Category Archives: Free Fiction

Grand Friday: Chapter 2, Part 1

Chapter 2

The first guests arrived the next day.  Thursday noon, the beginning of the long weekend for the idle set.

Aunt Helena and I were out by the pool, sunning our legs while hiding our faces beneath broad-brimmed straw hats—hers trimmed with silk flowers and a fan of stiff netting, mine with a simple band of white and purple striped ribbon.  The table between had disappeared under a cover of multi-colored liquor glasses; for the past half-hour we had been taste-testing cocktails for the evening ahead, the first official event of the weekend.  Specifically, Aunt Helena wanted to narrow down which punch to serve and which drinks to put on the dedicated menu for the evening.  As this seemed the sort of activity which really should have been decided in advance—as any hostess with my aunt’s experience with house parties would know—I surmised she thought I needed a pretext to begin drinking at 11 a.m. and had supplied one so that I would, since she seemed bent on my thoroughly debauching myself on this visit. 

I had no idea what Aunt Helena had seen in me at Christmas, or yesterday, to make her so determined to show me a good time, even despite myself.  I, of course, had no intention of doing otherwise, but why ruin her fun?  Besides which, I found her manipulations amusing and had to admit to a certain curiosity about what else she might do.  So I demurred, admitted that choosing our drinks for the night was a worthy enough cause to forego my Yankee morals (as she was fond of calling my prudence), and left her to make the same decision she already had.

“I think the brandy and claret punch for tonight,” she announced.  

I obligingly picked that glass up and tasted it again:  a little sweet and a little tart, with a pucker at front of my tongue from the citrus and at the back from the wine.

“That would mean we need something bitter, something entirely sweet, and something entirely alcoholic.”

“Aren’t cocktails, by their definition, entirely alcoholic?” I asked.

“Ah, but I speak of taste, my dear.  There are four main tastes for evening cocktails, and those are sweet, sour, bitter, and alcoholic.  Any good party should offer at least one of each, and any good hostess must use a variety of ingredients.  To do less is to imply she purchased a limited number of supplies—which says she lacks either the wherewithal for a more generous spread, or faith in her guests to drink everything she puts out for them.  In both cases leading her guests to wonder why she bothered to throw a party in the first place.  Besides, repeating too many ingredients can offend the guests.  If one does not like absinthe, for example—”

“Who doesn’t like absinthe?”

“Yes, my dear, but suppose one has an odd duck of a guest who doesn’t.  What is she to drink if everything on the table is dashed with the green fairy because the hostess wanted to coordinate her menu to a small number of ingredients?”

“One might as well ask why she is at a cocktail party if she does not like absinthe,” I insisted, but I did begin to see my aunt’s point.  She was, in truth, an extremely considerate hostess.

“For the same reason one must use a variety of spirits,” Aunt Helena continued, ignoring my sarcasm.  “Since there is brandy and wine in the punch, the cocktails should have rum and whiskey and gin.  And since the punch has lemon and orange, none of the other drinks should have citrus.”

“Shall I take everything that does off the table?”

“Please.”

I obligingly moved five of the twenty or so glasses to the ground, one by one, retaining the rum and pineapple punch I had particularly enjoyed so that I could finish it off.

Aunt Helena surveyed what was left in each of the four quadrants of the table—for each of the four main liquors—and I began to wonder if, in fact, she was actually making her choices just now.  It took a staggering amount of faith in Anthony’s liquor cabinet for her to assume that the house would have enough of whatever she wanted without having checked first. 

Perhaps my aunt had good reason for that faith.  She had married him, after all.

“Perhaps a Princess Mary for the dessert drink,” she mused, and lifted the creamy caramel-colored drink into the center of the table.  “Which would leave—”

“Madam?”

The soft voice of the butler nevertheless broke whatever train of thought Aunt Helena had pursued.  She looked to the terrace.  “Yes, Tomlin?”

“The Perrigots have arrived.”

