Love story competition 2021 - Runner Up

Christine Griffin

Runner Up
It Starts With Love
Love story competition 2021


Christine Griffin lives in Gloucestershire and after a career in teaching returned to her first love – writing, particularly poetry and short stories. Christine is widely published including in Acumen, Snakeskin, The Dawntreader, Graffiti Magazine, Poetry Super Highway and Writing Magazine. She has performed her work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival and the Cheltenham Literature Festival and regularly reads her work on local radio.

It Starts With Love By Christine Griffin

10 pm Thursday


The phone rings just as I am about to go to bed. I feel a flutter of anxiety - phone calls that late are usually bad news. A death in the family, a grandchild hospitalised, a car accident. All these things whizz through my mind as pick up the phone. And I’m right. It is bad news but not anything I could have possibly imagined. It opens up a door to the past which I had slammed shut years ago, vowing never to go back.
    ‘Is that Mrs P?’
    There is – was - only one person in the world who ever called me Mrs P. The voice has deepened somewhat into maturity, but there’s still the same huskiness, which I’d thought so attractive when I’d first met her.
    ‘Mrs P. Please don’t put the phone down. I’d like to talk to you. Please.’
    ‘Selina. What do you think you’re playing at? I’ve got nothing to say to you. Leave me alone.’
    ‘No, Mrs P. This is really important. Please listen. I’ve had the phone in my hand for the past hour nerving myself up to dial.’
    I hesitate a fraction too long and she senses it.
    ‘Are you well?’ she says. And before I can answer, ‘How’s Mr P?’
    ‘My husband is dead. Gerald is dead. ’ Even two years later, I find the words almost impossible to say.
    She is silent for a while. I can hear her breathing. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘He was good to me. You both were.’

1 00 am Friday
I’m sitting at the kitchen table mulling over the telephone conversation. How on earth had I had let myself be talked into it? But then she always had been able to get her own way. She wants to see me she said. There were things she needs to say and something she wants to show me. I found myself agreeing to let her visit. She would be coming on Sunday afternoon and already I can feel my heart pumping with anxiety at the thought of it.
    Sometime after midnight, I got the photos out. Now I’m on my third cup of tea looking at them scattered across the table. David, our first foster- child. He came to us as a baby and we had eight wonderful months together. It broke my heart when he left. Then the twins, grinning at me on their first day at school, arms linked, glasses askew. And dear little Millie who’d been with us for four years. She still sends me a Christmas card.
    And finally my last foster-child. Selina. She’s staring at the camera with a hint of a smile. That smile was to haunt me though I didn’t know that at the time. She was stunningly beautiful, with ivory skin and jet black hair. But as we all know, looks can be deceiving. I should have thrown that photo away years ago. Blotted her out from my memory as if she had never existed.

It was my own fault, but I’ve never been good at fighting my own corner.
    ‘Please, Mrs Parsons,’ she said. ‘We’re desperate to place Selina.  Just for a few weeks. You and Mr Parsons are exactly what she needs.’
    ‘I don’t really take older children, ‘I said. ‘It’s not what I’m used to.’ But I felt sorry for the woman in the end. It was a thankless job and she worked so hard. Surely I could manage a few weeks.
    Selina was thirteen when she came to us from a very damaged background and when she finally left, she was sixteen and completely out of control. She stole from us, took drugs openly, was expelled from school. She alienated my two boys who both left home as soon as they could. And she brought men home. Not boys. Men. We did what we could to try to get her onto an even keel, but she just laughed in our faces. She was every parent’s worst nightmare, and we weren’t even her parents. We’d agreed to this living hell.
    But the drugs, the men, all the rest of it, were nothing compared with the final horror. After a particularly trying weekend with her, we told her that unless she started to mend her ways, we would report her to the police
    ‘Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you,’ she said with that half smile I was coming to dread. ‘Because if you do, then I might just have to tell them what he’s been doing to me.’ She pointed at my husband. ‘Dirty bastard. The police would love to hear that.’
    Of course she was lying and once she’d calmed down, she admitted it. But the damage was done. Gerald was never the same again. It started with his disinclination to leave the house. Then the raised blood pressure and the panic attacks. And finally the stroke which left him drooling and incoherent and finally killed him. All her fault. I pick up her photo and tear it into shreds.

