Since the end of September I've been engaged in a photo project that involves scanning a large number of old prints, burning them onto a series of CDs, and mailing them to my former partner M---.
I could take them personally over to her house, because she lives in the same village - that's only 2 minutes drive, or 12 minutes if walking. But she can't cope with seeing me, and would feel embarrassed if I came to her her door uninvited. And to be honest, I couldn't cope too well if, knowing that she still felt like this, she came to my door uninvited. So we keep off each other's turf, and communicate by means other than face to face. At least we do communicate, and must, so long as this current photo project goes on.
Although our old relationship has come to a painful end, and although M--- feels very resentful about my 'opting out' of a settled life, and taking away our future together - just as if I committed some terrible act of betrayal - she still wants to have those old pre-digital photos that show us as a couple, or show members of her family, or either of us with former friends. This means going through all my prints for the years 1992 to 2000 and selectively scanning them. It's a slow business. Even without any normal editing, the scanning and captioning process can only be done at the rate of 20 shots per hour. So the 388 shots sent to her so far have taken me, on and off, over 19 hours. And I expect to eventually send her over 500 scans. Maybe as many as 1,000.
Why do I do it? We owe each other nothing. All ties have been broken. The last tie, the biggest of all, the debt owing on the Cottage, went last August. We need not now be in touch at all. She already has my digital shots from 2000 to 2010. I certainly feel under no great obligation to supply all these older photographs from the 1990s.
But there are two things. First, I want to do it. I feel that she ought to have these pictures, both to fill gaps in her family history, and to remember occasions that she may have forgotten. And second, I want to remember them too, and place them in my archive. Then I can revisit them very easily.
I feel perfectly cool about seeing the old me. I can recognise the continuity between that person and the present self. Indeed, I'm glad that I took so many photos: I have a marvellous record of how life used to be. Is that an odd thing to say? But not if you are serious about recalling the exact detail of how things really were, insofar as photographs can reveal that. I want a balanced view, not a skewed recollection. I want to appreciate that I was part of some fun events; that we did have jolly and loving moments; but also that there were occasions when the mood was less than perfect, when we put on a front. And times when odd little things were said or done that could not be forgotten. Some of them were said or done by me, and for no reason that was clear at the time. Fits of temper or irritation that came out of the blue. Strange reluctances to do quite ordinary things. I want pictures to prompt remembrance, whatever my present emotional response. I want to recover as much of the truth as possible, in a form that nobody can argue with. Photos are far better than written diaries for this, because they can't be selective. They include everything that was visible. And that has to be an honest thing, a good basis for facing up to how things were, good or bad. Much better than a personal impression backed up by nothing. And it's no good having these visual facts hidden away in dozens of print boxes, gathering dust in one's attic. They need to be highly accessible, just a few clicks away on the PC.
So this project, ostensibly at M---'s request, is partly for me too.
But M--- must feel pain whenever she sees these pictures. I wonder that she can stand it. I have no idea why she wants me to continue.
And when all the scans have been done, and there is nothing else to send, what then? Just silence?