This mother wears a flower corsage pinned upside-down on her lapel – as though it’s saying goodbye to the gentle spring just passed – and she asks me if her daughter’s nose can be chiselled into something less monstrous. I tuck a wayward curl behind my ear and explain gently, without insult, that only shadow and shade are alterable, not size or shape.
“But all I can see in these pictures is nose, nose, nose.” This latest mother prods my computer screen like her finger is a wand that might undo the ugly and change her frog offspring into the desired princess. “You must make it right. Isn’t that what you’re here for, dear?”
My screen bears the smudged mark of so many wands, its plastic a window onto a waiting world of wishes. I’m tired of asking the mothers not to keep touching it, but fear I’ll usher her from the shop if she does again. “Please, don’t-”
“There simply must be a way you can erase this unsightly bump – and how about the black lines under her eyes. Goodness, she looks like she’s in a Rolling Stones video, not getting married!”
“Lines we can smooth out,” I say, as soft as the white petal that falls from her corsage and lands by the counter. It settles there, a creamy O on our red tile floor.
“Can you? Oh, you’re just wonderful, dear. There’s hope after all.”
I endure so many mothers; they come in all guises, parade the shop floor like I’m to pick one over the other in some pageant; they discard sweet wrappers and leave lilac perfume in their wake. There are those who want to show off their daughters, whose eyes shine natural sunlight. There are those who want to change them, whose eyes narrow like November evenings. There are those who want them to be everything they never were but instead they say, well, she’s so wilful.
I’m the magician. I’m the airbrusher; more powerful than a photographer or dress fitter or lie. I enhance any image provided. With my brush strokes I improve every bride, smooth out dress creases a cramped car caused, whiten teeth an indulged childhood turned yellow, correct flaws, hide blemishes. I’m spring to their winter flaws.
“I went to One Click on the High Street and they wanted to charge me three hundred pounds.” The corsage-wearing mother flushes red and paces, her tick-tacking heels punctuating each word with an exclamation mark. Her lost petal lies still. “My daughter’s nose needs help, but quite. Now, I want the weather changing too – can you do that?”
I nod and look – not for the first time – at the photograph, at the rain-bloated clouds and budding branches behind this imperfect bride and her new husband. Her mouth is the loveliest I’ve seen; kind of wonky, shy, closed. She hides her teeth, keeps her lips close together like two hands joined, praying, like she knows she’ll later be analysed and is asking please for acceptance. But her eyes, they smile; they light up as if they have a choice.
“We can add sunshine,” I tell the mother, always reluctant to mess with what is. “Blue sky, an archway, full moon, flower garlands. How would you like it to be?”
The mother’s phone rings and she rummages in her bag for it. She cries out her conversation as though advertising our service – But they can improve you! Yes, really, dear! You need not have held your breath or clamped your mouth shut like you were doing long division in your head! You’re going to look divine, perfect! Really, they can make you that way!
“I think I’ll have to come back in a while,” she says then, to me. “I need to discuss with my obstinate daughter what’s to be done. She can’t see the need to airbrush. She actually likes the pictures, she says. She actually thinks I’ll hang her wedding pictures on my wall like that.”
My computer screen is once more prodded before I can react. On her way out, the mother picks up one of our leaflets (At Fantasy Fauxtograph we can transform your Magical Day into something really Memorable!) and the bell above the door – quaint compared with the minimalist décor – tinkles her departure like a wedding supper announcement. The white petal lifts and dances in the doorway’s breeze.
It’s time to make spring. But my hands turn cold.
I wish I could develop the images of this bride how they are. True. Leave her smile as wonky as a row of white towels on a line. I save the photographs, untouched. I’ll come back to them later. For now, I go into the dark room.
Fantasy Fauxtograph is the only place in town that has one. Digital photography has rendered them frequently unused but some dedicated artists still request we develop their images the old way, and so it remains. I prefer it. I love letting images develop as they will, no intervention, only time in charge. I love the smell of fixer, the tickle of chemicals on my skin, the soft slosh of liquid; the otherwise quiet.
With the corsage-wearing mother gone, and my boss out for a few hours, I go to this dark place. Prints are waiting to be developed so I turn on the safelight. Its amber glow warms my mood. Black and white papers are ruined by blue and green light. Colour paper however, being sensitive to all parts of the visible spectrum, must be kept in complete darkness until it’s properly fixed. These prints are black and white. After doing a test strip to ascertain the exposure time I immerse one of the papers in the developer and watch it sink.
The image emerges, centre first, its heart.
Black spreads like spilt tea, darker in parts, lighter in others.
Faces appear, smiles, laugh lines, wind-blown hair, freckles; reality.
The pictures are of children – three – and they’re clearly the customer’s own; a photographer cannot hide love of his subject. The children jump and he captures them forever in the air, weightless, flying. A girl – whose abundance of freckles suggests that despite the monochrome she must be a redhead – dances around a tree. Blossom falls like confetti. Another girl, younger, looks over her shoulder at the photographer, flirting with him. A third – clearly the oldest – waits by the bark, unsure, her hands at her mouth, hiding any expression.
We were three, I remember.
And I remember waiting; waiting for our mother.
