Take a Photograph by Jen Thorpe

FICTION: Take a photograph

A short story by Jen Thorpe

BY JEN THORPE

The first time they let my dad out of jail for a day, we went to look at the National Geographic Wildlife Photo exhibition. It was 2006 and I was ten. Dad was much older.

The exhibition was inside the Iziko Museum which also had a collection of extinct birds in the room next to the one the photos were in. It smelled of damp and was dark inside the building. The stairs were so big.

Dad looked at each photograph for exactly five minutes. We were in there for a long time. I kept looking around to see if anyone was looking at Dad and wondering how he got out of jail. But they weren’t. I guess they didn’t know. Or maybe they knew it was not polite to stare.

I liked the one of the man and the whale. The man was so small in his wetsuit. He didn’t look wet though and the whale also didn’t look wet. The whale was turning, as if she had more important things to do than stop and talk to the man with his goggles and long flippers.

She probably did. Whales have to travel a really long way. They go right around the world each year, and if they are girl whales sometimes they have to show their babies the way. This was a southern right whale. I don’t know if there is a southern wrong whale.

It said underneath the photograph that it was taken in New Zealand, where they have accents that sound like South Africans. Except if you put them together and then the South African will say, ‘Ag sis man, we don’t sound like that!’

Dad liked that one too. But his best one was also the worst one. He said that sometimes the best photos show the worst things. He stood in front of this one for extra long – way longer than he did for the others – and he even cried. I looked around especially hard then – imagine everyone seeing a jailbird cry! They weren’t looking though.

You weren’t allowed to talk in the exhibition so I couldn’t ask a lot of questions. I spent a lot of time reading the writing under the photos. It told you about the person who took the photo and the lens of the camera and where the photo was taken.

The photo Dad liked best or worst was of a monkey who was on a braai. The monkey’s eyes still looked like it was alive. It was looking up at the camera and the photographer. You could hardly see its body through the smoke, and it’s hair was on fire. The photographer couldn’t save it, Dad said. Dad said they are just there to take the photos.

I don’t understand that. I think he just should have asked them nicely not to do it. Mom says if you ask people nicely, then they’ll do things for you. She always says, ‘I’m asking you nicely not to leave your toys in the lounge’ and I do put them away after that. Or at least after she asks again.

The monkey was a colobus monkey. When I looked them up afterwards on Mom’s computer it said that they live in groups of nine, in Africa. I wondered where the other eight of its friends were. Maybe the photographer said that they could only braai one. Maybe he did rescue some. It also said that they are threatened by the bush meat trade. That is what happened to this one. They cooked it.

The photo was taken in Gabon where there was an illegal market. It was illegal because they knew it wasn’t nice to cook the monkeys, but people liked to eat them. They also eat turtles there! The man who took the photo said he felt very sad to be there. Gabon is also in Africa, but they speak French there. So maybe the photographer couldn’t ask them to stop because he didn’t speak French. Maybe he only spoke English.

After the exhibition Dad and I went to get some lunch. Dad didn’t feel like a burger that day. Even before he went to jail Dad only liked to eat vegetables. He didn’t like to eat meat or chicken or seafood. He said it wasn’t fair. I really liked burgers though and I begged and begged and so we went to a place and I had a burger and Dad had a cheese sandwich. If I was out of jail for only one day I wouldn’t choose a boring sandwich to eat. But he did, and some chips. He dipped them slowly, one by one, into the bright red tomato sauce and went ‘mmm’ each time he’d finished one. I tried one of his to see the difference. They tasted just like my chips, which were a bit cold.

After our lunch we went for a walk along the promenade in Sea Point. It was a nice day. There was only a little bit of wind and dad let me sit on the swings and he pushed me higher and higher. Then he sat on the swings and I pushed him. He explained that if you swung the swing over the top it would go round and round for a long time because of the centry fewgel force. I tried to look that up on the computer but it didn’t know it, so I’m not sure if he was telling the truth.

