Author's note: I was reading through stories made off of writing promts and wanted to do one myself. I came across the prompt mentioned in the story, but decided to do it a little differently. I've been writing on this since 11 pm on the 10th until just now, 3:20 am on the 11th of January 2013. This story has somehow nestled itself inside me and it is tugging my heart with all the longing and pain the main character feels.
I know that there are a lot of experiences shortly described in this story, but I hope you can somewhat relate to all of them. I am thinking of writing a follow-up; the story this main character would start writing at the end.
Even though this is a pretty serious story, I hope you enjoy it.
Please let me know what you think.
The story I need to tell
I wanted to write. That was all. I had too much time on my hands. It started with bedtime stories, then some poetry. After that, I really didn't know what to write about, though, and eventually Robert assuaged me to use the internet to look for a writing prompt. I came across this one:
"A picture is worth more than a blank page. Take out those dusty photo albums. Pick out photo #14. Count however way you like, but stop at photo #14."
So I set the laptop down and got up from the sofa to dig into the cabinets of my mother's old oak cupboard. It took a while and Timothy even asked me what on earth I was doing, but eventually I found the albums I was looking for. Sarah had made them for me. They were quite new, but the pictures were mostly old. She'd used pictures from our mum's photo books, where they'd come loose.
Timothy curled up on the sofa next to me, watching the television as I held the five books on my lap, trying to decide how I was going to count. Timothy had the answer for me. Randomly.
So I closed my eyes and took two books off the stack to put next to me, opened the third one at a page near the end and pointed my finger until it touched the paper.
Number one was old, really old. I couldn't remember the day that clearly, but I recognised the tattered old bunny in the arms of my younger self. Sarah was next to me, the wind blowing her hair into her face as she tried to stay still for the photograph. It must have been summer; we were wearing light dresses, probably white, though I couldn't say for sure in the yellowed black and white photograph. Mama was in the background of the photograph, still so young and beautiful, but her shoulders were hunched and she had a glass of wine in the one hand visible.
It must have been not long after the Second World War ended. Mama had suffered so much loss. Papa, uncle John, uncle Patrick. I could only vaguely recall papa – just the scent of cigarettes and soap and big hands that pulled a blanket over me – but I knew what loss felt like. Again, I felt so sorry for her, so sorry that I hadn't understood – or maybe not wanted to understand – her.
I closed the book carefully, putting it aside and diving into the next for the second photo.
This one was newer. I saw myself in the hospital, holding onto a very healthy, eight pound baby boy with a tuft of dark hair stuck to his forehead. I looked spent and I could recall the giddy feeling that had come over me. My dearest James was next to me, a proud father looking over his first-born son. I leaned over to Timothy and showed him the picture of his uncle Robert, explaining that the baby had been two weeks late. Timothy then took the only other album from my lap and began flipping through the pages himself, occasionally asking me something or other about the events depicted.
The third was old again, but this one brought fonder memories. It was a drawing, rather than a photograph and I remembered the day so well. Sarah had been twenty-five and it had been just days from her wedding. I was thirteen and extremely proud of my big sister, but secretly a little in love with her fiancé. Johnnie was what Sarah and her friends called him, and he was the whole deal. He looked good, he drove around in a car of his own and his family was of good standing.
The sketch was of her standing on the London Bridge, looking out over the Thames. I knew I was out of the picture because I had been standing close to the artist, watching him work. I hadn't paid too much attention to the artist himself, though, which I should have. But then again, maybe things hadn't gone the way they had if I had noticed James the first time I came to London.
The fourth was a picture I'd known for a long time and the one that gave my father a face in my memories. It was my parents' wedding photo. Papa was in his best suit, mama was wearing a beautiful, classic wedding dress with a modest train. Their parents were standing by their shoulders, a family through their children. Uncle John and uncle Patrick were only just in the picture, uncle Patrick holding on to his wife – who's name I don't remember because my mother never spoke of her. She'd died of tuberculosis. My parents looked happy in this picture and I wished I could have seen my mother smile like that more often.
Remembering that I was supposed to write about the fourteenth picture, I hurried to find the next one. This time Timothy asked me to pick one from the book he was holding, since the pictures were more recent. I closed the album and carefully placed my finger between two pages before opening it again. I ran my fingers across the two pages and settled for the one at the bottom right corner.
Timothy recognised his aunt and uncle and asked what the occasion was. There were lots of people in one room, there was snow outside and in front of the crowd were Robert and his wife Susanna, holding a toddler up, each holding one of the child's hands.
I explained to Timothy that this picture was taken in February 2000, on auntie Susanna's birthday. The child was his cousin Angelica and I pointed out that if he looked carefully, he would be able to find his older cousin Lucas too.
The sixth, seventh and eighth were all of holidays James and I had taken in the 1990s, one of them a cruise with Sarah and Johnnie, who – even though he'd gotten a lot older – in mind still was the rascal he had always been.
Number nine was one of my daughter Helena and her husband Mark, before they'd gotten married. Helena was sixteen and she and Mark had been going steady for three months, which brought about the picture. They were both sitting on Mark's motorcycle, his feet firmly on the ground, her sitting with her toes stretched to even touch the blades of grass.
