A Strange Attraction to Concrete Cows
by Karen Page
Edited by Angel O'Hare
For a few seconds Mum just sat there stunned. "Why do you ask?"
"It's just I saw somebody during the pantomime interval that I found out was called Julia. She reminded me of somebody and after a few hours of racking my brains I remembered that she looks like Granny Toms used to."
"Can I see?" asked Mum. I felt a bit left out. I'd never seen this Julia person and I found the revelation that we had another relative very surprising. Nobody had ever mentioned her before.
When Mum saw the photo she just got the stunned look again. Beth leaned across, touched Mums arm and asked," So is she a relation?"
Mum gave a very simple response, "Yes."
"I was now very confused, "Why didn't you or Dad ever mention her before."
"Dad never told me about Julia until last year and since she's a member of the Toms family I didn't think it my place to tell you."
"Since she knows the Scott's and Moore's I presume she works for Planetwide?" concluded Beth.
"Yes. She works in the Milton Keynes office."
Before we could ask Mum any more questions the phone rang. Mum answered it. Apparently it was Dad. Mum took the cordless phone upstairs so she could talk in peace the only thing we heard was "You broke your promise."
"So how closely does Julia resemble Granny Toms?" I asked Beth trying to picture this recently discovered relation.
"The hair is different; Julia has her hair in a bob, and has thin arched eyebrows but the rest like the face is almost identical."
"Do you think we'll meet her?" I wondered.
"Well I suppose it depends if she is anything to do with Dad leaving."
"Why would a family member cause us not to see Dad? That doesn't make sense."
"No, but nothing regarding Dad has made sense since he left."
A good fifteen minutes later Mum appeared with the phone. "Your turns," she said.
I grabbed the phone first, "Hi Dad."
"Hi. Well done with the pantomime. I thought you did really well."
"What?" I said getting excited. "You were there?"
"Beth, why didn't you say that Dad was there?" I scolded.
"I didn't see him," she replied sounding a bit miffed.
"Why didn't Beth or I see you?" I asked Dad.
"Of course I was there. I would never have missed seeing your starting performance. Now, I'm in enough trouble with Mum that I went. How much more trouble do you think I'd be in if you'd seen Andrew Toms in the audience." Dad then tried to change the direction of the conversation, "Who was the girl who played the part before the interval? I only saw you in the second half."
"That was me," I replied quietly. I was slightly embarrassed that I'd played the part so femininely that my own Dad didn't recognise me. "I played the part in both halves."
"Oh, I'm sorry son. I thought it was a real girl. Looking back I can see that it was you. The voice and movement were very realistic. Who helped you, Beth?"
"No, Anna and Erika gave me a lot of help. It was Anna in the interval that pointed out that I was overacting. Beth saw somebody there called Julia. Mum just confirmed that she's a relation. You know we don't have many relations so why did you never mention her before?"
Dad paused for a moment and then sounded very unsure of what to say, "Julia has a very complex history which I'm not about to attempt to relate over the phone. When I see you and Beth next I'll explain about Julia."
"And I take it that we won't meet Julia until then?"
"I'm afraid so. Now isn't it your oboe exam on Monday?"
I chatted to Dad for another few minutes but he made it clear that Julia was not a topic that he or Mum would talk about. I said goodbye and put Beth on. I sat next to Mum while we waited for Beth to finish.
When Beth had said goodbye to Dad I went and sat next to her. By what I'd heard it sounded like Dad had told her the same as me about Julia.
"Julia shouldn't have been there," explained Mum. "It was very selfish of her. She promised that she wouldn't see you until you'd been told about her. So as Dad told you both; Julia is not a topic that either of us will discuss."
Just then the phone rang again. Again Mum answered it. "Oh hi Lisa, what wrong?" Mum then listened for a moment. "Beth just asked me about Julia. Why don't you and Lisa come down with Anna and we can discuss it. I'll ring Donald and Kathy and see if they can come with Erika also as I'm sure she'll be asking questions next."
Fifteen minutes later the Scott's and Moore's arrived. I was banished upstairs with the other three girls while the parents discussed things. Apparently when Anna had asked her Mum about Julia she'd refused to discuss it and promptly rang my Mum. While we waited the four of us debated why nobody had seen Dad and why we weren't being told anything about Julia.
After about twenty minutes we were summoned downstairs. All the comfortable seats on the settee were taken and Mum had brought in four chairs from the dining room. They were lined up together and the way they were positioned it looked like we were all in for interrogation. They all had hot drinks and it also looked like they'd been eating mince pies. Mum brought in a plate of four homemade mince pies for us.
