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I got a letter. It had a real stamp on it and the address was hand-written, which marked it out as personal correspondence and therefore high priority. Most such correspondence comes to me by e-mail these days, from far flung family members and friends met over the internet. A piece of paper with a real persons handwriting on it is something I've come to miss in this age of instant communication and slick word processors, and so I opened it with the same excitement and anticipation with which one opens a Christmas present.
"Dear Nick", it started, "As you know your Godmother, Penelope, has been suffering from Cancer for the past few months. With some sadness I have to tell you that she passed away in the early hours of this morning. It is sadness tinged with relief, which I'm sure those who loved her will understand, since her terrible pain is now at an end."
That was it. It was signed by Jim, her husband, and, her daughter Harriet.
For a brief moment, I suppose, I grieved. Like many Godmothers, who were supposed to ensure that their Godsons religious education was kept in hand, I saw little of Penelope, either as a child or as an adult. The thought passed through my mind that I had seen even less of her daughter who was slightly younger than me. My only memory of her was of playing marbles as kids and at that age was the only girl I had felt remotely close to, which, in fairness was not very close at all. She would be in need of comfort, I guessed, and? I banished the disrespectful train of thought before it got any further.
My wife reacted with genuine sadness when I told her. She knew her even less than I did, of course, but then women do seem to feel these things more deeply.
I had my dinner and all but forgot about my letter, until I phoned my father later that evening.
"Hi dad," I said, "its your favourite son here."
"Oh, hi Matt," he replied.
This was the start of a ritual whereby we regularly wasted a considerable proportion of our phone bills.
'Guess the offspring' - I wouldn't tell him who I was and he wouldn't acknowledge it was me.
Eventually, however, we got down to business.
"So, what's new you sad old git?" I asked, ignoring his jab.
"Ah," he said proudly, "I had my bollocks felt by this nice lady doctor.
Says I might have to have an operation. I do love it when they talk dirty! You?"
I remembered my letter.
"Heard from Jim, you know, Auntie Penelope's husband. Apparently she's dead, but I guess you'd have heard the same thing."
There was a silence. Clearly he hadn't.
I waited for the next gratuitous insult, or obscene observation, but there was none.
"I'm seeing you tomorrow night, aren't I," I said a little weakly.
"Well, I'll see you there then, if your lady doctor hasn't sent you to the knackers."
"Yes. We can talk then. Bye"
The following evening I met him in the pub as arranged. I bought the beers and sat down. I knew something was still wrong. The lively sparkle in his eyes seemed strangely absent. I made a few lame attempts to get the conversation going but there was nothing. Eventually I decided to break the unspoken taboo that seems to exist in most relationships between men.
"So what's wrong?" I asked.
For a while he said nothing.
"You know, you think you know how you'll react to things you're expecting, but even at my age I'm constantly being caught out," he said eventually.
I guessed he was referring to Aunt Penelope.
"I suppose, one is never ready for death, though, especially the death of someone you were close to for a time. It's as if the opportunity to be with them has gone forever."
Again he paused.
"Penelope was a lovely woman."
There was an almost perceptible crack in his voice and his words hung in the air.
"Just after the war I went to the Royal Academy to study art and, as you know, it was there I met your mother."
All this was ancient history to me.
"They were marvellous times, you know. We were young and creative. We were at the pinnacle of our age and we had a whole new world to rebuild. Most of London was still in ruins at the time, and that seemed to symbolise the need for a phoenix-like reconstruction of the world of art as well as the physical world around us."
I half-waited for some punch-line. This was not his style.
"We were grindingly poor too. We rarely had too pennies to rub together, but God, we knew how to enjoy ourselves!" he smiled wistfully, "We would somehow find the money for a night-club or a concert, or a bottle of something that would see us through the night while we put the world to rights."
I remembered similar experiences in my own youth. Nothing much changes.
"Art was our life. We would go around the galleries, discuss each others work. We would paint the models and sleep with them afterwards - men or women?"
He looked at me, gauging my reaction.
"You kids think you discovered sex don't you," he smiled, "but most of you know nothing - nothing at all!"
