turned the corner Dad asked Mum what was going on. She shrugged her shoulders and said that Lewis was new to the area and Auntie Mary was being a good neighbour. Dad made a funny snorting sound and told her not to be naïve. I had to look that word up in the dictionary when we got home. I don’t think Mum is naïve.


The following month when Auntie Mary opened the door she looked different. Her hair was wavy around her face and neck. I’d never thought of her as having long hair. It was usually scrunched up in a bun at the back of her head. Dad said ‘Wow’ when he saw her. Mum gave him a dirty look. Lewis was there again. This time when he shook my hand he did a little wink, just big enough for me to notice without anyone else seeing it. He sat on the settee. Mum sat next to him. Auntie Mary kept looking at Lewis and smiling. Dad kept sneaking glances at Auntie Mary. I think he was trying to get used to her new hair style. I was pleased when it was library time. Lewis joined us again. It was fun having him there. He made me and Auntie Mary laugh. Two peas in a pod.

That night when I went downstairs for a glass of milk I overheard Mum and Dad talking in the lounge.

“Anyway, what sort of name is Lewis?” Dad snorted. “I ask you, Sheila, how many men do you know called Lewis?”

“It’s the person that matters, not the name.”

“Well there must be a twenty year age gap at least. Your Mary could be done for child molesting.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, George. He’s a grown man. In any case, they’re friends, nothing more.”

“That’s ridiculous. It’s obvious there’s something going on between them.”

Mum tutted.

“It doesn’t have to be like that between men and women, you know. It is possible to have a relationship without you know what.”

“With or without you know what, your Mary looks better than she has done for years.”

“Her hair doesn’t suit her worn loose. It’s too long for a woman of her age.”

“I thought it looked rather fetching.”

They both went quiet. I crept into the kitchen for my milk. I tried not to think of Auntie Mary and Lewis kissing and stuff.


Mum started wearing her best dresses and high heels on the first Sunday of the month. Just before we reached Auntie Mary’s house she’d take her compact out of her handbag and put on more lipstick. Whenever Lewis told her she looked lovely Mum smiled up at him and blinked like there was grit in her eye. Auntie Mary didn’t wear dresses. She stayed in her slacks and jumpers with her hair swishing across her shoulders. I still went to the library every time I visited but now Lewis would come with me while Auntie Mary cleared away the dishes. Sometimes Dad helped her. He never does the dishes at home. I missed her at first but I liked being with Lewis. He said things that made me laugh and sometimes we’d play tickling games as well as talk about books. His long thin fingers would wiggle in front of his face then swoop down, tickling me all over, making me giggle. One day Auntie Mary came upstairs to us. The pouffe had rolled to the library door making it difficult for her to get in. When her head popped through the gap and she saw us playing on the carpet her face wasn’t smiling. It was as pale as Lewis’s fingers. I stopped laughing.

“Get up, Lewis,” she said in a strange stern voice that didn’t sound like Auntie Mary.

For a moment the two of them just stared at each other, then Lewis got off me. He stood up and straightened his clothes. Something was wrong but I didn’t know what it was.


The next time we visited I ran along the hall into the sitting room. No one was in there.

“Where’s Lewis?” I asked.

“He won’t be with us today,” Auntie Mary said.

Mum looked disappointed. I felt disappointed. Dad smiled.

“Had enough of us, has he?”

Auntie Mary didn’t answer him. She went into the kitchen. Dad sat down in his favourite chair and picked up the Sunday paper. He started to whistle. Mum walked up and down the rug in front of the mantelpiece. I watched the heels of her shoes making deep holes in the pattern.

“I wonder where he is?” she asked.

I wondered where he was, too.

Dad was very chatty that afternoon but no one else seemed to want to talk. Auntie Mary was different. It wasn’t just that she’d pulled her hair back into a bun. She looked like she didn’t really want to be with us. After tea she didn’t mention the library so I didn’t either. I left my books at the bottom of the stairs. I was pleased when we were on our way home.

“Do you think they’ve had a lovers’ tiff?” Dad asked Mum.

“I don’t know what’s happened. Mary wouldn’t say anything.”

“She’s better off without him, if you ask me.”

“No one did ask you,” Mum snapped.

“Will Lewis come back?” I asked.

“I don’t know, love,” Mum sighed.

No one said anything else for the rest of the journey. I looked out of the window but I didn’t really see anything. I knew it was my fault that Lewis had gone.


On our next visit, Auntie Mary’s house looked different. In the sitting room everything was in the wrong place.

“What’s going on? Are you trying to confuse me, Mary?” Dad laughed as he walked over to the table where his favourite chair used to be.

“I thought it was time for a change,” she said, then disappeared into the kitchen.

Dad raised an eyebrow.

“Go and help your Auntie with the tea, love,” Mum said to me.

As I left the sitting room I heard her whisper to Dad.

“I think she’s gone a bit funny.”


Now I stand in the kitchen doorway watching Auntie Mary. She spoons salmon from a tin into a bowl then stirs in some vinegar. Her hand is a bit wobbly. She gives a little jump when she notices me.

“What’re you doing standing there? You scared me half to death.”

“I came to help.”

She frowns.

“Okay, let’s make a start on the sandwiches.”

We stand side by side. I butter the bread while she cuts the cucumber. She keeps cutting when she speaks.

“Are you all right?”

I nod my head.

“Are you?” I’m buttering my final slice. When she doesn’t answer me I glance up at her face. It’s all crumpled and red.

“Auntie Mary?”

She straightens out her face and nods. We carry on buttering and cutting.

“Would you like to go to the library today?” she asks.

“Yes please.”

She wipes her hands on her apron and unties it.

“Come on then.”

“But what about tea?”

“Tea can wait.”

I follow her up the stairs. When she pushes open the door my sign swings to and fro. Auntie Mary turns to me and smiles. Sometimes Mum gets things wrong.














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