A Stranger At Eight
As I’m away this week, here’s one I prepared earlier. This is an old story now, but it was the second one I ever sold, back in the days when they paid decent rates and didn’t grab your rights. I was paid £100 for this story back in the 1980s, when there were a lot of stories like this one about.
Who was this strange woman who wanted to see Henry? More importantly, why?
Henry Mason paced his sitting room. A woman had written to him requesting a meeting. It was important she saw him and she hoped he would be pleased after her visit. He invited her to dinner on March sixteenth, and she gladly accepted.
But who was she? What did she want? Why did she wish to see him? He didn’t know, but would soon be finding out. She was due in half an hour. He poured himself a Scotch and collapsed in an armchair. He’d just have to wait.
As the clock chimed eight, the doorbell rang. Punctuality impressed him. He rose, dismissed the butler, and opened the front door himself to reveal an attractive young lady. He definitely didn’t know her.
“You must be Mister Mason?” she said quietly. “I’m Joanne Smithers.”
“Come on in dear,” he said, shaking her politely by the hand. He ushered her into his sitting room, and asked if she’d like a drink.
“Gin and tonic please.” He handed it to her and retrieved his own abandoned Scotch.
“Do sit down,” he said, indicating the sofa.
An uncomfortable silence fell on the room. Henry thought the young lady rather rude for not making conversation when it was she who instigated the meeting. Joanne didn’t know what to say. She’d planned her speech weeks ago but now the words escaped her.
They were rescued by the arrival of Henry’s eldest son.
“Hey dad, has your mysterious lady arrived yet…? Oh, I see you have. Hello.” He thrust an awkward hand towards her.
“Hello Peter.” She rose and accepted his hand.
Peter was confused. How did she know who he was? He dismissed the thought and warmed to Joanne.
“So, what do you do for a living?” asked Peter detecting the atmosphere.
“I’m a librarian.”
“And where do you live?”
“Oh, about two hours away.” Joanne decided she quite liked Peter. He made her feel comfortable.
Henry glanced at the clock. “Where are the twins?”
“Don’t know, dad. But I don’t think they’ll be long.”
“Hope not,” growled the older man. “Can’t stand a late dinner!” He’d not said much to Joanne, still wasn’t sure how to take her.
Just then the twins appeared, together as always. They were ten years younger than Peter and their mother had died quite tragically in a car accident shortly after they were born.
The boys smiled apologetically at their father and greeted their guest.
“Hello Miss Smithers,” said James closely followed by John.
“Hello,” she replied, delving into her handbag. “Here, this is for you.” She produced a white envelope. “You open it, John, you’re the eldest.”
How did she know that?
John opened the envelope. Inside was a birthday card and on it was written:
BEST WISHES ON YOUR SIXTEENTH BIRTHDAY
It was their birthday the following day, but how did she know? John stammered his thanks and passed the card to his brother who placed it on the mantel piece.
The butler announced dinner and Henry led them all into the dining room where they took their places. The butler filled their glasses and a uniformed girl served them with soup. Peter started the conversation again.
“What’ll you two be doing tomorrow?”
“Dad’s taking us to see the stock exchange,” said James.
“Tell me, Peter,” said Joanne. “When do you get married?”
The four men looked from one to the other. She was very well informed.
“And where is Carole this evening?”
She even knew her name!
“She’s studying for her exams, but she’ll be here tomorrow evening to wish the boys a happy birthday.”
Another silence fell as the dishes were replaced with dinner plates.
All thoughts were on Joanne. Henry wanted to know what she wanted. Peter fancied she was one of dad’s old flames but dad wasn’t letting on. John thought she had her eye on Peter and didn’t want him to marry Carole. James decided she had her eye on dad’s fortune.
Finally, Henry’s curiosity got the better of him and he cleared his throat.
“Joanne, dear,” he began. “You have come to my house, accepted my hospitality and eaten my food. You also seem to know a lot about my family. So, would you mind telling us why you are here?”
She placed her knife and fork on the plate, dabbed at her mouth with a napkin and smiled.
“Yes, of course. Do you remember Mary, Henry? Mary Jenkins?”
Henry thought back for a while until a smile tugged at his lips. “Yes, we were at Cambridge together. Nice girl. We stepped out a few times, but when University finished I didn’t see her again.”
“Well, when Mary left University, she was pregnant … with your baby.”
Henry went quiet and thought back to before University. He had contracted mumps quite late in life at grammar school. The doctors told him he would be infertile.
“She would have told me,” he said, not letting on.
“Why? Would you have been pleased?” Henry shrugged. “She didn’t tell you because she didn’t want you to know…”
“I don’t believe you! I would have married her!” By now everyone had stopped eating.
“She knew you’d probably do ‘the decent thing’, but you both had your careers ahead of you. You didn’t love each other. It would never have worked. She had the child, and when the time came, married someone else. He adopted the child and they had three more.
“Mary always kept in contact with events surrounding your life just in case your child ever wanted to meet you.”
“But what has this got to do with you?”
“The child was a girl, her name was Joanne and her stepfather’s name was Smithers.”
James triumphed, believing he was right all along: she was after the money. John was disappointed she didn’t fancy Peter — that would have really put the cat among the pigeons. Peter realised why he’d liked her so easily. Henry didn’t know what to think, simply sat in shock for ages.
His wife was very beautiful and all she wanted was children. When Peter was born, Henry knew she’d been unfaithful, but he turned a blind eye. He loved her deeply and the pregnancy made her so happy. Besides, he needed an heir.
Finally, he spoke: “Er… how is your… er… mother?”
“Does she know you’re here?”
“She gave me the directions.”
He was still in shock. Peter jumped up and kissed his big sister on the cheek. The twins carried on with their dinners.
When the second pregnancy came, Henry wasn’t able to forgive her again. After the twins were born he’d ‘arranged’ for her car to develop a fault which resulted in a fatal accident.
“Well… er… welcome to the family, my dear.” He glanced around the room at his ‘offspring’. They all thought he was their father, but he knew they were wrong. People were often so wrong.
The doctors told him he would never be a father — or could it have been the doctors who were wrong all those years ago…?
This story first appeared in Chat Magazine back in the 1980s. Since then, it has also been published in Twee Tales, on Kindle Unlimited, and on Medium.
For more of my short stories, have a look at my book Twee Tales, available in multi-format from Books2Read (click on the pic).