Once we were seated Erika's Dad, Donald Moore, opened the proceedings, "Over the last two days you've all seen or heard mention of Julia. Well Julia is a relation to the Toms and she works for Planetwide. Julia is a nice lady but has an awkward background so until she has been introduced to Beth and Bill we won't discuss her. When Anna and Erika move to Milton Keynes they are also forbidden from making any contact with Andrew Toms or finding out about Julia. Any questions?"
I felt like a naughty boy being told off. I looked to my left and saw Anna and Erika looked the way I felt. When I looked to my right at Beth she looked defiant.
"This isn't fair," started Beth. "Dad leaves home and we end up without a father for no reason that you care to explain. Then we find out we have a relative called Julia that you all know about but nobody thinks it's important to tell us. Bill has a serious medical issue and while he gets support from all here, he is getting little help from Dad. He is mercilessly teased at school and being forced to play the part that he didn't even get picked for."
"We've discussed this before, Beth," said Mum not really listening to Beth. "I won't discuss why Dad moved out. I'm aware that Bill has it tough at school and I will discuss this with the school after Christmas. Keeping Dad away is for the best for both of you but especially Bill."
I decided to stick up my sister. She'd gone out on a limb and needed support, "It isn't just that we want Dad around. We are also very worried and confused; Dad got beaten up and stabbed. We just want to understand what's happening and why the man involved plans to plead not guilty due to being justified. I'm not an expert in the law but I do known that if found guilty he gets a much heavier sentence than if he pleaded guilty."
Mum just turned white as ghosts when we mentioned the stabbing. When I mentioned about him pleading not guilty she looked like she was shaking. I thought that she might have been angry that I brought this up but she just looked panicky.
"He can't do that," whispered Mum to herself in panic. "If it came out it would destroy the children's lives. When Andrew told me it almost destroyed mine."
Kathy and Lisa went to comfort my Mum whose eyes were doing very good impressions of waterfalls.
What did Marcus know about Dad that we didn't? What does Mum mean that knowing about Dad might destroy our lives? What's going on?
"What do you...." I was stopped when Mr Scott put a warning hand on my shoulder and shook his head.
Beth turned to the two male adults and said, "I'm sorry for my earlier outburst. Why don't I make up two camp beds for Anna and Erika? It looks like you've got a lot to discuss."
"Thanks Beth. I know this must be difficult," explained Mr Scott. "Where did you here about, er, the man that did this planning to not plead guilty?"
"You can call him Marcus if you want," I replied.
"Yet another fact you know. Don't worry I'm not going to ask where you get your information from. When you leave school I'll make sure there is an opening in the research department."
All four of us giggled which got another frown from Mum who had started to calm down. "You four had better head up to bed. Bill, can you give Beth a hand setting up the camp beds? They should be in the understairs cupboard. Spare bedding should be in the airing cupboard."
The second bed was folded near the back of the cupboard. As I was the smallest I volunteered to get it. As I grabbed it I forgot about the sloping roof and banged my head hard. Beth and Erika just cracked up laughing covering up my expletive.
"Are you okay?" Anna asked dragging me out as I towed the folded bed behind me.
"I'm fine," I said rubbing the banged area.
Beth and I each carried a camp bed upstairs. Wouldn't it be nice to have Anna sleeping in my room but I knew that would never happen. None of the parents had told us where the girls would sleep; I think they trusted us to do the right thing.
I placed the camp bed against the wall and went to the toilet thereby passing the decision to Beth and the girls. When I came out the camp bed was gone. I wondered into Beth's Room and they were busily trying to fit in the two beds.
Beth looked up from moving her bed and mouthed "Sorry" to me. I just shrugged and gave a week smile in reply. Erika was wrestling with the last bed and Anna was moving her bed towards the wardrobe. Anna looked up for a second and I noticed that her eyes looked moist before she busily resumed her work.
"While you finish arranging the beds I'll go and get the bedding." I said.
"I'll help," said Erika after finishing unfolding the camp bed against the far wall.
As I pulled items from the airing cupboard Erika held out her arms to let me place them there while searching for the next things. "Sorry about mentioning Marcus."
"It's okay," she said. "You needed to divert attention from Beth and none of the parents know that I gave you the information. Are you okay? You seemed upset back there?"
"I'm fine," I said trying to regain control of my emotions. I felt a slight tingle of moisture in my eyes and I blinked to try and clear my vision. "It's just I hoped," I trailed off and after a second continued, "It's nothing. I'm fine, really."
