The old Frenchman was mildly amused as he watched the shy young English soldier walk into the photographic studio. The man was obviously of a reserved disposition, and appeared nervous at the thought of having his picture taken. It was as though he was doing something alien to his nature. The young soldier nodded a shy greeting and knocked a small pillar that had a vase containing some flowers. He just managed to steady the column from toppling over and looked to the French photographer regretfully.
"I'm terribly sorry," said the young soldier nervously. He felt uncomfortable by the elegant surroundings that were used in background for the photographs. In his ignorance, he thought he had entered some where above his station in life and he felt most out of place. “It is most elegant in here and I think I might have come to the wrong place Sir.”
The photographer smiled kindly and held his hand out before a mauve curtain screen, saying. "This way please Monsieur. You have come to the most appropriate of places, I assure you most earnestly."
“Oh, thank you Sir.” He looked about almost awe struck by the studio surroundings.
“May I ask your name Monsieur?”
After a brief but bemused look he answered the polite Frenchman. “Albert Tannings Sir – Private Albert Tannings.” He took a deep breath as though he was plucking up courage to comply with the Frenchman's request about standing before the mauve screen. Eventually he walked onto the small stage and posed for the picture, hoping that he would be acceptable for his wife. She had been distressed when he decided to enlist. He smiled thinking that she would be pleased and proud to receive a photograph of him in uniform. He thought of her fears, reflecting on her words concerning his unborn child.
"Why not wait for the baby to arrive?" she had pleaded.
He had replied. "Everyone's enlisting. We're not the only ones expecting Meg. Besides, it'll all be over by Christmas."
As the French photographer instructed young Albert to stand still, he tried to look bold, despite his apprehension before the camera. As far as he could recollect, he had never had his photograph taken.
There was an explosion of light as the flash captured him. For that concise moment in time, he was immortalised on film.
* * * * * *
"That's my father," said the old Sydney Tannings to his great Grandson Scott, taking the picture down from the mantle piece where it had been standing beside a loud ticking clock. "It was taken eighty four years ago. Four weeks before I was born. It’s the only photo we have of my Dad." He held it before the light of the big bay scullery window.
"Did he fight in lots of battles Pop?" asked the little boy peering at the upright man on the photograph, noting the clean shaved features and the uniform.
"No, he was killed shortly after that picture was taken," sighed Pop regretfully and he pursed his lips in thought of what might have been.
Scott went quite, feeling that his great grandfather would be upset. Though, when he realised that the old man was still smiling, the young boy became inquisitive.
"Did you cry Pop?" He found it hard to grasp not having a father about and not crying if that parent was gone.
The old man laughed and looked to his daughter – Scott’s grandmother. She was midway through a large pile of ironing. He shook his head and chuckled.
“Oh you little uns never fail to amuse me.” His old face creased into a smile and warm wrinkles etched from his glazed and sentimental eyes.
Scott looked to his grandmother and smiled, knowing that he had unwittingly amused his great grandfather. "Nanny, did your Pop cry when his daddy died."
"Well no Scott," she replied and then put the iron aside to come over, brushing her apron as she did so. Kneeling down and putting an arm tenderly around him, she took the picture and held it before him. "He died before Pop was born, so he would have been smaller then a tiny baby." Her words were gentle and soothing. “Pop never knew what it was like to have a Dad.”
Scott looked back at the old man and then to the picture of the young soldier. "Is that why you didn't cry Pop?"
"Yes, that's why Scott. I was a big boy when I found out. I never knew him. Yet whenever I look at this picture, I feel that I do. We all come from him, and we can all see him. I think of all the things my mother said about him and all his little ways she described to me. He was said to be a shy man, and I often see him acting out little incidents that my old mum told me about. I look at his face and see a shy young man wearing that exact look while going through all the motions." He tapped the photo where the glass covered the young soldier's face. "He’s a sort of invisible mate really. When I was a young boy, I used to talk to him in my thoughts - usually when I was upset about silly little things. He would always be there, exactly as he is in that photo, listening to me."
“Did he make you feel better afterwards?” Young Scott was enthralled and paying attention to every word his Great grandfather spoke.
