I wrote this short story a while back for a competition in Woman&Health magazine. The only requirements were the length, and that your story was about ‘a secret’. Anyone familiar with my writing will notice the difference – I figured it needed to be pitched at an older readership.
The Ferry Crossing
by C-C Lester
I blink back the tears as the border guard approaches our vehicle. Now is not the time to be showing any weakness.
‘Good afternoon madam! May I see your documents?’
I wonder if he sees my hand shaking as I pass him the pile of passports. But then everyone gets scared crossing borders don’t they? That unsubstantiated feeling of wrongdoing, just because someone in authority is questioning you?
Except this time the feeling isn’t unsubstantiated. I’m doing wrong. But in doing wrong, I’m also doing what’s right for me. What’s right for my family.
‘That’s quite a brood!’ The man nods into the car.
On cue Ruby smiles over at him, a gappy-toothed grin out from under her nest of golden curls. And in that split-second, I know I’ve done it. I’ve escaped. Crossing the border and never having to look back. All that rehearsals were unnecessary. Worrying how I’d answer questions about the nature of our trip, or where my husband is. But I had underestimated the children. My natural camouflage. My three little Sirens. So perfectly beautiful that the moment anyone sees them, they all but forget that I exist.
That was the problem in the first place. SHE saw my children, and my husband, and both SHE and HE forgot that I existed.
The guard waves us cheerfully on, and Ruby and Lily beam at him through the rear-view window. I have to stop myself applauding their acting skills. But then I remember they’re not acting. As far as they’re concerned, this is just another holiday. One that Daddy will be joining us on as soon as he finishes work.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’ Ruby asks innocently. I cackle euphorically at the age-old question. My sharp laughter is so uncharacteristic, that when I check on my girls in the rear-view mirror, they look shell-shocked. I really need to get a grip. I wipe a damp palms through the front of my hair, and then follow the parking attendant’s directions around the ferry car park.
Ruby moans my name three more times before I remember to answer her.
‘Sorry Rubes. I just have to make sure the car is parked up properly. Um, no we’re not there just yet … because it’s a really big adventure! See … we get to travel on this huge boat all the way across the sea, and then when we get to the other side we’ll be in a whole new country! And guess what, in that other country, they don’t use the same words we do, and they drive on the other side of the road!’
‘Woah, cool!’ Ruby’s eyes are wide with excitement.
Lily leans over to her little sister. ‘It’s called France,’ she adds authoritatively, ‘And they eat frogs and snails there!’
‘Urgh gross!’ My two little cherubs screw up their faces, just in time for Theo to wake up with a wail.
‘See …’ Ruby giggles. ‘Theo thinks it’s gross too!’
I freeze my face into the smile I know I would normally be wearing at this point, and usher the girls out of the car, Theo bundled up in my arms.
As we cross the deserted car park, I know I’m being overly protective, shielding the girls futily with my body, and insisting the hold tight to one another, but I’ve come too far to lose them now. My darling babies. The idea of handing them over to HER turns my stomach. SHE can’t have them. SHE already got HIM!
No. This is the only way to save my family.
I shake my head at no one, aware of how ironic that sounds. Here I am trying to save a family which HE was so keen to throw away! Doing everything in HIS power to dissolve the bonds of our precious little clan.
MacAllister. The name on those passports. A name, which used to mean so much. All those years I aspired to be a MacAllister. Hoping that he might notice me … Dreaming that somehow the university rugby jock would really see little old me. And somehow he did! I used to pinch myself over and over, but it was real as day.
Benjamin MacAllister chose me. HE chose me! To be HIS wife. To be the mother of HIS children.
So why did HE choose HER … when HE already had me?
Lily’s noticed the tears in my eyes, so I brush them quickly away with the back of my hand.
‘What’s the matter Mummy?’
I try to shrug, worried my voice will fail me.
‘Aren’t you happy that we’re going on holiday?’ Ruby chimes in. ‘I thought adventures were exciting?’
I nod silently, desperately trying to squeeze away the tears. I need to be strong. For the girls. For what remains of my perfect family.
Eventually I catch my voice somewhere inside my dry throat.
