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Headlights are returning to the streets, drifting across the hall from the living-room door; two cats fight in the back-court – screeches, clatters, slinking whines subside to the bin-shed.
In the dark kitchenette, used masks laze over the edge of the microwave.
You just moved in – having spent three months stooping round the slanted box room in your parents’ house, it’s good to have space again – and there are still a couple gawping suitcases tucked around.
A pair of dark, impassive eyes watch from the windowsill. A heart-shaped photo of a golden retriever, set atop a frame shaped like a stiletto, lined with soft, leopard-print bristle.
Tiny faux-zirconias are set around the heart, crested by a plastic topaz.
You found the photo in a dusty charity shop in Dunkeld, where you picked items from the shelves and turned them over till the sleet battering the windows subsided. Before you noticed the silica jewels, the ornate metal tongue at the picture’s edge where the dog’s paws erupt into filigree flowers, you saw the price – 50p, scratched in biro on a torn post-it strip and slapped over the retriever’s eyes like a half-arsed super-injunction.
Of course you bought it.
The shopkeeper eyed you as you passed the coin across the till – almost seemed hesitant to make the sale to someone so clearly buying in bad faith, and you were.
How could anyone buy something like this without irony? If he was unprepared to part with it glibly he shouldn’t have stocked it.
You were already rehearsing the conversations it might provoke with amused guests before the rain had stopped.
There have been no guests – state-mandated solitude and everyone has found a new shared loneliness, and the conversations never moved past rehearsal.
You left them in that box room but the photograph is now a companion.
In stowing up with you, this leopard-print, stiletto enigma has become a refugee – a transplant from someone else’s life that – now that you have missed the window to mock it – you’ve got no choice but to acknowledge and – now the conversations have expired – you’re left with questions, but no capacity or context to support an answer.
You have turned over quite a few of the routes through which a leopard-print, stiletto-shaped picture frame of a golden retriever came to be and are yet to come to any conclusion which bridges the many gaps in the explanatory fabric of its existence.
If you see a tree, even if you have never seen that tree before, you know it grew; if you see a ghostly jellyfish in a deep-sea crater, you know you are in the wrong place, but it belongs; you see this – this monument to accidental pairings – and you start to wonder whether the trees outside have roots, and whether you know anything even about the things you have watched grow from nothing.
The photograph can’t have come with the frame, although you don’t want to imagine the two ever having been separate.
Scramble then for meaning in the person who brought the two together – who sought to combine their favourite things: streetgrate fashion, exotic prints, and what you can only assume was their dog. Perhaps they housed the photo here because it was the only frame they had that fit, meaning they bought this frame knowing something would one day fit it.
Digging too deep into this identity is a painful process. Although the mystery of how the photo in the frame came to be is beyond your capabilities or energy to solve, how it came to be in a charity shop is no mystery at all.
One of the things that puts many people off these places – aside from dust allergies and snobbery – is the tacit understanding that the owners of many of the items therein did not, to put it as delicately as it can be when the coarse side of death has scoured us all a little rawer, donate them consciously.
No owner would leave an item this explicitly personal to charity. Pair this with the inescapable idea that while curios such as this always attract the eye of young, irony-clad ghouls like yourself, the people who make them – with a sincerity that leaves you ashamed of your hollow reasons for picking it up to begin with – are older, and you can’t kid yourself you’ve affected anything other than a personal effect.
This makes you all the more resolved to love it, imagining adult children tired of mourning boxing up everything of no monetary or sentimental value to themselves – the sighs and necessary jokes about what a hoarder their mum was: “Oh God, look at this”; “Jesus, there are more photos of the dog here than there are of us”; “She sure loved it”; “Do you want it?”; “Christ, no. You?”; “Chuck it in the box” – and the raised eyebrows of all the tourists who browsed the shelves till the rain had stopped, the surreptitious camera snaps when they thought the shopkeeper was looking away.
If you break it open, pry the photo from the glass and turn it over, you might find a note – Archie’s 8th birthday! June 3rd, 2005 – and maybe you’ll have more insight in what this photo meant and came to mean before it reached the shop, that before the owner ever fell ill or fell asleep and didn’t wake up it was already a monument to something lost.
You won’t break it, won’t grab for any insight that belongs to someone else. This seems respectful, but your real fear if you do so – and you still might, if the headlights leave the streets again and the news relocks the doors – is that there will be nothing written on the back, or even worse that something might be printed: Golden retriever, Getty Images – © Party Frames 2004.
Then, even hypothetically, you’d be alone.
Best stick to questions.
You cannot know the dog or its owner, but you will look after it, let it sit on the windowsill in your new home, and when guests point it out – fairly, as half your possessions were bought as a joke – you hope you will remember to be generous.