The first picture is slightly over-exposed, but still clear enough to make out my mother, standing in front of an anonymous grey-stained fountain somewhere in Paris.
‘Not one of the main ones’, she says, holding the photo out at arm’s length.
She’s wearing a yellow A-Line dress, her shapely legs drawn out from its hem, a half-smile on her face.
She doesn’t know it yet but I’m in there, inside that bright yellow dress, planting my flag. She came home because of me.
The next photo is almost the same, only this time there’s an angled smile on her face.
“What’s going on here?” I ask, poking her
“Can’t remember”, she says, looking away.
Here she is again, at a party, in a black and red Mondrian dress, ankles crossed, her modern skirt refracted through the thick, square prism of a Cinzano bottle.
‘Your father hated it’
And now she’s standing in front of an MG, nursing a little bullet of white blankets, her tan-coloured driving gloves folded neatly over them. She’s smiling her small, straight teeth at the camera. She’s smiling her small, straight teeth at the camera.
‘You had an MG?’ My brother and I, together.
‘British Racing Green. Such a neat wee car. Your father wrote it off’, she paused, ‘On the A4. Full as a bull.’ She pronounced the last word, bull without the ‘l’, like a child.
Then, an airport, all in yellows: Bahrain. And then the ferry in Hong Kong.
Suddenly, we’re back home.
We’re all in the next picture, the Aunties, all us cousins. On the front step at Gran’s. We look terrible, dirt-faced, mostly scabs and Stubbies. But it’s the women who stand out, rangy and sunburned, pitched in between 15 or 16 little kids.
Mum looks larger, fatter, mostly in the face but more than that, more flesh, more cartilage. There’s a distinct tan-line from her wrist-watch. She’s got a bad perm and too many freckles. She’s pregnant with my brother.
We arrived in November, the start of the real heat. Mum’s squinting hard into the sun. They’re at the farm. The old farm, before Gran moved into town.
‘Look. Here’ My brother slid his laptop in front of me with a satellite picture on Google earth.
‘You can see the old house. The driveway’s changed though’. I stare at the screen, trying to get my bearings. He runs his finger upwards,
“There’s the Gowan, follow that up. There’s the bridge, at the cutback, where it narrows at the top’
And then I see the farm, obviously overgrown, and the ugly brick house, wedged into the humid nape of the upper river. Suddenly I can feel the rough concrete step sharp on the backs of my legs, my new school sandals raw with sweat by mid-morning.
Mum changed those first few months back. She was meaner, more sarcastic. She got pissed with her sisters. She drove into a ditch. One day she dropped us off at Gran’s and told us she’d be back for tea and didn’t show up for a week.
But she also expanded to became the mother I know. She moved differently, horizontal, hinged with the light. So much light. I remember her elbow out the car window, one leg folded up on the seat in front of her, her arrogant breaststroke out past the headland. I remember her jack-knifed over a pile of abalone, the wet hem of her skirt puffing and snapping in the wind.
Maybe it’s the country I know, more than her.
NB.Post script: this is a fictional piece. I never saw my mother misbehave or sip more than a thimble-full of champers until I was about twenty. Also, she can’t swim. At all. It’s tragic.