ALL THE DIFFERENCE
By Chris Barker
Ethan strolled past the rows of brightly lit photographs that were mounted on the sharp white walls of The Barracks Gallery. The floorboards shone like glass and reflected each image back onto itself like a hall of mirrors. It’s all here, he thought, forty years of photography, the full catastrophe of Jonny Jones’s life.
He had only come because his mother, Irene, had bullied him. He didn’t care less about his father’s posthumous exhibition. After all that had happened, he didn’t give a damn about his father, full stop. But it was a big deal for Irene and he owed her. She was wearing a smart black dress, elegant shoes and a pair of dazzling earrings.
‘These earrings are very old and very precious,’ she said. ‘They belonged to my mother, but they go way back in the family, before even her. These are real rubies, you know.’
They wandered through the crowds of men in dark suits and women wearing posh frocks who stood and chatted enthusiastically as they sipped colourful drinks from slender glasses. He was struck by the beauty and elegance of a tall, leggy young woman dressed in a tight-fitting red dress with chic short black hair.
Ethan and Irene squeezed their way through the anonymous bodies and into a gallery simply entitled ‘London’, where a waiter dressed in a white shirt and black trousers approached him carrying a tray of champagne glasses with long thin stems. He smiled as he paused besides Ethan.
‘Champagne, sir?’ he asked.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I think I will.’
‘Me too,’ said Irene. ‘This is a bit of a treat.’
He sipped his drink the sweet, fizzy drink: a real pleasure and quite a buzz. As he held the flute to his lips he stared, amazed, at a large photograph of his mother taken soon after she and Jonny had met. In the picture Irene is resting her face on the vertical edge of an open door with her eyes peeping around the frame, as if in imitation of a 1950s movie star. Irene told him how Jonny had thought her so beautiful that he just had to take her photograph whenever and wherever he could. At first, she was reticent, deflecting his requests with a gentle evasive smile, though he persevered until she was at ease with his attention. He revelled in composing close-ups where light and dark played out over the imperfect details of Irene’s perfect face. He would creep up on her to grab an unexpected portrait that sought to capture the sacred wonder of her lips, her cheeks, her eyes, her ears, her smile; for everything about her was magnificent to him, he said.
Mounted beside the photograph of Irene was the image of another woman: Barbara, another nail in the matrimonial coffin. But no, that was unfair, she was the object of his father’s desire. He was the Judas after all.
According to Irene, Jonny had met Barbara at a mutual friend’s dinner party. He had positioned himself carefully, with Irene to his left and Barbara to his right, from which vantage point he engaged with each woman in equal measure. Though one was more equal than the other, Irene said.
‘So, what do you do for a living, Barbara?’ said Jonny.
‘Oh, I’m a student, actually,’ she said with a demure smile.
‘And what are you studying?’ he asked.
‘Oh, really? We have something in common then,’ he said. ‘We’re both interested in aesthetics and the making of the beautiful. At least I hope that is what you want to do. Someone as exquisite as you would surely want to create sublime buildings. You don’t want to design those horribly functional tower blocks, do you? The plague of London for those of us who have to look at them. And pity the poor bastards who have to live in them.’
She smiled and mirrored his attention.
’Oh no,’ she said, ‘I want to create spaces that are beautiful and fun, buildings that lift the heart.’
‘And I’m sure you will,’ he said.’ I can tell you’re a creative talent.’
Jonny turned back to Irene.
‘How are you doing?’ he whispered in her ear. ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. I hope the food is coming soon.’
‘Me too,’ she mouthed. ’And don’t you dare abandon me again to this mega bore on my left, or you’re a dead man. I really do not need to know any more about Tupperware.’
He laughed. ‘Deal,’ he said.
After dinner he returned his attention to Barbara.
‘Barbara, you have a most wonderful face,’ he said. ‘You know, I am a photographer by trade and I’d really love to take some pictures of you. If you wouldn’t mind.’
He spoke to her in his most practised and professional tone, and with Irene visibly listening and holding his hand, how could anyone not trust his sincerity?
A week later, when Irene returned home unexpectedly she found Barbara in her bed with Jonny. There were no lifeboats left on the Titanic. He pleaded guilty to being a cheating, lying bastard and begged for mercy. He confessed. He promised. He begged. He apologised. All to no avail: the atmosphere in the flat remained glacial, like the coming of a bitter English winter.
