The funeral was outside, in our garden at the house that was not quite my home anymore. When I?d arrived late last night there were already chairs scattered around the lawn. Strange, unexpected lumps in the dark. As if someone had been in the darkroom since you?d last been there and moved things around, brought in some boxes stacked high or something. Even after turning on the safelight you couldn?t quite make out the shapes in the reddish blur. For those few moments they could be anything. Mr Briggs at school told us the first time we used the darkroom that during the war, during the blackout, people had been told to close their eyes and count to twenty when they went out at night. He made us do that, hissing at the people snickering, reminding us again that because of the vents he could here everything we did in the next room. He didn?t have to remind anyone that he?d be listening.
Dan had driven in at the side of the house, it?s on a corner and the brick drive is round the side. I?d stopped when I got out of the car, hesitating, those strange lumps looming out at me, making everything different. Dan was going round to the boot, getting my bag, but he stopped when I did.
I nodded. Took the handles when he swung the bag towards me. He turned back to the boot and lifted a pile of deckchairs out, I couldn?t think of anyone but Dan and Richard who would own black painted deckchairs with white covers. They don?t exactly match, he said apologetically, glancing across the grass. Oh, I said, the lumps suddenly coming into focus as a collection of mismatched garden chairs, presumably leant by my parents friends. I almost smiled, I think she?d like it that they?re not, was all I said.
The back door?s open, are you sure you?ll be ok, you don?t need anything? I nodded.
Lisa was asleep when I left to pick you up, Dan went on, you should probably let her rest.
I nodded again, suddenly I just wanted to be alone. Dan hesitated, as if he wanted to say something, but all he said before getting in the car was, well I?ll see you tomorrow, people will be here about eleven.
I raised my hand in response to his goodnight and watched him reverse out the drive. See you tomorrow, I murmured.
Someone, probably Dan, had taken my photo down from above the mantelpiece in my mother?s study and propped it up on a table at the far end of the garden. I?d taken it last autumn, almost a year ago, it was in the portfolio I?d sent off to college. I?d been out after school taking photos in town, my girlfriend and a couple of her friends posing on steps, against graffiti, among gravestones. They?d gone to the pub, but I was bored of playing and made some excuse, walked home kicking up leaves by myself. I could hear them arguing as soon as I opened the front door, wished suddenly that I?d gone to the pub.
You?re not my nurse, you don?t have to stay. Sarah screamed.
I want to stay. Mum shouted back. I love you, I want to help.
You?re not helping. You?re just making it worse. Why do you want to stay? I?m just going to get uglier and uglier and fall apart bit by bit until I die. Why don?t you just go now? Go before it gets any worse. I don?t want you hanging around watching me rot.
You?re not going to die.
How do you know? You?re not god. You can?t decide that. It?s not up to you. Just leave. Get out. You know you will eventually.
They were in the living room. The same argument they?d been having for weeks. Both of them getting less and less distinct. My mum was crying, but Sarah?s voice was frighteningly cold. The voice she?d used when I was little, the disappointed voice. Mum just got angry and shouted her head off at you, but Sarah could be cold and disappointed for hours.
I?m not going anywhere, mum choked.
Not until they were quiet did I move from the front door. Even then it felt like I should knock before I pushed open the living room door.
Mum had the clippers Sarah had used to cut my hair when I was about twelve in her hand.
Look Hansel, Sarah grimaced and held out her hand. She thrust a clump of hair at me. I might as well just get rid of it all now.
Mum?s eyes were red, but they didn?t seem to realise that I?d been listening.
She put her hand under Sarah?s chin, tilting her head back. Sarah was twelve years older, she was thirty-two when they met, when mum was only twenty, but suddenly mum looked like the older one.
Mum pushed the switch on the clippers forward starting them buzzing.
Where the hell did you find those? I asked.
Under the sink, Sarah replied, I think we need a clearout.
Mum grinned at me, Sarah could never bear to throw anything that might be useful out. Not everything she hoarded would turn out to be as handy as the clippers. I was hoping Dan would help with clearing out some of her stuff, on top of all he?d done for the funeral, and organising my flights.
Dan was looking at me. He?d been talking for a few minutes but I had no idea what he?d said. He was standing beside the table with the photograph and the flowers on it, beckoning to me. Shit. I?d told him I would say something about Sarah. I?d tried writing something on the plane, but everything had sounded so false. Mum took my hand an squeezed it.
