Today is perfect. My winter coat, hanging by the back door, is pulled over a hotchpotch of warm clothing, and I smile, aware that my father’s perennial advice: ‘Always dress for the weather,’ is playing through my mind.
Camera in hand I step into the garden, quickly immersed in the world I find there. I aim the lens at whatever catches my eye: stubby spikes of ice that decorate a garden fork, the top of a gate, and the roof of the Summer house; panes of feathery artwork on the aptly-named cold frame; white-edged bouquets of once vibrant flowers—hydrangea and verbena the most spectacular. The fish pond lies beneath a thick, glassy surface. Islands of clear and opaque ice pattern its length, and frost-confetti, blown from who knows where, is scattered between the ice-bound plants. I can still see the one remaining goldfish, right at the bottom of the pond, and wonder how it’s survived, where others failed.
Back inside, my fingers prickle as warmth returns, sluggish blood quickening, until whitened tips become hot-pink. A shiver shakes me from scalp to hip; nerves readjusting to the welcome effects of central heating.
An hour-or-so later, with a mug of coffee evaporating beside me, I scroll through the photographs I’ve taken; cropping them where necessary, deleting those beyond help. Glancing out the window I note how the landscape is changing. The frost recedes as the day progresses, more beautiful than ever in the face of its demise. It glitters like diamonds where shadows have surrendered, and the wooden garden fence appears to smoke in places, as the sun’s rays kiss its surface with bright, winter light, and just enough heat to vapourise its icy coating. But that single fish is still trapped.
My mind wanders, and I suppose that the fish and I are not so dissimilar… I live my life suspended within a stark, gloom-filled atmosphere, surrounded by a series of glass boundaries that I have no idea exist—until I run into one.
It’s been that way since my childhood, but I’m trying to learn from my mistakes.
For years I saw crowds of potential friends, and a world of unrealised happiness and magical experiences, but now I see reality. It’s a finite space, fenced by suspicion, and sometimes aggression, that keeps me safely corralled, exactly where society wants me. I long-since lost count of the times when my smile, offered in friendship, was met with disregard, bordering on contempt. And I’ve learned to quash any urge to ‘help’. Years of trying, crushed beneath a mountain’s worth of indifference, has taught me the futility of that.
Staring down at the ice-filled photos, I realise that the thaw unfolding beyond my window isn’t meant for me. A solitary existence has slowly driven the warmth from my heart, until even the expression of my creativity, through photography and a little-read blog, cannot sustain the flickering candle-flame my soul has become.
Sipping at the now tepid coffee, I delve into past memories, of so-called friends. Again and again, my eagerness for company drove me to the sides of those at their lowest ebb. My compassion, for individuals as lonely as I, gave me the strength to keep at them, to push them, until the smiles they’d lost returned—and they left.
The pain of abandonment is a wound few can explain. I can’t decide which is worse: someone walking away, or the pain of a physical assault.
I spend a little more time collating my photos before uploading them to the blog. I include hard-thought-on praise for the pleasures of the early-morning, and the satisfaction of capturing the world around me through a lens and several million pixels…
Lunch is a simple affair: Cheese and pickle sandwiches. The oaky richness of mature cheddar contrasts sharply with the acid tang of tomato chutney. I try to appreciate each mouthful. The wholemeal bread has a slightly nutty flavour, the butter becoming a layer of creamy texture as it melts upon my tongue. And yet… even this small pleasure recedes, until the flavours dull.
Afternoon marches on, golden sunshine fading into a wash of pinks, oranges and turquoise, with the darkness of night crowding inwards from the east. The click of a switch floods my work area with artificial light, and I blink for a moment in its sudden glare.
Spread out on the table in front of me are more photos than I realised I possessed. A sudden whim, mid-afternoon, had taken me to the attic, where I unearthed boxes of old, pre-digital photos. Their colours are muted by time, the subjects faded, but I find them every bit as beautiful and relevant as the photos I took this morning. They are history, layered in musty odour and enough dust to make me sneeze. History on squares and oblongs of thick paper, some of them matt, some glossy, some so old they’re bordered by white, frayed around the edges, creased. This is my family, though there’s no one I can truly call my own; no husband, children, friend from way-back, no boyfriend, not even a pet, unless you count the goldfish.
Looking into the smiling faces of five generations, I begin to separate the photos into piles. Great great grandparents, standing in stiff Victorian poses, sepia toned and solemn, with the ubiquitous potted plant standing guard beside them; great grandparents and other elderlies, their identities a mystery, but who look to be of the same era; grandparents and great aunts and uncles, whom I vaguely remember… Great Uncle Tom used to bring me sweets and a fifty pence piece; parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and me.
