Black Box

by Sarah Hilary


You should’ve seen me when I saw the snaps. You always liked me with a look of terror on my face, didn’t you?

I collected the snaps in my lunch hour, presenting the receipt with my name, Toby Oliver.

You see, I didn’t change my name, although I thought about it often enough. In the end, I decided it would mean you’d won. I’d lost enough, without adding that to your victory pyre. Yes, I’m a dramatic little sod, just like you always said. You think I’m stalling, holding out on you? All right. Let’s look at the damn snaps.

I checked each one in turn, photos from the weekend, of the boys on the waterslide, monkey-grins, bruised knees. I was smiling as I flipped through, until I found it. A photo that didn’t belong with the others, over-exposed, of a child wearing shorts and a tank-top, standing in a parched garden.

‘This happened last time,’ I told the chemist. ‘Someone else’s old photo got mixed in with mine.’

The chemist squinted, as I had, at the child’s face. Out of focus, a smudged oval, dark eyes, indefinite features. A boy, about eight, I guessed. The same boy whose photo had found its way into my last set of snaps.

‘What camera are you using?’ the chemist asked.

‘A Nikon.’ I’d found it in a children’s charity shop, a snip at £15, too good to be true.

You’d think there’d be one lesson I’d have learned from you. Nothing’s for nothing in this life.

The boy’s face stayed with me. Did I recognise him? I didn’t think so but there’d been so many. No, I refused to think about that. It was history, gone. I was rehabilitated — a legionary second chance in a single word. Rehabilitated. I’d get rid of the Nikon. Terri wouldn’t ask questions, she never did.

Is this, I wonder, how you coped? By refusing to face up to the facts? I know Mum never asked questions of me, but did she really never ask them of you? I suppose, being honest, I’d have to admit that I know how easy it is to pull the wool over another person’s eyes.

When I got home, Terri and the boys were in the garden. The boys shrieked, ‘Dad! Dad!’ My bear-hugs made them wriggle and kick. The garden was full of colour, nothing like the one in the photo, which was more like the place I played as a child.

You remember, don’t you? There was a hose-pipe ban that summer. 1976, wasn’t it? Nationwide drought. We weren’t allowed more than a few inches of water in the bathtub. I was jubilant; it meant you couldn’t push my head under and feel me thrash like a fish.

Back to the snaps, then. I suppose I thought of that old tribal superstition and wondered if someone’s soul wasn’t captured in the Nikon’s black box. Whose? Too many to choose from. But you’ve guessed, haven’t you?

In our bright, well-watered garden, Terri held up the camera. ‘We finished another film!’

I tried a different chemist this time, shuffling through the shots when they were ready. There, amongst the prints of our flowers, was the parched scrubland, the smudged oval. I must’ve sobbed; a shopper turned and asked if I was okay.

I swear I could hear you saying it. “Don’t snivel, you spineless little git.”

Happy days, eh?

I took the photo to the counter. ‘Could you blow this up?’ I was offered the picture on a mug, on a t-shirt, made into a jigsaw puzzle. ‘No, I just want it enlarged, to see the boy’s face.’

I waited while it was done, trying to ignore the distress signal triggered by the Nikon’s black box. So many boys, their necks like stems, swinging from my grip. A crowd of faces, purple-tongued, too easily done. Well, you know. You know.

‘Mr Oliver?’ The chemist held up the new print.

The face was out of focus, but I recognised him now. The first boy to die.

Toby Oliver, aged 8.

I remember how small the camera looked in your hands. ‘Can’t you smile, boy?’

What do you think, Dad?


Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Hilary

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