Faded pictures in the hallway. Which of them brown ghosts is he?
Aisling, Shane MacGowan
One of my favourite photographs of my mother is of her smiling, alone in a windswept pac-a-mac and headscarf in front of a rocky outcrop. On the back it says “Snowdon Summit. Sept 58” in her clear handwriting that is still so familiar to me. She obviously liked the photo enough to have labelled it, anchoring it in time and place.
It comes from a battered biscuit tin full of old photographs. The box is dark green with a leaf and fence pattern that reeks of the late fifties. I’ve known it my whole life. Through my childhood it sat in the bottom cupboard of my mother’s reproduction Welsh dresser. When she died it came to our house in Swansea and was put up on a shelf with our own albums for a while. We moved soon after and the box found its way into my uncle’s old pine dresser in our dining room. As the stack of school photographs of our children grew, the box was eased out of place and found its refuge for the last fifteen years on the top shelf of my back office. It’s been pretty much forgotten in all that time.
Which is odd really, as its contents comprise a wealth of family photographs of people once deemed worth remembering, by the very act of taking their picture. The pictures are mostly black and white, some sepia, and there are packets of negatives and slides too. The majority are of my mother’s side of the family, as the youngest of seven my father had only a handful of photos in his possession.
I have a couple of him in his Home Guard troop, one at the secondary school he always called Borstal, and one of him (at front right) as the slightest of flankers in Brynamman’s rugby team in the late forties.
I find pictures of my mother’s brother Ralph as a young man on a lads’ trip to London. He’s crouching to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. There’s another of him with a pint in hand dressed in a blazer along with his football teammates. There are numerous wedding and school photographs in their presentation folders, the corners tucked in to secure them. Several are of me, sent to relatives that were dutifully returned when they died. There are more of me sitting on the knees of dubious looking Santas in Co-op’s Christmas Grotto. There is also a letter from Santa, individually written, he even mentions my dog by name. Signed SANTA CLAUS XX in a suspiciously elfish hand. All caps.
I find it impossible to differentiate between me and my three cousins as babies, even though they were all girls. I scrutinise group shots taken on works do’s to see if I know anyone at all in them. Butlins holiday snaps of my grandparents and aunties stand out due to the professional quality, taken by the camp photographer.
Then there are the album discards. Crap colour photos taken with a tiny lensed Kodak Instamatic, the film badly kept or processed. Even these hold secrets and prompt memories half forgotten — the way my parents decorated the living room at Christmas, the always overgrown front lawn at my grandparents’, next door’s cat (imaginatively named ‘Puss’). I find a set of inexplicable snaps of a flower laden gravesite — probably my grandmother’s in 1972. There are arrays of Christmas presents and many photos of my parents’ garden. I have a set of colour snaps of Brynamman Carnival from 1976, which I only ever watched, never took part. From the same hot summer a photo of the brown grass outside St Helen’s cricket field in Swansea where I’d been taken to see the West Indies play. Oddly, there are no photos of the cricket.
I come across an invitation to a kiddie’s second birthday party — to me from my cousin, written in her mother’s hand. A rare image of my mother, in a swimming costume in Tenby in 1971, is partly obscured by a clumsy thumb that’s encroached on the lens. There are photographs of the Red Arrows and other aircraft from a trip to Farnborough Air Show in 1975. These are square with round corners, just one format in a plethora of different ratios, sizes and quality. There is also a newspaper cutting from 1956 with a picture of my dad at work cutting a gravestone, next to an advert for Milk of Magnesia.
I have no idea who the two girls are that sit to the left of my mother on a 1950s beach. It is Langland, I can tell from the huts behind them. My mother is young and lovely with a cute smile. I have others of her nameless friends, alone on sparsely populated sand, should I keep them? I don’t have the heart to end their commemoration after all these years. I’ll leave that to my kids when I am gone.
I open a packet of photos from my parents’ wedding day. I can’t remember them ever having a formal album. They had some in a couple of pages of our family album but nothing separate. It’s puzzling, as these black and white with fancy cut edges are better quality than many of the small colour ones in the album. There are also dozens of tiny curling black and white squares that show my parents on a day out to Cyfarthfa Castle with my grandmother, and more from their honeymoon in Bath. I realise my parents didn’t value these mono prints as much as the ‘Truprint’ colour ones that are bound in sticky flapped albums. I resolve to organise them somehow, but probably won't.
Marked 1939 on the back, there is a set of small brown photos of my lovely Uncle Ronald, smiling on the back of a tricycle with his sister Betty before he got Polio. There are a couple that must be of their father, my great grandfather, who’s name I forget. In another one I recognise my grandmother at the front of a group of young women who look old before their time. Next comes a snap of my grandfather looking raffish, standing on a swing, or something industrial perhaps, grinning.
A whole mini album of Polaroid pictures from my birthday party in the early seventies has my Auntie and Uncle drinking tea, children on the floor so the adults could sit on the few chairs, and me in a tank top cutting the cake. I was nine. I curse the quality of the group shot I took, probably the last photo of my father’s oldest brother with three of his siblings, he died later that year, it is blurry and dim, like my memory of him.
Then I rediscover an old school photograph of my mother when she lived in London. Someone, not my mother, has written on the back “Taken outside Parliament December 1948”. Like many of the older photos it’s dogeared and crumpled but it also holds a secret. As I turn it slightly to the light I catch an impression made by drawing onto a sheet of paper over the photo, the way you leave an indent of a scribbled note on the sheet below. It has two love hearts (with arrows!) — one haloing my mother’s head and the other a handsome young lad in a school cap in the back row. I had scanned and digitally retouched this photo years ago but I’d never noticed this secret message from the past before.
But it’s the forgotten ones that haunt me. A blurry photo of a girl dressed as Annie Oakley at a carnival has “Margaret” on the back, but I’m none the wiser. From a different era, there’s a picture of anonymous carnival queens on a long ago sunny day. I have photos of odd looking babies that couldn’t keep still, their eyes like fuzzy prunes, and an ancient class picture “Tairgwaith School Srd. V” from 1928 that reveals nothing to me other than the maudlin thought that these proud little children are almost certainly all dead by now. An Edwardian era sepia is captioned “Sarah Ann sitting and Rebecca is standing up. Love Tom”. Two First World War soldiers are merely labelled “To Ann”. I have never known who any of these people were.
Then I open a newer packet. I linger on a photo of my gorgeous, suntanned wife when I first met her in 1988, holding her cat, Bonnie. There are a couple of my parents looking happy outside the greenhouse the year before my father died. These are still bright, for now, but are undoubtedly already chemically fading, as surely as the ones from 1915.
We keep these artefacts as sacred whispers from the past, ghostly copies of the people that we were, and the people that have gone. I won’t be the one to send them on their way. I put the box back up on the shelf.