On the morning of our first full day in Singapore, I made E and I a cup of coffee each. We had no cups and no milk, just wine glasses and a couple of half-pint tankard-style glasses (coffee, wine and beer – I always have been all about the priorities). I poured our coffee into the half-pint tankards. I put my cup on the table on our balcony and took E’s coffee to him in the study. A few moments later, sitting in the warmth of my first Singapore morning, I sipped my coffee, looked at the view, and felt the purest joy I’d felt since the days my children were born. Later that day we bought new coffee cups – it was the only time I drank coffee from that glass. It was the most perfect cup of coffee I have ever tasted.
A year or so after we’d moved back to England, I found a picture of that very cup of coffee. Oldest Daughter had been taking pictures of our Condo that first morning, and she’d taken a picture of the balcony and the view. On the balcony table, forever frozen in time, was my, still full, cup of coffee. I cried when I found that picture. Looking at it, I could feel the gentle heat of that morning’s air, I could smell the heavy tang of the humidity, I could hear the cry of the Asian Koel’s, the chorusing of cicadas and the distant hum of traffic on Orchard Road, I could feel the absolute joy I’d felt that morning.
Pictures are powerful. They contain whole worlds. They are memories in and of themselves. They tell stories; they are part of family, personal, social and political narratives. They are powerful symbols and symbolisers. They make us laugh and cry. Pictures create and include memories. Thanks to photographs, my children remember moments and events clearly that they would otherwise have forgotten. Birthdays, Christmases, afternoons in the park, mornings in the kitchen, the moment Youngest Son ate the sudocrem, the time Oldest Son wore nothing but my friend’s boots, the day Oldest Daughter got chicken pox, the ballet show that Youngest Daughter ran off stage and refused to participate in – all are captured in photographs and all are part of the shared richness and texture of our family history.
As we reached the first anniversary of E’s departure in January 2018 photographs caused a couple of major upsets. The kids and I were still playing the ‘is E married?’ game and P was still very much playing hide and seek on social media, and, try as they might, the kids couldn’t find a single picture of her online. However, whilst P was clearly all about the secrecy, it seems E just couldn’t help himself and he posted a photograph of the pair of them on his WhatsApp profile.
Youngest Son was the first one to find it – he appeared in my bedroom one Saturday morning, brandishing his phone, shouting “look at this!” I was still taking in the image and marvelling at how much eyeliner she was wearing (she had literally drawn a whole new, huge, pair of eyes on her face with it), but Youngest Son was busily zooming in on the picture – “Yep!” he said “wedding rings.” I looked (well, he thrust the phone in my face), and he was right, there, on her left hand, were two rings.
The kids knew that their Dad and P were together, but this was still a vague ‘idea’ that was not really ‘real’ for them. They still pictured their Dad with me – because they’d only seen pictures of him with me. Their only frame of reference for him was pictures of him and I or pictures of him with them. Seeing a picture of him with P, physically seeing the pair of them in a place they didn’t know and had no memory or knowledge of, was disorientating and distressing for all of them.
Given that E hadn’t even mentioned a wedding (and went to the trouble of removing his wedding ring before he saw them), seeing wedding rings on a complete stranger’s hand and seeing their Dad as part of another couple, was really painful for all of them. The picture was a shock. It was all very well knowing their Dad was with someone else, but seeing a picture of them together, and seeing so clearly that they were married, was something else entirely. The picture was a glimpse into a whole world from which they were still excluded and a life, lived by their Dad, that meant nothing to them.
As for me? For once, the numbness of depression was probably a mercy. I’m still not sure how I felt. It was like swimming in a deep pool of cold, clear, still, water and seeing the image at the bottom it – it was real, but it was too distant to be tangible. Even though I felt nothing emotionally it did intrigue me intellectually. I’m not sure what I expected, but this photograph wasn’t it. They were smiling, but they didn’t look ‘happy’ – at least not in the way that made happiness shine out of the photograph. Apart from the age difference, which was, frankly, embarrassing, I was struck by how strangely self-satisfied they both looked. I was fascinated by how two people, who had caused so much hurt and pain, who had shattered lives, could look so incredibly pleased with themselves. I was also slightly shocked by how much weight E had put on. Middle-age hasn’t been kind to either of our waistlines, but in the year since I’d seen him, he had gained a lot of weight (probably due to contentment! Ha! Who knew I was keeping him slim?). His age and increased girth, compared to her youth and relative slimness, made the image of them almost grotesque and, not for the first time, I wondered what on earth she saw in him.
Just a few days later Youngest Daughter appeared in the kitchen boiling with rage. Apparently E had deleted every single photograph of me from his Facebook photograph albums. I’d been incredibly careful on Facebook (and all other social media), and not said a word about what had happened with him. I’d removed our relationship details (it seemed only polite) but it had never occurred to me to do anything about the pictures of him on my profile. Most of the photographs in question were of him and the kids together and, whilst I didn’t particularly wish to be reminded of him, there were so many treasured memories of the kids in those photos that, for all the world, I could never delete them. E might not be in my life now, I might regret the ten years of my life that I threw away being loyal to him whilst he was seeing other woman behind my back, but together we made four amazing children and I will never, ever, deny that shared history. I still wouldn’t dream of deleting a single family memory from anywhere.
However, as I looked at his profile via Youngest Daughter’s Facebook page, it became clear that E had quite literally deleted all traces of me from his Facebook page. I didn’t care so much about deleting pictures of me, but I was intrigued by how much time and effort that must have taken (there were nearly ten years’ worth of pictures), and why he’d even bother – he rarely used Facebook and I thought he would have had better things to do with his time (he was newly married after all). I didn’t understand how he could just eradicate memories of his children, just because I also happened to be in the photographs.
The way that he’d erased so many pictures of them and so coldly edited me out of his life was yet another blow to the kids. I’d spent a year telling them that their Dad and I might have split up but that both of us still loved them, and yet here he was literally throwing away memories of his past, of his kids and his family life, whilst at the same time refusing to include his children in, or even tell them about, his current life, his new partner or his marriage.
The pain caused by the deletion of pictures of me and the shock and hurt caused by the image of E and P is perhaps best summarised by the responses to it. Oldest Daughter showed it to her friends, and many messages of support were sent my way. As ever Oldest Son said very little, but even he, usually so calm and unflappable, looked unsettled and troubled at this latest evidence that his Dad just wasn’t telling him the truth – he expressed his irritation by poking twitter’s Flat-Earthers with a sharp stick. Youngest Son relentlessly edited the photograph and my WhatsApp was bombarded with increasingly bizarre (and slightly Dali-esque), altered images of the pair of them for the next couple of weeks (being a woman of simple tastes, my favourite edit was the one that got straight to the point and Youngest Son just wrote the word ‘twat’ on his Dad’s forehead).
Perhaps the most shocking and emotional response, however, was from Youngest Daughter. She videoed herself flushing the picture of E and P down the toilet. She posted this on Facebook. Despite lots of views nobody commented on this video, and I’m sure some people felt she shouldn’t have posted it, but I think her reaction, her obliteration of the photograph, showed how much pain can be caused by a single picture. Her destruction of the photograph, the new image that this in turn created and the pain this new image expressed, sums up just how powerful a picture can be.