Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sepia Photos and Other Stories by Sheila Claydon

I was sorting through family photographs a while back when a picture of a group of young people caught my eye, or, to be more exact, a girl in the centre of the group. The photo, which was well over one hundred years old, was in faded sepia, so it wasn't possible to know the exact colour of her hair or eyes. They looked dark though, and her hair, which was twisted up on top of her head in the complicated style of the nineteenth century, was curling and abundant. She was laughing and dimpled and looked the picture of health and energy.

Smiling at her was a young man. He was wearing a straw boater and had a curling moustache and a wicked grin. He looked extremely dashing. Between them stood a beautiful little boy. He was wearing a white smock and his head was a tangle of blonde curls. He was probably about three years old.

Eventually I found out who they were, and because they were so beguiling I set about tracking their life. I discovered that the little boy, whose name was John, was eventually joined by two little blonde sisters. So far so good.

Then I found out that the young man was a cobbler, as were his father and grandfather before him. At this point I also discovered a poignant coincidence. Although this man was not related to me, the tiny shop he once owned was the very one where I used to take my own family's shoes to be mended when I was a child. He was long gone by then but the shop was still there and the wooden lasts hanging on the wall were the very ones he used when he was repairing shoes.  Another thing remained as well, the compassionate kindness he had shown to everyone who came to him. Somehow it had seeped into the very walls of the little shop and transferred itself to the new owner, a gentle man who always had time, kind words, and a candy for the little girl who came to collect her father's shoes.

In the case of my sepia gentleman, however, the compassion had come at a price. His kindness meant that he frequently mended shoes for free if his customers couldn't afford the leather, or he agreed to wait for their payment if it meant they were able to better feed their children. He also supported his two unmarried sisters financially for the whole of his life.  This generosity meant that his own family sometimes had to go without, something that was a bitter pill for his beautiful wife to swallow once her own sister married a wealthy man. She hated being the poor relative, and hated even more that her children were often dressed in their rich cousins' hand-me-downs.

Eventually I found a picture of that lovely girl and her dashing young husband when they had grown old and their family were long gone, and it was so sad. This one wasn't sepia, instead it was the grainy black and white of the twentieth century. In it, my lovely gentleman's boater had been replaced by a sensible cloth cap and his curling moustache had gone, as had most of his hair. As for the beautiful, vibrant girl, she had become a thin, sad-faced old woman.

When I saw it my heart went out to both of them, and yet at the same time everything I'd learned about their lives began to weave itself into a story in that part of my brain that collects and sifts ideas. I am a writer after all, and it has been said that all writers have a splinter of ice in their heart because  how else can they use what they see around them, so one day I might write their story, or maybe I will I just use the photograph and give them a happier ending. At the moment I have no idea, but it's amazing what one sepia photograph can do, and I still have a trunk full of family history to be sorted through.

My books have been triggered by the oddest things: a campaign to open a bridle path, a celebrity photo-shoot, a chance conversation on board a cruise ship, and other, even more unlikely happenings. They can be found at http://bookswelove.net/claydon.php





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