Sometimes the paint went thickly over the photograph, mummifying it until you could barely see what was underneath; sometimes it just bled off the photos as though crying primary-coloured tears onto the canvas. I named this strange hybrid ‘paintography’…”
by jacqueline downs
I wonder only briefly what will happen after I close the door on the Ashcroft Community Centre, currently home to most of my family. I take a guess that as the photos start to hit the ground like demented confetti, the revellers will stop dancing, their bodies coming to a halt like wind-up toys that have run their course. The older folks – my mum and dad, aunts, uncles – won’t know how to explain the floating remnants of uncovered lies to my cousins, second cousins, the assortment of boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives. What would they say? “Oh, these? They’re pictures of something we’ve kept from your cousin Michael for thirty years. We thought we’d covered our tracks pretty well, but…”
To get to these photos, though, you have to go via a hundred others. Photos of a friend of mine. John was like my shadow, or I was like his: from the day my parents moved into his street when I was five months old and John six weeks older, until he died at 14 of the disease that I still can’t spell although I’m really good at spelling, we had to be torn apart. He spent those six weeks he had on me in hospital, being stuck with needles, picking at the plasters that covered up the marks, with me stuck to his side.
Our parents became best friends – I now know why we’d moved so far from our first home that they’d lost touch with everyone who wasn’t part of our then-undersized family. And so it followed that John and I became best friends too. I have the photos to prove it; the paper our friendship was printed on.
As we grew up we could not be parted: the same nursery, the same infants’ school, our desks and coat pegs next to each other although our surnames were separated by the J, K and L. There were family holidays in his parents’ caravan in Hastings, days spent exploring the hills and the smugglers’ coves, telling each other pirate stories and fashioning eye patches out of bits of torn T-shirts and elastic, nights spent whispering and listening until the sun’s rays slashed through the purple sky like little tears in the heavens. We talked for hours, tightly woven into each other, leaving no room for anyone else. On our last holiday we used my parents’ camera. And as we sent off the films sealed in their envelope we talked about what we had photographed: never people, never holiday skin and ice-cream smiles; his diagnosis had proved that such things could be ripped away suddenly. Our photos were of skies and buildings, bricks and stones, earth and grass. When we got our photos back they had made a mistake and not printed doubles. I remember my mum having to pay for replacements.
As John lay picking at his plasters, he made me promise something. He did it in a fake American accent, like a TV-movie-of-the-week: I had to promise to take photos of everything we’d talked about and never seen. But it wasn’t until I met Annie that I could even think about picking up a camera again. She was an artist, and wanted to find a way to make our work overlap: I would take a photograph and she would place it on a canvas and take it as a cue from which she would paint. Sometimes the paint went thickly over the photograph, mummifying it until you could barely see what was underneath; sometimes it just bled off the photos as though crying primary-coloured tears onto the canvas. I named this strange hybrid ‘paintography’ and pretended to be joking when she pulled a face that said she disapproved of the word. Thinking it a joke she had then suggested ‘phainting’.
More photos, and now they tell this story: Annie sat near me at the table and wriggled her feet onto my lap as she did when she was feeling like she wanted to be close to me, or had something to feel guilty about. Her request to help me choose the images that would form a wedding anniversary album for my parents was weighed down with the anchor of our history: photographs were how we had connected and how our connection had developed; the ‘getting-to-know-you’ conversations of our early weeks and months centred on this building of personal history, marshalling photos as evidence of childhood holidays, zoo trips, days at the fair, bad haircuts.
So I got the oldest of my photo albums and she rested her head against my shoulder, and stroked my page-turning arm, worrying her fingers gently at a little rip in the sleeve of my shirt. Together we leafed through the album of my childhood.
When we reached a certain photograph Annie suddenly stopped my hand by putting her own over it. Then she looked at me, and at the photo again. It was of me as a baby. “Has this been torn in half?” she asked lightly; she had noticed a slight raggedness at the edge of the frame. I pulled back the transparent cover and lifted the photo out. It did appear that it had been carefully torn.
Annie looked again at the photo, moved her hand to my chin, turned my face towards her and stared at me. In a voice that didn’t sound enough like her own, as though she didn’t quite know what she was getting into, she asked this question: “Where’s your birthmark?” I looked at the photo again. She was right. The barely perceptible ovoid shape on the bottom of my left cheek, close to my jawline, was nowhere in evidence on the photo. Not knowing what this meant at first I returned to the other baby photos in the album. In some, my birthmark was there; in others it was missing. I knew then where it was leading.
