The Photo

Ruth Walker was battling to stay awake. Others had succumbed, heads drooping wearily onto their chests. It was always the same after the bustle of the plates and cups being ferried back to the kitchen, the classical music cd went on and the carers would regroup for a cup of tea.

Ruth was holding a black and white photo. She was focusing on it, trying to make the memory play out again. The photo had seen better days. The corners were slightly curled inwards and it was a bit worn from where it had been held so much. Where had the photo been taken? She couldn’t remember things easily. Silent terror was buried deep in her mind. Where am I? Who am I? The carers would prompt her like she was an actress who had forgotten her lines and coax back her memory from the shadows. The silent terror. Each time this happened, the shadows crept closer.

Charles was truly the love of her life. Ruth had never faced such a fear as the possibility of forgetting her darling husband. How could fifty years of marriage be clouded by the onset of age? It wasn’t fair. The photo was a window into the past. She stared at the photo. Who were the smiling couple? Charlie and Ruthie! Yes, that’s what they called each other. The carers could add a detail so Ruth could continue with the story. They had heard it before. Ruth had probably told it a hundred times. She had a tendency to repeat herself. Sometimes she sensed she had asked the same question seconds before and became angry with herself. The questions were echoes travelling in her mind and if she forgot the answer, the echoes would fade away; if she remembered, the echoes bounced back to her.

It had been a shock to realise her memory was failing. Ruth was a proud woman. She could cope with physical decline, the loss of her mental faculties was unacceptable. She took to writing journals. The carers would read from the pages. Ruth didn’t recognise her writing but the stories seemed familiar, they made her smile, she could hear the echo. Writing became more difficult then impossible. If her hands were not rigid with arthritis, she was either falling asleep or taking twenty minutes to think of a word.

Ruth had several photos of her and Charlie on a mantle in her bedroom. The photo she held each day was her favourite. The two of them had gone to the beach. They were very much in love and it was on that day Ruth realised she would marry Charlie. She had never been to the beach before. Her mother had insisted on making a new dress especially for the trip. The sewing machine chattered away in the early evenings. When Ruthie put on the dress, she squeaked with joy. It was the most delightful dress she had ever seen. She ran into the dining room, where her father was reading The Observer. Ruthie was twirling around the floor and the newspaper was lowered, this brouhaha had to be investigated. Her father squinted, puffed his pipe twice and uttered gruffly, “Very becoming.”

Ruthie had never been outside of London before and now she was on a train to Brighton. She was bubbly with excitement. The countryside swept past the window as the train clackety-clacked its way to the seaside.

When they arrived, they headed to the pier. Charlie had saved some money up for the arcade. It was such jolly fun! Ruthie was treated to a toffee apple and ended up with toffee on her nose. How Ruthie blushed and how Charlie laughed! They wandered down to the beach and bagged a couple of stripey deckchairs, just like they looked in the postcards! They took it all in – the glittering water, the shrieks of children retreating from the surf, the dry rustle of stones as people walked past, the squawks of circling seagulls. It was a splendid day.

When Ruthie felt the pangs of hunger, she loosened the cloth over the picnic basket. A bottle of homemade lemonade, or fizzy pop as Charlie called it, a ham and mustard sandwich each plus two pieces of fruit cake. Charlie kept an eye on the feathered blighters as no seagull was going to pilfer from their picnic. Ruthie giggled.

Charlie had a fancy camera and he flagged a chap down to take their photo. The two of them stood close together, arms around each others waists, they beamed for the camera. Charlie turned to her and said it would be the first of many photos.

Love’s beauty was eternal, the soul’s joy, surely such a powerful feeling would keep the shadows away and stop the fading of beauty, of memory, of life? Ruth’s eyes were getting heavy. The photo fell from her grasp. A carer walked into the lounge. She could see everyone was asleep. They looked so at peace, not a care in the world. She noticed the photo on the floor and picked it up. She carefully placed it in Ruth’s hands. The carer was new to the home. She hoped Ruth would tell her about the photo, it was obviously important to her because she had fallen asleep with a smile on her face.

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