A dark and unsettling short story written exclusively for One Book Lane by R.S. Pateman, author of The Second Life of Amy Archer.
I stray on to the programme by accident. Ken was normally home by now and we’d be watching Frost. But Ken was late, having a drink with his colleagues. The last rites he’d called it as he’d set off to work.
Frost hadn’t grabbed me. Or rather it had, just a little too much. There was something about the quiet, stoic woman being questioned that felt familiar. Like passing someone in the street you think you recognise but can’t place.
Flicking through the channels, the jumpy, colourless shapes on BBC 2 are as soothing and uncomplicated as a cool flannel. The films had been discovered in a shop in Blackburn during refurbishment, the narrator said. Eight hundred reels packed into a steel drum and left, forgotten in a corner for the best part of eighty years.
‘It’s a unique pictorial record of Edwardian England,’ says an archivist wearing glasses and a yellow bow tie. ‘They’re the missing link between the colour and movement we associate with these places today, with the static, monochrome images we have of them in our photo library. Seeing the two collide was fascinating, eerie.’
Very little of it had needed restoring, he explained, despite its age and the way it had been stored. In the background a man examines some torn sepia film stretched over a light box, revealing a woman in a bonnet sitting on a bench with a chubby boy, a group of hungry ducks at their feet.
The scalpel in the restorer’s hands is swift, deft, and he splices and sticks sprockets together. The woman and boy are soon alive again, throwing bread to the ducks in movements just a little too quick to be normal.
If only putting things right again were that easy.
Then the camera puts me in the path of a stream of men, women and children flowing out of a factory’s gate. They are grubby and tired, the men flat capped, the women hooded in shawls. Everyone looks old, even the children. It’s the pallid faces, the crooked teeth, the hard black eyes. Some of them spot the camera and mug directly into it. A young lad sticks up two fingers, making his mates laugh.
Along the factory walls behind them two banners flap in the breeze. ‘Lancashire Mill Workers.’ ‘Strike for a breadwinner’s wage.’ Men with fistfuls of leaflets and defiant eyes dart in and out of the crowds.
A young woman pushes past them, slaps the leaflets out of her way. They soar into the air like gulls. The men call after her but she doesn’t stop. She has her head down and doesn’t see the camera until she is almost on top of it. She stops, startled, and looks into the camera, directly at me.
She’s about twenty with a thin, pinched face. Her eyes droop like loose buttons on a well worn coat and her mouth trembles with swallowed tears. As she turns I notice her belly bending into the screen, round and ripe and ready.
In a moment she’s gone and I find myself reaching out to the screen. I want to hold her back, tell her everything will be alright, that there’s no reason to cry. But only she could know that. She is long dead, her baby too probably. The strike is over, the mill closed. She knows what came next and how things worked out. I envy her prescience.
A key grazes the front door lock then slides home and bites. The noise of traffic rushes in on damp, outside air. I’m not sure if I should get up and greet Ken in the hallway. I wouldn’t normally. I’d just wait for him to come in and sit in his chair, remove his shoes and we’d begin our usual evening routine: a TV dinner, elaborate yawns, our eyes not quite meeting. And everywhere that calm, quiet indifference.
But this isn’t normally.
‘Hello love,’ I say, standing up to kiss him. His cheek is clammy and the melancholy smell of damp wool clings to his suit. He wipes away a bead of water trickling down his face and takes my kiss with it. He drops the newspaper onto the coffee table. Some of the words are smudged and Cheryl Cole’s picture is running; she looks as if she’s melting. I mute the television and ask him how it had gone.
‘It wasn’t exactly a celebration, Maggie,’ he says in that irritable, sneering way that we’ve both become used to. ‘It’s redundancy not retirement. People felt awkward. I felt awkward.’ His eyes are dark and flat as puddles, his hair like damp ash. He looks blanched and bloodless, the colour of history.
‘I’ll make some tea,’ I say just to get out of the room. He picks up the television’s remote control. I hear him flick through the channels; the telephone number for a car insurance quote, a newsreader announcing a rise in interest rates.
Frost challenging an alibi. My stomach knots.
The television falls silent once again as if holding its breath.
I put his mug on the coffee table and sit back down on the sofa, flick the television back to BBC2.
‘A May day festival in Blackburn,’ the narrator says. On the screen, the grey haze of an insipid sun, beneath which a procession files by, two lines of girls wearing white dresses and veils. In their hands are long wooden staffs, each wreathed in lilies. The girls look halfway between brides and ghosts.
It’s how I feel.
I turn to Ken. He’s still slumped in his chair, like he has been since he got home yesterday, when the futility of the future and a lifetime of boredom, of being taken for granted, caught up with me.
For a moment I mistake the steam from his tea for a wisp of breath but his lungs – his limbs – are still. It’s only the light from the television that animates him, gives some semblance of movement. The handle of the knife in his chest glints.
If putting the past right was as easy as restoring film, or running it in reverse, I wonder if I would do it.
On screen, the procession of ghostly brides glides by. We stare at each other with hollow, haunted eyes. Ken has the same look too.
‘Didn’t think much of that,’ I say to him as the credits roll.
I take his silence for agreement and turn the television off. I hear the past creeping up on me and hug a cushion close.