Photograph by Vicki Couchman, Story by Joe Rizzo-Naudi
When the water levels are low, Dad leaves the house to go foraging near the hospital. I follow a few steps behind and he says nothing. The bramble thickets cover the hospital carpark and stretch across the road. They sieve the water, catching the flotsam as the tide pulls through Camberwell towards the Thames. Dad takes what catches his eye: blue nylon bags, a plastic mug with a broken handle, scrappy bits of tarp for the roof.
I see the sheet caught in a coil of wet brambles near the hospital fence. It is too high for me to reach. Dad appears beside me. He leans forward and inspects it, one hand resting on the peak of his cap, the other in his trouser pocket. The sheet is silver on one side, gold on the other. It ripples in the wind and makes a sound like fizzing pylons. Dad threads his hands through the brambles, unhooks it from the thorns, draws it out and holds it up. It is as large as the big window at the front of our house and made of metallic plastic like the sweet wrappers I have collected for the kitchen mural. I have tacked them up near the stove in the shape of a flower. Each morning Dad walks past them on his way to the pontoon, where he checks the water levels. Before, he would come back and call out the level as he chalked it up on the board. Now, he comes in and goes to his bunk. He lies on top of the covers and pushes his hands against the wooden slats overhead.
The sheet glows in the sun and lights up dad’s face under the peak of his cap, smoothing the lines near his mouth and the stretch of coarse skin above his eyebrows. He grunts and lets the sheet drop to the ground. It settles in a puddle. The wind pushes in under one edge and makes the sheet rear up. I reach out, take hold of the edge and lift it out of the puddle. It is lighter than I thought. It is like some kind of cosmic material, like something aliens use to swaddle their new-borns. I scrunch it between my fingers. I hold it against my front and smooth it down. I wrap it round my legs, then unravel it. I hold it by one corner and lift it above my head and swoop it round in circles. Dad is watching me, his face shaded by his cap. The sheet whiffles as it travels through the air. Dad pulls it out of my hands. He turns his back, walks to the fence and is still for a long time, the sheet limp by his side. Then he lifts it and shakes it a little, like a bedsheet. He pulls it tight, snapping it taut so the material cracks and shimmers. He wraps it round his fists and stretches it out, tries to tear it. I see his arms straining through his red shirt. Then he raises it squarely over his head and brings it down in front of him, then up over his head again and down. He unravels it from his fists and lifts it rippling above him like a kite. He takes a step to the left. He hops to the right. A little jump forward, a little jump back. He lets go of one corner and whirs the sheet in a circle above his head like I was doing, round and round, quicker and quicker until it is a glinting blur. He turns to face me, his dark eyes catching the gold and silver. Just as I think he cannot spin the sheet any faster, his forearm catches the peak of his cap and pushes it up and off into the air and the white skin on top of his head gleams in the light beneath the sheet and the tufts of brown hair above his ears stand out. I laugh. He lets go of the sheet and it flies into the bramble thicket. He stoops and replaces his cap.
Dad’s eyes are on the ground, his hands hovering near the pockets of his trousers. They are covered in dried mud. Mum used to scrub them clean in the basin on the pontoon. I remember them drying on the chair by the stove. I walk to where the sheet is caught in the brambles, thread my hands through the branches, unhook it from the thorns, draw it out and hold it in front of me. I walk over to Dad. I reach up as high as I can and wrap the sheet around his shoulders, drawing the edges together about his chest, smoothing it down his back. I put my arms around him to hold the sheet in place and press my cheek into the warm material of his shirt. I hear the slow thump of his heart, the gurgle of his stomach. He takes a long, deep breath and I feel his chest rising and rising and rising. He holds the breath a long time before releasing it. I step back. He holds the blanket around his shoulders with one hand and puts the other on my head.
Dad keeps the sheet around his shoulders as we walk home. It billows behind him like a cape, flecks of rain gathering on the silver surface. This afternoon little streams will run through the thickets, and tonight the tide will come in, lifting the houses on our pontoon out of the mud and into the swirling currents on Denmark Hill. The water rats will gnaw the walkway ropes. The gorse bushes will scrape the bottom of our house like witch’s fingers and keep me awake. When we get to our front door, dad takes the sheet from his shoulders. He hoists himself up to the roof and ties it to the front stay where the wind catches it, picks it up, lets it fall.
Vicki Couchman loves her job and has been fortunate to be in it for over 20 years. It’s easy to get pigeon-holed as a certain type of photographer but Vicki has moved through several different disciplines including news and sport photography, interiors, travel, reportage and portrait photography. She travels widely for her work and is based in London and as well as working for many of the UK’s national newspapers, regularly for the Sunday Times Style and Culture magazines she has been on assignment for various charities to Africa, including Trade plus Aid, Save the Rhino International and Christian Aid. She is also a documentary maker and co-founder of Blindbatfilms.com. You can find her here.