Two weeks later, Albi and Rachel are in the church a mile from their home, the same one where Saul had been christened. They are facing the front, not looking or touching one another. There’s a constant pull at Albi’s chest, as if the ground is drawing him to it. Behind them, friends and family are reluctantly present, everyone attending a service that no one wants to be there for. The singing to hymns is lacklustre, and the hard stone floor and the walls refuse to allow any sound to reverberate. Heads are repeatedly shaken in disbelief. A terrible shame, they’d said. A waste.
Albi and Rachel can’t stop staring at the tiny pale wooden coffin lying on a black wooden frame by the altar.
He’d been at work when it happened. Rachel said she’d only been away from Saul a second. Had gone to get a towel from the airing cupboard. She was about to put him in the bath, but when she came back to the bedroom he was gone.
She ran to the bathroom, calling out his name, but he wasn’t there. Then she heard the tumbling, over and over, and she rushed to the stairs.
He keeps telling himself that if he’d been home, it would never have happened. He would have made sure the gate on the landing was secure. He shouldn’t think like that, he knows, but it’s hard.
The tap dripping in the bathroom was the only sound in the house, echoing loudly, it seemed, around the empty rooms. The water was still there when Albi arrived home; it didn’t feel right to empty it, to let it wash away.
She told him all this. He went over it with her, finding more questions to ask as he did so, to make sure he’d understood everything correctly, that nothing had been missed.
She still refuses to walk beyond the spot at the bottom of the stairs where she found Saul, and so will not go upstairs. There’s no mark but every day she takes a bowl of soapy water and a brush, and scrubs at that part until her fingers are raw and the carpet is thin and pale.
Albi made a half-hearted attempt to persuade her to come back to their bed, but she shook her head, and she sleeps on the sofa in the living room, although she doesn’t really sleep. She says that when she closes her eyes, the images become more vivid, and she has to sit up and wait for her heart to stop pounding. There’s constant movement inside her chest, as if always on the verge of something imminent, unable to settle.
It was the day after the funeral that Albi first came down in the night, tying his dressing gown around him, the cold air at his ankles like a puppy, and found Rachel in the half-light standing there, silent, and staring at the picture. There was a faint recognition as he approached and stood next to her, both facing Saul just as they had the day before. Neither spoke. Most nights they meet here now, Saul’s smiling face oblivious to their condition.
He remembers when they first got the picture.
‘Careful,’ said Rachel. ‘You might damage it.’
Albi was holding his penknife just above the package. He’d been searching for a way in, looking for even the smallest gap, but it appeared to be fully sealed, as if it could be thrown into the sea and still not get wet.
About three feet long and two feet wide, and with defined edges making it a perfect rectangle, the package was wrapped in what appeared to be light brown paper, but it felt much stronger than that. It was smooth and had no hint of a blemish anywhere.
Saul pulled himself up off the carpet and toddled up to Albi.
‘Da, da,’ he said.
Rachel picked him up, and he wriggled excitedly in her arms.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Daddy’s doing it, isn’t he? Isn’t he funny?’
Albi smiled at them both, stroked Saul’s round, soft cheek. He said ‘Da, Da’ to most things but it was nice to think he meant him. Albi brought the knife to the paper and Rachel dipped her head closer to watch. He could hear her breathing quicken as his knife lightly touched the surface and made a small incision.
He carried on, slowly, cutting all the way round until finally he reached the beginning again. As the paper released, Rachel let out an audible sigh.
Albi slipped the paper off, letting it fall to the ground like a discarded shirt, and held up the picture, admiring it. It was a photograph of Saul, taken only a month ago on his first birthday. Dressed in a shirt and jeans, he was laughing, his eyes wide and bright, glistening. They’d chosen the smooth wooden frame at the photographer’s. It looked perfect for the picture. Each birthday would be special, but they wanted to remember the first. There was something more memorable about the first.
He lowered it to show to Rachel and Saul. The baby held out his hand, mashing his fat fingers towards it as if he recognised himself. Albi hung it up in the middle of the wall opposite the fireplace, and stepped back.
‘Yes, that’s you,’ said Rachel in a singsong voice, holding Saul against her chest as they all gazed at the baby in the picture. He kicked his legs to break free, and she put him down. Albi stroked Saul’s head, his hair fine and soft like tissue paper as the boy walked unsteadily for a few feet and then plopped down on his bottom before getting up again.
When Albi sees Rachel in the mornings, before he goes to work, she is normally dressed and is sitting on the edge of the sofa, the blankets and pillows neatly folded in a pile on the floor. Her fingers are often red from cleaning the carpet or from picking at them. She scours each millimetre for bits of loose flesh to rip from her fingers. He softly asks her not to do it but she ignores him.
