From the author: A grieving mother finds a strange antique photo album at a jumble sale.
Karren Lewis ran her fingers along the sleeve of the old black velvet jacket, its soft texture giving way under her fingertips.
“I had one of these when I was younger,” she said. The woman either didn’t hear her or chose not to. She kept her head down and counted the money she’d taken in that day, her bracelets rattling and light dancing off her jewelled rings. Karren made a face at her and lifted the coat, holding it up to the light and running her eyes over the coats surface. It felt heavy, the way a proper winter coat should. It was missing a button and the left-hand pocket had begun to come away from the material, it’s stitching undone by time and wear, but otherwise it looked like a bargain.
“How much for this one?” The woman heard her this time, miraculously, and looked Karren up and down before replying.
“I’ll give you three for it.”
The woman pressed her lips together before shrugging. “Done.”
Karren fished in her pocket, pulling out three coins and dropped them into the woman’s paw. She folded the coat over her arm and was about to leave when she spotted an old leather-bound book lying off to one side, half buried under a pile of broken plastic toys. It had a brass catch to keep it closed and a machined leather cover. It was, in fact, the kind of thing she’d spent half her life learning to spot. A possible hidden treasure.
Karren loved jumble sales, had done since she was a girl. When Joel was little she started taking him on her bargain hunts. Weekends spent seeking out car park markets and Boy Scout sales to plunder. They would take their time raking through heaped piles of clothes and buckets of assorted junk looking for something of value, a trinket or curio that had been cherished in a previous life. They’d go out every weekend while Ray spent his Saturday in the pub with Alan and Steve, and while she and Joel would be pouring over their finds in the living room, Ray would come home reeking of cheap lager and even cheaper cigarettes. If they were lucky he’d have brought a curry home with him. Joel would almost always have picked up a toy, flawed in some way, be it a missing arm or a puzzle missing a piece. It never mattered to him. Karren meanwhile would be polishing some piece of jewellery or a lamp or picture frame. Ray would usually start to tease them both and Karren would smile and endure it till it became nasty, which it often did.
Karren lifted the book. The ornate leather cover and the brass catch gave it some hefty weight. She looked to the woman again for permission to open it, to see what it held inside, but she had turned her back to Karren and busied herself with the cash lock box. Karren placed the book back on the table and thumbed the latch. It popped open easily. She felt a little thrill shoot through her chest as she opened the book, a sense of anticipation, a frisson of excitement. The first page was blank, as was the second. Karren turned the third page and saw a peel back plastic cover on it. The rest of the book had the same plastic covers on all the pages.
“It’s a photo album. Old kind.” Chirped the bejewelled woman, her eyes fixed on Karren.
“I remember having one as a child,” said Karren.
Karren was about to blurt out that it was worth way more than five pounds, but bit her tongue. She almost stuttered when she replied.
Karren carefully and methodically laid the pictures of Joel out on the kitchen table. She had never been the kind of mum to take a hundred photos of her son, in fact she had about a dozen decent pictures of him ranging from the day he was born till his 8th birthday party. There, captured on polaroid and later developed pictures from the chemist, were some of her favourite memories of her little boy. The caravan holiday to Torquay where she and Ray had tried and failed to conceive a second child. Joel was four then. The day he won a trophy at school for football. A picture of him engrossed in a book as he sat on the top landing of their old house, his legs through the gaps in the bannister, as Karren’s 35th birthday party raged on. She never found out who took that picture, she was in no state to take pictures at all that night. She lifted the first photo. It showed Joel asleep in his hospital crib, wrapped in a woollen shawl. His face was bright pink, his skin brand new and unblemished. She’d taken this one late at night after everyone had gone home and the nurse had turned the lights out. She listened to Joel’s breathing for hours,his little chest rising and falling, his fingers curling and opening. She watched him most of the night, despite her exhaustion. Her first happy memory of her son. Karren peeled back the plastic cover and slipped the photograph behind it and folded the cover back into place. She did this for all twelve photographs. When she was finished, she leafed through the rest of the book looking for an inscription or dedication, but found nothing except a very small doodle on the inside back cover.