I was wearing a red jersey that mom had knitted. I had to tie it around my waist because it was hot in the sun. I wished that Mom had come with us that day. Dad said that it was OK that she didn’t, but he looked sad and tired.

In the days before it was nearly time to meet Dad I asked her and asked her to come, but she said that she had a new boyfriend now and she didn’t feel like she could talk to Dad anymore. She said she’d always love him. I didn’t understand why she didn’t want to see him then. I asked her if she thought Dad was bad man and she took a long time to answer.

She said that sometimes good people do bad things, and that Dad had done a bad thing. She also said sometimes people do bad things for good reasons. I asked her if she could give me some other examples. She couldn’t.

I’m not sure if that means she doesn’t know any other reasons except Dad’s, or if she only said that so I wouldn’t know that Dad was a bad person. After not seeing Dad outside in the world, I was just glad to see him. I didn’t really care if he was good or bad.

Mom said I was too small to go to the jail. She said I could go next time. Sometimes I could talk to Dad on the phone but it wasn’t the same. So Mom dropped me off with granny, Dad’s mom, the night before and then at six o’clock in the morning Dad came to meet us at Granny’s house and then we went to the photograph exhibition, and then for lunch, and then to swing on the promenade. Granny stayed behind at her house. She cried a lot when Dad got there. Quite a lot of crying happened on that first day that Dad was allowed out of jail.

Dad told me about the sea when we were on the promenade. He said that lots of animals live in the sea. I already knew of some and he asked me to tell them to him. I told him fishandsharksandwhalesandturtlesandraysandeels. He said, ‘Yes, those are some,’ and he looked happy. He said there is a fish deep at the bottom of the sea that has a light on its head and the light tells all the other fish to come to talk to it. But then the fish with the light eats them.

After that we went to the Newlands forest. We walked around and around and Dad showed me the ferns, and the pine trees, and the mushrooms. We walked so far that I got very tired. Dad carried me on his shoulders and I knew when he held me so tightly that he wasn’t bad, and that there must be good reasons for doing bad things. He said to me ‘I love you Jonathan’ and I said ‘I love you Dad’ and then he cried again.

We sat on a rock that was slippery and green and watched the little bit of water trickle down a stream. Dad said it was important to say thank you to the forest, because the forest helped the world to breathe. I said, ‘Thank you,’ but then wondered where the brain and heart were of the world. Dad seemed like he was thinking hard about something and so I didn’t want to interrupt him. I suppose it’s noisy in the jails.

On the news I saw a story that there were so many people in the jails that they had too many in a room. It’s not like a hotel where you each get your own room. You have to share with strangers. They said sometimes the strangers are not good people who did bad things for good reasons, but they are bad people who do bad things for bad reasons. Sometimes in the full rooms, the bad people do bad things to the good people who did bad things for good reasons. Mom had turned the TV off and had stood for a long time after that leaning against the wall, breathing very slowly with her eyes closed. Then she said softly, ‘Do you want some ice cream?’ and I had said ‘yes’ and I had eaten ice cream while she was thinking and looking out the window. I asked if she was OK and she said that she just needed me to sit quietly while she did her thinking.

So Dad and I were sitting on the rocks and I was sitting quietly and letting him do his thinking. He put his hand in the water and even though it wasn’t a cold day, the water was cold. He said ‘Jonathan, you can drink cold water from the stream as long as you are high up in the mountain, and the water is moving.’ I said ‘Thank you,’ and wondered whether I should drink some to show him I believed him.

He let me sit on his lap, and he rocked forward and back with me, saying, ‘Thank you nature, thank you nature.’ I fell asleep and when I woke up Dad was getting up. It was time to go. We walked back down through the forest quickly. You had to be careful and look at the floor so you didn’t slip. When you looked at the path for a long time and looked up again, the trees made a circle as if they were swirling around you. Dad said it was called ‘tunnel vision’. He said that in jail they didn’t get to walk very far at all, and he really liked to walk. He said that that day was the best day out of his whole year.

