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It was early March when I received the first in a rapid series of emails from my aunt. The emails were as unexpected as they were detailed and long, centring on a month she had spent as a writer-in-residence in Slovenia several years earlier. There were few preliminaries.
During those first days, my aunt wrote, she had spent long hours alone at her desk in the duplex apartment she had received as part of the residency programme. Flanked on two sides by a broad, wraparound balcony covered thick with the flaky white excrement of pigeons, the apartment had been located on the top floor of a large house in the centre of Tivoli park. It looked out onto dense woodland. There were no curtains or blinds, and almost every day she would wake to a low mist among the trees, the colours of the leaves changing almost constantly before her eyes in the early autumn.
She said she spent a great deal of time reading and gathering notes, although she mentioned very little about the specifics of her research, or what it was she had gone to write in the first place. In itself, this wasn’t necessarily unusual, and on first reading I must admit I thought little about what the emails withheld, although, as they continued to arrive in a steady stream, it was hard not to suppose that they were evidence of the past beginning to haunt my aunt, as I suppose it is so often prone to do, snagging at the seams until we find ourselves pulled backward and down into its interminable and largely unfathomable depths. Perhaps the emails were simply evidence of a period of her life that, as she remembered it, had been productive and largely devoid of responsibility, and which, because of this, had had a lasting impact on her, the way anything tends to do that takes one out of the ordinary. Or perhaps there was little objective reason why one thing instead of another came back, only to recede again at some unfixed point in time. She never thought to furnish her emails with explanations, and, for a variety of reasons, in my irregular replies I never thought to ask.
In any case, as the emails piled one upon another I began to wonder why I had no clear recollection of my aunt having been awarded this residency, until it dawned on me that her time in Slovenia must have coincided with the end of my own postgraduate studies and my subsequent entry into the world of full-time work, when, with little prevision, I had acquired the role of assistant production editor for a small publishing company specialising in business and academic journals. It was a working environment in which I had not the slightest interest. Nonetheless, I was eager, I suppose, to get on with life, and match my imprint as closely as possible to those I saw around me, all the while demonstrating my ability, to myself as much as anyone, to put the pieces in the right order. As it was, I became increasingly knowledgeable about shifting trends in corporate property management, brand management, and the aerospace industry, not to mention the technicalities of production, subscriptions, and distribution. Most lunchtimes I walked to nearby Russell Square or, on rainy days, visited the British Museum, where I often sat in the foyer eating my sandwiches. Thinking about it now, it was this transition into the corporate workplace, difficult as I may have found it for a while, that marked a folding inwards of my own preoccupations and that also prefigured a growing remoteness between myself and my aunt. Something of myself that had once seemed so vital to me had shifted into the background and I felt little inclination in myself to draw it back.
In one email my aunt wrote how, in the cool, late afternoons, she often walked in the surrounding woodland for an hour or two with scant conscious purpose, frequently finding herself climbing to higher ground from where she caught glimpses of Ljubljana Castle in one direction and the pink spire of a church climbing out of the treetops in the other, only returning to the apartment when the sky began to blacken, subsuming the shadows around her as it did so.
On returning to her apartment, she said she never failed to be struck by the eerie quiet of the building itself, such that she sometimes wondered if she wasn’t only the resident in that upper floor. This was so much the case, she wrote, that whenever she walked down the long, creaking corridors in the lengthening dark, she kept expecting a chain of long forgotten, emaciated artists to emerge from each of the closed doorways, their arms outstretched in a slow, inescapable march towards her.
According to my aunt, the silence of that upper floor was in almost direct contrast to the hustle and bustle of the ground floor, which was often used as a venue for meetings and functions of varying sizes and degrees of formality. Although her host had informed her of this fact on her arrival, returning to the complex one weekday afternoon, my aunt wrote that had been completely unprepared to stumble upon what looked to her like some form of state or ambassadorial wedding reception. Large, expensive black cars, each flying the national flag of Slovenia on their bonnets, were parked in a semi-circle around the gravel driveway. Outside the main entrance a number of guards stood in high-polished brown boots, into which were tucked green and blue trousers overlaid by jackets with golden yellow piping and matching belts, buttons and shoulder cords. In their left, white-gloved hands each held a ceremonial sword vertically aloft. The sound of chatter and cutlery spilled out from the open windows, the glass panes speckled with reflections from the blazing chandeliers in the late afternoon.
