Thursday, 23 August 2012

Photos of Mum

I only have a few memories of Mum because she died when I was four years old. She didn’t cross my mind for years until Dad passed away fifty years later. After a grey village funeral, I was left with his house on the edge of the moors. Dad hung on there to the bitter end, rejecting all offers of assistance until those last few weeks of helplessness.
As an only child, the grim job of clearing the place fell to me. To begin with it was black bin-bags and rubber gloves, but later I had time to sift through some memories. It was then that I came across an old photo album tucked away at the back of Dad’s massive mahogany wardrobe.
‘Who’s that Mum?’ I was sitting on Dad’s bed leafing through the album when Claire, my youngest came into the room and pointed to a grainy black and white photo. Claire was helping me clear the house – doing most of it if I’m honest.
‘It must have been taken at Margate, when your grandmother was alive. She didn’t go big on holidays.’ The photo showed me standing between my parents on Margate beach. Mum wasn’t looking at the camera, but was staring down at me with that look of hers.
‘I’m surprised you remember her if she died when you were four,’ Claire said. She picks up on details like that.
‘Well I do remember... Some things...’
‘Although you look slightly older than four to me.’
‘I suppose I look old for my age.’ Claire was right – I could easily be five or six - but family photos don’t lie, do they? Anyway, my memory was never sharp.
‘How strange,’ Claire mused.
‘Oh well, perhaps we should call it a day,’ I suggested. ‘You have to get back to London and I have to take this lot to the tip.’ We cast a shared glance over the black plastic bags stuffed with Dad’s things. By unspoken consent we’d had enough of junk, rubber gloves and half-buried memories.
‘What will you do next Mum?’ We stood in the tiled hallway. It was icy cold, although I hadn’t felt the chill till then. The tiles didn’t help – that and the November weather and Dad’s ancient heating system.
‘Oh I’ll sleep over in the spare room now I’m started. I want Dad’s house to be on the market as soon as possible. It won’t fetch much because it’s so big and old. Dad never looked after it. Most folk will think it far too lonely - stuck out here on the edge of the moor.’
‘It’s a lovely location,’ Mum.
‘I never liked it, even though I grew up here.’
‘Okay Mum – I’ll call you tomorrow.’ Claire shrugged on her jacket, fumbled for her car keys before giving me one of her hasty kisses. She disappeared through the front door, pulling it shut with a bang. I heard the sound of her car start and the scrunch of gravel on Dad’s weed-clogged driveway.
When Claire had gone I made cocoa and switched on the ancient electric fire in the front room. Being November, most of the trees were dark and skeletal against a late afternoon sky. Dad’s huge lawn was covered in golden-brown leaves and an early dusk rolled off the moors like thick, viscous mist. I locked up the house while my cocoa heated up on Dad’s cast-iron kitchen stove. After a last check round I prepared for a short evening and an early night. I was tired.

‘Hello - is that you Claire?’ My words were automatic. I’d been woken from a light sleep by my mobile phone. I fumbled it to my ear, assuming Claire was trying to call me. Who else could it be? According to my phone it was ten minutes past two. Apart from the tiny glow of its screen, the room was pitch dark and I could hear a moaning, fretful wind on the moors beyond my window.
‘Is that you Lynda?’ I didn’t recognise the sharp voice, although Lynda is my name.
‘Yes – who is this?’
‘Is that you Lynda?’ The tone was harsh, accusing. Then silence. The connection had gone dead. I plonked my phone onto the bedside table and fell asleep.

