The Photograph

A Story by La Mouche

We were told to write a story based on the picture on the right.

We were told to stand outside the next day at noon wearing our Sunday best. Even our brother Phil was to be shaved and taken out on his bed, which had wheels since it was one of those hospital beds hired for the terminally ill. Immediately after the voice of the head carer faded out of the loudspeakers, the waltz-like tune that accompanied our few leisure hours was turned up, and my sister Simone started browsing through our old clothes with as much delight as if they were brand new.
     ‘I knew it!’ She cried, ‘I knew something exciting was about to happen! I knew I had to do my hair!’
     ‘You curl your hair every Sunday for church, Simone,’ I replied, tapping sloppily on the table.
     ‘Oh really? What about this hat? I managed to get it outside the annual shopping basket! You’ve got to admit that’s more than just coincidence!’
     ‘No, it isn’t!’ I argued, ‘you got it because you have been working extra hours all winter! Just like you did in the autumn, and last summer! You do that all the time!’
     ‘Don’t be so horrible, Marie! It’s just a bit of fun!’ Simone snapped back. I looked at her through narrowed eyes. She hated it when I did that.
     ‘Look,’ she moved on, ‘the blue dress would suit you perfectly! We’ve hardly ever worn it, Marie.’
     ‘That’s because mamma bought it for us to keep that last Christmas.’
     ‘And so this yellow one from Tandy’s, which we wear a lot. Why not the blue one?’
     ‘She used the last payment she received from the Thompsons to purchase it. I don’t wanna spoil it, that’s why.’
     ‘Dresses are to be worn, Marie. Mamma would have liked you to at least try it on! That’s why she bought it!’
     ‘Do you know if mamma bought anything to keep for herself that last Christmas?’
     ‘Course she did!’
     ‘Well, she didn’t! She bought us all presents, a meal and the tickets for the train that brought us down here! She told Phil to be a good brother and look after us. She left us at the door with the carer and kissed us goodbye. That’s the last we saw of her, and nobody had the decency to tell us she had died until after a year later! But you were too young to realise what was going on, weren’t you?’ I knew perfectly well that I was being cruel, but I couldn’t stop myself. Simone was sobbing.
     ‘You’re so harsh with me, Marie! I didn’t know! I was a baby!’ Just before I had wanted to slap her. But I sighed heavily, and put my arms around her.
     ‘I’m sorry,’ I said gravely.
     ‘Me too.’
     ‘Here, have my hankie.’ Simone bit her lip.
     ‘It’s clean, I swear. You can use it.’ She wiped her eyes and blew onto the spotless, white cotton handkerchief with all her might.
     ‘At least you knew what mama looked like,’ she added, ‘no matter how hard I try, I can’t picture her face.’
     ‘Just so you know,’ I said, ‘you look so much like her.’ Simone’s teary face beamed, ‘really?’
     ‘Yeah, a lot more than me.’

     The next morning, Simone sprang out of bed and went straight to the mirror to do her hair. I went to Phil’s room to shave him. My brother was quiet as usual, with the palms of his hands resting on his lap and his stare fixed on them. I enjoyed shaving him; it had brought us closer, even if it didn’t involve much talking. When my hand touched his cheek, he closed his eyes and smiled. It worried me sick to think that his heart could give up on him any time. You couldn’t tell he was that ill by looking at him because he was handsome and so sweet. He used to date a girl called Anne. But she left town before he was diagnosed. Way before mother died.
     At five minutes to noon, Simone was still in possession of the mirror. She had put on the pretty white frock with our spring coat on top. I couldn’t think of a dress to pick, out of the five or six my sister and I shared, so I put on shorts and threw grandpa’s heavy jacket over my shoulders.
     ‘You look like a boy, Marie.’
     ‘Who cares? I’m comfortable.’
     A tap, tap on the microphone introduced the voice of the head carer through the loudspeakers.
     ‘Children, may I have your attention, please! It’s time! You must stand outside your dormitories and get ready for the picture! Now!’
     We set Phil’s bed lengthwise on the balcony. He frowned, glanced around, and then looked back at me, like demanding an explanation. Whilst shaving him, I had told to him what was going to happen. Maybe I didn’t explain it well; photography was a novelty even for adults in those days, and I was only a child. Or maybe it was just the drugs that were making him dazed again. He had been given so many. I pinched his cheek softly; stroke his hair to reassure him.
     ‘You look gorgeous,’ I said, ‘just smile.’ There was a spark in his eyes and his white teeth shone under the sun, like a mother of pearl necklace.
     ‘That’s a good boy,’ Simone said to him. She stood, looking very neat, with her hands on the handrail. She was graceful, ever since she was born. Mama always said she would grow up to become a proper lady. I leant against the banister full on, my elbows resting on the railing, and stared openly at the occupants of the motorcar that had just stopped at the entrance. To our right and left, lines of excited children in their Sunday best giggled and glared in the same direction.
     Along with the photographer came two elegant, young ladies. The head carer introduced them as the daughters of our benefactor. They stood with us for the picture, and then moved to stand outside the other children’s dorms to also appear in their pictures. To this day, I find it very odd that, in this my only family picture from those dark years at the orphanage, there are two people neither my brother nor my sister nor I know anything about.

