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Short story: The photograph, by Elspeth Sandys

“She’d come into town on the bus. The photographer, so her mother had told her, was famous”: a short story by Wellington writer Elspeth Sandys.

It was to be a present for her father who was dying. A photograph of her in her first ball gown. When she reached for the strapless velvet dress, pine-green like the hedge at the back of their house, the girl expected her mother to make the kind of remark she saved for when no one else was in earshot. Perhaps she would have if the shop assistant hadn’t suddenly hove into view. “Don’t you just love the colour?” the assistant said. “And the skirt. Look. All that material. You know what it makes me think of? That photo of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt billowing out.”

“It’s too…” The girl’s mother hesitated, looking for the right word. “Sophisticated,” she said. “She’s only fifteen."

“Nearly sixteen,” the girl piped up.

“If you’re worried about it not staying up …”

“I’m worried about her looking like a …” The time the word didn’t come.

“Elastic. See. Of course the fur trim isn’t real. So pretty though don’t you think? The grey against the green.”

“She’s too young.”

That might have been the end of it had there been a suitable dress elsewhere on display. But having trawled through racks of gowns with slits up to the thigh, or bare backs, or made of such see-through material the mother wondered how anyone could call such bits of flimsy a dress, they returned to the forest-like solidity of the green velvet. (No question of going to another shop - not that there were many to choose from. Her mother’s loathing of shopping was second only to her loathing of ‘showing off’.) “Why do schools have to have balls anyway?” she complained as she reluctantly produced her credit card. “What’s wrong with a plain old-fashioned dance?”

“Heaven knows what your father will think,” the mother worried on the bus home. “All that flesh on display.”

The girl said nothing. Her father was the centre of her universe. It was true when she was six, it was true now she was nearly 16, and it would be true when she was 60. She’d been told - her mother had sounded kind that day - that the cancer he had was terminal. But she didn’t believe it. When you love someone so much they can’t die. If it’s not a law of physics it should be.

The day the photograph was to be taken was one of those squally spring days when dark clouds chase lighter ones across the sky, and the whole universe seems to be in motion. Trees threw themselves at each other as if involved in a city-wide game of tag. The wind didn’t whistle, it yelled. The girl, battling the elements, the suitcase containing the dress heavy in her hand, wondered if there was meaning in all this commotion. Should she be turning back? Is that what Nature’s agitation was telling her? She’d come into town on the bus. The photographer, so her mother had told her, was famous. He was from Vienna. Or his parents were. She was to put her best foot forward.

Stafford Street was quieter than usual. Perhaps because of the weather. Clutching the suitcase with the carefully-folded dress inside, the girl hurried past the familiar shops, praying she wouldn’t see anyone she knew.  A ship’s horn sounded from Caroline Bay. What was it signalling? Arrival? Departure?

Not for the first time, the girl wondered why her mother was doing this. Her wardrobe was plain to the point of ugliness. And her face never had a skerrick of make-up on it. Yet here she was sending her daughter to be photographed in a strapless dress, with lipstick on her lips and rouge on her cheeks. What happened to the mother who pulled her daughter’s fine straight hair into an unflattering clump held painfully in place with a rubber band? What happened to the mother who pinned her daughter’s ears back with sticking plaster? What happened to the mother who told her daughter she would be a hunchback if she didn’t start standing up straight? It didn’t make sense. There were a thousand things she could have given her father for his birthday. She wasn’t even sure it was her who was doing the giving. Her mother was paying the bills so perhaps it was to be her present. But that didn’t make sense either. One of her mother’s most consistent complaints was that her father spoiled her. So why give a photo of the spoiled person to the spoiler?

The studio was up a long, twisting flight of stairs. The girl could smell polish and something else. The smell of the city following her from the street perhaps. Or the sea, glimpsed from the bus, frothing like a washing machine with too much soap powder.

The man who answered the door was old. That surprised her. Her idea of a professional photographer was someone not much older than her, with a bag slung over his shoulder, and hair pushed back behind his ears. Someone who looked harassed but resolute, brave. The man holding the door open was none of those things. He was shorter than her and puffy-looking. Fat even. Peering at her through thick, black-rimmed glasses, he looked more like a mad scientist than a photographer.

“So you are the young lady. Good afternoon. Come in please. Right on time too. This is good.”