‘Mummy’s just a little bit sad at the moment. But it’s fine. I’ll be happy soon. You three make me so happy!’ I smile weakly through the tears and clutch my brood to my chest.
‘Are you sad because of Daddy’s secret?’ Ruby asks quietly.
I stare down at my middle child in surprise. Where on Earth did she get that from? But there’s no point asking. I don’t want to know what she knows. What she heard.
I nod slowly. ‘Yes Ruby, I’m a little bit sad because of Daddy’s secret.’
Lily stares indignantly at me and her sister. ‘What’s Daddy’s secret? I didn’t know Daddy had a secret!’
I usher the kids to a quiet corner of the ferry as I decide how to answer her question. Eventually I try the simplest response. ‘It wouldn’t be a secret if you knew what it was!’
Lily looks unconvinced for a second or two, but then shrugs. I breathe a sigh of relief. In all my rehearsals of answers, telling my seven year-old daughter how her father has been having an affair with her dance teacher was definitely not one of them.
‘So …’ Lily carries on eventually. ‘Do you have secrets too Mummy?’
Her question is so innocent. So natural, given the circumstances. And yet equally, so wrong.
I take a deep breath, realising that this is the pivotal moment.
The moment when I move from one reality to another.
‘Of course I do, my darling. Everyone has secrets.’
My eldest frowns. ‘But I don’t have any secrets Mummy! Ruby knows everything about me!’
Ruby nods in agreement. ‘I know where she keeps her diary, and the secret name she calls Theo when she gets angry at him!’
I wrap my wing around my fledgling chicks.
‘Don’t worry Lily, those are still secrets from me and Daddy. We don’t know where you keep your diary, or what you call Theo!’
The use of the word ‘we’ sounds hollow. Foreign. Wrong.
‘You see my lovelies,’ I talk quickly, so I don’t have to think too deeply about what I’m saying. ‘Me and Daddy have some secrets from you three … like what you’re getting for your birthday. And you guys have secrets that we don’t know … remember when you got that secret Father’s Day card for Daddy?’
The girls both nod, smiling at the mention of presents and cards.
‘Can we make a new secret?’ Lily asks quietly, falling into a trap I hadn’t even realised I’d set. Everything is playing out like the script I tried so many times to pen in my mind.
The perfect performance.
‘Of course darling. Hey, how about us four have a secret of our own? You, me, Lily and Theo?’ Theo gurgles his assent.
‘Why don’t we play a big game of Hide and Seek from Daddy? He can come and try to find us? Because if we don’t tell him where we’re hiding, then that’s a secret!’
The girls’ eyes sparkle wide, and I know I’ve targeted my pitch at the right audience.
‘So …’ Ruby is processing the logistics. ‘Daddy is going to come and find us in Fu-rance?’
I nod, my smile wide and painful. ‘You know what the really cool thing is about Europe? We can go anywhere! We could stay in France … or we could go further … Germany, Spain, Sweden …. Africa!’ I giggle, a little hysterically. ‘The world is our oyster!’
Neither of the girls seem too clued up on what an oyster is, but before I can elaborate, Lily turns to her younger sister and clarifies, ‘The world is our secret.’
I clutch Theo tightly to my chest, and nod my agreement. The world is our secret. They are my world. They are my secrets.
When the boat pulls away from Dover, I take the girls to the onboard pharmacy.
‘Let’s play dress-up!’ I exclaim cheerily, rooting through the boxes of hair dye. ‘We could change the colour of our hair, just like Mummy does!’ I’ve seen the way the girls peer through the crack in the bathroom door as I touch up my grey roots. I know it won’t be hard to convince them to ‘play’ with the permanent hair colour. Lily chooses a box of burgundy red dye, and we troop happily off to the bathrooms. After all, it’s all part of the game. If we change our hair colour, it’ll make it harder for Daddy to find us. Make the Hide and Seek more fun. Make our secret last that much longer.
I’m surprisingly unemotional as I dye my five and seven year-old daughters’ hair. Their blonde curls have always been so picture perfect … and yet they were always the indicator that they weren’t completely mine. That their claim to the coveted MacAllister name was stronger than mine. They were Ben’s for good. Bright blond hair and blood a far stronger bond than my cheap wedding band. My maiden name would always be different. Once a Petty, always a Petty. My hair would always be mouse brown underneath.