Her face transformed from mildly annoyed at the interruption to genuinely delighted.  “Have they really?  Come, my dear,” she said, standing and then pulling at my free hand to come with her.  “We must go and greet them.  Oh, I think you will love Mary and Edmund as much as I do!  I have put them right across the hall from you, you know.”

And with that, her menu was abandoned, all the work of Tomlin left to melt in the sun while Aunt Helena swept into the house with barely a pause to pull on her pool robe and hurried to greet the first guests proper to arrive at her party.

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Grand Friday: Chapter 1, Part 3

Is this the first you’re seeing of my ongoing free fiction My Weekend with Aunt Helena?  Then go back to the beginning and read forward!  Have you been keeping up but just want a quick refresher on last week? Go back to Chapter 1 Part 2.

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Perhaps an hour after we left Taunton—give or take generously on the time, because I’d downed three and a half glasses of champagne and had started feeling a bit sloshy halfway through the third—the driver turned off the main road.  Hilariously, what marked the difference between the public road and the private was the sudden lack of jouncing as the wheels turned over level, evenly spread gravel after chewing up dirt and rocks and sinkholes from the June rains for most of the drive.

I saw why the road was maintained so well after a minute:  the lane led to a house whose builders would have owned a carriage and four and whose current owner had clearly retained the position of driveway-grader despite the change in type of carriage rolling over the man’s handiwork.  My stomach approved the change in motion long before my eyes caught the cause.

I gasped when the house came into view through the windshield.  We rolled down a straight lane lined with fresh grass and bounded by tall hedges of verdant green.  At the end of the corridor, three stories of red brick and arched windows proudly fronted a tree-covered hillside blanketed in a mosaic of different greens.  To either side of the house the velvet chartreuse of cropped grass spread out up gentle inclines, making the house look sheltered without being claustrophobically surrounded by woods. 

The building appeared a large rectangle from the front and so quintessentially English manor house that I might have laughed if it wasn’t so beautiful.  The roofline ran perpendicular to the drive, the roof pitch shallow, the points and corners sharp and unsoftened by age.  Midday sunlight washed out the wide face of the mansion, and the upper windows glittered silver. 

“Whose house is this?” I asked my aunt as I leaned forward, as though the extra eighteen inches would actually help me see our destination more clearly.

“This is Anthony’s summer home.  He bought it off a bankrupted baronet ten years ago.”

Anthony Markham was my aunt’s ex-husband.  He had been caught in an affair with his secretary a year ago and divorced Aunt Helena in the aftermath.  It had been the scandal of the year—that is, my aunt’s refusal to look the other way had been.  Markham had paid for the transgression with a large chunk of his fortune, and Aunt Helena had paid for her pride with the dubious stigma of being a divorcee.  Some social sticklers might avoid her now, but for the most part her social circle had applauded her backbone, or so she had intimated at Christmas, a bare month after the divorce had finalized.  Certainly if she could muster twenty guests for a house party now she was not a pariah.

Aunt Helena leaned forward, too, and our hats brushed together as she brought her face next to mine to see what I was seeing.  “Just wait until you get inside!” she continued.  “He had it thoroughly renovated and modernized for me three years ago—he even added a pool off the back.  I believe the expense of the work exceeded the price of the property itself.”

Her words underscored my aunt’s situation in life.  Anthony Markham had inherited a fortune from an ironworks cum railroad company founded by his grandfather, and Anthony had expanded it with military contracts during the Great War.  For him, the purchase and renovation of an old country manse was a whim to please his gay younger wife.  Reading between the lines, I guessed the renovation had been the price of his first affair.  The cost of his second had been half his fortune, although evidently not this house. 

Then again, since my aunt still had the use of it, perhaps forcing him to retain the property and its upkeep had been mere business savvy on her part…and her ability to finagle the use of it from the man she had left was nothing less than a social triumph. 

Everyone derided Aunt Helena for marrying for money, but no one could say that she had not succeeded spectacularly in her efforts to do so.  She had received a significant portion of three men’s estates, now, each more wealthy than the last, and while she spent extravagantly, she did not spend foolishly. 

