Short Story – Second Chances

Another short story I wrote a few years ago, about second chances. Do you believe in second chances?

Maria drifted slowly up the side street towards the source of this most gorgeous smell… Up to the square, and now she was standing still in the middle of it, turning around little by little, confounded by the bewildering assortment of what appeared to be a hundred little coffee shops overspilling onto the rain washed cobbles. She took in the view, the prettiness gradually seeping in like the rain had done through her old-fashioned trench. Her nose guided her in a circle around, dodging metal tables and chairs spread all over the pavements, until she found it: a small hut on wheels selling nothing but hot pancakes. She queued patiently feeling grateful for the small delay as she struggled with the torturous decision about which filling would taste the most exquisite and match her mood more fully.

Carefully carrying two pancakes on a small paper plate, Maria made her way to a lonely table with only one chair next to it. She used the thin napkin to flick off the worst of the rainwater and sat down, gathering her soggy trench around her slim body. Leaning with her elbows on the table, she picked up a steaming pancake and took a big bite, closing her eyes with the heavenly pleasure she felt tasting it. She chewed slowly, savouring the delicate tastes and gazed over the stretch of tables, chairs and awnings at the Cathedral on the other side of the square. A large handwritten sign nearby clumsily advertised a string quartet concert later in the afternoon in the Cathedral. Would she have time to go and listen? Force of habit, this constant thinking of asking permission to do the simplest thing… Of course she could go. There was nobody to stop her now, not anymore…

***

It was Cynthia’s idea to take a break abroad, although she’d chosen the destination herself. Her best friend had been her rock after her marriage with Ray started to wobble. She’d married Ray very young and her mother never wanted to have anything to do with it. She hadn’t approved of her only daughter marrying a man who already had children. Ray’s daughter had been nine at the time when the small unpretentious ceremony took place at the local register office (yet another disapproving stare from her mum), and Maria believed she had been a good step mum to little Hayley. In time they went on to have two more daughters, Rosie and Kate. The girls appeared to grow up contently and, although slightly manic at times with everybody’s comings and goings, their home felt peaceful enough.

The problems started after Hayley’s fourteenth birthday, around the time her mother and new partner emigrated to New Zealand. Phone calls became fewer and fewer, the onus always seemed to fall on Maria to initiate contact. Hayley moved out as soon as she was able to, and the rumours started to spread right away – that Maria always treated her like a third class citizen, that behind the scenes, Maria was not the nice easygoing person everybody knew, that the rows made Ray ill and all Maria wanted was to see them all suffer. When she visited her father, Hayley completely ignored Maria; she simply behaved as if Maria wasn’t there.

There was no point talking to Ray about this hurt, in his eyes his daughter could do no wrong. Maria’s friends started to distance themselves and she saw no point in trying to make them see sense either – if she described Hayley in her true colours, how would it sound coming from the nearest thing to a mum that child had ever had?

Resigned to being portrayed as the bad witch, Maria withdrew even more from any social engagement and at the same time a wedge, nurtured by Hayley’s bitterness, grew between her and her husband. Slowly, the once peaceful household turned into a wasp nest, littered with rows and jibes and unkind words and gestures. Rosie and Kate left home and got on with their lives ignoring their half sister, but this only left more emptiness behind…

Maria didn’t get any help from Ray when her mother fell ill last year and despite doctors’ reassurances, just didn’t seem to get better. She moved in to care for her and this only made their relationship more troubled and uneasy.

Eventually her mum’s condition deteriorated so much, she was taken to hospital, and Maria spent two days at her bedside. When the end came, she couldn’t find the tears, she was too exhausted. She drove home slowly and carefully, hoping to delay the moment when it would all sink in, when the shock and the tiredness and the tears would fill her system and she could relax and let all these emotions run free…

She turned into her street and from the distance she could see a police car in the driveway… What was going on? Hayley emerged from the house handcuffed and was escorted to the car. With shaky steps, Maria made her way to the front door. Ray was on the sofa, his head in his hands, staring at the carpet. She attempted to comfort him, but he shrugged away, sobbing quietly.

There was nothing left for her there, so she packed a suitcase and drove to a Travelodge. Cynthia, her only friend who would not be influenced by rumours, rang her out of the blue to invite her to her first painting exhibition – Cynthia was a late starter, they often joked… It was then when the tears came and Cynthia had got in the car and drove the two hundred miles that very night to be with her friend.

