Mum sipped her white wine, pushing the piles of scattered petals idly this way and that, as she ignored Aunt Heather’s exasperated sigh.
“Well, what’s it for?” she said, twisting her head to examine the collage that Aunt Heather was busy constructing, pushing single petals into a soft clay base which was set in a wooden frame. A rolling landscape was slowly taking shape, formed by the petals and leaves of yellow chrysanthemums, purple pansies and blue irises. Very artistic, I thought. Just like Aunt Heather.
“It’s for the wishing well… on the village green. I told you — we dress the well every Easter. An old custom. I said I’d do the picture this year; the other women are doing the floral decorations to go round the base.”
“Oh,” Mum said, losing interest as she drifted off to replenish her glass at the sink, where the chardonnay was chilling in a bowl of water. “Don’t you have a wine cooler, Heather? Perhaps you could knit one…”
Aunt Heather glanced over her shoulder at me, her lips tight. I blushed. Mum was doing her thing again, making fun of her sister, trying to make her look small, difficult though that might be.
From my vantage point near the door I’d been studying Aunt Heather’s sturdy triangular calves, threaded with veins which Mum said were due to her “relentless breeding”. Her solid arms and legs seemed strangely at odds with the delicate white lace edging of her flowing gypsy skirt and peasant blouse. But I loved her.
“Why don’t you go outside and play with your cousins?” suggested Aunt Heather, in a tone that was more of a command than a question. I slid out the door. It was all going to kick off again, just like every Easter. I didn’t want to see this.
Uncle Bill was supervising a game of rounders on the lawn, shepherding my cousins into position. I loved Uncle Bill too; he’d been like a Dad to me since mine had gone away.
His Easter bunny outfit, now more grey than white, was airing, dangling limply from the washing line. Aunt Heather said it stank of mothballs. Later this afternoon he’d wear this as he went off to hide the eggs all over the garden.
Aunt Heather had been up early, painting the eggs which she’d boiled the evening before, having wrapped them in little muslin bags with turmeric, and spinach or onion leaves. Now the multi-coloured eggs were lined up on the dresser, adorned with kiss-curls, moustaches, and huge eyes, ready for later. Mum had snorted when she saw them.
I wandered off, before I could be conscripted into the game. My five cousins were older and bigger than me, and they played rough. Each had Uncle Bill’s red hair, and all been born around Christmas time, which had made Mum snigger about the ‘visit of the Easter bunny’.
I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but things were becoming clearer. I just didn’t quite have all the pieces to the puzzle yet. Shelley Barker, in our class at school, said she had them, she just wasn’t ready to tell all yet.
After the barbecue, it was time for the hunt. Uncle Bill meandered unsteadily into the house to change into his bunny outfit, clutching possibly the sixth bottle of wine opened that afternoon. Aunt Heather hadn’t drunk very much, but even so she’d turned lobster pink, her hair hanging in damp tendrils on her neck. To me, she was lovely, though. I was overwhelmed by her squashy, talented magnificence.
My mother sat coolly in the most comfortable chair on the terrace, all cream linen, perfume and painted fingernails. Peace had broken out between them and, for the moment, I could relax.
When Uncle Bill returned, he held out a great furry paw to my mother. “Come on, Jessica,” he said, “time you shifted yourself. Help me hide these eggs while Heather makes sure the kids don’t follow us. Fifteen minutes, Heather, then set them after us.”
Mum pulled a face, slipped off her high heels and followed him down the garden, while Aunt Heather retrieved a big dish of home-made ice cream from the freezer. I wondered whether there was anything my aunt couldn’t make.
Fifteen minutes later we set off on the hunt, armed with the little baskets Aunt Heather had decorated with brightly coloured tissue paper. The others were off like a shot, leaving me far behind. It wasn’t important; the painted eggs would be exchanged for chocolate ones, Aunt Heather would make egg mayonnaise out of the originals, and she would make sure I got my share of the chocolate ones.
I wandered down the garden in my usual dreamy state, kicking leaves aside, looking for eggs. Suddenly, I heard Mum giggling from the old shed near the orchard, and set off in that direction.
I wasn’t sure what I saw in the cool depths of that potting shed, but Aunt Heather, who’d snuck up behind me, seemed pretty sure. She told me to go back to the others, and stepped inside, shutting the door firmly behind her.
Mum said we had to leave early that afternoon, and I hoped that perhaps Dad had come home unexpectedly. But he hadn’t.
As we drove home in silence, me nursing the Easter eggs that Aunt Heather, red-eyed, had given me as we left, I noticed that Mum’s usual jasmine fragrance was now being overpowered by the smell of mothballs.
We don’t see an awful lot of Aunt Heather and Uncle Bill now and Mum doesn’t do anything special at Easter. Not like Aunt Heather did.
Still, I did get a baby brother at Christmas. Mum said it was a Christmas present, and that his sandy hair would eventually turn out blonde like hers, but Shelley Barker had given up the last pieces of the puzzle by then, so I knew she was lying.
It was the Easter bunny again.
And Dad never did come home.
Sandra Crook spends most of the year cruising the waterways of France with her husband. Having recently resumed writing she now concentrates on fiction, and occasionally poetry. Some recent work can be found at www.microhorror.com (a prizewinner in the 2010 Hallowe’en Contest), Every Day Fiction, Every Day Poets, The Pygmy Giant, Shine Journal, Backhand Stories, and Short Humour. Further work will shortly be published by Static Movement, Long Story Short, Eclectic Flash Literary Journal and The Horrorzine. More at http://castelsarrasin.wordpress.com.