Photo shoot

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On the night of the school dance, my father rested the white board against the bookshelf in order to take photos of my sister in her evening dress.

‘Sit there,’ he told her. ‘Sit straight. Now turn right.’

My sister climbed onto the chair, a high backed wooden chair with a tapestry seat. I sat at the other end of the room, pretending to read my book, Emily of New Moon. I had reached the second volume and Emily was about to fall in love with the boy from across the road. I felt a thrill at the thought that something exciting was about to happen.

‘I have to hurry,’ my sister said to my father. ‘I’m going to be late.’

‘Hold on. I have to get this right.’ My father put down his camera and took another lens from the table. He had a pile of lenses, all different shapes and sizes. He fitted the longest lens to the front of his camera and then clicked the whole thing into place on the tripod he’d erected in front of him. He stood behind his camera at one end of the room while my sister perched on the edge of my grandfather’s chair at the other end. I could see the strain in her eyes, the fidget of her hands.

‘Turn to face the door,’ my father said. ‘Now squeeze back into the chair and tilt your head.’

I could see the silhouette of my sister’s face, the way her nose turned, hooked like the prow of a ship. We all have this nose, all the girls in my family. My mother reckons it’s a sign of aristocracy, Roman, aquiline like an eagle. But my sister looked anything but aquiline. She looked like she was stuck there on that chair, itching to move on, but stuck like cement.

‘Can’t we finish now? Julian’ll be at the door any minute now.’

‘He can wait,’ my father said. He put down his camera, walked over to my sister and pulled her up towards him. He folded his arms around her, all the way around to adjust the zip that held the dress together. I couldn’t quite see what he was doing; whether he was letting it loose or zipping it to the top but the look on my sister’s face was one of horror. My mother who sat behind her newspaper reading looked up once or twice, but she said nothing.

My sister stood as stiff as the white cardboard backdrop under my father’s administrations, until he pushed her back into the chair, and pulled at the top of her dress to address her cleavage. She had pinned a flower made of tissue paper like material just there at the centre of her dress. I thought she must have put it there to hide the mole in the middle of her breasts, an ugly brown thing that looked like a miniature mountain and sometimes wobbled when she laughed, or otherwise moved up and down with her breathing.

‘You don’t need this,’ my father said as he unpinned the flower. ‘Much better without it.’ All this attention to detail and my sister’s eyes brimmed with tears that refused to spill over and down her cheeks. She clenched her hands together as if to hold back the dam when my father took his place once more behind the camera.

What he saw was nothing like what I saw. I saw my frumpy big sister in a mushroom brown dress, that my auntie had loaned her, a dress that came in tight at the waist to accentuate her middle. It ballooned out into a full flowing skirt and exploded on top into her bosoms, those things my father went to so much trouble to capture.

The doorbell rang and my sister leapt up.

‘Stop. I almost had it,’ my father said.

My sister ignored him and shot off through the door. My father looked surprised as if he was a kid and someone had just taken away his favourite toy. Then he looked around the room. My mother was still hidden behind her newspaper and so I buried my face back inside my book. I pretended I had taken no notice of all that went on before.

‘You,’ he said. ‘Get yourself up here on this chair. ‘I don’t want to waste the light.’

I looked down at my faded blue shorts, my baggy t-shirt. Why take a photo of me? But I did as I was told. The chair was still warm from my sister. I pushed my bum into it and felt its wide arms enclose me. As long as my father stayed back there behind his camera I was safe, but he looked into the lens and up again, frustrated.

‘This is no good.’

I froze as he moved towards me. His hot arms were around my waist as he twisted me into place. He pulled at my t-shirt first this way then that. He stank of cigarettes and of sweat and the tips of his fingers were yellow from the nicotine.

I felt like a parcel wrapped in a hurry, a parcel that would not fit the sheet of paper my father had cut out for me.

1966-29

Elbows, head, legs and arms, all the wrong shape, but soon I would be delivered.

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8 Comments on Photo shoot

  1. Kass
    November 1, 2015 at 6:12 am (1 year ago)

    Uncomfortably gripping.
    Terrible man.
    Nice writing.

    Reply
  2. Elisabeth
    November 1, 2015 at 9:31 am (1 year ago)

    Thanks, Kass.

    Reply
  3. Jim Murdoch
    November 2, 2015 at 2:38 am (1 year ago)

    I remember talking to my brother the last time we met (after our mother’s funeral) about why he’d stuck with religion. His answer didn’t surprise me but it did disappoint me. He liked the black-and-whiteness of it. Someone else told him what was right and wrong and all he had to do was try to keep up. I’m thinking along the lines of walking in Jesus’s footsteps. On the surface it seems easy enough until you realise that your stride and his don’t quite match. Which is the point. You have to force yourself into an unnatural gait. Marching to the beat of one’s own drum is not without its problems though.

    I wonder if your dad thought of himself as a bad man. I don’t think of myself as a bad man but others disagree. I haven’t spoken to my brother or sister in about seventeen years and all because I chose to decide for myself what was right and wrong. I decided living in sin with Carrie was not wrong and could no longer be a member of a religion who thought me immoral, a bad influence, a bad man. St. Augustine said, “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum” which has come down to us as, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” but it’s never that easy. Is wrong the same as bad?

    I can’t imagine being a bad man. It’s like being cruel. I can’t fathom how people can be cruel to each other, especially physically and yet I have been cruel, lashing out without thinking. It’s premeditation that makes all the difference. I wonder if there’s anyone on the planet who keeps to the speed limit. Most of us hardly think about it until we see a police car of a speed camera and then, and only then, we check our speedometer. My brother would argue there’s no rightish or wrongish. It’s cut and dried. Driving at a mile over the speed limit is wrong, end of story.

    Your dad must have been aware that his actions would not have been approved of even back then. But how wrong did he imagine it was? Maybe it was unconventional, maybe even wrong in the eyes of some but it wasn’t bad and he certainly wasn’t evil. I, of course, was not there. And even you who were will never know what was going on in his head. Which is perhaps as well.

    Reply
  4. Elisabeth
    November 2, 2015 at 6:44 pm (1 year ago)

    Just as well perhaps, Jim, that I didn’t know the way my father’s mind worked, but I’d have liked to, if not then, at least now. But as you say I never will. And as for your decision to avoid the black and white of it all religion wise, and the fear that if you contacted your sister and brother they might disapprove, there’s a certain cut and dryness to that too.

    We’re all like this I reckon. We try to protect ourselves from certain experiences, especially that of being judged. I gave up talking to my mother in anything but superficialities because of her adherence to the black and white of religion.

    When I tried early on to present different view I could sense a wall go up. I expect that’s what it was like with your siblings. Sad really. We all miss out on so much in the interests of self preservation, going in all directions.

    Thanks, Jim.

    Reply
  5. A Cuban In London
    November 6, 2015 at 6:58 am (1 year ago)

    As usual, excellent writing. You drew me in. Been missing your writing.

    Greetings from London.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      November 7, 2015 at 9:08 am (1 year ago)

      It’s great to hear from you again, Cuban. How the years fly by and still there are so many of us loyal bloggers who blog on and on, even unto death. I hope you’re well.

      Reply
  6. Louise Allan
    November 28, 2015 at 12:13 am (1 year ago)

    Incredibly gripping and haunting story, Elisabeth. Your poor sister, and poor you. And your mother, just turning a blind eye … Thanks for writing it.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      November 29, 2015 at 5:53 pm (1 year ago)

      thanks, Louise. I’m glad the story resonated for you.

      Reply

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