The photographs before my memory are without colour. That is, they are black and white, like flashes of ash from a fire, as though they will be broken when they leave my fingers and float on to the appropriate lot. Sometimes they are hand-tinted like the photo of my parents on their wedding day: against the pale magic of one impression the startling colours of another. My parents gave these old photos to me, names and dates lightly sketched on the back in pencil, but they mean little to me. No, that's not true, they are the ones I would be least likely to throw away, but I don't much understand how they belong to me and I to them. They are like secrets whispered too softly. I have the gist, but not the details.
Amongst the photos of my memory is one of me, ten years old, sitting at the formica table in the dining-room. I look strained, although smiling, and I am wearing a party hat that feels like cobwebs on my hair. There is a cake in front of me with candles which I have blown out, and I probably want to lick my fingers and make the burning wicks sizzle between them, but my Mum's sister, my auntie, has said for me to 'smile'. The wicks will be cold by the time she has finished. Seated around me are six friends, my sister and my brother. They look cheerful but a little shy. I guess my father (the jovial round man with the glass of whisky raised in a 'cheers' fashion above my head) was swamping us with his jokes, asides to my mother, and his inability to believe we could make our own fun, or our own silence. Later my father would have gone to sleep on the couch, leaving Mum in the kitchen doing the dishes and us playing outside. I would have run down the slope of our section and my red party hat would have flown backwards off my head and pressed against the chicken wire on the rabbit hutch because it was windy. Then it would be time for pass the parcel. And who cares who gets the stupid prize. Except my parents, saying it didn't matter so often and so anxiously that it mattered unbearably. And someone else would zip the prize into her bag and take it home, leaving me crying.page 100
Here's a photo of my brother. He stands at the edge of the water in the Marlborough Sounds, looking out to sea. He is frowning slightly. He stands straight in his red gumboots staring at something. He is rather beautiful with thick wavy hair and dark eyes. My father certainly didn't take that photo; Richard is not wearing a sheepish or strained smile. My mother did not take that photo, demanding that he look at her while she fumbled for the right button. I remember now what he was doing, standing on the golden sand and so intent. Jenny, my older sister, had rowed the dingy out, pitting the strength of her thin arms against the lethargy of the water, pulling and pulling at the oars. And she could make it move. Jenny could do anything she wanted to do if she put her mind to it. That day she was going fishing, by herself. Richard wanted to go too, but he wasn't allowed, he was too young. Dad said he would take him out when Jenny got back, so he stood and watched her like that for an hour or so until she got bored or cold or hungry and rowed back in, pulling at the corners of the sea's mouth. He helped my father and Jenny pull the boat in, but my father took a long time to get ready. Richard stood waiting, his hand resting on the side of the dingy. They went out. My father rowed. Richard sat quietly, staring down at the sea, watching the blue creases made by the oars. I remember now who took that photo. I did, with Mum and Dad's camera. They didn't know, Richard didn't know and I had almost forgotten myself. Even then I must have been impressed by Richard's capacity to wait things out, his tenacity. Or perhaps it was his beauty.
I am seven. I am standing beside a beached whale which makes a black shiny hill beside me. I don't know why I am here, but someone has photographed me. I'm wearing green cords and a brown cable-knit jumper. I have a thin line of a face with anxious eyes. I hate the whale. It is the shape of my worst nightmare. Someone has photographed me, seven years old, beside a seven-year-old's bad dream. Someone with a Diane Arbus sense of humour and imagination, or with no imagination at all. Possibly my brother. Or my sister.
Under your eyes I become this woman in the photograph. Your eyes which are shaped like the curve of a flame above a candle. I grow breasts and hips, a face and long fair hair. I grow this shy smile. As you take the photo the halo
of your shirt cuff around your wrist fascinates me—no, more than fascinates, it brings tears to my eyes. I, who have stood silently beside a whale to have my photograph taken, cry at the way your shirt circles your wrist, and your straight black hair springs out to skip your forehead and rests lightly above your eyelashes. You are so gentle. It seems this cannot last.
Clouds jag on the pinnacles of Notre Dame like sheep's wool on the snags of barbed wire. You have taken it upon yourself to show me Paris although I am the one who has visited it before. You are self-important and distracted with your streetmap and your watch. The artists are where they should be, and the art galleries and Notre Dame itself and the stand-up cafés and the tiny robust coffees, all as they should be. It is very gratifying for you. The photograph is of me, with as much as possible of Paris pushed into the background. The photograph is of Paris. I am tiny, dark, crawling like a fly on the face of the city of romance.
I am in Paris, travelling alone. I discover cinnamon-flavoured chewing-gum. And the joy of deciphering billboards, and under their flapping corners where the glue missed, another poster with another product, theatre, band that has had its moment. And the soft wavy unreal air of the underground.
I am at my brother's funeral. My parents cried: my father in loud short bursts, my mother quietly and unceasingly. My sister cried into her hanky, into her hands, her forehead wrinkled with distress and disbelief. I didn't cry. My grief which was tall and straight had to be broken several times and folded together to fit inside me the day of the funeral. I had no words, my mouth was shut, my throat closed; there was no place to cry from except from here, from the gut, a long long silent cry. Behind us the sky is crazed with thin white clouds and my hands are folded one on top of the other, resting on the cotton weave fabric of my dress. I am there beside my sister, beside my mother and my father. And there is one person more, a baby. My parents' nephew, my cousin, weeks old. My father held his small body close to his chest nearly all that day. And hovering in the background another face, the face of the baby's mother, the baby's mother is crying.
I am not one of those definite and tidy types. Look at this photo. One of my hands is missing. I am describing something with my arms flung out, so my body is left defenceless. I am laughing and the top of my head is cut off. But my dress is beautiful. I got it from the op shop; it's light green satin with large pale silver stars embroidered on it. When I grow brittle and false and speak too loudly and fling my arms out, I hope this calm green shining dress, this dress with quiet stars, I hope it speaks for me.
My sister sent me this photo of herself and her husband and two children. The hair of the children shines in the sun; my sister's brown hair absorbs the sun. It would be warm to touch. They are healthy; each cheek glows. The photo is sterile, like a piece of gauze inside a cellophane slip. It is pretty in its clean whiteness, and fascinating to touch, but it may cover some dank smelling sore on a hidden part of the body. Or maybe not. I don't know.