Photograph of a Stranger, short story by Susan Condon
Susan Condon, a native of Dublin, is currently working on her second novel. She was awarded a Certificate in Creative Writing from NUI Maynooth while her short stories have won numerous awards including first prize in the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Award. Publications include My Weekly, Ireland’s Own Anthology, Flash Flood Journal, Spelk and Flash Fiction Magazine. Susan blogs at: www.susancondon.wordpress.com or you can find her on Twitter: @SusanCondon
The thin, rectangle stuck to the wall bears no resemblance to the bulky, square box I remember, taking pride-of-place in the front room. Two knobs protruded; one to turn the set on; the other to switch from one channel to the other. A set of rabbit’s ears perched patiently on top; like a halved orange, placed flat side down and pierced with a pair of steel knitting needles. My older brother Joe, convinced us that Martians were tracking us through them, whenever we tuned in the TV.
Joe is long-dead, but not before he headed to the United States of America and made his fortune. He sent home money to support the rest of the family, during those lean years, and every Christmas a box would arrive full of wonderful presents. It was usually beautiful, coloured silk scarves for my mother and three older sisters and a new hat for father, but he would always send something exciting for Jimmy and me. The most memorable present, was a set of gliders, made from coloured paper with a brass tip at the nose. Jimmy was the oldest, so he had first choice. He chose the blue glider, so I had the red one. Every child at school wanted to be our friend that winter, as we tested out our aeronautical skills against each other. The airplanes would swoop and glide through the air as we ran along whooping with delight.
I lift my head and look out into the garden. The sky is blue, the sun fighting to appear and there is a hint of a rainbow. It would have been the perfect day to fly. I feel my forefinger and thumb twitch, itching to hold the glider between them, bending the wings just the right degree to ensure that mine would fly the farthest. I look down at the gnarled hands in my lap as I wonder where my life has disappeared to.
I hear soft-soled footsteps and a man appears with a tray. He places it on the table in front of me. It smells good.
“Here you are Dan, chicken soup, your favourite.”
He places a napkin into my shirt collar and spoons soup into my mouth. It tastes as good as it looks, warm and creamy with a little white pepper.
“I’ll do it myself,” I say. He does not seem to hear me. No-one ever seems to. I try to take the spoon from him, but my hand shakes and he pushes it down, gently but firmly.
“Let me help you, Dan. Would you like some bread, you can dip it into the end of the bowl?”
I nod and hold a piece of dry bread, ready to mop up every last drop.
“It’s Wednesday today Dan, Grace will be in to visit you later. We better get you spruced up and looking nice for her.”
I nod my head. I don’t know who Grace is; but it will be nice to have a visitor. He combs my hair, tugging it to the side and holds up a small mirror. An old, grey-haired man with blue eyes smiles back at me. As I move closer to the mirror, he does too, and I can see that he is in need of a shave. It is just a light stubble but I always prefer a close shave myself. I rub a hand across my chin. The man in the soft-soled shoes laughs.
“I’m not a fan of those electric shavers either, Dan,” he looks at his watch, “we’ve just enough time to give you a proper shave before she comes.” He places a hand on my shoulder, “I’ll be back, in just a minute.” He picks up the tray and I can hear his light footsteps as they fade down the hall.
The rainbow has become hazier and there is a light rain on the window pane, maybe not the best day for paper gliders, after all. It reminds me of the day my glider caught in Mrs Kennedy’s tree. As I climbed higher and higher into the leaves, she came out her front door, stood below, with her arms folded and threatened to tell mother.
But when I jumped down, trying to hide the tears in my eyes as I looked at my battered glider, she took it from me and beckoned me to follow her. She fixed the glider, gluing it back together so well, that it looked like new. When I returned to Jimmy and the others, they told me to throw away the shortbread biscuit she had given me, in case she was trying to fatten me up, like the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’. But it tasted so good, that I ate it anyway.
I hear two sets of soft-soled shoes approach and the man returns with a young nurse. He places a stainless steel bowl, half-filled with water, on the table. A drop splashes onto a silver picture frame. My eyes follow it as it rolls down the middle of the photo, dividing it in half. I squint and bend closer. It is a middle-aged couple. They are smiling into the camera. The man is tall with grey hair and blue eyes. The woman has chestnut brown hair, the same colour as her eyes.
The nurse picks up the photo and wipes the drop of water away, placing it back down in the exact same place. The glass is smeared and it is harder to make out the faces.
“We’ll have you looking your best for Grace,” says the nurse.
Grace must be important. They obviously want to impress her.
The rain is heavy now. The sky has turned slate grey and the trees are bending in the wind.
