Friday, 4 October 2013

Three Minutes in Harry's Still Life by Christopher Allen

1949. Anne slipped the lemon biscuit into the pocket of her burgundy tweed coat and whispered, “I have a secret.” She tugged me out the back door to the wood, where we weren’t allowed to play. But Mummy was asleep in the living room and Father was in his war-hero Heaven—so we bolted. When we reached the tree line, Anne spun and exploded: “Shhhhhh!”
“But I haven’t said—”
I was yanked from the warm afternoon light into the damp air. It grew cooler and damper as we ran down a path just broad enough for a child. It was thorny. I was afraid of thorns.
We stopped in the cruelty of a blackberry bramble bursting like barbed wire from the ruins of a charred farmhouse. It was legendary and forbidden, the very place we were never supposed to be caught playing.
“This will be my castle.” Anne squashed my hand in hers. “And you will excavate it.”
I pulled at the undergrowth until my arms throbbed, until what was left of a kitchen took shape. There were shards of dishes like confetti on the floor and a tin pot lying upside down on a burnt and backless chair. I put it on my head and saluted my sister.
For hours we sifted through debris and abandoned papers, edges browned like bread crusts. We found an announcement for something called Exposição do Mundo Português 1940, so Anne founded a Portuguese monarchy with our booty.
“Please, Harry, sit down.” She offered me a place on the ground opposite her backless throne, then she took the pot from my head and placed it on her own. “You must promise not to tell Mummy.”
“Not tell her what?” Dampness seeped into my trousers and made my bum itch. My sister stared at me hard until I promised.
“Look at us, Harry. We’re not twins. Well, not really. You must see it.”
I did. We were nothing alike. We even attended separate schools: mine a brick building that smelled of vinegar, Anne’s a place of mystery where children were trained to rule the world. I dreamt of being a bin man and took an extra pair of underpants to school in case I wet myself; Anne dressed in bright colours and brought home exotic animals moulded from clay.
“I arrived three minutes before you. Exactly three minutes. That makes me a born leader and you a born follower.” Anne turned the handle of her crown so that I could envy her blue eyes. “My teacher says I’ll flourish.” She looked down at me as if I were a starved kitten, her cruelty like a tumour under loose-fitting clothes.
Flourish?” I blinked. Mummy would notice my damp trousers later and I would have to clean the loo for a week.
“Dear Harry,” Anne pouted and broke the lemon biscuit into two unequal parts. She sat upright and beamed, poured imaginary tea in my imaginary cup. She inquired how the monarchy was going and suggested I should rather ask her the question . . . to be polite. “Oh Harry! Poor dear Harry!” She laughed and laughed.
And as she did, my mind pulled away and snapped a photograph, a still life: a broken chair charred and choked in a blackberry bramble, a broken lemon biscuit and a tin-pot crown—the gloomy, forbidden ruin as a background.

