Norfolk Broads

Norfolk Broads.
By Angharad.

For Trish–happy birthday, sweetheart.

What d’you buy the person who has everything? Antibiotics. Yes very funny, but that wasn’t my dilemma, it was a little more complicated than that.

A short time ago I had my twelve year old nephew come to stay with me. He’s my sister’s boy, and to say I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it was an understatement. In short, he’s a nightmare–aggressive, arrogant, objectionable, untrustworthy, dishonest, lying little toad–just about sums it up.

The last time I’d visited them, Colin, my nephew, was so unpleasant that I swore I wouldn’t go near them again unless he’d improved or left home. However, life has a way of interrupting ones plans.

I teach at a sixth form college–not quite university standard–in fact, with some of my students I wonder how they manage to walk and chew gum at the same time without one of their two brain cells going into overload. Now Colin is quite bright and I did wonder if boredom was part of his problem–but my sister says no, he does loads of things, uses a computer, Play station or Xbox or whatever they use today; plus he goes out with friends to the cinema and other social events indulged in by young adolescents. In my day, we spent hours in the local park talking and flirting but never allowing the boys to get past stage two–I had my boobs touched up a few times–through my clothes of course–and it made my kissing more interesting that’s for sure.

One boy, Kevin Smithson, I got so excited that when I squeezed his–um–you know what–he messed his trousers. I didn’t manage to do that again–not with him at least–he avoided me like the plague. He got the unfortunate epithet of Premature Kevin, and I found myself being labelled a cocktease. I suspect I was more deserving of it than Kevin.

I grew up, went off to university–Cambridge–okay I was a swot, and got a MA in history. I fancied myself doing research for best-selling books, sort of a female Simon Schama, but I ended up going into teaching–trying to enthuse uninterested children with things their long dead ancestors did. Yeah–riveting–exactly.

Okay, I have one or two bright students who make it all worthwhile, usually girls but this past year it included two boys who were friends and I am pretty sure, will go on to do either history or archaeology degrees.

I’m not into digging holes and looking for buried treasure or dead things, I prefer to dig about in libraries and find buried treasure there. There is so much in archives about the past which is never seen and uncatalogued, so no one knows about it. I belong to a group which spends the holidays exploring these archives and we also tend to eat at nice pubs and drink at nice pubs and afterwards–well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. Suffice it to say at thirty years old, and in reasonable shape and of pleasant visage–I get my share of attention from the opposite sex. I never married but had two long term relationships–both ended up with wandering eye syndrome–my partners trading me in for a younger model. My second one, Dave, also took a large slice of our joint account–the bastard–before running off to the States.

He got himself shot as a bystander in a drugstore robbery–it was in all the papers a year or two back–so maybe I shouldn’t speak too badly of him. He lost his life, I only lost some money.

This summer, I’d planned on doing my archive mining again, we were back in Cambridge and I had loads of side things to do as well, not least was seeing Josh Symonds again, unless he’s got himself attached–I doubt it–he’s good company, and even better between the sheets–and I don’t mean paper variety.

So, when Andi phoned, I was not best pleased–that’s Andromeda–yeah my parents were both classicists–I’m Cassandra or Cassie. Andi’s two years and six months older than I, and is married to Erik, a tall Swedish chap who works for a pharmaceutical firm–not one of the big ones but he does okay, works in biochemistry–bio-engineering–that sort of stuff, you know making artificial skin from stem cells or the like. He’s brilliant, and Andi–she’s a pharmacist–so they’re sort of suited to each other–at least they can understand each other which is more than I can.

Anyway, back to dearest Colin, who I think sometimes they both created in a laboratory–not in a test tube–but from all the nasty things they could find–slugs and snails–need I say more.

I was washing up one evening when the phone rang. I answered it, wiping my hands in my jeans as I went. “Hello Andi,” I have caller display, helps to reduce the number of calls trying to sell me something.

“Cass, how are you?” she asked but I was suspicious of the call, Andi usually emails me or sends text messages, we only talk about once a month and that was last week, just as I finished for my summer holiday. We chatted about the end of year prom–God–what a performance–it gets more and more Americanised with limos and posh frocks, tuxedos and corsages–they’re seventeen or eighteen for goodness sake, what are they going to do when they get married–hire Westminster Abbey and the State Coach from the queen?

“Looking forward to getting away for a few weeks, why?”

“I have a problem, Cass–I need your help.”

My stomach flipped–it was usually the other way round, Andi or Erik dealing with me in devastated mood after another relationship went west–so what could I do but offer to help? The fact that Andi came out with it so quickly meant it was serious–she could talk for two hours before asking me what I wanted for Christmas–and that was at age fifteen, so what’s this all about? I have a feeling I’m not going to like it.

