Felix carefully threaded the film through the projector, aligning the sprocket holes, unwinding the celluloid and unravelling it. The reel was laced with the smell of vinegar and its decomposing odour permeated the pores of his skin, and his clothes. With each inhalation it surreptitiously infiltrated his nostrils, and snaked its way into his lungs, pickling him from the inside out. The tactile sensation of guiding the film between fingertips, feeling repairs, old splices, torn sprocket holes seduced him with its numbing repetition. After the film was threaded, he padded across the room, flicked a switch and bathed in the voluminous silence of anticipation. He turned the projector on. Its soft purr as it whirred into motion threw a wedge of light across to the far wall – catching swirling, curling fragments of dust, haloing them – and then from thin air, images a multitude of greys, danced in front of him.
It was the smooth murmur of twenty-four images per second speeding through the machine and the burning light, luminous, urgent, real and yet ephemeral, that held him there. The soft, unmistakable smell of heated dust sifted through the air. It summoned up all the memories of his childhood, of sitting at his father’s knee as he projected in their living room. At first there were little home movies of a trip to the beach, or his sister practising ballet or his mother leaning over a cake. Just a fragment and yet reel after reel of film. His father was the guardian of those images, the custodian of memories, so that they would not be forgotten or discarded. A splinter of time was suspended in mid air, breathed into life with light and a darkened room.
The door opened, the light flicked on, its fluorescent glare harsh and overpowering. A guilty pleasure was broken, the spell suspended.
“What are you doing in here, Felix? Can’t you leave your father’s stuff be?
Just look at it. What on earth am I meant to do with it all?”
Felix turned off the projector – his images on the wall were lost and subsumed by the glaring light. He gazed around at all the film reels stacked high to the ceiling, old projectors, rewinding devices. A cold silence stretched between them, as she knew where his loyalties lay. She turned her back and left.
* * *
In her bedroom, she opened the oak chest at the end of her bed and took out a bolt of folded wedding cloth, its pure white glistening to the touch. Brocaded with flowers, soft and subtle and beneath immediate notice, it was now flecked with the brown spots of age. She had bought the cloth in anticipation of her wedding many years before and had taken it with her when she migrated to Australia. It was a talisman to a lost dream. The church wedding had all been fastidiously planned but life had been rearranged around her and her dream got hidden in the bottom drawer. Before the dress was due to be made, Robert had slipped silently into her bed and amid whispers and recriminations the wedding dress had been forfeited and a registry office arrangement hastily scheduled. Guilt and doubt hung unspoken between them, and a whole contingent of smileless faces starred out from the black and white photograph. There was just
unguarded horror on her face that this was how it should end, when it had only just begun.
Theirs was a long marriage, as if to prove all the doubters wrong, and there were two children. But this cloth troubled her. Now that he had died and she was left cradling forgotten hurts, winnowing words of love for him, aching for him, the cloth tormented her with its feeble beckoning. His side of the bed was cold to her touch. His shoes, the impression of his feet fossilised inside, were still in the hallway waiting for his feet to slip into them, and his reading glasses lay across a magazine on the coffee table, waiting to be balanced on his nose. All these little objects awaited his return. They were the silent sentinels attesting to his existence. His fingerprints were still on the oven door, as she could not bear to wipe them off. Strands of his hair still lay entangled in his comb. They were all evidence of an illusion – his existence seemed more imagined as each day, week, month passed. And then there were his films.
* * *
“Every film needs a good home and every good home needs a film,” he would announce, when he was caught trying to smuggle more contraband into their house.
“But where are we going to put them, for pity’s sake?” she would moan. “In the laundry,” he’d say.
“But that’s full and so’s the granny flat and our cupboards and under the beds and the kids’ wardrobes and the pantry, for crying out loud. You know there is no more room.”
“But they’re orphaned, Tess. I can’t just let them fend for themselves.
They’ll just end up in a skip, forgotten, damaged, unsalvageable.” “Yes, like me,” and she’d storm off.
“Orphaned!” she screamed from the other end of the house.
* * *
In the bin next to the rewinding table, Felix saw a tin labelled “June, 1964” and inside was a film, cut through, as if by an axe. He remembered his father’s stories of when he was a projectionist at a big cinema in the city and how the reels would have to be axed and then inspected by the guardians of intellectual property, so that after the final screening of the film, the reels couldn’t be sold on. His father had taken it as his personal mission to outwit those pitiless policemen of film and had rescued many reels from their fate, laboriously splicing and repairing old reels, salvaging them into the late hours of the night. Felix could not comprehend why now this tiny reel lay abandoned, cut, in the bin. It must have only been done a week or two before his father’s heart attack.
