It feels as if all the breath is sucked from my body in one second, the same second as my heart stands still and I stare at the young woman
Two bright strips of flickering fluorescent lighting obliterate any shadows in what I guess used to be the workshop. I’m surprised that the interlopers have managed to connect the power. A wave of emotion sweeps through me as I stand looking around this room; I feel as if I know it. Mum often told us tales of growing up in this place, and how, when she was very small, her mother taught her how to use a sewing machine, just as Mum taught me at the same age.
Amazingly, as I look around the room I can see several bolts of material – burnt orange, deep purple, patterns and stripes that sing – still stored on especially built shelving units. Two sewing machines are sat on a long table, reflecting the glare of the light. They look so shiny, I wonder if they might still work. When Aunt Stephanie moved out in the early eighties, she must have left the building exactly as it was right then, a time capsule, a monument . . . maybe a memorial.
I find my way to the foot of the stairs, where ‘Hotel California’ gets louder.
Adrenalin propels me up the stairs, and I fling open the door to the room where the music is coming from, and the six or so people in there turn and look at me. In that moment I get it, and I laugh out loud, with relief more than anything. These aren’t hardened drug dealers with a fondness for progressive rock, they are young, younger than me, students maybe, and this is a 1970s costume party – everyone here is dressed to perfection. Everything that meets my eye shines out in bold and bright colours, like I’m looking at them through the lens of my camera.
‘Who the hell are you?’ A short, thick-set blondish guy asks me, half grin, half attitude.
For a moment I am not sure how to answer, I charged in here full of fury, but now . . . this whole thing, it’s kind of charming.
"I was passing, I heard the music," I say, smiling, playing up my English accent. "The door was open so I just came up."
Everyone watches me, curious but unconcerned that they might have been caught out. I count a group of seven. A few young men, drinking beers out of bottles, girls sipping something out of white paper cups, divided by gender. This must be a pretty serious hobby for them. Looking around I see a sideboard cluttered with ornaments, a standard lamp that casts a warm orange glow, a sofa with bright yellow cushions, and in the corner a wood-effect veneered TV, its bulbous screen reflecting the room, takes pride of place. Tacked to a wall over it an Elvis calendar, opened to July 1977, the King is sweating and bejewelled, singing into a microphone. There’s a folded copy of the Daily News on the coffee table, proclaiming, ‘F.B.I. STEPS UP SEARCH FOR SAM.’
Every detail is correct, there’s even a circle around today’s date, with the words ‘Pops away’ scrawled inside the box in a scrawling hand.
"That was an accent." A tall young man, with dark wavy hair and muscular shoulders, grins as he approaches me. "Right? You’re not from round here?"
"No, I’m from London," I say, a little disarmed by his green eyes and thick black lashes. I take two steps back, avoiding his curious gaze that doesn’t seem deterred by my loose white t-shirt. Men, scientific men, I am very good at talking to. I’ve learnt the precise language they understand fluently, and when I impress them, attract them, it’s always by default, a by-product of me knowing what I’m talking about and also having breasts. Boys – men – who are simply hot, I’m not very good at talking to at all. The only reason I was good at talking to Brian was because for a very long time it didn’t occur to me he was one. This one, though, he is definitely hot. And now so am I.
"Well, I should be going, really," I begin, feeling my cheeks flush. "It’s just that, this building, it belongs to my family so . . . if, when you leave, you wouldn’t mind . . ."
"It don’t." A girl with short hair, cut into the nape of her neck, leaving it to curl on top, takes two swift steps towards me, clearing my view of the other young women in the group. "This building don’t belong to your family. It’s my dad’s – he owns it, every brick of it."
"And don’t we know it," the blond guy says, digging the green-eyed hunk in the ribs.
The short-haired girl is standing very close to me, her brown eyes fixed on mine.
"Look, I don’t mean to intrude," I tell the girl, wondering where I recognise that soft snub nose from, but knowing that I do, because it seems a little out of place in such an angular face. "I can tell you’ve really made an effort. It’s just that I’d really appreciate it if you could leave the place the same way that you found it."
"Can you believe this chick?" The girl jerks her thumb in my direction as she steps aside and addresses someone sitting behind her.
Then I feel it again, the siren call, singing its way to me and through me. And finally I focus on the figure behind the snub-nosed girl. Another young woman, sitting on the back of a brown sofa, her bare feet digging into the seat cushions, toes clenched.
It feels as if all the breath is sucked from my body in one second, the same second as my heart stands still and I stare at the young woman. Her long slim legs are crossed at the knee, her long dark hair is like a sheet of black ice, collapsing over her shoulders.
And then tears spring into my eyes, which I hastily blink away.
Because the woman I am looking at is my mother. Not as I last knew her, but younger than I have ever known her. This is the woman my father first photographed back in 1977.
Remembering the camera around my neck, I lift it to my eyes and search for her through the lens. She’s still there.
And she sees me.