30 Day Challenge: Day 1 – Photographs on the Mantelpiece



Devenne Davis, my mother, sat in her elaborately decorated living room with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other – a Vodka Gimlet; easy on the lime juice, not so easy on the vodka. I watched her from the darkened hallway as she looked around the room she was once so proud of. She had to beg my father to let her redecorate; he was never comfortable with change and so was difficult to persuade. Still, I think he liked the results, though he would never admit that to her.

The polished, rich brown of the wooden floorboards merged into the vile brown leather wallpaper that my father had insisted upon. He said that it was a practical choice, unlike the cream wallpaper with the delicate threads of gold running down it that my mother had wanted. According to him, cream was outdated; brown wallpaper was going to be ‘The big thing of the seventies…’ My mother hated all the brown, so she installed a cream marble fireplace and spread a large cream rug across the floor to cover most of it up. In spite of my father’s efforts to make it ugly, she created a beautiful living room. It took three years to complete, and even after that, she still complained about the hideous wallpaper.

She stood up and walked unsteadily to the small corner table right by the long curved cream sofa where she had not so secretly hidden an almost empty bottle of vodka under an overgrown Spathiphyllum pot plant. After refreshing her glass and replacing the bottle, she slithered back to the armchair, dragging her bare feet along the soft rug; it wouldn’t have killed her to walk like a normal human being. I hid myself behind the door but she had already seen me. I tried not to disturb her when she got like this, but somehow her intoxicated state enhanced her senses.

‘Jakey? Is that you?’

For a moment I considered hiding; she was sober enough to think that she had seen me, yet drunk enough to blame it on a hallucination. I couldn’t leave her alone again – my father did that enough – so I stepped into the living room. Unbalanced, she walked a little toward me but before I could steady her she fell back into the chair, laughing at her own clumsiness. The darkness of the unlit room was only lessened by the street lamps outside glowing in from the windows, but even in the dim light you could tell she was once beautiful. Over the years, her beauty faded and now she looked much older than she should have looked for forty-seven. Her eyes, laced with the wrinkles and dark purple bags of years of drinking and sleepless nights, especially exposed her age. She had always been fair skinned, but in the past few years she had become unhealthily pale; drinking a bottle of vodka per day was eventually going to take its toll on her. Her greying light blonde hair hung matted below her shoulders and she was still in her incorrectly buttoned-up pyjamas, despite it being eight o’clock in the evening. Why bother anymore? She rarely left the house and who did she have here to impress? My father? He wouldn’t have noticed if she’d set herself on fire.

‘Hi Mum…’ I walked to her and pushed some paperwork along to the other end of the coffee table so I could sit, but they fell off the end. I went to pick them up.

‘Sweetheart, don’t worry about that… It’s just your father’s rubbish.’ I sat down in front of her. She leaned back in the chair as she ran her glazed eyes over me; I couldn’t tell if she had been crying or whether the excess of alcohol was leaking from her bloodshot eyes. ‘Did you just get in?’

‘Yes, just now… Where is Dad?’

‘How should I know? Probably at the office…still.’ She sipped her drink then looked at me, not quite meeting my eyes; it was rare to see her ashamed of something.

‘With her?’ She raised an eyebrow at me; she knew Dad was still seeing his assistant, and she knew that I knew that she knew.

‘I don’t know.’ She took a long drag from her cigarette then exhaled while speaking, ‘I don’t care…’

‘Yes, you do…’

She stared at me, then leaned forward stubbing her cigarette out in the overflowing ashtray next to me. Slumped back in her chair, she drained her glass.

‘How much have you had to drink?’

‘Does it matter?’

‘You shouldn’t keep doing this…’

She stood up and wandered to the roaring fireplace, straightening one of the many framed pictures of our family sitting on the mantelpiece. Most were of my father and I; in some we’re playing football together, in others he’s teaching me how to ride a bike, and then there are some holiday photos of the two of us eating ice-cream in a park, building sandcastles on the beach and swimming in the sea. My mother preferred to take the photographs rather than be in them herself. Years ago she decided she wanted to be a professional photographer, but she quit when that began to compromise her real passion in life; drinking. There were a few photographs of her though; one from their wedding day, one of her and my father at some kind of dance in the fifties, along with the usual family portraits taken through the years. We were once a normal, happy family, but now my father was a cruel, adulterous bastard and my mother a self-loathing alcoholic. These photographs were the only ones my father allowed my mother to display in the entire house. I suppose he didn’t like to be reminded of how great things once were.

My mother turned back around to face me. ‘I have a high tolerance for alcohol…’

Yes, mother, of course you do.

‘You could always leave, you know. You could leave Dad…’

She laughed, swaying dangerously close to the flames of the fireplace. ‘And go where, exactly?

‘You could go to Uncle William’s?’

‘I’d rather throw myself into the Thames with an anchor strapped around my body.’ She glanced over at me, seeing the disappointment on my face. ‘You don’t need to worry about me, Jake. I am fine here.’

‘But you’re not happy.’

‘Nobody’s happy anymore.’ She walked over to the plant and poured herself yet another drink.

‘Don’t you think you should add some lime?’

‘I can barely taste the vodka as it is, why would I want to water it down with the lime? You know, your father likes me to add it because God forbid a woman drink straight vodka like that… How very unfeminine… I don’t even like the bloody lime.’ She emptied the bottle then threw it in the corner – it was only then I noticed the pile of at least ten empty vodka bottles.

