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And At Christmas I’ll Visit the Nursing Home, Pretend An Elderly Couple Are My Grandparents

Story by Jo Withers (Read author interview) June 17, 2024

Art by Fabrício Severo

For my thirtieth birthday, I pay three actors to attend dinner as my family.

I book an Italian restaurant for seven o’clock, prep each one separately by email, give them back stories I invented when I was fourteen.

My fake little sister arrives first. I’ve written her kooky, mid-twenties, only works to fund debauched weekends. Her ex is a controlling loser, she often appears at my flat to wallow in vodka and self-pity. I hug her as she comes in, she looks sideways at me,

“Are you Sadie? Are we just supposed to go straight into character?”

I scowl, “Yes. It’s supposed to be seamless,” I whisper in her ear, “you’re my sister – act like it. Stick to the lines or improvise from the file.” She smiles, pats my back half-heartedly, leaning back so it feels like someone is standing between us, “Sadie, so good to see you, happy birthday!”

While we’re standing at the front, fake mum comes in. She’s dressed for her role, cardigan personified. She asphyxiates us in a hug.

“My girls, you both look stunning, give Mamma a squeeze.” She enunciates every syllable like she’s performing for an Academy Award.

I pull away, “Let’s sit down. Dad won’t be long.”


We move to the table I’ve had decorated with candles and a big ‘30’ balloon. I act surprised.

“You guys – were you responsible for this?”

Fake sister looks blank, fake mum pinches my cheek like I’m a newborn. “Anything for my girl’s special day.”

We sit down. I expect my sister to make conversation according to the prompts I sent, ask how work is going or make a joke about my suicidal cat or one of the three hundred other ideas I gave her. She sits there twiddling her fork. What’s the point paying actors who don’t act?


Fake mum looks at the menu, “Shall we order drinks?”

I shake my head no, “Dad won’t be long.” I stare at the restaurant door, willing him to arrive. I feel like I’m at the foster home, watching every car pass, praying he’ll pull up and bust me out.

Fake dad was hardest to find. I’ve been fantasising about him since I was five. I only saw my mother a couple of hours a fortnight by then. She didn’t let much slip about my real dad, said he’d been around a bit when I was born but he had ‘other commitments’ which I suppose meant a real family. Dad was the one I missed most because I’d never witnessed him do anything wrong like mum. Growing up, I told myself his ‘other commitments’ were his Hollywood career. I wasn’t deluded enough to give him a movie role, just something homely like a sitcom. By the time I was eight, I convinced myself he was Al in Home Improvement. I imagined Al taking me to the park, Al picking me up for ice cream, Al coming to the school play.

The restaurant door swung open and a guy lolloped in in a crumpled shirt and tight jeans stinking of tequila. There weren’t many actors available in his age range, so I was forced to book an escort who’d dabbled in theatre. His profile picture must have been twenty years old. He ambled over and slumped into the spare chair.

We sat in silence. I poured water and placed it in front of Dad.


“Violet,” I say, using the name I’d assigned my fake sister. She doesn’t look up.

I banged my hand in front of her on the table, “Violet!” She blinks hard. “Tell Dad about your new job.” She looks him up and down, shakes her head and looks away.

“Is that for me?” I ask fake mum, indicating the poorly wrapped gift sitting at the top of her handbag. I sent them one hundred dollars each to get me something for my birthday, one hundred and fifty for dad because I knew he’d want to spoil me.

“Oh yes, here you go, happy birthday.”

Inside is the most hideous blouse I’ve ever seen. I hold my hands out to Sister and Dad, but they offer nothing and I screw my hands up into tight little balls.

The waiter appears.

“You order for me Dad; you know me so well. I’m popping to the bathroom.” I stand up, hear him ask the waiter for beer.


I move towards the bathroom. Before I go in, I turn back. Mum is trying to talk to my sister who’s on her phone. Dad is staring around oblivious. They don’t look much different to the other families, almost real. I snap a photo on my phone. While I’m washing my hands, I picture them waiting for me, gathered to celebrate my day – the closest I’ve ever come to a birthday party.


When I emerge, only fake mum and fake sister are at the table.

“Where’s Dad?” I ask, looking around.

“He tried to order enough food for ten people and two bottles of wine on your credit card. We kicked him out.” She paused, tried to take my hand but I pulled back. “You need help Sadie. You need to talk to someone, you’re carrying your childhood like an axe.” She looked at fake sister and both stood up, “We don’t want payment, we hope you get the help you need.”

Fake mum and fake sister walked out just as real mum and real sister had before.


I sit next to the ‘30’ balloon, consider leaving. The woman at the next table taps my arm,

“Don’t worry honey, your dad’s a jerk but I’m sure he loves you, you look like him, you have his eyes.”

I smile at her. I order a margherita, sit in the incandescent afterglow of my first family argument. Maybe in a few weeks I’ll book fake dad again, pay him to cry over my baby photos and tell me he shouldn’t have left; that everything should have been different.

About the Author

Jo Withers writes short fiction and poetry for children and adults from her home in South Australia. Her work has won prizes at The Caterpillar, SmokeLong, Bath Flash Fiction Award, Reflex Press, Molotov Cocktail and Fractured Lit and has featured in Best Microfiction 2020 and Wigleaf Top 50 2021. Her first novella-in-flash, Marilyn’s Ghost, based on the death scene of Marilyn Monroe will be published by AdHoc Fiction in 2024.

About the Artist

Find more work by Fabrício Severo at Unsplash.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

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