This week, an original essay by Adam Farrer. Image by Emma Gibbs.
I already knew how my brother’s body had looked when it was found; my mother had described the police photographs to me. He was slumped back in the dirt, one arm loosely draped behind his head. An eye lazily open. And now, a week later, I was looking at where he was found. A raised flower bed pressed up against the wall of a public toilet on the promenade of an East Yorkshire coastal town. I laid my mental image of him over it, imagining his body slowly expiring in the cold earth.
Robert’s funeral had taken place earlier that day and I’d escaped the gathering back at his house, where friends and family were sharing stories about the good times and ignoring the dark ones that had led us to this day. His widow was stumbling around the living room with a glazed look on her face, offering drinks and boasting “I’m on Valium. It really works!” to anyone who questioned her disposition. She was an ill-advised ad campaign. I pictured her smiling goggle-eyed at the camera as black-clad mourners sobbed around her, a slogan spread beneath her two raised thumbs.
“Embarrassed by grief? Try Valium. It really works!”
But it wasn’t enough to leave the house; the garden was also littered with the fallout of grieving. Everyone gathered to write messages to him and tie them to helium-filled balloons before releasing them into the sky. I wrote “You idiot. I love you,” then batted my balloon into the air, hoping it would land in the path of a simpleton who needed to feel wanted.
But I felt smothered, as I knew I would. So, when my dad offered to show me where it all ended for Robert, I took him up on it and we made the short walk down to the seafront.
“He was there,” he said, pointing to the flowerbed, then turned away to look out to sea.
I hadn’t cried that day, but I wanted to then. I wanted to kneel and sob and say a handful of words to the last place Robert’s body had known. To bury my hands in that soil. I limited myself to gently placing my hand on the lip of the bed and letting the soil glance the tips of my fingers. Then I straightened up and joined my father in facing the sea. A car slipped slowly into my field of vision. A woman leaned out of the passenger window and pointed a camera our way, clicking as she drifted past us. It was my cousin Emma.
“Jesus,” I thought. “This fucking family.”
For about five years I ran a photo lab and in that time learned that people will take photos of pretty much anything. It goes without saying that much of this is sexual. Human beings have felt compelled to point lenses at each other’s groins since the dawn of photography. But there’s a lot you might not expect. Amongst the holidays and babies there were inflamed hemorrhoids, bloody injuries, drunk people sitting in a soup of their own waste. And it wasn’t unusual to happen across photographs of the dead.
Mostly, they featured elderly people, laid out on their deathbeds. Occasionally their families huddled around, all smiles for the last ever group photo with grandma or grandpa. Propped up on a pillow, they took pride of place at the centre of the frame, their slack, lifeless features like haunted expressions drawn on sackcloth. I’d imagine their families flicking through their photo albums in later years.
“Awww, do you remember this? It’s grandma when she was dead but still warm.”
One sequence of photos particularly remained with me, of a dead black man laying in a bed and gradually turning purplish grey. Each new shot showed a different set of sobbing adults and confused toddlers paying their respects to his rotting body. The final images, of his empty bed, showed the yellowish imprint his body had left as the juices leaked out of him. I flinched at this, remembering that I’d once purchased a second-hand bed.
But the photos were varied. Once in a while I’d see a corpse lying in the cold store of a slaughterhouse awaiting a Jamaican burial while the business of dismembering goats carried on in the background. Or an open casket displaying a body. Unreal looking, like a waxwork presented in a lacquered display case.
It wasn’t always old people either. Once, in 2003, a British soldier on home leave dropped off a disposable camera for processing, which contained images of freshly dead Iraqis, their limbs spread impossibly across shell craters. Disturbed, I showed them to my manager, who said she’d deal with it. Later she handed the soldier the photos, shaking his hand and thanking him for the good work he was doing.
But none of these images endured quite like the one a young couple brought in; a photo of their stillborn baby girl dressed in white and laying in a quilted basket, her nostrils leaking blood onto her lace collar. They asked me to touch it up in Photoshop so they could enlarge it and mount it in a frame.
“If you can just clean the blood up,” the man said. “And all that,” he added, indicating, with a waft of his hand, the bruised looking indentations at the top of his daughter’s head. It was tiny and misshapen, oddly reminiscent of a discounted fig. Her miniature, wound-like nose was partially formed and pinched-looking. “And if you can… y’know,” he struggled to find adequate words then went with the basics. “… make the nose?”
He spoke in a practical tone, as if listing off tasks for a handy man. His manner said “Don’t bother me with the details, I just want to know how much this is going to cost me.” He did all the talking while his partner remained behind him, maintaining a grey expression of shock and picking at her nails. Punishing them. As if they were responsible for all of this. She trailed after him as he studied the selection of frames. “These are nice aren’t they?” he said brightly, indicating an elaborate gold design and taking it down from the shelf. “If we had that in the living room. D’you think?”
She nodded briskly. It could have been acceptance or a nervous tick.
“Yeah,” he said, holding the frame out in front of him and admiring it, apparently picturing the doctored photo of his daughter mounted within. “Shall we have that one?” he said. Not to her now, to himself. To the room. Not expecting an answer or getting one. “Yeah, we’ll have that one,” He was talking for talking’s sake. Coping. Filling the space left by her nauseous silence and my awkward, respectful one.
