Read by Kevin Potton
We were planning to insulate ourselves against the cold, and so I’d gone up into the loft to clear it out. There was all sorts of junk up there we’d been meaning to get around to throwing out. There were twenty years and more of what we’d done without, out of sight, out of mind, but which we hadn’t brought ourselves to finally get rid of.
Then there were the photographs. I came across them in a cardboard box with the flaps folded tightly over. I didn’t know what they were until I’d got it open. I’d forgotten all about them. You wouldn’t think you could do that, but it’s all a matter of time. I’d used up a lot of time by then, so much of it that it was beginning to press on my mind as to how much there was left.
Memory’s like a wound. It heals over if you give it time; if you don’t go picking at it. I’d picked at it enough, for the first decade; kept it fresh and painful. I hadn’t looked at the photographs though. I hadn’t needed to. Eventually I’d moved on, stopped dwelling on the past, stopped telling its story over and over again. I’d lost that gut twisting spasm every time her name was mentioned, every time I drove round the roundabout that joined the route of her journey into town with mine, and where I’d seen her in the car once or twice soon after the divorce. That had all faded over time, and her name had dropped out of use as the people around me changed, came and went; and the few who’d stayed with me all those years were, I suppose the ones who had no reason to mention her when I stopped doing so.
Then, when I opened the box there we all were again, looking like a fancy dress party, all big hair and flower power. The men in flared trousers, the women in earth-mother flowing skirts. And it wasn’t just the way we were dressed. It was our faces, that open eyed innocence, the helplessness, the hopefulness. We were so young. We didn’t know how young we were. And there was me, at the front in my blue velvet tux and bow tie, with the frilled dress shirt, and her, beside me, in muslin cheesecloth swirled with flower heads of yellow and green, like someone out of The Lord of the Rings before it was a film.
The light was bad in the loft space, the harsh beam of a clip on spotlamp, and I hadn’t got my reading glasses. So I carried the box down the ladder, took it downstairs and into the kitchen. The photos hadn’t faded much, but they were small, five inches by three I suppose, which made it hard to see any detail in the faces, just that dreamlike quality of the past and its forgotten agendas. I could recognise them all, but there were a few I couldn’t put names to anymore. Some I knew were already dead. Our two faces, being the nearer to the camera I suppose, I could make out, but I could no more tell you what she was thinking than I could have done then. One thing I knew, that I’d had the biggest hangover of my life that morning.
Half an hour before the ceremony I couldn’t even stand, and then, and it still unsettles me, this sailor appeared, whom nobody knew, and who wasn’t one of the guests, or even a friend of one of the guests, and who certainly isn’t on any of the photographs; and he made up some drink, in the kitchen of the house I’d stayed over in the night before, and they poured it into me, along with the black coffees, and I came to life, at least as much as to pass for one of the walking dead.
It wasn’t the group photos that shook me though. It wasn’t any of the wedding photos. It was the one I found amongst them of me and you. Sorry, of me and her. We must have been on holiday somewhere. I’m not sure where. But that was bigger, being just a head and shoulders of the two of us, and her in the foreground, and it was her mouth, with a smile as wide as Julia Roberts’ on it. And what shook me was that I had forgotten that smile, and had remembered her always with a pinch-lipped grimace on her face; and thinking of that smile, as I put the photographs back into the box, and folded the flaps tightly down upon them, to insulate them from the light, the cold shadow of her smile fell on my heart, and it came to me that in those few years we were together, it was I who had taken that smile from her face, and put the grimace in its place.
When You Are Gone by Brindley Hallam Dennis was read by Kevin Potton at the Liars’ League Sweet & Sour event at The Phoenix, Cavendish Sq., London on Tuesday 9 March 2010
Brindley Hallam Dennis has lived in Cumbria for over 30 years. He has been writing fiction for about 10. Under a variety of names, he has won prizes for both fiction and poetry, had a (short) play performed, and works at times as a garden labourer, university Creative Writing tutor, and bookseller.
Kevin Potton was born in Scotland of an Irish mother. He studied classical singing at the Royal Academy of Music, London, then acting at East 15. He toured Japan as male principal singer on the Japanese ship, M/S Asuka. He appears in his first feature film in May 2010.