Before, Rachel had been carrying a bit of extra weight, not much, just a little heaviness in the hips, but now her whole body seems drained and deflated. Her hair, auburn and in a bob, has sunk, almost flush to her head. It is rarely washed. Her skin, once full of colour and life, is now pale and almost translucent.
She is in the kitchen having a wash in the sink, and Albi is alone with Saul in the living room.
‘Hello,’ he whispers. ‘Hello, little man.’
He’s sure he hears a giggle. Albi’s heart lifts and he steps towards the picture, examining the boy, his hand tracing his rounded cheeks, his lips.
He turns towards Rachel to see if she heard it too, but she is oblivious. Through the open door he sees her dry her face on a towel, and then gaze out of the window overlooking the small yard.
Was that really him, or did he just imagine his son laughing? He can hear him so clearly in his memory that it might have been just that. But it sounded like Saul was actually here. Albi looks again at the picture and feels a lightness, only slight, somewhere in the far distance.
Rachel doesn’t need to know about this; it would only upset her. Best if it’s his and Saul’s secret. Something they share together. He’ll have more time alone with Saul later.
Albi walks to the kitchen to make some tea. He thinks about Saul in the picture as the kettle boils. He can hear the boy’s laughter above the rumble. He smiles at the memory.
As he fills the pot, Rachel says, ‘He would have been playing there.’ She gestures to the yard. ‘Another six months or a year?’
He’s brought back down again sharply. She’s said so little recently that he isn’t sure it’s her at first. Her voice sounds odd. Thin. There’s so little behind it.
His arms feel heavy as he places his hands on her shoulders and tells her it’ll be alright.
But he doesn’t want to hear this, about what should have been.
She slips away from him and as she leaves the room, the faint aroma of Johnson’s Baby Powder reaches him. He sniffs the air and snatches a glance towards Saul in the picture, but the smell has gone.
He finds her facing Saul.
‘He seems too small for the picture,’ she says. Her arms are crossed, and her head slightly cocked to one side. ‘Did we get the wrong size frame?’
He follows her gaze.
‘Don’t know. We may have become so used to it, he appears smaller?’
‘Maybe you’re right.’
He wonders whether he is. But oddly, it seems right for Saul. He lives there now. He doesn’t want to be cramped.
She plays with her fingers and then returns to the kitchen. Albi watches her pour herself some tea that he knows she’ll only have a couple of sips from at most.
He turns back to the picture and his heart leaps to see that Saul has moved a little and is now facing him straight on, looking directly into Albi’s eyes. There’s a child’s voice in the air all around him, like mist. He steps back, at once frightened and excited. He holds onto himself. What is he thinking? The boy can’t move. Rachel’s footsteps interrupt him, and when his eyes return to the picture, Saul is back in his original position. Albi covers his face with both hands, a weariness descending on him like heavy snow.
That evening, he hears her downstairs as he lies in bed. Normally only occasional muffled sobs break the silence, but tonight there’s movement, the sound of rummaging that goes on intermittently for what seems like hours.
‘You okay?’ he calls down from the landing as it approaches midnight.
There’s no answer at first, but then she replies, saying she’s alright. ‘Go back to bed.’
It carries on but he’s lost in his thoughts of Saul and soon he drifts off.
In the morning, Albi stops by the picture on his way to the kitchen. Saul is now in a crawling position, and has one arm slightly raised off the ground, his fat fingers reaching out to Albi who presses his own to Saul’s and smiles. Albi remains like this for minutes, realising that he was right earlier: Saul had moved. Then there’s a clink of crockery coming from the kitchen; he waves to Saul and joins Rachel.
He’s surprised by a cup of tea waiting for him on the table. It’s lukewarm but he doesn’t mention it to her. It’s good that she’s made it. She asks if he wants some toast but he says he hasn’t time. The familiar smell of the grill warming up, made unfamiliar, envelops the kitchen. It’s homely but doesn’t seem to belong. She says she might go out today, just for a walk.
‘That’s good,’ Albi says. He’s pleased, really he is.
There appears to be a change in her. There’s more life there, a glimmer at least. He wonders whether she expects him to kiss her goodbye, like he used to, but he doesn’t, and doesn’t finish his tea.
He hates leaving Saul, especially now, and hesitates briefly at the front door before heading off to work.
He thinks about him all day and can’t wait to see him again later in the picture. That evening, as he approaches the house, the front door opens. Rachel is there at the threshold, and she beckons him in. She takes his hand before he can object and leads him straight to the living room. Albi stops and releases his hold from her as he gazes at the wall. A sharp pain contracts in his chest, as if a cold hand has squeezed his heart. Surrounding the larger, original picture, there are what must be at least fifty other pictures of Saul in varying sizes scattered all over the wall: when he was first born, held by Rachel in hospital and wrapped in a white blanket; Saul on the carpet, his legs in the air; in his buggy in the park, wearing his pale blue hat in the summer, his eyes squinting against the bright light; crawling along the carpet.
