Over the years I have written many short stories that have featured members of my family and I have excused myself for taking such liberties by saying that I never used their real names.
Or so I thought.
A while back I was looking for something write about in my Idea Store column in issue 246 (August 2022) of Writers’ Forum and began by writing about a story I’d written just for the fun of it which was never intended for publication. And I was so sure of that, I’d even used my sister and brothers real names in the story as much of it was based on real events.
Imagine my surprise therefore when I was searching for the story and came across the published version of it!
So this is by way of an apology to my siblings for using this (mostly) true family story. And for slightly changing the ending into something I wish had happened.
Dad would definitely have approved.
The Divvy Up
We all sat down for the last time at Mum’s battered old dining table. Me, my sister and my four brothers. Without even thinking about it, we took our usual places, the same places we’d sat at all through our childhood.
The two youngest (my twin brothers, Chris and Steve) on Mum’s left, the two eldest (my sister, Mary and oldest brother, Dave) on the opposite side to Mum and Dad and the two middle ones (me and my brother, Mike) on Dad’s right.
Like most families these days, we were scattered all over the place as we’d grown up and left home and, because there were so many of us, now that we had children of our own, we didn’t get the chance to get together very often, due to sheer weight of numbers.
But we’d come together, this one last time, in the house we’d grown up in to celebrate Dad’s birthday.
Mum’s place at the table had been empty for eighteen years. She’d died way too young at the of 66 and it still hurt that she hadn’t been around to see many of her nineteen grandchildren grow up. But, over the years we’d sort of got used to her empty chair.
But this year, Dad’s chair was empty. And that was hard to deal with. To know, too, that this was the last time we’d sit around this old, familiar table in our usual places. The contents of the house was to be divided up among us and the house we’d all grown up in sold.
Mary had brought a cake. Dad’s favourite chocolate sponge cake with butter cream icing, made exactly the way Mum used to make it, right down to the chocolate buttons that garlanded the top. Mary had made Dad the same cake on every birthday since Mum died. It had become yet one more family ritual, strictly observed.
“Don’t forget,” I called out as Mary stood, knife poised over the cake, ready to slice it up. “You cut, I choose.”
It was one of those family rules to ensure scrupulous fairness.
My sister made a noise that was half laugh, half cry. That day we’d all done an awful lot of that as we’d gone through the sometimes painful, but sometimes hilarious process of sorting through the family stuff, uncovering long forgotten mementoes of our childhood. Once again the old house echoed with cries of ‘That’s mine’ and ‘No, it isn’t. It’s mine. You broke yours, remember?’
The years rolled away as we descended into our usual family pastime – squabbling over what belonged to whom.
“It’s a good job nobody brought the fruit salad,” Dave said, as we watched Mary dividing the cake into scrupulously equal portions. We all laughed, relieved that one more potentially tearful moment was safely averted.
Mum used to say one of the good things about being one of a large family was that it taught you to share. Which just goes to show how little she knew.
From my experience of being one of the middle ones in a family of six children, what you learn most of all is to be eagle-eyed, sharp elbowed – and quick off the mark. Oh, and being devious wasn’t a bad thing either.
Mum’s relaxed attitude to the concept of ‘equal shares for all’ came from her being an only child. She had no idea of the importance of complete fairness when it came to sharing things out.
Dad, however, was the king of the divvy up. He would share everything out with meticulous, scrupulous fairness, his tongue caught between his teeth as he concentrated on dividing whatever it was into eight absolutely equal portions.
As he did so, he would be watched with intense interest by six pairs of eyes, only Mum thinking the whole thing was silly and she couldn’t be doing with all that nonsense.
Which was, I suppose, why she would insist on buying tinned fruit salad for our Sunday treat, served, of course, with evaporated milk. I have wondered since (for she had a wicked sense of humour) whether in fact she did it quite deliberately to challenge him, thinking the assortment of tinned peaches, pineapples, pears and cherries would defeat him.
But she’d reckoned without the king of the divvy up.
We would all watch, as focussed as terriers at a rabbit hole, while Dad doled out chunks of peaches, pineapple and pears into the eight waiting dishes, where there would be a certain amount of trading over the pears, peaches and pineapple.
But nobody wanted to trade the cherries, which were everyone’s favourite. So Dad would quietly and patiently fish out the cherries and if there were only two in the tin, cut each one into four, one quarter segment for each dish. But if there were three cherries, again he cut two into four but the third into eight minute pieces, something that stood me in good stead in school maths lessons when I struggled with fractions.
But this last time, Mary was the one wielding the knife. She cut the cake and, on this one occasion only, we unbent the usual family rule and allowed her to choose the first slice.
“OK,” said Dave, when the last of the cake had been eaten. “We’d better get down to it, don’t you think? I told Sandra I’d be back by seven.”
We all looked at each other. No one wanted to be the first.
“Well, I think it should be the football pitch,” Chris, one of the twins, said eventually. “Dad loved his football. Remember how he and Mum used to go every Saturday, shouting for their team so loudly, they’d come home hoarse? It brought them so much pleasure, I’m sure that’s where he’d want his ashes scattered.”
“I think the place that meant the most to him were the woods behind our house,” Mary said. “It’s where he used to walk dear old Jason. He always loved it there.”
“You reckon?” said Dave. “I think his favourite spot was Lyme Regis. Remember when he had his boat? The hours he’d spend pottering around, fishing for mackerel, tinkering with the engine when it went wrong? He loved Lyme. It was his favourite place.”
“Or what about the farm?” Steve said. “He loved the view from the top of Hilly Field.”
“And the river where he used to sit and watch for the kingfisher?” I said – and before we knew it, there we all were, back again at the old family pastime. Squabbling. Each one absolutely convinced that we knew Dad’s favourite spot in the whole world. Each one convinced we knew where his last resting place should be.
“Remember that little verse he used to trot out when we started arguing?” Mike, the brother who looks most like him, asked. “Something about Little birds in their nests agree?”
“Oh ’tis a painful sight to see,” Dave said.
“Children of one family,” Mary and I chirped up in perfect unison.
“Fall out and disagree.” We all chipped in, laughing.
“Seriously though,” Mary said, still in that same laughing and crying voice. “What are we going to do about Dad’s ashes? We can’t leave them on the shelf in his workshop, even though that was also one of his favourite spots.”
“He had so many favourite spots, didn’t he?” I said. “Doesn’t that make him one lucky guy? To have six children, still squabbling over who has Dad. After Mum died, he was never one of those sad lonely old people whom nobody wanted, was he? His problem was, we all wanted him – and look at us, we’re still squabbling over him now. What are we like?”
“I’ve got an idea,” Mike said.
He told us his idea – and after yet more arguing and squabbling, finally we all agreed what to do with Dad.
So, Mike took the urn, got six empty jam jars from Mum’s jam cupboard – and picked up a spoon.
“Just remember, Mike,” I said, half laughing, half crying. “Family rules. You cut, I choose.”
Then, with infinite patience and scrupulous fairness, Mike leaned across and, his tongue caught between his teeth as he concentrated, began to divvy up Dad, the King of the Divvy Up, into six equal portions, while five pairs of eyes watched intently.