Erika's eyes opened wide in sudden realization of what I hadn't said. "It's okay Bill, I understand. I think that Anna had similar hopes. When Beth took the second bed into her room she looked rather deflated."
This cheered me up a bit though I still worried who Anna preferred so I thought I would go for broke, "Who does Anna prefer, Bill or Jill?"
Erika looked at me like I'd lost the plot, "She loves you both ways. Why do you think she lost it the first time you dressed as Jill? She still had feelings for you and she didn't understand why. Anna is only interested in boys. Sometimes you appear more relaxed as Jill. As Bill you are picked on and you never appear relaxed. When we went shopping as Jill you opened up and had fun."
"Thanks," I said with a small smile. "Just a word of warning; Anna snores really loud."
We took the bedding back to Beth's room. Beth and Anna had positioned the beds and although it would be cramped it would suffice for one night.
"I take it you will be going to church tomorrow morning?" asked Anna. When Beth nodded she continued, "Would you mind if I came with you?"
What was going on here? Anna never went to church and this would be the second Sunday in a row that she would attend. "That'll be nice," I responded.
"I'll need to nip home to get some nicer clothes for tomorrow," said Anna. "Jeans and a sweater won't do."
"We also need to get some night clothes," said Erika. "Let's go and ask if we can get what we need. We should only be gone about fifteen minutes."
I thought that if we went down the stairs quietly our parents might not hear us and we might gleam some information. Beth mustn't have been operating on the same wavelength as she bounded down the stairs sounding like a heard of elephants. The murmur of conversation stopped and Mum suddenly appeared at the door to the lounge.
"Would it be possible for Anna and Erika to nip home to get some things?" I asked Mum.
Mum leant back obviously looking at Anna's and Erika's parents for acceptance. Mr Moore's voice came with the response, "Only if they stick together."
"Mum," shouted Anna, "Would it be okay if I went with Bill to church tomorrow?"
"That's fine," said a very surprised sounding Mrs Scott as Anna had never shown an interest to go to church before last week.
While Anna and Erika went to get items they needed Beth and I made up the camp beds. We spent the time complaining to each other about not being told what was happening about Dad. We both really missed him.
Anna and Erika were soon back. They both looked tired so I left them for the night. When back in my room I set the alarm for thirty minutes earlier. With two extra girls in the house the bathroom might get busy. I had trouble sleeping as I wondered what my Dad was doing and who the mysterious Julia was. It looked like Anna had similar feelings to me but was also frightened of revealing them. I started to weep as I thought about the wonderful years I had known her and the fun things we had done together. As I wept I heard the Scott's and Moore's leave and Mum come to bed but sleep was still illusive. Eventually the tears stopped but my mind still thought about the issues I had.
It was about half one in the morning that I decided sleep wasn't going to come without help so crept downstairs and made myself a hot mug of milk. The ping from the microwave made me jump as it broke through the stillness of the night. I stood there without moving hoping that I hadn't disturbed Mum whose bedroom was immediately above the kitchen. After thirty seconds, I decided that I was safe and removed the cup of warm milk.
Just as I settled to the kitchen table I heard the kitchen door open and Mum, wrapped in her dressing gown, entered. "Do you mind it I join you?" she asked.
"Pull up a chair," I responded. "Sorry I disturbed you."
As she sat down opposite me she saw my tear stained cheeks. She got up and sat next to me and pulled me into a comforting embrace. That just charged up my emotions and resulted in a new flood of tears.
"Tell me what's wrong," Mum said as she gently stroked my hair.
"You know my body is changing and getting more feminine. It's gradual but the changes are starting to be noticeable. Beth had to make the pantomime dress not to make me more feminine but appear less. Last year I lost the only male influence in my life; my Dad, when he went to live in Milton Keynes. In just over a week Anna and Erika, my only friends my age, my lifeline to some sort of reality will disappear from my life. How can I be expected to live a life that I get no experience in living? How can I expect to learn how to be a man without some male influence and how can I learn about life as a teenager without any teenage friends. The only two people I will know are you and Beth."
Mum just sat there for a few moments as she continued to stoke my hair. Eventually she said, "Do you love Anna?" When there wasn't any response she said "I won't tell Anna."
There was another pause but I eventually said between sobs, "Yes, I've always been close and I've thought that I have for about a year. Recent events have just confirmed it. There have also been signs that she might love me. But we're only thirteen so if its true love or just puppy love I don't know."
