My Grandpa once said to me, “The more you fear the unseen, the more likely it is to be revealed.” He said it so out of the blue during the six o’clock news. You could almost see his grey-blue eyes go out of focus as his mind drifted, carried by his own thoughts. He said it before he got diagnosed with lung cancer. It’s almost as if he knew what was going to happen to him. My Grandpa was intelligent, but in the quiet kind of way – he never really said much, but what he did have to say always stuck in my mind. Mostly he sat in his armchair surrounded in a cloud of smoke which made me cough whenever I went round.
Grandma used to open all the windows to try and ease my chest, “I’m just getting some fresh air around here for our young boy, Derek. See what you have done to him?” She’d open them as far as they would go and tuck the floral-patterned curtains back as tight as she could to stop the rain getting to them. That was always how it went; Grandma pottering around the house and sorting everything out - from paying bills to washing up – nothing got past her without her knowing.
When my Grandma died, I didn’t see Grandpa cry. At her funeral, he sniffed, smiled at the sky, took a raspy breath and said to no-one in particular, “to be one at the gates of God, is to be one at the cusp of freedom.” Looking back I realise that the smoke which surrounded him was almost a way of shutting himself out from the world; a way of hiding from his fears. Only now, after everything that happened, I know that he was depressed. He was scared. And I feel sad that I didn’t do anything to try and save him.
“Take a photograph.” He had spotted me staring at a seagull perched on the white railings surrounding the harbour. “Here.”
He placed his old Polaroid camera into my amateur twelve-year-old hands. We had just finished the meal after Grandma’s funeral, and some of us decided to take a walk in the damp afternoon air. I hung back, taking everything in – the sound of the waves lapping against the boats, the laughter being carried by the wind, how I couldn’t tell where the horizon ended and the sky began. Joe led the way holding our Mother’s hand, followed by our Dad, our Uncle and his fiver-year-old son. Grandpa was tagging along too, after much persuasion from Mum. But, like me, he walked slowly – partly due to his weak lungs, and partly because he too wanted to make the most of the day.
“I bought this camera a while back,” he smiled. “I’ve never used it.” I bought it up to my eye and lined it up so that the bird was sitting in the middle of the frame. The distance between us and the rest of our family grew as they continued on their walk, probably still reminiscing Grandma’s happiest times.
“Why haven’t you ever used it, Grandpa?”
“I haven’t felt the need to capture anything that I won’t remember in my head.” He chuckled and tapped his forehead. “It’s better quality up here.”
“Grandma liked to take lots of pictures.” I took another step towards the seagull, still squinting into the viewfinder. Its feathers were bright white with dashes of grey speckled across them, as if he’d flown straight through Grandpa’s cloud of smoke.
“Have you ever heard of reincarnation, Oscar?”
“I don’t think so.” The seagull looked at me, eyeing me up with its big marble-like eyes.
“It’s the belief that our souls are born into a new body after we die.”
“A new body?”
“Yes, you could come back as a horse or a dog.” He paused. “Or a bird.” At this moment, the seagull squawked and flew up over our heads as the camera flashed. At the time, I was disappointed that the first photograph taken on Grandpa’s camera was one of a white railing with a blurry pair of seagull feet in the top right corner. Now, as it sits propped up against my alarm clock, it’s one of my favourites.