From comments she had let drop from time to time, I knew she maintained a close watch on her investments and incomes, and she never spent any of her principle.  She did not have to, not even now, which said more than anything just how secure she was financially.  The only way for her to be upwardly mobile at this point was to start marrying titles, and Aunt Helena had laughed at the very idea on the one occasion I’d heard the idea come up in conversation.  As she told me later that night, when we were alone again, “If you’re trying to marry for money, my dear, the last person you want to marry is an aristocrat.  They only know how to spend fortunes, not make them.  Unless you find one whose father married a fortune back into the family.  Catch him young, and he’ll spend the fortune on you, and that would be acceptable.”  But that had been five years ago, the first time I came to see her in England, and perhaps her perspective had changed.  One thing Aunt Helena was not was static.

We reached the end of the driveway after two minutes of rumbling steadily closer to the lovely old building.  The bricks grew redder as we drew near, from a faded pastel sunset to a saturated ochre. 

The driver smoothly navigated the curve before the house and pulled the sedan to a stop at the main entrance.  He came around the car and opened Aunt Helena’s door, handing her out like an old-fashioned footman before doing the same for me.  I accepted his assistance gratefully; after that much champagne and the long, bumpy drive, wobbly was putting the state of my knees kindly.

Aunt Helena took my arm and led me into the house.  The foyer was all white marble and gilt metal and sunlight framed by draped silk.  The wide stone stairway split at the first landing to curve up to different wings, while this front room stood open all the way to the roof, where skylights had been installed three stories above.

“You’re on the second floor—third, in American.”  She added the reminder with a smile, though I had no forgotten the difference in counting methods. 

“Did you have that key engraved especially for me?”

My aunt laughed.  “Third room, east side of the hallway.  But that was a good guess.”

Despite our discussion of my room, Aunt Helena did not take me right to it but instead led me deeper into the house.  We passed fantastically colored modern art and rooms decorated in maroon, lilac, and gold (and those were just the open doorways) until we reached what had to have once been the ballroom and was now a massive dining room with plenty of floor space for dancing.  She walked me over its black and white checkerboard floor, which fascinated my champagne-tunnel vision so much I scarcely noticed the rest of the space, and out the back patio doors.

I stopped when we came outside and simply stared for a moment.

We stood on a terrace higher than the ground below the white stone railing, in which was sunk the most beautiful pool I had ever seen.  To be fair, I must admit I had not seen more than a handful of pools in my life, since they were such a recent phenomenon and a rarity in the Northeast, where most people simply used the Atlantic for bathing.  But I didn’t need to see more pools to know this one was spectacular.  It was shaped almost like a heart, or an excessively curved V, with curls of stone intruding into the edges of the pool to create miniature bays in the water.  The outside was lined with salmon tiling a foot wide, but the bottom—oh, the bottom of that pool!  It was a masterpiece of geometric abstraction, with hints of a dragon and a phoenix and a fish entwined with a sun and swirls of red and yellow and blue.  I wanted to swim to the bottom just to touch it, just to see it up close.

Aunt Helena gave me my time to gawk before moving down the small curved staircase that led to the pool and over the corner of the orange-pink tile.  She stopped at the first small table of several on the patio and sat, indicating the other chair for me.

“Lunch will be out momentarily, my dear.  For now, sit back and enjoy my view.”

The view was almost as magnificent as the pool, with a wooded hill rising in the foreground directly behind the pool if one stood looking out from the house, and grassy slopes rising to either side.  Higher hills undulated in the distance, blurred with trees.  I sat facing one of those hillocks of grass, and I smiled at the thought of running barefoot up and down it like a child.  The adult I had become knew the ground would be dirty, possibly littered unpleasant bovine or equine ordure, and definitely booby-trapped with sharp rocks and sticks and brambles hidden in the taller blades.  But from twenty yards off it looked perfectly soft and plush.

I noticed my half-empty glass was still in my hand, though my aunt had left hers behind, I supposed in the car, since I had not seen her set it down anywhere.

“To your view,” I offered and raised it a little.

Aunt Helena grinned.  “Drink up, my dear.  You haven’t quite forgotten yourself yet.”

