I never publish my writing, even on this blog. It’s mainly because I don’t have enough of it that I consider worthy of even being read by another human, let alone being published anywhere. I’m all talk when it comes to writing. Yes, it’s true, I never get a chance to sit and write, but by the same token, I would do it if it were really important. I haven’t got the self-discipline and I can’t focus for long enough.
As part of some planning for my MA application (yeah, I’m finally doing it, if I can work out how, after ten years out of university), I stumbled across some bits and pieces I’d strung together when preparing an application for a Masters program about seven years ago. I never actually ended up applying, although I had everything pretty much ready. I had planned to study in the UK when I went over all those years ago but for some reason, I can’t think why now, possibly the financial implications, I never ended up applying
But anyway, I came across this piece which, although it is far from polished, and in fact somewhat incoherent really, I thought I’d post here. I quite like it, as the beginning bare bones of something. It has no title, just a series of subtitles for each little section.
Boxing Day in 1924 was a cold but bright day. Rosa, frail and thin, wore a large heavy wool coat and some second-hand men’s sheepskin gloves. Lottie looked the picture of spring, shining cheeks, a freshness and openness about her. Joe wasn’t cold, he was tough. And he didn’t care much for fashion or looks, he just got on with things. Thomas remained smart and stiff with carefully parted hair, and perfectly groomed moustache and a three-piece suit with his watch chain draping appropriately across the front pocket.
Lottie glanced over at her counterpart, the other mother-in-law, sitting alongside her husband. Hands folded in the lap and a hardened look on her pale face, you could see she wasn’t well. She looked about ten years older than she was. As the cameraman adjusted his lens, ducking under his black cloth to check the focus, Lottie wondered about Rosa, and whether she had ever wanted anything more than marriage at 16 and 12 children. There was no real expression on Rosa’s face; you would never know, thought Lottie, that she is the mother of the bride, who sat fidgeting alongside her new husband, glowing with early pregnancy in her usual state of nervous excitement. Perhaps once you’ve been to ten of your children’s weddings you just don’t think it’s special any more. The fashion was certainly well and truly still Victorian, and shabby even at that. Lottie’s hair was a bohemian experiment, piled tight and curly up on top of her head and fenced in with a bright silk scarf. Rosa had worn the same hat twenty years earlier for her eldest daughter’s wedding, a large-brimmed affair with a dull ribbon squeezing the protruding cap.
“Right-oh everyone, hold still…” announced the cameraman as he ducked under his cloth for the final time. Lottie could hear Uncle Jim cracking a joke in the row behind her and she reached her hand up to quiet him, but couldn’t help laughing. Snap went the shutter and that was it. Joe had smiled at the joke too as he sat next to his wife, enjoying the moment, amused by the amount of effort people went to for something as trivial as a photograph. The moment was captured perfectly, Lottie and Joe smiling away as they always did, and Rosa and Thomas, stern and stiff. Two such diverse families one could never meet.
Gladys had spied him walking home from work and had gotten all worked up and flustered, as usual. His shyness was attractive to her in a mysterious and intriguing way. He was used to silly girls mooning over him, and thought nothing of this one; but she was persistent, and that’s what made the difference. She worked herself up into a frenzy. The more he withdrew and went about his usual routine, the more she became adamant that he was the one. She liked the chase. It wasn’t that he didn’t like girls. He just wasn’t interested in the game of flirtation; in fact he didn’t play games at all. He found her attractive too, in a sort of ditsy, helpless way. She wasn’t unintelligent, but she was so highly strung that the slightest thing would cause hysteria. Perhaps it was because she was the youngest girl in her family, much younger than the other two girls, and spoilt rotten. She wasn’t close to her mother; it was her father who doted on her and encouraged her little princess routine.
He puffed on his pipe like a man twice his age and considered things. She was the antithesis of his own mother, who was easy-going and level-headed. She’d probably find this small, hysterical girl endearing, at least until she became annoying. When he was near this jumpy rabbit, he felt a pull as he’d never felt. He’d never been compelled to pursue anyone, but this girl, her chasing and flirting was becoming infectious.
Lottie stood at the shop window watching the reflection of the pipe smoke curling inside an invisible tunnel up into the air. Somehow, without the smoke deviating from its perfectly vertical course, snippets of the sweet, comforting smell drifted across to her, and she felt warmer with each breath.
“I’d love to smell it again,” said Joe, sucking in the air through his mouth with a practised rhythm. It was enough to bring her out of her trance and she straightened her posture and peered with purpose into the shop window momentarily.
“Is this your shop, Sir?” she asked, turning towards him as he leaned against the door frame.
“That it is, Miss,” he replied.
“I wonder if you might consider selling some of my garments?” she asked, lifting the cloth that covered a large wicker basket she held. He moved only his eyes in the direction of the basket for a few moments then chewed the stem of his pipe. “On commission, of course,” she added hurriedly. He slowly breathed out a soft cloud of smoke.
“I mean no disrespec’, Miss, but ‘ow can I be certain ye’re of good repute?” he asked.
