Friday, 18 March 2011

make believe...

Imagined Lives


Photograph found in a battered box
in a French village brocante in the North of France,
not so far very from Lille. 2009

I am the gangly one on the right with the scarf. 
My little sister, Helene, was about 7 in this 
photograph and it was rare to catch her standing 
still. Beatrice refused to look at this photograph 
in later years. I vaguely recall this day but 
all was overshadowed by later events.

We lived in Roubaix in a small one up one down 
house near to the textile factory where Papa, B, 
our elder brother Pierre and I worked. 
I can’t be sure of the date this was taken. 
My memory is a little dog-earred. 
I guess it was around 1912. 
Pierre took this photo with his friend 
Arthur’s new camera; boy was he jealous 
of this funny contraption which he proclaimed 
to be a Graflex “Speed Graphic”.

After several intense weeks of my hounding 
Arthur finally relented and promised to lend 
his camera to my brother to take our 
sisterly portrait after I traded him a dance 
with my sister B at the annual fete. 
She was so indignant and angry at me for 
that I remember. Still Beatrice and I were 
so excited about that dance and pored over 
the dress patterns which Aunt, who lived 
across the courtyard, kept in a floral fabric 
faded box on the top shelf 
of her armoire.

B and I were close in age and shared the 
responsibility of the house, Papa, Pierre 
and Helene between us which suited fine 
as we worked different shifts at the local 
textile factory. The work was hard and 
the dust stiffling but I remember much 
laughter amongst the younger girls.

After much consideration we settled on a 
pattern and counted out our savings 
in anticipation of buying the fabric 
for our dance dresses. I had my heart set 
on something frivolous but finally we 
settled on a check fabric, the end of the bolt, 
which Monsieur Boulet sold to us for a 
cheap price. “2 for the price of one girls” 
he boldly proclaimed “and I’ll throw in this 
remnant for the little one too”. 

Aunt helped us sew the 3 dresses which were 
hung on the peg on the back of the pine 
bedroom door a good week in advance of the dance. 
I can clearly remember laying between my 
sisters both deep in slumber, listening to the 
heavy breathing of Pierre and the soft 
snores of Papa beyond the curtain, and starring 
in the darkness at the female forms of 
our dresses and imagining how fine we 
girls would look.

It’s rather funny really as I don’t remember 
much about the actual dance except for the 
fact that after his traded dance with B 
Arthur managed to monopolise my sister for 
the rest of the evening. They looked so happy 
together and I do remember feeling a twinge 
of jealousy. I was closer in age to Arthur and, 
having helped him and his Maman after his 
accident in the factory, had grown rather 
fond of him and his roguish ways and cheeky humor.

Several weeks later Arthur turned up as arranged 
with his camera and explained the rudiments 
of photography to Pierre as we girls changed 
into our dance dresses. I think, looking 
at the photograph today, I must have forgotten 
to brush my own hair as I battled with 
Helene to get her dressed whilst she hopped 
around like an excited flea. She looks so sensible, 
calm and demure in the photograph as if 
butter wouldn’t melt but inside was a reckless 
and selfish side which later led to our 
shared sister demise.

In 1918 Pierre left to follow basic training 
in the French army. He never returned and 
having fretted for weeks over his lack of 
correspondence I was devastated when news finally 
arrived informing us that he had been killed 
in action. Papa was broken by this news and after 
years of breathing fluff and dirt at the factory 
took to his bed his health and spirit broken. 

During these dark days we were lucky to have 
the company of Arthur, who due to his earlier injury, 
was deemed unfit for military service. He used 
to sit and chat with Papa and help us girls 
with the heavy fetching of water and the likes. 
He used to flirt with B, fool around with Helene 
and give me brotherly hugs and advice. Slowly 
Papa coughed and choked his way to his coffin; 
shortly after he died B and Arthur were 
married and he and B slept together behind 
the curtain.

In the immediate years that followed I started 
to feel uncomfortable as I noticed an 
inappropriate closeness start to grow between 
Arthur and Helene. Whilst this gave me cause for 
concern I never mentioned my fears to B as 
I didn’t have any proof of indiscretion 
only an intuitive feeling. I tried to talk to 
Helene once or twice about my fears but she would 
always have a reason to scoot out the door 
leaving me feeling small minded and foolish.

