Farewell morning. Group photos at the front of the house, standing by the potted geraniums on the steps behind the buxom dahlias (flowers that are never knowingly under-dressed). Barb and I are dressed to match the flowers. I’m wearing a geometric print red dress, she’s in a botanical-printed short-legged jumpsuit.
‘When it’s short like this I call it a romper,’ she tells us. ‘Much better than a jumpsuit because if you need to pee in a jumpsuit the whole thing has to come off, but with a romper you just do this…’
She pulls the inside hem of one leg to the side leaving us to imagine the dexterity and balance needed to hover over a toilet bowl. Impressive. And funny too, for an otherwise proper lady.
‘Scoosh in,’ calls the picture-taker. We press closer. ‘Eimear, smile – you look so serious!’ He takes another. ‘Barb, you weren’t looking!’ Another. ‘Renee, take your sunglasses off.’ Another. ‘Let me get in now, and I’ll do a long-armed selfie.’ Another. The innocuous group shot shall forever be associated, in my mind, with the story of the romper. I’ll look at it in ten years and do a little squatting action.
I’ve come to an age when, posing for a photo, I can’t help but transport myself to the moment of looking at it in the future. And I don’t restrict this to my own photographs, I do it with others’ too.
The old man on the stick at Portstewart Crescent, he’s flanked by two middle-aged women, both with his eyes, both with English accents, although I think I hear an Irish undertone (daughters who have lived away a long time?). ‘Thank you so much,’ they say when I offer to take one of all three. ‘Can you get the Big Wheel in behind us please? And the promenade too, if you can?’ His cone is dribbling down his hand; one of them pulls a napkin from her bag and gives it to him. I take two shots (to be sure to be sure). As I hand it back, I think about them looking at this photo when he is gone. ‘Do you remember the heat…’ they’ll say. ‘Such a beautiful evening…’ they’ll say. ‘We’d been to Roughan’s…’ they’ll say. ‘And he couldn’t get over the choices,’ they’ll say. ‘In my day, you had vanilla, raspberry ripple, or rum and raisin,’ they’ll remember him saying, ‘and now there are three dozen flavours I can’t make head nor tail of.’
And that’s me off, making up stories in my head about other people’s photographs, invoking other people’s memories in other people’s futures.
Groups of young people, I do it with them too. Teenagers whose lives are on the cusp of opening up. A dozen of them, lined up on the prom, leaning on the railings, arms draped around each other, bare midriffs, tanned legs, boys with mullet haircuts. Come the end of the summer they’ll scatter: new courses, new jobs, new countries, new friends, new places, new routines. Some will fall away; some will stay in touch. The photo will surface when one of them is putting a slideshow together for Jenny’s wedding, twenty years from now (‘She took her time!’). Five of the twelve are at the wedding reception, marvelling at how young they looked. ‘Can you believe we wore that?’ ‘Look at Finn’s hair!’ ‘To think I thought I was fat!’ ‘Last I heard, Olivia was an environmental scientist on the Faroe Islands; she doesn’t do social media.’
And young families at the beach, for whom the next twenty years will go in a flash. A toddler by the water’s edge, Mum holding on tight so the smallest wave doesn’t knock him over. Dad has waded in up to his knees and turned to face them. Mum’s saying, ‘That’s my new phone, don’t be dropping it,’ and he’s saying, ‘You worry about holding him up straight and I’ll worry about the phone.’ And the child won’t look up, and Dad keeps calling, ‘Casey, Casey!’ But Casey is fascinated by the water and will only look down. He’s squealing with happiness, and Mum says, ‘He loves it, he totally loves it! He’s going to be a water baby.’ And Dad says, ‘Lift him up into your arms, I’ll get both of your faces that way.’ And she does. And Casey beams. And Dad gets the perfect shot. That’s the one they’ll have printed, might even get it enlarged, put it in a frame, or maybe Mum will have it put on a magnet for Dad this Christmas (‘Something small from Casey’) and it will go onto the fridge and stay there for fifteen years until it becomes as integral to the house as the walls themselves. And every time Dad looks at it, he’ll say the same thing, ‘Hard to believe he was ever that small,’ and Mum will say, ‘Harder still be believe Portrush was ever that hot!’ And Casey will come through and ignore them both as he opens the fridge to eat cold chicken straight from a bowl even though he’s had dinner an hour ago. And Dad will say, ‘You’re a bottomless pit,’ and Casey will say, ‘Swimming coach says I need to keep my protein intake up,’ and Mum will close the fridge door Casey has left open and she’ll look at the magnet again, and say, ‘That was the day I first knew he was a swimmer.’