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.
‘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.