Nan wasn’t a homely old woman in orthotic shoes. She was a birdie little thing, bent over like a fishhook and she always smelt of cigarettes. Her nails were polished zany colors and she only wore jeans. Mum hid the booze for Sunday lunch and Dad snuck it out to her disguised in coffee mugs. She didn’t talk much, and I can’t say what interested her – though her garden was nice and sometimes she swore at the soccer on television.
One day she was drinking sherry in one of Dad’s sneaky mugs he’d given to her as a gift. I was telling her how I wanted to try out for something at school but was scared I’d make a fool of myself because I wasn’t good at whatever it was.
“If there’s a photograph being taken darlin’, you want to make sure yer’ in it,” she said, in her funny cockney accent.
She went over to her old camphor trunk from Hong Kong and returned with a musty photo album. Patting the seat – bright pink nails that day– she opened the book to the first page. The photo was one of those sepia numbers, so old you could imagine a man under a black cloth and a dramatic plume of smoke. But it’d been taken off center – you could see the whole groom, puffed up, hat at a jaunty angle but half the bride was missing. The woman was Nan though, there was no mistaking the downturned mouth and the singular blank stare. In itchy-looking lace and strange boat shoes, she looked like a guillotined porcelain doll.
“Where’s the other half of you?” I asked.
“Only got this picture a week after the wedding. Would’ve had to get married again. Silly bloody photographer,” she cackled. When Nan laughed, her false teeth clattered and sucked, and her 30-a-day lungs fizzed like old hydraulics. “An’ ‘ad I known, I wouldn’t have married that stupid bastard an’ all.”
Because Grandad was a bastard, we all knew that. In the wedding photo, he was a square wodge of a man with a strong chin and fierce eyebrows. He stood planted, confident and sure, a physical reference to the Royal Merchant Navy captain he would become in later years. The poor photographer probably had no idea how to handle him– I can see Grandad gesticulating, pipe in hand, hurrying the process along, “Come on man, we don’t have all day.”
I don’t have too many memories of him. One I recall is of staying with them at their beachfront home during the December holidays when I was about five. He got drunk and threw a purple art deco ashtray at Nan. She ducked and it went through the window behind her. We had Christmas dinner with the wind beating against a bunch of taped-together black bins bags, Grandad berating Nan for making him throw the ashtray in the first place. If you didn’t look too closely, the whole thing was like a scene from a slapstick comedy.
When she was younger, Mum didn’t talk about Grandad too much and when she did it was in strained snatches. Now, she remembers him with more irreverence and relief – I guess the hard work is over. Grandad joined the navy at fifteen and went to war at eighteen, only to be bombed by a U-boat and left stranded at sea with his dying shipmates. Not long after he was rescued, he was sent back to battle because he wasn’t injured. Nowadays we know that boys sent to war do not come back ok even if their limbs are accounted for. Something unhooks in their brains that can’t be put back again and they limp on for the rest of their lives, same as someone who’s had their leg blown off.
“Did you love Grandad?”
Nan lit a cigarette and exhaled out of her dried fruit lips. “Look at this one. Your mum, was a sweet little thing, weren’t she?”
I’d never seen a photo of my infant mother. She was a post-war baby, so most things were a luxury, especially photographs. It was funny seeing her soft-cheeked, eyes wide open, wearing a weird, crocheted tablecloth thing.
Now, older, I have so many hodgepodge thoughts about her slotted into my head somewhere, rolled up in a tube tied with string. When I pull it out, it’s difficult to place the pages flat – I have to find weights to hold down their corners.
Here are two ideas I have of her: her laugh, a big, bombastic affair, dirty as a sailor’s mouth. And her weeping, a big, bombastic affair, wetter and louder than when other people cry. Young me squirmed when she laughed, equally so when she cried – she seemed so vulnerable doing these things. I liked her in a neat motherly package, cooking dinner and yelling down the phone to the bank. A part of me still does though I know it’s unreasonable – she’s made of the same stuff as the rest of us. I want her in control and on top of things – it makes the world feel safer. But now I’m a parent myself, I’m aware of how it feels to be regarded as other by your children. You are the person that knows, heals, soothes, shouts, and loves. That we slide down a closed door, fists jammed into our mouths to stop crying, so desperate for our children, is nothing they know anything about. We’re just trying to get the boxes ticked whether we clean floors for a living or run a multinational.
Now Mum lives a continent away and we chat on the phone each Sunday. We talk about art and public transport. I relay anecdotes about her grandchildren, my job, and the seed developments in my veggie patch. I once told her about a lady weaver pulling apart the man weaver’s nest outside my bedroom window. We giggled imagining her doing the same, throwing bricks about, hurling the chimney across the road because Dad used the wrong color.
