Life seems so much simpler in the click of a shutter. The tap of a key, the scratch of a pen. Life is framed, frozen and still, poised for just one second of eternity, finally perfect. I have loved photography all my life for this exact reason. Take four people, each with an individual motive, a difference, a fight, and put them together with a lens, a frame, aperture and light. The result is something completely different to that of a hundred real Christmases, bickering across the dry turkey. I loved my grandparents’ smiles in that old photo, their teeth so white and gleaming, dimples and crinkled eyes in exactly the right places. Picture perfect.
My family have always been argumentative. I think it comes from something our father instilled in us. He always wanted to be a lawyer, I think, before Mum got pregnant with Elsa and he settled himself into the soil, the landscaping that had been his business throughout his teenage years and would be so for the rest of his life.
When I say argumentative, I don’t mean that we bicker about small things, rather, we like to debate, to push our point for each side, regardless of our actual thoughts on the matter. My most memorable birthday was my eighteenth. I was lying on the grass in front of the kitchen, and my lazy eyes were focussed on the black gleam of a Tui, upside down in our Kowhai tree, my mother’s pride and joy of the garden. I was only half listening as they chatted behind me, Elsa, Mum and Dad. My stomach was full from the carrot cake Elsa and I had made, swirls of the lumpy cream cheese icing still lingered in my tongue’s memory.
‘But you can’t argue that Dad,’ Elsa was outraged, the wine glass in her hand glinting in the afternoon sunlight. ‘That denotes a complete condescension for anyone who lives south of Tarras!’
I can’t remember what it was, maybe something in the pompous lyricism in her voice, or maybe in the rare use of the word ‘denotes’, but something sparked it.
Dad was the first to erupt into laughter, and as he caught my eye I felt it bubbling up from my stomach, and then we were all howling with laughter, raucous and rolling on the grass, as Elsa sat and tried to feign wise indifference. She took a slow sip of her wine, eyes averted across the lawn in a show of her detachment, and at that exact second, I kid you not, a large, slippery smear of bird shit splattered onto her left shoulder and slid down towards the latticed detailing of her pretty yellow dress. We were silent for one incredulous moment, no one daring to breath.
Mum was the first to speak. She nodded towards the stain, ‘That’s lucky, apparently.’ Her face was perfectly straight.
We all collapsed into convulsions, even Elsa joined in this time. I laughed so hard that day I got grass stains on the elbow of my white cardigan, you can still see the faint mark there now. That photo sits on my bedside table, in a red beaten-shell frame that is now chipped and dull. We look so content on the dewy grass, Elsa’s dress still wet from where she sponged it clean. Mum is sneaking a furtive look at Dad, and you can see in her eyes that she is still shaking with mirth at what has just happened. Elsa and I look exactly the same, our dark hair flipped across our right shoulders, the same chins and mouths pulled into identical pixie smiles, legs tucked up beneath us.
I remember feeling like nothing in the world could make me unhappy in that moment. As though nothing out there could pull me from that happy paradise of sun dappled lawn and birds in the trees, warm cream cheese icing and my fathers hands, scarred and always covered in dark, fertile soil.
I think that day was maybe the beginning of my bad luck.