In my mind I had a clear image of my father on his 50th birthday. He was standing alone, smiling broadly, the sky a deep Egyptian blue behind him, his white hair blowing in the wind. I know that Mum and the five of us kids would have been standing close by or sitting on the sea wall, feet in the cool dry sand. I must have been on the seaward side of the wall to take the photo. I know that we were at the sailing club that day, Dad’s birthday always fell around August bank holiday and as a family we sailed every weekend in summertime. Dad had built us two mirror dinghys that we took out in pairs or singly, those not sailing staying on the beach or the grassy space behind the promenade with the picnic. Our grandparents often arrived in their Commer camper van which had double doors at the back. Once opened, a whole kitchen set up was available for hot drinks and there were always jam filled, sugar encrusted doughnuts from Curtis’, the bakers in the town.
I picture the scene as he cuts his cake, the cake tin lid with the sponge sitting in it resting on the top of the waist high parapet. It would have been a homemade chocolate one, two round layers sandwiched together with chocolate buttercream icing and decorated with smarties. I have even used this envisioned photograph as a jumping-off point for a short story that bears no relation to the actual events of that day.
Back in England for my sister’s 50th in 2018, I mentioned this photo to my siblings but none of them remembered having seen it. I must have taken it else how could I have it. I promised to find it once I got home and send it to them.
It took a while to find. Imagine my surprise when on finding the birthday photo, it was completely different to the image in my head. I can’t describe the disappointment. Even the size of the print seems wrong. In my mind it was a 7” x 5” oblong one, Dad’s torso and head filling the bottom ¾ and an unlikely—given that we lived in England and the sky there is never that vibrant shade—deep cobalt sky behind him topping it off. In it he is alone, a wicked grin on his face and the wind ruffling his striking white hair.
The original is much smaller. Dad is centre of the shot with Hollie standing on his right and Kate on the left. In the distance you can see Sarah’s back as she strides away and someone, probably Mum, is behind Dad but only some gingery hair and a hint of cheek is visible. The small amount of sky is a washed out English powder blue. Dad’s shirt in the real image is a pale imitation of the sky’s colour in the false memory and his hair isn’t yet the pure white of memory but flecked with grey. My mind has edited out all of this detail, nothing left except Dad, surrounded in brilliant sapphire.
Most unsettlingly, now that I look at the photo again within in the context of the other three taken the same day, I realise that it can’t have been Dad’s 50th after all. In one shot there is a picture of me holding my dog Sam with a plaster cast on his left back leg which exactly dates the photos to 1982, not 1978, since Sam the spaniel was my 18th birthday present and the operations on his knees happened that year. Interestingly though, the sky in this shot is far more vivid. Maybe my memory borrowed from this one.
Back then photos were something you composed carefully. Limited to 12, 24 or 36 shots per reel of film and aware of the cost of processing, you took few and hoped to make them count. I am trying to rebuild this day from just four photographs. The clues are sparse.
My husband thinks I must have mentally blended two photographs. We have some of our oldest son in Barbados when he was little, wearing a tee shirt the exact same blue as the sky behind him, nothing but the upper half of his body in the photo. He may be right, but I keep wondering if there is another photo taken at a different time of Dad, maybe in Australia with that deep deep blue dome of the sky above him. Maybe that is what I am remembering, but if there is one I haven’t found it.
All I know is that I feel an overwhelming disappointment that the cherished image I have remembered for so long is a fake. I want to keep remembering it the way I have constructed it, but now I find that the actual photograph is playing havoc with the misremembered one. I can no longer conjure up the colour of Dad’s shirt in my constructed image, each time I try to recall it, its clarity dims a little more. In my mind the two photographs are overlaid now, each one blurring the sharpness of the other.
What these pictures do supply though, is a starting point to a string of other memories. Much of each summer of my childhood was spent in this spot. Snippets come back to me, brief flashes of whirling colour and form, each quickly superceding one another. Things that were important to me but probably irrelevant to nearly everyone else: the bar in the clubhouse, coke bottles on ice; a red and black bathing suit bought in Fowey; flags above the race hut; the shoreline stained red with dead ladybirds, a slick 3 meters wide stretching out from the sand, thousands of bodies coating the blue side scarlet as we helplessly floated among them; Punky sitting on the seawall chatting to Joe Paull, Grannie making tea in the wagon; toe-ing out on King Crab, seething cold water slapping the backs of my buttocks and thighs as it coursed along the hull with each forward surge and the feeling of the bare boards of the slipway beneath my feet.
Who now, save me, remembers these things?
The water at Burnham-on-sea was muddy from the phenomenal tidal rise and fall, you couldn’t see anything beneath the surface and the weather was changeable, rain as likely as sunshine, even in summer. As an adult I have come to live in a place where, day after day, sunlight gilds a turquoise ocean and you can see the sandy bottom and, if you stand still in the shallows, fish dart silvery around your feet. Yet those early seaside memories pull at my heart and make me homesick for a place and time that no longer exist except in the fragile and faulty vaults of my mind.
Featured image: Dad sailing one of his international 10sq m canoes following the Brue river toward the Severn Estuary.
The Birthday Cake is the short story mentioned in the piece.