The End

Out of Time

A Story by La Mouche

Here we were asked to write a short story about symbolism, and life and death, and I remembered this dream I had about terraced houses, and pools of light and rust, and doors...

There was no time to fret: Cisca had one last thing to do before the end. She would have liked the chance to swim naked in the thermal pools of Reykjavik with her new boyfriend; to have finished her Visual Arts degree, not because of the promise made to her mother but because she really enjoyed it, whilst it lasted; to have kissed more men - and women, why not; soft and chastely on the lips, or with tongue, wet in the excitement of passion. Well, now it was too late for all that. For this last thing, though, she was going to make the time. She was going to choose, for once, all by herself. 
     It was a wet, cold evening in March. From the bus, Cisca gazed at people outside going places; blurry, shapeless grey smudges through rained-on glass and speed. What grudges would they hold, she wondered, if suddenly they were told they had ran out of time? Would they stay calm or freak out? Would they tell or spare their relatives? Would they blame God, or themselves, or others? Riding with her, to her right, an old man asleep under a woolly hat, snored away, lulled by the under-seat heating, the motion, and the gentle roaring of the bus engine. Disgusting. They stopped at traffic lights. Her eyes returned to the outside and met a man’s waiting to cross. He smiled, waved an arm. On the other, he carried shopping bags; one from Toys ‘R’ Us. Cisca rushed a half smile and looked away, pulling the rim of her skirt down with her pale, withered hands. Damned happy people! They are everywhere!
     A good hour later, she got off at the last stop. She ran up a narrow lane, lined with sycamores. At the end of the lane, an even narrower path led to a number of terraced houses. Cisca stopped there, breathed in and out, unsure. She felt a sudden urge to turn around and go home. Go home and lie in her bed until the moment came. She was only thirty. She was only a woman. She was only human. The pain sprang out of her in waves, enveloping and numbing, gnawing at her insides, exhausting. And those who love her, her mum, dad, Christine, her friends; she pictured them saddening and waiting God knows how long, to then sadden even more.
     She passed one, two, three, four, five, and six houses. Outside the seventh and last house, Cisca stood; her limbs shaking. The front gate was sanguine with rust; the façade was a mucky white. She pushed the gate open and went through, rubbing the red off her hands onto her coat. It was so quiet. The air was so crispy. Cisca flicked a lock of hair from her eyes. This is it, she said, I am early for once. She walked to the front door, and knocked on the tainted glass pane. A misty, white light was turned on inside. The door opened so slowly that she grew impatient. When she finally stepped into the pool of light, out to greet her came the fresh smell of steaming geysers, and oil on canvas, and her boyfriend’s minty breath.

The End

The Day The Thought Struck

A Story by La Mouche
I was walking through Northumberland Boulevard with Helen when the thought struck me. It was a rainy Saturday morning and we had just had a lovely breakfast at the M&S Kitchen. “Don’t think about it just now,” she said, leading me into Thornton’s. “You don’t look it anyway.” But I went on, “I am going to be forty in three years…” Helen walked in her usual cheery way to the back of the shop and reached for a marzipan cake. I followed behind. “My nan likes this,” she said handing a tenner to the lady behind the counter. I smiled, then the thought returned to envelope me again like a cocoon. “Three years,” I mumbled. “What?” asked Helen; her eyes fixed on the lady’s hands, which were skilfully wrapping up the marzipan cake in rich burgundy paper. “Three years,” I carried on gloomily, whilst Helen took the marzipan cake and placed it in her handbag saying, “My nan is certainly going to love this!”

We left Thornton’s and made our way to the City Library for our writing group. We were late, as usual, but also as usual, the first to arrive. Sean joined us a few minutes later. “It looks like it is just the three of us today,” he said. “Yep,” Helen replied. In the next ten minutes, we talked about a lot of things; so many I cannot recall them. And we talked about birthdays; of course, because it had recently been Helen’s, and her boyfriend Chris had got her the mini laptop she wanted. So it was suggested, when the moment to choose a theme for the writing exercise came, that birthdays was the theme, that the maximum number of words were 750 and that we had twenty minutes. I took on the task straight away, not without a sunken heart. Oh well, at least I knew exactly what my story was going to be about. It took me ten minutes to write it and the number of words was 345, counting those in the title.
The End

