A long exposure

Ten or twelve years ago, two or three years before she died,  I went up to the attic at my mother’s house to go through boxes of photos and photo albums and among the holiday snaps and smiling children and honeymoon himalayan terraces I found a photo of a beautiful naked woman lying on a bed, and almost but not quite immediately realised that it was my mother. And in the awkward reluctance, the embarrassment of her expression I saw my father. It was a picture of his will and her dutiful, unhappy submission to him. She was so dutiful that she scarcely realised she was unhappy.  That expression so familiar to me, that young body so unfamiliar. Strange how a look can almost outlast the face itself.

The day she died I had gone down to Salisbury to visit her and found her lying in a pool of blood on the bed we’d fixed up for her downstairs. She’d been desperate to get out of the nursing home and go back to her own house, but once she’d achieved that, it was all over and she grew weaker and weaker. I phoned the doctor, it wasn’t her own doctor, and he began to talk about not wanting to interfere in the treatment of another man’s patient, which I didn’t understand.

Then he said, ‘Is it anal or vaginal bleeding?’

I thought,  do doctors realise that at times like this we’re ready to love them or hate them?

Of course I should just have called an ambulance, which is what the weary, elderly doctor did when he came round. At the hospital they gave her a transfusion, which leaked out of her more or less straight away along with the remains of her life; everybody was kind and gentle, and she died peacefully the following night.

After her death we went through all the photos, dividing them up, but that one was gone; I was saved from incestuous voyeurism.  My mother must have destroyed it. I hardly remember it now – a wooden building, in India? Bright light glimpsed outside, soft, shadowy light inside, just strong enough to sculpt and highlight flesh, her breasts I remember,, but most vivid in the photograph was the terrible tension  between the image of her body  and the expression of her feelings. Would he have used a tripod for a long exposure?  Was she frozen in the heat?  And my father- I remember him – he’s in the photo too, in fact he’s more present than my mother, he’s there in the anxious, submissive look in her eyes, in the arrangement of her body.

Maybe it was on their honeymoon. Maybe he couldn’t believe his luck. Maybe she was struggling to interpet her misfortune as the best possible outcome and to accept being stripped of her secrets.

Generally, if you write about things, try to think them through, you feel better. But I don’t. That doctor, my father, my mother bleeding, and not a joke between them, so I’ll just say that my mother’s last words to me, when she was fading away and I believe almost comfortable, were – I’d love a wee glass of sherry.

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