The album which keeps my baby photographs is worn and grimy with the years - a bit like me. It is a pale and padded plastic blue with white buttons; held whole with tape that has begun to curl and a sorry silk tassel whose burlesque days are through. When you open it, joints creak and it sighs a little. The inside cover, once virgin cream, is now a rusting and unpleasant brown, as if one day, I snatched it from a hearth where it was smouldering.
Many of its flattened subjects hold me tight in there and once loved me. Some still do. But others I could not keep by me: a father, two grandmothers, godmother, godfather, a curly-haired aunty and her cross-legged son. The blood list lost, goes on. Then, they were mine and I clutched their fingers. Now, they are mine only in memories and an album - for as long as they smile "Cheese" and the page is open.
I think the album sad, though it show-cases a content and lace-dressed child. Perhaps the thought that these days have come and gone, arrives too soon for me. On the very first page, a suited man relaxes, leaning against the rails on the windy prom at Blackpool; a cigarette between his fingers. You can only lean so long. Look again, he is sitting down on a wooden bench, my mother's leather handbag and a parcel beside him. The snaps are of my father who should perhaps have tossed the cigarette into the cold black and white sea behind him. My mother tells me I was six weeks old when she left with him for three or four days in Blackpool. Her husband - the first - my brand new father, had not confessed to coughing blood but pleaded for a seaside break. "I didn't want to leave you," she tells me, "but I knew he wasn't well and so we went."
One year and eight snap-filled pages later, the cigarette has quite gone out, the coughing stopped and there is no more suited man. Instead, another trip this time to Ireland; the camera shutter closes on a young matron in a tilted, black straw hat with her solemn fat-faced babe. My widow-weeded mother holds me forever in her arms in front of roses, river, bridge and church. He may be gone but I am her victory over death, a triumph in pantaloons and bonnet. I think she may be sad then. I'm sure she is, as she carries me around with her, a memory of him, until, in the way of things, she meets another kindly father man, marries him and smiles again.
Here is the confusion. I opened the album up because twice lately, I have had the sensation as I looked at my own daughter, that I was looking at myself. I never felt that with the boys. My sons are my lions; terrorsome and grand. See how they go; march and strut and shout. But the other day, as I gazed at my baby standing proud in the grass, deciding should she walk or not, I felt: "That's me. I'm looking at myself". Again today, I held her in my arms at the bathroom sink, glanced up at the mirror and thought again: "That baby in my arms. That's me." So I dug out this relic of the past to see if my baby-self had escaped her black sugar-paper prison. But no, she was still there, safe in her mother's arms.