She pulled me up onto her lap and her woollen skirt scratched the back of my bare legs. I looked down at my grubby knees and the bruises like inky thumb prints down my shins. She reached, tired hand quivering, and brought down the photograph from its shelf. The frame was tarnishing, silver turning black in slowly spreading shadows from the edges.
I gazed at the family caught inside, frozen, their black eyes are staring straight out of the picture and I wondered for a moment if they could really see me. With a slow intake of breath, as if I had asked for this and she was bored with the telling, she began the story again. She smelt like blackcurrants and stale bread.
The esplanade was dotted with families taking the sea air, courting couples and nannies strolling with their bundled-up, dutifully silent charges. The high season bustle was over. The gulls slid by on wires of air and swung above the promenading clusters of people.
In the damp haze of the September morning there was the slight sting of winter. Walter had suggested the portrait when they had first arrived nearly two weeks ago but the days had been satisfactorily filled with beaching, boating, crabbing and afternoon teas. It was unseasonably mild everyone had remarked but today was the last day, tomorrow the cold weather would arrive. It was the last day of the summer.
The gold lettering on the glass door read: Messrs Allen & Henwood, Masters of the Photographic Art and when they stepped inside a bell chimed brightly above their heads bringing, bounding to their service from behind a red velvet curtain, the proprietor himself, Mr. Edward Allen.
Inside the studio there is a playful mix of the theatrical and the scientific, the smell of heady noxious fumes was the background note tingling in your nostrils as your eyes travelled to the various scenes assembled around the room, sets paused in anticipation of the next cast of players.
There was a library with floor to ceiling shelves and a parlour with a fake fireplace and a table set for tea; a Grecian temple, marble column and all, beside a canvas hanging painted with a woodland scene of bluebells and in one corner a nursery complete with toys and a rocking horse. All places and lives for the sitters to choose from. The illiterate miner could position himself beside a wall of books, pince-nez on the end of his nose and the untraveled matron could find herself remembering the day she visited the temple of the ancients, a parasol to shade her face also provided. Today however the family chose the standard setting to capture and preserve this moment, just plain but elegant drapery and stiff backed chair for the lady.
It was always a little difficult to get the children to look natural Mr. Allen thought, they tended to look wild eyed and fearful and as for getting them to stand still, well, he did have some tricks but he found seating them firmly on their mothers knee and a little intimidation usually achieved good results. Mr. Allen had also found that as long as the gentleman looked sufficiently masterful and fatherly he could usually sell a satisfactory number of copies.
He ducks under the black cloth and looks at the inverted image of the family. They are all in mourning clothes, dark shadows with just the odd flash of white lace in the ribbon in young girl’s hair and at the neck and wrists of the lady. Hair greased flat. Black boots gleam. All was well polished and cared for. The little girl flaps a toy monkey about but she is looking straight at him, right down the lens of the camera. A moment not to be missed.
“Now Mr. Beard would you be so kind as to perhaps place your hand upon Mrs. Beard’s right shoulder . . . super . . . chin a little higher . . . marvellous . . . now Master Percival could you hold the ball still young sir and look at me for just a . . .?” A slight adjustment in focus and . . . boom! The flash makes the girl bawl and wriggle out her mother’s arms and the boy drops the leather ball with a dull thud. It doesn’t matter however as they are there already. Snapped. The moment has been taken and captured on the glass sheet behind the eye of the lens. The smoke dispersed, the drift of grey melted away but the smell of burnt cinders from the blaze of the chemical flash lingered.
Later Mr. Allen will pass the negative to his rolled-up-sleeved associate, Mr. James Henwood who will work the magic of the development. Looking down into those little chemical baths the image will swim into view. Float onto the surface. That instant caught under the snap of the flash will materialise, inky black, grey and silver. A perfectly preserved monochrome moment. It will then be fixed forever. That moment in time held. Time abated, halted. But it is the events to come that will make this important. Not now though, no one could know it now. Mr. Walter Beard happily pays the fee, coins jangle on the counter, and promises to view the picture and order copies the next day. The very next day.