I feel something light and fluffy on my face. The man has a shaving brush in his hand. It has white bristles and a white square handle with black at the base. It reminds me of my father’s. Jimmy and I loved to watch him as he shaved with such precision. He would rinse his brush in warm water and shake out the residue, sometimes flicking it at us. We would run, screaming from the room, with laughter. We would always return to watch, as he rubbed the brush round the creamy white soap in the black tub, before painting the lower half of his face. Sometimes, he let us try it too.
I can still smell the clean, fresh scent. Then he would open his stainless steel razor and bend close to the mirror. We would hold our breath, entranced, as he ran the razor down his face, leaving lines like railway tracks, before rinsing the blade and continuing on. When he was finished he would cup water in his huge hands and rinse his face before towelling dry. Then, he would pour a drop of Old Spice after shave into one hand, rub his hands together and pat them over his face. Most times he would pour, just the tiniest drop, into our waiting hands and we would do the same.
“There you go, Dan, much better,” said the man, “oh, nearly forgot, just one last thing before I go!” He rubs his hands gently over my face. I inhale Old Spice. The man holds up the mirror again, “looking good, Dan.” I see the same face looking back. But this time he is clean shaven and his eyes are now a watery blue.
The credits roll up the TV screen; Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. But I cannot recall the name of the film. They made so many films together; maybe it was . . . I turn my head, hearing the clip, clip sound of high heels coming closer. It is a brisk walk, like someone with a purpose.
They slow and a woman appears in the doorway, taking a pair of worn black leather gloves from her tiny hands as she enters. She has grey hair, cut into a neat bob. A blue coat clings to her thin frame, but it is the beautiful silk scarf tucked into her collar that catches my attention. It reminds me of the scarf Joe sent to mother. The same year Jimmy and—
“Hello Daniel,” she says as she bends and kisses me on the mouth!
She squeezes my shoulders gently and looks into my eyes, “you look well today. And don’t you smell nice, Old Spice,” she says huskily, as she breathes in deeply and rubs the back of her fingers across my cheek.
Standing up straight, she gives a dry cough and shrugs off her coat. It smells damp. She drapes it over the back of the chair, places her umbrella on the floor at her feet and sits down. She rummages in her leather handbag and takes out a bulging, brown paper bag.
She pokes through its contents, extracts a cellophane wrapper and like a magician performing a magic trick, she pulls both ends to release a white iced caramel into my outstretched hand.
I gaze at it, turn it from side-to-side and examine it closely. I hold it close to my nose and sniff. It smells good. I feel my mouth water. I look up to see her watching me. My tongue darts out and licks the hard, sweet icing.
“Put it in your mouth, sweetheart” she says, as she plucks it from my hand and drops it into my open mouth.
She has a melodic voice. I wonder if she sings. It soothes me to listen to her. But I do not understand why she tells me stories of people I do not know.
As I suck, I feel it melt; toffee, sticky and chewy oozes out and I resist the urge to chew. Instead, I let it sit on my tongue until there is nearly nothing left. Only then do I chew, using my tongue to prise the remains from my teeth.
“This is nice, Daniel, nearly like old times; the pink for me and the white for you.”
I hold my hand out and wait for another.
I notice her pink lipstick matches the splashes of pink in her scarf. She has beautiful brown eyes, but they look tired and there are dark shadows beneath them. She looks vaguely familiar. I feel I may have seen her somewhere before.
The man returns with a plastic beaker, a mug of tea and a plate of shortbread biscuits.
“Well, doesn’t he look nice today, Grace,” he says, “all ready for your visit today.”
So this is Grace.
“Make sure you drink that tea. It’ll help keep you warm on the journey home,” he gestures towards the brown paper bag, “and if that’s empty, I’ll bin it for you.”
It is no longer bulging.
“You’re very kind, Brian,” says Grace, squeezing the last of the wrappers inside and passing it to him. “How’s Daniel doing?” she nods her head in my direction. I wonder why she does not ask me.
“He’s having a good day, today. Watched one of his Bogart movie’s earlier, didn’t you Dan, you know the one—“
A porter comes into the ward waving a brass bell. The clanging sound announces the end of visiting time.
Grace stands up and puts on her damp coat, tucking her scarf around her neck before fastening the buttons.
“Goodbye Daniel,” she whispers, as she kisses me on the mouth again, “I miss you.”
She wipes a tear from her eye. I admire the light dancing from the diamond in her ring.
I remember Grace now. I knew I had seen her before.
I look up to catch her stare at me, her head to one side. I smile.
She is the woman in the silver picture frame, standing beside the grey-haired man with the blue eyes . . .
Photograph of a Stranger was published in My Weekly magazine in 2013.
Screenshot youtube of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacal in The Big Sleep (1946)
© Susan Condon