Twilight Times Feature
The power of the photograph never ceases to amaze me. Iíve never been one to carry a camera in order to record moments for posterity. In fact, it irritates me when enthusiastic shutter-bugs cue me to smile or pose for a snap. However, Iím as susceptible as anyone else when it comes to viewing the prints. And though I donít carry a camera, Iím glad that others do.
The weather was cold and wet, forcing cancellation of plans for a BBQ on this particular day. I sat on the sofa sipping coffee and watching snakes of rain slither down the windowpane. A stack of family photo-albums on the shelf caught my attention. I grabbed one off the top of the pile and started to leaf through it.
The dark sheets of paper were scuffed and dog-eared, evidence of the many hands that had browsed their contents. Black and white images brought to mind events of my childhood that had lain dormant in my memory for many years, each picture triggering a chain of recall.
One particular snapshot, of me and my best friend, both aged nine years, set this process in motion. With the act of recall came nostalgia and feelings so strong, that I wondered the events around the time of the photograph had evaded my thoughts for so long.
We faced the camera. Gregory, my best friend, was squinting as he looked into the camera. His shirt was hanging out and tufts of his dark hair stood up in the breeze, his hands were in his pockets as he smiled easily into the lens. I stood at attention with a stern look on my face, arms clasped to my sides, looking like a worried toy soldier in my spiky crewcut.
Our Sunday School teacher had dubbed us the saint and the sinner. The picture illustrated well the contrast in our character, yet we were practically inseparable and had sworn each other to lifelong friendship.
My parents liked Gregory too, so much that at times I suspected they were more fond of him than me. At school he was favoured by teachers and pupils alike. He was diligent and clever, excelling in every subject of the curriculum. We were separated in class as the teacher regarded me to be a bad influence. I would constantly back-chat and play the clown in a clumsy attempt to elicit the affection that Gregory attracted without conscious effort.
There was a skinny kid in the class who wore glasses. The other kids constantly teased him; soup-bones and four eyes were some of the taunts he suffered, my voice often prominent among the chorus.
He became isolated and progressively more withdrawn. Gregory befriended this out-cast and would invite him to play with us, much to my disgust. After Gregory took the boy under his wing, the other kids stopped teasing him and he flourished.
I might have conveyed the impression that Gregory was a self righteous wimp or overly mature for his age. But he was a fairly normal kid and wasnít above playing pranks if the mood took him. He would ambush me with water-bombs and liked to play with crackers and fireworks. One time, when I was pumping up my bicycle tyres after he let them down, he lighted a string of crackers behind me. I almost hit the roof of the bike shed I got such a fright. He was good at wrestling too, and easily threw me to the ground whenever we were play-fighting.
Come to think of it, I was the only one he played any pranks on. Was he trying to tell me something? Actually, I considered it an honour to warrant such attention from him, and didnít mind being bearing the brunt of his tricks as they were always funny and he never humiliated me. His pureness of spirit and respect for life always shone through everything he did.
One Saturday morning as I set off for his house to play, Mum called me back as I was about to go out the gate.
ĎBilly, you canít go to play with Gregory today.í Her face was drawn and she appeared to be upset about something.
ĎWhy not,í I asked.
ĎHeís gone on a journey and wonít be back for a long, long time.í She told me in an unsteady voice.
I didnít believe a word of it. Fibbing had become a bad habit so I constantly suspected this trait in others. I thought I was being punished for some forgotten piece of aberrant behaviour.
At school the following Monday we were told that Gregory had been killed in a hit and run accident.
As I gazed at this solitary reminder of him, I was swamped by an array of bitter-sweet emotions, so intense I felt them as a sharp pain in my chest. Sorrow, at the sudden loss of my best friend. Regret, that I had not been a more worthy companion. Gratitude, that Iíd been granted the privilege of acquaintance with this noble soul, and anger that his short life had been so senselessly terminated.
In the afterglow of this emotional onslaught, gratitude remained. The effect he had on my burgeoning personality was immensely positive. Although I never became the shining light that he had been, I didnít turn out to be too bad either. Whenever I faced a dilemma, or had to make a decision that involved the grey area between moral rightness and self enrichment, I would ask myself, what would Gregory have done? Compassion and kindness are the criteria he would have used to make his choice, rather than self interest and greed which would be my natural inclination.
Yes, there is certainly power in photographs. Some primitive races believe that a photograph captures some part of your soul. Maybe that image has trapped part of both of us in some parallel world, and the photograph is the door to that world. This and other notions flitted through my mind as I watched the rain, sipped cold coffee and became absorbed in reflection.
Don Watson was born and educated in New Zealand, moving to Sydney in the early seventies. Three years later he went to South Africa where he travelled and worked in a variety of jobs, returning to Australia in the late eighties. An avid reader of fiction for many years, he developed an interest in writing and attended a Community College course for creative writing in the early nineties. Since then he has worked extensively in writerís workshops, has completed three novellas and numerous short stories.
Visit Don's web site.