Only the sound of my sobs and the ticking of the clock filled the room. Mum continued to gently stoke my hair, my tears soaking into her satin dressing gown.
"What about people in the orchestra? Don't you have anything in common with them?"
The continued sobs mixed with an attempted laugh caused a rather strange gurgled noise. "I might play with the people and some might respect my playing ability but we don't mix. I'm treated like a diseased animal, somebody to avoid. I might not know them all but my reputation as being somebody to avoid is very well known and very well adhered to."
We talked for quiet a while about issues but none really getting resolved. Mum was incensed when she heard that Tom had lied about who was chosen to play Widow Twanky. She was surprised that the teacher offered to cancel the show and was proud of my level-headed decision to go ahead.
As my sobbing eventually diminished I finished my milk. Mum said, "Leave the mug to me. Just go up to bed."
"Thank you for listening," I said giving my Mum a goodnight kiss. I went up and as soon as I got into bed I felt the need to relieve myself. Just typical. As I left the bedroom I heard not only Anna snoring but a voice downstairs. I crept down the stairs and heard Mum on the phone.
"I just don't know what to do Julia," said a very upset Mum. "He's so distraught. He never opens up to me and I think the only reason he did tonight was he was so close to a breakdown. He's been bottling things up such as the trouble he has at school. The only people I think he talks to is Anna and sometimes Erika. I've no idea what things are going to be like next year."
There was a pause as Mum listened to what Julia was saying, "That, I think is a last resort. For Bill to move to Milton Keynes would mean revealing everything. At the moment he is so emotionally fragile and I don't know if he would be able to cope with such a revelation."
Another pause, "No you can't go back know. This is the right thing for you and you know it. I'd rather tell Bill the truth than you destroy yourself."
I couldn't wait for the toilet any longer so crept back upstairs. When I was back in bed I thought about the telephone conversation. Why was Mum ringing Julia and not Dad? What was so terrible about Julia that they possibly could tell me? None of this made sense. The warm milk must have helped as I eventually drifted off to sleep.
The alarm rudely awoke my sleep. When I saw the time I just looked at the clock with horror. The events of last night quickly caught up with me and I remembered why I was getting up so early. I donned my dressing gown and headed for the bathroom.
When I came out of the bathroom I heard the faint sound of Beth's alarm going off so I'd timed going to the bathroom well. As I made my way back to my bedroom I saw Mum come out of her room to go downstairs. She had her own shower which greatly reduced any waiting period. I was wearing my dressing gown but hadn't put back on my pyjama trousers.
"Hi Bill, feeling better this morning?" Mum asked
"A little," I replied as I noticed my Mums eyes spot my shaven legs. How could I have been so careless?
"I see you went all out for the pantomime," said Mum with a smile as she headed downstairs.
I rushed back to my room before any of the girls emerged and got dressed. Why wasn't Mum upset about me shaving my legs? I joined Mum downstairs and decided not to push my luck by asking why she wasn't upset. Since we had guests Mum had decided to make a full English breakfast for us all. Mum already had the sausages cooking on the gas hob with the flame turned low and was busily preparing the rest. I grabbed an apron and started to slice the mushrooms.
As the girls started to appear Mum started to cook the rest and told us to sit. Beth poured five glasses of freshly squeezed orange. Mum soon had the five breakfasts ready and we all tucked in. Erika was not going to join us at church and was going to go home to pack. The forecast had been wrong and there was no new snow so clearing the drive wasn't an extra duty of the day.
At just before nine we departed. We waved goodbye to Erika as she made her way home. Once we were off the housing estate the main path through the village had been gritted so there was no chance of slipping. We got to the church about ten minutes before the start of the service. Regulars came up to Mum and said how sorry they were about Dad being ill. Mum thanked them all but never once told them that he'd been stabbed.
During the service two of my favourite modern hymns were sung, "Great is the Darkness" and "I the Lord of Sea and Sky". Since the service was so close to Christmas there were even a few carols. After the service the vicar met up with us while we were having tea and biscuits in the church hall.
"It's good to see you here today Carol," he started. "How's Andrew doing?"
"Much better thank you. He was able to get up from his sickbed on Tuesday morning. I think he will be back at work tomorrow but it depends on what the doctors say."
"Well please let him know he is still in our prayers." The vicar then turned to me and Anna. "Well it's good to see you here again, er; Anna isn't it?
"Yes it is," she replied. "It's nice to be here again. My parents move house in just over a week so I'm not sure if I will be able to attend again."