Dad drove us back to Granny’s in Sea Point. She was still crying, or maybe she had started again. He said, ‘Don’t worry Mom. I’m fine.’ She cried harder and harder and harder until she had to lie down. I wanted to cry because I wanted him to know that I was sad, but I more wanted to tell him that this was my best day of my year too. I tried to tell him, but then I did cry and then he cried too.

He said ‘Goodbye Jonathan, I’ll see you out here soon.’ But all the time he was saying it he was crying and he was watching the sun on the water in the fountain outside, and not looking at me. I hugged him, and told him that I would and that I would be waiting for him and he mustn’t worry. It was really hard to close the door so that we didn’t have to see the people put him in the back of their van. It was the saddest I had ever felt about closing a door.

Granny had to lay down for a long time, and I watched the TV in the lounge. Dad had bought me a video by David Attenborough whose voice sounded like a warm blanket over your ears. David Attenborough knew everything about all the animals in the world and he told you so that you could understand. I loved watching them. I watched two – one about the forests where the trees grow so tall and have been around for longer than Jesus. The other one was about caves with millions of bats that lived inside them.

I went to see if Granny was OK, and asked her if she would like some tea. She looked at me like my voice was hurting her heart. I said that she didn’t have to worry to make it for me, and I made a cup of tea for her with three sugars, and one for me with three sugars. We sat on her balcony and she held my drinking hand, so that I had to use the other one to drink my tea. Granny’s hands were soft, but had lots of veins that made them seem almost blue.

The sun went down slower than I had ever see it do before.

***

Five years later they let Dad out again. I was 15 and less sure of things. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to act like a man now, whether I could still hug him when I went with gran to collect him. She was older and her hands more veiny. Her driving wasn’t great and we travelled slowly between Sea Point and Pollsmoor along the M3 and then through Constantia. I was thinking, ‘Hurry up!’

In the dip by Pagasvlei the air was cool and fresh. Vineyards grew on the right-hand side of the road, and on the left were old houses situated in half-wetlands. We turned onto the road to Pollsmoor and it was lush. People in this area were lank rich. A funny place for a prison.

Dad looked older and his hair was thinner. His eyes still held their sparkle though, and I didn’t get the chance to be awkward because he reached for me in a hug that felt as refreshing as any glass of water I’d ever had. ‘How’ve you been Jonathan?’. ‘Cool, Dad, but I like to be called Jon now.’ ‘Is that so?’ Gran cried the whole way through and we had to wait another fifteen minutes before she was able to drive. Dad wasn’t sure what the rules were about driving on his day out, so he didn’t offer.

Like the last time he’d scheduled his day out to coincide with the photo exhibition at the Iziko Museum. We parked in the small lot and stood a while looking at the gardens. Dad sighed a lot and breathed deeply. He laughed at a squirrel, and watched the mynah birds hopping quickly instead of running or flying. ‘Come on, Dad,’ I said, and so we went inside.

The dark stairwell up to the room seemed smaller than the last time I’d come with him, the steps not as high or wide. I was tempted to sail down the banisters, but didn’t think I should. Dad reached out for my hand, and I squeezed his quickly and released it. He looked at me in a way that hurt, and I felt bad for not holding on. I didn’t know how to reach out for his. It felt funny just thinking about it.

There was a photograph of a boat full of fishermen. One held a baseball bat and grinned wildly. On the deck of the boat was a shark, newly finned with a pool of blood. Next to her lay a pool of tiny baby sharks, aborted by the fishermen’s blows to her body and by the pain she felt when finned. I stood at the photo for a long time and forced myself to breathe slowly to stop myself from crying.

It’s funny how that can happen when you haven’t been around someone for so long. But I looked at my Dad a lot during the exhibition and there were small things he did like me, or I did like him. He rubbed his fingers together when he was looking at the photos and so did I. Rubbing them made me think about about the night the week before when I had tried to touch my girlfriend Marly’s boob.