‘What’s all this?’ he says. His head feels light and his heart is pounding.
‘I was looking for these photos last night,’ she says. I found loads in the boxes behind the sofa.
‘Christ,’ he says. ‘Look at them all.’
‘He’s still living, you see. In these pictures. We can see him every day, just like we used to.’
He gazes at the picture in the centre. Saul is in his original position. He waits for him to move again but nothing happens. Albi holds himself still and listens but Saul makes no sound.
‘What have you done?’ says Albi quietly. Panic has thinned his voice.
‘I thought you’d like it,’ she says. She takes Albi’s hand again but he snatches it away and examines the pictures. There, all Saul’s emotions are together. A whole, short life reflected on one wall. Yes, he knows he should like it. He should love to see his boy, but she’s lost the Saul in the centre, the one who speaks to him, moves for him. None of these other pictures have the boy’s essence, the magic that is him.
Just when he’s found him again, she’s lost him. Just like before.
He feels a rush in his chest.
‘No I don’t like it,’ he says. ‘You’ve just made it worse.’
She shakes her head and her whole body slumps.
In the silence, he doesn’t turn to her, but can feel her looking at him.
‘You know it was an accident,’ she says quietly. ‘You do believe me, don’t you?’
He stares at the picture, willing for some movement. But there’s no change. After a long pause, he says, ‘Yes I do. I just want an explanation.’
She raises her hand, as if to start saying something, but lets it drop. ‘Albi,’ she says, but he doesn’t respond. She begins to cry, quietly, broken only by the word, ‘Sorry.’
Nothing has changed. He’s asked her repeatedly but she’s said nothing that makes it any different, any better. He’s longed for something, but she’s never offered anything that alters why it happened, nothing to truly explain it.
Slowly, he raises his chin and stares at the pictures. Saul is smiling back at him in that familiar pose. That beautiful, playful smile. But there’s nothing else. The magic has gone.
He thinks back to when he found them. She was sitting on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. He remembers the warm sight of her cradling him in her arms, but only vaguely thinking it was an odd place to do so. He didn’t realise at first that anything was wrong. She seemed serene, her hand lightly stroking Saul wrapped in a towel on her lap as she gently rocked him, just like when he was first born.
He hears Rachel’s footsteps but doesn’t turn to her, and doesn’t call her back as she reaches the front door. Once she’s closed it behind her, he examines the picture, urging Saul to move over and over again, before finally climbing the stairs.
He’s not sure for how long she has been away, but darkness has settled since and he hears the creak of the door marking her return. He’s been playing with Saul; the time has just gone.
He listens to the clock’s ticks in between her steps along the hallway towards him. She stops and calls out his name. There’s a long pause as she waits for a reply that doesn’t come, before moving to the living room.
She doesn’t turn on the light, and doesn’t notice him as he watches her from his new vantage point. She perches on the edge of a seat on the sofa in the corner of the room and holds herself still, as if listening for noises in the house, but of course there aren’t any.
There’s a thin strip of silver from a gap in the curtain that cuts through the darkness towards him. He can’t tell from where he is but he imagines it reaches half way up the wall, threading a route through the bank of pictures to just below the larger one in the centre.
She slowly raises her head to the picture, then stands up and steps over to it. He recoils, waiting for the shock in her face when she sees him there, but there’s no sign of recognition, and he quickly realises that she can’t see him, the way he could see Saul. He watches her trace her finger round the line of Saul’s chubby cheeks, and smile. As she steps back to view all the pictures together, Saul giggles and Albi puts his finger to his lips to quieten him. But of course, she doesn’t hear, she can’t.
She turns away and calls Albi’s name as she heads towards the door. She’s out of view now, and he kisses Saul and holds him tightly, never wanting to be parted again. He’s missed him so much.
He wishes he could forgive her. But what else could he have done?
The click of her shoes on the floor reverberates around the house. Not long now, he tells himself. He squeezes Saul tighter and listens. He imagines her turning on the light and running over to his body at the bottom of the stairs. She’ll cry out, and at that moment, he’ll throw Saul up and catch him just like he used to.
JAMES WALL's work has previously been published in the Best British Short Stories 2013 anthology, Tears in the Fence, Unthology 6, Prole, Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, The View from Here, Long Story, Short Journal, and in Matter Magazine. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2010, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University. His novel, The Waxwing, is currently under consideration with a number of agents.