1977. Anne threw open the door to her North London detached home. I hadn’t seen her in a decade or more. Her long black hair and her smile were pulled back and knotted.
“Dear Harry. It’s such a surprise to see you. What a surprise! I mean I’m so surprised!”
“But are you surprised?”
“Nothing.” Anne had never shared my sense of humour. Even if she got a joke, she’d pretend she hadn’t.
I’d taken the train two hundred miles to tell her about the photography contest I’d won. I could have phoned, but I wanted to see her face when I told her I’d finally flourished. I’d won fifty pounds and a subscription to a magazine. The photograph—an enormous woman stuffing her mouth with blackberries, the juice dripping down her chins—was hanging over my sofa, which made my tiny living room a thorny place to sit and discuss anything but gluttony and juice.
Anne stepped outside and closed the door. “Oh, Harry.” She smiled sadly and patted my shoulder. “I wish you’d called. I’m on my way out. To dinner. You can join us—if you want,” she said as if to suggest I shouldn’t. I could hear voices inside. “I’d invite you in, but we were just about to leave.”
“Oh. Well—”
“My friends are awful. Ian never stops talking about his Porsche and Val does this annoying thing with her hair. We’re going to eat Moroccan.” She ratted up her nose as if Moroccan wouldn’t be to my taste. Then she lowered her voice. “It’s quite expensive.”
“I’d love to.”
I had most of the fifty pounds in my pocket from the contest, and I’d never been to dinner with awful people before. I rode to the restaurant with Ian in his Porsche, which he never stopped talking about. If we’d driven much further, I’d have been able to take “the Porsche” as my specialist subject on Mastermind; but the restaurant was mercifully just down the high street. It was decorated like an ancient ruin, with faux crumbling walls and awkwardly painted vines crawling over it all. The waiter looked more Italian than Moroccan.
“I just love Moroccan.” Val plopped down on a yellow pillow and swished her hair around like a ceiling fan.
“I’d love a Moroccan.” Ian fell onto the purple one next to me.
There were blank stares all around, then hysterical laugher. Then for half an hour no one spoke to me, which was fine. I was delighted to be in London with awful people.
“So what do you do, Anne’s little secret?” Val asked and handed me a dish of lamb and roasted lemons.
“I’m a teacher,” I said, poking around in the dish to separate the lamb from the lemons.
“Ian, darling,” Anne interjected, “what’ve you been up to?”
Ian ignored her. “What subject, Harold?”
“English. And my name is—”
“Fascinating.” If this was irony, he’d masked it well.
“Tedious actually. I do a bit of photography in my spare time,” I said in Anne’s direction, but she was talking to Val. When I looked back at Ian, I could see he was waiting for a punch line. “Actually,” I said, “I’ve always dreamt of being a bin man.”
Blinking, explosive laughter. I’d played the comedy immaculately. It was the perfect moment to mention the photography contest. “So recently—”
“Tell me, Harold,” Ian said, “I’ve always wondered what the subjunctive mood is.”
“Well, you are an English teacher,” said Val, and just-like-that everyone was looking at me. The moment froze as my mind took a photograph: a small man, meek and unworldly, sitting at an awkward angle on a yellow pillow, crumbling walls and fake vines laughing behind him.
“You want me to explain the subjunctive mood? Now?”
My sister snorted and said under her breath, “Such a snob.”
“It’s all right, Harold. We all have our gaps.” Ian was nudging me with his plate and pointing to the lamb dish I was still holding.
“Actually, my name is Harry.” I heaped the miniature lemons onto his plate, which he spat out in gobs.

2006. To mark my retirement, an afternoon tea at the rectory was planned. The headmaster had the idea to display some of my still life photography. I balked at first but ultimately asked to have them hung low so that Mum could enjoy them. Osteoporosis had stiffened her neck.
The headmaster’s wife had set up six tables and dressed them with burgundy and yellow tablecloths, an unmanly pattern that would remind everyone I was effete and unmarried—but I said nothing. She’d done her best. She’d tried to match the colour scheme of my photographs, and there was something honest about this I couldn’t reprehend. 
“The church near Teeter’s Wood.” Mum craned her head toward one of the photographs. “I planted those tulips.”
“Mum, is Anne coming?”
“Your daughter.”
“Oh, that Anne.”
“Have you heard from her?”
She lifted an arthritic finger to the large photograph near the piano. “You won first prize for that. Awful. Just awful.”
“Mum, have you heard from Anne?”
“Such a pretty girl. She’ll be late as always. Late to her own birth, she was. Shhhh. That’s a secret.”
“Sorry? No, no. I was the late one, Mum.”
She raised her head slightly and seemed to think very hard. “Who told you that nonsense?”
“Anne. She made me promise—”
“The sneaky little hedgehog.”
She moved to the next photograph. “No, no. You were first. I remember your broad shoulders pressing against me and thinking you’d kill me before you passed. You were purple and plump as a blackberry. Then three minutes later came another one. A surprise. A girl. She was easier. Her dark hair was slicked back, and she didn’t look anything like you. Blue eyes, like your father’s. Such a dear man, and so unsuited for war. You would have loved him, Harry. No, no. You were my first.”
“Are you sure?”
She stared at a still life of a tin pot overflowing with blackberries and lemons on a burnt, backless chair. “We called it the ruin, you know. A family from Portugal burnt up in the fire. So sad: to flee Portugal just to end up—”
A draft interrupted, cold and lemon-scented. I didn’t need to look to know it was Anne. My mind took a photograph as I went to the kitchen for more tea: A majestic woman, hair shiny and unnaturally black, her yellow dress bright and loose-fitting. She’s carrying a present—some worthless knickknack—wrapped in dark purple paper. And I, a small boy terrified of thorns, stand unmoving and wondering how I will ever find the energy to flourish now.

About the Author: Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Fiction, A-Minor Magazine and Blue Five Notebook, among many others. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. 

Image: (c) Christopher Allen