I stood up, trying not to catch anyone?s eye. There were a lot of people there. People I?d known most of my life, some I?d never seen before. At least we weren?t in a church with the obligatory back row of old ladies that go to every funeral. At least all of these people had actually known her.
I don?t really know what I said. But I started talking, and it must have been all right, because afterwards, when Dan had thrust a plate of sandwiches into my hand, people kept saying how nice it was, and how they?d cried, or how proud she was of me, would have been. I think I said something about the photograph, not the argument they?d been having just before I took it or anything, but just how I?d taken it with the last shot on the roll. I think in the end it was the only photo I ended up printing. Sarah sitting with mum curled over her head. Beautiful even as her hair fell over her face, caught in the last of the light. I probably said something about how it was Sarah that really made me and mum a family, that I?d always thought of her as my other mother. I hope I said something like that.
I got rid of the sandwiches quickly, handed the plate to Rachel, Dan and Richard?s desperate to be helpful ten year old daughter. She seemed to enjoy prancing round the garden, politely asking people whether they?d like any refreshments.
I went upstairs and got my camera. Sarah gave it to me when I was eight, one morning at breakfast before she took me to school on her way to work. Mum never got up before ten, so it was always just me and Sarah in the mornings. She?d just gone back to work, and one morning I shuffled downstairs in my Bart Simpson pyjamas.
She was sitting at the table, dressed already and drinking black coffee. No fuss when I didn?t reply to her good morning. She just handed me the shreddies and started talking while I ate. It wasn?t until she reached to the floor and placed a cardboard box on the table that I even really noticed that she was talking at all. And after that it was the box I was interested in.
It wasn?t like the kind of box toys come in, there were no bright colours and bubble plastic. But it wasn?t just a plain cardboard box, like something that had come in the post either. It looked old, the corners were scuffed and the design on it looked like something from when mum was little, brownish orange lines and the letters OM.
She lifted the weighty camera out of the box and placed it on the table in front of her. I slid the shreddies packet out of the way, and leaned in closer. Realising she actually had my attention now Sarah produced two smaller boxes.
I got a colour film and one in black and white, like old films, she said. Do you know which one you want?
I reached over and picked the black and pale blue box.
The packaging of the film hasn?t changed much since then. At least I can?t remember any difference as I reach into the side pocket of my bag for a roll.
Sarah showed me how to pull up the little handle so that the back of the camera would spring open. She slide her nail under the flap of the box and tipped the little metal canister out, showed me how to slot it into place and pull the film out, poking the end into the slot and catching the square holes on the teeth. She thumbed the wind on lever and snapped the shutter down, twice to catch it properly and then shut the case. She told me to always wind the film on until the little 1 showed up in the window. Otherwise the first pictures you took might not work because the light had damaged them. I nodded, and reached out my hands for the camera. She showed me how to hold it with my elbows in and how to turn the ring on the lens until the middle focused.
She must have spoken to my teacher, because no one at school tried to take it away. Laurie?s mum drove me home and the first thing I did was run upstairs to mum?s study and hold out the camera. Did Sarah give you that? How kind. It was the first time in weeks I?d shown any interest in anything, and she wasn?t about to ruin it by making me think it was a ploy.
Mum didn?t know what I was getting at when I pointed at the number 24. She just smiled and told me to wait until Sarah got home.
The next day there was a brightly coloured paper wallet and another film box on my bed when I got home from school. I opened it and slid out the pictures. I got the box my camera had come in from where I?d left it on my desk and then I climbed up on the desk and pulled a book down from the top shelf. Tucked inside the front cover of the book was another photograph. I climbed down and put it into the bottom of the camera box. Sat on my bed with my photos, and put them into the box one by one, pictures of all the things she wouldn?t get to see.
The camera box is on the top shelve, tucked in among the books. I don?t need to climb on the desk to reach it anymore, but I don?t need to get it down to know what?s in it. It only took me a few weeks to fill the box, and after that I had to start taking pictures out so that I could add new ones. But the photo I always put back, right at the bottom, is still there. I don?t need to get it down to see it. The small, squarish piece of photo paper with the black and white murky image on it.
