Every year, when the plum tree had lost its leaves, my father, would take a photograph. From the moment the air turned cool, we would keep a close eye on it, watching the shades of green become a spectrum of gold. And then, the colours shedding, a thickening blanket over the roots, we would wait for the last leaf to drop.
Some years — looking out of the window — we would wake to find the tree suddenly bare, the remaining few leaves having fallen in the night.
At other times, the last leaves would struggle on through the morning but, later in the day, when one of us would go back to check, they would be gone. Then, there were the handful of more memorable occasions when, upon looking out of the window — that of his bedroom or the dining room below — either he or I or both of us together would catch the last leaf as it came fluttering down to the ground, watching it curl and flip through the air, before resting weightless on the grass or skipping away on the cusp of a breeze.
‘It’s time,’ he would say, and fetch his camera.
At that time of year, it was not quite winter-cold, but the seasons were shifting. Fewer clouds gathered overhead. The daylight sharpened and the materials of the garden — the stone path, the greenhouse, the antique table, the iron work chairs and the plum tree itself — appeared in greater definition. The residual warmth of summer evaporated.
He was particular about the photographs. His practice was consistent. He would stand with both feet on the path with his back to the dining room window, so close that he was almost leaning against the glass. At the centre of the frame was the point where the largest branches diverged from the trunk. This meant that, although the garden was not particularly large, the table and chairs, the flowerbeds and the greenhouse remained out of shot. The plum tree stood near the back of the garden which gave way to corn fields, ash blond plants that stood tall and firm. A dip in the land meant the scattered houses beyond remained invisible. In this way, the photographs made it appear as though the tree were the only marker on the horizon for miles around.
I would stand by his side and wait for the click, followed by the familiar winding of the film. He only ever took one shot. If the weather was bad, my father would make me watch through the dining room window. I would kneel on the deep wooden sill, looking at him through the central pane. At this distance, my mind became active. It was my mother’s tree, a memorial planted shortly after she died. That was all I knew. We seldom talked of her which meant that I seldom gave her much thought.
My father developed the photographs himself in the basement — the only part of the process in which I was not involved. The images were large, ten by twelve inches, black and white. He mounted them on pieces of black sugar paper cut to size to give a narrow frame. When he had finished, he would come to show me his work and I would nod my approval, commenting on the particulars: the position of the clouds, the blur of a breeze, the quality of the light. Each one was dated, numbered and stored in a heavy wooden box that he kept in the cupboard under the stairs.
I was often alone. Sometimes, if I was bored, I would take them out to look at, arranging them in patterns on the carpet or sorting them into piles. The few friends I had lived in the next village and, while on summer days I was glad to make the journey on my bike, when autumn closed in my father became anxious and I chose not to anguish him further by straying out of doors. In any case, I liked to be there, in the house, reordering the pictures, always looking for the most pleasing arrangement.
It would be easy to imagine that the photographs are all alike. The plum tree did not grow a great deal over the years and, as far as was possible, its shape was maintained by frequent pruning. Even so, while certain of the photographs bore close resemblance to one another, others differed so wildly that, had the backdrop not been so consistent — had the fields been dug up for housing, say, or the farmer chosen to plant a new crop — it would be easy to say that these were different plum trees from different lands. A certain kind of evening light made one image pale and over-bright, the sun burning a hole in part of the trunk. In another, the wind had torn through the upper branches and made them blur.
There are a number of ways to categorise the photographs. From the position of the sun and the quality of the light, it is possible to identify those taken in the morning, the afternoon and at sunset. Some skies were dull, some gave way to an occasional cloud, and others stretched away smoothly, disturbed only by the grain of the lens. But when I was in my teens, I preferred the simplest method: to make two piles, one for before and one for after the storm.