I still don’t like her being less than on-top-of-it-all, but I’m getting to be ok with her being human as the grey hairs start to pepper my head.
“Was she naughty, Nan, when she was little?”
“Yer’ ma liked things just so,” Nan remarked and turned the page. “Oh look here. This is one of yer’ dad.”
Nan loved Dad. Everyone did.
In his navy uniform, handsome, tall, and stern, Dad’s a fox. He has the foppish hair of the time, and his brow is furrowed into the crease that is vintage Dad. No one else can frown in the same way, except me. Only mine does not make me look considered, attractive and confident; instead, I’m perceived as icy and distant. I frown for genetic reasons, not because I’m unhappy, but it confuses people because women are supposed to be smiley and approachable. Frowny and going about your business is not on – I can’t count the times’ strange men have advised me, “Relax. It may never happen.”
I named my dad, Dadfish. When I first called him that, it made him laugh and so it stuck. He repeats himself a lot nowadays and Mum yells at us not to say so to his face. Studies have shown It Only Makes The Short-Term Memory Loss Sufferer More Anxious And We Don’t Want Dad Getting Anxious.
When we were young, he uprooted the family from England and shipped us out to South Africa. At the time it would have been the late seventies. Apartheid.
Later, when I had my own mind, I asked him why he’d chosen to come to South Africa at one of the worst times in the country’s history. He said South Africa wasn’t made out to be so bad in those days, and anyway, he needed a fresh start. We had vile arguments; doors were slammed, and cats were kicked.
So what do you do with that?
People don’t think they’re responsible for blood on the ground if they didn’t personally slice the vein. The mechanics of culpability requires more social wisdom than either I or my father possessed.
But he was mostly a kind and funny father; he’d do anything for us. Politics can’t take those things away from the heart even if the head battles to package it all up as it should be. Anyhow, it’s complicated and layered with many things and we haven’t talked about it for years. And while Nelson Mandela spoke of hope and second chances, it doesn’t change the fact that we benefitted off the backs of others whether we meant to or not.
“Oh Gawd, this one was a right loner,” chuckled Nan, turning the page to my brother. This is the first full-color photo in the book so far and he is rocking the seventies vibe with eye-watering tight flares.
My brother and I never got along when we were younger. His relentless teasing annoyed me, and I would tell on him to Mum. He complained everyone always took my side, that I was the favorite because my marks were good at school. Who did I think I was, he would shout. You think you own the show.
His hobby was building miniature battlefields and soccer stadiums out of model-making kits given to him for birthdays and Christmases. He’d spend hours painting tiny armor onto little knights and teensy football boots onto weeny footballers. Entire holidays would pass in his small world, mimicking battle cries or the collective sound of a crowd.
When I turned double numbers, he asked me to play with him. I’d looked at his peculiar games for so long, it was an honor to be old enough for an invitation. After that, we hired videos together and went to the park. Much later, we went to the same clubs and bars. We lost touch, drifted back, and lost touch again. Now we make a business of being family, entirely distant and thoroughly polite. He married a woman he’s crazy about and he devotes a great deal of time to her happiness. Knowledgeable folk tell us people can’t make other people happy. It’s probably true but probably unhelpful. Perhaps he’s as happy as he’s ever going to be – but that’s a guess.
Nan handed the album to me and leaned over to her sherry mug. Of course, now I realize she was an alcoholic but back then, drinking sherry at eleven was something that Nan just did. Some people’s grans knit and bake. Mine got plonked on cheap booze and walked her dog down the promenade every day on the way to the pub. Who knows what life did to her? Some people won’t say too much. As Mum always advises, if people are going to drink, they’ll drink. They don’t always need a fundamental reason; they just prefer being pissed.
“Mum says that you and Grandad dug dead bodies out of the rubble during the war. After the air raids,” I said.
Mum also said she used to look at Nan folding laundry and wonder how you could ever iron shirts once you’ve dug dead people out of rubble. She said it was weird, like seeing your teacher at a Nightclub.
“Is it true?”
“Well, yeah. Weren’t much else we could do. Churchill kept telling us to keep buggering on, so that’s what we did.”
Sometimes I think I haven’t done enough. People have dealt with the fallen in wars and gone into exile or been beaten for the sake of others. Maybe I could do something profound but I don’t know what. The best I seem capable of is to keep buggering on.
“Nan, who’s that standing next to my brother? Her head bowed so I can’t see.”
The figure is delicate, with two neat ponies flowing down her chest. She’s looking down at something, slightly pigeon-toed, her shoulders rolled forward. She reminds me of Eeyore looking at a reflection of himself in a pond, sad because no one remembered his birthday.