When I could move again, I moved straight to all the plant photographs to try and close down the sadness. There were vast white landscapes from snow storms and one of them had a tiny black blur in the corner that the photographer said was a fox. Another photo showed a huge field of soy crop, in the middle of a jungle. When Dad looked at the photo of the shark, he also cried, and much more obviously than me.

There were fewer photos than the time before, and they had to space them further apart. That year the winning photograph was of a Pelican covered in oil. On the news they said Deep Water Horizon was a predictable and careless mistake. It cost BP millions, but they never said sorry. That made me the most angry out of everything. The Pelican cowered in the corner of a wooden box.

Eventually after what felt like a long time Gran forced us to leave the gallery. We went with her for tea at the old tea house in the middle of the Company’s Garden and ate a dry scone with the best jam I’ve ever tasted. I told Dad about my school, and the sports we were forced to play. I was quite good at cricket, but not very good at rugby. He asked me questions about Mom and her new husband. I said the wedding had been boring, and told him about how I’d had to wear a suit that had sleeves that were way too long. He laughed even though it must have been sad for him.

Gran found it hard to speak through the whole tea and scones. She said one or two things about the flat and the noise of the taxis. Mostly she just held her hand on top of Dad’s and tried not to cry. At times she was more successful than at others.

Afterwards, Gran dropped us in the forest and we walked up another path around the side. This time. I was more able to keep up with him. In a small hollow in the forest Dad and I sat down for a while to listen to the wind in the trees. He closed his eyes and began to speak to me.

‘It sounds like the water of the ocean Jona… Jon. If you listen carefully to the leaves, they blow and rustle just like the ocean. If you listen carefully to the breath you’re taking it sounds the same.

‘I don’t know how much your mother has told you about what I did. I’m sure she hasn’t told you about why I did it, or at least why she thinks I did it. I’m not sure if you’re ready to hear it, but I want you to know, I’m glad I did it. But I’m sorry I missed out on you.’

I sat quietly for a while, listening to my breathing properly for the first time I could remember. Mom said when I was younger I used to throw tantrums a lot and scream and shout until my face went so red she was scared I would stop breathing. I couldn’t remember the tantrums, but I could remember her shouting ‘Breathe, Jonathan. Just BREATHE.’

She hadn’t said much about what Dad had done. But when I got to the first day of school for grade one, all the other children began to whisper when they said my surname. Thaillie. It was an unusual name, and I thought maybe they were making fun of me. But they were friendly enough and so when I got home that day I asked Mom.

‘He did a bad thing Jonathan. He tried to protect the world he loved, but he tried to protect it in the wrong way.’ And that was all she had had to say. And I guess I didn’t want it to be worse than that – when you’re a laaitie like I was there is so much that you can imagine that would be bad and I didn’t want to confirm my worst suspicions.

My voice felt strained and I could hear Mom’s voice in my head, ‘Just breathe.’ I took a big breath in and turned to look at Dad. He smiled and suddenly we both started to laugh. One of those uncontrollable laughs where you’re not really sure what you’re laughing about. Eventually we stopped laughing and decided to walk a bit more through the forest. I missed that chance to ask him, but I knew I’d get another one.

As we came around a bend a small buck skitted across the path. We raced to where it had stood, but couldn’t see it anymore, and Dad was short-sighted and couldn’t identify it from where we were. He was getting old I guess. I suppose he must have been in his forties at least.

The time to say goodbye came and it wasn’t really any easier. I knew not to cry now though, but he and gran just did as though they weren’t embarrassed. I hugged him hard to say goodbye and added in a pat on the back like the guys at school did. He looked at me and said, ‘See you soon.’ This time he closed the door.

Gran lay down and I read some stuff on my laptop for school. You have to keep busy when all you’re really doing is waiting for life to be normal again.

***

Ten years later they decided to release Dad on early parole. When Dad came out I was working at my first job, inside the red zone with all the others who needed the work. I was starting out as a lawyer – basically a glorified photocopy machine – and I loved it. I felt like knowing what I knew I could change the world in a way that would work. Not like Dad had. Plus, what was the worst that could happen after a spill like that one? We got paid all these high bonuses because of the medical risks.

