Chase My Yellow Kite - Online Photography Newspaper
Spring Issue 2014
MondayFS
FS1

Private Humpty Dumpty

Four writers were given a photograph found at a flea market and tasked to write a short story based solely on the image. In the first of the four stories, writer Neil Brennan gives his take on what the circumstances of the see-saw are…

Found Photograph, Story by Neil Brennan – 03/03/2014

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She was, quite simply, too fat for the see-saw. That realisation was just about the worst thing that had happened to Mama, at least since Peter – her husband of 27 years – had kicked the bucket.

Peter had built the thing, as sturdy as everything else he had fashioned in his dark shed down the back of the garden.

In his absence, with just her two girls and the housekeeper for company, Mama had gotten colder, grown heavier. Too much grief, too many biscuits.

And now, Ethel was insisting Mama come outside to the see-saw.

It was still so hard to say no to Ethel, too much of Peter in her. Mama hated her for that.

As a child, Ethel had been a joyless Tomboy, Papa her only friend. As a young woman she wasn’t much better, ignoring the boys in the village to spend days on end in the shed.

Harder to say no to her now, finally back from volunteering with the war effort in a London hospital. For the very first time too, she had a man on her arm. And a smile.

“Christened James, but call me Jem”.

He was shorter than Ethel, a skinny Liverpudlian wretch. He didn’t seem overly keen on trying the see-saw, his metallic eyes taking in the garden as daughter dragged Mama to it.

He was up to something, Mama knew that. She had known enough shifty men in her time. What was he after? And how might she expose him to Ethel?

“It’s been years!” protested Mama.

“But I’ve been telling Jem all about it. For me, please! We’ll all four of us hop on!”

“I’m twice his weight, don’t be silly girl.”

In reality Mama must have weighed three times what Jem did. But a thought hit her. Embarrassment might be just the weapon she needed to hold this snake up to the light. Young men, above all things, couldn’t stand embarrassment.

Ethel shoved her sister Veronica onto the see-saw beside Mama.


“This is silly,” said Mama. It really was. Combined, there was no way Jem and Ethel’s weight would equal theirs. Was Ethel trying to make a fool of her?

Something strange.

As soon as Jem perched himself on the edge of the see-saw, it lifted the middle-aged woman and Veronica flush in the air.

The rush upwards, the sense of the past, the memories of Peter: Mama couldn’t avoid a fleeting smile. And an instant later, couldn’t help but think a wicked thought.

What on earth was weighing this boy down – and where in their house had he stolen it from? She had him now! Her smile grew as she spoke.

“Jem, what is your secret!”

It was half question, two-thirds accusation. Ethel bowed her head, embarrassed, and the housekeeper took the photo.

***

An hour earlier, scones had been served. Clotted cream too. The jam was atrocious, although nobody had mentioned it.

“When they found me, it was such a mess. On the ward, they called me Private Humpty Dumpty. Funny, right?” Mama wasn’t laughing.

“Your daughter, well, she put me back together again, after the bomb. And so, I mean to ask for your permission to marry her.” Jem’s voice was a rasp, yet he wasn’t touching his water.

Mama almost choked on a sultana. Marriage? Her Ethel? To a man?

His neck was red, as if he had worn a shirt too small for him for days on end. His grey suit at least was decent. How had he afforded that on a soldier’s wages?

He was still talking. A sob story, thought Mama, something every wounded soldier could use to crawl into a lonely woman’s bed.

“Everyone gave up on me after Normandy. I gave up on myself, truth be told. But not Ethel. Not your lovely Ethel. The very finest volunteer in London. And I should know, I met enough of them!”

Enough of the platitudes, thought Mama. Ethel was a fine girl, but bound to be impressed by a soldier – even a broken one like this – showing her attention.

“What do you do, Jem? For a living?”

“Nothing at the moment. But a cousin of mine works on the docks and I hope to find employment with him.”

Her daughter, housewife to some struggling docker? Probably a socialist too? No.

“Your injuries wouldn’t prevent that?”

“No Mrs.George, I’m surprisingly strong. For a little lad!”

“What did you do before the War?”

Ethel went to say something, but the jousting parties signalled she should keep out.

“Ashamed to say, but the truth is I was a criminal.”

“And you’re no longer a criminal?”

“No. As I said, your daughter has changed me. I’m a new man.”


“Quite,” Mama said with a thin smile.

Ethel butted in, successful on the second attempt. “Shall we try the see-saw?”

***

Mama was still on the edge of the see-saw, eight feet away and four feet above Jem, as she made her accusation.

“My secret Mrs George? I haven’t killed anyone if that’s what you’re – ”

“No,” Mama said. “There’s something wrong with you. You’re only a little fella, yet you weigh far more than you should. Have you been filling your pockets with the George family jewels already? I thought you might wait til the wedding at least.”

He looked at Ethel. She spoke for him: “What do you mean Mama?”

“I mean, what is wrong with this boy? And what is wrong with you? Never any interest in any of the boys around this village. You go to help in the hospitals in London and of all the thousands of soldiers, come back with the least eligible one they have! A bandy-legged Scouse thief!”

“I wouldn’t say that Mrs George, with respect. I’m one of a kind.”

“Prove it!” shouted Mama, “Empty your pockets!”

Jem turned out the pockets of his suit: nothing. His trousers: a cheap watch (Mam couldn’t know this, but he had worn it on the day of the explosion) and crumpled betting slips.

Demonstration over, Mama searched desperately for her next line of attack. But Jem had made a decision. He wasn’t prepared to wait. He started to unbutton.

“What on earth are you doing? Let me down!”

“When I said she put me back together again, I wasn’t lying.”

He was down to his shirt, jacket flung aside. Underneath the cotton glowed red. Too red to be right. Veronica gasped.

“Ethel made me a new man. We hadn’t wanted to tell you this way, but, well, she warned me that you were, if I can be blunt, a bit of a bitch.”

He didn’t so much tear open the shirt as peel it slowly up. The material seemed to be stuck to him. Close. Tight. Sore.

Underneath fabric, his true nature revealed: gears and pistons strained against a thin layer of scarred, stitched flesh.

A new combination of flesh and industry. This runt of a man was no man.

“Mama,” said Ethel, “We need to talk about what I did during the War.”

They never did. As the blood rushed to Mama’s head, she flopped to the side and hit the ground without a sound. She died underneath the see-saw.

Ethel didn’t try to rebuild her.