I was giving them time and distance. I didn’t rush them. I understood that something tragic and complex was happening to them, but I was also unsettled. So, I stayed behind the counter, leaving them to it and waiting for it to be over. My boss, Mrs Stand, sidled up and whispered to me.
“Remember, it’s 3 for 2 on frames.”
Mrs Stand was tough to look at. She wore her curled hair high, trussed up in a ball. The kind of style a child might draw, perched up on top of her head and constructed from angry circles. Her makeup was always thick and garish. If I’d pressed a piece of paper to her face and peeled it off I’d have come away with a wanted poster of the clown from your childhood nightmares. I never trusted her judgement so tried to avoid following her orders whenever I could. “Will do,” I lied, and she strode contentedly into the back office. The man returned to the counter, I pointedly sold him nothing that he hadn’t asked for and told him to come back in in the morning. Over the next few hours I watched our Ben, Photoshop expert, queasily cloning areas of unblemished skin and gradually rebuilding the baby’s face. By the time he’d finished, there was no drink in the world stiff enough to straighten him out.
When the couple came to collect the photo the next day, their daughter looked like a baby. No gore. No bruising. No puckered, drizzling nose. Just a sleeping baby. But not sleeping. Dead. Every parent’s nightmare. Over time I hoped that the image we’d altered would replace the one in their heads and that, in time, they would take it down and never look at it again. Perhaps when another, surviving baby arrived. But it’s not easy to choose and doctor the images your brain keeps.
I have dozens of photos of Robert looking happy. As a broadly smiling teenager riding his motorbike past our house in the late 80’s. Laughing at a party with a skewed paper crown on his head. Proudly holding one of his infant children up to the camera. But the image that persists for me isn’t one of them. It’s of the last time I visited him before he died. I hadn’t seen him for over a year and was as shocked by the change in him as an aged aunt might be at the rapid growth of a child. But the change in Robert wasn’t growth. It was decay.
He was sitting by his computer in a fug of marijuana fumes, looking like a man who had spent an hour extricating himself from an electric fence. His eyes were wide and raw, staring out from a pale, pillowy head. His hair stood wildly on end. Something crucial was missing from his face.
“What happened to your eyebrows?” I asked, talking to his forehead.
He lifted his hand to the void where his eyebrows once were and absently rubbed the skin.
“Scratched ‘em off,” he said casually, then smiled. It aged him by twenty years.
Like a bad wig, once you’ve noticed that someone has no eyebrows, you can concentrate on nothing else so, I said the first thing that occurred to me.
“I guess you could draw some on.”
He smiled weakly and playfully told me to fuck off then turned to peck at his keyboard. Part of me was disappointed. I expected more. Robert had always been a man of high emotion. He had lived and reacted big. And I had learnt from him.
His examples showed me what to do and what not to do. They revealed the mysteries of the world. He taught me how much alcohol is too much. What a clitoris was and where. How to gut a fish with a saw-backed hunting knife and why I would never want to. I learned about music, drugs, fear and pain. That I don’t like horror films. That I like pro-wrestling. That farts are funny if you light them and funnier still when they set fire to your trousers. That older brothers’ bedrooms contain magazines featuring naked women that will flip a switch in your midsection that can never be turned off. He showed me what it was like to be held down and farted on. To be punched. To have an axe thrown at me twice during a camping trip that we never spoke of again. How to swear. To shoot an air gun. To play ‘Smoke on the Water’ on the guitar. And now, what it was it was like to love your brother harder than he knew and have him become a stranger.
If I had I known he had already tried to kill himself a number of times, we might have had a more significant conversation. If I’d been told of the night that he’d staggered into the sea and tried to drown himself or of the time he’d overdosed and woke up cursing that he was still alive, I’m sure I would have said more. I’d have at least tried to find out what drove him to scratch off his eyebrows. Looking at his living room, filthy and littered with toys and the sticky handprints of his many children, I guessed at stress. But as it was, I just made small talk about his dust-caked shelf of Iron Maiden collectibles then drove back to Manchester, my job done. My brother successfully visited. A box ticked.
Two men on their way home from the pub found his body the following March. It was a freezing night and they’d assumed he was a sleeping drunk. I imagine they were concerned that he’d catch his death out there, not realising that he’d already caught it some hours before, a combination of over one hundred pain killers and antidepressants in his system. I don’t know if he’d consumed them before he left home that night, if he’d sat in that flowerbed and feasted on them in a frenzy or if he’d fed them methodically into his mouth. It doesn’t really matter how it happened, just that it ended here. Where I was having my photograph taken by a cousin who doesn’t understand boundaries.
Emma always takes photographs at funerals. “It’s the only time we’re all together,” she says. This was the same logic that led her to jump into a car and tail me down to the seafront. To her, this was a family moment and she was right. It just wasn’t a Kodak one.
I never saw her photo of us. Her camera was stolen before they were downloaded so I can only imagine it. Perhaps as we stood by the flowerbed, suited and grave, my father and I looked like councillors dissatisfied at the state of our civic blooms. But I don’t think it would have looked like what it was: a photo of the two of us standing beside my brother’s ghost, perplexed and briefly distracted from a new and permanently disabling kind of pain.
ADAM FARRER is a columnist, short story writer and spoken word performer whose work has been published on The Real Story and as part of National Flash Fiction Day 2015.