June, 1964. Felix sighed, thinking of the date of his parents’ marriage that Summer in far away England. Carefully he held up snippets of the black and white celluloid to the light expecting to see the drab wedding party, but saw a thatched house covered with snow. Frame after frame of the house until at last a woman appeared, smiling coyly, half embarrassed, rugged up and with light coloured hair. Her face was young, fresh, unknown. Afraid to disturb the order of the film, Felix set up splicing the images at his father’s splicer, neatly aligning perforations in the machine and taping the frames together. After hours of painstaking care and viewing ten minutes of time broken down into over 14 000 frames in over 400 feet of film, Felix already knew the series of events but needed to see it animated and this strange woman and his father brought to life. His father was there in front of a Christmas tree and landed a kiss on that strange woman’s lips. Then he realised that her name was June and that it was not the month. But was this the January before his parents married or the December after? The snow was the only clue and it could have been either.
Hurriedly he threaded the film into the projector, darkened the room, let it purr into action and saw the woman come to life, playful but self-conscious and then his father ran across; embraced her, spoke to her – but the words were lost to the air on this soundless film – and kissed her and then disappeared behind· the camera again, as was his way, while the woman built a snowman and the slap, slap, slap as the final length of film wound around the reel.
* * *
Tess unravelled the cloth and swirled it around herself, sari style and caught herself in the mirror trying to defy time. Her skin sagged, and wrinkles embroidered her face but the cloth felt wonderfully smooth and lured her with its touch. This time it was Felix who walked in on her.
“What are you doing, Mum?” He knew the story of the cloth but had never seen it unraveled. It had always been her personal shroud . of Turin, holier than mere mortals; sacred, revered.
“I’ve decided to get it made up,” she said. “Into my wedding dress.” “But….why?” Felix was stunned.
“To get buried in it, Felix. I’ve had this cloth for too many years and it is time that it got cut and sewn.” She slumped on to the bed. Within a day she was at a dressmaker. A measuring tape passed deftly over every contour of her skin and, like a topographer, charted and mapped her body. It was the topography of loss, of yielding to old age, of reluctantly losing a dream and reinventing a mediocre sacrifice in return. She knew it wouldn’t satisfy her and when the dressmaker had laid out the pattern, measured and double checked and the whole workspace seemed like a sea of bridal white, smoothed out in places where it touched the thin film of paper, she took the large scissors and, oblivious to Tess, started to cut. With each incision, Tess felt tears begin to well up in her eyes and, within minutes, tears rolled down her cheeks. She had not anticipated that seeing her beautiful cloth cut into ugly, geometric shapes would wound her. The dressmaker looked up, like a surgeon from her work, saw Tess’s tear-stained face and then, in silence, continued on her way.
Tess left when the dressmaker smoothed out the paper pattern, leaving her alone to solve the intricate jigsaw puzzle of shape and design. Tentatively she pinned and stitched until all the pieces of cloth were joined together and reunited in a new, almost unrecognisable, form. Within a week Tess was back and fell in love with her cloth, now resurrected. Not finished, of course, but there in its essence. Trying it on for the first time, Tess felt a shiver run down her spine, a sense of this was how it should have been all those years ago, of belonging together. She twirled sedately to one side and felt the cloth come alive and ripple, cascading in a thousand tiny folds. The dressmaker started to work.
She sped the cloth through her fingers, finding tenacious imperfections, smoothing creases. Tess’ final fitting was such an act of intimacy that it seemed strange to be in the presence of the dressmaker and yet they were both oblivious to one another. For Tess it was as if she were reunited with an old friend. For the maker, her creation would be leaving and going forth into the world, a child with whom she wouldn’t be reunited. There were tears on both sides, and an embrace.
Tess sat with her dress on her bed and stroked it. She then hastily put it in the oak chest , not knowing when it would call her back to it.
* * *
One day, when Felix was out, she opened the door to the granny flat where most of the films were stored. She traced her fingers in the dust of the film canisters and breathed in the smell of vinegary decay that Robert had hated. She had always enjoyed their film nights, but just loathed the lack of space and would wonder why he couldn’t collect stamps instead. Yet, for all their years together she had never learnt how to thread the projectors. Then she saw the reel marked “June, 1964” and the memories of her wedding flashed before her eyes. She remembered the best man filming the sombre wedding party and knew that she would never watch the film and indeed she never had. She took it and placed it with her wedding dress.
And then she cleaned the oven door.