Real Life Stories: That Photograph, by Heather E.M. Barrett

Every time the big album came out, it left questions. I spent hours with Mom, looking at those pictures of us in 1977. Dad, Gran and Uncle Ivan, the Queen’s car riding through Oldbury Town, the trip to the zoo, the day by the river, the plastic doll from Barmouth, those memories are all there.

1977 was a hot summer of flares and florals and men with big hair. There was good music that year – anything ABBA made me dance. I look at the album in front of me, I see myself with Mom on the swings, me with her best friend Auntie June, me with Dad on the beach, me with our dog Whisky, me – and that yellowing white space around me, on that one picture.

It sits in the bottom right, on a page dedicated to me in my three-year-old’s Silver Jubilee Finery. I wear patriotic colours: a plastic boater hat in red white and blue, a flag, a balloon. I had the works, the full set of whistles and bells.

“Look at me, big smiiiiiile!” called dad, pointing the camera at me. I am posing. A right drama queen I was, judging by the evidence. Just seeing those pictures takes me right back there: Rod Stewart on the record player; the smell of lavender polish (the sort that came in round tins); Old Holborn tobacco; the taste of Galaxy Counters. There is the sound of eggs and bacon frying in the kitchen, Mom, singing to Rod, “I don’t wanna talk about it!” No she didn’t. They never mentioned the incident.

I guess it was some time after October, as the days turned cold. I see my dad’s green woollen polo neck, the one Mom bought him for his birthday, and the torn threads of green and cream wool, tangled, looking like entrails, spoiled, desecrated. I see mom pulling at the threads trying to smooth them, but the jumper was ruined. She was crying, “What they bloody done?” It went in the bin the same day.

I flick the album forward. 1978. I look quieter. I am shrinking away from the camera and my fingers are in my ears as if the camera would make a boom like its 19th century ancestor. I am not smiling. I realise the impact events must have had.

I can remember the street party. I see myself sat at the long tables in the middle of the road. I remember party food: jelly, custard, trifle, sandwiches, crisps, pickled onions, sweets. I am sat by Sally and Robin. Robin is a small, blonde little boy, my age. Sally has mousy curly hair; she is around five. They are insular children. Their mother has a history of psychosis and their father is a chronic alcoholic. They never play for long, and never play with wild imagination. I see two fat ladies, a mother and daughter. They are carbon copies of each other: the same thing for pink lipstick, the same smell of heavy patchouli, both in flowery maxi-dresses like an old lady’s curtains. They are living toilet-roll dolls. Old Winnie sits waiting for her cuppa, wearing her signature tunic dress over woollen trousers, her face almost as long, creased and pale as the sausage roll on her paper plate. There is a lady in a gold Sari, bangles up her arm and a red dot on her forehead. She is our other neighbour who, Mom told me, came from a country called India. I am sure it must be a fairy tale land as I am convinced she is a princess. There are other people, I don’t recall their names and can’t remember their faces. Bunting, bangles, buns.

I remember mom cutting up photographs of that street party. She picks up one and looks at it. She carefully cuts around my outline and discards the rest, angrily. I don’t ask. She sticks the little remnant back in the album. Where once there were friends, children and party food, there is me, my head back, arm raised, surrounded by white nothingness. Am I laughing or giving a silent scream from my white cell, like Pope Innocent X crying out from canvas oblivion?

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I don’t know the reason for the fight.

Weeks after the street party, a mood moved in like a low-pressure front, trapped by off-kilter jet streams. There was an edginess in my mom’s tone. I was not going to friend’s houses to play. Neighbours settled in cliques and whispers. There was a strange silence, like the quieting of nature before the first break of thunder. Mom said something about Winnie… who Dad now nicknamed ‘Winnie the Witch’. She had said things about my parents, things about Sally and Robin’s parents, things about the fat ladies, Marge and Alice, things about others.

