Short Story Semi-Finalist, LISP 3rd Quarter 2020
Auntie’s Lemon Meringue Pie by Alan Kennedy
Auntie’s Lemon Meringue Pie by Alan Kennedy
When mother’s mind up-anchored a week after my eighth birthday, Dad shipped me off to Auntie Pearl’s. Although so much has changed since then, this town still reeks of salt, lemons, and rotting fish. The fresh oyster stalls round the harbour have vanished, ousted by shuttered-up souvenir bazaars and sea view cafes.
Where the mayor once dreamed a tourist boom was bearing down like a nor-westerly gale, scuttled shops stand fore and aft like shipwrecks.
A coastal path, deserted despite the balmy weather, has replaced the gang planks. Lopsided yachts fill the jetties where Auntie used to tie up her rowing boat after catching our supper.
‘Typical of your father to vanish up his own navel. Spiritual retreat, my Aunt Fanny! In Thailand, I ask you! Reeling in some piece of adolescent skirt in a cheesecloth blouse with bedroom eyes, no doubt. Floundering away from his duties as always.’
Dad was never Pearl's favourite person.
The kitchen preserves the odour of Auntie’s lemon meringue pie, sold to every bakery in town. Even figures on the current municipal crest. ‘Europe’s finest’, boasts the billboard. Aunt Pearl lamented there was nothing else remarkable in the area.
‘” Museum of Meringues” will be next. Pathetic little shingle-strewn village.’
From my attic window, the tilted tips of the sunken sailboats’ masts sway at the mercy of the wind. When I notified the estate agent of my intention to sell, he insisted we put the accent on the sea view. After two months, the telephone stays silent.
Despite jettisoning the fishing fleet, the stench of smoked mackerel infiltrates the mortar of the buildings. The aroma swamps everything. The library I snivelled out solitary afternoons hiding is now a shopping centre.
Once the novelty of my northern accent evaporated, the other boys at Neptune Street Primary either snubbed me, blackened my eye or broke my nose. Only Marina, the newsagent’s daughter, the same age as me, called me by my actual name, not the nicknames the older kids gave me. Four eyes, big ears, north mouth being the least cruel.
When I first arrived back, I fancied looking up my first love. I glimpsed her working at the cash desk of the supermarket where the library once stood. She looked the same; freckles, red hair, that crooked front tooth. But, when she spoke, a tirade of curses, learned, the village gossips say, in prison, gushed out. Despite me being bald, chubby and convinced she wouldn’t recognise me, I changed queue. Best leave the memory of my sweet friend, my childhood guardian angel, crystallised in the backwaters of my past.
The much-vaunted tourist tide never came in. Ten vulgar beach hotels ruin the harmonious panorama that once characterised the town.
‘Kill the sturgeon, no more golden caviar.’ Auntie had a phrase for everything.
I still envisage the long eel grass where I cowered from the bullies. All gone now. A car park with no cars, a public toilet with no public stand in its place. The unique sand dunes disappeared into the concrete for the Dune View Hotel.
The remaining fish and chip stall only opens on Sunday morning for lunch. Schoolkids joked Old Fergie Hamilton fried the chips in grease from his own hair. Whatever he used, they still melted in my mouth. The battered cod was smaller. But that’s a cliché of ageing, isn’t it?
Yesterday, two of my former tormentors were downing a liquid lunch in the pub. Wrecked, hunched shells who once rejoiced in stamping on my face in the playground. Couldn’t hold down a drink by the looks of them.
The bigger one, Cliff something, was like a punch-drunk boxer on narcotics. His mate, one-armed, limping Sandy or Andy gave me a scar on my eyebrow on the first day at school. I should keelhaul both for making me run; turning me into the escape artist I am today, fleeing from everything, scared of my reflection.
These shapeless forms embittered my three years with Auntie, after Dad’s disappearance and Mum’s breakdown. I suffered one thousand days of scuttling away, thirty-six months of being barged into.
Partly from the memory, but mainly from their pungent B.O., I steered clear of any contact.
Back to collect my inheritance, I couldn't wait to cash in and cast off. While sorting out Auntie’s well-filed paperwork, I came across a yellowing birth certificate with her name on it. I struggled to breathe, silenced a scream. That piece of paper made sense of Mum’s constant vicious innuendos. The child's father was Dad, the mother being Mrs Pearl Bailey.
I was the baby.
The church clock still sounds five minutes before the hour. Auntie said the town was in a rush to
move forward. When I lived with Pearl, Mum’s condition worsened. She phoned every Friday, weeping, screaming, demanding to speak to me, something Auntie never allowed. Mum showed up in the middle of the night with the spare latch key to pluck me out of my bed without telling her baby sister. The police issued a missing persons bulletin. My face was on the news.
The two never spoke again.
Uncle Fred Bailey died in the war. Pearl never remarried. A nurse, a lifetime looking after everyone else, she had no one to tend her in her final agony. Mum despised her; much younger, prettier, funnier. Fertile. Although Dad never glanced at another woman, Mum never allowed him to be alone with Pearl.
She didn't tell me her sister was ill, didn’t want me to make Auntie’s last moments easier.
I saw Pearl one more time, in her coffin two days after she died. The greatest baker in this nowhere town. The tang of lemon meringue still hung round her hair. Or maybe only in my imagination.
This morning, after throwing the ‘For Sale’ sign in the rubbish, I slipped the faded birth document into her recipe book, picked up the lemon verbena plant I’d cover them with and headed for the cemetery.