Writing Prompt: “What happened to 11?”
Writing time: 2.5 hours
Editing time: couple of minutes
“What happened to eleven?” she asked, from the corner seat of the living room– her seat. She didn’t look round at me anymore when she asked, because after 40 years of asking me the same thing by now it was more a question for herself. What pained me was that each time she asked nowadays it was followed by an exhausted sigh that seemed to drag her closer to death. She was close enough to death, already.
I carried on rearranging the table in her home, I needed to freshen the flowers, check the post, make some tea for us both before we sat down together to look through the photo album again. Just like we do every night now that Mum can’t do these things by herself. I feel as though if it wasn’t for that photo album she would have died by now.
I passed her the tea, “here you go, Mum,” I said, brightly- trying to distract her from eleven.
“Milk an t—,” “Milk and two sugars, Mum,”. I was too tired today to recount the script.
She had gotten worse lately, so I’d come in to check on her after I finished work. The nurses would do the morning check, and the social worker popped in for all of two minutes in the early afternoon. They were out the door before Mum had time to clock they were there: “How are you doing Jean? got your album Jean? good. Taken yer pills? I’ve popped some bread on the side for you, and some mags, Mike will be by after work, Jean, so I’ll leave you to it”. Lovely people, social workers, but easily jilted.
The album itself was a colossal thing, about the size of a paving slab. The cover was swirled with teal and purple dye, in that late 19th century style, and gold claps framed the corner. “Photos,” was elaborately engraved, also in gold, across the top. The pages of carefully glued photographs were divided by thin sheets of delicate paper- not a rip even after all these years. Each photograph had an immaculately handwritten footnote, and a number.
It was mystical. As children, my younger brother and I were never allowed to touch it. In fact, Mum kept it hidden from us in the laundry closet, on the shelve above the boiler, underneath the clean towels. Almost every night I would climb onto the boiler, trying not to slip on its olive coloured insulation and carefully pull it out, before sneaking back to bed.
It was better than any novel I had ever read; a dive into my real family history. Upon peeling open the front cover the album exhaled an ancient, musty breath, inviting you to observe the life within. Movement and smiles, sternness and joy, jubilation and grief. Unknown faces and long dead pets: “Jerry”, the gleaming Collie on the beach, number 6.
Number 15, my debut in the album, aged 3 propped against a white fluffy rug and the first photo in the album to be taken in colour. My hair was thick and dark, and my eyes were piercing blue.
Number 24, Mum and Dad’s wedding photo, stood outside the church, top-hats clutched in front of groins, Mum holding me. The church driveway was dotted with confetti and everyone apart from my Mum was gleaming, she looked miserable.
Number 27, my brother, James, as a new-born, propped up against me, aged 6.
It was controversial in my family that I was born before my Mum and Dad married. I was never told anything about the circumstances, but the album told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Apart from when it omits the truth.
Mum had got as far as picture 12, old friends having a Sunday roast, smiling and passing food over the table. They had obviously frozen for the photo. She went through it chronologically several times a day. Usually she’d linger on 12 with her hand placed flat on the previous page where photo 11 used to be, as if she could conjure up the missing image if she stared intently enough at 12. As if removing her hand would reveal it was there all along. It never did reappear, though. Lifting her wrinkly hand off it revealed nothing but a square of evidence of the original colour of the page; a light shade of brown. Underneath the devilish patch: “Jean and Harry’s wedding, St.Johns, Aldersham, 1960.”
As a child, photo 11 was the most curious chapter of my nightly reads. I was never told of who Harry was exactly. I knew he was my Mum’s ex-husband, but I could never verify anything else; firstly, because I didn’t know how my Dad would react—he never so much as mentioned Harry and, secondly, because I wasn’t meant to be looking at it in the first place. Their silence felt like betrayal to me. I had just as much right to know about our family history as anyone else, why was I being kept out of the loop? Since when did Mum live in Aldersham? To me, life started and ended with Mum and Dad, my Mum and Dad.
Harry made no more appearances in the album, and, when I was around 12 I made the decision to kill him off from my favourite novel altogether. I didn’t like seeing the picture of them both, married. It had no place in my history and was obviously a mistake. It just made no sense.
It was meticulously planned, the excision, I must say. I selected a day to fake illness. A Thursday, because a Maths test was scheduled for that Thursday, so I thought I might as well maximise my profits. Mum and Dad both went to work and James went off to school as normal. I stayed at home.