Feeling herself an unwelcome intruder, my aunt wrote that she tried to walk as quietly as possible towards the residents’ side entrance, acutely self-conscious of the disparity between the ragged state of her own unkempt appearance and the stateliness of the reception before her.
When dusk fell, a military brass band began to play traditional songs in the main reception room. It was so loud, she wrote, that the multi-valenced sound travelled up to the top floor to such an extent that, had she not known any better, she would have thought the band had set up station in the corridor outside her own apartment. The music continued long into the night, frequently accompanied by the sound of heavy boots crashing, sometimes rhythmically, sometimes wildly, again and again on the floorboards. My aunt sat on her balcony, looking up at the stars and the glimmer of the ornate lights in the park below. It was a position in which she stayed until the early hours when, out of sight, the last of the ceremonial cars crunched away down the driveway, the sound of their engines gradually fading into the night-time air.
In a subsequent email, my aunt described a visit to the nearby Moderna Galerja where, for the first time, she encountered the work of the Slovenian photographer Fran Krašovec, whose photographs from the 1920s and 30s made a significant impression on her. In many ways, she wrote, it was the sense of grainy mist in the autumnal photographs that had most attracted her, as if there was something in those images that the camera had struggled to capture, a mottled absence hanging suspended across each print. Such a quality leant each photograph an almost melancholic tone that my aunt said she struggled to shake off, their affects apparently lingering within her for days afterwards. On one such night, while struggling to sleep, she found herself repeatedly returning to the memory of those images, replaying in her mind the photographer’s arrangement of surfaces and light.
In particular it was the first in Krašovec’s Autumn series about which she thought a great deal, although she said her reflections on that photograph were indistinct, tinged by a strange, nebulous feeling rather than anything more definite and identifiable. In the photograph, an old woman stood with her back to the camera, dressed in boots, a headscarf, and a long, dark overcoat. The woman appeared to be walking slowly up a path cut into the hillside, while carrying a suitcase in her left hand. She couldn’t be completely sure, my aunt said, but it appeared to her that, just in front of the woman, another, much smaller, foot was also visible, its heel seemingly angled upwards in motion, and my aunt wondered if it might have belonged to a small child whose slight body was largely shielded from view by the woman’s.
The old woman’s posture was slightly hunched, perhaps, my aunt wondered, because of the weight of her luggage, or because of the long incline of years, or simply because her right hand, out of view of the camera, was perhaps resting on the child’s shoulder, forcing her to walk in that stooped, hobbling fashion of a parent shepherding a reluctant child. In the right foreground and in the left centre, rising at a slight angle to the top of the photograph, the branches of the saplings were bare. A few leaves lay like crumpled newspapers at the side of the stony pathway. A little ahead of the woman the path disappeared from view, leaving my aunt with the impression that the woman and the child were about to fall over the edge of the hill into the thick white clouds that blanketed the background of the photograph and that, at their furthest reaches, gave way to the thinnest of light grey skies.
There was much that wasn’t clear, my aunt wrote, including the location of the photograph, although in her mind she had made the immediate assumption that the photograph had been taken on one of the paths, little changed since the days of the photograph, at the back of Tivoli park. She admitted there was little reason for such a supposition beyond the fact that, by virtue of where she was staying, this was an area of the city she herself had come to know well and suggesting that it was probably this correspondence that had led her to be drawn to the photograph in the first place.
In any case, what repeatedly drew her back to that image, in her mind during the nights that followed as much as in the gallery on that day, was the whiteness of the light, as if, despite the louse-grey cloud, the entire landscape had been bleached, giving the impression of something long buried all of a sudden rising once again to the surface. It was as if the image presented a glimpse of irretrievable discontinuities and, in so doing, conjured deep within her the uncanny suggestion of a past of which she was in no position to claim any memory.
Some weeks after having received the last of these emails, I recounted my aunt’s descriptions of Krašovec’s photographs to my friend Tim, whom I had first met through friends of friends relatively soon after moving to Manchester. Tim worked at the local branch of the Arts Council as an assessment officer for the visual arts. Originally we had bonded over little more than boredom. My wife tended to refer to us as drinking buddies although I had always resisted the description, accurate as it possibly was.
