Barbara stirs her tea and steels herself before returning to the dining room, mug in hand. She sits, thoughtfully, before the pale blue folder. It glares at her; it dares her.
She sips her tea. Another minute can’t hurt, can it? There’s no one here to witness how much time she takes to find the courage to plunge into the past. It is her past, after all.
She takes a deep breath and almost moves her hand towards the folder, but fails. She surprises herself with the thought, Why couldn’t she just wait until I was dead? And then, in a rush, before that other part of her can interfere, she flips the cover open.
So these are the ones you chose, she thinks, addressing Sophie in her mind. Tell me what photos you like best, and I’ll tell you who you are. Someone said that once. Phil, perhaps?
A woman, in hot pants, on a pushbike.
Images flash up: A grazed knee. A kite. Another, different bike. Those bikes… Jonathan wanted one so badly. All the boys did. What was it called again? The brand escapes her. Pretty girls on bikes baring flesh – the Seventies in a nutshell. She smiles to herself, and, feeling momentarily braver, flips to the next image.
A man, this time; a man in a sports car. He’s wearing a white shirt, a tie, and red braces. Braces. Her mother had a photo of her father wearing braces. Nobody wears braces anymore. What was the point of them? Why didn’t they just use a belt? The man in the photo is smoking a cigar – he looks smug and wealthy and really rather horrid. What was it they called them? Yuppies! Yes, that’s it. Yuppies. Young, upwardly mobile something-or-others. The Eighties then. The Thatcher years. She and Tony did all-right in the Eighties, but it was a terrible time for most.
She flips another page. A couple of punks with mohican haircuts, kissing on Brighton pier. She had been beside him when he took it, and some sweet, sickly sensual memory, the smell of candy-floss, perhaps, comes back to her now. Yes, she had been there. Sophie was begging to go on the Waltzer and in the end, they had caved in. Big mistake. She had vomited all over the push chair.
She flips another page and inhales sharply. This one has caught her by surprise. She had forgotten, momentarily, why she was nervous about this. And here it is. The past rushing at her like a freight train. 1969 or 1970? She’s not sure. Election year, anyway. The year of Edward Heath’s surprise victory for the Conservatives. One of the worst governments in history, wasn’t that what people used to say about Heath? If only they had known what was to come, they might have gone easier on him.
She remembers Tony taking this one. Or did she take it? Yes, she suspects that she did. She thinks (but isn’t sure) that she did it to spite him over some slight, real or imagined. For who, forty years later, can recall which moods were justified, and which moods weren’t?
She studies the photo and feels vaguely sick. Yes, she took it. And she developed it too. Tony was run off his feet whizzing up and down the country picking up rolls of film and typed sheets with news stories from journalists covering the election rallies. So she had developed it herself in the cellar, the first time he had ever asked her to do so. Sophie, who was upstairs in a cot, cried throughout. Yes, it’s all coming back to her now.
She remembers Tony excitedly announcing that he had sold the photo, remembers buying The Mirror, and thrilling to see her photo in print. She hid that newspaper. She wonders when she lost it. It probably got used to light a fire at some point!
Her throat feels dry, so she sips her tea. She can sense, again, the strange atmosphere around the flat at the time, born of the fact that they would not, could not, discuss that photo. They both knew who had pressed the shutter release, and they both knew that the other person knew the truth as well. It was the only photo in the whole batch that she had taken, and it was the only one The Mirror chose to publish. Women Voters Fear Roll-Back of Rights. She can still picture the heading in her mind’s eye. She spent hours looking proudly at that page of newsprint. She would get it out, and sit and look at it. A secret pleasure.
Tony had vanished after that, in theory, to celebrate, but in reality, it was the truth he needed to drown, a truth that came back to haunt them almost seven months later when that same photo won the damned prize. But by then they were pretending, even in private, even between husband and wife, that Tony had taken it himself. She can’t remember when the decision to lie to each other, to lie to themselves, was taken. It felt like it just happened. It was required, that was all. Rewriting history turned out to be a surprisingly easy thing to do and within a couple of years, she had struggled to remember quite who had taken the photo. But that must have been a choice, because she certainly remembers now.
At the time, of course (so it was 1970, then) she had far more important things to worry about. Who actually pressed the lever was neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things.
She inhales sharply. She wasn’t expecting that. She wasn’t expecting the physical sensation of Minnie’s boney hand to suddenly leap out of her memory at her. Her last physical contact with her mother. She remembers begging the nurses for more morphine, remembers laughing hysterically (in the true sense of that word) when the ward sister informed her that any more morphine than Minnie was already taking would kill her. Her eyes are wet now, her eyesight unfocussed, her mind’s eye projecting, above the soft, grey blur of Trafalgar Square, the full horror of Minnie’s slow death.
She swipes at a tear and even this provokes a memory, the physical sensation of crying at the time, not from sorrow, but from a profound sense of relief that it was all, finally, over.
She realises that she has been holding her breath, and forces herself to exhale. It’s just too hard. This whole thing is just too hard for her heart to bear. It truly would have been better if Sophie had waited until she was gone, but how could Sophie even begin to understand that? Barbara has made it her life’s work, after all, to protect her from all of this.
She had braced herself, yes. She had known that certain images would bring up specific memories of particular moments in time. That’s why it’s taken her a week to sit down and do this. But, no, she had not prepared herself for this. She had not imagined the way each image would lead to every other image, and lead, in turn, to wholesale submersion in the most powerful sensations – the smells, the sounds, the feelings – of the harshest most dreadful highlights, (or lowlights, perhaps) of her eighty-three years on this planet. She hadn’t expected to find herself transported back there.
There’s no way around it now, though. That train has left the station, and she certainly can’t stop it. The exhibition is undoubtedly going to happen. She closes her eyes for a moment and stretches her neck from side to side before continuing, rapidly, through a few more images.
She pauses next, on an image of Sophie herself, perhaps five years old, on the beach. She’s holding a plastic spade, and staring directly into the camera lens. She grew up with cameras, was entirely relaxed around them, and here, her expression is completely neutral – her innocence still complete. Such a beautiful child. She still is. Barbara sighs.
Perhaps the time has come for her to tell her Sophie part of the truth. Not all of it, of course. They all agreed a long time ago that that would never happen, that that could never happen. But just enough to warn her off? Just enough to avoid Brett sniffing around? Just enough to make sure that the rest, the important stuff, the stuff with the power to harm the lives of the living, remains buried?
The trouble is, Barbara realises, still staring into those big, dark eyes, that never mind Brett – Sophie, herself, is like a sniffer dog. Give her even a whiff of intrigue, and she won’t stop digging until she’s unearthed everything. Best, without a doubt, then, to say nought.