In the winter between the tenth and the eleventh photographs – I was ten – there was a night of crazed winds, lashing rain and forked lightning. Disturbed by the commotion, I ran into my father’s room and we lay in bed holding onto one another. We didn’t think of the tree until the morning. The largest branch, and others leading off from it, on the right side of the tree (as viewed from the photographer’s stance) had split and fallen. We stood at the dining room window, looking out at the rupture where the branches had torn. The two largest branches had been wrenched apart at the trunk, a jagged tear in the bark. The felled branch lay broken on the lawn. In the pictures that followed the storm you could chart small changes in the tree. The branches on the left sunk lower as it began to lean, losing its balance, slowly giving up on the sun.
There were other events, other exceptions. Of the thirty-two pictures he took, only one – the eighteenth – was in colour.
‘Why, when the others are black and white?’ I had said. I looked forward to the developed picture and this move away from tradition set me on edge.
‘Because when I took it the sky was so grey,’ he said.
Alone, the picture could pose as monochrome. It was only when it was placed among the others that its particular subtlety and warmth of tone became evident. My father held it against the photograph from the previous year.
‘It was a stupid thing to do,’ he said. ‘I made a mistake.’
Shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I enrolled to study architectural design at the University of Valencia, leaving my father alone in the house. He had encouraged me, then resigned himself to the change. It was summer, a month or two before term began, and I had little thought for autumn. When the days of September ran out and the heat endured — no change in the leaves, dry and brittle as ever — an uneasiness crept in. Every few days, I would phone home and enquire about the tree.
‘A few more have gone,’ he would say. ‘One or two fallen, I think. Though it’s early yet’ I sensed his irritation at my absence and made an effort to talk of other things. Until one November afternoon, he said: ‘They’ve all gone, I took the picture.’
In Valencia, autumn was never cool. When it finally arrived, the air was only a little altered and the light the same. Trees were slow to lose their leaves and many never did. Instead, the habit of Valencian leaves was to grow limp and hang, undead, waiting for a cold that would not come. When I went home for the winter holidays that year we did not talk about the photograph I’d missed, the first in almost twenty years.
In my third year abroad, I decided to go home for the photograph. I called a few weeks ahead and had a long conversation with my father regarding the precise timing of my trip and over which days I would have the best chance of catching the plum tree as it lost its last leaves. He kept careful records of his work and, looking at the dates of the photographs, he concluded that the most opportune window was between the fourteenth and the twenty-second of November. I made my arrangements accordingly.
When I arrived back it was the fourteenth. Eight leaves remained on the tree. The next day there were six, then five. On the fourth, fifth and sixth days there were three. After a week had gone by, only two leaves remained and on November twenty-second — the day of my departure — there was one leaf left. I had packed my bags the night before and my train to the airport was at half past one. We would need to leave the house at twelve. By the time we finished breakfast it was nine. There was a three hour window.
‘Still one, still one,’ my father said, looking out of the dining room window. Then, when the last of the coffee had been drunk, he said: ‘I know what to do.’
‘You can’t take the picture with the leaf still there,’ I said.
‘Of course not,’ said my father.
I followed him out the back door. Instead of assuming his usual position on the path, he kept on walking towards the tree. He reached up and before I could stop him he had the last leaf in his hand. It was stubborn and it took a hard tug to free it from its branch. He stuffed the leaf into the back pocket of his jeans and moved away from the tree, the camera slung around his neck. He took the picture, the twenty-first in the sequence. The ritual was broken, the archive contaminated. He had ignored his own rules. I felt ashamed that he had done this for my sake, because I no longer lived there, because we were both getting older, and who knew how many photographs were left? My coming home at all like that, right in the middle of term, was already an anachronism in our story.
When I graduated from Valencia, I got an apprenticeship in New York. My father was thrilled, and for the first time since I had left home, I sensed that we had come to some kind of understanding. I no longer had to ask about the tree; when autumn arrived he told me all about it and when he said that the photograph had been taken he described the sky and the light and the movement of the air so well that I could picture it perfectly in my mind. There were one or two years when I went home, though I was never there to see the last leaf fall, but just being there at that time of year was enough.