“Well, I… I must say, Sir, I am quite offended by that. I know not whether you and your shop are of good repute yet I am willing to sell my items here, at least on a trial basis.” She tried to stare him down, even though he wasn’t looking at her. Joe peered into the bowl of his pipe, then tapped it sharply against the wall to free the last few ashes. He turned and held out a hand for the basket.
“Come inside, Miss, an’ I’ll see what ye’ve got.” She hesitated, but let him take the basket so knew she had to follow him in.
The shop itself was most interesting; it didn’t fit into any particular category—iron mongers, haberdashers, tailors—there was such variety of goods filling the shelves which reached to the high ceilings. Lottie couldn’t help staring in amazement before she noticed him watching her with amusement and collected herself, replacing her look of amazement with a look that said she’d seen it all before.
“Is this your own work, Miss?” asked Joe, running a finger over a finely embroidered red rose, intricate green leaves curling around it in a myriad of Celtic style patterns.
“Of course,” she replied haughtily. Joe smiled at her, noticing for the first time that her own clothes were adorned with the same style of embroidery, tiny coloured flowers on the dark background of her bodice.
“Your work is very fine,” he nodded. She relaxed a little, having been ready to gather it quickly into the basket and march out of the shop, secretly terrified. “I’ll sell it, at an agreed price, with commission.” Lottie breathed an audible sigh of relief and was about to speak when…
“On one condition.”
She immediately became suspicious again.
“Is the commission not a condition already?” she asked, grasping the embroidered nightdress, ready to leave. He noticed how tense she was.
“Yes, ye’re right, that it is.” He pulled a shirt from the basket and held the colour close to his eye, lifting his glasses to see it clearly in detail. “I’ll give ye thruppence for each o’ the men’s shirts and a shilling for each ladies nightdress.” It was more than she’d expected, and she wondered what his game was. But the money was all important, so she nodded in agreement.
“I’ll warrant there’ll be a demand for your garments, but we’ll wait to see what happens. Come back in a week,” he said bluntly, gathering the pile of clothes out of the basket and dumping them on the counter behind him. There was something about him, she thought, that told her he was honest. Perhaps the pipe smoking. Her father would puff on his by the fire of an evening and announce to no one in particular, ‘ye can alweez trest a man wi’ a paipe’.
So with that she left the shop, sneaking another quick glance at its crowded walls, full of everything from tea sets to nails.
Uncle Buddy was the first person in the street to own a camera. The camera itself had been around for years, but only professional photographers, of which there were not many down the East End in the 1930s, owned them. There hadn’t been many celebrations or real knees-ups for some time, since the beginning of the war when Arthur was sent off. Lottie had never been the same, but had helped so many, which in some way helped her own grief. Life moved fast, and Lottie made it so. As long as things were humming along, as long as she just got on with things, there would be no time to mull over losses, which really was a waste of time and made one old beyond her years, said Lottie, when questioned as to her busy life. It was worth it, for her, as she brought solace to so many grieving mothers; most of them felt their sadness wane, knowing what Lottie herself had gone through.
The trouble was, the camera didn’t accommodate speed. It didn’t accommodate any movement. In order to be captured on camera, one had to remain absolutely still for at least a minute, depending on the light of the day. So all of Uncle Buddy’s earliest pictures were of buildings or graves, which were guaranteed to remain steadfast and one could really focus, get the timing right, the shadows black and the light white. A grave was the closest thing to a person that Buddy could photograph. He could have asked a stranger, paid some quiet child to sit still for him, but he felt as if the subject should be still by its very nature. Posing, trying to remain still and frozen for the photograph was so unnatural and, to Buddy, went against the very reason for the existence of the medium. Painting was a medium with which one could capture movement, and moving objects and depict them in any way needed. It was artistic license, making it up according to a fantasy. A photograph was real and should never be used for trickery.
The tragedy of war, the removal of life, the future of an entire family, had caused Uncle Buddy to develop a fixed way of thinking about photographs. And it took the birth of Lottie’s first grandchild, only son of her only son, to bring her back to life. She remembered dancing, singing, the many celebrations she had been a part of since her marriage until 1917. Celebrations became a part of daily life—in fact not celebrating became a novelty, and Joe secretly relished those days off, where he could smoke his pipe in peace and quiet and think of nothing.
Uncle Buddy got a new camera. For him, it was a whole new medium. It replaced his painting almost entirely. It captured life, movement.
“Awright, you lot… ‘Eck, pop in there on that side… wear your ‘at, can’t ‘ave a picture without the ‘at… put that baby down for a moment, will you Glad? No, Ron, thas it, pop yer ‘ead in, thas right…” Joe bared his missing teeth as he laughed along with Ron, the next door neighbour, and Mrs Axley from across the road, who was laughing so hysterically by this point that she held a hand to her mouth and tears brimmed in her eyes. Gladys finally relaxed, her thick glasses giving her something convenient to hide behind, as she smiled at her husband, laughing heartily, a rare thing for him. Uncle Buddy chose the moment and the flash bulb smashed, the moment captured. Lottie was in the corner. Whether she laughed, we’ll never know. That corner of the photograph was torn off by mistake.