The Light Room


by Louise Beech





The fifth mother I’ve seen with a flower corsage pinned upside-down on her lapel asks if her daughter’s “monstrous” nose can be “chiselled or something” and I have to explain without insult that only shadow and shade are alterable, not size or shape.

“But she looks like a circus extra in these pictures!”  This latest mother prods my computer screen like her finger is a wand that might undo the ugly, change her frog offspring into the princess.  “You must help her!”  

My screen bears the mark of so many wands.  I’m almost too tired to request that she not touch it, but fear I’ll slap her if she does again.  “Please, don’t –”

“There simply must be a way we can erase this bump!  And how about the black lines under her eyes – goodness, she looks like she should be in a Rolling Stones video, not getting married!”

“Lines we can erase,” I say softly.

“Can you?  Oh, you’re just wonderful, dear!  There’s hope after all!”

I endure so many mothers; they come in all guises, parade the shop floor like I’m to pick one over the other in some pageant.  There are those who want to show off their daughters.  Those who want to change them.  Those who want them to be everything they never were but instead say, well, she’s so wilful.  And I am the magician.  I am the air-brusher.  I can enhance any image, improve any bride, smooth out creases, whiten teeth, correct flaws, hide blemishes.

“I went to One Click on the High Street and they were going to charge me three hundred pounds!  I mean, her nose needs help, but quite!”  The fifth corsage-wearing mother flushes red.   “And I want the weather changing - can you do that?”

I nod and look, not for the first time, at the photograph, at the rain that bloats clouds behind this imperfect bride and her new husband.  Her mouth is the loveliest I’ve seen, kind of wonky, shy, closed.  She hides her teeth, keeps her lips together, two hands joined, praying, like she knows she’ll later be analysed and asks for acceptance.  But her eyes, they smile, they light up as if they have a choice.

“We can add sunshine,” I tell her, always reluctant to mess with what is.  “Blue sky, an archway, full moon... snow.  How would you like it to be?”

The fifth mother’s phone rings and she rummages in her bag for it.  She cries out her conversation as though from afar – But they can improve you!  Yes, really!  You need not have held your breath or clamped your mouth shut like you were doing long division in your head!  You’re going to look divine, perfect!

“I think I’ll have to come back in a while,” she says then, to me.  “I need to discuss with my obstinate daughter what’s to be done.  She can’t see the need to airbrush!  She thinks I’ll hang her wedding pictures on my wall like that!”

My screen is once more prodded before I can react.  On her way out the fifth mother picks up one of our leaflets (At Fantasy Fauxtograph we can transform your Magical Day into something really Memorable!) and the bell above the door, quaint compared with the minimalist decor, tinkles her departure like a wedding supper announcement.

Alone, I save her images, as yet untouched.  I wish I could develop them as art, how they are.  True.

At Fantasy Fauxtograph we still have a dark room; we’re the only place in town that does.  Digital photography has rendered it frequently unused but some dedicated artists still request we develop their images the “true” way, and so it remains.  I prefer the dark room, letting the images develop as they will, no intervention, only time.  I love the smell of fixer, the tickle of chemicals on my skin, the soft slosh of liquid, the otherwise quiet. 

With the fifth mother gone and Billy in for a few hours, I go to this place.  There are some black and white prints that Mr Crooks, a regular, has requested be developed so I turn on the safelight.  Its amber glow warms my mood.  Black and white papers are ruined only by blue light, or green, while colour paper, being sensitive to all parts of the visible spectrum, must be kept in complete darkness until the prints are properly fixed.  After doing a test strip to ascertain the exposure time, I immerse Mr Crooks’ paper in the developer and watch it sink.  

I wait.

The image emerges, centre first, its heart.

I wait.

Black spreads like spilt tea, darker in parts, lighter in others.

I wait.

Faces appear, smiles, laugh lines, wind-blown hair, freckles, reality.

I wait.

The pictures are of children, three, and they’re clearly Mr Crooks’ own; a photographer cannot hide a love of his subject.  They jump and he captures them forever in the air, weightless, flying.  A girl, whose abundance of freckles suggests that in spite of the monochrome she must be a redhead, dances around a tree.  Another girl, younger, looks over her shoulder at the photographer, flirting with him.  A third, the oldest, waits by the bark, unsure, her hands at her mouth, hiding any expression.


We were three, I remember.

And I remember waiting, waiting for our mother. 

At our granny’s window, we didn’t know what car to look for, not even the colour, so each one that rounded the street corner was a possibility.  Granny called from the kitchen – Don’t touch the glass!  Don’t mark the glass!  My little sister Jenny’s fingers had already left their impression and Baby Paul would soon add his.  Mine never touched, not anything.  I stood away from the window, away from the scene, from them.  I knew.  I don’t know how.  I was only nine.  No one told me.  I hated knowing.