My memory of that day is visceral. I had cornflakes for breakfast, an extra-large helping, since no-one was there to stop me. I remember sitting in the kitchen alone and watching the green bird-feeder outside undulate in the wind. It one was one of those overcast days where morning turns to afternoon with no trace. I only had Harry on my mind. I took the album out of the laundry room and brought it downstairs to the living room. To have it so obviously out in the open, rather than under my covers, gave me a rush of adrenaline. There it was. Photo 11. Harry was taller than Dad, had thick, dark hair, a thin face and was handsome. Mum beamed at the camera, her wedding dress oozed downwards and outwards in a smooth triangle. All detail was lost in the flash. I recognized Grandma and Grandad, stood by Mum’s side.
The operation was simple and I did it without thinking. Dad’s letter opener, which was always on the chest of draws in the hallway, acted as the perfect scalpel: out with the cancer. I laid the photo on the side and put the album back in the cupboard, making sure to leave the towels exactly how I’d found them.
I remember the feeling of the photo in my hand as I walked down the path that went along the other side of the garden fence. Although I didn’t want to look at it anymore, I was ironically careful not to bend it. I took the shortcut, down the muddy verge, using the exposed tree roots as make-shift stairs. I then headed back up to path through the patches of wild garlic; the smell of which still haunts me. I got to the bridge and walked to the very middle with military precision. I leaned my elbows on the barrier and took one last look at the photograph. I suddenly felt a little bit sorry for Harry. I was his executioner; he was no longer welcome in my family album. No longer welcome in my mind; how little I knew of how he would occupy it every day thereon after.
I let go.
The photo swam through the air, this way and that, before landing face up on the water. I clearly remember seeing Harry’s dark hair, his ill-fitted suit and his beaming smile being pulled away in the current, forever gone. Good. Done.
Mum was at photo 57 now and looked over at me and smiled. Watching her in her failing years, I had got used to her formula; about one minute per photograph, with the exception of 24, which was a little longer. 11 was always the longest, though. Once, she spent over an hour staring at the patch of brown, tracing her finger underneath the footnote continuously. “What happened to 11?”, she’d mutter to herself, “what happened to you, Harry?”
“WHAT HAPPENED TO NUMBER 11?!” The shriek from upstairs sent chills down my spine. I was in the living room watching the news with Dad.
“WHERE IS IT!? OH JESUS, WHERE IS IT?!”
Dad put his tea down got up of the sofa reluctantly- “always something Jean”. Through the ceiling I could hear wailing, followed by my father’s feeble attempts to calm her down.
“It’s gone, Matthew, it’s gone!!”, Mum yelled.
“What’s gone, Jean? Tell me what’s gone?”
“Eleven, it’s gone. Harry, it’s gone”.
Suddenly the conversation dropped. I could tell that Dad was controlling the proceedings now, like he did when he deemed that things had gone out of control.
They both came downstairs. Dad entered the living room and let my Mum go in ahead of him. I pretended to watch the television, as if I had no idea what was going on. But the stares were too much.
“What happened?” I ventured.
“You did it, didn’t you? That was the only one”, she said. Her calmness disturbed me. I could see the anger physically shaking her from inside.
“See, he didn’t do it, Jean, now leave it”, Dad said before sitting back down and watching the television. I could see his mind was still occupied. Mum was stood by the door, shaking her head and staring at me. I was too scared to waver my gaze. As long as I stared her down, I was innocent.
Her eyes were pulverised red by tears. She made to say something and stopped halfway.
Without moving and clearly wanting the ordeal to end as much as me, Dad shot out a slow, punctuated, deliberate sentence.
“Jean, don’t you dare”.
Mum was at photo 82 now, my son, Theo, propped up with his older sister, Eddie. It’s the newest photograph in the album. I suppose it will be the last on my mother ever sees. Because we don’t know how long she’s got, we try to bring the kids round every Saturday morning. It’s the same story with the same story; Eddie sits on Grandma’s lap and helps her turn the pages of her album. She’ll often be bored by picture 10, but he is sweet enough to know that this is way Grandma Jean likes to do it. Theo is old enough now to have a peep, too, but he’s more interested in Grandma’s varicose veins.
The kids distract me from the chores of that album. An album that I know back to front, side to side. I can visualise every single image in my head from 1 to 82, including 11. The one that I removed out of childish vengeance, out of selfishness and lack of self-awareness. I removed the only photo of my Mum’s first wedding, the only photograph of Harry that Dad had allowed her to keep. Because of me, Theo and Eddie will never know what their grandfather looked like.