This is a very special post. For the first time, this story has allowed me to win a fiction writing competition with my writer’s group! I had already won a non-fiction writing competition 4 years ago and won 3rd prize in a couple of other competition, but this is my first story to win first prize. I hope you enjoy it as much as the judge did.
Virginia Stanton Garfield’s household was usually a peaceful one. Her husband Maurice was usually balancing the books upstairs when not down at his tobacconist store. Her son Danny delivered telegrams on his bicycle or read Tarzan books when not in school. As for Mackie, she cooked and cleaned splendidly and with nary a complaint.
Her eighteen-year-old daughter, Viola May Garfield, was loyal, helpful and never mischievous. Something as mundane as going to the movies would never normally cause a fight between them. But when Mrs Garfield learned that Viola May was going with a boy named Ralph Henderson, insisted that although it was short notice, she had to take a chaperone.
“I’m not stupid or a baby,” Viola May fumed. “If someone had stopped you having your first date with Pa and he went with someone else, where would you be? Where the Sam Hill would I be, or Danny for that matter? If this were a movie, you’d be the villain!”
“I am not going to tolerate this unchristian talk from you, Viola May!” Mrs Garfield snapped. “I have heard what goes on in those movie theatres when the lights go out; groping and pawing and all kinds of degeneracy! What if you get with child? It’s no chaperone, or no date, end of story!”
“But Ralph’s driving round in an hour!” Viola May shrieked. “You and Pa are doing your taxes tonight, Danny’s too young and you know darn well Mackie can’t sit with Ralph and me! Who else is there?”
“I’ll do it.”
Viola May looked round and gasped in surprise, for her grandmother had just walked into the kitchen. Cornelia Finchley Stanton was a portrait of old age, with bony, arthritic hands, pebbly glasses, a back shaped like a haystack and a face like a jovial peach stone. It seemed a miracle that this virtually bedridden old lady had managed to get out down the stairs unaided.
“Mama, were you eavesdropping?” Mrs Garfield said sharply.
“Ginny, they musta been eavesdroppin’ in Biloxi, the racket you two were makin’,” Cornelia scoffed, hobbling forward. “Now, I’m not gonna let Viola May’s chance with this young fellah slide ‘cos of some petty squabbles and silly rules. Viola May, I will be your chaperone tonight.”
“Oh thank you, Grandma!” Viola May planted a kiss on the old lady’s flaccid cheek.
“Ah, s’nuthin,” laughed Cornelia.
“Nothing?” Mrs Garfield was stunned. “Mama, how can you…”
“Ginny,” her mother snorted, banging her cane, “I don’t do anythin’ these days ‘cept sit around upstairs! And sittin’ around is exactly what you do at a flicker show, but at least it’s fun. I’m goin’!”
She used her free hand to take Viola May’s.
“Now, Viola May, let’s go inta the livin’ room and play the radio until your beau comes.”
Virginia Garfield turned away as they left, incensed but helpless. She was quite convinced that something would go wrong.
Ralph Henderson arrived at Viola May’s house in his bottle green MG an hour later. His eyes went wide when he saw Viola May leading Cornelia out of the house towards him, but when Viola May explained the situation, he helped Cornelia into the back of and got her seated comfortably. He knew the game and how to play it.
Cornelia didn’t pay much attention to Viola May and Ralph on the drive through Atlanta’s suburbs. It was a particularly lovely evening, with the sun setting over the magnolia trees like a great shimmering persimmon. She thought back to when her late husband, Warren, was courting her. She couldn’t recall any real details, but visions of hansom cabs they rode in, gas lamps they kissed under and the terraces at the park where they enjoyed po boys and lemonade were as vivid as ever. Simpler times, but fine ones.
“Here we are, Ma’am!” Ralph shouted.
Cornelia followed his gaze and found herself enraptured. If only Warren had taken her here!
They had reached the Luxor Cinema; the grandest building in its neighbourhood. Its light displays flashed and glared like a gaudy lighthouse. It was built hot on the heels of Howard Carter’s excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, so the display’s centrepiece was a glittering replica of the boy king’s gold mask, flanked by reclining, long-eared cats.
“Oh Ralph, I feel like a queen off to her coronation!” Viola May squealed.
