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Short story: Show

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My novel, Journeys in the Dead Season, was published by Macmillan in 2005. ‘Show’ is a short story inspired by my own experience of digitising old slides with my parents. Some of them had faded, just as they have in the story, and I found this a particularly powerful metaphor about memory and its gradual loss.

By the evening you'd cleared a space in the front room, pushing back the table. Sat on those hardback chairs you'd both eaten fish and chips from newspaper as though back in the old place. Where's the cat? had been her only comment. It was later you’d found them. Spilling out of three tatty chocolate boxes, wrapped in laggy bands, thin and perished as old leather pulled from a bog. Are these what I think they are? She'd watched as you'd pulled out handfuls of plastic disks. In the centre of each, a tiny celluloid eye, as delicate and translucent as a stained-glass window. You'd held them up to the light. There, between your fingers, the forgotten still-lifes of your childhood. I haven’t seen these in years. What? You turn to her. Slides. You continue holding them to the light. Some of them are fading. We need to copy them before they all go. 

So now she sits with you, watching silently, as you place each slide carefully in the special scanner bought off the internet. A quiet hum, a steady pulse of light, and an image appears on the computer screen. Dad. She gasps. He’s wearing a cardigan outside a caravan. You're surprised to see he’s wearing a tie. The year we invaded the Falklands. Don’t cry for me, Argentina, she sings. You look at her and you both laugh. Years ago the slide show had been an event. The projector propped up on a Littlewoods’ catalogue, the scalding breath of the bulb burning your face, the image thrown across the lounge to a bedsheet stretched across the artexed chimney breast. Mum in a bikini, dad with long hair and sideburns, you stood on the steps of Number 10. In those days you could, someone, maybe you, would always say.

This one’s gone. You both look at the screen. It’s almost white, just a few vague shapes. The wheels of a morris traveller? A face. The bridge of a nose and two eyes. I think it’s you. She looks closer. You take her hand. It doesn’t matter, there’s plenty of others. You both stare at the blankness. Tell me, you say, tell me what you can see.

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