He’d found the box of photographs in the attic. He didn’t make it up there much these days. He spent the morning heaving tea-chests around. Outside, inches from his head, rain hammered on the roof.
The light was dim in this corner of the attic, the roof sloping to an angle. He sat on a crate of old Christmas decorations and looked through the pictures, holding each at an angle to catch the light from the single, bare bulb. He and Mabs standing arm-in-arm on a beach, before they were married. Courting. They didn’t call it that any more, did they?
A photo of the boys, ten years later. Pictures of holidays, summers in the garden, the boys sombre in their school uniforms. He found few with himself in. He’d been the one behind the camera. Looking at the photos now, you’d almost think he hadn’t been there.
Then he found a picture that confused him. Mabs and – who? A man he didn’t recognize. Standing with Mabs, laughing at some joke. Wind blew their hair around. The boys were there too, flying kites in the distance. Beyond them, an undulating line of hills, like a child’s drawing of the sea.
He stared for some time, trying to remember. He slipped the photo back into the box. Mabs would know. He’d ask her when she got back from the shops. Clutching the box under his arm, he worked his way back to the ladder, as if he’d found the treasure he’d been looking for.
The descent was tricky; he had to twist around and reach down with an outstretched foot. His limbs were so clumsy these days, little better than sticks. As he manoeuvred around, the box slipped from him. It fell, struck a rung of the ladder, and flew open. Pictures scattered in all directions, clattering to the landing. He worked his way down and began to collect them up.
Downstairs, Mabs still wasn’t home. It wasn’t like her to be late. He made himself a cup of tea, then sat to put the photos back into the box. Her name was Mabel, of course, but she’d insisted on Mabs when they’d married because his surname was Gable, like Clark. He found a picture from a day-trip to the Sussex downs, a bright, windy day. They’d flown kites with the boys. Mabs’ brother had been there, a rare visit from America. The boys had always loved seeing him.
He must have fallen asleep then, because he woke up to find it was dark. He sat in silence, listening. He’d been dreaming about something. The only sound was the reluctant ticking of the clock in the hallway. He hauled himself to his feet and began to feel his way across the room to the light-switch. Where was Mabs?
His thighs banged into something hard – the edge of a table. He stood in the darkness, confused. There was no table there. There had never been a table there. Who had moved a table there? Reaching out with his arms he shuffled his way around, feeling ridiculous. He found the wall, felt his way along until he reached the switch.
The sight of the room puzzled him. The furniture was all wrong. It was like he had wandered into the wrong house. The armchair was his, but not the rest of it.
His voice sounded thin, like he’d been ill. He hadn’t been ill. He tried again, calling upstairs. There was a light on and the steps up into the attic had been lowered. He’d meant to go up there himself, sort it all out. Some of it had been up there for years. He called up again. No one replied. The boys were always out these days. Playing with friends. Or, no, Jimmy was married now, of course. Children of his own, living far away.
Someone had been here, though. A cup of tea was laid out on the table by the electric fire. Next to it was a box of old photos. He sat down. The tea was cold. He was cold. He switched on one bar. The clock chimed two. He ignored it. He didn’t sleep much these days.
A white telephone stood on a little table next to the chair. He’d ’phone home, find out where Mabs was. As he dialled, he wondered how on earth he’d explain what he was doing.
An unfamiliar man’s voice, groggy.
“Oh, hello. I’d like to speak to Mabs, please.”
There was a pause, a wrestling sound as the telephone was handed to someone else.
“Mabs?” he said. A woman replied, but it wasn’t her.
“Look, sorry, but there’s no one called Mabs here. I’ve told you before. You must have the wrong number.”
“Are the boys there? Danny and Jimmy?”
“Sorry. There’s no one here called that.”
“Ah, well, if you see them, tell them I rang.”
He put the phone down. Bloody things never worked properly. Mabs hated them, the way everyone stopped what they were doing just because the ’phone rang. He made himself a cup of tea in the strange kitchen, expecting the person who lived there to burst in at any moment.
Back by the fire, he began to leaf through the pictures in the shoe-box. They were all mixed up, out of order. People didn’t take the trouble these days. He pulled out a photo of a young couple arm-in-arm on a beach. They wore old-fashioned clothes, like a black-and-white film. He couldn’t recall their names, but the sight of the two of them, there on that distant day, made him feel happy and safe. He sipped his tea as he studied the picture.
He decided to ask Mabs about it when she got home from the shops.
Simon writes fantasy, SF, mainstream and some stories that can’t make their minds up. He lives in England with Alison and their daughters Eleanor and Rose. He has two fantasy novels appearing in 2013. Find him at simonkewin.co.uk.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH A Box of Photographs:
We thank author Simon Kewin for sending us this masterful piece of writing. It’s painted with simple, evocative strokes that put the reader firmly in the character’s head. Although we never his name, we don’t need to, for that’s what gives the story a touch of universality and makes it even more heart-rending.