It was a beautiful spring Sunday in 1922, 
Arthur was out photographing a communion and 
I suggested to my sisters that we go visit Aunt. 
Helene explained that she had already 
arranged to meet a friend and left both B and I 
without so much as a backward glance. 
Aunt wasn’t in and so B suggested we take a 
stroll to the local park.

Today, at this point, I feel discomfort in the 
remembering of our sorry story and decide 
to make a pot of coffee to steady my nerves 
and calm my soul. I take down the blue chipped 
enamelware cafetiere and put the water to boil. 
I slowly spoon the coffee into the pot’s filter. I 
deliberately take a cup down from the shelf 
and absently spoon the sugar into it’s stained 
interior. I slowly breathe to retain my 
fragile composure.

I am jolted by the shrill pitched whistle of 
the boiling kettle as I was once jolted by the 
shrill pitched scream of B as we rounded the 
corner to see our sister and Arthur locked in 
a forbidden and passionate embrace upon the 
park bench. 

I told the court that things happened so quickly 
that I could not be sure of the exact order of events. 
At some point B was tearing towards the illicit 
lovers screaming wildly. At some point Helene 
defiantly rose to face B. At some point Arthur 
sensing disaster tried to step between my sisters. 
There was a scuffle and B shoved Helene backwards; 
and then, except for the birds singing proudly 
in the budding sunny branches, there was 
silence and the slow seeping of lifeblood from 
the cracked skull of Helene soaking into the 
already red gravel pathway.

I broke down and collapsed when I told the court 
that B hadn’t meant to kill our sister.

When finally B was released from prison she 
came to live with Aunt and I. A strange household 
of three broken winged women. The spinster sister, 
the shamed sister abandoned wife and the 
widowed Aunt. 

Three young women died that day. Helene moulders 
underground. B shuffles around in a tormented 
twilight world of reproach and regret and I 
fill my days trying to deny and to forget.

When, this morning I found the photograph shoved 
at the back of a kitchen cabinet drawer I 
hastily popped it into my apron’s pocket and 
sat down calmly at the kitchen table aware that 
B and aunt were off out to the market for 
cheese and vegetables.

The photograph had been hastily shoved into 
the drawer, many years before, when B had 
unwittingly stumbled upon it and I had had to 
run to fetch the doctor who heavily sedated B . 

So, B and aunt are not here now as I finish my 
cup of coffee and observe and note the parallel 
tones of the brown coffee grain dregs and 
the faded sepia photograph lying before me 
on the scrubbed pine table. I have no more tears 
to shed but feel a discomfort, I name grief, 
in my throat and across my chest.

We were three then as we are three now but 
I am no longer gangly and Helene has been replaced 
by aunt. 

As I stand the chair scrapes across 
the tiled floor breaking the quiet and my thoughts. 
I lovingly place the photograph back in the drawer, 
cross the kitchen to put my cup in the sink, 
take off my floral apron and hang it over the chair. 
I get my coat from the understairs cupboard, 
adjust my hat in the hallway mirror and 
step out into the sunshine… 


Heidi said...

This was a wonderful story you look like you might need some vitamins!!!a little C

Krystal said...

So you just whipped up this story based on the picture? If that is waht is happening then - you have serious talent!

Bella Bheag said...

Touched - and convinced was I that this was a true story (alhough I somehow doubted your age....!)left me wanting to reach out and give you a hug!

Image of three lovely vibrant young girls. I hope life has been kind to them.

Sally Tharpe Rowles said...

I enjoyed this flight of imagination. A sweet old photo was the inspiration for an intriguing & captivating little story. Thanks!

I do hope the real lives of the sisters turned out a bit happier!

Laurie said...

Just stumbled across your blog by way of etsy and had to take a moment to applaud this brilliant bit of fiction. Hope writing is something you do regularly because if not.....those of us who love to read are missing out. Thank you for sharing! Laurie

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