It was an extraordinary emotion. Not love exactly, though it was a kind of love at first sight. A coup de foudre. A recognition. Though the young woman was a stranger, as far as I knew. A stranger yet strangely familiar.
I blew gently on the glass and held the wooden framed glass slide to the light again. It was the size of a paper back book but transparent. The colours were still strong, perfect. And the girl in the photograph was beautiful, her expression enigmatic, bewitching. I half expected her to step out of her time capsule flesh and blood and ask not so very coyly, “well then?”
I was in my parents’ attic. My task was to clear it out. There was the usual jumble that collects in people’s lofts: old paraffin stoves, pictures, dusty trunks and chests, folders full of papers, a broken chair and gramophone records all preserved under the cloying miasma of nostalgia.
In the drawer of a discarded chest of drawers I had found this box. An ordinary, slippery sided, cardboard soap box. Inside the box, each wrapped between yellowing tissue paper were six glass slides. There may be a more technical term, for they were transparent photographs, not in negative as in more recent colour photography, but in positive, clear, bright colour. They were thoroughly professional. The composition and the clarity were as good as I have seen in any modern studio. They may have been known as lantern slides.
But it was neither the technical nor the formal qualities that took my breath away. The first portrait I looked at, holding it to the bare attic light bulb, was of the young woman I have begun to describe.
I climbed downstairs clutching the box to my chest and sat down at the table in the conservatory. Here I looked at each slide in turn in the daylight. All the photos were of the same happy, self-confident young woman of about nineteen or twenty. She had evidently enjoyed having her picture taken.
In one pose she holds a parasol, the handle resting on her left shoulder, the lilac membrane of the parasol rising from waist and shoulder like an insect wing against which her head is highlighted. A pink silk ribbon holds the thick pile of dark, centrally parted hair on top of her head. The ribbon is tied on the side in a big bow. She is wearing a moss green silk dress embroidered at the top and fastened above the lace work at the neck with a black velvet choker. There are three large pin cushion-like buttons at her breast. From the pinched waist the dress falls straight to the ground, unadorned except for a series of similar, padded buttons from the knee that repeat the motif of the bodice.
The parasol appears in another photo. The model wears the same hair-do and ribbon but a completely different outfit, this time a navy blue pleated skirt and a long, elegant jacket. On her right hand she wears a gold ring.
Other photos different clothes. In one she is at the wheel of a veteran car, klaxon, spare wheel and canopy clearly visible. She has a similar hairstyle but this time tied in a blue bow. The car, the countryside could be French.
What struck me instantly and still lingers now is not so much the curiosity value of the clothes and accoutrements as the woman herself. Most of all her face and her demeanour. She is pale with large, dark eyes and strong eyebrows. She has a wide mouth with full lips and for those days surprisingly good teeth. Her pose is obedient but playful. She is enjoying herself. Her smile is genuine as though for a lover. Surely the photographer was no stranger. She knows her own power, too. She seems happy, she knows her own mind.
Once I had recovered from the surprise of my discovery I began to ask myself who this person was. From the costume and the car I guessed the photos were taken around 1910. In all the slides she appeared to be eighteen to twenty years old.
The familiarity that had so struck me might indeed have come from a family likeness. Not in an identikit way, but rather gene switching on gene in remote recognition. I was haunted that though not a likeness there was something about her in my own daughter. It seemed a safe assumption that she was family.
Her colouring suggested she was from my mother’s line but she was not my grandmother or my great grandmother as far as I could tell. My mother had been an only child and had no remaining elder relatives. In the depths of my mind I half remembered a story of an exotic relative but could not for the moment fish it up.
There were two things I wanted to know: who was the person and when and where were the photographs taken? As I consulted photographers bits and pieces of my own childhood floated to the surface of my memory at last. Things my mother had spoken about, things she had concealed.
The first expert told me the glass slides must have been hand painted, the next said colour photography on glass was common in the early twentieth century. Many seaside postcards were created in this way. My slides, therefore, had no rarity value. Their interest was only personal. Faced with the lack of professional interest I abandoned this tack. Besides I was beginning to piece together my own recollections.
When I was about ten years old and my grandmother was staying briefly with us, I remember a visit from a larger than life old woman. I am not sure how she got to our house in the country but I remember a big, florid woman in a mink coat standing at the front door. There was a lot of noisy laughter and tears and she and my grandmother, then I suppose only about fifty, flung themselves into one another’s arms.
I do not know how long Great Aunt Betty stayed. Only a few hours, I think, before giving me half a crown and returning to her flat in Brighton. I never saw her again, but my grandmother was to refer to her from time to time in the way that younger sisters talk of their elder siblings. What my grandmother often repeated was that in her youth Betty had had a nineteen inch waist and many admirers.
My grandmother’s own origins were a mystery to her husband and daughter alike. According to my mother, all Nana could remember of her childhood was of being brought up by Betty, her senior by ten years. She spoke of no men in their lives, though there must have been, until she met my grandfather. There was however the trace in the collective memory of a terrible accident. The girls’ father, my great grandfather, was struck down by a runaway horse in the Strand and killed. His wife, distraught or relieved, we shall never know, disappears completely. Betty is left holding the baby.
One day an event occurred which I was not to associate with this story until I had grown up. My grandmother came to stay again and the next day she and my parents, formally dressed, disappeared for the day. They had gone, I gleaned, to see Auntie Betty in Brighton.
I would probably quite have forgotten the existence of my great aunt except for a chance remark of my mother’s forty or fifty years later when I took her to the Theatre Royal in Brighton. My mother realised she had been here before and it brought back memories for her of several happy holidays with her aunt in Brighton. Picturing the fur clad visitor of yore I asked my mother what had become of Aunt Betty.
Surely you remember that dreadful business, she said, forgetting I was a child at a time when children were kept in the dark if not completely ignored. Betty, I now learned, had discovered that she had cancer of the lung. Unable or unwilling to face the pain she had put her head in the gas oven. The police had traced my mother as the only surviving relative. That explained my parents’ sudden departure for Brighton all those summers ago and the secrecy. Both cancer and suicide would have been taboo.
Before the curtain went up my mother sighed and reflected that her aunt had had a sad life really. Her first husband had been killed in the Great War, her second in the next. This did not explain why we never saw her, though I think I vaguely remember remarks, spoken with disapproval about her “colourful” life style. I might be adding my own colour here. I suppose it is more likely that in the 1950s people worked longer weeks and were less mobile.
These memories, pat enough set down on paper, did not return ready-made. They filtered through over the next days and weeks. But fairly quickly I deduced that the slides that I had found were of my Great Aunt Betty. That this self-assured young beauty who smiled so happily was yet to face the social upheaval of two wars, a double personal loss and a brave and terribly lonely death seemed too awful to contemplate. Lingering over her pictures almost a century later there was nothing I could do to save her. Events would unfold with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. Nevertheless, the more I look at the portraits, the more sure I am that she would have made the most of the good times. I hoped so.