It was Cynthia who had organised the paperwork for her mum’s funeral and also Cynthia who bought the ticket for the trip to Prague. They never did find out what Hayley had done wrong, and to Maria it didn’t matter. What had become apparent was that Ray had lost his ability to communicate with her, and she most certainly had lost her trust in him. She needed to take a break from her job and allow her thoughts to clear.

***

So, this is how she came to take this short vacation to Prague. Cynthia had expected her to aim for a sunkissed beach in Spain or South of France, but understood Maria’s need to do something less mainstream, slightly unconventional.

Maria leaned back on the cool metal chair and wiped her hands lightly on the already soggy napkin. She closed her eyes and allowed her other senses to take over. The air was still cool and the fresh smell the rain had left behind was mingling with the aroma of hot pancakes, coffees and pastries creating an addictive bouquet. Maria inhaled deeply and wished she could hang on to this experience forever. When she finally opened her eyes again, there was a strange sparkle in them. Her flurry of thoughts had slowly settled and now she knew what she was going to do. With a determined nod of her head, Maria picked the remaining, by now tepid, pancake and took a firm bite.

***

The airport was busy and noisier than she had expected; however Maria spotted her friend easily, mostly due to her impatient hopping from one foot to another. She rolled her case towards her and prepared herself for the ‘welcome’ squeeze.

‘So, how was Prague?’ Cynthia asked as soon as they managed to peel themselves apart from their hug.

‘Beautiful’ Maria blurted out with a grateful look on her face. ‘You were right. It did me good. In fact it was the perfect place for the kind of thinking I had to do.’

‘Thinking? Who said you should do any thinking?’ Cynthia joked, but Maria could see just a hint of a worry in her eyes.

‘Well, I’m glad I followed your advice for once’ she smiled gratefully.

‘Maria, I’ve… er… got to tell you something’ Cynthia mumbled. ‘Don’t be cross with me. Please.’

‘Why should I be cross?’ Then the realisation hit her. ‘It’s Ray, isn’t it?’

‘He’s in the car’ Cynthia answered. ‘He stalked me every day and begged to see you. He promised to disappear as soon as you ask him to. So, I agreed to bring him here – it’s neutral ground.’

Cynthia shot an enquiring glance back at Maria but she had pursed her lips and the frown on her face demanded silence. Resignedly she sighed and helped Maria put her case in the boot of the car.

Ten minutes later Ray got out and made his way quickly to his own car.

‘Follow him, please’ Maria asked her friend, quietly.

Cynthia just looked at her, unsure of what she had heard.

‘Please’, Maria repeated.

Cynthia drove on, whilst Maria recounted the conversation she’d had with Ray. He’d asked her to forgive him, said his life was worth nothing without her. He’d done some thinking too, and had decided that what he really wanted from life had been Maria all along. He just didn’t know how to cope with his daughter, but that was unlikely to ever be a problem again since she’d moved to New Zealand to be with her mum.

‘He’s asked me for a second chance’ Maria continued. ‘And I’ve said “yes”.’

‘You what? Are you mad?’

‘No, I’m not. But I do believe in second chances. And all these years ago, I married Ray because I loved him. I still do. The real Ray, I mean, not what he has become. He said he’s changed. He said he’s learned a lot…’

‘And you believe him?’ Cynthia asked, alarmed.

‘I believe he can change. I thought about it and I’m willing to give it a go. On my terms!’

***

A couple of months later a small sign appeared above the door of a tiny corner shop on the main street of one of the most picturesque Cornish coastal villages. And soon after that a wonderful aroma was constantly wafting along the street, drawing in tourists and locals alike.

Maria’s Pancakes and Coffee Shack is a neat little business and although the place is tiny, with only four little tables inside, the service is remarkable and the flavours superb. There’s always someone in, chatting away with the charming lady who runs the place and her sunny nature and kind smile are a real people magnet. Ray now spends his days working in the back kitchen, or helping out with charity fund-raising events. He’s quiet and withdrawn but always with a smile on his face.

Occasionally they can be spotted walking up and down the beach hand in hand and their two daughters visit every summer. Their photos adorn the café’s walls, along with a painting of Prague, signed by a certain Cynthia Blackburn.

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