It’s the size of a biscuit box, or maybe larger, bound in purple watered silk, frayed now and split where the hinged lid was torn one lonely autumn, and beneath the thin cloth, beneath the padded lush interior, there’s that grey dusty cardboard that shows through along the seams, with those dusty furred edges: soft, burst, leaving a trail of fibres as you hold it up and smell the musty interior.
And that smell – the smell of a disconsolate, an oddly absent childhood – is the smell of old sheets, sweet tobacco, damp paper, stacks of old newsprint – a smell you have in a biscuit barrel, when the biscuits are gone. If I hold it like this, and breathe, I can see a thousand lives and hear a century of whispers. And when I lift it, inside, there are a hundred, maybe more, photos of the dead. Who are these people, caught in winter sunlight in thick hats, the deckle-edge photographs so tiny and frail? Who are the iron-jawed women, helmet-haired, frozen in formal grimaces, speechless, stern and adrift in their archipelagos of light?
The photos pour from yellow envelopes, from tissue wraps, stacked in little sets as if they signify a holiday or separate history – a life picked apart in careful frame, where sepia trees thinly lean into view in ancient lost summers, where a car is seen in otherwise carless streets beside a man in a homburg, or the edges of a long decaying dive are filled with wisteria, sagging and fading into a pale vignette, as if everyone had left the scene.
Under some envelopes of negatives, a few images are colour, yet these colours are turning blue, most are poorly focussed, a soft blur at the edge of a mouth, a weakness around the eyes, a dance or gesture caught in a gauze of light that leaves you guessing at each intention, each extension outward from that moment, that very moment, into this central silence.
‘It was a pyjama case,’ she shouts. ‘He sent it through from the barracks before the Africa thing. They were silk. Broad legs and with a sash, too. And so yellow.’
‘Yes, I remember you saying,’ I shout through to the kitchen. ‘I remember that. It’s a bit worse for wear now. I’m just looking at some photos of—’ but my voice drifts off as I stare at the faces.
I set the box down on to the polished table and step back. I can smell the lamb cooking, I can smell the carpet, freshly swept with that old Ewbank she has, and I can feel the empty room and hear the clock ticking. Are Sundays always days of grief and betryal?
What is a family, beyond a box of strangers lost on the third generation, trapped in tiny images like these, some photos so small you can barely see the lake, or that crumbling tower, or the servants, thinly standing in their whites?
The window has streamed up and one tear of condensation runs free, I watch it take its halting line to the sill, where a little puddle has formed on the paintwork. Through pane, I can see the garden, strained into shape, whittled and weeded, pruned tightly into little loyal patterns of colour. But it’s cold out there. Half the flowers are tied down, dead now. Past the fence, there’s just enough urban wilderness to please the children, and farther, a broad road cuts the middle distance and sends its sibilance towards us like, I imagine, a hidden river. Higher, farther and farther, I focus on the dark moors, those simple stainless shapes, flowing into a horizon above the tiered mills and terraces of this town, and at the top of those hills, like a single thorn, is an almost imperceptible obelisk, a moss-drawn, rain scoured, granite cenotaph the walkers always find, unexpectedly.