Conversations in the Garden Room

Conversations in the Garden Room

Often family secrets remain untold...and some family secrets change history. A conversation with an ageing mother reveals love lost in wartime.


Historical fiction


G. Francis Saxon (Australia)

Conversations in my house usually took place in the room my mother called the garden room. Ours was a modest house, and despite its name, the room was nothing like those grand conservatories that you see attached to side of English country mansions, but a small lean-to, with a single lounge and a wooden table with a faded top and water stains, unusable because of the number of indoor plants that sat on it.

Whenever there was something important that needed to be discussed, Mum would invite us kids, one by one, into the garden room and we would sit together on the lounge where she would silently listen to our troubles, before bringing the conversation to a close with some succinct words of wisdom that would sum up the problem and provide a resolution that always seemed so obvious and that I would quickly write into my journal before I forgot it.

The house and the garden room are long gone now and my mother is spending the last few years of her life in a nursing home where she has only one room, and most of her conversations are with the other residents in a communal dining room or games room. I am not sure whether she espouses words of wisdom to them – and if she does, I am sure the advice is irrelevant and forgotten, quickly dissolving into ageing minds like the first few rain-drops from a summer storm.

So when my mother told me she needed to have a conversation, I was unsure whether it was me who should be doing the talking or whether there was something she wanted to get off her chest before it was too late.

I arrived at the nursing home on drizzling Sunday, one of those days in autumn where the rain floats like fog and the ground is damp but somehow not wet. As always, I greeted Mum in the games room. I am not sure why it is called the games room, I have never seen anyone playing games there and it is really nothing more than a lounge area with cracked leather or vinyl sofas, no doubt donated by families of the long departed. None of the lounges were matching, and they lay scattered in clusters where old people could talk. I expected that this would be the place where the conversation would take place, so I left my coat at the door and sat down next to her.

“Don’t get comfortable,” she said. “We’re going for a walk in the garden.’”

“But Mum, it’s raining. Have you looked outside?”

“Oh don’t be ridiculous. That’s not rain.”

We wandered into the garden and began our walk along a gravel pathway that wound its way around the ancient oaks and towering pines that were planted at a time before even she was born and when the nursing home was a house, alive with children and laughter.

“So you are probably wondering what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Well yes actually. It’s always been me that does the talking and you do all the listening.”

She gave a half laugh and then stood still, leaning on her walking stick and looked directly into my eyes. “We need to sit down.”

I guided her over to a bench seat under a tree. It looked surprisingly dry but I wiped it nonetheless and and we sat down next to each other, just like we had done for so many conversations before. “So here we are in the real garden room Mum,” I said.

“Yes you could say that. A good place to talk.”

“So what is it?”

“I wanted to tell you something that I have never told anyone before. Not even your father. And I wanted to tell you this because it is important that you know your heritage.”

“My heritage? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Hear me out. Do you know your grandfather Jack, my father?”

“Well I did know him, but he died thirty years ago.”

“Of course I know that. But he wasn’t your grandfather.” She paused as if to let this sink in or perhaps to gain the courage to continue.

“What do you mean he wasn’t my grandfather? Of course he was.”

“He was your great-grandfather. Your grandfather was killed in World War I.” She let herself lean back and looked up into the branches that spread out above us. A drop of water splashed onto her face and rolled down her cheek like a random tear.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“And Aunt Mavis; she is really my mother; your grandmother.”

Aunt Mavis was my mother’s older sister. Never married, she had more or less adopted our family as her own and would often spend Sundays with us, bringing gifts for my sister and me and sharing my mother’s roast dinners.

“You see,” she continued, “Aunt Mavis…my mother…had a boyfriend at a very young age. She was only fifteen you know and he was three years older. When the war broke out, like all the boys in those days, he volunteered to help. They didn’t know what war was back then. Thought it was a sporting competition like a cricket match or a footy game. So they shipped him off to Egypt initially. He fought at Gallipoli you know, and was eventually killed in France – on the western front.”

“But…” I interrupted.