I did.

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Move on to Chapter 2 Part 1

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Grand Friday: Chapter 1, Part 2

Ah, here it is, friends, my latest Friday grand free fiction installment.  Miss the opening gambit?  No problem.  Chapter 1 Part 1 is all you need to be caught up!

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I arrived just before noon on a Wednesday, tired and hungry and travel-worn.  I’d left New York on Friday morning, disembarked at Avonyard just after dawn, and taken a taxi right to the station to catch the day’s train to Taunton.  My luggage was by necessity light enough for me to manage on my own; all I carried was my tourobe and my hat bag, and together they were still enough to make me shine with exertion after ten yards or so.  My green tweed suit had seen three days of wear and had acquired at least a couple wrinkles to make that clear, although I fancied it still looked smart at a distance.  I had donned my black cloche that went with everything, and my fashionably short hair peeped around my neck only a little less glossily than it normally did thanks to the sea spray it had accumulated over the past five days.

The Taunton station was small, hardly more than a platform, and only a handful of travelers disengaged from the train on its boards.  I did not see anyone with Aunt Helena’s flair for millinery drama waiting on the platform, but there was a large black luxury car idling just beyond the ticket booth. 

When I began to walk toward it, the driver stepped out and came forward to assist me with my bags.  I will admit it; I stopped walking and let him come to me.  The luggage was that heavy, and I’d barely broken my fast with toast and tea before disembarking, and—well, it was what Aunt Helena paid him for, and she had stressed to me on many occasions the value of letting someone do the job you are paying them to do. 

He greeted me with a respectful “Miss Holling” and collected my bags with no apparent effort.  I preceded him to the car, my step lightening with every pace forward.  Now that my physical burden had been lifted, so too was my metaphysical one.  I was in England for only the second time in my life, with my favorite person in the world; whatever came of the summer, I was determined to enjoy myself while I was here.

Aunt Helena leaned across the seat to open the rear door.  I could see her hand flap at me and then disappear.   

She had settled back into her seat when I stepped into the car.

Perched over her dark curls was a fedora of emerald green with two peacock feathers rising from the right side to accentuate its jaunty angle and a ribbon of turquoise silk banding it.  It clashed wonderfully with Helena’s rose-colored crepe tunic dress, which to my eye was more appropriate to a morning shopping in town than a country drive.  This was what passed as conservative daywear for my aunt.

“You look absolutely peaked my dear,” she greeted me, a half-drunk glass of champagne in her hand and a bucket full of ice and green glass at her feet.  “Have you not had a drink yet?”

A drink was Aunt Helena’s answer to every ill, and, from her perspective, it was a failsafe.  I laughed as she pulled out a second glass from the hamper between us and poured me a restorative bubbly.

“To plans coming to fruition,” she toasted once the glass was in my hand. 

I raised my rim to hers to acknowledge the toast and sipped the effervescent wine.  It tasted like freedom, and that sweetness was irresistible.  I took another mouthful and savored every sour pop across my tongue and under my palate, feeling dashing and insouciant.  I had learned long ago that it was never wise to be cautious in Aunt Helena’s presence—she took any hint of restraint or reticence as a personal challenge to be overcome—but I had always striven to constrain my recklessness to prescribed parameters, to a certain circumspect naughtiness.  But right then, I did not want to play safe.  Perhaps it was the lack of sustenance or the fatigue of having traveled for five and a half days straight or the anger at Geoffrey I didn’t want to acknowledge, or perhaps it was a growing frustration with a course of life that had begun to seem predictable and mundane, or perhaps it was the final frantic rebellion of a young heart preparing to assume the mantle of maturity, but for any of those reasons, or none at all, the freedom Aunt Helena offered me felt beguiling.  It had before, of course; but the difference was, this time I was ripe for seduction.

I took another drink.

“You look well,” I said to my aunt, and meant it.  No reason, of course, that she would not still look in perfect health from where she had been six months prior, but that was not everything.  Helena also exuded a certain satisfaction which implied life was exactly what she wanted it to be at that moment. 

