Perhaps someone called it that casually and it caught on. It describes the event well, I think. It was as if God looked down from heaven and photographed us, using a camera with a devastating flash.
When I see how it affected people – or when I hear someone famous describing how they have coped – I never feel entirely negative.
I was dealing with a difficult divorce. I’d been made redundant by the newspaper and was living in a house I intended to renovate and sell. Then, after a year of no contact, Hannah and Emily began to visit. Not seeing them had been agony. I still had strong feelings for their mum, too – for a while I’d slept on a bedsheet we stole from our honeymoon hotel. But, generally, I’d learnt to accept the situation.
I hardly recognized the girls the first time they came north. They’d grown. They were dressed in leggings and faux-leather jackets. Hannah, my eldest, had turned thirteen during the divorce, but looked older. I’d been standing on the station platform, looking out for two little girls with plain faces and simple hair.
Kevin, my ex-wife’s new man, had bought Hannah a pair of fur-lined suede boots. She was quick to show me. We were still on the platform, in fact. She stuck out her foot, bent her leg at the knee, and posed for me.
Kevin played rhythm guitar in one of those ‘didn’t-quite-make-it’ nineties bands. I’d actually bought his first single, in my twenties. Once, not long after my wife had gone to live with him, he called me and I recited his lyrics to him sarcastically. That was a crazy thing to do, really.
After his music career failed he’d started a business selling flip-flops and he’d made a lot of money. The price of the boots was nothing to him.
‘Very nice,’ I said to Hannah.
The girls visited every month or so, just for a weekend. When I suggested activities, Hannah would inevitably grimace, and Emily tended to copy, irrespective of how she felt deep down. The only thing Hannah truly enjoyed was shopping and occasionally I’d just crumble and drive to the Trafford Centre. I remember once, on their second or third visit, I gave them each ten pounds and sat in the food court while they shopped. I watched a Cirque du Soleil show on a big muted television – foreign individuals dangling on lengths of colourful fabric.
When the girls returned they were weighed down with bags. They’d each bought the calendar of a young singer they liked. For March, the singer wore a pair of white underpants and sat frowning on a four-poster bed. He was incredibly muscular. I suggested they draw smiley faces on the dates when they’d be visiting me, or at least write ‘Dad’. But they told me the calendar was for other things.
After they left, I discovered an item of Hannah’s clothing. Kevin phoned and asked if I’d found anything. I said I hadn’t. I was embarrassed to be discussing it with him. I denied all knowledge of the lost item, which weakened my position.
Not long before Christmas Kevin called again, this time to discuss a roller disco. Hannah had been invited to one and it fell on a weekend when the girls were due to be with me. I’d planned to have an early Christmas with them. A pretend Christmas Day.
‘She needs this,’ Kevin said, about the roller disco. He talked about her self-confidence, which struck me as manipulative.
‘She’s comfort eating,’ he said.
‘Is she?’ I said.
He believed that older boys wouldn’t attend the roller disco. I asked how he could be so naive. I started talking about what I called ‘the base reality of things’. In response, Kevin asked about an incident between me and Hannah at a supermarket. So I knew they’d been reporting to him. I retaliated with some stuff about Kevin’s band. He laughed it off. I was just extremely sad about my Christmas plan.
The supermarket incident occurred on the Saturday of their previous visit. After a glum trip to a leisure centre I’d decided to do a shop. We were looking for cereal, but ended up in the clothes aisle. I was trying to get my bearings when I heard Hannah and Emily sniggering. Hannah had taken a fur-lined suede boot from the shelf. She was pretending she preferred the supermarket boot to her own pair. It was the first bit of enthusiasm she’d shown all day and Emily was getting involved too, egging Hannah on by laughing.
‘Take off your boots, Hannah,’ I said. I took a pen and a piece of paper from my rucksack. ‘Now,’ I said.
People were watching.
I asked Emily to identify the differences between the supermarket boot and Hannah’s pair.
‘Don’t do it,’ Hannah said to her sister.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘I’m waiting.’
There were no differences, of course, except for the branding, which I didn’t bother to note down, and the price.
The problem was they didn’t have a friendship circle up here. They were on their phones a lot. Worried they were missing out.
Then, on the weekend of the cancelled Christmas, God took his photograph.
Without the girls to entertain, my aim was to keep myself busy. I got up early on the Saturday to sand the skirting boards, paint the doorstep and steam the woodchip from the living-room walls. Around mid-morning I checked on Hannah’s various profiles. There was a lot of excitement about the roller disco, and a few crude remarks. Later, mid-afternoon, I stood at my bedroom window, wondering where the morning had gone. On the street outside, children took turns jumping off the kerb on scooters. It was unspectacular, but I watched them, and so I was inside the house when it happened.
God’s Photograph – it really does describe the event perfectly, I think. The powerful flash. The temporary blindness. And then – and I suppose this is where the metaphor falters – the sound of screaming as the white heat altered us.
I lay in a bath of cold water, breathing through a child’s snorkel. I felt the new skin around my face cool and set. I thought about ways I could reach my girls.
A week later, I called them.
Emily’s voice had deepened. She’d been at home on the computer when it happened. I asked where her sister had been. She confided that Hannah had been with a boy in the car park of the roller disco.