We were sat at a circular table in a small pub that claimed to be the oldest in Manchester. The place was crowded and uncomfortably hot, music blaring on the jukebox. Oppressive shafts of early evening sunshine poured in through the open windows along with the almost constant rumble of traffic on the road outside. Tim’s shirt was unbuttoned to such an extent that much of his chest hair was visible, rising out in tufts from the placket. On a wall near us was a mural commemorating the Peterloo massacre, in which a group of cavalry soldiers were seen to be stamping through a group of demonstrators, their swords drawn and held aloft. In the background, a man could be seen being trampled to his death by a horse while still clinging to the flag bearing the word ‘reform’ that rose like a pitying symbol of powerlessness above the scene.
Tim told me Krašovec was not a photographer of whom he had ever heard but said that something in my descriptions of his photographs had reminded him of the famous photograph of Roland Barthes’s mother, Henriette, that was generally referred to as the Winter Garden Photograph, and which Barthes had discussed in such melancholic and moving ways in his book Camera Lucida.
Despite the fundamental importance of this particular image to the book as a whole, Tim told me, the strange thing was that the photograph had not actually been reproduced in Barthes’s publication and for years readers had been left simply to imagine in their own minds what it might have looked like. It was a startling omission, he said, that had led to several theories about the photograph itself, some commentators claiming that Barthes had lost the photograph, while others suggested he wished simply for the image to remain private. Some of the most persuasive discussions, Tim said, questioned whether there had ever in fact been such a photograph at all, and that Barthes’s discussion of this missing photograph derived from little more than his deeply felt wish that such an image had existed and had remained in his possession.
I told Tim I had read Barthes’s book myself many years earlier. I remembered its tone in particular had made much of an impression on me, but confessed that the passage about Barthes’s mother was one about which I appeared to have no recollection.
Tim said it was an astonishing lapse in my memory, and he inquired into whether I remembered any of the personal circumstances surrounding my reading of the book. After some moments, I said it was strange but where and when and even why I had the read book was a complete mystery to me, although I was certain that, once, I had read the book.
Perhaps, Tim said, my memory was like the opaque images in the photographs by Krašovec I had just described to him: both there and not there at the same time. Only last week, he himself had taken delivery of an exhibition catalogue in which over 200 writers, artists and critics had been invited to submit a photograph that was intended to serve as a reflection on the Winter Garden Photograph, and that, of course, no one had ever seen. Tim said he found the resulting publication extraordinary, captivated by the play between the imagined and the visualised. In particular he had been drawn to an image, taken many years earlier, of the photographer’s mother lying on a sofa and looking directly at the camera. On the wall behind her hung a number of close family portraits. He wasn’t entirely sure why that photograph had made such an impression on him but he supposed it had something to do with the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing a stranger’s domestic life that so closely resembled his own memories.
As Tim spoke, he leant forward at the table as if with his whole body. Grey sacks hung under his eyes like water butts. At the table next to us the conversation grew increasingly loud. One of the men, dressed in a smart charcoal suit, was gesticulating frantically and telling his friends that all that was needed was patience for the team to rebuild itself under the assured guidance of the new manager. His companions remonstrated forcefully that the new manager’s style of play was precisely the cause of the team’s ongoing problems, together with his repeated inability to get the best out of some of their most talented players.
Tim went to the bar. The men next to me huddled closer around their small table, at which they appeared like capacious titans in a doll’s house. I listened to them discussing tactics, set pieces, and the merits or otherwise of particular formations.
In his own experience, Tim said, once he had returned carrying two more pints of beer and a menu of the food on offer, he thought it was a commonplace that correspondences frequently presented themselves, and often in the most unlikely of scenarios. In his opinion, this was the case because everything always appeared to be moving constantly outwards, shifting or opening from one thing to another such that he was convinced that much of life was little more than a series of resemblances that lacked a clear beginning or end. As far as he was concerned it seemed essential that art should mirror this open-ended experience of reality.
We ordered sausages and mashed potato with gravy.
The men drained their drinks and pushed back their stools. It’s no good holding on to what happened before, one of them said loudly as they walked out of the pub, it’s the problems we’ve got now that need sorting.