“Let me continue,” she said. “It’s your turn to listen. His name was Jonathan Otis. I have some of his letters.”

“I still don’t get it Mum. Who is…?

She placed her finger on my lips to silence me and continued. “When he left for his adventure, what he didn’t realise that he had left something behind. A pregnant girl – my mother – Mavis – was with child. And that child was me.”

Again she paused. I thought of the dates. My mother was born in 1915. Last year was her ninetieth birthday. I didn’t know how much older Aunt Mavis was – but it could easily have been fifteen years. So the dates would work. “But why has this never been discussed before? Why the secret?”

“It had to be a secret. Back then an illegitimate child was frowned upon. I would have been a bastard child, teased at school – the Church would probably have even shunned me. So the family pretended that I was a new baby to Nana Rose and I was brought up as Mavis’s little sister; not as her child.”

I stared through the mist, wondering about Jonathan Otis, what he looked like, who his family was; whether they knew this story. “Can I see the letters?” I asked.

“Of course you can, come with me.” I helped her to her feet and we walked back to the main building, just as the rain began to intensify.

When we reached her room, we were both soaking wet, but that didn’t seem to concern her. She sat down in her armchair and directed me to the wardrobe in her bedroom. “At the top you’ll find an old brown suitcase with Mavis’s name on the front. They are in there.”

Sure enough there it was, the keeper of our family secret, one of those old hard pieces of luggage made of hardened cardboard, the ones where travellers displayed their life’s itinerary with destination stickers from every port they had visited. I could see Mavis’s name scrawled in gold letters below the handle.

“Careful, it’s heavy,” she said.

I reached up and dragged the suitcase from the top shelf and lumbered it into the loungeroom. I expected the locks to be stiff, but they were surprisingly loose and the old suitcase opened readily. Inside were black and white photographs scattered loosely, and a wad of papers tied together with a crimson ribbon. I picked through a few of the photographs; an army of strangers with the Great Pyramids behind; a formal portrait of a young man in an untarnished uniform, staring proudly from beneath his slouch hat; a dog smiling at the camera. I pulled at the crimson bow that held the letters together and began to read the first one as my mother slouched in her armchair, her legs resting on a leather ottoman for elevation.

‘Darling May’

“Take your time dear, take your time.”

Competition: June 2015 Pen Factor, Round 1


Read Reviews

Review 1:

Compelling hook?


Strong characters?


Mechanics - Narration Styles
  • You handled the story’s narrative modes appropriately and accurately, making it a clear and enjoyable read.
Narration and dialogue: Balance
  • Your story struck a good balance between narration and believable dialogue.
Narration and dialogue: Authentic voice
  • Your characters' voices were convincing and authentic.
Character conflict
  • Your characters drew me into their world from the very beginning. Their goals and conflicts were clearly conveyed.
Point of view
  • The story successfully solicited the reader’s empathy through the clever use of the narrator's point of view. You show great deftness in handling point of view.
Atmosphere and description
  • Your story creates a vivid picture. A feast for the senses. The atmosphere wrapped itself around me and transported me onto the page alongside your characters.
Setting the scene and backstory
  • A nice amount of detail was given in the right tone for the genre to set the scene. I was fully immersed in the place and unfolding events. The way the characters reacted to the setting and atmosphere was cleverly done. The narrative is skillfully presented. I was never bogged down with information or backstory.

Review 2:

Compelling hook?


Strong characters?


Attention to Mechanics
  • You demonstrate a professional quality of writing throughout the story. It’s always a pleasure to read polished English.
Narration and dialogue: Authentic voice
  • Your characters' voices were convincing and authentic.
Main character
  • Your protagonist exhibited a unique voice and had original characteristics. Their actions and dialogue were highly convincing.
Plot and pace
  • Maintaining the right pace and sustaining the reader’s interest is a challenging balancing act. The story had a clear and coherent progression with a structured plot and conflict, which needed resolving.
Point of view
  • The story successfully solicited the reader’s empathy through the clever use of the narrator's point of view. You show great deftness in handling point of view.