A bath, red wine, and bed with a book. The wine overlapped both activities somewhat. Draining the last of it from her glass, Karren rolled over to focus on her current page but found it damn near impossible to concentrate, her mind returning to the jumble sale and the wondrous bargain she had secured there. Overcome with the urge to hold the Album again, Karren put her novel to one side and tossed the quilt back.
The stairs were soundless under her feet. With the photo album clutched to her bosom, she retreated to her bed once again and began to run her eyes over the stages of her little boy’s life. Each moment captured was like a stone dropped into a pond, it’s ripples moving outwards, disturbing the serene waters of her deepest memories, and as she moved from picture to picture she moved through Joel’s life at breakneck speed. He aged a year in the flick of a page, or the time it took her eyes to move across the separation of pages. The ripples became a deluge and when the tears spilled over and down onto the photo album, Karren let the wave wash over her. Grief was never done with her, Karren always knew that. Very soon, blinded by tears and throat swollen, she laid her head down and drifted into a fitful sleep.
The dawn light stole into her bedroom like a thief, taking sleep from her quickly. Karren rolled over and tried to swallow, her mouth dried and sticky, spittle flecked to white gunk in the corners of her mouth. The room spun slightly when she sat up. Her alarm buzzed, jolting her. 8am. Her mum would be here soon. Karren stood woozily and made for the bathroom and the shower where hopefully the warm water and the steam would aid her recovery.
“That’s fancy, where’d you get that?”
“At a jumble sale, mum.”
“Ooh. How much did you pay for it, love?”
“A fraction of its worth.” Karren yelled from the kitchen as she lifted a tray of tea and biscuits. The cups clinked as she walked through the door to the living room. Karren’s mum sat next to the fireplace with the photo album in her hands. Karren busied herself with pouring the tea and arranging the biscuits.
“He was such a handsome boy, wasn’t he?”
Karren felt the fingers of grief at her shoulder again, but fought it back, stronger this time. Stronger for having let it in last night.
“Yes. He was.”
Karren passed her mum a cup of hot tea.
“Thanks, love.” Her mother paused her inspection. “Never seen this one before. Did you take it?”
“This.” Her mother passed the book and pointed at the photo. Karren was taken aback. She didn’t recognise the picture. She did not put it there the night before and hadn’t even seen it until now.
“Did you put this in here, mum?”
“No, love. I thought you did?” Karren stared at her mother, her eyes boring holes into the old woman’s head.
“If this is a joke it isn’t funny, mum.”
“Cross my heart.”
Karren frowned and stared at the picture. A boy, very much like Joel, sat with his back to the camera. His blonde hair was immaculate, parted to the side like Karren always loved. He had on a white shirt over black trousers. The rest of the frame was shadowed in gloom as if Joel was under a spotlight.
“I didn’t put this…I mean, this isn’t one of mine.” Karren looked at her mother, searching for a smile, or a sign that she had slipped a photograph in there surreptitiously. But her mother stared at her blankly and sipped her tea.
“This photograph wasn’t here last night. I should know. And you’re the only other person who’s touched the album.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, love. It was there when I opened it. It looks recent too, newer than the others. You must have put it in by accident. You did say you had a bit too much to drink. Maybe you just don’t remember?” Karren closed the album and put it to one side. The rest of the afternoon took on a sour, quiet tone. Her mother eventually made her excuses and left.
When her mother was gone, Karren sat at the kitchen table and stared at the photograph. She had certainly never taken it, perhaps it was one of Ray’s. He’d always been a decent photographer. Joel was framed perfectly in the centre and was sitting at a table.
“That’s my kitchen table,” she said aloud. She studied the frame intently. Around the table were a gallery of blank faces, all children, but none of which Karren clearly recognised, each of them big eyed, some bespectacled. The light filled all their eyes, a bright platinum light. A seemingly innocent photograph, yet strange and eerie. Karren tried to brush it off, but there was still a nagging itch that she couldn’t scratch, there was something about this photograph she didn’t like. Somehow, she knew that Joel’s eyes would be filled with that light too. Karren slammed the album shut. Try as she might for the rest of the day Karren could not shake the image of the photograph from her mind, and when she climbed into bed and closed her eyes, her mind took that image and ran with it.