“Yeah, of course I’ll help,” I said thinking that I should have found out what the problem was first.

“I knew you would, Sis, I knew you would,” then she began crying.

“What’s the problem, Andi?” I asked feeling very anxious for her–this was very serious, Andi just didn’t cry.

“Erik’s got cancer, Cass...”

I nearly dropped the phone. Shit and double shit–things like that don’t happen to people like Erik–he was a mountaineer and marathon runner–unlike his wimpy son. He’s so strong–people like him don’t get cancer.

“Cass, you still there?”

“Yeah–sorry, it’s a bit of a shock.”

“I know, Sis, look he’s got to have surgery the day after tomorrow–could you have Colin for a week or two?”

“Yeah course I will,” I blithely answered–should always engage brain before putting mouth in gear. I should have offered to pay for them to send him to the space station for a few weeks–instead I dropped my guard and the little darling was coming here–to my eighteenth century cottage with a rose bower over the door–okay it’s clichéd but I am a historian, and it’s a lovely house and will be mine by the end of the next millennium if I keep paying the mortgage.

I wondered if I could get my gardener–a nice chap called Alec, to build a cage down the bottom of the garden next to the shed–we could stick Colin in there–nah, he’d be on his souped-up mobile calling his mother in minutes–have to think of something else–a deep cellar where he wouldn’t get a signal.

Perhaps he’s changed–yeah–grown from a leopard cub into an adult leopard–just bigger and more dangerous. I’ll just have to cope–at least he won’t have the influence of his horrible friends while he’s here in rural Norfolk.

The next day, after putting my plans on hold–I drove up to collect him and his bicycle–one of these over the top mountain bike things with full suspension–wasn’t sure where he’d find any mountains in Norfolk–but then I’m an historian, not a geographer.

Andi saw us off, Colin fitted their bike rack on the back of my car dumped his cases in the boot and loaded his bike. I made sure we had some middle ground by selecting Radio Two for the journey, he immediately switched it to Radio One and I wanted to strangle him before we’d got out of the drive. We had a small battle of wills over the volume–my hearing appears to be better than his–it was plenty loud to me–he thought differently. I threatened to turn it off and he sulked all the way to my home.

Andi, Erik and Colin used to visit every year up until about four years ago when they found him trying to set fire to the thatch on my roof to see if the fire retardant really worked–he’d overheard us talking. When Erik caught him–he literally fell out of the window when the matches burned his fingers–he sulked for the rest of his stay–a whole week–I hoped he didn’t intend to do the same again.

We stopped after we got off the M25 and meandered onto smaller roads. I picked a roadside cafe I’d used before, where they did wonderful Lady Grey tea and toasted teacakes. Colin of course wanted a burger and a bottle of fizzy goo which looked like it had more chemicals than natural ingredients. He was even more ratty on the second half of the journey.

I settled him in, and enabled his computer to use my wi-fi internet–he has an iPad rather than a laptop. So he disappeared into his room and only emerged for meals. He called his mother to say he was okay, he sounded morose to me, but my efforts to find out why were unrewarded.

I did wonder if his uncommunicativeness was due to his worry about his dad, or just teenage boy syndrome–one grunt for yes, two for no. Perhaps he didn’t like me, after he tried to raze the place I wasn’t exactly pleased with him and showed it–well I was upset and he had just fallen about twelve feet into his father’s arms–thank God.

I tried to engage him several times a day, especially over meals–he had a good appetite–and seemed to be the only thing he enjoyed–eating. The weather was good, so I tried to get him cycling–I have a bike from my Cambridge days–a hybrid I think they call it–I use it round here–it’s so flat, and with a rack and panniers on the back I sometimes do my shopping on it.

Erik had survived surgery but was very poorly–it sounded like half his guts had been removed–and it looked like Colin and I would be housemates a bit longer. Colin spoke with his mum every day but his mood didn’t seem to improve. We did do a bike ride but I couldn’t keep up with him which he delighted in telling his mother. Oh well, little things please...

Then we had a problem, the college had a break in and as acting head of history, the department not the entire thing, I was called into Norwich to see what damage had been done.

I asked Colin if he wanted to come, but he said no, well grunted twice, so according to the manual on adolescent boys, that meant no. I left him biscuits and drinks–more of those fizzy things–and a couple of DVDs I’d borrowed from a friend–I didn’t think Pride and Prejudice or The Princess Bride would be his cup of tea. He promised–grunted–he wouldn’t try to burn the place down and I went off to college and meet the police.