I shuddered slightly. My mother was part of this environment, and I was not altogether sure I wanted to hear more, but I was not about to stop him.
"There were girls all around. Bright creative women, women who weren't afraid to satisfy their needs when they felt like it. Oh yes, you may well look surprised. This was long before the liberated sixties and long before Women's Liberation started filling their heads with crap!
Some were complete sluts and I slept with most of them, both before and after your mother and I got married, but you knew that."
I did know, but I never cared to think about it much. My mother was eventually to divorce him for serial adultery. I still found his words a little shocking.
"There was one woman," he went on, staring into the middle distance, "one woman who stood alone.
She was so incredibly beautiful and as a young man she had me in the palm of her hand. That was Auntie Penelope."
He paused, smiling as the memories seemed to overwhelm him.
"I would watch her for hours as she stood in her paint-stained smock sketching some naked tart on a chaise-long, wondering what was going through her head, wondering how I could get near to her. She was pure, you see, Nick. She was easily the most beautiful woman of our intake, but you now I'm absolutely convinced that when she passed out with her diploma, she was still a virgin!"
This was my Godmother he was talking about. I remembered her from my childhood as one of those big people who would come and buy me presents from time to time. Mostly I would remember faces caked with make-up as they smiled down at me, but Aunt Penelope left a different impression on me because she never wore make-up, I guess. I suppose she didn't need to. I cherished the little prayer-
book she gave me as a confirmation present and I probably still have it somewhere. Sure she was beautiful, but only in the sense that all adult women were beautiful in their innate dominance over children. The idea that such a creature was the object of any mans desire seemed, well, odd.
"At one time she could have had me, Nick. She could have made me do anything for her, but she didn't want me. No other woman could do that. I found myself in the unusual position of running after her with a pack of other guys, but she didn?t need me. She didn't need any of us."
A brief break in the story to make an authors note:
S to r y c o p y right belongs to N i c k at c a s s a n d r a dot d e m on dot c o dot u k as should be stated at the top. Sorry for the interruption.
Please carry on reading.
So was my Godmother a lesbian? At another time we might have discussed the possibility with mischievous relish, but not now. Besides she was happily married to a staid accountant and she had a daughter. I said nothing.
"I got over that phase fairly quickly, and for a short while I was angry with her for making me look foolish, but one could never stay angry with Penelope for long."
"So how come she became my Godmother?" I asked.
"Having grown out of my infatuation, I was able to look at her work properly. Sure, everyone said what fantastic artist she was, but for the most part they were trying to climb into her knickers. Few understood what she was really trying to do. She had a gift, you see, she was a bloody good artist - far better than me, your mother, and pretty well all of us."
This was true, I suppose. Neither of my parents were able to make a living by selling their work, but I knew Penelope was able to. We had gone to her exhibitions and mixed with big names in the art world who also marvelled at her creations. For me, at the time it was just boring, but now? well now I saw things differently. Ones childhood sometimes loses so much in childish perceptions.
He sighed and went on.
"At first," he said, "I was stupid enough to think I could be as good as she was, but slowly as I worked with her and got to know the real person, I began to realise that I was in the presence of what can only be described as greatness. There is only one way to react in that situation, whatever your desires and feelings, and that is with true and proper respect. I am privileged to have had her as a friend and both your mother and I were only too pleased to be able to offer you to her as a Godson."
He dropped his eyes and remained silent as if in prayer. There seemed to be nothing I could say or do, except wait. Then he looked up at me. That old impression of time-worn insolence had returned to his world-weary face, and his eyes sparkled once again with mischief. I realised, with some relief that my Godmothers death was out of his system now, at least for the time being, and once again he was 'armed and dangerous'.
"Your round isn't it?" he said.
"No it's yours, you tight bastard."
"Please yourself," he said, rising, "I was just offering you the opportunity to get a better look at that barmaids arse!"
I got home that night and composed a letter to Jim.
"I was saddened to hear of my Godmothers death, and I know you will miss her terribly. However, it must be of immeasurable comfort to know that her life continues to be lived uniquely in the paintings she has left behind. Many hearts were touched by her and will continue to be touched."