After church Beth went home. That afternoon I had another cooking lesson. Mum thought that I'd learnt enough about the region to be able to cook my first Indian dish. She had me start small by making some samosa's. She cooked Palak Paneer as the meal. Next Sunday would be Boxing Day so she decided that I would next cook on the Monday. This time I would get to cook the main meal.
I spent the rest of Sunday practicing for tomorrows impending oboe exam. The next day soon arrived. I managed to get a good night sleep and awoke ready to face the day.
At ten past nine I met Mr Small in the school reception. I had carried my oboe and a small leather folder containing my music. My rucksack with all my books in was safely stowed in my locker.
"You all ready?" he asked.
"As well as I will ever be," I responded. After putting our names in the book which informed any school staff that we would be offsite we headed for his little car.
Once there we registered ourselves with the official and awaited our turn. Only five minutes late we were both ushered into the testing room, Mr Small was accompanying me on the piano. During the pieces I occasionally glanced from the corner of my eye. The examiner was sat back and listening, which was a good sign. If she was busy writing away she would have been writing down faults. After the set pieces Mr Small left leaving me to the mercy of the examiner. I then had to play a selection of scales and arpeggios and lastly an unrehearsed piece.
"Well, how do you feel you did?" she asked.
"I messed up the first few bars of the sight reading and I played the wrong note in the second set piece. Apart from that I think most things went well." I berated myself for being too honest.
The examiner smiled. "Correct you messed up the first few bars but recovered well and didn't loose your intonation. Also I didn't notice the wrong note in the second set piece so you covered well. I am awarding you a distinction in your grade seven oboe exam. Well done Mr Toms."
"Thank you," I said smiling as I walked out of the door.
Mr Small saw my smile and said, "I take it you passed?"
"Yes, with distinction."
By the time I got back to school there wasn't any point in going to the lesson as there was only fifteen minutes before lunch. Mr Small signed us both in. I waited till just before the lunch bell sounded to walk to the classroom where Anna and Erika were currently being taught.
When they came out of the classroom they saw me waiting. "Did you pass?" asked Erika.
I tried to look downcast and said in a fake upset voice, "I tried my best."
Erika looked sorry for me but Anna knew me better and smiled saying, "What grade pass did you get?"
I just smiled happily that I'd fooled one of them, "Distinction."
Anna just jumped on me and gave me a hug. "Well done," she said giving me a quick kiss on the lips. When she realised what she'd done she let go and rushed into the nearest toilets.
I turned to Erika, "What's wrong with Anna?"
She grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the wall where it was quieter, "You may look good as Jill but you've still got a lot to learn."
"Anna has had feelings for you for a while but has never shown them," explained Erika. "Now in her excitement for you she's let you see that she cares. She's embarrassed as half the class saw and she doesn't know what to do."
"Why don't you go and talk with her," I said. "I'll go to lunch and sit in the far corner. Therefore if she doesn't want to be near me then she can avoid me without missing lunch. After I've eaten I'll be in one of the music practice rooms to practice for Thursday's concert."
Erika went to find Anna and I had lunch. Anna and Erika didn't make an appearance during lunch so I went to practice in one of the two practice rooms.
After about five minutes into the practice the door opened and Beth walked in. "I hear congratulations are in order."
"How did you know I passed?"
"Oh did you? Well done. No I'm talking about the kiss from Anna. Heard it lasted for a good minute and tongues were involved."
"I told her I passed and she gave me a hug and inadvertently a peck on the lips. She then ran into the ladies and I've not seen her since."
Beth just set off laughing. I suppose it was funny to other people but I certainly wasn't seeing any humour. She saw my downcast face and ruffled my hair and said, "It'll be okay. Erika will sort her out."
Beth left to try and straighten out the rumour. I attempted to practice but I couldn't concentrate on the music; my mind kept thinking about Anna. When the bell signalling the end of lunch rang, Anna still hadn't appeared. Since registration was just round the corner I took my time putting the oboe away.
When I got to registration most people were already seated. A few wolf whistles sounded as I entered. Some made comments such as "Hello lover boy" and "I thought you were gay".
I just felt sad that an innocent display of affection would cause such a response. I'd suffered enough with teasing without getting any more. I sat sullenly in my seat next to Anna who was already there.
"You okay?" I quietly asked.
"Think so," she replied.
She slipped me a piece of paper which I glanced at. "Can you come round at seven?"
"I'll be there," I promised.
The rest of the day passed quickly. With school ending the next day nobody was paying much attention to the classes so the teachers didn't do much teaching.
More [A Strange Attraction to Concrete Cows]
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