My grandmother to the left of me, my brother and father, in 1955
I remember as a boy visiting my widowed grandmother, who lived nearby. Sometimes she emerged from the smoke of a bonfire at the end of the garden. As a young woman, around 1905, she worked in a photographer’s shop in Ealing.
The bonfire this afternoon was higher than my waist. I needed my raincoat, hat and boots in this chilly autumn weather. I dropped the matches as I tried to bend into the centre of the laid branches. I thought I might fall as I held onto the upper branches of the bonfire, scrabbling in the darkness. Should I be doing this kind of thing at my age?
I follow Fred into the dark room, as he calls it. I haven’t told my mother about my new work in the photographer’s shop. Fred is only a few years older than me. My father certainly wouldn’t approve of his daughter working alone with a man in the darkness. My eyes slowly grow accustomed to the red glow of the safety light. I can see the outline of Fred on the other side of the table, pouring chemicals into a metal developing tray. I’m scared, but excited. Should I be here?
Having located the matches, I reached down and struck the sandpaper edge of the box. Sodden with paraffin, the rolled pieces of newspaper soared orange, leaping into the dry stacked wood and beyond the green branches. It reminded me of the magnesium flares we used in night photography – fifty years ago now, before my marriage, India, George’s death and the return to England.
Fred unrolls the strip of film and lays it in the developing tank. In the dim red light, I fix my eyes on the moving emulsion. Milky white patches appear.
I stood back. Already the fire was crackling and thick grey smoke was streaming upwards from the leaves and branches. The heart of the fire was ravenous, all consuming, transforming green shoots to black char. Small pieces of burning paper arose and descended.
Fred picks up the film and moves it into the fixing solution in the adjacent tray. I can see figures, on a beach perhaps, the sky in the negative image darker than the sea. Will I be able to do this work, produce pictures out of pungent chemicals in a blackened room lit only by a safety light?
The fire was dying along with the sun as I gathered my tools and walked through the garden towards the glow of the living room. Another day of my later life.