“Of course he did and sometimes I would sit and talk to him when no one else was about,” he giggled at the memory.
Their attentions were broken by the lounge door opening and in walked a slim young woman in her late twenties.
“Has he been a good boy?” she asked shaking her long brown hair behind so that it hung neatly.
“He’s been an angle,” replied the Grandmother.
Scott looked up to his Mother as she walked across the room. "Mummy, this man in the picture is your great grandfather."
"That's right," said the Grandmother kissing him-pleased that he understood. “He grasps things very quickly doesn’t he?”
His mother smiled and flicked back her long brown hair. She frowned inquisitively and knelt down beside them to peer at the photograph - studying the features of the young soldier. “I wonder what was going through his mind when that picture was taken. He seems nervous." She scanned the high cheekbones and the shine of his white face, like old porcelain retaining a new look. "Imagine what he might think if he could see us, his kin, four generations, looking at him as he was at that moment in time. He's a very handsome young man. It seems hard to believe that we are all here because of him. What would he be like if he could meet and talk with us Scott?"
"I think that he would be as pleased as punch," replied old Pop with a lump in his throat. "Poor man never knew what joy he left behind. Still, he's got people thinking of him, years after leaving us. Who would believe it, aye Scott? I bet he would have liked to have met you."
Scott's Grandmother spoke. "I find it difficult to think of him as your father Pop. He's so young. Too young to have a son as old as Scott, yet here he is with an eighty four year old son, a grand daughter, a great grand daughter."
Scott jumped in. "And a great great grandson."
"Yes," continued the Grandmother. “When you visualise him - he'll always be a young man. I can’t imagine what he might have looked like if he had lived to get old."
“I can only visualize him as a young man,” added Pop, not unpleased by his vision of his departed Father.
Scott's mother turned the frame. "There's a date on the back! Sixteenth of November Nineteen fourteen."
"He was killed on the twentieth," added the grandmother. “Four days after this picture was taken.”
Scott peered at the face in the picture. He imagined the man wanting to know him, as Pop had said earlier. He thought there was something in the eyes - a sad imploring look in the still depths. It was as if the young soldier wanted to burst out of the picture, just to be with him. Scott looked to Pop and saw that the old man's eyelids were swollen, a gentle red along the wrinkled rims.
"Are you looking at the eyes Pop?"
"Yes boy. Are you?"
"Yes, look at his eyes Nanny, and you Mummy."
For a moment the four of them looked at Private Albert Tannings. Flesh of their flesh - a vital strand in the web of life that brought about their being. Pop bit his lip and put his hand over his mouth. In all his years, he could never remember looking at the picture so intensely. He would dearly love to have met his father.
Scott reached up and hugged his great grandfather while his mother put the picture back upon the mantle piece, realising that somewhere, deep inside, Pop's heart strings had been delicately tugged.
The four of them cuddled, feeling a wonderful sadness engulf them. It was a despondency that had a strange and compelling unity. All for the young man that died before any of them was born.
“He looks like such an ordinary young man,” said Scott’s Mother soothingly.
“Yes,” agreed Pop sadly. “And here he is blindly reaching through time and touching us with the vision of himself – one small act in his short life creating thoughts in the minds of his offspring – many years after his demise.” He looked down at Scott and then whispered with tears lying upon his wrinkled eye lids. “This, he witnesses - through his vacant eyes that stare sadly at us from our mantle piece.”
* * * * * *
The flash was gone and Albert relaxed as the old Frenchman came up from the cloth. "Excellent Monsieur." His red face beamed with pleasure. "Your wife, your children, your children's children will be so proud of you."
Albert smiled embarrassingly at the photographer, feeling most flattered by his words. He thanked the man, who reassured him that details concerning his address, and letters would be forwarded immediately the photograph was developed.
"At this studio Monsieur we always, erm take this particular type of request into consideration for all our visiting soldiers."
"That's most kind of you," replied Albert in his reserved and shy spoken manner.
His naive demeanour had a freshness that was so full of life in the Frenchman's opinion; he had seen it in the eyes. He watched the young soldier leave, dearly hoping that his family would be delighted with the photograph, and that it would bring much pleasure.