Tuesday, 20 December 2011

What If... (Photographs on the Mantel) by Lynne Hardy

Lynne Hardy says:

The idea for the story came from Linda Gillard's "What If?" writing workshop. One of the pictures in the inspiration pack for an exercise on character development was of an old lady, proudly sitting to attention amidst a collection of brick-a-brack. The mantlepiece was crammed with photographs, all of them very old, except for one of a young boy in school uniform, which stood out because it was so modern compared to all the others. For some reason, that set alarm bells ringing in my mind and I began to wonder what else might not be all that it seemed. From that grew the short story "Photographs On The Mantle", which was written as an extension of the character design activity and to work through some ideas on whether what we perceive is really real or all of our own making.

What If... (Pictures on the Mantel) by Lynne Hardy

To look at her now, you would never know; no, never know what a beauty she was, how the men all stopped to stare the moment she entered a room, how the women glared at her with envious eyes as hard as diamond. And always round her neck a string of perfect pearls, a generous gift from a long dead suitor, faded now to match her faded beauty.

There is no-one living left to admire her, only the ghosts that watch her with their dead eyes from the mantelpiece, shrouded by glass and dust, forever frozen in that one fleeting moment of time. Unlike her, for whom time strides inexorably on, beating her down, weathering her like rock, until one day there will be nothing left but sand and dust and memory.

She will tell you about her glory days, if you let her, her voice crackling with excitement like an old record on a gramophone. She’ll tell you about her ghosts, too, while she fiddles with her pearls, bright and brittle, her dinner slowly heating over the gas fire she can barely afford to run. It is only her stories that truly bring warmth to her bones, a flush to her cheek, a smile to her milky eyes, not these flickering, cold flames.

And you would never know, never guess, that none of it was real. The boy on the mantel was someone’s grandson, true, but not hers. Those sepia prints were of someone’s parents, someone’s lovers, someone’s friends, but not her own. All of it make-believe, the fantasies of a lost old woman, clinging to something she never possessed, never wanted, until it was too late and time had stolen its possibilities away from her.

The clock does not tick, it cannot; she lost the key years ago. No, not lost – discarded, thrown away to try and stop the miserable passage of time. But now, sitting staring at you as you politely sip your tea and listen and take your photographs, she knows that nothing can stop it, nothing ever could. It seeps away, just as her looks have done, as her life has. And now she waits to join her ghosts, to become the sand in someone else’s hourglass, just another picture on the mantel.

Linda Gillard says:

That photo has been inspiring writers for almost 20 years! I used it when I was a primary teacher and I use it all the time in workshops. I suppose the woman is long dead by now, but I like to think of her now being immortalised now on the internet on our blog. I wonder what she'd have made of that?


  1. I really enjoyed this, Lynne. It sent shivers up my spine! You've written a sad, unnerving and original piece in response to the photo and the "What if..?" theme.

    You might be interested to read my novel HOUSE OF SILENCE in which I explore some of the ideas you raise. One of the central characters is an elderly children's author who is not all she seems. (Any resemblance between my character and Enid Blyton is completely intentional!)

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