The Photograph – A story by Mary D Curd
Walking the moors at Minions was a regular past-time of mine both for the exercise and the beauty of it through the seasons, although I never set out in the worst weathers. A drizzle I could take, but heavy rain fall was a deterrent and normally I would soon turn back if it threatened.
Mr Williams seemed more hardened; he always had a large rucksack which, I deduced from the sudden extractions he made from it on several occasions, held more than camera equipment. In fact, his compact digital camera, without the addition of extra lenses, seemed to meet all the requirements of his hobby. I presumed he carried further clothing against the elements, perhaps some provisions in the rucksack, and that he walked for lengthy periods on the moors.
I would say that our paths or tracks crossed on half a dozen occasions with a momentary greeting in passing to acknowledge our mutual recognition. That is until the middle of November that year, on a bleak day where the brief shadows caused by glimpses of sunlight and rolling clouds did not augur well. Moreover, a permeating chilliness made me wonder if a dusting of snow might eventually cover the bare mass of gorse bushes, the patches of grass, and the moss of the stony ground at this season. It was a poor landscape drained of its meagre nutrients by the grazing of sheep and ponies.
Mr Williams – Alistair Williams, as it was on the day I learned his full name – was standing with his back towards me, his elbows jutting out from his sides at chest height, with his head very still and raised up. He stood motionless half-way up the track to a partially intact stack. He was in the pose I knew as his photography stance. The track led to the former engine house of one of the many mines which remain as a witness to the industry of these parts. The stack had recently been converted into a small museum.
The rattle and chink of small stones made by my walking boots eventually made him turn his head and he beckoned me on. As I approached, he said, ‘I want to show you something,’ and gestured with the camera. He angled its rectangular screen, flipping it outwards, before thrusting the camera into my cupped hands. ‘Tell me what you make of that,’ he said with a firmness which denied refusal.
I felt obliged to take the camera and responded with surprise at the image. ‘I didn’t know you favoured black and white, or sepia do they call it now? Of course, these digital cameras allow for great diversity I know and enthusiasts such as yourself can manipulate them with ease for different effects.’
The flicker of animation, even eagerness, in his expression when I had taken the camera and gazed at the screen changed radically. ‘No, that isn’t it. That isn’t it at all,’ he said and waved away my attempt to return the camera to him. ‘I never use a black and white setting. In fact, I make very few adjustments. Look again! Look at the stack in particular.’
On closer study, it was obvious what he meant. The stack in his photograph was not an incomplete structure and certainly had no steps leading to the single floor of the museum. What stood before me, in reality, was a museum with a large glass window overlooking the moor.
The stack in the image he showed me on his camera was not a ruin it was complete and intact. At ground level, the aspect, too, was changed and as I peered closer I could see figures: men stooped at the base of the structure amidst waste and debris and others standing back looking upwards to the top at a trail of smoke rising up above it.
Alistair leaned over and pressed a button on the camera, pointed to the detailed information about the photograph, such as when it was taken, and all of this appeared in an overlay on the camera image. Even I could read the date of the photograph and the exact time when it was taken. Three months ago to the day. ‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
As the museum was closed for the winter, we found some shelter from the wind by sitting on the topmost step by the entrance. Alistair flicked backwards through the sequence of photographs on his camera. He revealed several more similar images. Miners featured clearly in some and the landscape was consistently transformed to that of a previous era.
In one of them, lines of poorly dressed men straggled along in a slow retreat homewards over foot-worn beaten paths leading forwards into the far distance and trailing backwards behind them. It showed them carrying picks on their shoulders but the stacks and the shafts behind their advance were no longer visible in the modern landscape, even though it was possible to locate the present day position. The light in the succession of pictures suggested that of early dawn.
“Poor devils,” Alistair said. “They haunt me.”
Visible were caps on their heads anchored down with strips of material against the ever prevalent gusts of wind on these moors. Some wore thick boots, yet others were hardly shod at all. Alistair zoomed in to show me faces grim with grime. As he paused for each individual picture, he indicated the dates.
‘I have been researching the dates,’ he told me. ‘I knew they could not relate to this century nor that of the last.’ He gazed into the distance, then looked at me hard to see if I had understood his meaning. ‘One is referenced though by the day of a month.’
I half knew before he told me. His researches had uncovered a mining disaster with loss of life. He suspected that all the photographs of this nature, in their grey and yellowed-white pallor, related to some significant accident; a past tragedy which long ago had taken place on the moors. I did not know what to say to him.
Thoroughly chilled I got to my feet and suggested we walk back to the car park. ‘What will you do with them?’ I finally asked.
‘I have deliberated over that all these months’, he said. ‘If I tried to show these images to others, in order to produce some kind of strange record, no-one would believe I hadn’t tampered with them.’ You know yourself that the technology is there.’
‘What then?’ I persisted.
‘I will finish the year by coming here as regularly as I do. Perhaps there will be more of them. I am going to send them to a facility I have recently discovered which deals in historical anomalies like this. Not exactly psychic research, but something loosely of that nature. After that ….’ he paused to unlock his car … ‘I think I will choose another place to indulge my hobby.’ He attempted a smile but did not quite manage it.
I met Alistair on the moors on two further walks during that year and we exchanged contact addresses. However, in subsequent years until our acquaintanceship petered out, he had no more to tell me. He continued with his hobby, though he turned his back on the moors.
After the close of that troubling year, all the photographs he showed me were completely different. He never set foot on the moors again. The photographs he took from that point onwards consisted entirely of seascapes, waterscapes and skyscapes.
They were always in full colour.
The ‘man engine’ was built to commemorate Cornish miners. It toured extensively to huge crowds from 2016 onwards. It is over eleven metres high and has been described as a ‘colossus’ – the biggest moving puppet in Britain.
Hope you enjoyed reading ‘The Photograph’ – explore more by visiting the links below.