“And you, my dear, look tragically colonial.”  The driver shut up the trunk, having finished stowing my two Hartmanns, and climbed into the front seat.  “I hope you did not bring too much in the way of clothes,” Aunt Helena continued as he shifted the vehicle into driving gear and rolled it forward.  “Since I knew you would be coming, I took the liberty of shopping for you before I left London…there mightn’t be much room left in your armoire for anything you brought from home.”

I smiled.  I had known better than to pack very much, because Aunt Helena was forever buying me clothes.  She loved dressing me, almost like I was a doll to her, but surprisingly, considering her own choices, she used the canvas I presented as a place to exercise her skills at understated good taste.  In her company I was always perfectly put together, never outrageously bedizened either in or against the extremities of the current mode, and I never knew if Aunt Helena made different choices for me because she recognized I was in a different place in my life (and the world) or because she did not want any competition as the best-dressed lady in the room.

“I found some simply dazzling cocktail dresses for you, my dear.  They were much too young for me, but you will quite do them justice, and so I could not pass them by.  That did mean I have had to specifically plan a cocktail party for some of our evenings here, in order to give you reason to show them off.”  She did not sound as though it had been a heavy imposition.  “At least it is the country, where no one will mind if we are a little less formal for dinner.”

“I look forward to wearing them.”  And I did.  “But perhaps you might tell me what kind of house party you have planned?  Is it very large?  And how long will everyone be staying?”

Aunt Helena smirked.  “I am pleased to say that everyone I invited has chosen to attend, so we will have a houseful with twenty guests, and you and I.  The first of them will arrive tomorrow evening, and most will leave on Monday, though I suppose there will ever be a few spoilsports who decide to return home on Sunday.  You and I, of course, will not leave for Ripley until Tuesday, at the earliest.”

“Is there anyone in particular you are looking forward to seeing?” I asked slyly.  Aunt Helena was on the market again after her third husband had divorced her the summer before.  I had never seen her play the role of seductress, and I hoped that she would be doing so this weekend.  I could imagine nothing more enlightening—or entertaining—than seeing how a woman such as her brought her chosen husband to the point of proposing.  And there would, of course, be no question but that Aunt Helena had chosen him long before he chose her.

“Oh, there is someone I’m quite counting on introducing to you,” she replied, and I smiled again.  Oh, yes, this house party was going to be amusing.

I settled back into my seat and admired the view passing by of rolling green hills and the green-gold haze of sunlight off summer grass.  I finished my champagne and held out my glass for more.

“It sounds most diverting,” I replied, and Aunt Helena laughed. 

“Indeed.  I rather expect to find it so.”

It should have been a warning.  But I was too happy to be in her company and too mellowed from the wine to pay any heed to whether my aunt and I were likely to find the same situations amusing.

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Move on to Chapter 1 Part 3

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Grand Friday: Chapter 1, Part 1

Welcome to Grand Friday, my new free fiction project!

The plan is simple:  every Friday I’m going to publish a thousand words (or so) of a story—basically one new scene per week—until the story is finished, however long it turns out that the story needs to be.

What story, you ask?  That’s even simpler.  The one Jessica at Go Fug Yourself so cleverly concocted last week.  The story resonated.  It hit my imagination square at the intersection of Eccentric Character and Drunken Shenanigans, and I just couldn’t not write it.

So I thought—why not go with it?  I’ve been wanting to post some free fiction here but haven’t had anything too short or otherwise unsalable to use, and, as George R. R. Martin recently put it, “When an idea comes to you and demands to be written, I think you should write it.”  I agree.  My muse was not to be denied on this one.

Without further explanation or introduction then, allow me to present to you my first Friday grand, opening gambit to the story I am tentatively titling My Weekend with Aunt Helena.

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Chapter 1

The package contained exactly four items:  a first-class ticket on a shipliner from New York to Bristol, a train ticket from Bristol to Taunton, a letter addressed to me in my Aunt Helena’s flourish-riddled hand, and a heavy iron key engraved ominously with 3E.  It was an ominous room number because, in the types of places Aunt Helena preferred to stay, E almost invariably stood for End of the Hallway, and that meant I would be trapped on the inside of four to nine other people for the duration of my visit with her. 

