'Joe's Photograph' by James Bicheno

Joe’s photograph has been left to gather dust. Mother doesn’t pay as much attention to it as she used to. It’s moved as well. It once took pride of place on the mantelpiece, smiling like a benevolent grandfather, surrounded by the faces of adoring relatives across the generations. Joe was once part of the family but now his photograph sits further back, towards the edge. Joe was such a popular man. Songs were sung about him in the street, about his wartime heroics and what a kind, wonderful man he was.
             I remember meeting him once, after the big parade. My father took me and my older sister to visit him in the big building where they worked. Joe was very strong and almost sent my father flying across the room when he slapped him between the shoulders, letting out a deep laugh as his hands swept around our heads, rubbing some hairs out. We stood and sang for Joe and his friends as Father had taught us. Hours upon hours of rehearsal every day after school and no dinner until it was perfect. I looked at Joe. As we sang his eyes began to get watery and looked red around the edges. I hoped inside that he wasn’t upset at our performance as Father was very keen for it to be completely perfect. All was well, however, when we finished. Joe smiled and clapped, swinging and crashing his huge hands together. All his friends nodded with much enthusiasm when he asked them what they thought. My father looked so happy and relaxed as the men congratulated him.
             After we sang, my sister and I went out into Joe’s big garden with the other children to play until it got dark. We were called back in to eat the biggest dinner I have ever seen. I can’t believe how much food there was, probably enough for the entire army. I didn’t manage to finish it. Father went into an office with Joe and some of their friends. I saw their black shadowed shapes through the frosted glass but could not work out what they were saying to one another. Still feeling too full to dance I curled up in a chair in the corner and fell asleep until my sister woke me to say a car was outside, waiting to take us home.
            Father never returned home. Mother only said he had to go on a long train journey. She was very quiet and spent more time in the kitchen washing than she usually did. Once or twice I caught her sobbing into the white foaming sink. All she said was he had to go somewhere very far away and did not know when he would be coming back. We never saw Joe again either. We had only the smiling picture of him in his marshal uniform and moustache on the mantelpiece under the red flag. Our Comrade, Iosef Dzhugashvili. The Revolution’s Man of Steel.


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