Those black and white days
I never remember the clouds being so grey. Then the photo was in black and white. Maybe that dulled down what was a perfectly bright day. Auntie Mags always took out the boxes of photos. I could nearly tell her what photos were in what album. They were colour coded for her, with notes on the top of the lids to verify content – just in case.
The black one held the grandmother’s collection – her life story. The last entries were the day of her funeral. All the family including the grandkids were lined up. Some on the front row sitting on the floor – and others, who were distracting, filled the crevices between their parents. There was a great mix of black on the parents and then the odd splash of 90’s colour with my shell suit and some other fluorescent rogue cousins.
The green box came next, this was her summer holidays collection from the many years in the caravan parks. All the family trapsing together from park to park, all in tandem. Aunt Tessa’s caravan was always the biggest – mum used to say that it could ‘barely hold the head of her, her and her notions’.
Then she rallied to a top drawer of the unit that rattled every time you passed it. The delph in the glassed doors swayed ever so slightly every time someone marched past. It was like it was a little morris code message dddd…d…d.dd…ddd..d loosely translated to – ‘hello our location since 1968 has been on the high seas – PS Sea sickness not alleviating’. Their pleas went unheard. They remained perfectly intact clobber, destined to spend its life in unsettled territory.
The drawer was gently returned to closed but a photo remained in Mags’ hands. She began to tell the story of the souls within it. The usual muttering and jokes were the lead into the big reveal. It was hard to tell the punchlines, I just laughed when I got my queue from watching the creases on the side of her face become more like canyons. I would throw on a smile, sometimes if in serious doubt I held that smile there taut and ready. Sometimes, just sometimes, the whole thing felt like dawn was turning to dusk right in front of you, it went on so long.
Today was different, she grabbed two cups and filled them with ‘well stewed’ tea. She dropped the coasters with unusual speed and inaccuracy. They both skidded off the edge of the finely polished solid oak table that had been inherited from the ancestors too far back to name. Those coasters were her pride, the first thing that she added to the inherited space she lived in. Each had on them a native flower – one from every season. She got two sets in case her guest numbers exceeded four. It was something that set her mark on the home she was born and reared in. They were a bargain too, five pounds a set at a small shop selling brick a brack. She was convinced that should she sell them today they would make an inordinate amount of profit for her.
Her half apron was causing her distraction now, the photo still languishing in her hand, like my interest. It had gotten tangled as she yanked at it to come from the back to the front so that she could undo the knot she had gotten into it. There was nothing elegant as she swished and exalted in and out trying to get a fork to it. At one point she yelped as her stressed knuckles walloped the door frame.
Eventually she decided enough was enough and she shimmied out of the ‘blasted thing’. She finally began ‘I found a photo I thought had been long since lost. The neighbours always said they would end up together such a pretty pair they were. From when they were knee high to a grasshopper’. My response was just a vacant nod, assuring her that she could continue, it was weak in its commitment to her memory.
‘Yes, well look at them two in the photo there, who do you think that is?’. I thought I would come back with a smart answer to her but thought better of it. ’Is it mum and dad, is it?’, me all assuming that I was on the right track.
‘That’s what I thought at first but no, it’s your father and Betty, his first love’. It was a young man dressed in a woollen jumper with shins on show and then there was that bright smile that stood beside him. A perfect form. She had her hair tied up but there were shorter strands stretched outside the grip of her hair band. They both stood separate from each other, but no matter how much they tried they were drawn to each other, this I could feel from the photo and auntie Mag’s words. A happiness danced in their eyes that was almost giddy and colourful despite the dull tones that I was now seeing them in.
‘And do you see the other one there?’.
Truth be told I hadn’t noticed. Mag’s pointed to the rear of the photo and there was a head peaking over. Looking forlorn from what I could see – but maybe that was my feeling for this lost soul trying to be part of something she was clearly not meant to be included in.
‘That’s Maura, that’s your mother there’. My heart sank into my shoes. I wondered what she was feeling at the time the image was captured. Was she trying to keep herself where she stood and not run in and rugby tackle this Betty woman to the ground? Or maybe she was sick at the thought of having Betty and Jim, my dad, getting closer – like she could scream but her words had no justification for coming out. Her heart pounding, longing, and fracturing as she looked on powerless.
My cognitive brain knew there was no happy ending for Jim and Betty. That was clear, we were the proof. I was here and so were my two brothers and of course little Michael who was lost at childbirth. We had waited for him to come home from the hospital, and we didn’t understand where he was gone. I can’t imagine what that was like for Jim and Maura. The only comfort could be that he was with them both now somewhere out there. In that vast space out there.
What did Maura do – suddenly in my head she was Maura, not mom or mother dearest – no just Maura. I needed to keep her a safe distance until I knew all the facts. Suddenly, my DNA took a leap into the unknown scrambling to see where the data might reflect ‘home wrecker’. Hold on was that what Maura was?
Data review returned nothing only loving mother and doctor of the arts. Like a cross between her resume and her eulogy.
I needed Mag’s to explain this whole confusion and to do so pronto, the curious mind does not stop until answers are received.
‘I don’t know what the timing was, but I was visiting uncle Jack’s grave and Moya and granny May were down the same lane, so I ventured down. And there she was standing at his grave, just staring.
‘At who’s grave’ I asked but I felt I already knew the answer to that. She responded swiftly ‘Jim’s you, I don’t know, try to keep up with the story’. I said hello. It took her a minute to realise who I was, but I knew her straight away. It was like she was 16 again but like, you know those bags that you put your clothes in to and suction all of the air and life out of them, so they are flat as a pancake. Well, she was like that. You could still make out it was her, with the life sucked out of her. Your dad was not what you might call the catch of the town, Betty’s dad saw that and only that. He saw us as the terrace dwellers, as close as you can get to council without the title. It was like our house was this black box that he had cordoned off in his mind. Every time we met him on the street, Dick as he was called, would just lower his head like making eye contact with any of us would be dangerous to his health’.
There was a pause and only silence from me, that’s the best I could offer. I waited for the conclusion to the story.
‘The last time they saw each other Betty told me, she can’t remember quite where they were. She just remembered that the coat she had on her was no match for the rain that seeped through to her skin. She wanted her and Jim to run off – they were a good while shy of 18, they had no where to go and no one to take them there. She said that she thought of him a lot and that she did meet him and your mother over the years. She loved that he was so happy, tossing some of you in the air as he walked freely down the street. She never had any children, but she married well’.
There was a gap, like this moment could go either way.
‘And that’s all you can say about that’.
I took a deep breathe into nothing.
‘More tea my love?’.
I think I said yes.