‘Devenne!’ My father’s deep voice boomed around the house as the front door slammed shut. ‘Dev!’

‘Oh, great…’ My mother downed the contents of her glass as if it were water, and threw herself back down in the armchair, bracing herself for one of my father’s inevitable rants.

‘Devenne!’ My father stormed into the room, coat and shoes still on, briefcase in hand, with that signature Harry Davis frown smeared across his face. He was a tall, strong man, but like my mother, the years hadn’t treated him well. His face was deeply wrinkled, his black hair had turned a dull grey and he was much heavier than he used to be. Still, he commanded the room like no one else could, but much to his despair, my mother wasn’t interested in playing his ‘silly little power games’ anymore. ‘There you are! Did you expect me to traipse around the whole house looking for you?’

‘Well, actually darling, I wanted you to call the police and instigate a search party.’

‘Are you being smart with me?’

‘Would I dare?’ My mother used to be afraid of him but the empty threats my father spat out so frequently lacked any kind of conviction now. She goaded him, without much concern for the consequences; antagonising my father had become a source of entertainment for her.

‘What are you doing in here?’

“I’m just having a little drink and talking to our son. Is that all right with you or do we need your permission?”

‘Oh God, Devenne, not this again…’ My father dumped down his briefcase, removed his jacket and threw it on the sofa on the opposite side of the room. He then sat in front of my mother on the coffee table where I had been sitting. ‘How many times do we have to go over this?’

‘I drink. You sleep with other women. We all have our flaws, Harry…’

I knelt down next to her. ‘He’s not talking about that, Mum…’ She looked at me with a sour, confused expression. My father followed her gaze, but of course, he couldn’t see me.

‘Jake is dead. Do you understand? Our son is dead.’

‘What is he talking about?’

‘Stop talking to him, Devenne! He is not here. He died seven years ago!’

‘Don’t be ridiculous! Ignore your father, sweetheart. I think he’s gone a bit loopy…’

My father stood up abruptly and walked away from my mother, running his hands through his hair. ‘You crazy, deluded bitch!’ He kicked his briefcase into the hallway, desperate for a way to take his frustrations out on something other than my mother.

‘Jake, you don’t have to watch this…’ She turned to where I had been kneeling, but I was gone. Well, I wasn’t gone, I was still there, but she couldn’t see me. ‘Great! Well done, Harry. You scared him. Do you have to act like that in front of him?’

My father rushed towards my mother and pinned her down in the chair as he screamed in her face. ‘He is dead, Devenne! What part of that can your tiny, little brain not comprehend? Our son is dead!’ She stared up at him in shock as the spit flew from his desperate words, but then she started to laugh at him. For a moment, he stayed leaning over her, in complete astonishment; how could she have strayed this far from reality?

He stood back from her; it was rare to see my father at a loss for words. He sat down of the sofa on the other side of the coffee table, staring at my mother.

‘How can you not remember?’

‘I’d remember it if it happened.’

‘There was a car accident…’

My mother grabbed a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches off the coffee table.

‘Jake was in the passenger seat…’

‘Is this another one of your stupid games?’ Striking the match against the box, she lit her cigarette. ‘Jake is upstairs in his room, alive.’

‘I’m going to call Dr. Norton…’ He stood up and walked towards the door, pausing as my mother started speaking.

‘I think that’s a good idea. We obviously need to get your head checked out!’ My father looked back at her, a strange mix of anger and pity etched across his face. Then he walked out.

She sat still for a few seconds, slouched in the chair, twiddling the cigarette in her fingers. She took a deep, wheezy breath. ‘Jake?’

I appeared at the door again.

‘Jakey darling, I’m sorry about your father… He’s obviously a very sick man…’

I hated this part. I hated having to make her remember my death. It was cruel, it was brutal and always as painful as the first time my father told her.

‘You need to remember now…’

‘There’s nothing to remember.’ She took a long drag from the cigarette, then coughed out its poison.

‘They are going to come and take you away if you don’t remember what really happened to me. You do know really…’

‘Just don’t tell me anything, all right?’

‘I’m sorry, I have to…’

She avoided my stare by bowing her head; unconsciously she must have known that I re-planted the memory by looking through her eyes into her mind. Being dead had its perks, but this ability wasn’t one of them.

‘Jake, don’t do this…’ She looked up and I caught her stare. I watched as every moment of the accident she had repressed slowly trickled back into her conscious mind. I saw the long, straight road, the cars whipping past in the fast lane, the red Renault 4 pulling out beside us, it slamming into the passenger side, the stomach-churning spin of our car, the smell of the burning brakes and then the stillness, the darkness, the blood oozing from my still body. I held her hand as finally the realisation that I was just a ghost overcame her.

My father walked back into the room a few moments later to find my mother sat calmly, crying with tears but not with sound. He knelt down in front of her and reached his hand up to brush the hair away from her face.

‘I was driving.’

My father nodded, then took her hand but she brushed him off. She stood up and walked to the plant, searching under the leaves for the bottle of vodka she had already finished earlier.

‘It wasn’t your fault, Devenne.’

She turned back to him. He had never been a good liar, but this time she appreciated his effort to conceal what he truly felt.

‘Can you get me another drink, please?’





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