The Boy In The Picture
Updated: Apr 19
A short story taken from my anthology 'A Walk in The Woods'
It smells funny, not very nice. It's my first visit. I'm six years old in a small room. Grandpa has brought me to see Aunty Peggy. She sits upright in an armchair beside the fireplace. The wooden sides of her chair are shelves filled with books. A tiny coal fire, surrounded by red bricks, burns in the centre of the grate. There are lots of ornaments, dogs and cats, on the shelf above the fire and a brown photograph in a big wooden frame hangs on the wall; a little baby, with no clothes on, lying on a sheepskin. A bare bottom sticks up and a face, rearing up like a tortoise's, looks back at me.
Aunty Peggy's eyes, black as the coal in the bucket, bore through me. She points at me with a crooked finger and nods. She scares me.
"He's a fine boy." She smiles.
"What did you have for breakfast, Margedann?" asks Grandpa.
"Half a boiled egg with bread and butter. I shall eat the other half for lunch."
A wisp of smoke escapes from the fire into the room. She jumps from the chair, seizes a poker and rams it into the fire, shattering a coal. Little blue flames spurt from the pieces. How small she is.
We don't stay long. She beckons as we leave. I move closer to the chair. Her arm reaches out. A bony hand grips my shoulder and draws me to her. I can smell her breath as she hugs me. She takes a little leather purse from the table behind her chair, opens it and takes out a coin. She presses a shiny half crown into my hand and folds my fingers around it.
"Grandpa, who was the baby in the picture?" I ask as we wait for the bus.
"That was Aunty Peggy's son, Perris. We don't talk about him."
"Why?" I ask.
"It would make Aunty Peggy sad."
"Is she my aunty?"
"She's really my aunty," says Grandpa, "but we all call her Aunty Peggy."
"But you called her Dan? That's a boy's name."
Grandpa pulls a face. "No I called her Margedann. Her proper name is Margaret Ann Owen. Margedann is a nickname."
"Margedann." The name feels funny as I repeat it.
I'm ten. Aunty Peggy is in the same chair surrounded by her books. Perris looks down at me willing me to ask. He remains a mystery trapped in an old oak frame. It's a warm day but the little coal fire, surrounded by bricks, still burns. Margedann smiles at me.
I blush. "That's a nice table," I say to break the silence. I point to a little table, with twisty legs, beside her chair.
"William, my husband, made it," she says. "He made that too." She turns and looks at a dresser behind her. "Can you see the letters 'WO' at the top. William Owen. He carved them."
I admire the dresser. "It's very good. Was he a carpenter?"
"No. He was a school teacher. He made the dresser in his spare time and gave it to me on our wedding day."
Grandpa arrives with two shopping bags. "Be a good boy and fill Aunty's coal bucket," he says. "Then we must be off or we'll miss the bus."
I take the bucket to the coal shed and fill it. I can't lift it and have to take some out.
"Come here," she says as I return.
I know what's in her hand. It's worth a bony hug.
We are upstairs on the bus on the front seat. Grandpa always wants to sit on the front seat.
"Why does she keep his picture on the wall?" I ask.
"Perris?" says Grandpa, "Because she loved him very much."
A bridge is coming.
"Duck," says Grandpa.
I pretend to duck.
He always says duck when there's a bridge.
"Is he dead?"
"Yes. It was a long time ago. It's a sad story," says Grandpa. He smiles at me and winks. "I'll buy you an ice cream at the shop but you must eat it before we get home and you mustn't tell Grandma."
I proudly show Aunty Peggy the key-ring. "It's a Vauxhall Viva. Cost me a hundred and twenty pounds. Would you like to come for a ride in it?" I ask.
She holds the keys in front of a large magnifying glass and inspects them. "That would be lovely," says Aunty Peggy but she doesn't move from her chair. "How is Grandpa?"
"He's very unhappy. He won't come out of the house. Just sits there," I reply. "He loved Grandma very much."
"Yes," she says. "I remember their wedding. It was Easter. Lambs were frolicking in the field behind the churchyard." Her watery eyes sparkle. "William was in uniform. He and I and Perris..." Her eyes glaze over. I watch a vein pulse beneath the gossamer white skin on the back of her hand.
The slow rhythmic tick of a clock punctuates the silence. "Tick... tick... tick."
I glance at the photograph above the hearth. Perris stares back, so young, so full of promise, of hope. There are brown blotches on the sheepskin. The sepia image is fading.
I don't know how to comfort an old woman pickled by time. I pick up her bucket and take it to the coal shed.
"Shall I make you a cup of tea before I go?" I say as I place the bucket by the fire.
She shakes her head.
"I'll come again soon Aunty Peggy."
She holds out her hand. "You're a fine boy," she says and presses a fifty pence into mine.
I bend down and kiss her gently on the cheek.
"This is Sue," I say.
"Hello." Susan smiles at Aunty Peggy and holds out her hand. The magnifying glass is held up to inspect the ring.
"You will come to the wedding?" says Susan.
"That would be lovely," replies Aunty Peggy, but we know she won't.
She sends me to the kitchen to make tea. "We have women's things to discuss," she says.
We are driving away. "What did you talk about?" I ask.
"She asked if we were going to have children. When I said yes, she said, 'You must have girls. Girls are better.' Why
would she say that?"
"Aunty Peggy had a son, Perris," I explain. "She never talks about him. It was his picture is above the fireplace. I don't know what happened to him."
"She seems so alone, just sitting there, as if she waiting for the end," says Sue. "What happened to her husband?"
"Grandpa told me, her husband, William died in the Second World War. He was killed in Italy. They never found his body."
Our wedding is a spring one. Lambs skip and run in the field behind the church. Grandpa shuffles along slowly, with a stick, but he is there. We take cake to Aunty Peggy, show her the photographs and tell her our good news. Susan is expecting a baby.
"You must have a girl," she says. "Girls are better."
I open the back door and go in. Grandpa follows. The house is cold. There's no fire in the grate. The chair is empty. A congealed tea cup sits next to the magnifying glass on the table, with barley twist legs, I admired as a boy. We move to the parlour; the room she never used.
Standing against the wall is a lid. I read the name, Margaret Ann Owen 1879-1978.
"She would have been one hundred next month," says Grandpa. He wipes his eye.
Aunty Peggy is in her coffin. She is smaller than I remember - a wax doll with grotesque crimson lips, her bony hands clasped to her tummy, in silent prayer.
"He was very clever, a civil engineer," says Grandpa. "Perris went to South Africa to build a bridge. He came back in the 1920s during the great depression. There was no work. He committed suicide. Put his head in a gas oven. 1926 it was. She loved him but I don't think Aunty Peggy ever forgave him."
He hands me his stick and slips a solitary rose between her fingers. "She's left me the house but there's a bequest for you in her will."
I imagine the argument with Sue. "Not the picture?" I say.
"No," says Grandpa. "Not the picture. Aunty Peggy left you the little table with barley twist legs."