'Monochrome' by Gail Aldwin

Jessie flips the lid off the packing case labelled ‘precious things’. Bubble wrap swathes the objects stored within and Jessie wonders which items her mother has kept during the move from the family home to a retirement flat (as yet without furniture). The empty lounge has the strange capacity to swamp Jessie.

‘Not exactly the crown jewels,’ her mother wafts over and looks inside. ‘But these are the things I wanted to keep safe.’

‘Would you like me to unpack the box? I can make a display on the shelf in the corner.’

‘Let’s do it together,’ says her mother.

Kneeling on the carpet, Jessie delves into the box to collect a flat package while her mother rips layers from a bulging blue and white pot.

‘Shame the lid got lost years ago,’ says her mother. ‘It had a crack down the side when I inherited it from Aunt Elizabeth. What have you got?’

Jessie peels back parcel tape to find an old school photo. It’s a black and white image from primary school. She barely recognises the girl she once was, turned out in a tunic and sash.

‘Look at you!’ says her mother.

Jessie passes the photo in its heavy frame. Her mother examines the portrait. ‘I spent hours trying to coax some curls into your hair. They didn’t hold too well but at least there’s a nice kink.’

Jessie feels the Kirby grips digging into her scalp. There’s a crick in her neck from the way she tilts her head, allowing the locks of her hair to tumble.

‘Paul’s smart in his uniform,’ says her mother. ‘I only showed him once how to tie a schoolboy knot and he never asked again. Of course he’s moved onto Windsor knots these days.’

‘Of course,’ says Jessie.

‘Look at the two of you. Such a natural pose.’

Glancing at the image, Jessie is weighed down by her brother’s arm stretched across her shoulders. Her spine stiffens with tension at their proximity. She fixes her eyes as she waits for the bulb to flash.

‘I’ll give the frame a going-over with Brasso to brighten it up. And then you can have it, Jessie. I need to start sharing out the precious things.’

Her mother proffers the photo and Jessie is obliged to hold it. She stares at the siblings. Remembers how the photographer arranged their position. Paul was so close she could feel his hot breath on her face.

‘You keep it.’ Jessie returns the photo to her mother’s grasp.

‘But I haven’t the space!’ Her mother starts to re-wrap the parcel. ‘If you don’t want it, Paul will.’

Jessie snatches back the photo. ‘Okay. I’ll have it.’

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