Don’t Start With The Photographs by Karen Arnold
March 22, 2023
Spent fireworks litter the path to the front door, damp and blackened, the shadows of last night’s display. The laurel bush near the front door drips steadily, soaking my legs as I brush past. Stepping into the porch, over the sprawling heap of post, I put the key in the lock, open the door slowly and step inside. The air is still and empty. There is a desiccated, expectant smell, as if the house had been left for a holiday. Dust has already settled on the windowsills, on the deep brown furniture.
As I close the door behind me, the house realises I am not the one it has been waiting for. It exhales, sighs. Joists creak, floorboards settle, and it resigns itself to being haunted by my footsteps. It is hard to know how to begin this ending.
Trailing my fingertips across surfaces, I go into the kitchen. It smells of a lifetime of baking. I open cupboard doors and wonder what is it we do with unused tins and packets? Go to the fridge, which is still humming, and see the cans of soup, a chocolate pudding. The things she still enjoyed at the end. I switch it off at the wall.
Upstairs to the bathroom. More half-finished things, shampoo, a bar of soap, things that had not realised they were finished with. Across the landing, the bed has been made but the rest of the room is untouched. Glasses still on the bedside table, an unfinished Maeve Binchy, page marked with a piece of embroidery “a gift from the Holy Land” Ten pages left. I hope she broke the habit of a lifetime and skipped to the end.
This task feels beyond me. I sink onto the bed, my hand on the pillow. I think that I will start small, not wardrobes or cupboards, I will start small and go through the bedside table. Pulling open a draw, a delicate phantom of perfume escapes, passes right through me. Yardley, Lily of the valley. She stands behind me, smiling, for as long as it takes for me to breathe in and out. I take out handkerchiefs, a brooch, half a packet of Everton mints. At the bottom of the draw is a photograph album. On the first page is a wedding photograph. She is stands next to a dark-haired man, self-consciously handsome in the uniform of the Staffordshire regiment. She beams at the camera, the story of their courtship caught forever in the amber victory roll of her hair. There is a baby, chubby in a knitted pram suit, toddlers at the seaside, birthday parties, first school days, graduations, weddings. In the last picture she holds her granddaughter. Two redheads, one fading, one flaming into the world like last night’s fireworks.
Pale fingers of autumn sunshine break through the clouds, rest on my shoulder. Hours have passed, and my face is wet.
Don’t start with the photographs.
Karen Arnold is a writer and psychotherapist living in Worcestershire.
Illustration by Nicola Bebb – bebbnicola
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