A Pot of Begonias

A Story by La Mouche
The potted begonias sitting under the front room window had been left to die. It happened that week we were too busy at work to care about the house. The mountain of worn clothes on the armchair piled up so high it eventually collapsed onto the floorboards. In the fridge, there were only two half-opened take-away boxes, their lids damp and rimmed with icicles. Lucky the cat had fled to find himself food elsewhere. Watering plants was definitely the last thing on our minds.
I thought you had done it that Wednesday, though, when you leaned on the windowpane to take a closer look at grandma’s yellowed picture. You were saying what an amazing gardener she was, and I added begonias were her favourite flowers, hoping you would pick up the hint and water them. It was your turn after all. But you kept insisting it wasn’t, and that it should be my responsibility since it was MY grandma who had given the plant to me before she died. Your dad had left you the car, you argued, but I never took turns with you to wash it, even though I was perfectly happy to make you take me places in it all the time.
The truth is we forgot; we had so much on. I’m still hurt you didn’t do it, though. I have always cared about your stuff. Fair enough I’ve never cleaned the car but that’s kind of a man thing. I would never expect you to mop under the bed, for example. At least I pay for some fuel. You don’t even acknowledge that the begonias are there. But I do admit that week was like no other. We were exhausted. We couldn't think. Anyway, the begonias had dried up. It was a fact. I worried for days about what mother would say when she came over; that we are terrible housekeepers that we cannot be entrusted with anything, not even a tiny pot of the flowers that meant so much to my grandma. Worst, we wouldn’t be able to avoid the lecture on Feng Shui and the importance of having good ‘chi’ rightly positioned around the house to positively condition the family environment.

Eventually, mother came to visit. She threw herself on the sofa with poise, as only mother does. I offered to make a pot - silly me using that word. I just didn't want to be there when she noticed the dead begonias. She was bound to spot them sooner than later. Mother has eyes in the back of her head for things like that. You dashed to the kitchen after me, said there was no chance you’d be alone with her when she saw them. You busied yourself arranging cups, saucers and teaspoons on a tray. Inside the kettle, the water started to bubble and rise in little waves. It gurgled increasingly louder, over our heads, above the mute whiteness of the kitchen, prickling at its own rising, steamy self. We could picture mother in the front room looking around; her mind taking it all in avidly, working out changes to suggest; how to better ionise the room, soften the sharp angles of walls. The kettle switched itself off with a loud click and there was silence. We heard her sighing. Then we heard a different noise.
‘She is sniffing? What is she sniffing at?’ You eyes were wide open.
‘Go check on her,’ I said, trying to sound casual, and tilted the kettle filled with boiling water over the mouth of the pot.
‘No way, Jose!’
‘Mum!’ I called from the kitchen. ‘What is it? You all right?’ Mother shouted something we didn't understand.
‘Wait, we are coming!’ I shouted back, eyeing you, ‘c'mon!’
You nodded, ‘she’s bound to have picked on something anyway. She always does.’ Sluggishly, I carried the tray with pot, cups and saucers into the front room. You walked behind me; the little milk jug held tightly between your hands.
‘Ugh, this stinks of cat wee!’ mother exclaimed, pulling her nose away from the flowers. ‘Haven’t you two notice? Your silly old cat has ruined grandma’s begonias!’
‘No!’ We cried in unison. She got up, picking the pot between her thumb and index, and walked to the kitchen. We heard her open the back door, step into the garden. We couldn't see her, or hear her, through the brick walls and the double-glazing, but we knew what was happening. Like many other times before, when she used to have a key to the house and stuff we liked kept disappearing or breaking accidentally. We couldn’t see her, but there she was: lifting the lid of the garden bin and dropping the begonias inside without a care in the world.
‘Well, it wasn’t a big deal after all!’ I said, looking at you and half smiling. But then, of all the things to say you chose, ‘you must be fucking joking.’ It really hurt, you know. I mean she’s my mum after all. I kept my mouth shut there and then, but I haven’t forgotten you said that.

Funny how things can happen in your life over and over again without you doing anything to change them, and, all of a sudden, one little incident causes a spark to turn into an open fire. You called it a wake-up call; exaggerating, I thought. Truth is after the day mother chucked out the begonias, you took Lucky away to an animal shelter and started mopping the floors, even under the bed, on weekends. I, in turn, cooked more homemade meals; put clothes to wash more often. I even helped you wash the car once. Eventually we grew bored of it all, of course, and our usual routines crawled back, as they do, except there were no more begonias to water ever again. As for mother, reluctant as I was at first, I’ve got to admit you worked that one out well signing her up for eharmony. Mother and her new found partner moved in together three months later. For their house warming party, you suggested we bought them a pot of begonias. At first, I thought it was such a nice gesture. But then, when you gave them to mother, you added, ‘an apology from our cat Lucky, for ruining grandma’s begonias.’ And you smiled that cunning little smile; the one I have seen you use every time you have managed to get your own way.

The End