The Photograph – Martha Higgins

The corridors of the school are the same, the grey tiled floors and white concrete walls brightened by red doors. Sally’s dreams take her here sporadically and relentlessly to watch her younger self wearing her freshly washed white shirt and blue gymslip. Her long auburn hair is swept up in a neat ponytail as she flits around the corridors in the mornings, the younger girls always attracted to the older ones who remain queenlike at their desks waiting for their audience.

The assembly bell rings and they all crowd quickly into their class places, the volume of chat quickly grinding to a halt as the principal takes the podium. There are prayers, announcements and sometimes admonishments, some of these make them feel ashamed or rebellious and other times knowing that they only apply to a few unnamed girls are deliciously scintillating.

Her second-year classroom was always her favourite, she made a new friend that year and it filled her with gladness and enhanced her feeling of belonging. Standing at the door she sees herself and her new friend sitting at adjoining tables, their hair mingling as they share a textbook having lent one to the girl who is always losing her things. There too is her English teacher who saw something in Sally and nurtured it. They take turns to read and she stands to read Mark Twain and the teacher gently admonishes her for reading too fast as she adopts the patois with aplomb and dissolves into laugher with the sheer hilarity of the text. The teacher laughs too and she realises that he knows she loves and tries to understand this story and this is like a homecoming for her and the ground steadies beneath her.

Magically this same year the saintly nun who loves books and is dispirited with the lack of reading among the girls opens a library in a tiny windowless storeroom and Sally gulps down the air in this room which smells of new paper and books and her eyes scan the titles in wonder. Only one book at a time can be taken and she wants to take them all home with her so that she is never without a book to read again in her whole life. The library only opens two days per week at break time and Sally is waiting each time with her book to return so she can take another. She knows the nun is pleased with this enthusiasm but is too imperious to pass any comment.

She inhabits the lives of favourite characters, there are so many books there to be read and joy like warm sunlight creeps around her body filling all the lonely cavities when she holds these books in her hands. She is in constant trouble for falling asleep while reading and leaving the light burning all night.

She looks out the classroom window now at her young lithe body running effortlessly onto the basketball court and jumping for the net, completely unaware of her agility.

When her concave stomach framed by sharp hips begins rounding her tears and sadness form a moat around her with no drawbridge to escape. The day she musters dignity to walk out the avenue through those big open white gates, the pain in her stomach makes her want to crawl howling on her hands and knees because she knows she won’t be back.

Now, she is near the Principal’s office, the kind woman who did nothing to rescue her or shelter her, though maybe she did and Sally doesn’t know about it, she did hear that the English teacher asked about her but very soon she is eliminated and a new page is begun.

She sees her class photograph on the wall and searches for herself, where is she? She always stood in the back row in the middle with the other tall girls. Her chest tight as a clenched fist, she scans the rows, there is her friend with her long sandy hair and big brown eyes.

She raises her right hand, and tentatively splits the back row, budging them over a bit to make room and then firmly places herself in the space beside her friend and they squeeze each other’s arms in delight. Giggling, they check their hair and face the camera, with shy eyes full of hope and expectation.

Image via Pixabay

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