This was the only bit of information my mom offered on the matter. I will never know if it was true or a ruse to mask street politics bubbling up fast. Whatever happened, I only have snatches of the morning it kicked off.

My dad was off work as, if I remember right, he had shingles. My parents were taking me to nursery when the younger of the fat ladies, Alice, began shouting abuse at us, rushing at us, ham hock arm raised in a fist. Somehow, Robin and Sally’s mother became embroiled. She was a paranoid schizophrenic, and I guess looking back, the shouting brought her out in combat mode against anyone in her way. Within minutes her husband joined in, and there was a broiling circle of twisted limbs, pushing, pulling, punching and clawing at each other. Around eight people, who all looked so big to small kids, were shouting, screaming, and attacking. My mom’s hair was a bird’s nest, the fat ladies had smeared lipstick, Robin and Sally’s mother was tearing at everyone, and Alice had my father by the throat.

I am somehow in the middle of the circle. I am screaming, crying and laughing at the same time, a gaping fish peering up from the depths at flailing swimmers. It must have lasted seconds but felt like it happened over hours. I am pushed out of the circle. Sally is on her doorstep, hands over her reddened face. She is sobbing uncontrollably and crying ‘Mammie, Mammie, please!’ Her brother huddles behind her. The children run into their house, and I remember being pulled away by the Indian princess.

I see bangles of shiny gold and enamel. The princess is sitting with me in her kitchen. The food smells amazing, like nothing I am used to. She gives me bangles and ribbons to play with. I can see the ribbons to this day, light pink silky fabric with a pretty silver pattern running down the middle. The gesture removes me from some of the horror of moments ago and then Mom and Dad must have come and got me as I am suddenly back home, and I see Mom looking in dismay at Dad’s jumper. His eye is blacked. Mom is crying and I even think she is angry that Dad did not handle himself better. My Dad was not one to get into brawls or to kick off in the street. The incident shocked him. My Mom was never so reserved. She could be proper, respectful, but if anyone threatened her own it never ended well for them.

Things were quiet in the afternoon lull and then chaos erupted on the night, when Sally and Robin’s drink-crazed father went on an attacking spree in the street. I believe from what I recall, he damaged the door of the two fat ladies, accusing them of calling his wife a maniac, and then he struck an axe at our door. Mom ran into the garden with me. I recall the man, sat on our sofa, drunk and crying and getting a cussing off Dad and then some sympathy. Police officers came out. Mom was in a fury when Dad refused to press any charges because before this madness he had been on good terms with the man and his family. The front door was patched up, and the next day my Uncle Ivan’s maroon Vauxhall pulled up outside.

“Cut your losses and get out, it’s not a safe place for Vi and the bab,” he told Dad.

1978. As Jerry Rafferty made his way down to Baker Street, we made our way over to Smethwick. We said no goodbyes, just closed our red door neatly behind us one early Saturday morning, and left.

It was a friendly cul-de-sac, where we moved to. I remember seeing the new front garden. I gathered up some daffodils. They were the colour of sunshine.

I work in Children’s Services now. I deal with kids who see aggression and rage every day. I sometimes think of Sally and Robin and wonder if they did better than their parents. That one incident of graphic violence from my childhood was not of my parents’ making. I am lucky. No child should be exposed to such horrors. The full story will never be known to me. Both my parents are gone. I might make a colourful square and stick that photo fragment on it. Free that image from its grainy white prison, 42 years after those events.

 

Biography

Heather E.M. Barrett, or ‘H’ as she is known by friends, is inspired by the shocking, gothic and scary. She works in local government and has studied anthropology and art history. This fuels her interest in the human condition. Her genre is horror and fantasy, some of which was recently published in the US, but in the last few months she has developed a flair for life-writing and is currently working on an anthology about people and places in her life. She is also working on a painting series about construction and demolition in and around Birmingham.

Banner image: Silver Jubilee, detail, Rept0n1x