Mum and Sarah and Dan brought it home just for me, tried to get me to feel Sarah?s tummy. I took the paper but I wouldn?t go anywhere near her tummy. I?d been excited when they first told me, but then I started thinking about how Sarah would be more it?s mummy than she would be mine, and that maybe they would go and live with Dan and be a real family, because he was the baby?s daddy and when they tried to involve me like that I stomped off and slammed the door and screamed that I didn?t want a baby brother or sister.
My sister Aurelie came too soon, that?s what Richard told me when he picked me up from school in the middle of the day. He took me to the hospital, to a room where mum and Dan were standing peering over a clear plastic box with lots of tubes in it. Mum reached out her hand and told me to come and see her. She was ugly, and shrivelly and too small for the nappy that was all that she was wearing. There was a tube stuck across her lip, under her nose and her eyes looked gummed shut. They wouldn?t let me see Sarah and I didn?t believe them when she said that she would be fine. Richard had taken me home and made me tea and let me eat it in front of the tv by the time Aurelie?s chest stopped heaving in and out.
My baby sister came to soon and I had to give her pictures and tell her that I wished she could see them and that I didn?t mean I didn?t want her. I kept taking pictures but by the time there weren?t any in the box I didn?t want to take out I started showing them to my parents. At some point I started talking to people other than her again.
I snapped the camera back shut and wound the film on, a completely automatic gesture now. On my way past I saw the pile of her things that mum had taken home from the hospital on the sofa in their room. She?d never wanted die in the hospital, but it was so sudden in the end. On the top of the pile was the hat that I?d made her. She?d seen one like it on the Osbornes, Sharon had been wearing it, and she insisted that if she had one she?d wear it to her chemo appointments.
I?d found the pattern on the internet but had no idea what it meant. I eventually convinced my friend Anna?s mother to teach me. She was pretty amused at that idea until I told her that I wanted to make Sarah a hat, and then like everyone she was concerned and helpful. I think she got it too.
Sarah was delighted and didn?t seem to mind the dropped stitches or that the lettering was wonky. She wore it everywhere, grinning at anyone who dared look offended. As she said, it?s not like anyone would actually disagree.
Fuck cancer. Seriously fuck it.
I went downstairs to photograph her friends for her. It seems weird to take photos at a funeral, but no one seemed to mind, and then they got all the kids together, and made me take one of them. Given that most of their friends are gay, mum and Sarah knew a lot of people with kids. That picture at least would be looked at by other people, though I don?t think I got all of them to smile, or even not blink. And Rachel insisted on holding Sarah?s friend Janey?s little boys by the hands, and then around their waists when they tried to wriggle away.
But even if mum was the only person to look at the others I took a whole roll anyway.
It wasn?t until everyone had left that I felt weird. Loading up plates in the dishwasher I asked mum if she wanted a cup of tea, but didn?t know what else to say. She was tucked into a corner of the sofa in the living room reading, and when I went through she looked up and asked if I was hungry, she seemed relieved when I said not really.
No, me neither.
I brushed Tina Sparkles, our cat, off the other end of the sofa. Mum put her book down. The chair Sarah was sitting on when I took the photo was up against the wall. An old dark wooden chair on one side of the mantelpiece. I think Sarah bought it at an auction, or maybe in of the little antique shops she went to. She used to take me to charity shops, and car boot sales, and those fetes outside churches in summer. She?d get so excited about old things, she?d get me to make up stories about the people who used to use the things we?d buy. And when we got home she?d show mum the thing she?d bought and I?d tell her my story, giggling as it got more and more ridiculous and the people who used to have the cushion cover we?d bought had tied it to their chimney to signal to aliens, and mum would laugh and sometimes say that she should put it in one of her books.
I wanted to ask if she remembered that. But it looked like she was remembering her own things. She always told Sarah she loved her sounding surprised that she should love her back. She?s never really talked much about before they met. She was so young when she had me, and travelling around all over the place. She jokes about how she never meant to be a writer, and how she just did it as something to do and then it turned out that people were willing to pay her to do it. She jokes but I think she was really surprised, and she jokes about how it was Sarah that tied her down. But I think it really was, it was Sarah that looked after both of us, and tied us down and together.
We sit without talking, until I realise that the room is quite dark and that the only reason I can see the furniture is because I know what it looks like.
Mum, I begin.
But she doesn?t reply. I cross the room and take the blanket from the other sofa, tuck it around her and kiss the top of her head.