My uncle Colin is an OAP male model and I am watching one of his photoshoots. I’m stationed in the far corner of the room, holding a little polystyrene cup of tea. I am providing moral support. It was my mother’s idea for me to do this. Some people were angry that Colin’s photoshoot happened to be the day before the funeral; they felt that it was infringing on the perimeters of our grieving. But the shoot couldn’t be re-scheduled and my mother and I encouraged Colin to go for it. So, it was decided that I would skip the viewing of the body and hang out here with Colin to demonstrate some familial solidarity.
Colin is sitting on a white plastic seat in a spotless white bathtub, wearing a pair of navy blue swimming trunks, a small white towel draped around his neck. He is facing a complicated-looking lighting rig. There is no water in the bathtub. The product he is modelling is a chair designed to help elderly people bathe. It has a clunky name that I can’t remember, something like BathRight, or TubMate, or AquaLift.
There is a young girl sitting next to me wearing a green tracksuit jacket zipped up to her chin. I’m performing a lot of tactical fidgeting to try and get her to look up from her phone and acknowledge my presence. I am thus far unsuccessful.
Colin sits with his back straight and his chin slightly lifted. He places his arm along the side of the seat, so that he appears to be in a state of relaxation, but he tenses his muscles as he does this, to show that even though he is old he is still somewhat lithe. The photographer had shown him earlier how to perform these subtle movements. “We know that you’re healthy and attractive’, the photographer had said. ‘This is about how we prove it to the camera.'”
Twenty minutes pass and then Dan, Colin’s agent, announces that it is time for a break. Colin swings his legs over the edge of the bathtub with ease and stands up from the chair. Dan is there next to him with a fluffy white towelling dressing gown. He pats Colin amicably on the back and then turns to the rest of us – the photographer, the girl, and myself – and tells us to take fifteen.
The girl is out of the door like a rocket. I walk over to Colin to congratulate him on thus far doing an excellent job. As I speak to him I see Dan looking over my shoulder and frowning. “Where’s Nat gone?” he asks. I ask Dan what Nat is doing here. He says that Nat is his cousin, and that she’s here fulfilling her school’s work experience requirement. “She should really stay here with me at all times”, says Dan. “She is supposed to be shadowing.” I say that I will go and look for Nat, but what I really do is slip out into the alleyway alongside the building to smoke.
When I am about to stub out my cigarette Nat appears. She takes a packet of Benson and Hedges out of her pocket and leans against the wall in a way that I can tell is constructed to appear nonchalant.
“Hi”, I say. “I found out that your name is Nat. Hi, Nat. I’m Gemma”.
I extend my hand. When Nat shakes it I feel that her palm is warm and damp. I ask her for a cigarette.
“Didn’t you just have one?” she asks.
“Yeah, but, I think I want another.”
I light the cigarette with the butt of the one before and blow a smoke ring. “Can you do this?” I ask.
Nat tries, but the smoke just spills out as she makes her mouth open and close like an aperture.
“It’s all about positioning your lips and tongue correctly” I say. “Are you having a good time at the photoshoot?”
“Colin is my uncle,” I say.
I nod and exhale. “Yeah. We’re going to a funeral tomorrow. With the rest of our family. It’s for Colin’s brother. My dad, actually.”
The cobbles of the alleyway are dark grey and slightly damp. They look like the skin of a reptile.
“Has it been raining?” I ask.
Nat makes an “I dunno” noise. I crush the cigarette under my boot. “We need to go back inside”, I say.
I return to my seat at the back of the room. Colin sheds his gown and assumes the position. The photographer takes a few warm-up shots to get Colin back into the swing of things and then begins to focus more on the product itself. Colin’s head will be absent from these images, so he can do what he wants with his face. He sticks his tongue out at Dan to try and make him laugh, but Dan isn’t looking. I laugh instead.
The final shot is a close-up of Colin’s face. “This one will be great for your portfolio,” says the photographer. Colin looks into the camera and bares his straight white teeth. “Handsome lad!” says Dan.