Joel sits at the table, birthday candles flickering, party hats and big eyes surround the large chocolate cake. Joel has his back to Karren. The other kids begin to sing.
“Happy birthday to youuuuuuu…”
Karren moves towards the party slowly. She watches the scene unfold. Her legs will not obey her. She wants to stop, to walk backwards but she keeps moving forwards, wading through treacle, air like sweet honey. Time becomes sticky.
Joel shivers and begins to waver back and forth like leaves moved by the breeze. The light above the table flickers, turning yellow-brown, and the other kids slide away from the table silently, still singing the birthday song.
“Happy birthday dear Joooeeeeellll…”
Joel shudders, his body twisting and wracked with spasms. He bends to one side as his ribs fold in on themselves, crunching quietly, like the popping of knuckles. Joel’s left arm breaks almost clean in half and dangles at his side. Joel’s hair bounces as he shakes and flattens against the side of his head as his skull implodes on the left side. He looks like a doll being shaken by a huge invisible hand. The red candle wax runs onto the cake’s white icing.
Karren is only a few feet away from Joel now. She sees her own hand come into view and reach out for him, to touch his shoulder. Joel begins to turn towards Karren, juddering, his teeth chattering in time. Karren sees his clenched cheek, his mouth contorted into a rictus sneer, teeth bared in the dying light. She can see his brain matter leaking out of his splintered skull, the skin split like a burst ball.
It’s his eyes that are the worst. They’re filled with light.
She woke with a start, tears wetting her cheeks and pillow. The room was lit by the orange-red glow of her alarm clock, it’s readout bold in the dark. 3:14am. Karren sat up, the sobs fading as the reality of the dream lost its grip on her. She looked to the phone on the bedside table, waiting for it to ring like it did the night of the accident. But the phone didn’t ring.
Karren pulled her dressing gown around her body as she slipped down stairs and headed for the kitchen, clicking the light on as she entered and crossed the floor to the sink. She gasped at the coldness of the water from the faucet, but it was sweet and helped chase the last of the night sweats away. She filled the glass again and turned to head back up to bed when her eyes fell on the photo album on the kitchen table. She felt a shiver run through her entire body, starting at the base of her spine and running up her back like cold electricity. It was open.
Karren felt herself glide towards the album slowly, lightheaded, like she was still dreaming. The album was open at the picture of Joel with his back to the camera. Karren saw her hand reach for the album and flick the page over. The next page had a new picture.
Joel sat with his back to the camera yet again. The scene was clearer now. The wood of the chair visible in the shadow, the light hanging over the table lending the other party guests a glowing visage. Big eyes filled with light watching the party boy. Karren barely felt the water splashing on her legs. Her hands shook so hard that the water was being thrown from the glass, spilling over the sides. Karren’s vision swarmed with lights as the room began to spin.
Calm down. You’re hyperventilating. Karren willed herself to slow her breathing. She took three big lungsful of air and when her vision cleared and she had composed herself, she put the glass down on the table and sat down on the chair.
Breathe. Just breath.
Karren lowered her eyes onto the album. She turned the page.
The camera had pushed in on Joel, the scene still the same but closer. The faces around the table were less visible, further away. She turned the page.
Joel had begun to turn towards the camera, his body twisting to one side. His head caving in where the dashboard had crushed his skull. His arm jutted at a strange angle where he had put his hands out to stop himself, but his bones were too weak to stop the force of metal at speed. The light above the table had turned to brown as the bulb filled with a dark liquid.
Karren let out a soft moan. She turned the next page. Joel was side-on to the camera now. She could see his cheek clenched, the sneer of his lips drawn back over his blood-flecked teeth. His hair divotted into the crater of his skull, the brain matter pushing through the wound like jelly.