My heart ached and I yearned to hold my baby girl again. Wanting to see more pictures of her, I opened the album again and again, scanning the other photos on the pages even if they weren't a number for my list. There was Helena, sitting on her first bike, pigtails on either side of her neck, smiling with her front teeth missing. My little girl on her first day of college, her rain coat already on, because it was pouring outside. Her bright smile on every page. Her and Robert, her and Mark on the day of their engagement. And then suddenly the photo's of her stopped and my tears started overflowing, knowing I'd come to the point where no more photo's of her could be taken.
In 2004, Helena and Mark had been on their way back from Cambridge, when they got into a car crash on the M11. Three cars crashed that day, but Helena and Mark were the only ones to die. So many times, I had asked myself Why them? Why not one of the others? and then scolded myself for wishing this grief upon another family.
I didn't even realise Timothy had left the room, when he came back with a box of tissues for me, asking me whether I was okay. I smiled at him and told him that he didn't need to worry, that I was just a silly old woman, after which he hugged me tightly and asked whether he could pick the next photo.
So Timothy grabbed one of the albums and chose one of my favourite pictures to be labelled the 12th picture. It was another sketch, this time coloured in. It wasn't James' artwork, I had to tell Timothy and I had to explain why then it was my favourite.
In the picture, it was 1959, summer and a more than wonderful day to walk about the city of London. I had been living in the city for two years.
When I arrived in 1957, I was nineteen and about to start nursing school. I was put in a dormitory run by an old hag and we girls were not allowed to be out after the sun had set. I was just coming of the Tower Bridge when I heard someone call. I can't remember what exactly had gotten into me, but after the stranger asked me to pose for him so he could paint me in order to never forget my face, I stood still for over an hour, my pulse racing as I watched his features.
James studied me all those long, long minutes and when he said he was done, I couldn't believe he'd drawn me. The one in the picture was a woman, no longer a girl, with an angel's face and an expression so serene. Autumn leaves blew up around her and whirled by the skirt of her long dress. I had told James, the flatterer that that wasn't me, but he'd answered that this was the way he saw me in the light of the setting sun.
That had made me notice the time and James had taken my hand and run me back to my house, where he wouldn't leave before I promised to see him again.
That was the start of our lives together and in the picture from 1959 – one that a friend of James' had drawn – we were holding hands as we looked out into the light of the setting sun strewn across the Thames. Right after James' friend had finished it; James had sunk to one knee and asked me to marry him. It was the perfect memory of a perfect afternoon.
The thirteenth picture was one I'd forgotten about.
My mother, frail at the age of 70, had been living in a home for the elderly. That particular afternoon, Sarah, Johnnie, their daughter Elisabeth and her husband and I had gone to visit her. She had never been particularly fond of James – because of his lineage, or rather his lack of it – so he'd decided not to come along on this happy occasion. A week before, Elisabeth had given birth to a healthy baby girl and she was there to show my mother's first great-granddaughter. Elisabeth had always been my mother's favourite grandchild, which I'd learned not to mind too much, but I still hadn't expected what came about.
I had not expected my mother to actually smile. It was the first time since my childhood that I'd seen her do it and I was a mother of two children myself by then. But oh, how happy I was to see her smile, so warmly, so truly blissful the moment she held the baby.
It was also the last time I saw her smile before she passed away.
My relationship with my mother had always been quite hard to define. When I was older, I realised she'd been severely depressed almost my entire life. Sarah had been born before the war, she had known papa and she knew a mama that smiled and cared, not the one that drank until she was past the ability to carry herself up the stairs to her bed, not the one that hit me across my face when I tried to help her do it.
No, Sarah and mama were a much more compatible and I could see it in the way Sarah had patience with mama's Korsakoff.
Now, after her death, I was still glad I'd kept my children away from their grandmother, so they didn't have to deal with her forgetting who they were, with her getting mad at them when she thought they were someone from a long gone past.
Still, I wished that I could have known mama before she changed. That I had more memories of the mama that I could see in her wedding picture. I wished that I would have known how to make her see that I was her daughter too. That I could have told her that I needed to be loved by her too.
And that was it. The next one would be the last. Timothy and I decided to put all five albums on a stack. Then I held on to my necklace and let it fall a certain distance before stopping the chain from plummeting further. The album it was in front of was the one we'd pick. Not knowing which period of time would be in this one, I ran my fingers across the spine and the pages and settled on something with my eyes closed.
Timothy was the first to start crying. Even though he was a strong sixteen-year-old now, I knew the pain was still very fresh, as it was with me. It was a small black and white card, two hands grabbing each other on the front and inside it were words I'd gone over and over and over again. I read the date. July 21st 2012. Such a short time ago. My fingers caressed the name at the top – James Timothy Leonard Harris. We both cried silently for a while before the tears dried up and Timothy's hiccups started to subside.
With a sigh, I closed the album and Timothy looked up at me, studying my face with the same attention his grandfather had always been able to pay.
"Let's do one more," my grandson suggested and even though I felt I'd relived enough memories for the night, I obliged, using the same method as before to pick an album.
When my eyes landed on the drawing James had made of me such a long time ago, I finally knew what I was going to write about.