The girl’s quick eye took in dark, panelled walls, hung with photographs, most of them black and white; a brightly painted screen covered with waterfalls and blossom trees and women wearing kimonos; an uncomfortable looking sofa with a curved back; and two chairs that in her house would have been covered with sheets to protect them.

“The young lady needs to change, yes?” the man said. “And make nice your hair if you please. It is at present a bird’s nest. If you would be so good as to step behind the screen.”          

“Ah,” he said, as she emerged in the green velvet. “Ah yes. Just so … Now if I may…”    His podgy hands reached out to her. He adjusted her hair first, poking it behind her ears, the same ears her mother insisted must always be kept hidden. Then, having sat her down on one of the aristocratic chairs, he swished her skirt this way and that, finally turning his attention to her chest. Inserting two fat fingers behind the faux fur he first lifted then lowered the dress, pushing it down in order, she realised later, to show more of her breasts. “Silk,” he said, flattening his hand across her back, moving it slowly till she could see it splayed across her chest. “Not just what I can see. Everywhere.”

He smelt of something that reminded her of the kitchen. Could it be rhubarb? Or lemons perhaps? Did all photographers peer at their subjects as he was peering at her? This must be how a specimen under a microscope felt.

“Standing I think,” he said. “Yes that’s it. I like a tall girl. Later we will sit.”

More adjusting followed. Something about the dress seemed to be annoying him. “Such a pity,” he murmured.

“What?” The word slid off her tongue. Rude. I beg your pardon was what she should have said.

“We see your ankles but not …”

“Mid-calf,” she said. “The length. It’s called mid-calf.”

“Just so.”

To her relief he let go of the unsatisfactory dress and went in search of his camera. His hands would be occupied now. She could breathe.

“Turn your head please. No not that way. Towards me. Now smile. You can smile can’t you? Think of something that makes you happy. You have a boy friend, no? Girl like you bound to … Give me the smile you would give him … That the best you can do? Very well then, let us start again.”

There was no pleasing him. You’re just like my mother the girl thought. There was no pleasing her either.

When it was finished she got dressed again in her school uniform, bundled the velvet dress into the suitcase, and stepped out from behind the screen.

“You will like my photos,” the man said. “They will show you who you are.”

It’s because he’s Viennese, the girl said to herself as she made her way back down the treacherous stairs. That’s why his words don’t make sense.

Back on the street she started to run. She had no idea why. She wasn’t late. She could stay in town for another hour and no questions asked. She ran all the way to the bus stop.

Home again she went straight to her father’s room. A special room set up when he got sick. Normally she would approach quietly in case he was sleeping, but today she threw herself at his bed as if a wave had picked her up and dumped her there. “So what’s all this then?” her father said, running his hand over the top of her head. His voice sounded as if it were coming from a long way away.  “If you’re being chased by a tiger I can’t defend you I’m afraid.  You’ll be his first course and I’ll be his rather meagre second.”       

The proof sheets arrived four days later. The girl watched her mother open the envelope, peer at the contents, then shake her head. “Magnifying glass,” she said to the girl. “Kitchen table drawer.” 

The girl watched as first one sheet then another was examined. Her mother didn’t speak. And there was nothing in her expression to indicate what she thought. Eventually the sheets were passed to her. They will show you who you are, the photographer said. But the girl in the green velvet dress, sitting, standing, looking this way, then that, was not her. She was familiar. There were things about her she recognised, but she’d never seen that white skin before. Nor those ears. And she’d definitely never seen that stay-away-from-me look in the eyes.

“Slumping,” her mother said. “After all I’ve told you.”

“Which one do you like best?”

“Not sure I like any of them.”

“It was your idea.”

“Well I made a mistake. You’re not photogenic.”

“So we’re not going to give one to Dad?”

Her mother turned away. The girl watched the minute changes taking place in the vicinity of her mother’s shoulders. Crying. She was crying. Something never seen before.

“Mum?”

“Oh go on,” her mother said, turning back. “Choose one. Doesn’t matter which. Your father will like it anyway. When I think …”

The girl waited. What did her mother think? She wanted to touch her but didn’t dare. Touching wasn’t encouraged.

“Just choose one there’s a good girl,” her mother said.

Next week's story is "It's 2020 and Ashton Kutcher is still trying to Punk me" by the co-editor of Stasis Journal, Jordan Hamel.

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