self-portrait with ghost

Short story practice with Hele, feb 2022
Prompt: “There was only one left”


they hadn’t spoken in forty years. now, she found, there was one week left.

the card had come that morning. seeing it upside-down on the mat, merryl felt the violent shock of recognition. the scrawl was familiar as her own.

i’m dying. i will be gone by monday. let us talk.
mina

and a mobile number where a kiss should be.

merryl filled the kettle. her dressing gown hung open over saggy, old man’s pyjamas, and her slippers had wanted replacing a long time ago. she looked around at her shabby kitchen, with its crooked cupboard doors and dirty shelves. mina wouldn’t have let it get to this. she lit a cigarette, blowing smoke into the steam as the water boiled.

in her studio she sat on the concrete floor, holding her coffee close with both hands. the card lay in front of her. it showed a close-up in black and white – one of her own – of a worn leather jacket, years-old creases like crows-feet at the elbows, torn here and there, from countless scrapes on and off the bike. it had been one of mina’s favourite shots. she turned it over.

i’m dying, merryl read. i’m dying. i’m dying. i’m dying.

and – let us talk.

she imagined mina’s broad, brown hands. the pen swiping across the paper in her bold, unapologetic style. so this had not changed.

she wondered what had.

against her will, merryl glanced towards the corner of the studio, where an old red curtain hung from floor to ceiling. she crawled on hands and knees to pull a large flat box from behind the dusty velvet. the prints inside were browning, ripped and curled at the edges, stuck together through decades of improper storage. she had meant to throw them out years ago.

and yet, here they were.

mina, squinting in the sun. mina, crouched beside her motorbike with a glinting spanner. mina, hungover and grinning, sprawled on a messy bed in a cheap spanish hotel. mina, hair wet from the shower, chest-bound and packed, her best suit laid out on the bed for opening night.

that suit. merryl tugged apart the sticky images of a former life. she spread the photographs on the floor and lay down amongst them, closing her eyes.

i will be gone by monday. let us talk.

what was there to say? merryl could not tell if there was too much, or worse, not enough. they had agreed – hadn’t they? – to end the best love either had known. merryl had had her share of lovers since but mina had never partnered again, she was certain.

then, suddenly, she was afraid. what if mina had loved again? what if she had loved another more and better and longer and truer? merryl’s body twisted in pain and she curled into a ball. the pain would not stop, she writhed and kicked, photographs skidding across the concrete like the images that flashed in her mind, limbs and creased sheets, coffee cups and hair clippers.

impossible, she consoled herself.

she pictured herself striding, confident and righteous, to meet the one who had once felt like her other half. she would say her piece. it hadn’t been her fault. she did not recognise the choice they had made.

mina, wearing the leather jacket, turned to greet her. her face was a blur, but her eyes were large and clear. merryl’s mind went blank. why had they parted? it was suddenly, infuriatingly, impossible to say. with only one week left, it was impossible to say.

merryl felt desperate. she would do anything at all to get out of meeting with mina. it was right they had parted, it had to be. no more talking. it was done, a long time ago. mina should let herself die in peace, none of this nonsense. she got up and strode back to the kitchen.

there was nothing to eat, not that she was hungry. merryl felt nauseous. against her better judgement she made another coffee, pacing back and forth across the hallway as the percolator coughed and sputtered.

where did mina even live these days? the postmark said carlisle. the lakes?‌ wow. so she had got out of the city. merryl imagined mina’s perfect life – the stone cottage with the big kitchen, the well-stocked cupboards, the sweeping views down the sunlit valley, the shining harley, waiting with a full tank in the tidy garage. merryl snorted scornfully. well, that would grow boring, eventually.

she did not want to see mina so she could hear how life had been without her. she did not want to see mina at all. because in truth, she was terrified it had all been for nothing.

she closed her eyes again and let that dreadful realisation roll through her. it pulsed from toes to eyeballs, pulling her under.

i’m dying.

“alright, alright!‌ i get it!” merryl shouted at the back door, furious now. she hated herself for hating mina. she hated mina for making her hate herself. it was late spring. outside the window a cloud of pink-brown blossom blew in swirls like confetti. she stomped into the studio and grabbed camera, the nikon, her old favourite. checking the counter she saw the film was almost done; one exposure remained.

it had been a while. what did they call them these days?‌ selfies. huh. what of the art of the portrait, when you could take a hundred every day and keep only the best? in her mind, merryl saw the two of them rolling their eyes at the young queers of today. they don’t know what it meant to be seen, mina said. or not to be, merryl agreed. theirs had been a time before mobile phones.

and yet, here were mina’s eleven digits.

i will be gone by monday.

merryl shook her head and busied herself. the light in the studio was good – it had the late morning sun, but not too much. she set the camera on the tripod and screwed in the shutter cable, keeping the button in her hand. yes.

she looked down at herself, awkward in her nightclothes. how many times had she done this? not many. she was a proper photographer, which meant she preferred to witness the truth of others. she thought of that first exhibition: thirty young butches in their finery. bold, defiantly handsome with their set jaws and full, steady eyes, the occasional huge grin. mina had been one of the smilers. of course she had. head thrown back, eyes creased up, lips open wide, big wonky teeth. she had snatched the camera from merryl and turned it back on her. in her picture, merryl lounged sullenly in a white vest and a strap-on, a diamond-patterned golfer’s sock on one foot. they had missed a rent payment to buy the frames.

hard to believe they had made their small contribution to history here. the cold, ramshackle studio was little more than a corrugated tin lean-to on the side of the house. but they had built it, and it had been theirs. the framed portraits on the still-wet walls, the bare bulbs, the leather-clad bodies – their family – cramming in for opening night. the vicious, spitting crowd outside. fucking dykes, man-bitches, faggots. and the other ones who looked on and prayed. the brick that flew through the window, smashing into the table of neatly-arranged wine glasses. she’d argued they couldn’t afford wine, but mina had insisted. let’s make it fancy.

she looked over and saw her, kneeling, picking up the broken glass. as their eyes met, she pressed the shutter.

developing film was always tedious; today it was unbearable. again merryl paced the hallway, shaking the small tank too vigorously, losing track of her timings. she read mina’s card, then shoved it in a drawer, then got it out again and placed it on the windowsill. she smoked three cigarettes, one after the other, stubbing them out in the scratched aluminium sink. when at last it was done, and dried, and cut, she turned on the lightbox and peered through the magnifier.

she was old, this she could see even in negative. eighty. her once-round cheeks were jowls hanging loosely from their frame. her wide shoulders, the envy of their crew, fell softly forwards. had her proud, strong brow always been this heavy?

she printed the photograph and hung it to dry. holding one corner, now she could see herself clearly. her mouth was slightly open, as if about to speak. let us talk. one arm reached forward to where mina had been, palm open. i will be gone by monday. her eyes were wide, filled with fear and something else the she couldn’t name, something that she felt again now, pounding in her breast. i’m dying.

merryl sank to the floor and wept. the tightly-sewn leather of her heart came apart like an old zip, flooding her chest with the unnameable feeling. she clutched her sides and threw up all the coffee; out with it washed every lie she had told herself since mina left. she sat and she wept, for an hour, for two hours. she did not know how long she sat there, weeping and retching and rolling in an ocean of four decades of grief.

when she was done, she rose, took off her clothes, and walked to the studio sink. she rinsed her face with the cold running water and washed her body with a clean wet rag. she stood before her reflection in the dirty window seeing something old and something new at the same time.

mina, she said at last. let us talk.