‘An older boy?’ I asked.
‘She’s lost her eyelids, Dad,’ Emily said. ‘Has to use drops.’
She passed the phone to Kevin after a while. He wanted to take my ex-wife away for a weekend, as a treat, to the place where she grew up. She was struggling, apparently. ‘Aren’t we all,’ I said, but not aggressively. There was a good tone to our conversation. People were coming together. Even people like me and Kevin, who were very different kinds of men. The plan was for Kevin to drive the girls as far as a Midlands service station. I agreed to meet them there.
I opted for redundancy when the newspaper went digital. The work was bogging me down and I didn’t want to spend my life on the Internet. But the switch to property wasn’t yielding the income I’d hoped for. The front wall of the house had started to bow. I’d taken all the interior doors off to have them dipped and hadn’t bothered to pick them up from the dipping yard.
In February I drove to the service station. I arrived early, sat in my car and listened to the radio. I went and browsed the magazines, then went for a pee. The toilets stank of shit and the hand-dryer was jammed on. All the mirrors were smashed but I could still just about see myself.
I called a number that was scratched into a cubicle door, which was a crazy thing to do. A woman answered. I could hear a dog barking in the background and what sounded like a television.
‘Who is this?’ she said. Her voice was very deep indeed.
‘What do you look like?’ I asked.
‘Who is this?’ she said.
‘Describe it to me.’
It was night when Kevin drove his people-carrier into the car park. It was spitting. We shook hands in the cone-shaped beams of his headlights. He’d stretched an old beanie over his head. It was always interesting to see how someone had been affected. My ex-wife stayed in the passenger seat, wearing a blouse and blazer, her face obscured by reflected light.
‘Sorry we’re late,’ Kevin said.
He had been a handsome man. In the nineties, his band were criticized for how handsome they were. Journalists accused them of being manufactured, which was a terrible thing back then. Others felt it was their looks that had earned them a record deal, not their music. That was unfair, I think.
‘No problem,’ I said.
A rear door of the people-carrier opened. Hannah crossed straight into my car without looking at me. It was dark, but I saw that she’d ballooned. Emily climbed out and ran to me. She was too old for me to lift up really, but I held her for a second then let her slowly slide down.
Her appearance wasn’t as altered as the others. She’d been indoors, as I had. She said she was excited to see the house. The depth of her voice was quite shocking. ‘Is it finished, Daddy?’ she said. I squeezed her shoulder and told her to go and join her sister.
I looked at my ex-wife, at her blouse and blazer at least. I hoped she might lean forward so I could see her face, but she just folded her arms.
‘Hannah sleeps in a mask.’ Kevin was walking back to his people-carrier. ‘Emily’s no problem at all.’
‘Enjoy your trip.’ I nodded. ‘It’s a beautiful area.’
The big news on the drive north was that a boy from Hannah’s year had sent Emily a Valentine’s card. He’d recorded what Hannah called ‘a love message’, which played whenever the card opened. Emily was embarrassed, of course, and refused to tell me what exactly the boy had said.
Hannah sat slumped on the back seat. The truth is, until she started bingeing, she’d been all set to become a healthy young woman. Every hundred yards or so the motorway lights lit her face. She tilted her head and administered eye drops. She’d used a bronze foundation to blend the new part of her face with the old.
‘All right back there?’
They were both zonked by the time we got home. I’d made up the bunk beds. They refused to get undressed in a room without a door, so I nailed the old bedsheet to the frame, as a kind of curtain. I promised to do the same in the bathroom in the morning. Emily said she didn’t mind that there was no carpet. I leant into her low bunk and kissed her.
‘I’m thinking shopping tomorrow,’ I said. ‘Young ladies?’
I drew level with Hannah’s bunk. She was applying her eye drops. She’d got into bed without removing her clothes. Her suede boots had been flung on to the floor. They were completely worn out.
She shifted her weight beneath the covers and the brackets of the bed creaked softly.
‘Shouldn’t you have a quick wash? Rinse the make-up off?’
Her face snapped towards me. Her eyes blood-shot, blinkless – an expression of endless startlement. But we all looked that way, to varying degrees.
Emily peered out from the bottom bunk. ‘She doesn’t have to,’ she whispered.
‘Very well,’ I said.
Hannah guided the plastic fittings of her sleep mask into her eye sockets. She pulled the strap tight and fastened it. Her make-up was peeling. The stump of her tongue emerged and tried to moisten where her lips had been.
‘Good night,’ I said, ‘young ladies.’
I stood in the dark of the landing, not quite ready to go downstairs. After a while, a boy’s voice came from the girls’ room. I stepped close to the bedsheet and listened. He spoke for about ten or fifteen seconds, no more. His speech impediment was probably connected to disfigurement, though not necessarily. The thing was – what hurt – was that I related to so much of what he said. Much of it was the sort of thing I’d like to tell Emily and Hannah. That I very much admired them. That they seemed very nice and funny. That I’d like to hang out with them, if they wanted to.
I thought about the things we might do in the morning. Anything they wanted – that was my plan. Emily must have been closing and opening the Valentine’s card because the love message kept playing. And I must say I felt for Hannah, lying there in her mask, listening.