Excerpt: ‘Cameras Go With Family Life’, by Sophie Allan


Image courtesy of Sophie Allen.

Episode 1: Grandfather

People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture takers…

The ground was soaked, like a saturated sponge, and the mud squelched up from the grass and spilled over your toes when you raced out to the letterbox. The gutters were moats and the roads were rapids, and seedpods and leaves and other flotsam sailed and bobbed along, disappearing into the roaring stormwater drains. The green of palms and Moreton Bay figs deepened under the storm clouds, and spouts of water shot from the tips of the fronds and waxy green foliage. The blossoms and tiny leaves of the jacarandas shivered on the tree and fell like it was a celebration. Mangoes rotted in pulpy piles, splattered under the tree, teeth marks in the skin from screeching fruit bats the night before. The humidity brewed, thick and sticky inside the houses where people sat under ceiling fans, with the lights on at midday.

As the rain came down, the damp rose up from the sodden ground, into the houses. Inside the cupboards and drawers it smelled of waterlogged wood and wet earth, and powdery mould had begun to sprout on forgotten beach bags and shoes in the bottom of wardrobes. Chains of black ants traced wonky lines from skirting board to bathroom tap to sugar bowl, behind the fridge and around the hot-water system. Socks and underwear hung on the backs of chairs and on doorknobs, damp still. And on the muddy street outside a little house built on the floodplain of the Brisbane River, my cousins and uncle were packing my grandmother’s belongings onto the back of a rusty beige ute and taking them to higher ground.

The white weatherboard house sits a little way back from the street corner, raised a metre or so off the ground—stout alongside its stilted Queenslander neighbours. There are no cement footpaths and no fence, just a wide grassy verge and a flaming red Poinciana that sounds like maracas when it drops its long woody pods with the percussive seeds inside.

When my grandfather Aubrey died in 2003, his office still belonged only to him. Little was changed in there, not much moved, few objects taken away. In the drawers of the desk, in the metal filing cabinet and in the cupboard was stored a private collection of artefacts, documents and letters. A biscuit tin at the bottom of the cupboard contained brown and blotched letters, flaking like pastry. In the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet his green army beret with the crumpled ribbon sat atop an ancient, 6-inch-thick dictionary, with pages like gossamer. And deep in the desk, to the back of a long drawer, the album of his war photographs was wrapped in a white plastic bag.

He had fallen in love with photography as a young man, enthusiastic enough to build a darkroom in his family home at Double Bay. With a camera he could play in the space between science and art where, as the son of a civil engineer and a concert pianist, his mind naturally settled. During his military training before he was sent to war at twenty-three—the youngest Captain in the Australian army at the time—his skill with the camera had been noted. And so he was given a small, light camera that he was to carry with him to battle, to document all that he saw. I have been told the black and white images he took—kept inside the drawer of the desk—were of both friendly scenes and unspeakable destruction. I imagine dark jungle, tanks and young men—sometime smiling, sometimes terrified, sometime living and sometimes dead. Men in Japanese uniforms as well as in those of the allies. These photos were kept hidden, some negatives even left undeveloped, a secret source of shame. On one or two occasions he showed these photographs to my mother, his daughter, turning the pages of the album as he wept.

When the flood hit, the water spewed up out of storm-water and sewerage drains, dirty with shit and fine grey silt. In the dark of night it crept up the deserted street, over the kerb and into the gardens. It swallowed the plants, the front steps, and rushed under the door, over the carpet. The trunk of the poinciana went under, its seedpods plucked without a sound, its red flowers stained. Macadamia nuts were carried away and deposited in houses down the street, and mango sludge was whipped up into the thick and foul floodwater that inundated the house. It rose and rose, up the hems of the coats left in the cupboard, into the bottom drawer of the kitchen, the third, the second, in among the cutlery and over the benchtop. The fridge lifted, bobbed, and listed over onto its side, bumping into chairs and a cushion. The sludge filled the bathtub, the bathroom sink. A hairbrush, bottles of shampoo and talcum powder, a set of glasses and some old dress patterns were trapped floating within the glass doors of the shower.

The next day a crew from the Salvation Army walked onto the muddy lawn of Granny’s house, and yes, she said, they could help. The volunteers were not in shock like my family, who moved around wide-eyed and in a trance, not sure what to do next. The volunteers worked quickly to uncover the ruined contents of the house. They did not know the objects they threw onto the piles. They did not turn them over in their hands trying to recognise them, trying to reconcile them in this new reality.

One of the volunteers made their way over to Pop’s office, in the back of the carport, which nobody had remembered to pack. It was Pop’s office, so it was no one’s instinct to take responsibility for it, and no one had. The flood had flung the door open, and the curtain of beads was knotted and filthy. Unable to jimmy the drawers of the swollen wooden desk open to salvage what might be inside, two volunteers each took a side, sized up the doorway, and carried it out to the muddied lawn, swinging it back and forward three times before heaving it onto the rubbish pile. And on top of the desk went Barbie dolls with splayed legs and punkish haircuts; tangled, unrecognisable sheets and clothing; soggy books with wavy pages and upturned, ruined white goods.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #28: The Art Issue. Get your copy here.

Sophie Allan is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Chart Collective. Her writing has been published in Global Weather Stations, By the Book? Contemporary Publishing in Australia and The Writers Bloc.