HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

WALKING

I catch myself at it again. Walking past those big shop windows, pretending I’m looking at this season’s variation on the Christmas theme (plum and silver velvet draped on an impossibly proportioned mannequin) but my vision is more near-sighted than that. I’m looking at the window, not through it, peering at my reflection in the glass, trying to see what I look like as I walk down this street alone and unencumbered. I mustn’t look for too long, though, because someone might notice. I can always tell when I see other people at it: one long, self-absorbed glance, then a sudden turning away and a quick scan of the passers-by. Did anyone see this brief act of vanity? None of us stops to do it; we keep on walking with a purposed real or imagined. I unnecessarily adjust my collar, keep moving down the pedestrian precinct and just as I’ve done many times before, I start to look for him in the crowd. I know I’ll never see his face; he’ll be hidden behind the camera, his legs, like the legs of the tripod, set well apart for balance and his slim hands working away, focusing and re-focusing the dark lens. But really, I know there will be no lens and unnoticed and anonymous, I walk towards the indoor shopping centre.

On my twenty-first birthday, my sisters arranged a surprise party for me. Not a complete surprise – they’d told me to wear something nice and meet them downstairs in what was then a trendy little pub in the city centre. So on the morning of my birthday, I went shopping for a dress. I tried the usual places – Top Shop, C&A’s and Miss Selfridges – but I couldn’t find anything that made me feel like me. Bored and with limited cash, I wandered in and out of any shops that looked anything like they might sell women’s clothing. And then I saw it. The dress that would be my coming of age dress. I didn’t even try it on, just took it straight home and felt proud and relieved. It was two decades later before one of my sisters had the courage to joke about the dress.
“It was just so ugly!” Mary said. “It made you look old before your time. Whatever possessed you?” The dress was olive-green, calf-length and A-line. It had a military-style collar, buttons all the way down the front and a thick belt around the waist. I remember going to my twenty-first birthday party wearing this dress together with a voluminous wool overcoat and brown lace-up shoes. I also remember that my boyfriend of the time, a student at the university, ended our fledgling relationship that night. I would like to blame the break-up on personal differences or infidelity, but really, I know it was the dress.

As I soar to the top level of the mall on the escalator (being careful to step neatly off in good time,) I think how amazing it is that I can be so influenced by things of which I have so little conscious memory. I am here looking for a card shop or an art shop – a place where I can buy glitter glue and trimmings to decorate our home-made Christmas cards. We don’t do this very often, but every few years I feel the urge to make the effort. Last night I took out the self-assembly cardboard boxes that hold all our family photographs. I wanted to make a collage of past and present, juxtapose the children’s baby pictures with their grandparents’ ruby wedding photos and have us all riding along on the back of Santa’s sleigh. While sorting out the best and the silliest pictures that could cut-up and stick back together, I found the walking pictures again. It is the only picture of this kind that my family has, but I now know that in the 1930’s walking pictures were all the rage. The photographer caught her quite unawares. The pavement behind her is strangely empty and slick with rain; it could be very early morning or perhaps she has been dodging the showers and is the first person back on the street after the downpour. He caught her not only looking at her reflection in the wide shop window, but managed to catch her reflection too. This dark young woman on the street, in the glass, is my grandmother, although I never think of her as that. I think of her only as Jean, sometimes Jeannie. She carries no luggage, not even a handbag, and her open coat billows out behind her on the wind. I used to think she looked like a French film star in this photo, wearing a beret and a long scarf wound around her pale neck. Her dress is neat, with a belt, and buttons down the front and her legs are shapely and long in high heels. Jean, going somewhere, alone and unencumbered. Looking at herself passing in the rain-wet window.

