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Charlotte Buchanan, 20 Jul '12

It was some time later that he called me. He was getting ready to move somewhere smaller, which I knew, and he'd found some photos in a drawer - would I like them? I already knew the ones he meant: orange kagools, birthday parties, she and I posing by enormous pots on Greek islands, all slightly grainy, badly-coloured efforts that my - our - parents had once excitedly waited weeks for.

When I got to her old house, where of course he still lived, alone now, I suddenly realised I hadn't given any thought to this at all. I'd been thinking about my sister, gone now, about the photographs, but not about what I was going to say to her husband, struggling through the piles of her stuff, dealing with his own grief, trying to get used to living on his own again. It was different for me: I missed her, naturally, but we hadnt been particularly close. We hadn't lived under the same roof for over a decade. I didn't know that going to her house was going to change that.

He opened the door and gave me a smile he obviously didn't feel. The place was a state. Piles of paper in the hall at the mercy of every breath, once-lovely clothes looking nasty now in bin bags too full to tie.

"They're in here."

We went into the sitting room. The desk where the photos were was behind the sofa; I squeezed myself in by the open drawer and took up an uncomfortable kneeling position as I went through the yellow Kodak packets. Deciphering my mother's handwriting, trying to control the sliding strips of negatives, the pictures took me through my childhood with my sister. Holding hands at Stonehenge - I realised I could remember what her hand felt like in mine. I missed her again, the grief I had though mellowed now as keen as at first, not just for the people in her sitting room now, left behind, but for all the things she never had time on earth to do.

Her husband was going through her books. He threw a Selected Keats over to me.

"Want this one?"

To my sister, with all someone else's love, Christmas 1997. I could see why he didn't want it.

"Hm. Y'p. Thanks." It fitted in my handbag.

I put the photographs in the shopping bag I'd brought with me and got to my feet. My brother in law looked up at me. He was crying in that damp, red-eyed, tearless way that men have.

"I'll give you a hand with those books," I said, wanting to be useful, not wanting to leave him alone, wanting to share in our loss.

"She loved this one," he said fondly.

"I gave that to her," I replied. "Look in the cover."

He smiled properly now. "So you did."

"You don't have to move house, you know," I said.

"I need to. I want to." He was lying. I put my arm round him.

My sister's things, there without her. Grieving together now, he put his arms round me haphazardly like I were a floating beam of a broken ship and he a stricken sailor. Then somehow we changed position and I kissed him, desire born of sadness - is not grief as valid as love? He kissed me back.

There seemed nothing wrong in being with my sister's husband. No one who wasn't in the house that day could have understood but we did. The need for closeness, for comfort, we'd come together in sorrow and now we did so again, body and soul.

His lips had made a little mark on me, just above my left breast. I only noticed it when I undressed again for bed that night.

When it was over, we sat together on the floor. Whatever needed to happen had happened. I held both of his hands.

"Are you going to be all right?"

"Think so. Thanks."

"That's OK. Thank you too." We exchanged shy smiles.

"Do you want a hand with the photos?"

"It's fine - it's only one bag."

And we said goodbye.

They held a memorial for her in the autumn. He was there, suit, new glasses, I noticed. He smelled the same and I probably did too but neither of us mentioned the encounter at his house with the photographs on that summer's afternoon. Memories are precious but the past is not for us to resurrect.

Comments · 19

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  • Charlotte Buchanan said...

    A dear artist friend of mine recently asked me to write about sex and death in one story. Here is the attempt.

    • Posted 10 years ago
  • Jessica Cambrook said...

    I liked the theme of memories tying it all together, that was really effective. In a short space of time you managed good characterisation AND a story with meaning. Can't wait to read more, here's my follow :D

    • Posted 10 years ago
  • Anthony Blackshaw said...

    I loved this.

    • Posted 10 years ago
  • Shirley Golden said...

    I love this piece, Charlotte! You evoke emotions for these characters, which is great. I also like your specific descriptions, such as, 'orange kagools' and, 'bin bags too full to tie.' The ending is strong and it is a complete story - a good flash-fiction :)

    • Posted 10 years ago
  • Jamie Thomas said...

    This story made me feel sad at first, and by the end I'd been on a roller-coaster of emotion, forgive the cliché. This was a very very good burrst, and I can't wait to read more of what you write.

    • Posted 10 years ago
  • Charlotte Buchanan said...

    Hi, all, what kind things you have all said! Thank you very much! @Jessica Cambrook , I am so glad the memory theme worked for you. @Anthony Blackshaw thanks for loving this one! @Shirley Golden , I am really pleased you enjoyed the details because I had a lot of fun with the minutiae of rummaging through old photos and packing to move. @Jamie Thomas I think I can forgive the cliche. I am going to have to because I cant even find my acute accent! Anyway, thank you for your interpretation - I think of it as shades of sadness but it is really interesting to see how other people react to this piece. All the best to you all. :-)

    • Posted 10 years ago
  • Ross Tarran said...

    Very well done because you manage to keep the story feeling natural and believable the whole way through, and avoid the temptation to introduce a 'shocking twist' of any kind, as many of us do in an attempt to deliver a memorable conclusion.
    Some might feel the sex was an unexpected twist, but you allude to it in such a way that the reader can easily accept that this could have occurred in the circumstances.
    Of course not all stories need such a natural feel, but I hope I can replicate something of this when appropriate!

    • Posted 10 years ago
  • Charlotte Buchanan said...

    @Ross Tarran thank you! You have read this as I wrote it. :-) I didnt think of the sex as a twist either. when my friend first suggested this, I actually thought of Tess bequeathing her husband Angel Clare to her sister Liza Lou at the end of Tess of the DUrbervilles, just before Tess is hanged. I used to think that it was so weird and unnatural to end up with a sisters husband in that way...until I started to wonder what emotion might lie behind it. @Liam Volk I am very glad to have created that air of melancholy - that was something I was trying for so I am really glad it worked for you. :-)

    • Posted 10 years ago
  • Nathan Ramsden said...

    Nice stuff - the memory of the sister's hand is good. Not sure about the last paragraph. It starts well - personally I think it could be honed down - but broadly I like it - a nice idea and the tone works.

    • Posted 10 years ago
  • Anthony Blackshaw said...

    @Nathan Ramsden Just a quick note on feedback (it's worth viewing the guidelines), whilst positive feedback is always OK, critique should only be given if the author has requested it in their initial comment.

    In most cases I'm sure authors don't mind such feedback, and I appreciate your critique here is constructive, however such feedback is at the request of the author.

    • Posted 10 years ago