I really hate photographs.
I know, they're a stupid thing to hate amongst all that I could find a reason to dislike, but still. Photographs are up there on the list of things I despise, right alongside egotistical blowhards and paying exorbinant fees for parking. I hate that which fixes what was in an instant of time and stares out at me mockingly in the house, weaving tendrils of guilt and nostalgia into my flesh, saying ‘look how good it was! Look how happy you all were!’ And we were happy, back before everything went to hell in a hand basket.
I shuffle these pictures about between my palms like playing cards, the hand dealt to me by fate, frozen in black and white for me to mull over.
A few rare gems make me smile amongst the cacophony of images. Just look at that cheeky grin on Charlie… Did he really used to be that chubby in the face? I can recall that night easily. He was so proud that he’s managed to cook marshmallows over a real open fire. Pink and white goo are smudged along his cheek. The sugar must have been sticky on those grimy little hands of his.
God, look at her; Verity was so beautiful. Even with her eyes downcast, her tiny rosebud mouth halfway through a word, she still looks like a frozen goddess, pristine and unruffled by the flames before her. All that golden hair, so long that it took her forty minutes to comb most mornings. Her tiny, porcelain features were so very perfect back then. That’s why we all envied her. That’s why Rebecca never calls her nowadays.
Well, among other reasons.
I pick through the collection of photos, searching for other little titbits that I can remember. There’s a rather embarrassing picture of my brothers and I leaning against my first car with our arms crossed. Robert does not look happy. Mum must have forced us to stand still for the camera. I seem rather windswept and maybe that is because we were parked out in the open field but it could have been because that was when it started. I think that’s when it started, anyway. I look about the right age.
It’s funny how details slip away over time but everything else has a kind of stark clarity about it, like the ragged edges of a wound.
Family secrets are the worst kind of secrets because even though there is never any verbal acknowledgement of the fact, everyone shares their knowledge that there is something buried deep within all of us that must never be released. Nights around a fire or leaning on a decent second-hand car while your mother figured out how to use a damn camera became marred by the secrets, but it was never to be stated that there was any kind of degradation to these times. The elephant in the room every second with the family was never acknowledged. It was a law as undeniable as gravity.
Yes, I despise photographs. They just depict artificial snapshots of what was.
Suddenly it’s difficult to swallow past an enormous obstruction in my throat and tears – stupid tears – prickle in the corners of my eyes. My fingers tremble. The kindly lady who is dressed so well in a sensible suit leans across and steadies me with her touch, asking if there’s anything I need. I almost laugh. Anything I need? What I need is to burn every single one of these lying photographs and shove the past in a great metaphorical drawer and forget anything ever happened.
What I need is to remember the good in my family. Charlie - that boy could do no wrong when he was young. Dashingly handsome, Charlie had been blessed with both brains and brawn, which he inherited with a sort of unconscious modesty that everyone adored. I used to have girls in my grade ask me breathlessly if I could introduce them to my brother, my gorgeous brother, so that they might catch his fancy. How we laughed at home! How Robert ribbed him, teased him endlessly about it and almost wet himself as Charlie blushed.
Robert. A bit of a black sheep in the family, now I consider it. Firstly, he was a gangly thing and dark-skinned to boot. He took after our grandfather more than our parents; so much so that I’m sure some people questioned whether mother hadn’t been sleeping around with other people on the sly. His eyes were fantastic points of light that used to sparkle with wonder and amazement and humour in equal measure. He was a slick, fast-talking daredevil. My father called him hot-headed and hoped the years would mellow him out a bit. My mother used to call him her hurricane, in an endearing way. I thought of him more as a firecracker, a rocket let loose, shooting out recklessly, burning bright, burning hot and fast, running at breathtaking speed…
The rest of my family were certainly more conservative. Verity, the proverbial princess of our clan, used to shake her dainty head at Robert’s antics. Once, he thought he could brew his own beer in the shed out the back of my parents’ house. The fool added too much sugar and left them in there overnight and when we had finished dinner there was a phenomenal roar and then the whole back of the shed collapsed. The beer bottles had exploded. Glass was everywhere, the whole shed was ruined, a layer of the sudsy remains of the beer coated every surface and all of the gardening things stored in there were busted beyond repair. Robert later confessed he’d concocted the whole brew in the upstairs bathtub and he’d had some doubts about the recipe but had been too committed to waste all that effort and all those ingredients. I can’t quite recall the punishment he got for that stunt. But I can remember Verity’s face when we heard the explosion. Poor thing was so frightened you would have thought the apocalypse had just begun out in our back garden. Rebecca had to run and fetch Dad a whisky, he’d been so aggravated by the loss of his man-cave. We had all suffered after that little stunt, in one way or another.
Well, it’s sure easier to think of the positives if I try and stay fixed on them.
Rebecca was very much like my mother. She was a hands-on, down-to-earth kind of person, very sociable, very level-headed. I remember her asking mother for money to buy a dress for her graduation and Dad told her she couldn’t have what she had requested. I would have chucked a whopper of a tantrum and stormed out but instead, she coolly asked how much she was allowed then formulated a scheme of chores and other odd jobs to get the rest of what she required. Problem solved.
She had looked fabulous. Never as glamorous as Verity, mind you, but still lovely. I liked both of my sisters but they butted heads a lot and there were a lot of unresolved issues there.
