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THE PORTRAIT OF ELSPETH by Peter Marsh

“I really do think Delia should have it,” says Myrtle. “Then it stays in the family, you see.”

“But you’re family,” says Delia.

Elspeth is hogging the attention, when it should be George’s big day. There’s poor old George in the dining room waiting for the lid to be screwed down, and here are the four of us in the front parlour, arguing over who should get his beloved portrait of Elspeth.

“You’re just as much family as Hugh and Tim and me,” says Delia.

“Don’t be obtuse, dear. You know what I mean,” says Myrtle.

Whatever else Myrtle may be, she is certainly an optimist when it comes to people knowing what she means. She’s been my sister-in-law going on twenty years and I still don’t have the faintest idea what she means most of the time. I don’t think Delia, with over forty years’ sisterly experience, comes much closer. I’m reflecting, as I always do whenever I see the two of them together, what a lucky thing it was for me that George and Elspeth Dandridge hadn’t given up on babies after producing Myrtle. No one could have blamed them. It would have been the logical thing to do.

“No, you should have it,” Delia persists. “I’m sure Dad meant it for you.”

Myrtle sighs. “I do wish our father had made his intentions clear.”

Myrtle has always referred to George as “our father”. I’m worried that my dear son Timothy will add “who art in heaven” out of habit. It wouldn’t go down too well with his Aunty Myrtle, this day of all days. I catch his eye. He mouths it but at fourteen he’s already attuned enough to family sensibilities not to say it out loud.

Myrtle is still going on: “He did say he wanted Timothy to have all that machinery in the attic. He was very clear about that. He probably meant the pictures, too.”

“Oh, I doubt that very much,” says Delia. “Dad taught Timothy to use the darkroom. That’s sensible. But I don’t think Timothy particularly wants a framed portrait of his grandmother.”

“Not especially,” says Timothy.

“Well, I still say you should have it,” counters Myrtle.

“And I say you should.”

“And I say you should.”

I’m feeling I ought to intervene. While I’m meditating what King Solomon would have done in the circumstances, Timothy beats me to it:

“As nobody apparently wants it,” he says, reaching for it, “I’ll just put it in the skip.”

Delia is used to Timothy. She smiles.

Myrtle isn’t. “In the skip?” she snaps, slapping Timothy’s hand away from the picture. “Do you realise, young man, that could well be your grandfather’s masterpiece?”

“So you do want it then, Aunty Myrtle.”

“We all want it,” says Myrtle.

“But you were trying to get each other to take it,” reasons Timothy.

Myrtle looks straight at me instead of at him. “I think this boy is not yet quite ready for adult conversation.”

It is all, apparently, my fault. Timothy may not yet have reached the King Solomon class, but he’s getting there. Better go for the quick apology.

“Now, Tim,” I say.

He knows his cues. “Sorry, Aunty Myrtle.”

“I should think so.”

Myrtle returns her attention to Elspeth. Tim and I exchange winks. But Myrtle is right about one thing: it is a fantastic photograph. George, a keen amateur photographer all his life, had only once persuaded Elspeth to sit for him. Even then, she had refused to allow the resulting portrait to be put on view. It was only when Elspeth was laid to rest and George was left alone in the house that he had set the precious portrait in a gilt frame and hung it where we’re viewing it now, over the mantelpiece in the front parlour. It’s the essence of Elspeth: an old woman in the prime of her life. But I can see Delia in there too: the seriousness in the eyes, slightly down-turned – modest but without being coy or timid; wisdom in the set of the mouth; humour in the wrinkles; patience and understanding all over. Myrtle doesn’t come through in it at all, which is another reason to love it.

Elspeth had known how to grow old, and had done it with grace and decorum. I loved that portrait even more than I loved all the ones of Delia growing up page by page in George’s cherished albums. Those childhood shots gave me a notion of a Delia I would never know; but the portrait of Elspeth gave me a foretaste of the Delia to come. When I first saw George’s portrait of Elspeth, the passing years suddenly held no terror for me.

Delia has been quiet since the subject of George’s darkroom came up. She’s been thinking. “Perhaps we could make another copy.”

“Don’t be silly, dear,” says Myrtle. “That’s the only picture our father ever took of our mother. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?”

George, fearful that his daughters would come unsexed if they played with electric lights and chemicals, had dutifully kept the mysteries of his beloved hobby to himself throughout their upbringing. Only when a grandson came along did he start to feel at liberty to propagate his passion – and that as soon as Timothy was old enough to get his chin on the darkroom table. Over the years, some of the knowledge George shared with Timothy has rippled back to Delia.

“But if we can find the negative, can’t we just have another print made? Tim? Isn’t that possible?”

“What about it, Tim?” I say. “You know your way round Grandpa’s darkroom.”

“Dead easy,” says Timothy. “If we know roughly when he took it, I can find the neg. Next problem?”

“Shall we go and look now?” I ask.

“Whenever,” says Timothy.

But instead the door opens and Mr Endicott comes in. He has been in the dining room doing the things undertakers do to steady the nerves of the dear departed for their last encounter with the family.

