I must have looked through the lens and seen two pairs of lips held apart at the widest angle you could ever imagine. As well as two slightly open mouths curved upwards at the sides. Four faces, each with a smile. They’ve been fast-tracked to eternity with a single click. Joan and Dell and their kids who all died in a car crash three years after the date of this photograph. Although I don’t remember the moment when I snapped them I know it must have happened. Because the photo is here in my hand, their names and my name printed on the back in my own childish handwriting.
Joan was a lady who liked to take me on family outings. I was a companion for Ann the daughter, who did not have any friends. And there was a brother whose name was Richard. They called him Rich. In summer the skin peeled on each of their faces and hung round their mouths like loosening scabs. And both of them had constant snot edging down from their noses. As though they had colds, even when the weather was hot. I used to watch, transfixed. The snot looked alive. It got caught up in the tattered skin like a worm in sawdust. A coiling movement which made me stare and yet want to look away. Their mouths always seemed to be stuck at slightly open and I feared for them, at what they might be tasting next. But Rich and Ann didn't appear to be aware of these negativities and were always quite light hearted in their eye-squinting gaping mouthed way. Their parents too never seemed to take all of these shortcomings on board. They remained fixedly unaware of anything which might be thought unpleasant. These outings always took place in the summer. I don't remember seeing any of the family at other times of the year.
We hired deck chairs and lined them up by the fish pond at the Botanical Gardens. Or we went to the seaside and sat on the beach just next to the promenade wall. A sheltered sandy patch with no stones.
'Time for a swim,' Dell used to say. He rubbed his two hands together as though a treat was in store and smiled cheerfully. Dell smiled cheerfully all the time. Did not seem to register that there was anything the matter with the faces of Rich and Ann.
‘Happy days,’ the mother of the two kids said. And she kept on saying it. Her words went perfectly with the expression on Dell’s face. I think it’s fair to say that neither Joan nor Dell ever saw the bad in anything but always clung tenaciously to the positive in life.
Joan wriggled her toes when she got to the beach then she dug her two feet into the hot sand till they were buried up to the ankles saying the words warmly as though they provided her with a sense of comfort. But I couldn't help feeling there was something a little bit weird about the smile on her lips. It did not seem to belong to her and didn't seem to be connected to anything that happened. In fact the smile did not look as though it was quite real and when I thought about it Joan herself didn't seem to be quite real either. As though there was something missing which should have been there. Something within her head. Surely a smile was an expression of what was going on inside someone, not just a surface thing. But what was this something? A mechanism? A device of some kind which sometimes hadn't been switched to on? It was interesting coming up against Joan, because otherwise thoughts like these would most likely never have occurred to me. And I have to admit I enjoyed having them. But at the same time it was just a little bit scary, because it made me wonder if humans had nothing inside them other than bone and blood and various lumps and veins. Were they just a messy kind of toy which had to be set in motion at birth?
'Happy days,' Joan said over and over, her twinkly grin for no one in particular, so far as I could see.
This was so strange. I found myself confiding in my mother. Maybe after all mothers
knew more than kids? My mother looked thoughtful when I repeated Joan's phrase to her, trying my best to capture the way Joan looked when she said the words. After a minute or two she announced that Joan was touched in the head. 'The woman is a lunatic,' she went on to add.
So that there were new things to think about. Who did this 'touching' and how and why? And if it happened to someone they became tainted? Became mad? I felt quite frightened for a while after this conversation. Could anyone be touched? Without warning, and without their permission. The idea disgusted me. To be honest I felt more than a little vulnerable and began looking out for signs that an invasion was starting to take place inside myself. But I didn't notice anything peculiar happening however hard I tried to be aware. This didn't mean you were safe though. I saw that. Maybe you were the last one to know, or worse than this: Maybe you would never know.
One thing I was conscious of was that my mother was annoyed by the words which Joan had used. Is that because she thought Joan was lying when she said them and that she wasn't really happy at all? That she was quite the reverse. Angry or sad about something which she was covering up? Did she think that Joan was joking? My mother sounded offended and made me keep on repeating the way Joan had said the phrase. Did she think that Joan was taking the piss? That Joan was laughing at everyone; laughing at the world, and laughing at my mother even though she wasn't there?