That evening I go back to Colin’s place. My mother and I are staying here for the week around the funeral, her in the guest room, me on the sofa in the downstairs living area. I don’t really know Colin at all, but my mum tells me that he is a nice guy, which seems accurate.
It becomes apparent as Colin and I walk home that he is struggling to consolidate the high he feels on having completed his first professional photoshoot with the impending low of tomorrow’s funeral. He is speaking in truncated sentences and sighing a lot.
“It’s okay, Colin,” I say. “It’s not immoral for you to have had a good time”.
Over dinner Colin tells us how Dan had scouted him in the pharmacy at the shopping centre in town. “I was buying multivitamins,” he says. He then tells us that my grandfather had bought my dad a switchblade on his sixteenth birthday and that my grandmother was so incensed by this reckless gift she had taken the knife and buried it in an undisclosed location.
“Your grandpa was a Teddy Boy, back in the day, you see,” says Colin. “They all carried switchblades in their socks. I suppose he wanted your dad to follow in his footsteps.”
The evening after the funeral I wait until my mother and Colin have both gone to bed and then I look at Colin’s phone. I have observed previously that he does not use a passcode. On the screen are as of yet unseen messages from Dan showing a couple of test shots from Colin’s photoshoot. His handsome, congenial face looks out at me from within the phone. I click onto Dan’s phonebook contact and transcribe the number into my own phone and then I call him.
I spin Dan a story about a conversation I had with Nat at the photoshoot where she told me about some careers she was interested in pursuing, and how I had a friend who worked in relevant fields, and that maybe I could link them up?
Dan expressed interest in my proposition. “It’s good to hear that she has some sense of ambition,” he says.
We end our conversation and Dan texts me Nat’s phone number. I wriggle into a supine position on the sofa and hold my phone over my face and send her a text.
Hi Nat, it’s Gemma from the photoshoot yesterday, do you remember me?
I turn the phone over and hold it to my chest and look at the ceiling. Colin has trimmed it with the generic faux-Georgian plaster coving that you can buy from homeware stores. He has opted for a rose design.
When I turn the phone back over Nat has replied. yeh. u alright?
Yeah good thanks. What are you doing atm?
errr not much lol, u?
Same lol! Do you want to hang out?
I meet Nat one hour later in a nearby park. I ask her if she wants a beer or something. “Sure,” she says. I go to the off license and buy a pack of Red Stripe and a bottle of vodka. Nat opens a beer and takes five deep gulps.
“It’s kind of weird that you want to hang out with me,” she says.
I resent this. “It’s not weird. I’m bored. I need to get out of the house. I don’t know anyone around here.”
Nat grins at me and says that it’s definitely a bit weird. But that’s the last time she mentions it.
We get extremely drunk very quickly and end up playing on all of the equipment in the playground. I try to go down the slide but I get wedged in it halfway because my arse is too big to fit. Nat thinks this is hilarious and slides down herself and doesn’t get wedged because she is long and narrow. She slams into my back and I scream and reach around and slap her lightly on the head. Then, she kicks my back to try and loosen me and after several kicks we both slide down to the bottom where we lay in a heap and she puts her hands on my shoulders and kisses me.
“Urm,” I say.
“Is that not okay?” she says.
“No it’s…I mean yeah, it’s okay, it’s fine,” I say. I look at her in the dim light. Her hair is so dark and cropped it looks more like fur than hair. I find something about this fur extremely beautiful. “Do you want to go somewhere else now?” I ask.
We can’t go to a pub or club because Nat isn’t eighteen. She says we can go to her house and drink some more, if I want to. Her parents are away so it’s just her and her little sister, and so long as we don’t get too rowdy and wake her up it’ll be fine.
I’m not into this idea. I don’t want to see her house, or risk meeting her sister. I don’t want to see her things, or her parents’ things, or how they’ve decorated the place, or what ornaments they have. I don’t want to see any family portraits or any framed photos of Nat in a school uniform or what kind of games console she has. I want absolutely none of that.
“Let’s just go to a Premier Inn,” I say. “It’ll be a laugh.”