And so I found myself at the party celebrating my parents’ thirty years of marriage and cover-ups. I moved away from a group of cousins and second cousins who were all competing loudly for ownership of the conversation, and left the main hall. Outside in the corridor, under the unforgiving strip lighting, was another second – or maybe third – cousin talking urgently with a young man I didn’t know. I nodded as I passed them and made my way out into the car park. I hadn’t taken a drink, hadn’t dared, so I was okay to drive, but it took me a while to remember where I’d parked the car. I felt drunk, and I rubbed the side of my face, close to my jawline.
When I got to my mum and dad’s house, for the second time in as many hours, I knew where to start. I stood in the living room and narrowed my eyes at the surroundings. Over the years, my parents had replaced all the stuff we had when I was a kid: the three-piece suite with its elastic underpinnings had long since been usurped by a green foam monstrosity and now a tasteful beige leather sofa and armchairs; the brown walnut sideboard, which probably would have been worth something now, was long gone, a series of flat-packed wall units in its place. I went over to the latest one and gave a tug on a faux-silver handle. The drawer contained tablemats – place mats my mum called them, for knowing your place – and coasters. I searched the bills and postcards in the second drawer and was careful to leave no trace of having been there, though they would find out soon enough. Still, there I was, covering up my tracks. A family trait, it would seem; my inheritance.
Emboldened I climbed the stairs to my parents’ bedroom. Their double bed was in the centre, with their matching bedside tables with their matching bedside lamps on either side. The only thing that differentiated my mother from my father in this room was the ashtray on his side and the box of paper tissues on hers. No books. No magazines. Everything put away.
Underneath the window was a dressing table with three drawers. It could be this easy, I thought. And do you know? It was. It was that easy. In the second of the drawers I tried, there it was, a shallow box, which had maybe once, contained a shirt. I took it out and I gave no thought to what I was about to do. I just did it. Then I took the box with me, and drove slowly back to the community centre.
The contents of that box overlapped what I thought was the truth of my memories. All I could see now was the creased birth certificate, which had my date of birth, my parents’ names, but which gave another name, not mine, in one of its columns. Photographs, some torn and some carefully cut apart from the ones I had come to know as I had grown up. Photographs showing another baby face, so like mine and yet not me; in one photo a chubby hand protruding from the torn side of the frame onto the arm of the baby lying there, gripping his woollen matinee jacket; in some, the tiny birthmark that indicated me, in others a space where it should have been. All these photos: some not me and yet so like me.
I parked as near to the entrance of the Ashcroft Community Centre as I could. Somebody must have left already – an argument probably – because there were a couple of spaces that hadn’t been there before. Taking the box with me I made my way back into the hall, unsteady at first, weaving a little, my chest tight with something like vengeance. Inside, the buffet table had been depleted but there were still a couple of people stocking up on cheese and pineapple, and mini sausage rolls. I snatched one as I passed the table and the pastry crumbled like dust in my mouth. Not for the first time I noticed that someone had branched out and supplied a Quiche Lorraine, but it had largely gone untouched. Along the side of the far wall the short, lithe body of one of my cousins’ kids snaked along the hard orange chairs and as I got closer I could see he was fast asleep despite his head being right up by one of the speakers.
I walked past him, no one taking any real notice of me, or the box, and climbed up onto the little stage where the DJ had his decks. I looked out. The DJ knew the tunes to play because most people were up and dancing, in small groups, shrill with additives and community spirit. Kids, toddlers, adults – most of my increasingly large family, spread out before me, a heaving, singing, squawking mass. Having fun, having so much fun.
I tossed the lid to the floor of the stage and lifted the box itself up into the air, over my head. Then I lowered it slightly, shook the contents out over as much of the hall as I could reach from my position, and I stood and watched as my family danced on and on, and soon they were dancing on the once-hidden images of little baby heads.
(collage: john richen)
Jacqueline Downs lives in Crystal Palace (not the actual palace, though) in London, where she writes stories, edits books and makes a mean Old-Fashioned. Her stories have been read at events in that great city.