I myself wondered whether Joan was telling us we must concentrate on the idea we were nice and happy as soon as we became aware of it otherwise the good feeling might just slip away. Words played an important part in this. Because maybe if the words weren't said we wouldn't know if we were happy or not; would not know what our true feelings were. Was she saying the phrase over and over because we were only children and she wanted to teach us what happiness looked like and what it meant? Wanting to make sure we'd heard her so we'd be sure and not forget. So we could carry the knowledge with us in our later lives.
'Touched by the sun,' my mother proclaimed after one of my performances of Joan and her Happy Days routine. And Joan's smile and words could have had something to do with the sun being present as we sat there cosily on the hot sand by the promenade wall. She may have seen it as the most perfect happiness imaginable to be stroked by its yellow heat. My mother shook her head in pity and disapproval for some minutes, then to my relief finally changed the subject.
‘Happy days,' Joan said as she shoved her toes further and further down into the sand.
Was it a clever thing to say?
Looking back, I wonder now if she’d ever read Samuel Beckett.
Happy days. What are the thoughts behind these words? Are they clever thoughts? Is taking the piss involved? Or if not that, what? Do the words tap into something special or fundamental about the human race? Are they looking at humans as exceptionally mundane or self-deceiving? Or even as touched?
Maybe my mother's interpretation was the correct one after all. She may have or may not have heard of Samuel Becket.
Joan used to be a gardener, planting things. But, because the family lived in a flat which did not have a garden the only thing she planted was her own two feet underneath the sand. When the summer came; when she sat on the beach.
The sand surrounding Joan's ankles was always quaking because she kept on shifting her toes below the surface. You could tell she was doing that by the way her legs were wobbling.
At the Botanical Gardens Joan and Dell reclined in their deckchairs and we kids pretended to play together on the grassy expanse near the pool. We never really played at anything because that was one thing the three of us had in common. None of us knew how to play. But we also knew we had to look as if we were playing or it would have been bad. We had to play the part of being children. And as far as I was concerned, I understood it was my duty to create a happy-childhood picture for the parents and I was pleased to do this as I didn't want to seem ungrateful for the outings. So we skipped round and round in circles as though there was this game going on the rules of which were beyond the comprehension of the parents. This I felt sure would have delighted them because what adult can see into the heart of a proper child? I knew by instinct they'd have thought that. In reality the only thing going on was that we were waiting for Dell to set up the picnic table and for Joan to bring out the food. At the first sign of movement in these directions we gave up the pretend game and went over to our own deckchairs.
Joan always had creamy egg sandwiches and spicy chicken wings. And mini sausage rolls which when first tasted gave you the feeling you wouldn't want to carry on with eating. But somehow you did. You couldn't stop, in fact. We three kids swallowed down the cold little greasy pastries one after the other while the parents lolled in their chairs, looking gratified. At the same time I remember how hard I tried not to see the flaking skin around the mouths of Rich and Ann or to think about how some of those flakes as well as nose slime might have got mixed up with the picnic food.
I am looking at this photo of Joan and Dell leaning back in their deckchairs with Rich and Ann standing close by, one on either side. There’s a glazed look about all of them. Of course they are smiling. Smiling is what you’re supposed to do in a photograph to show you’re having a happy time.
Click. The moment passed but the image remains. They are this way forever now, their flawless toy smiles can never turn themselves into frowns or expressions which register horror at any of the bad things which can sometimes happen in a life. For this, I know Joan would truly thank me. Behind the family is a grassy bank with a background of trees. The four characters in the group look as though they’re starring in a movie set in the Botanical Gardens. The theme is never ending bliss.
About the Author: Jay is published, or has work forthcoming, in 3: AM Magazine, A-Minor, Corium, Entropy, Epiphany, Ginosko, matchbook, Matter Magazine, Literary Orphans, Lunch Ticket, Per Contra, Prairie Schooner, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, Unthology 10, upstreet and Wigleaf. She is a 2017 Write Well Award nominee, a Pushcart nominee and winner of the Salt Prize. Her short-story collections (both Salt) are 'God of the Pigeons’ and ‘Astral Bodies’.