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The Horn of Europe

a short story

by DF Lewis

The girl faced straight out of the old photograph - as if she knew Charles would be looking at it all these years in the future.

About six years old, with white hood and white cardigan and white thigh-length dress and a single white knickerbocker leg showing its droops. All these things are white because it is a black and white photograph and all the other shades are degrees of black and grey. Or were. It is difficult to order verb tenses in these circumstances.

She holds her two hands together as if she is an older person who is embarrassed about their whereabouts. The face is wondering, pensive, unsmiling. She stands at the stony edge of a river, with a cantilever bridge in the distance and a head of shaggy grey trees over-spilling the wall to a probable garden on the other side of the river.

Charles has concentrated simply on the girl, since she is central to this old photograph and looking at him querulously. Her pensiveness has almost turned to vacancy. Merely his imagination. Not hers. At least, the present was truly present then. Today, Charles often feels the present is something other than reality.

On her right (Charles' left) is a black-suited lad of about eleven, fishing-rod angled downwards like a wooden stream of urine - evidently after sticklebacks or something equally fishy, an empty jam-jar in front of his carefully positioned feet. His mind is not on the job. Or wasn't. His collar is Persil white.

The other boy, only slightly older than the girl has a white boater on his head, brim a trifle upraised, face intensively down-turned towards a model yacht, the angle of its sails, both in reality and in the river's reflections, imitating that of the boy's knobbly-kneed legs, wide apart in the inch-high water of the riverside. There appear to be sandals on his feet; his grey shorts rolled to his thigh-tops; both his white shirt-sleeves gathered to the elbows in circular sausages of cloth. One of the arms is concealed behind the left side of the boy's body.

That more or less completes it. Why Charles has taken the time and trouble to examine the old photograph so closely and, indeed, to have noted down his impressions is a mystery. It would be easy to imagine all kinds of connection - like the girl being someone with whom Charles is acquainted in the present, without realising it. But the photograph seems too old for that. Turn of the century, it seems, when Europe had a different face than the one it sports today. Charles plumps for 1899. No reason. Simply instinct. It might be something derived from the sound Charles hears of an elfin horn beyond the garden wall. Charles laughs at his own conjurations.

But where is the photograph taken? Well, that does not concern him unduly. Anywhere will suffice. And it probably was.

As Charles continues to dwell on the various images, he convinces himself that it must be in England. Not even Scotland or Wales. But England. The heart of England. Its Englishness screams out at him.

The three children are frozen into silent studied poses which the ensuing years have stylised. At the time the photograph was taken, however, they were simple children merely playing by a river - except, of course, for that haunting stare of the girl. That perturbs Charles somewhat.

Which brings him, ineluctably, to the photographer.

Charles knows it is a man? Or was? It has to be by the law of averages. Charles has read much social history and educational tracts and primary sources - and a photographer in England in 1899 would certainly be a man. This fact is worrying. It gives him no satisfaction, only a bout of shivering. The expression on the girl's face has a smidgeon of fear glancing through it. Or, at least, it did. Charles hadn't noticed it at first. Crept up on him.

Her look is not supercilious, as Charles first thought A quick check of his notes in fact bears out that he had not even considered employing the word 'supercilious'. And, indeed, she isn't, wasn't, hadn't been, wouldn't be, wouldn't have been nor will be. It is fear that she bears. Growing terror. The two boys are oblivious of their female playmate, still playing with their rod and boat respectively.

If the girl still lives for Charles, the two boys seem dead - which they probably are, since men, by the law averages and, indeed, mortality tables, die more easily than women.

The girl surely lives. In her nineties, now, somewhere in the heart of England, still recalling that day, many years ago, when a strange man took a photograph of her.

In those days, children could be left to play safely - until Mum had done her shopping or, in this specific case, returned from working as manageress at the local laundry. The whites were whiter than white, as they used to say in the old adverts, even the worst of stains.

That little girl had never heard of Adolf Hitler. Her ignorance of those things which are taken for granted today is unsettling. Equally, she knows a thing or two that Charles does not. History books cannot give him the virtual reality of a time and a place and a people. Even primary sources lack the vital ingredients. Being alive then. Feeling the rough grasp of the rod in the hand. Smelling the river. Hearing the wind in the trees. Seeing the colours that a black and white photograph conceals. However much Charles thinks he knows about this period of history, smells, sounds and colours were quite different then. Any description would fall woefully short or even deceive him.

Which effectively brings him to a matter which has been nagging at his mind since he started collating his notes. It is simply that, with the old photograph having been destroyed, Charles cannot fully retrieve everything about it. All depends upon the memory of having seen it - together with the notes Charles scribbled down at the time of seeing it. In disgust, Charles had thrown it into the fire when the bloodstains had begun to seep and spread, slowly reddening the river.

At first doubting the evidence of his eyes, shortly followed by a tinge of growing certainty, Charles finally knew that the loss of innocence was even greater than that of the girl in the river. Greater than England's. And especially greater than Europe's. Many husbands, sons and brothers were killed in the wars, thus leaving ne'erdowells to become photographers - and a lot else ... as if a surviving residue of minds became threaded through with tentacles that some nethermost centre of bubbling amorphousness radiated in the guise of modernity.

Charles loved that girl. Still does.

And, like a stickleback, the rest escapes him or becomes shrivelled up in a jam-jar.

© DF Lewis 1999

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