Fiction

The Woman in the Photograph: Short fiction by Abigail George

Image: Pixabay.com remixed

She had never met anyone called Siegfried before. Wondered what he was like when he was a boy being called on in class. Was he teased, mocked, bullied on the playground like she was for her ‘proper’ English? There was only that poet in her distant memory. What was his surname now? The war poet if she remembered right. Siegfried Sassoon. The rain stopped and she had a dull feeling. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly where it came from.

‘This line marks the centre of your love for me. Our love, sweetheart,’ Siegfried whispered in her ear as he drew circles on her stomach. Julian had been born by Caesarean section on the fourteenth of June 2016. A premature winter baby wrapped in layers of blankets when he came home from the Livingstone Hospital.

When Samantha was in Siegfried’s arms she felt as if she was standing at the world’s end much like Columbus. As if she was sleepwalking along an airy shore. When she was in her husband’s arms, held so tight, it felt as if she could not breathe.

‘My airy shore. The enchantment of wildflowers,’ she breathed the words slowly into the hollow of his neck.

I’m weak. I’m weak. She thought to herself. That’s my major problem. I have no energy for this. Giving birth. Child-rearing. Progeny. Raising boys and girls to be independent men and women. Sons and daughters with norms and values. There were days when she did not trust herself with Julian. They had waited for five years for him.

In the beginning, after they had just met, they couldn’t stop talking about each other to other people. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

‘I wrote this for you,’ He gave her a page folded so neatly that it looked artistic. Her hands were shaking. Shaking because of her anxiety. He never, not even in the beginning stages of their relationship said anything about it. ‘You don’t have to read it out-loud or anything. Keep it.’

‘But I want to read it now. Let me read it now Sig. I love anything you write you know that.’ Samantha mentally willed her hands to stop shaking as she opened up the letter. Nobody had ever written her anything before. She felt touched by the thought that he would do something like this. Only Siegfried! She felt loved and admired in his presence. Nobody had ever made her feel like this before.

‘With the feast of day and night. I remember you. All of you. Beautiful and elegant. Perfectly manicured nails. Your hair. Light in your eyes. I want you to always remember me. At first glance you made my heart boil. Leap. Dance. Laugh. My robber. Thief. Seed. My lungs take-off for faraway lands like Madagascar and Timbuktu whenever I think of you.’

She woke up in their cosy little house and it was raining again. Pouring. She remembered her wedding day. It had rained on her wedding day. The happiest day of her life. She thought of how far they had come. Samantha and Siegfried. Three years as a couple, a team, helpmates, lovers, confidantes, best friends, parents to an adorable 18-month old. Julian. She remembered looking at Julian’s face when he was an infant. Open and vulnerable. So trusting of them both. Expecting everything from them. Her heart was filled with love for their little tiger.

‘Happy bird. Sad bird.’ Amanda made faces and Julian chortled with delight as she fed him his breakfast.

‘Samantha! Sam! Sammy! I’m late. I’m going to be late. You know how I hate being late. Help me find my book. You know I’m seeing my editor this morning.’

‘You mean your manuscript that I had to proofread last night until the early hours of the morning until you were satisfied that I could not put it down until I finished. I’m busy too as you can see.’ Julian smiled at his father showing teeth. “Check the nightstand on my side of the bed.’

‘Sam, not now. I’m late.’ Siegfried brushed his fingers through his hair, frustrated. The haircut was a good one. It suited him. Framed his eyes, his high cheekbones, the profile of his aquiline features. Of course, he knew he was handsome but this had never made him arrogant and standoffish with his crowd. He had never looked down on them or anyone else for that matter. Regarded everyone as equal. Race, faith, didn’t really matter to him. Some of his friends had looked down on Samantha. Not knowing what the attraction was. She was a plain girl. She had been a plain girl who had grown into a plain woman. It had been love at first sight for Samantha. Siegfried had just blown her away. He was intelligent and loving, sensitive, creative, suave and charismatic. He had an artistic soul with a temperament to match but Sam could always cool his hot temper and bring him back down to earth.

His words were like poetry. She didn’t know if he meant it to come out like that. Was that the poet within him? She always thought she understood the sensitive part of him. The fact that his mother and a younger brother had died when he was so young. So, sad. His mother had died of cancer. It had been a long illness and his brother had died in a car accident. Siegfried and his father had survived. To live with that kind of guilt for the rest of his life. Samantha could see it in his eyes daily. It had never left him. Was never going to. Siegfried’s father stayed in a home. He often came over on Sundays. They would take long drives along the beachfront after lunch.

‘All art is, is an invisible world, this one writer says.’ Sig said over coffee one day his head buried in the newspaper.

‘All art? Really,’ said Samantha feigning interest. Is that what the article said?’ Samantha didn’t think much of the art world. She was a biologist. She was a scientist. She worked in a lab. She had written in high school. Even won the creative writing trophy one year when she was in Standard nine but certificates, prizes, awards and achievements had never been important to her. It was the same for her for art, artists and the art world. She tried to be involved in his world because she thought it would bring them closer together. She wanted the kind of relationship her own parents had. They were still together. Going strong. They lived in a cottage by the seaside now in a gated retirement village.

‘Well, yes. I think so. Pass me another chocolate biscuit Sammy, please.’ Samantha had become used to sometimes feeling like an afterthought whenever art was involved.

‘Read me the article.’

‘I don’t think you will understand it. They’re talking here of Balkan writers.’

‘Oh,’ Samantha said in a small voice. ‘Yes, you’re probably right. I won’t understand.’ Samantha thought to herself, I am after all only a dumb-dumb biologist.