I find the shop I’m looking for and almost instantly forget what I came in for. Moving from the airy vastness of the mall and through the automatic doors (pausing, always, in case they stick and I suffer the indignity of walking smack into reinforced glass) I’m met with such a crazy collection of enticing gifts and knick-knacks that I immediately try and picture my bank balance because I know I’m not going to get away lightly. There are novelty wigs and chemistry kits, tiny remote-controlled cars and the best selection of patterned wellies I have ever seen. I take a deep breath and decide to give myself plenty of time. As I browse amongst the dream-catchers and the self-help books, I wonder if Jean felt her final years long or whether the tragic fore-shortening of her life made the days run together in a sweeping blur of colour and movement. My mother was seven years old when Jean was sent to the sanatorium, the same age as my eldest son is now. When they knew for sure that she had contracted tuberculosis, her departure was arranged quickly and out of necessity, brutally: her belongings – clothes, bedding, perhaps even that beret, that dress – were incinerated to protect my mother from the risk of infection. I imagine Jean would have known what was ahead; she had already lost one of her sisters to the disease. For three or maybe four years she lingered on in that sterile, white building where family visits were infrequent as Alec – her husband, my grandpa – was still serving with the Royal Air Force. I find it hard to think about how difficult those visits must have been. With no cure at that time for tuberculosis, isolation was essential and when my mother and grandpa came to see Jean, they were separated from her by a floor to ceiling partition with a large window set into it. I imagine a seated Jean pressing her hand to the glass before waving them off, watching them leave hand-in-hand to return to the homes of friends and relatives. And I imagine that she might have shifted her focus then, to look direct and unabashed at her reflection as she once had on the street, and that she might have seen a young woman passing, dark and lovely and alone in the tear-wet window.

I queue for the till, my basket heavy with trinkets and toys. I don’t mind the browsing, the selecting of gifts, but I do find the queuing irksome. The teenager behind the till doesn’t even look up as I lay my basket on the counter. He scans the items hurriedly and overfills the carrier bag so that I have to ask him for another. In irritated silence he rips a bag off a metal frame and shoves some of my carefully chosen gifts into it. Whacking the TOTAL button on the till with four fingers at once, he barks out what I must pay and I hand him my card. I find the transaction almost humiliating and I wonder how Jean paid for her photos. Did she take a risk and pay cash there and then, writing her name and address for the pictures to be sent on later? There must have been more than one picture. Did the others show her as she turned and looked at the camera, smiling with surprise and revealing a little shyness? Did she open up the envelope and feel pleased at what she saw? And what happened to those other photographs?

It is dark outside now and the air is sharp and cold. I regret not bringing my gloves as it is a good walk to the car and by the time I get there my hands will be practically fused to the handles of the weighty carrier bags. The shop fronts along the precinct are starkly lit and the windows of the fast-food places are running with condensation. My reflection is eaten up in the brightness. I can’t wait to get home.

I leave the bags in the car, to be retrieved later and hidden away once the children are in bed. “Mum! Mum! Granny brought us some presents!” The warmth and the chaos make me feel both tired and incredibly happy all at once. I unzip my boots and collapse on the sofa and my sons clamber up, brandishing the new toys.
“Binoc-lears,” says the youngest.
“Oh mum, you shouldn’t have bothered,” I say, and she raises her hand dismissively on her way through to the kitchen.
“They work even better the wrong way round,” he says, handing them to me and leaping off the sofa. He runs and stands with his back against the far wall.
“Have a look, mum. Have a look!”
I lift the binoculars to my eyes and squint through the lenses. And there, at the end of a long tunnel of darkness is my youngest son, a tiny, waving figure. Even though he is jumping up and down and waving both arms above his head he is still held compact and complete within the circumference of the lenses.
“Can you seen me? Can you see me?” he shouts, as though the minimising effect of the binoculars necessitates raising his voice.
“I can see you,” I say. Yes, I can see you.

As my mother returns to the room, I feel deeply grateful that we have not been separated by great distance or illness. That it is still possible for us to see each other and to see our own reflections. And I wish that on that wet and windy day in an unknown Scottish city Jean could have looked right through the wrong end of the camera, past the anonymous photographer and down the tunnel of the years and seen us here, tiny embryonic figures waving and embracing, captured in the lens of her future.