Sunday afternoon
One hour, I’d said to her on the phone. One hour and that’s your lot. Then you go and I never want to see you again. No tea, no cake, definitely no fatted calf whatever she might think. At two o’ clock I sit down in the lounge. The chair faces onto the street so I can see when she arrives. Gerald’s photo, taken in better times, smiles down at me from the mantelpiece. At least you don’t have to face this I think.
    Shortly after two, I see her turn the corner with that familiar gait. From this distance she looks exactly the same as when I last saw her. Except for one thing. She is holding on to two children.  The older one who is about six is shuffling his feet and kicking imaginary stones. The younger one is crying.
    I watch them come up my path, a ragbag little family. ‘And you behave yourselves,’ she says, before ringing the bell.
     ‘Mrs P,’ she says. ‘Thanks so much for seeing me. This is Jake. He’s six. And Ethan’s three.’ She nudges them and they look up at me through messy hair. Ethan is scowling. Jake pushes a folded piece of paper into my hand. ‘For you,’ he says. I thank him and take the paper, but my eyes never  leave Selina. ‘If it’s money you want, then you’re wasting your time.’
    She looks shocked.  ‘No, I don’t want money. I manage well enough. Got a job now.’ There is a hint of pride in her voice.
    ‘And the boys’ father?’ I say. ‘He’s working I take it.’ As if I didn’t know what the answer would be.
    ‘He’s gone.’ No surprise there then. ‘And before you say anything, he’s gone because I threw him out.’
    ‘So not money, you say. What then? If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, then you can forget it.’
    ‘I’m not. Got a nice flat as it happens.’ Jake starts wandering round the living room fingering things.
    ‘Who’s this?’ he says picking up Gerald’s photo.
    ‘Put that down, now.’ Her voice is sharp and Jake jumps.
    ‘That’s my husband,’ I say, my eyes still not leaving her face. ‘He’s dead now.’
    She looks down at the floor before speaking again.
    ‘Mrs P. There is something I want and it’s not money or a place to stay.’
    ‘I need help. I threw their father out because he was cruel to me.’ She pauses. ‘And the boys. I‘ve been down that route and I want a better life for them than I had. I’m trying my best, but I just don’t know what to do.’
    I get up and fetch a box of tissues. ‘Well you could start with wiping their noses,’ I say. Unkind of me. Runny noses is the least of her problems. The boys smell and already Ethan has a mean look about him which doesn’t bode well.
    Despite what I said earlier, I do make her a cup of tea and we start to talk.

Sunday evening
After they’ve gone, I sit for almost an hour, thinking. She really doesn’t want money or a roof over her head; she wants me to give her guidance on bringing up children. The most important job in the world and she’d asked for my help. ‘You’re the only one I can rely on, ‘she’d said. ‘There’s no-one else and I don’t have a clue where to start ‘
    I think back to Millie, baby David and the twins. And Selina herself. What if I’d said no to all of them? How might they have turned out?
    I realise that for the last hour I’ve been twisting the paper Jake gave me. Now I unfold it and smooth out the creases. He’s done me a drawing and quite a good one considering his age. At the top of the page is written ‘My Family’.  Filling the page are three figures – a lanky Selina with arms which stick straight out of her body. Next is Jake himself smiling. And then the tiny figure of Ethan with spiky hair and feet too big for his body. ‘Me, my mum and Ethan’ it says. Looking at it, I really wish I hadn’t been mean about the biscuits.
     I study the picture for a few moments then go into the kitchen. It takes me about fifteen minutes to find what I’m looking for but eventually my fingers close on the fridge magnet stuffed at the back of one of the kitchen drawers.  It’s a heart with the message ‘It starts with Love’. Millie had given it to me when she finally left.  I fix the drawing to the fridge door, and then go into the hallway with the other piece of paper, the one she gave me as they left.
Before I can change my mind, I pick up the phone and dial.

Judges Comments

As Christine Griffin's gritty, heartwarming It Starts With Love indicates, love is many things as well as romantic. In this story, the narrator is a foster parent who has taken in, and with her big heart changed, the lives of a procession of children in need.

One of 'Mrs P's' former foster children has got back in touch - Selina, the one bad apple in the bunch; the child whose behaviour inflicted untold damage on her foster family. The drama and tension in the story comes from Mrs P's dilemma: is her heart big enough for her to admit the girl back into her life when she needs help, or have the wounds Selina inflicted altered her character? Christine's narrative reveals Mr's P's internal struggle, subtly leaving space between the lines for a reader to insert their own layer of understanding, before she makes her choice.

It Starts With Love takes the form of an interior monologue. The form simultaneously allows insight into her character and limited access to information, and the way the story is divided by time inceases tension. We're given access to Mrs P's inner thoughts, and shown, but wisely not told, all that we need to know about her to understand why, when faced with her dilemma, she chooses love. It's a striking, unsentimental story that shows how love takes many different forms - and how it triumphs.