The Love of the Loveless (Chapter 5) (3)
Of the ones I had of mum and dad, there were three that were special favourites of mine. One of mum as a young woman, posing like a movie star pin-up with her legs up on a seaside promenade wall, propping herself with one arm while the other hand draped casually over her knee, her head thrown back on her shoulders as if she was about to laugh out loud through that dazzling camera smile. It could easily have been a 1940s advert for toothpaste or cigarettes or holidays. She was wearing a pale summer frock and sandals, and white clip-on earrings. Her hair was dark and, though short, was wisping across her face in the breeze. Beyond her, in the grey waste of ocean, the ominous shape of a warship - a corvette, I thought - held the middle-distance at her eyeline. On the back of the original photo was pencilled 'I.O.W. 1946'. The year before they were married. They honeymooned on the Isle of Wight, so must have gone there the year before and taken a liking to it. I guessed it was dad behind the camera. If it was summer, then mum would have been twenty. The photo had been quite marked and creased, so had needed a lot of work doing to it, and I'd gotten it near enough perfect. I'd added some subtle shades of colour, too, to mum's skin and lips, and made the frock a very pale green - a colour I knew she always liked. The only 'fault' I left was a pin-hole in the top-centre. After the photo had been developed, mum had sent it to dad, who had by then gone out to Palestine with his regiment. The day he'd received it, he'd pinned it up in his armoured car. And that very same day, the car was blown up. He'd been lucky to escape with his life. The photo, remarkably, escaped too. It was a joke between them forever after. The day he pins it up, he's hit! The main thing is, both of them had survived to tell the tale. I'd resized the photo slightly, so the hole was bigger. But I'd left it there. It only seemed right to leave it. He'd always liked to look on it positively - that the photo was a good luck talisman. It had saved his life. She had saved his life. Which is what she went on to do for the rest of his life, really, once they were married. Save his life. Until she could save him no longer. Until she had to save herself.
Their wedding one itself. Outside St Mary's Church, Putney. Dad smart and shiny as a new pin in his Household Cavalry dress uniform, medal strip on his chest, boots spit-and-polish bright, his hair greased and shaped in an elaborate quiff. Mum in a flowing white dress, a swirl of ribbons in her hair, her arm in his. Their lives together ahead of them that day. What would the years bring? What trials? What joys? What tragedy and heartache? What memories to carry them through?
Finally, the one of dad at Knightsbridge Barracks. In ceremonial uniform. Red tunic, silver and gold breastplate, sword at his side, helmet in hand, riding boots up to his white-legging thighs. He looked so young in it. Eighteen or nineteen, maybe (though he lied about his age to sign up, as so many did). I looked at him as he was and could see myself as I was. Then I glanced in the mirror on my desk and saw him as he became. Alike in more ways than one. We understood each other as no one else did - not even mum. Not the knowledge that comes from shared circuitry. And then mum was the other side of it. I understood her in a way he didn't. I often used to wonder where my autism came from. Which of them had passed it on - and to me alone, not the others. Maybe it was a bit from each of them. Some of him, some of her. That unique mixture that, in me, had formed something different. Something unlike. Something that would just be my secret, until the time came to find it out.
The very last one I'd chosen was actually the only one I could ever remember of us all together as a family. It was taken on a holiday in Pagham, outside the caravan we were renting. Mid-sixties, I would guess. Mum is sitting in a deckchair in her bathing costume and sandals, shielding her eyes against the sun with her hand. Her expression seems more surprise than smile. She's shelling peas. There's a bowl of them in her lap and a pile of shucks on the newspaper beside her. Her hair is dark and long - longer, strangely, than I ever remember it being. It trails over the tops of her shoulders, and she has a white flower in it, giving her a slightly Mediterranean look. Dad is standing apart from her, over to the right, shirtless in light trousers and socks. His arms and chest retain their definition from his Army years, but the slippage was setting in even then: the slight stoop of his shoulders, a bulge of stomach sitting on his belt buckle like a risen loaf. His hair still has the quiff, though. More conscious of the moment, he has his left foot resting jauntily on the bumper of whatever car it was he'd managed to borrow that year. A Vauxhall Cresta, at a guess. His left hand is cupped over his raised knee, while the other hand - a cigarette between the fingers - is poised level with his chest. In almost every informal photograph existing of him from his youth onwards, he is holding either a cigarette or a drink. Often both. Between the two of them, kneeling on the grass, are Karen and me. I'm about five, so she would be three. She has a bow in her hair and a big gap-toothed smile. If it wasn't for the bow, you'd think she was a boy in her dungarees and shirt. I'm dressed in shirt and shorts, and am wearing a sailor's cap with the peak shading my glasses. There's a space between us. Just a gap of grass, in the physical sense. Thousands of blades of grass. Michael's in the shot, too. His shadow, falling just short of my knees. And the tip of his finger, over the lens at the left-hand edge. I could have removed that easily enough. But I left it. Like the pin-hole, it needed to be there. Behind the caravan, perhaps a hundred yards back, the land sloped away to a cliff edge. Beyond that, a finger of sea pointed off to the distance. Anyone looking at the photo who didn't otherwise know would never be able to recognise any of us from it.
I finished scrolling through them and switched the frame off. I wrapped some coloured tissue paper around it, then slid it into the box. I slipped mum's card in there, too. Then I wrapped it carefully in the paper I'd bought and stuck a label on the front.
Dear Mum, Happy Birthday, Lots of Love, Will xxxx
I drew a little 'cat' cartoon, too, and a paw print.
And it was done.