‘Talk to me, Irene, please.’
After a couple of weeks of sustained pleading she thawed and the first buds of spring appeared. She told him that he was the shit-encrusted arse of an illegitimate mongrel. He knew this. He did not deserve her love. He agreed to this. But damn it if he was not loved all the same. He thanked God for this. Irene gazed at him across the kitchen table with a face loaded down with sad accusations.
‘I want to forgive you, but it’s not so easy,’ she said. ‘I’ll try, that’s the best I can do.’
Ethan stared at Barbara’s elegant face as he remembered his mother’s story.
‘Bastard!’ said Ethan. ‘I can’t believe you took him back.’
Irene screwed up her face.
‘What can I say?’
She turned the ring on her finger as if she wanted to be sure it was still there. Then she looked at Ethan with a wry smile.
‘Nothing in life is ever black and white, Ethan,’ she said. ‘You see, I loved him.’
The Afghan Room housed the images that had made Jonny famous: a little girl aged about five or six is squatting by the edge of the dirt road holding the hand of a woman who is laid flat out next to her. The woman is dead. The little girl is crying. Her black eyes are deep and sad.
A man’s face is warped and twisted as if reflected in an eerie fairground mirror after his foot has been blown away.
And then there was the girl, engulfed in flame.
Jonny had asked to see Ethan and he had reluctantly agreed to a meeting in Kabul.
‘We’re in the same country and I never see you,’ his father had said.
At Jonny’s suggestion they had arranged to meet outside a school where a brave young woman had been running a campaign in support of education for girls. There had been a bit of a stir and Jonny had wanted to double-up investigating the story with meeting Ethan. The two of them had arrived at the school that morning while the girl stood outside the gates holding her placard as the male pupils and their teachers arrived.
A battered white car roared up to the school gates and three hooded men jumped out, grabbed the girl, doused her in petrol and lit the match. Ethan wasn’t wearing his army uniform, but he was carrying a concealed weapon and without pausing for thought he pulled it out from beneath his shirt and shot one of men dead before the others jumped back into the car and sped away leaving a sand storm in their wake. He threw the girl to the ground and rolled her in the dust in an effort to smother the flames but it was too late to save her; he had not known that human beings could burn so quickly. He told himself that he had done his his best, though he remained unconvinced.
Jonny had grabbed six or seven clean shots before the girl died and many more afterwards. Ethan was bent double throwing his guts up into the sand. When he had finished his work, Jonny put his arm around his son’s shoulders. Ethan wiped his mouth with his sleeve, glanced at the camera, and pushed the reassuring arm away.
‘Christ,’ he said. ‘Is that all you fucking care about?’
When he had recovered a modicum of composure Ethan stood up and walked briskly across the square and into the back streets without so much as a glance over his shoulder.
‘Ethan! come back,’ called Jonny.
But Ethan was never coming back. For Christs sake, that man looked on and did nothing, he did worse than nothing, he watched and profited, silver coins laid in his palm. How sick is that? He had said he served a higher purpose, but what use were photographs anyway? He said that now people would know how fucked it all was and they would bring the suffering to an end. Ethan couldn’t see it that way, all he could see was the girl’s pain and the fighting and killing; he saw no fucking end to it all.
Irene’s voice bought him back into the present.
‘I need to go the loo. Back in a mo,’ she said.
While he waited for his mother, Ethan observed the woman in the red dress chatting with a tall silver-haired man wearing grey suit. Ethan recognised him from the programme notes as the exhibitions curator, Martin Durant, a long-time friend of Jonny’s. He edged closer to eavesdrop.
‘It’s more of the same old, same old,’ said Martin, ‘more death and suffering and trauma that will go on and on for generations. More families destroyed and more lives wrecked. It’s so senseless.’
‘We don’t seem to learn,’ she said.
‘Which is why this work is so important, now more than ever,’ he said.
As he spoke, Martin glanced at Ethan.
‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘But aren’t you Jonny’s son?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘How did you know?’
‘I’ve seen many photographs of you. Jonny talked about you a lot.’
‘Yes. He was proud of you. You should know that. I’m only sorry he isn’t able to tell you that himself.’
Ethan remained silent.
