Photograph by Rory Mulvey, Story by Jonathan Eyers
I was in two minds about even mentioning the camera to mum. She had made it perfectly clear that she didn’t want to help clear dad’s flat because it was, in her words, nothing to do with her any more – one of those moments that reminded me I had two families, and I was the only overlap left.
Uncle Theo offered to help, but come the weekend he called to cancel, so it was just me and the empty boxes. I found the camera a few hours into the afternoon, at the back of the bottom drawer in dad’s bedroom, swaddled between several unused towels that may have been clean but hadn’t been fresh for a long time. They, like the camera, had been filed away and forgotten. On his own, he hadn’t needed more than two towels in rotation.
The camera was an SLR, a Praktika, which I had never heard of, but the ‘Made in East Germany’ plate on the base dated it even further back than the fact that it took film. The rusty guy in the old camera shop warned me that after twenty years or so, the film may well have degraded, and once developed I might just get back strange aurora-like blurs of colour. But there was no degradation. The photos could have been taken the same day, if it weren’t for the older cars on the street.
And instead of blurs, I got back my dad. He was in all twelve photos, which all seemed to have been taken at the same place, at the same time. I thought he was doing yoga or tai chi in the park to begin with, but lifting through the prints, not daring to even get a fingerprint on grass or sky, that one was clearly dad doing a gorilla, and this one was dad doing the human spider.
By the time I got to the last one I had to go back to the first to re-evaluate what he was meant to be if not a downward dog. So I got to see most of them new a second time. It felt as if I had got back more than twelve.
The beard dated dad even better than East Germany dated the camera. That hadn’t survived the divorce, being promptly sacrificed at the temple of the fresh start, but it’s there in every childhood memory I have of him, even the ones that I’ve only got from other photos.
This was dad who let me draw and colour on his untattooed arm with felt tip pens when I was seven because I said I thought he looked unbalanced or something, and who went to work the next day without washing it off because he liked what I had done.
This was dad who frequently warned me his uncontrollable dual personality was a dog called George and that George always took over when dad got angry, so I had better behave when my friends came round or George would sniff their behinds.
This was not dad who took up swearing in his fifties. Not dad who switched to boxed wine so he always had ‘enough’. Not dad who went to the bridge.
Uncle Theo laughed too when I showed them to him.
‘Well, it wasn’t me,’ he said after I asked him whether he knew who took them.
I also asked Jim, dad’s last friend, who had told me at the wake that he was my friend too – a conversation that had made me feel old at that time, as if I now had to pick up this mantle of adulthood dad had dropped.
‘I think we can both guess who took them,’ he told me.
He was right on both counts.
It took me a week to work up to showing them to her. I turned Felix into my co-conspirator and waited until she was trapped by him purring on her lap. Most of what I told her was pre-amble, and the rusty guy in the old camera shop played a much larger role in this version than he had in mine. I even projected my curiosity on to him, as if he had turned my family into a personal project, and it was for him that I was asking, really.
Mum looked through each of the photos in silence, touching only the edges, just as I had done. Her expression remained unwritten, but Felix stopped purring.
‘Oh, your dad,’ she said over the last one.
She hadn’t said his name in years, but she had only ever referred to him as ‘your father’ in just as long.
‘Yes, it was me who took them,’ she went on. ‘Do you know when this was? It was about six months before, well, before you became a prospect, as he used to say. He had a fancy to become a children’s entertainer at that point, something like that.’
For some reason I liked that she hadn’t said clown.
‘This was going to be his showreel, whatever you call it. I suppose like most of his big plans, it got forgotten in the rush to the next. The world was always going too slow for him, wasn’t it? The rest of us could never keep up.’
I waited for her to release the photos. She kept hold of them even after she had finished looking at them.
‘What are you going to do with them?’ she asked when finally giving them back. ‘Are you going to keep them?’
‘I don’t know. Probably.’
She nodded. I knew she still had words too.
‘Could I have that one?’ she said quietly, as if she wasn’t sure she wanted me to hear.
Dad as the human spider.
She probably didn’t want me to see her smiling either.
‘Of course,’ I said. Our fingers overlapped as I gave him back to her.
Jonathan Eyers is the author of five books of non-fiction and fiction, including the children's novel The Thieves of Pudding Lane. He works as an editor for Bloomsbury Publishing and mentors creative writers via the Cornerstones Literary Consultancy. @eyersjonathan
Rory Mulvey - is a London based photographer you can find him here - rorymulvey.com