When it came, the car was yellow, like hope.  Our mother was with a social worker – time has given her this title, then she was just a lady.  A lady who brought our mother from the hospital.  Time has also given this place a name – Castle Hill, Mental Health Unit.  Time airbrushes.  The mind tries to resist, to hear the heart, but memories are coloured by all that has passed since.

My memory cannot find Granny – I don’t know where she was when our mother stood in the hallway, shy, hiding her teeth, keeping her lips together, two hands joined, praying, like she knew she’d later be analysed and asks for acceptance.  We hadn’t seen her in eight months.  Little Jenny wrapped chubby arms around her leg and Baby Paul raised his open, wiggly hands, asking to be picked up.  She seemed not to know how to respond.

In the living room she perched on the rocking chair and smiled at the flood of questions.  Have you brought my Barbie doll?  Why have you been gone so long?  Do you still love us?  Can we go to Scarborough?  How long are you staying?  I didn’t ask.  I knew.  The social worker disappeared into the part of my mind where Granny was and I never saw her again.  Our mother’s tea cup never left the saucer.  The gold clock on the mantelpiece next to Jesus accelerated, I’m sure, an hour, two, each time I looked at it.

And then we were in the hallway again, and Granny came out of the dark, to help me.  Our mother was leaving.  I had known.  Little Jenny clung to her leg, desperate now, not elated, not hopeful, but knowing.  Baby Paul’s fingers opened and closed, like an imitation of ambulance lights.  On the bronze table in the living room her tea grew cold.  We played “cookery” when she’d gone, pouring the cold liquid back and forth between cup and beaker.  Granny called from the kitchen – Don’t mess the table!  Don’t mark the carpet!


In the dark room I always find light.  Mr Crooks’ pictures are born now, pure, untouched.  I should have told them.  I should have told Little Jenny and Baby Paul that I knew our mother wasn’t staying, that she hadn’t come to get us.  I’m their memory now.  I tell them things I remember, give them their history, but I’ve to be careful not to shade these moments with my own guilt or decoration of it, and to let their flashes colour it also.  I peg Mr Crooks’ children on the line to dry and return to the shop.

Billy goes out for lunch and a moment after his departure the bell heralds the return of the fifth mother.  Her upside-down corsage is squashed against a pile of boxes, two of which she puts carefully on the counter near my mug of coffee.  I resist asking her not knock over my drink.

“I brought you cake, dear!” she says, removing one of her white gloves.  “A piece for you and a piece for the other young man.  Yours is the one with half of an iced shoe – I thought you’d like that!”

I shake my head, but can’t find any words.

“Now, dear.”  She removes the other glove and places it atop the cake boxes.  “I read your leaflet while I waited for my hair appointment and it says that you can remove people!  People!  You can make them disappear!  Like they never were!”

From the place in my mind where Granny hid I find – No, I can’t

“You can!  It says here – look!”  The fifth mother opens our leaflet, waves her red-nailed wand at the words, the promise.  “Now, in seven of the wedding pictures there’s my husband’s mother, and I want her out!  Really, she should never have been invited after what happened, but I won’t go into that, not here, now’s not the time.  I want you to do whatever it is that you do and remove her.”

“I won’t,” I say softly.

“But it’s what you do, dear.  You’re a Fantasy Fauxtographer!”

I click open an image of her daughter, one where she’s closing her eyes to the blast of rainbow confetti, her fingers trapped in the froth of veil.  “This picture is beautiful,” I say.  “In its lopsidedness and in the slightly-stained sash and in the grey light of rain, it is beautiful.  I won’t touch it.  You’re changing the memory before you’ve even had time to let the moment pass and become one.”

“I’m making it perfect, dear.”  The fifth mother looks at me, I think in disbelief at my daughter-like wilfulness when I’ve no right, but maybe with some respect.  I’m not her child, but I speak for her, for all of them. 

“I’m not going to change the picture,” I say.

“I’ll go to One Click, you know,” she snaps.  “They’ll take my bloody mother-in-law out of the day!  They’ll trim my husband’s nasal hair!”  She pauses, looks at the boxes, and then back at me.  Taking her gloves and putting them on she says, “Oh, keep the darned cake anyway!”

The bell tinkles her second departure.  I think I’d known she’d come back; I have a sense of these things.  But I know she’ll not return now, that she’ll find what she wants at another place, just as I know I have to.

The mothers came and they asked me to give them the daughters they always wanted, and they thought I could take away the times they’d argued over boyfriends and the times they’d called each other names and then didn’t speak for months, and they said - with tears in their eyes - that I must clean all that had been sullied, bring back the seven-year-old girl who’d loved without condition.  But I couldn’t and I already have a mother, one, and that’s enough, and she’s imperfect, flawed, real, and I love her.



©2009 Louise Beech

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