“That’s your sister,” says Nan.
is a person who is like you, except not. Mine was a friend, a confidant, a someone to go to with anything.
“Now the thing about yer’ aunt, is that she were trouble. Right from the get-go,” said Nan, pointing at a tiny dark-haired beauty in a patterned dress. “She was out drinking, dancing an’ fraternizin’; honestly you couldn’t stop that girl.”
I could believe it. Even now my aunt swears like a trooper and at barely five feet she still can scorch you with her tongue in six different ways. At seventy-something, the fire still burns in her black eyes, deep and fierce. She’s beaten cancer for the moment, but I can imagine her staying alive way past a hundred just to prove everyone wrong.
I had many happy holidays with her as a child. She was loud, cocky, and laughed easy – I loved people like that and still do. Here is a story I have about her:
Once upon a lunchtime, people got drunk at my aunt’s house. The snacks ran out, stories got longer; things became shapeless and lost their zippers and buttons. Someone fried steak in one of her frying pans so she pulled out her shotgun and threatened to kill him. There was a lot of talk about what it means to be vegan and Buddhist after that, and everyone got drunker.
Nan shut the album with a snap, swigged the last of sherry, and got up.
Through the window, I could see her pull on her gardening gloves. Mum was right: It was hard not to imagine her rooting around in the collapse of war, trying to find the bodies of people once dearly loved.
When Nan died, I inherited a small box of her things – a sushi set and Norataki china from her travels to the Far East, and the photo album. The sushi dishes have been repurposed into used teabag holders and the Norataki sits posh in a cabinet by my front door. I haven’t changed the order of how Nan arranged the pictures and occasionally when I pull it out, I speed back to that morning on the couch going through the photos with her. Except now I’ve added pictures of the new members of our family to the last available pages. My son, a beautiful soul with a kindness that reaches out to every part of his face, warm and quiet. And my daughter, a dazzling force of energy, rare and bright. The stark blue of her eyes reminds me of my partner’s dead sister, so much so that sometimes I catch myself staring. Maybe it’s true that the dead live on in some way, inside us all.
And then there is the one of me and my partner. We didn’t marry for good reason. I don’t know what it is, but when I do, it’ll be a good one. He has cow eyelashes and a beating heart that is good and accepting – though he sometimes talks about getting a gun and overlooks eating battery chickens on occasion. He worries about the future, reminisces about the past and I’m never quite sure what he thinks about the present. We might be together until we are old. It seemed impossible at first, but now it’s not such a surprise.
The last photo I’ve placed in the album is a portrait shot of all of us. I remember the day well, camera perched on a tree branch, everyone jostling to get in the frame, arguing and missing the flash.
When I look at it, it’s like holding up tiny pieces of mirror reflecting my family and I imagine they do the same to me and together we go backward forever like an infinity mirror. I’m like my Nan, my father, my shotgun aunt, and everyone been and gone down the line, and I will be in everyone after. And then when you look at it that way, it’s not hard to see there are bits of everyone in everyone and we’re all rolling around in a kaleidoscope, making different but homogenous shapes with each twist of the cosmic eyepiece. We think we’re free, that our lives belong to us. But maybe we’re not. Maybe we’re all connected in strange patterns that ooze from one state to the next in never-ending colors and outlines. And then when you mull on that, you realize what a stupid idea being separate is, so much energy going into defending borders, race, towns, surnames, declaring yourself to be a this or a that when you might be this and that. I don’t consider this with any huge investment – I’m no crusader after all. But I percolate on it sometimes when I look around at the mess we’re in.
I’m not sure when we’ll be together again. Most of my family live somewhere else and those of us left have a lot going on. It’s as if we were a pile of wood dropped into the ocean of life and each log has floated off to different ends of the earth. But it might not always be this way – so there is that.
The album sits between a book on Turkish cooking and a set of Judge Dredd graphic novels I’ve kept from my teenage years. I won’t be pulling it out anytime soon. I imagine half-Nan on the first page with the tumble of lives that exist on the following ones and it’s enough to know they’re there. Photo albums are like that – whether they’re on iCloud or dusty on a shelf somewhere – I need the energy to open them. They are magnified reminders of so many things that I can’t find labels for, so precious they can take the house. Because all of us, eventually gone, somehow remain, half or whole, monochrome, sepia or bold, making up all the colors and shapes of each tiny, enormous life.
Eleanor lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has been published online and in print. By day she works as a tax accountant, by night she is on the sixty-five thousandth word of her first novel.
© 2022, Eleanor Talbot