That evening back at the bungalow there was no mistaking the change in the air. Those brilliant shining evenings, when the sky drops to a rich deep blue, violet touching the sea, are gone. Winter is sliding in, creeping down through the valleys towards the shore. Soon the cold air will burn the leaves, turning them amber and crimson. A bitter wind will press the trees towards sleep. Lying in bed Winifred imagines winter’s frosty gossamer cape wrapping around them all, a mantle and a shroud or perhaps a blanket? Comforting? She isn’t sure but there is the unstoppable silent tiptoe towards dark hibernation. Sleep. Sinking towards rest. As she closes her eyes she hears the steady rolling rhythm of the waves on the beach and her husband’s breath and isn’t sure which is which.
When they walk along the cliffs the next morning, the last day of their holiday, Winifred is struck by the change. The sky is slate grey, high clouds spin by wildly. The sea is brushed steel and the top of the waves foam white as tissue paper.
Looking down from the same spot where just days before they had gazed through a clear glassy window of the ocean surface to the seaweed and fish below, now it seems the sea has changed its chemical properties. It is ashen, opaque and jealously hiding its depths. The horizon, where the bright little fishing boats which Percy loves count could usually be found, is an empty grey haze, undefined.
Dropping down the little twisting path to the beach the family splits into two. Percy and his father turn to the beach and Winifred and Phyllis to the bungalow to take a mid-morning nap. Winifred notices there are piles of bronze and brown seaweed strewn wildly about when just the day before there had been an empty golden canvas for their footprints.
“You’re not thinking to go in are you dear?” She looks anxiously at the inscrutable charcoal coloured water.
Walter chuckles “I think we may, what do you say Percy? It is our last chance this season, Winnie!” She smiles weakly and thinks how puffed up and pleased he looks.
Sitting on the porch Winifred is unsettled, the sound of the waves and the wind fill her head but the beach is empty, they are almost alone, just a man fishing, a silhouette on the shiny leaden coloured rocks beneath the shadow of the cliff. Her eyes drift to her husband who is now at the tides edge.
Walter is standing, hands on his hips, shoulders back, staring out to sea. He is courting the squall Winifred thinks, challenging the waves to a battle of wills, he was ever the same, childish, demanding and pushy. Baiting the world for battles he can’t win. He had been on the boxing team at school and been flattened, he was muddied and bloodied weekly on the rugby field but had courted her relentlessly, incessantly into submission. After their wedding it wasn’t good enough to be a cobbler like his father, he became first man in Cornwall to sell ready-made, off the shelf boots and shoes. The empire of leather, laces and boot polish was his.
She watches as her husband and son take their first steps into the sea and shivers at the thought of the icy water touching their skin. She can almost feel the tug of the knotted seaweed pulling at their ankles. When they are waist deep it seems to her as if they have wading into oil, the water is so thick and dark. A shudder drums through her and at that moment the antimacassar slides off the back of the chair and drops onto her shoulder like a white parrot. Flinching she gets up and fuses it back into its place. A sharp noise on the air makes her pause thinking perhaps Phyllis is awake, she tilts her head towards the white shuttered window. Nothing. Stillness again.
When Winifred turns her eyes back to the sea they are both gone. There is nothing but undulating black water from the shore to the foggy horizon.
The fisherman said later that he never even saw the boy and when he realised the man was in trouble he called out to him. Walter had just put up his hands as if grabbing at the air and then went under, disappeared into the dark inky waves.
“They say he just disappeared, just went under, vanished.” She is glassy eyed again, lost in her thoughts, fondling the memory.
The fettered family stare out of the photograph, their world is a world of black, white and grey and memory. They are held under an inky spell within that silver frame. The frame of the story also, the frame of a bewitched moment and the frame of the memory of an old lady. The family unaltered, suspended and held behind glass in an act of preservation.
“When I look at this it is like time does not exist, I can smell the cinders and feel his hand on my shoulder, do you see? I have them, they are still here with me.” I turned to look at the picture again, white faces looking out from the black. I am eager to get down now from her lap and go out to play, I know the story has ended, as it always does, at the point it always does.
“It’s such a blessing that we captured them as they were.” She touches the boy’s face and he stares back from behind the glass, leather ball under his arm.
Outside on the beach I play games of prisoners held captive, castles and ship wreaks. Gulls circle, the air is salt and brine.
She looks out the shuttered window at the tide rolling in again. Charcoal and grey, pewter and black, mesmerised, bound, hostage. Time suspended.
They are not lost. They are here, held, captured and detained in a photograph.
This story was inspired by real events in my family history in the 19th century.
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