I’ve told Nat all about the story I sold Dan to get her number. “That’s fucking nuts”, she said. “You’re a fucking nutter”. But she was grinning when she said it. I think she enjoys telling me that I’m a nutter more than she genuinely believes it to be the case, because she says it to me all the time, about everything. The other thing I am is a wimp, which seems to be the opposite of a nutter, and is used whenever I don’t want to do something, like run naked down the corridor or have a pillow fight. This binary makes things simple. I don’t mind being defined by it.
One evening Nat asks me how old I am. “I’m old,” I say. “Compared to you. I’m ancient. I’m rickety and withered.”
“You’re not old,” she says.
“I’m joking,” I say. “Although in plenty of industries 26 is pretty old. Dancing, for example. I will never be a professional ballet dancer, now. Or an elite athlete.”
“Nor will I, though,” says Nat. “I don’t want to be any of those things.”
I hook my leg over her thigh. “What do you want to be, then?”
“I want to be someone who gets to fool around with you all the time,” she laughs. She jabs her elbow into my ribs. It’s meant to be playful rough-and-tumble, but the next morning I notice a small lilac bruise at the site of the impact.
That evening I ask my mother if my dad ever took me down to the sea when we lived here.
She knits her brow. “Not that I can remember,'”she says, “but it seems plausible, doesn’t it?”
The next morning I take a bus down to the sea front and walk for a little while along the beach. I look at the ocean and try to think about freedom and possibility, but the thoughts just aren’t coming. The water looks grey and turgid and immoveable, like a bowl of gruel.
Now it’s 11pm and Nat and I are drunk in the hotel room. We are having a photoshoot. I wanted to take a photo of Nat as she is brushing her teeth, and now my phone background is a picture of her beaming with the toothbrush held up to her mouth like she’s an advert, the toothpaste coating her teeth like sea foam on rocks.
“Oh yes!” I say. “That’s great Natalie, you look great, smile a bit wider, really sell it to the camera!”
She grins as wide as she can and lets the toothpaste drip down her chin and onto the linoleum.
“Look!” I say, “I’m uncle Colin!”
I perch on the edge of the bathtub and give Nat a thumbs up.
“Beautiful!” she cries. “Perfect! Extraordinary!”
Now I’m sitting in the bathtub with my tits out pretending to wash myself with soap and throwing my head back in staged glee while Nat photographs me with her phone. Then I get out the bath and pretend that it’s difficult, that my back’s giving out, my knees are giving me gyp. I gurn and grimace at Nat to make her laugh. I say “hand me my towel, lass!” in a creaky and nagging old lady voice that Nat tries to emulate when she passes me the towel.
“No!” I scream. “No! You can’t do the voice! Stop it! It’s not funny when you do it! You’re too young! You’re too fucking YOUNG!”
“What was the name of that old people chair again?” asks Nat. “BathBuddy or ShowerFriend or some shit?”
“Whatever,” I say.
“If you were a product you’d be called, like, GemTits,” says Nat. “Or GemBum. GemSexy. GemCool.”
“They’re all really shit and unimaginative names.”
“Whatever,” says Nat, and she looks at me in a way that upsets me; affectionately, like how you might look at an animal that you are fond of.
I suddenly feel like I am an extremely evil person. I feel disgusted that Nat should dare find things in me that she likes. I cloud over.
“Delete these photos from your phone,” I say.
“What?” says Nat. “No. I like them. I want to be able to look at them.”
“Oh my God, Nat, just delete the fucking photos!” I yell. “They’re of me so it’s up to me if you get to keep them or not!”
“Are you going to delete the ones you took of me on your phone, then?” asks Nat. She is swaying gently on the spot.
I don’t want to do this. “Do you want me to do that?”
She shakes her head. “No. I don’t care.” Then she steps towards me and hands me her phone. “Go on, delete them, then. Don’t know why you have to be such a bitch about it. You could have just asked nicely.” She pauses. “You don’t get to act like a cunt just cos you’re beautiful, you know.”