No other conclusion than an invitation to come and stay with her arose from the three items, and I did not need to read the letter to discover the purpose of the mail packet or to know my answer. 

Of course, I read the letter anyway, simply to see what Aunt Helena would say, because it would be both rude and a shame not to see what her efforts at composition had yielded this time.

My Darling Eva,

It has been an absolute age since I last saw you, my dear, and I miss your company dreadfully. 

It had been since Christmas, when she came to New York to annoy my father, her brother-in-law, whom Aunt Helena had never quite forgiven for marrying her sister and keeping her in America.

You will be interested to hear that I have planned a house party for the end of this month.

My Aunt Helena planned a house party every summer.  Sometimes more than one. 

I have realized that your presence is absolutely necessary for my comfort, and so I have decided that you shall attend me.  You will, of course, be welcome to stay on as long as you like afterward.

She meant it, too; my aunt had been campaigning for years to convince me to move in with her—since I was fifteen, at least. 

As you must see, I have arranged for your passage to Somerset, where I shall meet you.  Do say you will come.  It would quite ruin all my plans if you do not, and I will be quite provoked with you. 

It would not change Aunt Helena’s plans one jot if I came or if I did not; my presence might be an amusement to her, but never either a comfort or a necessity as anyone besides Aunt Helena would define the terms.  She might be put out with me, but it would hardly last beyond the weekend.  For all her quirks, Aunt Helena did not stay angry.

I shall even contrive to stay put out with you for more than a fortnight this time, if you insist on disappointing me.  Therefore I think you will agree that you simply must come.  Therefore I will not await your reply, but proceed to Ripley Park until it is time to retire to the country.

Ripley Park was in the country; there was no “retiring” anywhere from its manicured acres.  It was also, however, buried in an unfashionable little corner of Staffordshire, where even Aunt Helena found company sparse.  Being alone and inactive was a trial to my aunt; to her it would feel like a vacation to remove to a different house where she would not have to work so hard to entertain herself, because other guests would be there to do it for her.  I didn’t know why Aunt Helena never just arranged house parties at her own house.  If pressed, I would have theorized that she didn’t want the burden of feeling like the hostess instead of a guest, as she could pretend if it was someone else’s house and someone else’s staff being put out, but I had never directly inquired.  Aunt Helena was open an inviting on most any subject—indeed, she so frequently volunteered information about her life and her views that I rarely asked her anything—but when she so glaringly avoided all mention of something, I knew better than to point it out.  She had her reasons for her ways, and that included why she chose to keep certain truths close to her chest. 

There was no other closing line, and no signature.  Aunt Helena did not sign her letters; “signing letters,” she had told me once, “is for people who cannot rely upon their correspondents to recognize their friends.”  Aunt Helena could not conceive of that being a problem for her (correctly, as far as I could judge).

My aunt was right about another thing, and that was that she did not need to wait for my reply before leaving London for the summer.  Aside from the expense she had laid out for my tickets—which was negligible to her, if not to me—I had nothing better to do. 

Point:  My job as a typist for the New Yorker was stultifying, to put it in its best light, and hardly worth losing the opportunity to spend a summer in England with my favorite aunt in order to preserve.

Point:  I was searching for a story that would vault me from the lower echelons of secretarial enslavement to the elite rungs of Writers, and I was more likely to find inspiration at one of Aunt Helena’s parties than in my rote social life at home. 

Point:  My fiancé Geoffrey had just asked to postpone the wedding until after New Year’s, at least, from our previously agreed-upon October, so I did not need to be home in order to plan my big day, as I had thought. 

Point:  Geoffrey had already put off confirming a date once, and this second delay put me in mind to do something outrageous like run off to England for the summer on short notice, just to see if he cared.

Therefore, it was with no other correspondence than a wire from Bristol to tell her which train I would be taking that I met Aunt Helena at the Taunton train station a week later.

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Move on to Chapter 1 Part 2

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