Not a Holiday Season Story!
Not only is this not a Holiday Season story, it's set during a hot summer! (But there is a gift involved).
This is a piece I wrote to read out to the Uxbridge Writers' Circle members in June. It was my attempt to write something that included words we members had selected the month before.
Those words are shown in italics.
It's not even a mystery story! (I should be writing the fifth book in the Meg Sheppard Mystery Series. I'm looking forward to getting started. I'm collecting ideas!).
The story's title is unimaginative: 'Giraffe'
The sun’s dazzling rays radiated off the black asphalt, and Joyce’s discomfort increased as the temperature climbed. She hadn’t yet become accustomed to Canadian summers, and the heat still took her by surprise.
Her skin on her plump arms was red hot and sprinkled with squidgy bumps. Blisters. But her step-daughter, Bee, demanded to see the giraffe and her baby. The zoo was so proficient in its use of social media that nothing happened there without it popping up on Instagram, and Bee was quick to catch on how to check for posts on Joyce’s phone.
Bee was obsessed with everything to do with the zoo, and Joyce felt compelled to make at least two visits each week. There was always something new to see or do, and Bee’s demands could not be denied.
Joyce had known that taking on most of the responsibility for raising someone else’s child would not be easy. She had no children of her own and believed that anyone who wished to be a parent should pass rigorous tests. After all, she’d been a victim of neglect as a child and still bore the scars. That sort of pain cannot be forgotten or merely shaken off.
She’d been languishing in a small flat in Torquay, England, when she met Colin. He owned an upscale hotel on the seafront but struggled after his wife died. She’d brought the knowledge and enthusiasm for the hospitality business, as well as the financial and management skills. Colin told Joyce that he’d simply followed orders. So, he floundered on his own, and Bee added complications.
Colin had started the process of returning to Canada where he was born and where he had relatives.
Joyce met him in his hotel on a rare night when she went out for a drink. She sat on the terrace that overlooked the churning sea with its crashing waves and dampening, salty spray. She was alone, reading a book. Colin started a conversation about Torquay, its classy history, and its subsequent fall from grace. He bemoaned the fact that nearly all the fancy hotels of its past glory had faded into substandard retirement homes.
Joyce knew the hotel business well. She’d been raised in one, with the staff as her surrogate parents.
She almost turned Colin’s offer down because of Bee, not because of Canada. The child was only six years old and Joyce felt utterly ill-equipped to be her step-mother and terrified that whatever she did, Colin’s beloved daughter would be scarred for life. Not with the same wounds as Joyce, of course, but wounds nevertheless. She didn’t think she should be entrusted with this precious human being.
The fact that Bee was precocious and outgoing and spoke her mind helped. Joyce, at first, essentially did more or less anything Bee wanted. But gradually she took the reins of parenthood and attempted to guide and teach Bee. But she would never say ‘no’ to the zoo. It was almost like a spiritual experience for the child. It was as if she could communicate with some of the animals. They’d look her in the eye and their bodies would soften. Depending on the animal, they might roll over or yawn or stretch while keeping their gaze on her. She would be transfixed but would sometimes claw at Joyce’s leg with her podgy hands and tell her something about the animal. She had an incredible memory for detail. Joyce adored these moments and tears would well up in her eyes just because Bee wanted to tell her things and was happy.
This day, they were on their way to see the baby giraffe or calf, as Bee told Joyce was the correct term. A large maple tree offered shade and Bee led Joyce to the picnic table underneath. Joyce was glad to sit down and retrieved bottles of water from the backpack. Bee walked towards the barrier. The calf stood about five feet away in the intense sun. He turned to look at Bee, who started to cry. Joyce couldn’t understand what was happening. All her insecurities and self-doubts bubbled up, making her stomach heave and her head ache.
She rushed over to Bee and asked her what was the matter, doing her best to disguise the panic that was building inside her. After all, she was still pretty new to this step-mother thing.
After at least a minute of sobs and unintelligible words, Joyce finally understood that Bee believed the calf had told her he was sick.
Joyce didn’t question or doubt Bee. She sprang into action. She knew what to do since one of the first things she’d done before they ventured to the zoo was to arm herself with all the numbers she might need under any possible circumstance.
Concerned that she might not be taken seriously enough, Joyce exaggerated the report a little and explained to Bee that she just wanted to make sure someone came.
They did. Joyce had assumed that the little guy was suffering from heat stroke, but the informative staff told Bee and Joyce that giraffes are well adapted to hot conditions. But when the calf followed his mother into the shelter, he limped. Bee and Joyce were permitted to go inside the shelter with them to wait for the veterinarian; behind a barrier, of course.
They watched the veterinarian check the calf and make his preliminary diagnosis of an abscess.
The staff made a big fuss over Bee for noticing that the calf was sick and told her they would text Joyce with updates. Bee hugged Joyce, who couldn’t stop tears from streaming down her face. She told Bee they were tears of relief that the calf would be okay.
Colin wasn’t as moved by the event as Joyce and Bee were in the telling of it, but he gave them each a hug and said he was glad they had a good time. He told Joyce she should have put more suntan lotion on. She needed to become more accustomed to Canadian summers. And he mocked Joyce’s choice of a reward for Bee. Joyce wanted to give Bee something special to remember the day by. All she had that was special to her was a gold sovereign that her grandpa had given her when she was very little, shortly before he died. He’d wrapped her in the warmest hug and beamed the biggest smile, and handed it over to her. The gold shimmered in the sun. She cherished it, along with the memories of that day with her grandpa when she’d felt loved.
Bee remembers every moment of that visit to the zoo and treasures the sovereign as a special gift from her favourite person. Its gold reminds her of the richness of her relationship with her step-mother, and she holds it dear, especially on this day as she becomes a qualified veterinarian. She holds the gold sovereign, wrapped in a velvet bag, throughout the ceremony.
Joyce would have been so proud of her and would have been overjoyed to know she’ll be working at the zoo, and keeping a special watch over the giraffes.
Vicky Earle Copyright 2021
Wishing everyone a Happy Holiday Season and Happy Reading!