“An’ I hear the movie’s fit for a queen too,“ said Ralph. “It’d have to be, given what people think o’ the book.”
“What book’s that, Ralph?” Cornelia enquired, as they swung into the parking lot.
“Oh, Gone With The Wind,” Ralph shrugged, “By Margaret Mitchell. Ya know it?”
Cornelia didn’t reply. She didn’t say anything, even as Ralph found a spot and turned the engine off.
“Mrs. Garfield, are you OK?”
Cornelia had gone as still as a statue. Her stick hardly quivered in her ancient hand. The folds of skin about her cheeks turned ashen. The smile had faded and her kindly eyes were wide with apprehension.
“You don’t look well, Grandma,” Viola May remarked, leaning over the seat. “You know, we could leave the movie and drive you to a doctor if…”
“Oh no, no thank you, Dear,” Cornelia interrupted, as if snapping out of a trance. “I’m quite alright, don’t worry ‘bout me. Just help me inside and I’ll be good. Oh, and Ralph, my name’s Stanton, not Garfield.”
“Oh, sorry for the mistake, Ma’am,” said Ralph.
He helped Viola May lead Cornelia into the cinema, where they bought tickets and snacks. Cornelia took a seat in the row behind the lovers; bright red and very comfortable. Yet as the organ finished playing and the house lights dimmed, her apprehension returned with a vengeance. The liver spots on her hands faded to rose pink as she gripped her cane desperately.
Dear God, please let me not face it again, not after so long…
When the movie was over, Ralph and Viola May came out talking a mile a minute, enraptured and moved by what they had just seen. Tears traced rivulets down Viola May’s cheeks; testament to the emotions that had welled up within her. She was so distracted she almost forgot about her grandmother sitting behind them.
Cornelia said nothing at all as she hobbled out of the Luxor just behind them. Her sunny manner from earlier was now replaced by a positive malaise. Viola May thought she looked older than ever. Helping her into the MG was a lot more trouble than before.
“Thank you for a lovely evening, Ralph,” Viola May sighed. “And thank you, Grandma. We owe you big time.”
“Must it end so soon?” said Cornelia. “It’s only nine thirty. Why don’t you two spend a little time without me? What Virginia don’t know won’t hurt her.”
She smiled as she spoke, but without the same twinkle in her eyes as before. Viola May was nervous about leaving her grandmother alone somewhere, but Ralph knew a local drive-in which had a nice seafood restaurant on the opposite side of the street. They sat Cornelia by the window with a bowl of clam chowder and kept an eye on her as they ate their own food.
An hour later, they driving back to the Garfields’ house in the MG. Cornelia was quiet again, but remained uneasy. An air of tension surrounded her; an aura of unspoken misery and ingrained pain.
“You look unhappy, Grandma,” said Viola May. “What’s wrong?”
Cornelia’s mouth opened as if to reply, but her eyes alighted on Ralph and she closed them again.
“Is it sumthin’ private, Ma’am?” Ralph inquired.
Cornelia took a breath before she spoke. “How old d’you reckon I am, Ralph?”
Ralph studied her a moment. “Seventy to eighty, I reckon. Why?”
“I am 83 years old,” Cornelia said slowly. “I was nine in 1864. Nine… when it happened.”
“When what happened, Grandma?” asked Viola May.
Again, Cornelia had to take a breath before speaking.
“I was there,” she said. “I was there watchin’ the sky turn red over Atlanta, that same horrible night they showed in that movie. Even now I remember houses crashin’ down and smoke chokin’ me… the women were screamin’, kiddies were cryin’, and men cursin’ Lincoln and Davis in equal measure. Worst of all though, that night my daddy took up his sabre to go and defend the town … and never came home.”
There was silence again. Ralph spoke first.
“I’ve screwed up, haven’t I?”
“No, no, Ralph,” Cornelia sighed. “You couldn’t know. But remember, if dark days like that ever come again, never give up hope that you’ll pull through, or that sunshine won’t be waiting on the other side.”
Cornelia Finchley Stanton died on January 9th 1946, aged 90. One of her last fond memories was to have Ralph Henderson, now her grandson-in-law, return home having survived three years of fighting in the Pacific, and tell her he had never forgotten what she had said that night.