‘I mean do you even know where that is on the map?’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake Siegfried,’ said Samantha exasperated. ‘I can Google it.’

‘What! What are you getting upset for?’ There were times when even Samantha wondered if she had made the right decision. Going out on a date with Siegfried that had eventually led to weekends away. In the beginning, she also thought to herself often, what exactly was the attraction. All his life he had been surrounded by both beautiful men and women. His life had been relatively easy. Women flocked to his side. So did men. People wanted to be his friend and he was a happy person.

Samantha was not a happy person. She only spoke to Winnie and Grace at the lab. Women who were older than her. Divorced. Winnie was dating someone younger. Grace had teenage sons from a previous marriage that had turned sour. Grace was also gay. Samantha enjoyed going to church. People fell down around her, lying there in a shaking fit. Screaming out the Lord’s name. Crying out with tears running down their faces. Sig could not understand that.

‘Jesus, woman! What was that? You’re educated. What is all of this stuff about the supernatural and the holy ghost?’ Sig threw his hands up in the air.

‘People are looking. Put your hands down,’ Samantha said with a calm attitude as they walked to the car in the parking lot. She smiled tersely at a car guard. ‘Please do not use the Lord’s name in vain Sig. You know how I feel about that,’ said Samantha keeping her eyes on the road. She was driving.

‘There was nothing in there that was holy but I guess each to his own. Whatever rings your bell. That’s just my opinion.’

‘Oh, Sig,’ there was a knot in Samantha’s stomach. He had never come with her again to church.

Money gives you choices. Samantha had learned that from her older sister Carla. She knew how to work with money since her university days and now worked in an important position at a bank. When she first started to go out with Siegfried she confided in her sister Carla about the mixed feelings that she had about him.

‘He likes to talk about the stages of a woman. I mean we just talked and talked and talked for three hours straight. We drank wine. I can’t believe I drank so much red wine. I mean I don’t even drink. I never drink Carla and I hate red wine.’

‘What kind of man talks about the stages of a woman? He’s a man. Why doesn’t he talk like a man instead of a feminist?’

‘Oh, he believes in that.’

‘In what? In feminism?’ Carla laughed. It was a deep, dirty throaty laugh full of brio.

‘He’s a kind of Goliath but he’s sweet.’

There was the first sight of the Goliath (when Samantha had first met Siegfried, tall and devastatingly handsome with dark hair and brown eyes), followed by the stages of woman (a conversation about feminism, education, the woman as independent, philosopher and intellectual). Sig really believed that all women had the capacity for all of those things. To think independently, to philosophise. Intellect was everything to him. In a man and a woman. They spoke a lot about children (the stages of daughters in particular and how they should be close to their fathers) even before Sig had finally decided he had fallen in love with her of all things. He had given her his copy of Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam. There was his unfinished novel Forget This Place of Weeping that he had given her to read. He wanted to know what she thought. She told him she believed in him. Believed that he could do anything. She couldn’t get his voice when they made love out of her head.

She was a mannish creature and fortunately or unfortunately Samantha knew this from an early age. She was expected to make lemonade from lemons. With Siegfried at her side, Samantha blossomed. In the company of his friends she could strike up a conversation and hold her own where it had never been possible for her to do that when she was younger. When she had been in primary school she had one friend but had lost touch with her over the years. They still lived in the same city though. Out of sight. Out of mind.

‘You don’t know how beautiful you are.’ Siegfried would tell Samantha repeatedly.

When Samantha and Siegfried had first started to go out she had made lists of words that she had found interesting and or magical on their date. When she came home breathless and elated, joyful.

‘I have to keep busy. I have to keep on writing. The only label I should have glued to my forehead’s secondary consciousness is ‘write’. I don’t want to view myself for the rest of my life as a hack, a journalist. I want to be a proper writer. I want to be a novelist. I mean sport is interesting for now. It’s what holds my interest. Writing about it keeps me sane in an insane world. The zone of reality is a netherworld. I can’t keep up with that most days but magic, myth, folklore transitioning to fairy-tale that I take in my stride.’ He licked his lips. He did that a lot but she only noticed that later on. The second year of the marriage come to think of it.

Samantha just listened. Nodding her head. Sipping her soft drink while he drank wine or sherry.

‘Oh, I understand completely,’ said Samantha. In those early wonderful days, her sentences were often punctuated with ‘Oh, I understand completely.’ It was only later on, the third year of marriage that Samantha began to think that her dear Siegfried was in love with his own voice, his own ideas of the perfect life, the perfect wife and mother. There were days that she felt he was breaking her. Breaking her spirit down. She didn’t know who she was anymore if she wasn’t on his arm at a party, in the club where they met up with his friends, hosting dinners for ‘his’ friends. His friends had become her friends.

‘It goes without saying.’ Siegfried said that a lot too. He was the authority on everything. He didn’t close his eyes when she bowed her head and graced for the food that she prepared but she knew that she loved him anyway. That she was the one who didn’t deserve him.

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Image: Pixabay.com remixed

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1 Comment

  • Ace story and true. A must read for the Samanthas of the world who aspire to get married to writers, painters and other eccentric people who are vexed with the spirit of creativity.
    It is an occupational hazard or an artistic reflex for creative minds like Seig’s to get easily bored or exhausted when they ‘fellowship’ with people who do not share their weirdness. Most times, If they manage to cope, they soon start producing elegantly tired art..

    When two people of the same circle meet, it is like fire given unto fire.

    Beautiful piece. kudos to the writer