They’re flickering on the screen in the faded colours of an old polaroid, as real as you or me despite the shaky camera work and the muffled sound. But then they are you and me. You with your dandelion hair in a dark aura around your thin face, hardly recognisable from the man you are now, all padded and bearded and jowled. You look more foreign somehow than I ever thought you were, finer featured, like and exotic girl with a too-big nose. I gasp when I see myself. Twenty years younger and twenty pounds thinner, my arms bare and defined, the flesh impossibly tight, and I’m so pretty. So very, very, gaspingly pretty. I never knew. I have my hair up and seem to be wearing a dark lipstick though the seventies were long gone by then, and a top with roses round the neckline that I still remember buying in Portobello Green. And the children are all there too, the oldest about 7 in a Laura Ashley dress that makes her look like a little shepherdess, The boys achingly beautiful, as was she, both still babies at 4 and 2, the youngest in a red velvet shorts and bib suit that his grandmother bought for him, and the elder smiling sweetly at the camera with not even the ghost of the tentative, guarded man he has since become, visible on his happy, infant face with the wide chocolate drop eyes brimming with happiness.
They seem to always be with you whenever the camera swings towards you, finding you in the same place, unspeaking, zoned out, separate from everyone else. How did I not see this when I was younger. How did I not notice you were withdrawn, awkward and antisocial? And I’m funny, making jokes, laughing, grinning, when I’m not listening to my cousin George murder a country and western song, and quite rightly look bored out of my mind.
It tears my heart into little pieces like its no more than an old tissue stuck in the pocket of a rarely worn coat. Those dead people, you and I, and our little babies. Dead without a proper funeral to mourn them.
And as the camera pans around the room, I see the rest of the dead.
My mother, risen again to sing a Scottish song that I learned at her knee, her face animated, her arms joining in the chorus. She’s in her element. Gone several years now.
My father, singing One Enchanted Evening, his theme song, his every gesture so familiar to me that I feel him in my bones. Gone two years before my mother.
My dear brother in law, my cousin Irene, her husband Peter, Arthur, Annie, Uncle Tom, the other Uncle Tom, Aunt Ella, their son Tom (don’t call Tom in heaven or you’ll be trampled in the stampede). All gone.
We’re sitting watching dead people sing, smoke, get drunk and celebrate, recorded on grainy film so we can watch them briefly resurrected twenty odd years later.
My kids are delighted by their younger selves, enchanted by seeing themselves as babies. But I can’t look for too long. Those babies are dead and in their place are pretty nice adults who, to varying degrees, tolerate me, though the beautiful boy in the waistcoat whose eyes jump with devilment hasn’t been home for two years and hasn’t sent me as much as a birthday card in that time. I preferred being the girl in the video to the woman I’ve become. i knew my place then. I was the centre of something.
It strikes me I know more dead people than those left alive. And you and I will never celebrate another wedding anniversary with our family around us, at least not to each other. We made it twenty five years, half of what my parents managed.
On the one hand it’s nice to see everyone again as they were in life, but on the other hand, watching these videos are like being put on the rack and tortured.