Next morning was awful, with rain driving across the single-glazed windows, a restless sky seething like a witch’s cauldron. Claire phoned early to see how I was getting on and what bits of the job I intended to get stuck into next.
‘I haven’t even breakfasted,’ I protested. I was in the kitchen gazing through the window across a lawn of soggy leaves. I kept the mobile phone pressed hard to my ear as if that way I’d be slightly closer to Claire, to the sane, real world she represented.
‘I’m not nagging Mum – I’d just like to know how you are getting on.’
‘I’m fine love. I’ll nip off to the recycling centre to get rid of Dad’s clothes and the bedding we packed up yesterday. I’ll need some more bags soon.’
‘Okay Mum – see you at the weekend. Take care.’ Claire rang off and I switched the kettle on to make a pot of tea. Breakfast was toast and jam bought in from the village store. The fridge was a no-go area. I couldn’t even face Dad’s little pile of tinned food. From upstairs I fetched the photo album, something to browse through over breakfast. The front door rattled in the wind as I climbed the stairs, a frisson of gloom washing over my soul as I thought of all the work still to do. Weather and memories slowed me down, held me back from something I never wanted to do in the first place.
‘Margate... when did we go to Margate?’ I studied the holiday photo over a slice of toast and a big mug of strong tea. I’d scoured the mug, and scoured it again, before I cared to drink from it. Should have brought my own. Didn’t think.
‘This must be the last photo we ever had of Mum,’ I mused then jumped as a gust of wind hit the kitchen window with a thwack. It howled across the moors – nothing to appease it apart from some scrubby gorse. My mobile burbled into life again.
‘Is that you Lynda?’
‘Yes – who’s calling?’
‘It’s me you fool...’ then silence. The call cut off as before.
Was it the same flinty voice that woke me in the night? I shrugged, cleared away the breakfast things and filled a few more bin-liners. Later I took Dad’s clothes to a recycling place about twenty miles away, drove there and back in driving rain, hardly came across another vehicle. How long would this dispiriting task take?
‘I ought to get a house-clearance firm in as Claire suggested. There’s nothing here worth saving.’ I spoke aloud as I warmed myself with coffee after the recycling trip. ‘What about the furniture? I can’t shift all that.’ I gazed round at worn out furniture. Nobody could possibly want it.
The loud knocking was almost welcome as some kind of contact with the outside world. I dragged open the front door against the wind and stared into the rain. Nobody there.
‘Damn wind.’ I slammed the door shut and returned to the living-room. I’d browse that old photo album again. I wasn’t achieving much apart from recycling Dad’s clothes, an excuse to get me out of the house. I’d check round first – persuade myself the job wasn’t worthwhile. Upstairs in the guest room, I found my overnight things bundled into a bin liner. It lay on the bed like a great black growth, my empty holdall on the floor, flat.
‘That’s odd.’ I untied the bin liner, struggled with a tight little knot I couldn’t recall tying then emptied my things onto the bed, repacked my holdall. ‘I’ve been in a trance all morning,’ I explained to myself, wishing now that Claire had stayed. Downstairs with the album, I noticed another seaside family photo stuck to the next page. I’m standing between Mum and Dad, holding Dad’s hand. Margate again? I didn’t remember the photo, or where it was taken. I shivered a little, because I was most certainly more than four years old on that photo. Quite unmistakable.
On an impulse I pulled on my coat, grabbed my keys and hurried to the car. I drove too fast into the village, pulling up by the churchyard where Mum had been buried years ago. Dad was in the same grave now, although he certainly wouldn’t have wished it, given a choice. Head down against the rain, I squelched round the side of the church. The whole place dripped in abandoned silence. The gravestone was new because I’d ordered a replacement when we buried Dad with Mum. The dates were as they should be. Of course they were. Feeling a little ridiculous, I did a simple mental calculation.
‘That’s right. I was four years old when Mum died. So why do I remember just what she was like... remember her so well?’ I spoke aloud and stared at the gravestone, getting wetter and wetter for no reason, all because a date carved in granite wasn’t about to change. ‘Maybe Dad always told me the wrong date – maybe Mum died later. That could be why I remember her. Or was I building false memories on the album photos and those weird hints Dad let slip... near the end?’ I ran through a glooming dusk back to the car.
As I turned into the drive, an upstairs light seemed to glow briefly, then a landing light. Someone hurrying downstairs? I began to panic at the clammy thought of how alone I was, not up to dealing with an intruder. All was dark when I killed the car lights. I sat still for a moment, pulling my fragile courage together.
‘Trick of the light - I’ll soon be rid of the place – never liked it.’ I slammed the car door without getting out, waited then climbed out of the car and slammed the door even harder. Nothing. No lights. No sounds. Only the odd, soundless whispering you get from the moors at night. I unlocked the house door with as much noise as possible. ‘Come on in,’ I said loudly, foolishly.
Silence greeted my entry. Silence and that familiar, ancient chill. Once inside I busied myself as best I could, waiting for six o’clock, the time Claire would be home from work. She never answers her mobile if I call during work hours, so I’ve learned to wait if I want to chat.
‘Hi Mum,’ Claire said as soon as I got through. ‘Everything okay?’
‘It’s fine, although I don’t seem to be getting through the job as quickly as I thought.’
‘Leave it Mum - I keep telling you I’ll help. Come home and we’ll tackle it together at the weekend. Let’s just bring away a few mementos; we can get a house clearance firm to finish the job.’
‘Oh I don’t know... I can’t decide what to take or what to keep.’
‘Even so Mum - ’
‘I keep looking through Dad’s old photo album.’
‘Which album is that Mum?’ Claire sounded anxious.
‘The one with that Margate photo - where I look too old. I found another...’
‘Oh yes I remember. I think you should put that album away Mum. Put it away in a drawer and watch some TV.’
‘Why should I? I’m fascinated by it dear – all those memories -’
‘Not now though Mum. Put the album away and watch some TV.’
‘I will dear.’ I broke the connection and settled down with the album. It was fascinating. I was amazed that I’d never seen all these photos before. Dad was so grimly reticent until right near the end when he hardly knew what he was saying. I shivered in a draught as I turned the pages. The last photo showed me sitting on the sofa in Dad’s living-room. I have a book on my knees, just like the photo album. I seem to be leafing through it. Mum stands behind me in the doorway, glaring over my shoulder with that familiar, evil look in her eye...


  1. Excellent stuff. A very finely-judged touch. I knew vaguely where it was going from early on, but the interest comes from not knowing the exact destination. You could have easily pushed it too far, but you stopped in a good place. Quite minimalist and spare. It bears re-reading, too. Many thanks.

  2. Sam - many thanks, I'm very encouraged by your comments.