A short story for you to enjoy…
Chrystal’s expression was deadly serious. ‘Mum will be at work and I need someone to be there for Thomas, G.G.’
Val turned her head slowly. ‘I don’t know, love…’
But Chrystal wouldn’t take no for an answer. The coach was booked, the insurers had got all the paper work and the Mums and toddlers were eagerly looking forward to the playgroup outing. ‘There’s one small snag,’ she’d insisted. ‘Well, a big one really. The Bump.’
Val smiled. The women in her family had children young. She wasn’t even a pensioner but her grand daughter, though not quite twenty-one, was expecting her second child! But not even something as wonderful as that could shake off her mood. After all that she’d been through with Dan, how could she face more uncertainties?
Years ago, Val had run a playgroup herself. OK, so they say sixty is the new forty but once Dan’s illness took a hold, she’d become used to a more sedate life. She wasn’t sure that she could cope with twenty or more noisy children for the whole day.
‘When I organised the trip I’d forgotten I’d be nearly eight months pregnant by the time it came around,’ Chrystal smiled. ‘We can’t let the Bump spoil the day for Thomas, can we?’
Val’s instincts told her to say, no, but why let her own insecurities spoil her great-grandson’s day? Such a mouthful that… great grandma. That’s why the family called her G.G. But if she was any kind of a great-grandmother, she should jump at the chance to go with them. After all, it was over a year since Dan had gone. She’d thought she would have been able to pick up the threads of her life by now. She had planned to get a little job, but once the grief was manageable, she was appalled to discover she had completely lost her confidence. And then she’d found the lump…
‘Give yourself time, Mum,’ Molly, her sage-like daughter had advised back then. But it was comfortable hiding away, making the garden or the house her excuse. And every time she’d examined her body, she’d shut her mind down.
Chrystal was staring at her with a pleading expression.
Val chewed her bottom lip. ‘What exactly does this trip entail?’
Sensing she had already won, Chrystal beamed, ‘I can’t do the running around,’ she said, ‘so you’ll be there, just in case…’
Sounded easy enough.
‘Where are you going?’ Val asked uneasily.
‘The Tiny Tots Water Park.’
Val was horrified. ‘A Water Park? Isn’t that a bit dangerous for small children?’
‘It’s meant for babies,’ Chrystal assured her. ‘It’s only a glorified paddling pool and they have life guards and everything.’
‘The other Mums are responsible for their own kids,’ Chrystal reminded her. ‘You’ll only have Thomas to think about.’
Val sighed. ‘It’s years since I had a paddle.’
Her daughter hesitated. ‘It would be better if you wore a swim suit, G. G.’
‘A cossie!’ Val couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn a bathing costume. She and Dan hadn’t been very keen on the beach. They’d preferred to go for long hikes and horse riding on their holidays. Besides, since Dan died… well, to be absolutely honest, she’d let herself go.
‘Please, G.G. I can’t do this alone.’
As soon as Chrystal left, Val rummaged through the neither regions of her chest of drawers. She found a bathing costume but as soon as she held it up, she knew it wouldn’t fit any more. Besides, when she stretched it over her hand, the material was no thicker than a bit of gauze in some areas. It was time to get a new one.
Once inside the department store, Val was glad she’d decided to come alone. The choice was amazing… if she had been size 10. It didn’t take long to discover that three quarters of the stock were bikinis. She held three bits, each the size of a postage stamp, out in front of her. When she’d been pregnant with Chrystal, Val remembered having a lovely swimming costume with a little pleated skirt to go over her tummy. Something like that would be ideal.
‘Can I help you, Madam?’ The assistant was looking at her as if she shouldn’t be there.
‘Where are your maternity costumes?’
‘You’re holding one,’ said the assistant.
Val gasped. As she thought about putting it on, a discernable tick started under her left eye. The assistant waited. Val knew what she was thinking. It was all right for young Mums like Chrystal to show off her Bump but a middle-aged woman with a tummy? She knew, they both knew, it wasn’t the same.
The assistant held out her hand and like a naughty school caught shoplifting, Val gave her the postage stamps back.
‘The larger sizes are over there,’ she said with a dismissive wave of her hand towards the far end of the shop.
Val resisted the urge to go home.
There wasn’t much of a selection. She pulled out a pale cream costume with no cups. It resembled the wide strapped vests her old Dad used to wear. Then there was a shapeless flesh coloured crinkly number, and a blue two-piece, or perhaps it was a one piece. The top and bottom were joined together with three straps, each held together with a buckle. Next she found a yellow daisy costume which would certainly make her stand out from the crowd, and finally an all black one piece which was about exciting as a bin liner.
Val gathered all her possibilities and headed towards the changing room. It was a mammoth task taking everything off although for the sake of hygiene she kept her panties on. The cream costume with no cups was first. She may have been a little out of shape but once she’d levered herself into it, she looked even worse. Now she resembled a grapefruit on legs… or maybe it was a melon. One boob was lurking somewhere around her armpit and the other had flattened itself somewhere near where her waist used to be.
The flesh coloured costume gave her the same unflattering shape only now she looked positively indecent.
She got into a terrible muddle with the strappy one piece/two piece costume and gave up when she found the fastening which should have been between her shoulder blades somewhere under her arm pit. Once she’d managed to extricate herself, she was puffed out and had to sit down for a rest.
The assistant poked her head around the curtain. ‘How are we doing?’ she said brightly.
Val grabbed her tee shirt and covered herself. ‘Fine,’ she said irritably.
When the assistant left, it was a toss up between the black bin liner and the yellow daisy thing. Fifteen minutes later, and only because black is supposed to be slimming, she stood at the pay desk with the bin liner. Who was going to look at her anyway?
