I am holding up slides to the light. And there isn’t much really. December afternoon ebbing away and grubby strip lights struggling – flickering and humming overhead. I’m only doing it because it’s raining.
My plan had been to walk up the river. Walking up rivers is good when you feel lost. The river has purpose. And this one, with its broad tidal estuary, always seems more determined than most. But the rain soaked through the shoulders of my coat in the five minute walk from the station to this flea market. I couldn’t stand the wet feet, the rising chill in my body. So I’m skulking. I’m waiting, with no intention of parting with a penny, in this big old barn stuffed with ancient garden rollers, wicker chairs, bits of crockery in glass cases, old Blue Peter annuals. The woman at the desk has clearly recognised me as a hopeless case and gone back to her coffee and magazine.
Boxes of slides are even better than old photographs, aren’t they? The miniature mountains and steam trains, the specks of family dogs clutched against tiny girls in anoraks, they are made more precious by the format of the image. Rigid cardboard frames on a shrunken world. You could fill your pockets with them and be rich as Croesus on other people’s lives.
There’s a set here – I keep coming upon the same bay from different angles. There’s a woman with a ponytail and a child on her hip – standing to the left or the right of the sweep of view, sometimes. I can imagine the man waving her this way and that, shouting out instructions. Then here they are on the steps of a B&B – closer this time – and I can really see her face. And she’s you.
I mean, she can’t be you. Of course she can’t be you. These slides are forty years old. But there she is, headscarf and little mac belted at her waist, knee-high boots, and your face – smiling. So, what? Maybe she’s your mum. Maybe that little kid, always turned away to look at the sea, maybe that’s you.
I put the slide aside and start sifting in earnest, picking out every Kodak yellow square. I hold them up – next, next, next – looking at his obsession with the bay, the arc of water and the sand rim, the British summer skies. Wales? Cornwall? The story is running in my head – fast. Maybe these are long-lost slides of a summer holiday when your wobbly tooth came out in a toffee apple. Maybe, in a minute, there’ll be one of you close-up – proud by a sandcastle with a lolly stick flagpole. Or you on a donkey – brave in a stripy sun hat. Maybe he threw them all away, your Dad, because something happened that summer. Maybe I’m being gifted this whole story as some sort of explanation. Or maybe it’s just some small consolation from God because I can’t have you.
There are 18 slides. None has a better image of the woman and child than the one on the steps of the B&B. I take it over to an Art Deco lamp – green glass glowing like the egg of some magic bird. Please. I tilt the lamp and the image floods with light. The woman is nothing like you. The child is just a child.
I stack the little squares together in the corner of the box. It’s stopped raining so I head for the river.