“All ready to view,” he says.

“Isn’t it strange for you to attend to an old friend in your professional capacity?” asks Delia.

“The very least I could do,” says Mr Endicott. “I did the same service for Mrs Dandridge, and it’s only right I should do it for George as well. He’s looking very much at peace.” He is holding the door open, probably expecting us to stampede through it to enjoy his handiwork, but, strangely enough, nobody makes a move.

“We were just paying tribute to our mother,” says Myrtle.

“Ah yes,” says Mr Endicott, squaring himself to the portrait. “Very fine. Very fine. To think, barely two years ago, one could hardly move in this room for floral tributes. A very well loved woman, your mother. A great shame for all of us that she was so shy of the camera. Your father would have so dearly liked to keep an album of her, as he did for each of you.” He contemplates the portrait, purses his lips, and nods. “George at his best. A master of the art of photographic portraiture.”

“Art, fiddlesticks,” says Myrtle. “He just pointed the thing and clicked.”

“Your father had a rare talent for pointing and clicking, Miss Dandridge.”

“Dad used to speak very highly of your pictures, too, Mr Endicott,” Delia cuts in.

“No, no. I was never in his league. Never in the same league at all.” He has gone to the nest of tables, which is covered with framed black and white prints. He picks up a dramatic shot of waves breaking on rocks, the spray frozen in mid-arc, and beckons Timothy to join him. “From the cliffs at Aberystwyth. You see how your granddad caught the wave with the gull just there? That’s genius for you. I had to hold on to him, you know, while he leant out. There’s no length George Dandridge wouldn’t go to to get the picture he wanted. Even when he was satisfied with the angle, he had to wait for the exact right moment.”

Myrtle, who may be suspecting that this is intended for her enlightenment rather than for Timothy’s, is single-mindedly polishing a smudge from Elspeth’s glass.

Mr Endicott chuckles. “There was a gale blowing too, you know. I was worried sick your granddad would fall.”

“Can I go in and see him?” asks Timothy.

I’m about to say yes, but Delia is shaking her head. “Why don’t you go to the darkroom and sort out those negatives?” she suggests.

“But can’t I go in?”

“There’s nothing to see, love. Honestly. You’ll see much more of Grandpa in his photographs than in there.” She shoots me a glance. “Hugh?”

I recognise the tone and the glance. It’s the signal for a united front.

“Mum’s absolutely right, you know,” I say. “A dead person just isn’t that person any more. It can be a shock. Even if Mr Endicott’s done an excellent job, as he probably has – as I’m sure he has – even then, it can be a shock because once a person’s dead, you see, they’re not there any more.” I think I may be overdoing it, but Delia is nodding encouragingly so I press on. “They’re not the same. The soul has gone out of them, you see. Only the body is left.”

Delia’s eyes say, “Leave it at that.”

There is a brief pause, then Timothy says, “But it must still look the same.”

“No,” I say. “It’s as I said. It’s different.”

“Why?”

“Because it isn’t that person any more.”

“Then who is it?”

“Just a shell. Just an empty shell.”

“Then why are you going to see him?”

“I think it’s time you stopped asking adults questions,” says Myrtle, still polishing the glass.

Timothy evidently thinks so too. “I’m going to the attic,” he says.

“Will you be all right up there all on your own?” asks Delia.

“Of course,” says Timothy, closing the door.

“He loved spending time up there with Dad,” says Delia.

“Your father had one of the best equipped dark rooms I ever saw,” says Mr Endicott.

“And Timothy’s getting all the machines,” clinches Myrtle.

Mr Endicott picks up another framed print from the nest of tables and drinks it in. For me, it’s always been one of George’s more boring shots. It looks like the municipal flowerbeds in the local park. I often wondered why George kept it on display.

“Remember this day?” asks Mr Endicott. “Old George never let a memory go to waste, even a sad one.”

“May I?” I take the photograph and study it. I had never noticed it before but there, sure enough, nestling among the superabundant flowers in the upper left corner, is the end of the front parlour mantelpiece. George, denied a photographic record of his wife’s life, had at least kept one of her funeral.

“I think we should go in now,” says Delia.

“Yes. Let’s get it done,” says Myrtle.

Mr Endicott is holding the door. He’ll go in with them, of course. They won’t want me around while they’re saying goodbye.

“I’ll go up and see how Timothy’s getting on,” I say.

The attic served George as a studio as well as a dark room. I see Timothy has turned all the lights on, including the photofloods. I don’t blame him. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to feel how much of George there still is in this room. Everything is monochrome and orderly: the developing trays, the enlarger, the hand-labelled bottles of fluid, and the uncut films hanging from rails in a grey steel cabinet.

In the far corner from the door is the back-drop – a square of cirrus sky in shades of grey, before which Myrtle, Delia, and Timothy can be seen growing up in the time-lapse images George salted away in his treasured albums. Always the same cirrus pattern behind them. Even I was called to pose there once. And Elspeth, of course, called many times, but responding only once, the same cirrus clouds backing that famous portrait two floors below us.