Karren’s breath came quick and shallow, her fingers as cold as the water in her belly. The lightbulb above Karren’s table flickered, the light dimming to yellow. The shadows pressed in around her, the kitchen cabinets and cupboards, the sink, the fridge, all sliding away into the shadows. In the picture Joel had begun to move, he was turning towards her now and his eyes shone full of white light.
Karren slapped at the photograph, the page flicked over. There was one blank page left. Karren pushed herself away from the table as she heard the scuff and squeak of rubber soled shoes on the linoleum floor behind her. She froze. Joel’s shoes always squeaked on the floor. He scuffed his feet as he walked. Joel gurgled through broken teeth, his lips peeled back from the palate.
Karren took a deep breath and wiped the tears from her eye. She turned to look at her son and she was filled with the light of his eyes.
Ray walked through the empty house for the first time since he and Karren had split, leaning heavily on his walking stick. The place was still so familiar to him, smells and scents feeling like the warm hug of an old friend. Yet it missed the one thing that made the house special, and Karren’s absence left the house feeling completely empty. The police found no evidence of foul play in Karren’s disappearance. They’d briefly considered Ray a suspect in her disappearance, and had brought him in to help their enquiries, but considered his holidaying in Ibiza with his new girlfriend a solid alibi. Stranger still, Karren hadn’t packed anything, she hadn’t locked up or even told her mother she would be going away. Karren didn’t have any enemies. She simply up and vanished.
“Some people just disappear, Mr Lewis. They decide that life has become too hard to deal with and they make the decision to walk away from it, especially someone who has suffered the kind of bereavement you did,” the detective said. “Most times they don’t want to be found. No point looking for them.”
Ray wandered from the lounge room, with the flat-screen television and leather couch, it’s striped wallpaper and red velvet curtains, out and down the carpeted hallway to the kitchen. After Joel’s death Ray had paid for the new kitchen to be fitted, as if by changing the inside of the house that he could replace the pain he felt in his heart with something else. He stood in the doorway and admired the white cabinets and the double sink with twin faucets. Despite the new fittings, Karren had kept the same old kitchen table. They’d had so many family dinners there, so many drinks and good times.
And birthday parties.
Justine called from upstairs. “Babe. Can we have this bed? It looks almost brand new.”
Ray sighed and moved to sit at the kitchen table. He fingered an old book that lay on the surface. It was thick and heavy and had a machined leather cover and was kept sealed by brass catches. Curious, opened the book. His breath caught when he saw an image of Joel as a baby, asleep, peaceful. Ray’s eyes filled with tears and he smiled at how beautiful his son had been. He began to thumb through the photo album and paused at each photograph to admire how his son had grown between the moments.
“Babe! There’s dresses in the wardrobe. Some of them are ace! Babe?”
Ray ignored his younger girlfriend. He was lost in reverie of his old life, the life long gone, the life he had destroyed with his own stupidity. He was teetotal now and hadn’t driven since the accident. He was still doing his penance; his legs were taking an inordinate amount of time to heal. The doctors said it was slow progress, but Ray knew it was guilt that was slowing the process down.
“Babe! I’ve been calling you for ever.” Justine held up an old black velvet coat. “Can I take this too? It’s so vintage and funky. I could cut it up and re-shape it into something better.” Ray felt a wave of anger rise in his chest, suddenly protective of his estranged spouse. That coat was just the kind of thing Karren would have picked up in one of her market raids and seeing it brought back the weight of their previous life together, the life he had broken. The life he hadn’t even tried to fix until it was beyond repair.
“No. No you bloody well can’t. Put them back.” Justine’s face, framed by blonde curls, and made up within an inch of its life, fell. She pouted her red lips like a little girl and scowled at Ray. “There’s no need to talk to me like that, Raymond.” She stormed off, her heels clomping on the stairs.
Ray called after her. “Have some bloody respect.” He glanced at his watch. It was time to leave.
Before he stood he flicked to the last picture in the album. He frowned. It was one he couldn’t remember taking, but must have. It was shot from the doorway to the kitchen. Joel and Karren both sat at the kitchen table with their backs to the camera. The table was set for a birthday party. Small, pale faces surrounded the table, their eyes filled with light.