Friday, 19 June 2009

Family Secrets.

Nobody would ever talk about Auntie Irene. She appeared as a teenager, ghostly thin and with protruding teeth, at the edges of black and white family photographs, staring into the camera with lop-sided intensity. She wore shapeless floral frocks and sandals, seemingly in all weathers. Sometimes she stood beside her sister June, whose dazzling smile and extravagant perm cast her into shadow. There was one faded photograph of Irene as a baby, squinting in disbelief at the lens, from her mother’s lap. There were no pictures of her in adult life.

If Auntie Irene remained peripheral in family photographs, she was entirely absent from family conversations and history. Something happened during her teenage years that effectively wiped her off the map; although her death certificate, nestling beneath the same photographs in a battered biscuit tin in the attic, showed her to have died, of pneumonia at the age of forty seven.

At first Penny thought her auntie was a spy, leading a romantic double life far away from dull family routine in Tring, where June, Penny’s mum, had ended up the wife of a dyspeptic dentist. Every time Penny asked her mum about Auntie Irene, she was brushed off with a terse, “We don’t want to go into all that, now.”

But Penny did want to go into all that. The less she knew about Auntie Irene, the more she wanted to be like her. Until one day she heard her mum and dad arguing, and her dad capped a particularly heated altercation by yelling, “You’re as mad as poor old Irene!”

“You leave my sister alone!” her mum screamed back.

“Pity your dad didn’t,” retorted her father at the top of his voice. “She might have had half a chance.”

After that, Penny didn’t talk about Auntie Irene either.


Oscar Grillo said...

This is one of my favourite stories, Chips. A classic, almost Chekhovian.

No One In Particular said...

So much of this goes on. The ones that should talk about it rarely do, until it's too late.