‘Ethan, this is Tanya,’ said Martin, gesturing towards the woman beside him. ‘Tanya, this is Jonny’s son Ethan. Tanya is a journalist with Photography Magazine.’
‘Nice to meet you, Tanya,’ said Ethan.
‘Likewise,’ said Tanya. ‘Your father is an astonishing man and a marvellous photographer.’
‘He is?’ said Ethan.
Tanya returned her attention to Martin.
‘What’s this picture?’ she asked, pointing to an image of two Afghani men hugging each other, while an older woman looked on.
‘Ah yes,’ said Martin. ‘The woman was a cook from the press club in Kabul. It’s terrible, isn’t it, but I can’t remember her name now. My memory is shot to pieces.’
‘What’s the story?’ asked Ethan.
‘These guys are brothers,’ said Martin. ‘The one on the right, the small guy with the black pants and the long beard, he’s Taliban. The other one is an Afghani commander. Now there’s a family divided. Their father was killed by a car bomb. The poor bastard had a taxi and like all of us he had to make a living. He was just dropping off a customer when, boom! all hell broke out and he died on the spot, at any rate I heard there wasn’t much left of him. The mother, that’s her in corner of the picture, see, well, she moved heaven and earth to get the family together again, and they finally met outside the family home. I don’t know what they said exactly, but the tears and smiles are for real. Jonny said he had witnessed a profound reconciliation. It’s a funny idea, isn’t it, tears of joy, but I believe that’s what she’s crying.’
‘What happened to them?’ asked Tanya.
Martin shrugged his shoulders.
‘Sadly, I don’t know. Jonny didn’t follow up. Actually, I’m amazed the Taliban guy turned up at all, but I’m glad he did. This is a truly beautiful moment, though there is always something disappointingly secondary about photographs, don’t you think? Myths at best. Some might even call them lies.’
‘Oh, tosh,’ said Tanya, ‘You know you love it!’
‘It’s true, I do. It’s a classic love-hate relationship. And you know, this picture was the last one Jonny took for a couple of years.’
‘Oh, really? How come?’ said Tanya.
‘It’s a long story, my dear. The short version is that Jonny’s body gave up on him and he collapsed. Some kind of meltdown is the way he described it. Anyway, his mates shipped him out to Northern India, where some monks they knew took him into their monastery for a couple of months.’
‘He was a monk?’ said Ethan, astonished.
‘No, no,’ responded Martin. ‘But they were kind enough to let him stay for a while and Jonny developed a huge admiration for those guys: quiet, calm, serene people. Men. There was something powerful about them, something deep and strong and solid. Jonny said it was tough, but there was a sense of joy in living simply.’
‘It doesn’t sound like much fun to me!’ exclaimed Tanya.
Martin chuckled. ‘No, it wasn’t exactly what you’d call fun, I don’t think, but it was good for Jonny, in its own way. Anyway, after a while the fog lifted from his mind and he felt better than he had for years. He told me he had learned to look at his problems and think: okay, this will pass; in the great scheme of things it’s not that important.’
‘Really? I just can’t see Jonny in a monastery,’ said Ethan. ‘He’s way too restless. He never spent much time at home, I know that. I don’t remember a single birthday when he watched me blow out the candles on my cake, or a Christmas where he played Santa.’
‘You’re right,’ said Martin. ‘He’s always had work to do. Chasing around the world in search of the next buzz and the next great photo opportunity. But do you know what he told me? “You see all these pictures, Martin,” he said. “Do you know what’s missing? There are no family holidays by the beach. There is no Ethan’s first birthday or riding his new bike around the yard. That’s a big hole, you know. And nothing can fill it or make up for it.”
Had his father really said that? Ethan wished he had said it to him. It would have made all the difference.
Chris Barker has been an educator in schools and universities in the UK and Australia. He has published seven non-fiction books including Cultural Studies: Theory and Practise and The Hearts of Men. He writes fiction between stints in the garden, where he grows vegetables and looks after chickens. He has written an unpublished novel and is about to complete a second novel which, being better than the first, he hopes to get published. He has received a writing scholarship from Varuna House writing centre and completed the Faber Academy writing ‘Writing a novel’ course. He has had short stories accepted for publication by ‘Drunk Monkey’s’ (US) and ‘East of the Web (UK).