I scowl at her. I want to leave the room but I don’t feel good about abandoning her when she is drunk. Instead, I get into bed and pull the duvet up over my head. After a few minutes I hear Nat’s voice. She is slurring a stream of apologies. I pull the duvet down to my chin. She is crying. I make a kind smile and pull the duvet down to my waist, and she grins, elated, and takes off her t-shirt and swan dives onto the bed, onto me.
About a year ago my grandmother died, my mother’s mother. The hospital ward her bed was in was filled with very elderly people suffering from different kinds of age-related mental illnesses. Sometimes they yelled out or tried to get up and walk away. It was hell. When we had left I told my mother that I would kill myself before I ended up in a ward like that, and she told me off for being insensitive, but I knew she felt the same way.
The cancer ward that my dad was in was completely different. It was almost fun. The cancer patients all had really good banter with each other. They had an extensive repertoire of cancer-related in-jokes. Patients who were friends in the ward introduced each other’s families to one another. When I walked in two men in parallel beds wolf-whistled, but it was fine, and when a nurse told them off it was obvious that she was only pretending to be annoyed, which turned it all into a kind of skit.
That night, with Nat passed out next to me, another part of this memory came back. I remembered how when I’d leaned in to hug my dad in his hospital bed I’d turned my head to the right to accommodate for his own head upon my shoulder and in doing so had seen that sticking out from beneath his pillow was a porno mag. I could only see the bottom right corner of it, and in this corner was a photo of a naked and massive-titted woman winking at the camera with her hands held up over her head.
My dad must like big tits, I thought. I didn’t want to think it, but it was hard not to, given the visual information I had been provided with.
The next morning I tell this memory to Nat who, predictably, calls me a nutter, but she says it tenderly, and when she says it she strokes my hair in a way that makes me feel like it’s the first time she’s ever performed this gesture. “One of those old pervs in the ward gave it to him, I guess,” I say.
“Mmm” says Nat. We are silent for several minutes.
“Kind of shit of your dad to only get in touch with you when he finds out he’s dying, though,” she ventures as she pokes my scalp.
“Yeah,” I say, rolling over onto my side so that I’m facing away from her. I really don’t feel like having an emotional moment. “It’s good that he let us know, though.”
Later, when I get back to the house, I find Colin and my mother looking at the photos from Colin’s photoshoot. “Come look, Gemma!” says my mum. “You will not believe how handsome he is!”
Colin looks bashful and proud. I look at the photos. I tell Colin that he is a paragon of senior beauty.
Colin goes to bed early and my mother and I stay up watching panel shows on TV. She asks me if I had a nice walk yesterday night. This is what I’ve been telling her I’ve been doing in the evenings. It’s the kind of thing that she likes to do herself. “Nothing like fresh air to clear your thoughts,” she says. I say that I’ve always appreciated the comfort of cliches, and we laugh.
I am sat on a train travelling south. I am facing my mother, who is asleep in her seat, encased by a bright pink travel pillow. She is facing backwards and I am facing forwards; I get sick if I am not facing the direction of travel. We are both very tired.
My mother’s face has withdrawn entirely into the pillow, creating a multitude of chins. Her mouth is hanging slightly open. I picture this visual as an unusable outtake from one of Colin’s photoshoots. TravelNap. NeckPal. InflatoRest. I giggle to myself and take a surreptitious photo of her, and then text it to to her so she’ll see it when she wakes up.
My phone starts to vibrate. I turn it over in my hand and see that it’s Nat, calling. I let it ring out. Then, text messages start to pile up on screen. Talking about nothing much. I notice lots of exclamation marks. A winky face emoji briefly hovers on the screen before being pushed up and away by a fresh spate of messages.
I delete the texts and go into my phonebook and delete Nat’s number. I un-press my head from the window and watch flat yellow fields with sheep standing in them rush past. She’ll get over it. It’s fine.
Jess Conway is an archivist living in London. She has been published in the Brixton Review of Books, Open Pen, Spam Zine, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She co-edits Best Practice, a zine about work, which you can follow on Instagram @best_practice_zine. Image: Photogram, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1939