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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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  • Nathan Ramsden said...

    Ah right, OK. I missed that in the guidelines. Sorry. I've slightly amended my original post to come across less critical. Having re-read what I wrote, I can see how my comment could have been seen to be a bit stronger than I intended it. Apologies.

    • Posted 8 years ago
  • Anthony Blackshaw said...

    @Nathan Ramsden I must apologise - the guidelines did not clearly state that critique should only be given if requested and they should have. I have update them now thanks for you help :)

    • Posted 8 years ago
  • Charlotte Buchanan said...

    Hi, @Nathan Ramsden . Thanks for the comment (I've seen the original one on the Burrst email I received)...and for the criticism which, equally, I didn't know I needed to ask for! I will change my profile accordingly.

    Anyway I've read your piece too and I think it's like mine turned inside out! You and I clearly feel very differently about how to portray the sexual act. Possibly I have included too much detail but they were intentional. I wanted the reader to understand how and why this shag could take place.

    On the other hand, it seems that when YOU write about sex, you write about it all on its own. I infer that you see sex as something that can be crystallised or purified or can rise above its wider context (although not all the time, I'm sure!). Fair enough. All feelings are valid and if that is how you feel about it, that is valid too.

    Sincere thanks again. Have a good day.

    • Posted 8 years ago
  • Nathan Ramsden said...

    Interesting comment, @Charlotte Buchanan - when I mentioned cutting, I was more thinking of delivery rather than content, but then I'm very much into concision. As for the portrayal of sex, I understand where you're coming from - personally the 'distant observer' is a voice I often use, as it encourages ambiguity while allowing carefully chosen language to provide the pieces that the reader uses to fill in the (bulk of) the rest. It is a contrast to your own more intimate tone in this piece, but then we're probably out to accomplish different things by using these styles.

    The use of various styles of delivery to affect (even effect) a response is a whole kettle of fish which is bigger than the space for comments! Anyway, I look forward to seeing more of your work.

    • Posted 8 years ago
  • Angela Watt said...

    I really enjoyed this and thought it was an interesting portrayal of the emotions that can arise during grief. Will look forward to reading more of your work.

    • Posted 8 years ago
  • bill spencer said...

    You do have a way of writing some really great lines, don't you? "I didn't know that going to her house was going to change that." So good. Very nice piece.

    • Posted 8 years ago
  • Charlotte Buchanan said...

    @Angela Watt and @bill spencer thank you both very much! Bill, I was very pleased that that sentence worked for you - it was actually something I added during the editing to give more guidance or structure or something! Glad it was worth including!

    • Posted 8 years ago
  • C.A. Head said...

    Nicely done!

    • Posted 8 years ago
  • Charlotte Buchanan said...

    Thank you - I'm very pleased this worked for you. :-)

    • Posted 8 years ago