Now I’ve gone and done it. I’m onto the negatives again. The photos spread on the table between me and the young lady in her suit repulse me once more.
How do you reconcile yourself with the fact that you’re staring at images of times that are lost? That second when the shutter went off and the image was taken – you can’t get that back again. Gone. Done. You can never go back to that moment. The past has passed on.
Despite my efforts, one fat salty tear trickles out of my eye. I can feel it lingering on my cheek.
So many secrets. So much bitterness.
I want to go back to those happier times so much. There’s this gaping ache in my chest where my heart should be. It hurts more than I thought I could stand, pulsing agony. But I’m here. I’m here and my heart still beats and those happy days are long gone.
What a disgusting, cynical, wretch I have become! What a selfish crone, hankering over acrimonious grudges. I suppose I should be glad that these times happened at all. These pictures should be a testament to the love we had for each other and not a vicious regret-filled reminder that it will never be like it was.
The nice young lady leans over the table once more and places her smooth hand on my wrist.
“Tell me,” she pleads. “Tell me where you hid the bodies, Lauren. Tell me what happened.”
Family secrets are the worst. Isn’t it funny how you can bottle something down so tightly, compressing it within the recesses of your mind and your heart, until it becomes so wedged there that no one can touch it again, not even you? Secrets become too big for you to say, even if you want to. You’ve squashed it down so far within yourself that to rip it out would mean destroying some of you, too.
The woman’s face contorts and disappointment darkens her doe-like eyes as she realises I’m not going to speak. I’d like to. I could tell a riveting tale about what happened when Charlie was killed in a car accident far too young and how my father and mother’s marriage deteriorated like rotten fruit left in the sun afterwards. How Verity blamed Rebecca for the accident though it wasn’t her fault in the slightest and how Rebecca secretly did blame herself because she should have gone and picked him up in her ute instead of making her tired brother drive those extra miles. How Robert shamed us all by not even attending his brother’s funeral. How no one could put the pieces together so we just lived in denial. How no one even bothered to investigate the cause of Robert’s complete segregation from us all.
But why dig up old bones, both literally and figuratively? What was the point? They were all dead now, except for me. Mum and her new scumbag ruinous partner were the first. It was easy to shoot them both. My aim was a little off though. It had been a long time since Dad had taken us hunting and I’m not as young as I once was. I had been a crack shot though and I can still clean up after myself.
I sought out my father next. He lay in his hospital bed and I just turned off his life support. One flick, goodnight Vienna. Very lovely and peaceful. I kissed his withered cheek and slipped out before anoyone noticed the lonely old man had lost his fight for life.
Robert found me not long after that, to accuse and to blame. More than a little hypocritical, considering his non-attendance at Charlie’s service for him to rage about my absence at Mum’s. The truth of the secrets we had all been bound by had been on his lips when I shot him. Thank goodness I acted decisively. No one needed to hear our business anyway. Robert had always been rowdy and uncouth.
I went and met both my sisters in separate countries. Rebecca’s husband will mourn her, I have no doubt. I don’t think Verity’s multitudes of short-term partners will shed a tear for her, though. The foolish girl had many children. I imagine they will miss their mother. I still miss mine, despite everything.
Yes, they were a humdrum bunch of misfits, my family. I’m satisfied that the world is a little better for their demise. Misery should be staunched at the source, not left to fester and infect the other innocents that gather around it, unknowing of their imminent exposure to it. I had suffered that exposure far too much. I guess I saved some people from a similar fate, perhaps. No one need ever know all of the details.
The photographs spill onto the floor and the sensible lady sighs. Again, I have not told her anything specific. Again, I will spend long, lonely nights listening to the howling of my fellow inmates in the asylum who haven’t learnt that making a racket will not get them any favours with the wardens. The wardens generally like me; a quiet old woman is considered something of a pleasure to look after.
The lady has given up. I see that defeat weighs heavily upon her shoulders. I feel a flash of pity for her that comes and goes quicker than it takes for me to act upon it.
“If you want to talk with me about this, you let one of the staff know, okay?” She tries a beseeching smile on me. It reminds me of the way Verity used to try to charm me into giving her one of my Halloween sweets. “I really would like to talk to you.”
But as my brother Charlie used to say, which I think is quite true - ‘what you like and what you get are two very different things.’
The warden escorts her out and she takes those horrible photographs along with her. It is a huge relief. I lie back against the solid frame of my tiny bed and close my eyes.
Their faces swim against my memory, haunting the shadowy places where regret and doubt live within us all. Will they ever completely leave me? I guess time will tell. Time is a powerful thing – it can accomplish or destroy much in life.
Until then I guess, the photos are gone and I’m free to remember what I want to and not the dreadfully vivid recollections those pictures drag out of me. I choose to recall certain aspects of my family; the secrets stay locked away where no one can access them.
I remember Charlie’s baseball team making me their unofficial mascot. I remember Rebecca and me painting a cardboard box to make a diorama of the ocean. I remember Verity dressing the cats up in tinsel at Christmas. I remember Robert walking headfirst into a metal pole outside of the main entrance of our school where the girl who he had a crush witnessed his idiocy. I remember quiet nights of comics with my Dad reading the paper beside me and having a crack at the crossword. I remember listening to vinyl of Bette Midler with Mum singing along.
I remember the frozen look of disbelief and agony as I killed them all.
Yes, I remember only the good things.