He had been let off on ‘good behaviour’ as they say in the movies. It was 2021 and after the spill, the rest of us continued on as normal. There wasn’t much to be done – we had to live our lives. But, I think that’s probably why they were letting the prisoners out early if they wouldn’t be a threat to society. All those humanitarian organisations were hassling the government about keeping people in the red zone. It made them look bad. Made them seem uncaring.

By the time he was released I was brave enough; I’d looked him up, unable to ignore the pain and curiosity that I felt. When I did, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done it sooner, or seen something by mistake. There was so much on him. He was infamous.

It went like this – Dad was tired of people fucking up the planet. He joined some others who felt the same and they’d tied themselves to a couple of machines that were going to build a new nuclear power station. He was angry about the cost and the waste and the danger. He was angrier that this was being ignored.

The protest on the other hand seemed to them like a pretty safe idea at the time. They broke onto the construction site at midnight. The security guard was sleeping at his desk. He was dreaming of whatever security guards dream about, while my dad and six other people locked themselves to the machines that would dig and build, and waited until the sun rose.

When it did, the workers were angry. The security guard was furious – he had slept through the whole thing and thought he would lose his job. The company thought they needed to build that station so they could make sure people didn’t run out of electricity. Somehow one of the guards decided that Dad was their leader. They turned on him.

The workers pointed fingers at him whilst the guards beat them all with batons trying to get them off the machines. They were locked on and couldn’t raise their arms to protect themselves. It was only when the TV cameras arrived that the guards stopped beating them. By then they had told everyone on TV that somehow it was Dad’s decision for them to do this. That he had planned to bomb the place. He was labelled the leader.

They were arrested, detained. Gossip and rumours of bombs and destruction abounded. Money was put in the right people’s pockets and Dad was held for all of it. The others went free and he landed in jail – a terrorist. Twenty five years to life. Reckless endangerment of lives. Damage to government property.

Mom knew he was going to do it that night. But she didn’t go with him because she was pregnant with me at the time. A little surprise that she hadn’t told him yet, but she knew better than to go just in case. She planned the entry points, told them which guard was more likely to be sleeping, knew exactly where the machines were. She knew all of this, because it was her father’s construction site. She knew he wasn’t a terrorist, that there had been no bomb. She was the leader. The other guy, the guy who didn’t go to jail… well, he’s her husband now. My stepdad.

Of course that part of it wasn’t in the papers. She had to tell me that when I went to her. She didn’t know how much I knew and so told me everything. She was apologetic, but things haven’t been the same with us since then. She let him take the fall, and our family fell with him.

When Dad came out he seemed so old. Everything he had fought against was real. He was out and suddenly alone. My mom and stepdad had moved out into the farmlands – far enough away from Koeberg, they thought, to escape the radiation. Granny had passed away from cancer or heartache. All his friends from before were gone. It was just me and him, and all we knew of each other were two days together and a couple of phone calls down a tinny line.

So we went to the Iziko Museum to see the same photographic exhibition we had seen fifteen years before. We didn’t know what else to do together.

The roads were half as full as they had been that first day. The mountain still stood there behind it all, sturdy and unmoved. At the museum large sections were closed off – not so many people wanted to work in the red zone. Those that did obviously weren’t big in museums. The staircase seemed smaller, its banisters not as well polished or shiny as back then. I felt the same pull to slide down them that I had all those years ago.

So much had happened since that first time we went there. The exhibition itself was sparse – when the world is heating and cooling and warring and going crazy everything else just takes a back seat. The wide gaps that used to be filled with photos said more than photographs of any dead or extinct animal could.

We got outside, and it was such a clear blue sky, the kind of sky that happens on the last day of summer when the air is cool but not cold and there is no wind. Things felt still. An old man was sitting on a bench, smoking a cigarette, and reading a paper. I walked up to him with my new work phone.

Dad and I stood against the backdrop of the museum and the mountain arms over one another’s shoulders. ‘We’re ready’ I said. ‘You can take the photograph.’

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