A year passed. Occasional letters and cards to Cousin Maggie indicated she was alive, well, and living at the same address. Time arrived for the annual trip to London, this time armed with a specially purchased macro lens, which my amateur photographer spouse assured me would do the business.
After a couple of days staying at my mother’s home, I announced at some point we would be visiting Cousin Maggie again, but wasn’t sure when. Really I should write to let her know, but I had no idea which day we would go, what time … my mother was appalled at the idea we would descend on the poor old lady without any warning. I agreed, and promised to write the next day.
However, the next day was a Sunday, and I woke with the pressing feeling that This Was The Day. “Get up now!” I hissed at my husband, “we have to go to Maggie’s NOW!!” But, he remonstrated, it was Sunday, she had no phone, we couldn’t warn her we were coming, she might not even be there, she could be on holiday or in hospital, or anywhere … I didn’t care. We had to go there and then, and that was it. Scrambling to get ready, I felt we should not take the children this time, so my Mother reluctantly agreed to look after them for as long as it took, probably knowing well enough by then, that there was no point arguing with her daughter when the red genealogical mist descended.
As we embarked on the hour- long journey on the Underground, I literally prayed silently the entire journey. My husband was far from pleased at being turfed out of his bed so early, and my rational self acknowledged the scheme was reckless. Clutching the camera bag with a venom which would surely have deterred any would-be mugger, we discussed strategy as we walked along the road to the flat. We agreed that my husband would silently monitor the light levels; when the light was suitable for taking photos, he would make a certain signal, at which point I would ask permission to take copies. Things didn’t look too hopeful on a grey, cloudy morning; but come what may, Operation Photo Album was underway.
The first hitch occurred when nobody answered the door. This did not bode well. We went for a walk along the riverside, returning in an hour, by which time Maggie had returned home (we later discovered she had gone to change the flowers for the Service at the Seaman’s Mission, a cause close to her heart). She answered the door, but seemed different from last year — more confused, she struggled to remember who we were, but eventually invited us in. She had nothing ‘in’ to offer us, she apologised, but we said water would be fine. We chatted about family matters, I showed her some photos of the children, we exhausted many topics, all the while waiting for my husband’s signal. Eventually the situation became almost painful, but with no break in the clouds outside, gloom descended and I said to Maggie: “Do you remember last year you showed us the photo album and the sampler? We have a camera lens now which should enable us to take copies of the album without removing the photos. Could we try it?” She looked slightly unsure, but agreed to fetch the album.
While she was out of the room, the situation deteriorated. My husband hissed at me that there wasn’t enough natural light to take a decent copy; I hissed back that we had no option and something would have to be better than nothing. It was a mess. I’d been wrong, and would have to accept it; the album would have to remain in my head. As Maggie staggered into the room clutching the book, I grabbed an envelope out of my bag and asked her to tell me, page by page, who the photos were, which she did, whilst my husband assembled the equipment. There were two windows in the room, but neither provided sufficient light to take the required photos. Although it was overcast, it was dry; there were clouds everywhere and the built-up nature of the area didn’t help. I took a deep breath and asked if we could take the album and the sampler outside into the back street, directly underneath the window, to photograph it; Maggie looked concerned, but eventually agreed, very reluctantly.
Standing outside the Edwardian building didn’t seem to help matters at all. Flats surrounded us on three sides, an old Victorian school on the fourth. “All I can suggest”, said husband, “is that we take the album over the road to that old car park we sat in when we were waiting for her. There might just be more light there”. So, for the benefit of an anxious Maggie peering at us from behind her net curtains, I launched into a complicated charades-type routine which I hoped conveyed the message: “There is not enough light here, so we are going to go across the road to the car park to try our luck there”.