By the time I’m finished, the dining table and several side-tables are covered by a timeline that stretches from the 1800s to the early 21st Century. Much as I love my digital camera, part of me mourns the loss of collections like this. I hardly ever print off my photos these days, let alone buy albums to put them in. And that’s what I’m going to do with these. Looking at them has made me see how right my father was; I should ‘always dress for the weather’. It doesn’t matter how barren and cold my life appears to be, if I can just find enough experiences to keep me going, to wrap myself up in. I could be like that last goldfish; I could survive. Fifty seven isn’t old, not really, and it definitely isn’t an age when I should be letting life’s disappointments grind me down. I’ve taken early retirement, not started crafting my coffin. So what if I don’t have close family or friends, and lack the confidence to jump into the middle of social situations? There are plenty of other ways to interact with people; the internet is a wonderful tool for things like that. Instead of my blog, I should be joining a photography website where I can share my work with other enthusiasts, and if I get brave enough, I might even join a local photography club.
What can it hurt, to give my dreams a try, and smile at a few more people?
* * * *
It’s true what they say: ‘the older you get, the faster time goes’, but despite the weather, the church is crowded. Nodding his head in approval, the Reverend Faulkner views the rows of pews, each lined with solemn faces. Few of them are young, although it’s nice to see that Agnes’s great grandchildren have been allowed to attend… no one makes the distinction of ‘step’ any more, not after all the years that Agnes and Bill were together. Glancing out the vestry door, the reverend’s eyes rest on the photographs, mounted on boards around the walls of the Nave—Agnes certainly had talent. This service would be a celebration of that, of her life.
Straightening his surplice and stole, he murmurs a prayer of gratitude. He’d been worried that the icy conditions would deter some of Agnes’s more elderly friends. After all, falls and broken bones were to be avoided, especially in old age.
But no one who truly knew Agnes would allow the weather to deter them.
Stepping up to the pulpit, her stepson begins the eulogy. “It’s fitting that Agnes’s funeral service is taking place on a day like today. She loved the frost. In fact, it was her favourite weather condition when it came to her photography, and as I’m sure you’ll all agree, she produced some of her most stunning work during the winter. She had an eye for detail that shines through in the pictures you see around you, and she always said that sunlight in December and January was far warmer than in July and August. I’m presuming, of course, she was referring to tone rather than temperature…”
Smiles roll across the faces of those listening, with accompanying chuckles and nods.
“Agnes met my father later in life, an event that I and the rest of my family will always be grateful for. From the day we lost Mum, Dad started to give up on life. Little by little we could feel him pulling away from us, and nothing we did seemed to make a difference. But just as he reached his lowest ebb, there was Agnes, offering him a smile and the use of her camera. ”
There were more smiles now, with the odd tear mixed in.
“They became fast friends, and I’ll never forget how Agnes seemed eternally surprised that Dad wanted to be with her. But they were exactly what the other needed and, over time, their friendship became something more. They fell in love, married, and Agnes became one of the family, along with her ridiculously long-lived goldfish. The rest, as they say, is history. Although, thanks to Dad and Agnes’s obsession with photography, it’s a history that none of us will forget, because between them they captured as many moments as possible, from season to season and year to year…”
At the end of the service, the family is driven to the cemetery. Beneath their feet, the gravel path crunches, as does the grass around the grave, frozen into a tangle of stiff, white blades. Silent monoliths surround them, hewn from granite and marble, and faced on one side by thick, spiky-edged ice. It glitters in the weak sunlight, and ethereal mist hangs at ground-level, like the ghosts many believe in.
Agnes’s casket is lowered into the plot beside their father and mother—it’s where she belongs. She often joked that, for many years, her world was as cold as ice… until she met a man who thawed her out.
When all is done, they turn back towards the cars, the wake ahead of them. A small hand tugs at Agnes’s stepson’s.
“I’m cold, Grandpa,” a voice whispers, “I don’t think I dressed for the weather.”
The familiar words bring a smile, glazed by a rush of hot tears, cascading across frigid skin. Crouching down, gloves briefly discarded, he rearranges his granddaughter’s scarf, and makes sure that every button on her coat is done up.
“You did, sweet pea, and Granny Agnes would have approved, but we’ve been outside a long time. Don’t worry, we’ll soon be home… You’ll thaw out just fine with a slice of cake.”