Art Pact 175 - Album


At the beginning of the album, before the very first picture of me (not as a baby, but as a toddler - my family not having access to a camera until just after my third birthday), a tiny lock of my hair is taped, and beneath it a cryptic note (added later, obviously, since it is on a lime-green square of post-it), saying "CHANGE VIEWPOINT", scrawled in blocky pencil letters. The lines of the writing are bold and straight, but each stroke squiggles weakly at its end, giving it the impression that the line is fraying somehow.

I peel the note off, examine the other side. Blank, but for the strip of adhesive-readhesive glue at the top, which has dried out a little so that when I put it back I have to press firmly along the top of the not to get it to stick again. What viewpoint, I wonder? I don't remember writing the note, but it has been years - maybe a decade - since I last looked at the album. There's almost nothing I've done in the last decade that I can adequately remember, so this would just be one more thing lost to my memory.

Nonetheless, the note intrigues me. I turn to the first picture. Here I am, as a toddler. I do not remember the picture being taken, of course, but I remember the picture itself, the confused smile on my child self. I have a pudding bowl haircut - a pleasing irony, perhaps, because it is the same haircut I have now. (Almost. In fact, I am thinning on top and have a large bald spot where the whorl in the younger me's hair would have been, making me look as though I have been incompetently tonsured). Change viewpoint, I think deliberately. All the haircuts I've had in the meantime, I think. Between that picture and now, my hair has never been the same for more than two years running, and this is perhaps the first time that I have shared a haircut with my younger self. The thought is interesting for a moment, but the shallowness of it overcomes me almost immediately. That is clearly not what the writer of the note intended, an idle musing on the ephemeral nature of haircuts. I look back at the picture.

This is the scene:

I am three, or thereabouts. Under the pudding-bowl haircut is a fat-cheeked boy looking confused so that his thick eyebrows are slightly drawn down into a frown that crinkles up his eyes, but his mouth drawn slightly up into a smile. It is as if his (my) very face has become muddled in the process of expressing an emotion, the different components of my visage acting independently, like actors on a stage who have forgotten their lines and revert to calling out fragments of previous plays. My nose alone is unexpressive, standing in the middle of that chubby stage like the butler, or spear-carrier number two.

I am wearing a jumper I remember well, a chunky cable-knit thing that was far more vibrantly green and red than the low-quality print can reproduce. I have no recollection of wearing it per se (although the photo proves that I did), but I remember seeing it sitting in the basket of clothes to be handed down that my mother kept in the spare bedroom. It sat there for years. The main body of the jumper is green, but in the middle of the chest is a red tangram cat, two tiny triangles poking up as ears over its triangle head. Made by my aunt, who rendered everything in triangles.

Behind me, bent down as if having just released me, is my father. The pose makes sense of my confused expression - he must have been holding me in place while the camera was set up, then released me to walk towards it. I don't know why they would have wanted a photo like that - I must have been capable of walking perfectly well when I was three, and certainly I could have stood up. Was documentary proof of my bipedal skills that important to them? Perhaps it was.

Change viewpoint.

There, I catch something, an idea flickering at the back of my mind. They have not taken this photo for it to be consumed by the elder me, sixty years later. They know nothing of the now me, could never have been expected to. Like all parents, I assume, they hoped that their child would grow old before it died, but like all humans they were incapable of truly understanding how deep time is, and how far into it the photo would fall. No, the photo was not for me, or even for them. It was to be sent to someone else, someone who needed to be shown that I was healthy, that I had all the faculties that a three year old should have and which could be captured on film. It is this viewpoint that I must find, to see the picture as its intended audience saw it.

But who were they? Relatives? I do not know of any relatives overseas, so surely all the people who might have wanted to see me as a child could have actually come to see me. All my aunts, uncles, cousins, and so forth, and the three-quarters of my grandparents that survived to meet me as a baby. No, it could not have been intended for any of them. Who, then?

I push on, flicking the page to the next photo. Here I am slightly older again - my haircut has changed, from a pudding-bowl to a close-shave, bristly stubble poking out of the pale brown skin that covers my skull. Madly, improbably, I have exactly the same expression as in the previous photo. Did I spend a year confused? And why has my child-self's head been shaved like that?

Then I see it. The photo is taken in my grandmother's living room, and there is a big oval mirror hanging on the wall (it is still there now, although my grandmother is long gone). Reflected in the mirror I can see my father taking the photo, and on his shoulder a man's hand. A left hand, its ring finger missing the final joint. A hand I saw last (and then I thought for the first time) two years ago.

I slaw the album shut.

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