It was a two minute walk to the car park, but to access it we had to cross one of the main traffic routes in London, called Tooley Street. It is one of the main arterial roads serving south London, and is busy at all hours of the day and night. It is also a bus route, and part of me wondered what those sitting in their cars or on buses waiting at traffic lights would make of what was about to unfold in the car park. To add to my woes, it looked perilously like rain, my husband was in ultra ‘this was always a mad idea’ mode, and Maggie was carrying out surveillance from her front window, watching our every move. This was a disaster on every possible level. She would never speak to me again, I decided.
We found a broken wall in the carpark, on which it was agreed I would, out of shot, support the album, and turn the pages whilst the photographer did his stuff. By now I just wanted to get this over and done with, go home, and have a nap. It was already past lunchtime, and I was so hungry, the road was busy, and I would have to spend the rest of my life being told how stupid the whole idea had been.
“Right. You support the book, open a page, I’ll take the photo and then you turn the page to the next photo. Hopefully we might just get this done before the rain starts”, said my husband. I nodded forlornly. In the days before digital cameras, we had no idea of knowing if the plan would work. It was, literally, a one shot opportunity.
And then, as I opened the album, the miracle happened. From out of nowhere, a ray of sunlight broke through the clouds and fell on the car park. Husband and I looked at each other in astonishment. “Go, go, go!” I yelled, as if leading a special forces raid, and as soon as he had taken each photograph, I turned the page. We didn’t speak – in fact, I could hardly breathe. Time felt as if it was standing still, but eventually he worked his way through the album and all the pictures were copied. Still the sun shone. I hurriedly put the book away in the carrier bag we had placed it in, and said “Now the sampler. Let’s try the sampler”. We spread the 140-year-old sampler out in its glory on top of the carrier bag on the ground of the car park. Several shots were necessary to record the sampler in decent detail; the minute my husband said “That’s it. I’ve got it all”, the sun disappeared and the sky clouded over. We both relaxed. I noticed Cousin Maggie cease her window vigil across the road. Mission accomplished.
“Can you believe that?” I squealed in utter joy, feeling completely vindicated and filled with gratitude for the intervention. In fact I relaxed a little too much — suddenly a minute gust of wind blew up out of nowhere, lifted the edge of the sampler, and before I knew what was happening, the sampler was blown down the busy street, and I still have the image of it turning cartwheels as we watched, burned into my brain.
There was nothing for it. I ran as I have never run before, or since. Usain Bolt could have learned something that day. Even when running, my brain found time to wonder how I would explain to Cousin Maggie that her precious heirloom had been crushed under the wheels of a red London double decker bus. The thought spurred me still more. If I had to fling myself under the wheels of the bus to save the sampler, I would. I had given an undertaking it would be returned safely, and it would, at any cost.
Thankfully such heroics were not necessary. Somehow I caught level with the sampler, and executing a swoop-like movement, grabbed it by a hem as it was about to blow off the kerb and into the traffic. No Olympic gold medal winner has ever felt so victorious. I stood on the kerb, simultaneously exhilarated, trembling, and suddenly aware that the drivers and passengers in several cars were applauding.
Thankfully the sampler had come to no harm during its bid for escape. We put it back into the paper bag, and crossed the road to Maggie’s flat, where it soon became evident she had missed the latter drama. Her only comment was: “You were lucky there, weren’t you? Just at the right time for the sunshine. Only, you know, it’s the strangest thing”, she continued “There wasn’t any sunshine anywhere else. It was all cloudy. The only place the sun seemed to be shining was on that car park. Funny, that!”
Loose ends: I never saw Cousin Maggie again. Christmas cards stopped arriving, and I later checked on a civil records site, and learned that she had died. I have no idea of the circumstances. I don’t know what happened to the photo album, or the sampler. I have no idea who cleared her flat.
My mother died in 2000, and two years later my husband and I separated. He left the negatives of the photos, which have never been printed up, because I am too scared to hand them over to a developer. Ironically, I periodically lose – then find — the envelope, on the back of which is listed who is who in the album. My goal for 2012 is to find the list again, record it properly, then summon up the courage to hand over the negatives to a reputable photo service, in order that the Palmer family photos can see the light of day!