Listening to Sister Aquinata set out my schedule of work, I understood. She saw me like everyone saw my father: an instrument, an insignificant caretaker.
My father was a sparrow of a man, in sooty clothes, with a smudged face, and hands with the dirt tattooed into the skin. My father was a fearful man. And always – except when fear robbed him of judgment – my father was a practical man, always willing to do whatever was asked of him, always anxious to please, never confident in his work, never boastful or conspicuous, never comfortable in his home, never relaxed. No one was ever satisfied with my father. Not his employer, who was always on the verge of dismissing him, driving him to work harder and harder, without the money for repairs or help caring for an estate where what did not rot would turn to dust. And not my mother, who left us late in the war, running from hunger and my father, taking my sister with her. I never knew where she went, or who she went with. She might have preferred anyone to my father. He did not beat her or abuse her or humiliate her. He simply made a void around himself, a place where the light went out. She left me with what little light I could make for myself. She left me to pour it into that void. I was too much burden, or I was already lost to his mediocrity. Or I too was a void.
She left nothing but two photographs. One marked their wedding: two stiff, provincial people. The other was a portrait of her, printed as a carte de visite: an affectation, for she didn’t visit anyone, a conceit, above my father’s station in life, perhaps a sign that it had not been above hers, or at least not above the station that life promised her before wars and my father left her to live in the mud that dried to dust around her. In that photograph I saw, for a time, my father knew something beautiful.
And my father never satisfied me. His mute misery did not allow him, even after the war, the time to care for his son. Or the money. Shoulders hunched, with his crabbed walk, he was self-contained in his misery and his resentment. He resented my food. He resented my clothing. He resented the fire we needed to keep warm. He resented the soap to wash with. He resented the cost of school. The priests had to wheedle the school fees out of him for every term, and for the last years, I think they made a special price. Perhaps they saw a priest in me. I have no sense they saw any other promise, so I can only thank charity for their grace. For that I made a special effort with them. School was preferable to what would happen when school ended. And every term, as I grew older, there was more and more reason for my father to end my education, to keep me on the estate and ease his own burden. There was never talk of payment for this work. That would have been impossible. So, in his life, I presented a perpetual temptation: if he put me to work, he could ease his own pain.
The only time I wasn’t the subject of my father’s fantasy, when I wasn’t the object of priests’ ambitions, when I wasn’t ridiculed and bullied by the other students – for my pathetic boots, my bad haircut, my sad third-hand coat, for my smallness, my dirty delicacy, my obvious poverty – was when I walked out of the city, after school, alone, on my way home. The only time I was myself, when I wasn’t my father’s boy, or the priests’ student, or the bully’s joke, was when I was in between them all, outside of the ugly space they made, when I was walking. When I walked, I could imagine friends. When I walked, I walked out of time, into a future. When I walked, I thought of my salvation. I could almost touch it then, and it took a very particular form. I imagined my future lay in the studio I passed each day, where the photographer, Grabowski, had made my mother’s picture. Apprenticed there, I could escape the nights and days of filth and unrelenting labour, the days of lonely study.
I could make pictures.