‘You do now that this material becomes transparent in water,’ the ever-helpful assistant cautioned.
When the day of the Little Fishes outing dawned, Val dragged herself to the rendezvous. Her daily shower brought new fears about the lump. She wondered if she should tell her daughter and the rest of the family but then she remembered how upset they had been over Dan. Could she put them through all that again?
As soon as she saw the Mums, Val knew it was going to be a very long day. They all looked so young. In fact they looked no more than babies themselves.
‘Come on, girl,’ she told herself as she walked up to them with a fixed smile, ‘put your face on…’
When they got into the coach, Thomas wanted to sit with his Mum and made such a huge fuss, Val felt like a leper. She understood perfectly. She loved him dearly, but she’d had so little time of him when Dan was alive. There was always another hospital appointment to rush to, a dressing to change or new sheets to put on the bed. During those terrible days, when she was dashing about all over the place, she’d thought that it would be such a relief when Dan passed away. But as soon as he did, she beat herself up with guilt that she’d even thought those things. Grief left her so exhausted, there was nothing left to give to the family. Consequently, Thomas hardly knew her.
Val was moved to the front into the seat near the driver. She recognised him straight away. He’d been at the hospital too and she remembered the day his wife went into see the Consultant. As she watched him patiently loading twenty-two pushchairs into the storage spaces she wondered what had happened to her.
‘You’re a glutton for punishment,’ he grinned to Val as he climbed aboard but then he noticed that the girl behind her was breast-feeding. His face coloured and he looked away sharply. Val chuckled to herself.
Chrystal had thought of everything. Toys for the journey, bottled water for any who had forgotten to bring some and a map of the layout of the place for when they got there.
Once underway, Chrystal heaved herself into the seat next to Thomas. ‘Alright G. G.?’
‘Fine,’ Val lied.
Her grand daughter was right, Tiny Tots Water Park was perfect. The water was only ankle deep but there were little mushrooms to sit on, water slides, floats and pirate shaped fountains. All the children were fitted with water wings and once everyone had taken their first experiment steps into the pool, they started to enjoy themselves.
Chrystal held onto her son while Val slipped into the changing room. In daylight, the bathing costume looked positively garish, but what could she do? There was no turning back now. As she came out, the first person she saw was the coach driver. Val could feel her face colouring so she suck her nose in the air and brazened it out.
When she reached her granddaughter, Chrystal’s jaw dropped, and then she looked away. Val swallowed hard. This costume was a big mistake, but taking her great grandson firmly by the hand, she entered the water.
‘You look very pretty, G.G,’ he said gazing up at her and her heart melted.
After a while, the children gravitated to her and it was as if the years had melted away. She was back at the nursery where she used to work, or playing with her own children when they were young. She relaxed and let herself go. With one child draped around her neck and six more sitting beside her, she kicked her legs making a frothy cloud above the water. All at once, Val was surrounded with the laughter. It was wonderful. She felt so alive. For the first time since Dan’s awful illness and death, she was happy. At one time, she looked down at her costume. Oh dear… she hadn’t remembered it being this bright, or the yellow daisies being so numerous…
Eventually everyone got out of the water to have their lunches on the grass. Someone had a radio tuned up loud. Val draped her towel around her hips and to amuse the children, she and Thomas danced together. Before long, she had to give all the children turns to dance and even the Mums were laughing.
Back in the coach, the children fought over who was going to sit next to her.
‘I want to sit next to Daisy Gran.’
Of course, she sat next to Thomas, who fell asleep on her lap almost as soon as they set off. Val stroked his hair and realised she hadn’t thought about the lump for the whole time they’d been there. Now it hung over her head like a dark shadow.
Most of them nodded off on the way home, Chrystal included. Val didn’t. The coach driver winked and put on a 70’s CD and she soon found herself tapping her feet to 70’s music like David Essex, Gonna make you a Star.
‘There’s a tribute band at the Town Hall at the weekend,’ he suddenly said over his shoulder. ‘They’ll be singing all the old ones. Maggie May, My Sweet Lord, Get it on… Fancy coming?’ There was a pause and then blushing he added, ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean… I just thought… The wife and me… we love the old music and you seemed a bit of a live wire, that’s all.’
‘Yeah,’ the driver beamed. ‘What about your husband? How is he?’
Val shook her head and the driver looked embarrassed. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, love. Me and my big mouth.’
‘It’s all right,’ said Val. ‘I don’t mind talking about him.’
‘He seemed like a nice man.’
Val nodded. ‘Your wife is better?’
‘Sandy and I were lucky,’ the driver went on. ‘They found hers early enough to do something. She’s got the all clear last week.’
‘I am pleased,’ said Val. ‘And as for me being a live wire, I’m a great-granny you know.’
‘Never!’ he cried.
Val grinned. ‘I was only sixteen when I met Dan. We were married at seventeen and I was a Mum at eighteen.’
‘Then you’ll be up for the concert?’ he said breezily. ‘We’re doing it to raise funds for the Hospice.’
‘Well…’ said Val uncertainly. ‘I was more of a Barbara Streisand fan when I was young..’
‘You don’t bring me flowers…You don’t sing me love songs,’ he sang with great gusto.
She laughed and joined in until Thomas stirred in her arms and sighed sleepily, ‘Daisy G.G.’
Val turned to look out of the window. She’d been an absolute idiot, hadn’t she? Burying her head in the sand wasn’t the answer at all. And she was jumping to conclusions. She didn’t even know it there was anything wrong yet. And even if there was, she still had a lot of living to do. What she needed to do was to get fit. She’d get herself checked out as soon as she got home… and then she’d join a gym and look around for some other interests…
The driver caught her eye in the mirror and they both grinned.
‘About that tribute band,’ Val said, ‘put me down for a ticket.’