What does she mean “guilty secret”? I don’t have a…
Coming back after all these years, accusing me. “I know your guilty secret.” She doesn’t. She…
I don’t have any secrets. My life’s an open…
Do you think after all this time, after all these campaigns. All my missions. And what about the Foundation? What about paying half of everything I earn into that? Schools in Africa, forests in the Amazon, water projects in the Sahel.
If I had any secrets they’d be out by now. Be sure of that. The tabloids. The so-called journalists. They’d have dug them up. That’s what they do. Dirty, money grubbing worms. Always looking for a way to pull me down, always snide, always “You’re no better than the rest of us.”
Besides, we were children! I was a child! I couldn’t help…
Anyway, I’ve forgotten everything that happened back then.
I didn’t know her. Didn’t recognise her when she pushed out of the crowd at the signing, slipping the book she’d bought in front of me, saying: “Do you remember me?”
I looked up at her standing in front of the table. You’re at a disadvantage at a book signing. Sitting down while they stand over you. Looming. Threatening, almost.
“Do you remember me?” And I said what I always say so as not to come across as rude, “There’s something in your face,” and I smiled the automatic smile. Everyone knows the monkey in the zoo, but how many people does the monkey know?
I was going to ask where she thought we’d met when she said, “It’s Rita. Rita, from Harbour Road Juniors.” And I’m caught with my mouth open as I do remember. Not this old face. But the name. And the threat in her pose. Because I went to a Harbour Road Junior School. Another town than this, but that was its name. Fifty years ago. I was, what, seven or eight?
She leans in closer and says, “You shouldn’t pretend you don’t remember.” And that’s when she says it: “I know your guilty secret.”
And she smiles at me. A nasty smile. All triumph and malice.
“What secret?” I ask.
And still she smiles and says, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s safe with me. It’s just, I know you’re not so pure.”
“I think about it,” she says, “every time you’re on the TV. On the news. The charity galas and the speech at the UN. I think, ‘That one’s not so pure. I know.'”
Then she says, “You can write ‘To Marissa’.”
“On the book,” she says. “It’s not for me. My daughter thinks you’re the bee’s knees. I don’t need anything from you. I know what I know, that’s good enough. And your face now, your expression. Priceless!”
And automatically I write ‘To Marissa’ and sign the book and she takes it and disappears into the crowd, looking back at me, that smile still on her face.
This flash fiction story started life as an exercise for Writers Abroad, the predecessor to Pens Around the World, my current writers’ peer group. This version appeared last year in Far Flung, the last Writers Abroad anthology.
Before I passed them through Photoshop’s artistic distressing process, I took the component parts of the collage from public domain and copyright free photos quarried from Wikimedia Commons. (Search “book signing” and “book fair”.) The lady with the guilty expression is actress Doris Kenyon in the roll of Alice Farrell in a still from the film You are Guilty (1923 – on the IMDb). Doris Kenyon’s picture is also from Wikimedia Commons, here.