After a while Tim continued, telling me that, in another photograph from the catalogue he had just been talking about, a young girl leant forward to kiss her father through metal bars that gave the appearance of a prison cell but were in fact only banisters. It was a relatively old photograph, he said, taken over thirty years ago, and the lighting, together with the young girl’s floral dress and the father’s tracksuit jacket gave the image a sense of opening up a window onto a bygone era. But there was also an added poignancy to the photograph, Tim added, in that the photographer had recently commented that, despite the tenderness of the image, the photograph actually brought to the fore the barriers that had risen up over the years between herself and her father, barriers that for the photographer had come to seem insurmountable.
Seeing this photograph, Tim said, had made him reconsider his own relationship with his teenage daughter. During the early years of her life, Tim and his daughter had been very close, so much so, in fact, that for a period of time his wife had often referred to them as the terrible duo. All the same, in the last three or four years, Tim said he and his daughter had grown increasingly distant from one another and he knew very little about her life beyond the general and inconsequential information she would sometimes offer at mealtimes. The more he attempted to contrive ways for the two of them to spend time together, it seemed to him, the more the distance between them appeared to expand.
Tim said he was sure I would well remember that his daughter had suffered a rather unpleasant cycling accident in the run-up to last Christmas, when, on her way home from school, she had been hit by a car speeding out of a junction. The funny thing was, he said, after his daughter came home from the hospital, it had seemed to him as if the accident and his daughter’s subsequent gradual recovery, when she had been largely incapacitated for several weeks, had actually brought the two of them closer together than they had been for some considerable time. During these weeks, Tim would work from home as often as possible, completing only the most minimal of tasks so that he and his daughter could spend numerous hours in each other’s company. They played board games and discussed all manner of subjects, from the debates surrounding Brexit and climate change, to the latest news from her wide but closely-knit friendship group, as well as his daughter’s hopes and dreams for the future.
When the barman brought over our plates of food he asked if we would like anything more to drink. We ordered two small glasses of red wine. The gravy was unbearably hot.
The point he was trying to make, Tim said, was that those weeks had been cherished moments, and he wished he had taken photographs to record that time. It would have been easy enough, he added, given that they often spent hours poring over the bright glare of one another’s phones.
At the same time, though, Tim wondered if he hadn’t taken any photographs because he had also felt deeply uneasy about this growing closeness with his daughter. This malaise, for want of a better word, largely stemmed from his worry that, once his daughter was fully recovered, she would resume her old life at a remove from him and, as a result, he would know less and less about her again. Nevertheless, his unease was also partly because he was apprehensive that his enjoyment of her company illuminated the ways in which his ability to express love for his daughter was directly in proportion to her dependency on him. The more incapacitated his daughter was, the closer it seemed they were able to become, as if the years of their gradual separation had not happened at all.
Tim and I looked at one another. My own children were still relatively young, my daughter not yet having lost the habit of climbing into our bed in the small hours each night and, most often, falling back to sleep nestled in the crook of my arm. I muttered something about the world changing around us and that the trouble was that those changes only appeared to come to light when what we had once known was little more than a far-off relic dissolving before our very eyes. Tim asked if I was already drunk.
Whatever the case, Tim resumed presently, that photograph of the little girl with her father had stirred in him a pang for the past and a worry for the future, neither of which he felt able to share with his daughter for obvious reasons, or with his wife for less clear ones. He was not even sure why he had told me just now, he said, unless it was because he was confident that I was unlikely to offer much advice and even less likely to mention it to anyone else.
It seemed to me, I said, that being needed, particularly by those whom we love, gave a purpose to our lives and a direction to our actions. For right or wrong, I continued, it was virtually impossible to find the right conditions for this feeling to be produced in any other circumstances, at least in relation to the bond between parent and child. While he had been speaking, I told Tim, I had found myself thinking once again about the photograph of the old woman and the child by Krašovec that I had mentioned, drawing strange parallels between this image and what he had just told me, as if he and his daughter were perhaps standing at a precipice, the perils of which only he could see, while he gently nudged her onwards.
Tim said he imagined his daughter had a far clearer sense of the future than he did himself.
When we left the pub an hour or so later, we walked to the nearby tram station. Tim swayed slightly with each step. We said goodbye and then experienced that socially awkward moment when, having parted, we found ourselves once again thrown back into each other’s vicinity as we stood facing one another on opposite platforms, waiting for our respective trams to take us in different directions.