I work on a free magazine which goes out from our church into the town, and is delivered door-to-door. I’ve written an article for it and our editor said that it needs a photo. Of me. So far, in 4our editions, the nearest we’ve got to a pic of me is a thumbnail of my dog. Which suits me just fine. I managed to find a tiny tiny Luce mugshot and then, remembering that the editor had said “We need to see it’s about real people” I had a brainwave – the article mentions my husband! I’ll use my tiny tiny thumbnail but will add George’s photo! And that’ll do the trick.
I started the search for a serviceable snap of blondie George, but they’re all out of focus, or badly lit, or he’s pulling silly faces, and in one he’s strangling me. What to do? Another brainwave. I have a pile of photos rescued from my Dad’s house – there might be a few of George in there. As I sorted through the heap of dog-eared, anonymous and vague images, I came across one that took my breath away. It was my Uncle. My Uncle Alf standing on the step of 24 Legh Street, smiling broadly, shirt sleeved and relaxed. My vicious, nasty uncle, the man who beat my brother and left him stuttering and withdrawn, the man who brutalised me, but always had a smile and a funny word for the world.
What amazed me, and still amazes me, is that his image is exactly, but exactly as I remember him. If he stepped into this room right now, he couldn’t be more alive to me than in my memory. Did this small black and white image shake me? It startled me, but no, it didn’t plunge me into any deep angst. It left me sad, sad for him, sad for the little girl of those years, terribly sad for my brother who died too young after a ruined life, and sad for Alf’s wife who pretended everything was good when she knew it was as rotten as it could ever be. But mostly I was dazed that his image was here, with me, in 2018, and so familiar, after nearly 60 years. Like it was a visitor from another planet. I don’t know how else to describe it.
You know, after such a long time, a veil forms over the past. Yes, you remember, and sometimes, too often, the past is there to haunt you, but it’s all ‘back there’. This photograph was here. Now. In a great heap of faded images, this one, strangely, was clear and crisp, sharply focussed. I could smell him, hear him. I knew him all over again.
What to do with it? Do I burn it? Tear it into pieces? Take the scissors and do a Banksey shredding job on it? As I gazed at it, remembering those muscled arms, miner’s arms, that jawline, the heft of the man, I knew that I couldn’t do any of those things. They would be acts of hatred, a reflection of my desire to annihilate him and my memories, and that’s not a part of my life any more. My heart doesn’t let me do that.
Two verses came to my aid, a sort of Isaiah mash-up that made perfect sense,
‘Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn.’ Isaiah 51:1
and my life verse
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. Isaiah 43:18&19
As I looked at the photograph, I realised there were no answers to be had there. And I should not be wasting time on it, but I should indeed be looking to the Rock, Jesus.
I put the photo back in the box, but at the front, the very front, face up against the box, where I’ll know it’s there and I will never have to look at it again. When I’m dead no one will know who he is, and that last little document will be lost.
Someone loved Alf Bourne. His Mum must have loved him, I’m sure. I think his wife loved him. But most important of all, transcending all, God loved him. That just amazes me; that even knowing us, the darkness of the things we can do, the lies we tell, the facade we wear, the pain we inflict, the terror we cause, God loves us.
When you know that love, when you really can say “I know I am loved with an unchanging love”, wowser! my little dingalings, it changes everything. It turns the photo of a cruel man into a portrait of need and brokenness, it turns the terror of a child into the joy of an old woman.
And stop calling me old.
POST SCRIPT: Have you ever looked at a photograph of a murderer , a news report maybe, and stared and stared at it, trying to see something there that reveals the person beneath the skin? Looking for something we can recognise as the cause, the grit, of the terrible things they’ve done? But it’s never there. The face may be sullen, or the lips my smile, or the eyes meet yours…. and there’s no outwards sign of the terrible things going on in that brain, the racing thoughts, the deceit, the self delusion. Not a trace of any of that.
I think, now, a few hours after writing that blog, that this is what I was doing with my Uncle’s photo. Trying to see what was there, hidden, or what was there, missing. Human curiosity, pure and simple. The human desire to say to a long dead man “Why did you do that to us?”
Anyway, anyway. A neighbour’s dropped off some veggie chilli, so I have better things to think about than those dark days. As before, thanks to God.