We had lost some equipment–a projector and a computer to run it, plus damage to books and priceless manuscripts–my teaching notes–so why it took three hours, I have no idea. I texted Colin to say I was delayed and would pick up a take away on the way home–he texted back asking for Chinese. I got the set meal for two–always too much–but the way he packed it away–maybe the cat wouldn’t get too much of the leftovers.

I parked the car up the drive rather than in the garage because I wanted to sort out a couple of things in there seeing as I had an extra pair of hands, and let myself in via the back door. I could hear the telly so I knew where he was–in the sitting room–but what I saw when I opened the door completely surprised me.

Colin was sitting in front of the television, watching Pride and Prejudice wearing one of my dresses, my shoes and presumably my underwear as well. He’d fallen asleep and woke with almost as much of a start as I had.

He went as red as the dress he had on–a silky, short sleeved thing with a tie waist; with this he wore my red high heels–at least he wasn’t colour blind. He muttered something and went to run to his bedroom but I stopped him.

“You can tell me what this is all about afterwards, but this food is going cold–so we eat first. As you seem dressed for the part, you can lay the table while I warm some plates.”

His first instinct was to rush to his room, but seeming to know when it would make things more difficult, he nodded, mumbled–presumably an embarrassed apology–and went to wash his hands. Blow me, he had some of my bracelets on as well.

He walked quite well in the three inch heels–as well as I do at any rate, but catwalk model, I am not–and laid the table with more competence than I’d have expected, even asking me if he should get out the soy sauce. He could actually speak English in an interpretable form, not just mutter or grunt. Should I keep him in dresses if it made him speak properly?

After dinner, where we spoke very little–just a little small talk–pass me the sauce–that sort of thing. I told him to eat more daintily rather than shovel it down if he was wearing a dress, he nodded and did so.

Instead of allowing him to disappear and change back to his own clothes, I made him help me clear the table and wash and dry the dishes. I deliberately had him standing and walking about in my heels and he did so with no difficulty whatsoever–he’d done this before.

I made us some coffee and we each carried our own back to the now cleared dining table. As he sat down he smoothed the skirt of the dress and sat with his hands in his lap–very demurely. His gaze was fixed on the centre of the table and I could sense he felt very vulnerable and close to tears.

“Care to tell me about it?” I said starting the conversation which I expected to be like drawing teeth–it reminded me of an interview I’d had with a boy who seemed intent on strangling his girlfriend and which had been interrupted by the duty teacher–me.

Colin shrugged and continued to examine the surface of the table.

“It’s walnut.”

He looked up at me in confusion, “What?”

“The table, it’s made of walnut or the veneer is. It’s lovely isn’t it?”

He nodded and wiped something from the end of his nose–a tear?

“So what d’you call yourself when in a dress?”

“I’m sorry, Auntie, it won’t happen again.” He rose to leave the table.

“Sit down–I haven’t finished yet–besides, you haven’t drunk your coffee.”

“I’m sorry,” he muttered and drips of tears ran off his chin.

“It’s okay–in principle I mean, I’m not sure about you wearing my clothes–but dressing as a girl, I don’t have a problem with. We’ll need to do something with your hair if you’re going to continue and get you some things of your own–that dress is a bit old for you.”


“I said we’ll need to get you some things of your own–we’ll go to Norwich tomorrow and get a couple of things if you like.”

He looked up and stared me straight in the eyes. I’d never really noticed that he looked more like his mother than his dad. Yeah, we could do this, his hair was longish–needed a bit of styling–but for the moment, he could get away as being his own sister.

“You’re not cross with me?” he asked with an element of surprise in his voice.

“If I were it would only be if you got soy sauce on that dress.” He looked shocked and I couldn’t keep up the poker face–my face cracked and I smiled at him, the shock left his face and he burst into tears.

I walked over to him and said gently, “I’m not laughing at you, you know.”

“I know, Auntie, I’m just so ashamed.”

I think that’s what he said. I hugged him, “Nothing to be ashamed of, I was in university with a boy who liked to wear dresses–no one gave a monkeys.”

“I’m not the only one?”

“Where have you been? There’s documentaries on telly every other week about people changing sex or dressing up in clothes of the opposite sex–the only one–goodness–the whole world is full of them.”

“Oh, I didn’t know.”

“So what d’you call yourself?”

“Colleen.” He looked up then quickly shifted his gaze.

I held out my hand, “Hello Colleen, I’m your long lost Auntie Cassie.” He looked up at me took my hand very limply and squeezed it so gently it felt like a butterfly walking across it.

“I know,” he smiled–no–she smiled.

“Have you come to stay for the summer?” I asked.

She nodded, hugged me and burst into tears.

“Good–we’re going to have lots of fun together, a real pair of Norfolk Broads*,” I said as I hugged her back.


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