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In all of the pictures taken of us together I’ve noticed you’re always on my right. There I am – the left hand girl. Kind of feels funny now you’re not here. Like I’ve lost my right hand.
There’s no sign of what’s to come in any of the photos. You can’t tell at all. Who’s to say that this girl is going somewhere, will be someone, while the other… well, who’s to say?
Of course I can see certain things that a stranger, an impartial observer, might not. After all, I was there, wasn’t I? I’m there in the images, it’s indisputable, and it’s my thumb print I see in photos of us. “Jan was here” it says. And the photos you had processed, the ones that passed through your camera have dates on the back because you liked to nail them fast and tight to a year, a month, an occasion.
‘March 81’ is written on the reverse of the one with me at the beach wearing that dark brown full-piece with the diamante butterfly. I’m smiling hard and happy at the camera and there’s a floating wisp of your hair stranded in the left hand corner. You took the picture and you still managed to get into the frame. On my right, too.
There you are on my right again in the one of us at a party our parents threw. The kind of party they had every week when “Nutbush City Limits” thumped out of tinny speakers and people in the caravan park complained about the music, the swearing and the drunkenness. The ones that weren’t at the party, that is.
There we are in our thick jumpers, slurping on beer. But you got caught by the photographer and stunned red-dot eyes are glaring over the top of your glass. You look like a rabbit. We’re both twelve years old in that picture and you said, “Aren’t we fat?” when you looked at it six years later. I disagreed with you. Still do. We were never fat, yet it’s one of the things you tell your friends. One of your stories that have changed your past, distorting the truth. But I have the evidence. It’s in the photo.
I got cut out of the one of us in Sydney. I’m not sure whether the photographer (some passer-by you stopped with an outstretched hand and a look he’d never say no to) did this on purpose or by accident. I think the former, for there is my right leg and a hand on the railing and, to my right, in the centre of the picture, there is you. All you, this one, and surely not by chance. You with your throat stretched out white and vulnerable; you with an arm raised in lazy salute. You with that rolled bottom lip and that smoky-eye burn and a jutting hip which demands attention. You’ve certainly learned something by then. How not to get caught by the photographer, maybe. How not to look like a rabbit.
And then there were the professional photos, the ones Max and Jerry took of you, some of you and I, but mainly of you. Isn’t it funny how they look the same? Black skivvies and a shroud of mane. You’d dyed your hair by then. Black to match those eyebrows and that stare.
You have all the copies of these. Rolls and rolls of film. You inspected the proof sheets with an enlarger and talked about lighting, exposure and mood. Your mum asked Max to blow up one of us so she could hang it in her lounge. And there we are – on her wall, yet in a warehouse. Us together, now apart.
The mood in this is, like the rest, dark and sombre. I’m a mere presence. The slightest inkling of out-of-focus recognition surrounds the blur of my features. To my right? You fill the picture. You’re gazing out a window and light pools on your face. I’d swear you’re actually alight. But the smile is remote and disengaged.
That’s what they wanted, wasn’t it? They wanted to capture that image because it’s what they saw. They were your lovers so they though they knew, but the impression is only a shard – a splintered section of the real person. This was as close as they got.
David’s only in one of the pictures with us, mainly because he disliked being photographed. He took photos, though, and I had a feeling, a kind of nervous tension, when he lifted the camera to his eye the first time. What will he see, I wondered. Then I thought, let’s get this over with. Take me and take my friend. Then he did. He took my friend.
I still had to do it, thought. I had to introduce them, and in the photo you can see what this first meeting was like.
We went on a picnic to Kings Park. You brought along a cardboard cutout of the Queen’s head which you’d lacquered and attached to some piping so you could say we’d dined with royalty. You also said you had to bring a date, didn’t want to play gooseberry, and we all laughed at this, the idea was so absurd.
So we dined with royalty. There’s you and the Queen and Dave and me. All in a row and smiling for the camera. That’s what I thought, anyway. What I now see is that you’re giving the royal wave – curled fingers raised – and behind that hand your eyes are turned to meet Dave’s. And the two of you are smiling at each other. The Queen and I were made gooseberries. Even then.
I tore up some of the others before rescuing them from the bin. I felt I couldn’t lose them. They’re my pictures, you see. My past, too.
There we are at the Christmas party you staged to celebrate another of your successes and the champagne was French. You’re wearing a black dress made of taffeta and silk. Transparent red beads like chunks of bloodied jelly surround your neck. Me on the left with a tight-lip smile. Maybe I knew, maybe I suspected. Everyone said I should have seen it coming.
Our parents were there and your sister and grandmother, beyond the bounds of this frame. Implied, too, is the presence of a photographer. David, I see you. I see you as I did when you came to pick me up that day wearing a white shirt that made your skin glow like polished leather and a three day growth that sandpapered my cheek.
You had come for her, thought I didn’t know it then. It’s so hard to tell where hindsight and reality mingle. Looking back, I believe I know. I believe I can see it in the way you avoid my lips but that’s a re-run getting played my way. At the time, the play was up to her.
I have become the rabbit in this Christmas photo. My brown eyes are wide and numb and that smile is a mark of control. I am a drab rag next to you. You paid for this show and it ran your way with the waiters bent like your beckoning finger, eager to serve, and everyone loving you, myself included.
On the back of this picture you’ve written ‘Me & Jan, Christmas 91’, but it has ended up in my collection. One of my shards. And it is in shards, too. A jagged tear runs across the shoulder you’ve turned to me. Me on your left. You on my right, and the tear threads its way between, all around, forcing us apart.
Yet I rescued this photo. I sticky-taped it back together without worrying too much about the way the join matched up. I slotted it back into the flick-over ranks of my photo album. And there it rests. Christmas ’91. Me and Jan. You and the gooseberry fool.
This short story was originally published in a slightly different version in Westerly.