I once asked Dad how old he was in this picture. We were sitting side by side at the bottom of my bed, where he had joined me with a rather shabby and old looking wooden box under his arm. I had been tidying up my drawers, due that I was to fly back to England two days later. I had heard his shuffled steps on the corridor, and I had stopped and looked at the door, knowing he’d stop there, leaning against the frame, asking me what I was doing and when would all that be done, or some other small talk like that.
Instead, he had come in and sat beside me. And I had sat there, afraid to look at him, not knowing what to say, afraid anything I could do or say would scare him away — or worse, start some sort of misunderstanding, some sort of disagreement.
Time had flown, as it suddenly had taken a liking to doing, for some unfathomable reason — or maybe just because that is what time does whenever times are happy. Like every other time I had come home, there had been so many things I wanted to tell him, so many more I wanted to ask, so much we needed to talk over, sort out between us; but somehow it never seemed to be the right time, never the right occasion — and then there simply hadn’t been enough time. Never enough time.
We had been getting along much better since I had left. In fact, there hadn’t been an argument in quite a few visits, which made it maybe something like a couple of years or so, a year being measured, by then, in the two six-monthly trips ‘back home’. And we had been talking. We had actually been talking. It was as if some sudden measure of urgency had taken hold of him. He’d ask me what time I had lectures on a given day and I’d tell him, and then he’d make what he called our secret phone date. One date after the other, after the other, after another. And it had felt good.
— “What’s in that box, Dad?” — I had asked him when the conversation had come to a natural pause. — “It looks old. Did it come from São Pedro?”
— “It did. It has some old papers and some photographs, that’s all.” — He had replied.
— “Can I see the photos?”
He hadn’t replied, but he had picked up the box from where he’d set it beside him on the bed, and balanced it on his skinny, bony knees. He had then produced a little key from the breast pocket in his now grossly oversized flannel shirt, and slowly proceeded to open it. He had ruffled the contents around for a bit, shuffled some papers towards the bottom, and revealed a trove of old photographs. He then offered me the box, for me to look through them. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Most of them were 2″ x 2″, no doubt the product of his on and off interest in photography.
He looks so young in this photograph, just a kid; and yet his eyes seem to already carry most of the weight of the world inside them. We had sat together and talked for a while: about the flag and mast, did I remember that being where the “Junta de Freguesia” used to be in the old days? I did, briefly, hazily. I remembered Libânio’s butcher shop being there, on the ground floor, one door to the square and another to the sombre and almost sinister-looking, grey cemented footpath by the side of it, I told him. How could one not remember the butcher’s, with the screeching of the pigs that chased you all the way uphill to the edge of the village, and then haunted your days and nights for the rest of the week, only for the nightmare to renew itself with every passing week, with the precision of clockwork?
We had talked about the wall enclosing the church grounds and the cross, still absent in this photo. Neither of us had been able to remember when it was built, or whether it had already been there when I went to live at the farm. Inevitably, too, we had talked about Father David and his ‘governess’ and his ‘god daughter’ and his enthusiastic sympathy for the P.I.D.E.. We talked about the arrests of that winter night, the ones I had heard and intuited, even without knowing what it could all be about, in the Guarda’s steel capped footsteps on the cobbled street, breaching the sepulchral silence that had befallen the village. It’s frightening and quite confounding how easily children pick up on the fear and anger the adults are trying to hide. Dad had looked at me silently for a long while, straight into my eyes. I never thought you’d remember things like that, he had finally said, before returning his eyes to the photograph.
We had talked about the school, at the very back of the picture. The two windows on the left were the girls ‘side’, where I had myself met life and the world, face to face and for the first time, in the guise of a straggly but supremely streetwise 14-year-old bully and a hole-in-the-ground toilet, some twenty six years or so after this picture was taken. Was it already divided like that in his time? And what had it been like, had he liked school? Salazar had already been in power by then, what had it been like? Did he remember? It hadn’t been too bad, he had said. Had he been a good student? Had they had the whip and the cane and the “menina dos cinco olhos”, and Salazar’s and the Sacred Heart of Christ pictures on the wall and the flag on the corner and the daily prayers too? And was he still going to school when the photo was taken? No, he said, he had already left. Briefly, almost curtly. No, I had already left. Is that it, I had thought? But I want to know more, Dad, I need to know more, I had protested inside. And had he seen it in my eyes?
– “How old were you then, Dad? I mean, in this photograph. Can you remember?”
– “Oh, I don’t know, ten or twelve maybe.” – He had replied, as if uninterested.
His eyes had suddenly turned steely grey, but there had been no edge of anger in his voice. Pain, maybe; but no anger, such as what usually came with that grey stillness. But I had pushed. Ten or twelve was no real answer, I had said, that’s quite a difference, two years, especially at that age. From the bit I already knew, those had been the very two years that had made all the difference. I wanted to know more, I wanted to know all of it, everything. Grandmother had already died, and I had this sense of impending doom that soon I’d be left without anyone to tell me the rest of all those family stories Auntie had never had the time to tell me. Did I choose to ignore the pain I sensed? We had been sitting side by side at the foot of my bed, rifling through some of the old photos that had come from the farmhouse with Nan, a rare and precious moment of almost communion.
– “But you said that you came to the city to work when you were twelve…”
– “Yes. It was round about that time, as far as I can remember. Not that long before I came to the city.”
And with that Dad had got up and taken the box of photos with him, leaving that large handful he had picked out on my knees. He had stopped as he had reached the door and turned around. The grey had lifted from his eyes, as swiftly as it had first fallen on them, and I had though I could almost see a smile as he had looked right into my eyes.
– “You can keep those if you want to.” – He had spoken softly and as if it really didn’t matter either way. To keep, or not to keep. And yet I knew, I just knew how important it all had been for him.
He had stood there a few moments more, and then he had turned around again, and slowly walked out of the room carrying the old wooden box under his arm. The thought had crossed my mind that the box had come down for my benefit, and I was baffled and intrigued. Such an uncharacteristic thing for him to do. Later that evening, just before mother was due to come home, I had heard his dragged footsteps as he had made his way back up to the attic, to return the box to the oblivion of its secret hiding place. A few days later I had returned to England. And just like Auntie and Nan before him, Dad had never had the time to tell me the rest of all those stories.
© Nina Light All Rights Reserved; photograph from the family’s archives.