But now we’re all redheads, the girls’ locks such a vibrant shade of burgundy that I barely recognise my own children. I debate dying Theo’s hair too, but he barely has any hair to speak of, and I can’t help wondering how safe henna really is.
Ruby is the first to notice the ironic fact. Only now do my own children look like they belong to me.
‘Mummy, we match!’ she says excitedly, tugging at my wet hair.
‘We’re sharing the same hair!’ she smiles, proud of her use of a big word.
Lily turns to her, and narrows her eyes slightly. Her serious expression. ‘We’re sharing the same secret!’
But as she turns to me, she’s grinning. This is all just a game, after all.
‘Now what Mummy?’
I shake my head, still taken aback by their transformation. I clutch all three of my children to my chest, my face pressed against Lily’s wet curls. I only break away when Theo starts to moan and Ruby wriggles free. ‘I’m hungry!’ she moans.
I shake the cobwebs from my mind, too engrossed in thoughts and memories. SHE had been dancing through my mind again, unwelcome. With HER lithe twenty year-old body and brilliant blonde hair. I will never let HER have them. She will never be their second mother. No one needs a second mother. It’s an exclusive role. Just like wife. Ben shouldn’t have needed a second woman … HE just did. But his children most definitely don’t.
‘I’m doing the right thing!’ I mutter to myself as we search the lower deck of the boat for a snack shop. Lily runs up ahead, still wrapped up in the adventure. But Ruby insists on clutching my free hand, occasionally staring at me out of the corner of her eye. She’s always been too perceptive. I squeeze her little palm, and pretend to be checking on Theo, so that she doesn’t see the fresh wave of tears threatening my eyes.
The minute chocolate is in sight, my strange behaviour is forgotten. Ruby chases her sister up and down the aisles, exploiting my absent behaviour by filling a basket high with treats I normally wouldn’t dream of buying.
It’s only when we get to the counter that I register the contents of the shopping basket. Chocolate coins, Curly Wurly’s, Salt and Vinegar Squares, Marshmallows, Creme eggs and Pepperamis. I wave the cured meat at my daughters. ‘Girls, who are these for? You know none of us like them!’
I should have guessed the answer before I even asked it.
Ruby looks up at me, with HIS eyes. Brilliant as sapphires, deep as wells. The same eyes which stole my heart all those years ago. The eyes, which must have also stolen HER heart. The eyes which tried to steal my children from me. My three new hearts. All as vital to me as the one beating in my chest.
‘It’s for Daddy … for when he finds us!’ She explains excitedly.
I turn away from the eyes, and begin to walk. The shop assistant is calling after me. Theo is crying again, wailing up at me from my arms. And yet I barely register his weight, let alone his cries. I can vaguely feel the girls tugging at the hem of my skirt. I know I ought to pay. I know they want their chocolate. I know they’re hungry. When did I last feed them? When did I last eat? When did I last sleep?
Questions and demands fill my mind. But all I can do is stare out to sea, glad for the distraction that the view offers.
On this side of the glass panel, it feels like wave after wave swamps the boat, each one swallowing the one before it. Slowly I count to ten, aware that nothing I’m looking at now was the same as it was ten seconds ago. A whole new world. A constantly clean slate.
Just what I need.
I needed a new world. And I got it. A world with no Ben. A world where my girls are redheads. But that world didn’t need to be France. In fact … I didn’t even need to leave Manchester. Because Ben isn’t there any more. He isn’t here any more.
No, the reason I had to leave Manchester was HER. Because when SHE finally fully invades my nest, opening up my home with a key I know HE’s given HER …or when the neighbours notice the mail mounting up, and the girls’ teachers start to wonder why they’re not at school..… the Police will storm our lovely semi-detached home.
And they’ll find HIM. They’ll find HIM where I left HIM.
In the bath with the bread knife straight through HIS heart.
And then they’ll give them to HER. They’ll give MY children to HER. And SHE’ll have taken everything.
MY entire life.
And that’s how Ben’s little secret has become MY little secret.
© C-C Lester, 2011