The frilly white parasols that George used for diffusers are looking irreverently jolly in the fierce tungsten light.

Timothy has taken a film from its sleeve and placed it on the light box.

“Here’s mine,” he says.

“Yours?”

“You remember? Grandpa did the annual progress shot last time we came.”

“I thought you were looking for Grandma.”

“I am. But I wanted to see if he’d done mine. Look.”

I look. Thirty-six shots of Timothy striking silly poses among the cirrus clouds.

“Come on. Let’s find Grandma.”

Timothy turns to the cabinet. “Date?”

“She passed away in ’93. Before that, then.”

Returning the latest film to its sleeve, Timothy hangs it back on the rail, and starts to examine the tags. George was systematic, and Timothy knows his system.

He pulls out four films and lays them across the light box. We scan them.

“No…” says Timothy

“Nor here,” say I.

“No… Yes! Here!”

Abandoning my own search I look at the frame he is pointing to. He has found Elspeth.

“Quick work. Well done!”

“Funny, though.”

“What is?”

“There’s only one of her. You’d think he’d take a set of shots, like he always did with me, then pick. You see. There’s only one.”

“Grandma hated having her picture taken. She probably only let him take one. Anyway, she didn’t fool about like you. She just posed and he…”

“…clicked?”

“Exactly.”

Timothy’s attention has already moved on.

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“What’s that?” He’s pointing to another frame.

“It looks like flowers.” I look more closely. In the top left corner, unmistakably, is the end of the front parlour mantelpiece. “Now there’s a coincidence. It’s one of the pictures on the nest of tables. Mr Endicott was just telling us that Grandpa took it the day of Grandma’s funeral.”

“I know that. But look, Dad. Don’t you see anything strange about the two pictures?”

“They’re right next to each other. Gosh. That’s amazing. He must have taken the portrait just before she died.”

“Not before, Dad. Look. The flowers are on the left. He took the flowers first.”

“What?”

“He took the flowers first.”

“He can’t have.”

“But he did.”

We both glance at once at the cirrus screen, and at the family stool in front. “Oh my God!”

“He must have propped her up there,” I say. I try to conjure up the scene tastefully cropped by the gilt frame.

“No wonder she didn’t mess around.”

“Timothy!”

“Sorry, Dad.”

He’s looking very intensely at Elspeth now. “You told me people looked different dead.”

“Your grandfather was a master of the art, remember. But how could he do it? How did he get the body up here without marking it in some way?”

“I bet Mr Endicott helped him.”

“Timothy!” Then I remembered what Endicott had said about George Dandridge going to any length to get the picture he wanted. “You must be right, though.”

“Do you still want me to print another copy?”

“Not likely. I’m not having that bloody thing hanging up in our house. We’ll let Myrtle have it.”

“All right. Can I tell them?”

“No!”

“Why not?”

“Well, not yet. Not today.”

“When can I tell them?”

“We won’t tell them. Please, Timothy. Don’t tell them. You’d rob them of the only memento they have of Grandma, and just about every pleasant memory they have of Grandpa too.”

“But then they’ll expect a copy each.”

“Right again.”

“So you do want me to make a copy to hang in our house?”

“Oh, God! I suppose I do.”

“Now?”

“Can you?”

Timothy shakes the bottles of fluid. “Yes.”

“Are you all right up here?”

“What?” He’s already busy setting up the enlarger. “Of course.”

“Then I’ll leave you to it. Oh, and Timothy?”

“What?”

“Not a word, remember.”

He raises one hand and pinches his mouth closed.

Delia, Myrtle, and Mr Endicott are back in the parlour, talking. Mr Endicott turns to me as I enter. “Would you like to visit Mr Dandridge now?”

“It’s all right, thank you.”

“Then if you’ll all excuse me, I’ll attend to the covering.” He leaves the room, closing the door silently behind him.

“Any success up there?” asks Delia.

“Yes. Tim went straight to it. He’s doing it now.”

“Well done.”

“We were just saying to Mr Endicott,” says Myrtle, “what a pity it is that there is no portrait of our father to go with the one of our mother.”

“Well, it’s too late now,” says Delia.

I hear the purr of Mr Endicott’s electric screwdriver in the next room.

“Yes,” says Myrtle. “It’s too late now.”

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AUTHOR BIO:

Peter Marsh lives in Yokohama, Japan. He was born in the UK and has also lived in Tanzania, Germany and Grenada. For a living he teaches Physics, and for a life he writes short stories and occasional satirical verse. He is a long-serving member of the Tokyo Writers’ Workshop, and has delivered sessions (on humour and dialogue) at the annual Japan Writers’ Conference. His stories have been published in magazines in the Caribbean, Canada, USA, and Japan, the most recent appearing in The Lowestoft Chronicle. When not teaching or writing, Peter can be found pounding the hiking trails around Greater Tokyo, figuring out his next plot.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Portrait of Elspeth”

With its well-crafted and amusing characters, Peter Marsh’s “The Portrait of Elspeth” brings its share of smiles while slowly building a mystery, whose resolution brings yet another, and unexpected, smile. And we say, “well done” to that.