It was spring. At Granny’s window, we didn’t know what car to look for, not even the colour, so each one that rounded the street corner was a possibility. Granny called from the kitchen –Don’t touch the glass! Don’t mark the glass! My little sister Jenny’s fingers had already left their impression and Baby Paul would soon add his. Mine never touched, not anything. I stood away from the window, away from the scene, from them. I knew. I don’t know how. I was only nine. No one told me.
I hated knowing.
When it came, the car was yellow, like hope. Our mother was with a social worker – time has since given her this title but back then she was just a lady in a smart coat. A lady who brought our mother from the hospital. Time has also given this place a name – Rowan Lawns, Mental Health Unit. Time airbrushes. The mind tries to resist, to listen only to the heart, but memories are coloured by all that has passed since, shaded by the all the versions given.
My memory cannot find Granny – I don’t know where she was when our mother stood in the hallway, hiding her teeth, keeping her lips close together like two hands joined, praying, like she knows she’ll later be analysed and is asking please for acceptance. We hadn’t seen her in eight months. Little Jenny wrapped chubby arms around her leg and Baby Paul raised his open, wiggly hands, asking to be picked up. She seemed not to know how to respond.
Outside, blossom fell.
In the living room, she perched on the rocking chair and smiled at the flood of questions. Have you brought my Barbie doll? Why have you been gone so long? Do you still love us? Can we go to Scarborough? How long are you staying? I didn’t ask; I knew. The social worker disappeared into the part of my mind where Granny was and I never saw her again. Our mother’s teacup never left the saucer. The gold clock on the mantelpiece next to Jesus accelerated, I’m sure, an hour, two, three, each time I looked at it.
And then we were in the hallway again, and Granny came out of the dark, to help me. Our mother was leaving. I had known. Little Jenny clung to her leg, desperate now, not elated, not hopeful, but knowing too. Baby Paul’s fingers opened and closed, like an imitation of ambulance lights. On the bronze table in the living room her tea grew cold. We would later play cookery when she’d gone, pouring the cold liquid back and forth between cup and beaker. Granny would call from the kitchen – Don’t mess the table! Don’t mark the carpet!
In the dark room, I always find light. The customer’s pictures are born now, pure, untouched. I should have told them; I should have told Little Jenny and Baby Paul that I knew our mother wasn’t staying, that she hadn’t come to get us. I’m their memory now. I tell them things I remember, give them their history, but I’ve to be careful not to shade these moments with my own guilt. I must let their flashes colour it also.
I peg the images of the three children on the line to dry and return to the shop.
The white petal has settled in the middle of the floor, a blank paper, awaiting image. I know what I must do. The bell heralds the return of the corsage-wearing mother; the petal dies under her laced boot. Her remaining flower is squashed against a pile of boxes, two of which she puts carefully on the counter near my screen.
“I brought you some wedding cake, dear,” she says, removing one of her white gloves. “A piece for you and a piece for the other young man who helps you. Yours is the one with half of an iced shoe on it – I thought you’d like that.”
I shake my head, but can’t find any words.
“Now, dear.” She removes the other glove and places it atop the cake boxes. “I read your leaflet while I waited for my hair appointment and it says that you can remove people from pictures. People! You can make them disappear, like they never were there.”
From the place in my mind where Granny hid I find – No, I can’t.
“You can. It says here – look.” The mother opens our leaflet, waves her red-nailed wand at the words, the promise. “Now, in seven of the wedding pictures there’s my husband’s mother, and I want her out. Really, she should never have been invited after what happened, but I won’t go into that, not here, now’s not the time. I want you to do whatever it is that you do and remove her.”
“I won’t,” I say softly.
“But it’s what you do, dear. You’re a Fantasy Fauxtographer!”
I click open an image of her daughter – one where she’s closing her eyes to the blast of rainbow confetti, her fingers trapped in the froth of veil. “This picture is beautiful,” I say. “In its lopsidedness and in the slightly-stained sash and in the grey light of rain, it’s beautiful. I won’t touch it. Don’t you see? You’re changing the memory before you’ve even had time to let the moment pass and become one.”
“I’m making it perfect, dear.” The mother looks at me, disbelieving of my daughter-like wilfulness when I’ve no right. I’m not her child but I speak for the bride who is, for all of the daughters.
“I’m not going to change the picture,” I say.
“I’ll go to One Click, you know,” she snaps. “They’ll take my bloody mother-in-law out of the picture. They’ll trim my husband’s nasal hair.” She pauses, looks at the boxes, and then back at me. My expression must cement my words. Taking her gloves and putting them back on she says, “Oh, keep the darned cake anyway.”
The bell tinkles her second departure. The petal is gone too. I think I’d known she’d come back; I have a sense of these things. But I know she’ll not return now, that she’ll find what she wants at another place.
The mothers have come and they’ve asked me to give them the daughters they always wanted; they thought I could take away the times they’d argued over boyfriends and the times they’d called each other names and then didn’t speak for months. They said – with tears in their eyes – that I must clean all that had been sullied, bring back the seven-year-old girl who’d loved without condition, conjure up the ten-year-old who’d kissed upon request.
But I can’t.
I already have a mother – one – and that’s enough; and she’s imperfect and flawed and real and she’s hurt me, but, somehow, I still love her.