Then, I met Laura. An American and a dancer, lively, always laughing, with a large and close-knit family up state; a heritage utterly removed from the quiet, almost silent, world of my childhood. We went to art galleries. She took me to the opera. I showed her my projects, she took me to rehearsal. When she walked, there was a slight turn-out in her feet.
The spring before the very last picture was taken, Laura and I got engaged. The same April, I took her home to meet my father. The plum tree was in full bloom. We sat beneath it, drinking prosecco and laughing like children. Laura charmed him; she seemed to have an effect on his character: he became playful, gracious, even stylish. He took great pride in the way he served us dinner and in the mornings he laid on lavish breakfasts, with pastries, fruits, breads and jams the likes of which I had never seen him buy before. We stayed a full week, during which time neither my father nor myself made any mention of the catalogue of photographs under the stairs. I remember having wanted to ask him if he continued to honour the tradition, but something — whether a sense of embarrassment or ritualistic sanctity, I don’t know — prevented me and I kept quiet.
He died the following winter. A heart attack. Aged 62. It was quick, without pain, they said. I went back alone — Laura had a Broadway show at that time — and made the arrangements for the funeral. She would arrive in time for that. I called the vicar and asked him to make an announcement. The local newspaper was informed. When the day of the funeral came, the church was packed, pews crammed, people standing at the back. Even more turned up for the wake at the Drifter’s Inn, the other side of the village.
‘I had no idea he had so many friends,’ I said. When I was a boy he had very few visitors. In fact, he had never exhibited much need of other company at all. But it seemed that once I left he became an active member of the community. He mowed the lawn of the cemetery and volunteered at the local school. He had even, someone told me, led a photography workshop at the village hall.
Laura went back to New York while I stayed on for a few more weeks. There was no good reason to hold onto the house. I called an estate agent. It was sold within two months. A few bits of furniture, pieces of my mother’s jewellery he had kept and other items I had loved or that seemed important somehow, were shipped to New York; among them, of course, were the photographs.
They remained in their box on a low shelf in my study for many years. Whenever I looked at it, I told myself I was keeping them there for their protection, so they would not fade. In the end, it was Laura who unearthed them. She was pregnant at the time and, unable to dance, had set her mind on clearing out the house. It was more than a decade since he had died.
I was in the kitchen when she came to find me:
‘Did you take these?’ she said, holding up an image in each hand. ‘Where did you find a tree like that in New York?’
She was oddly suspicious, as though I might have been sneaking out taking pictures of trees behind her back.
‘You know that tree,’ I said. ‘You’ve seen it. It’s the plum tree in my father’s garden.’
She looked blank.
‘You sat beneath it once to toast our engagement,’ I said.
‘But it looks so different,’ said Laura looking at one of the pictures from before the storm.
‘I know, but that’s the one.’
‘Did you take them?’ she said.
‘No, he did.’
‘Well,’ she said, calmer, ‘they’re lovely. You should do something with them. Put them up.’
‘In the house?’
‘If you like, or in your office, or in a gallery somewhere.’
I laughed. ‘Let me think,’ I said.
At that time I was working for a firm on the Upper West Side. I made models of the cities of the future, the ones that my child would come to know. On the ground floor of the building was a printing office, run by a woman called Lin. She was softly spoken, almost to the point of inaudible, as though the incessant back-and-forth noise of the printers and copiers had dulled her over the years.
‘I need a favour,’ I said. I showed her the pictures. She looked at them with curiosity but made no comment. I asked for ten copies of each. She raised an eyebrow. ‘Is that too much?’ I asked.
She shook her head. ‘Come back in three days.’
When I went back, she handed me the images, all three hundred and twenty of them, plus the thirty originals, in a cardboard box. I reached for my wallet and took out a few notes.
‘No need,’ she said.
‘Are you sure?’
‘I made an extra copy of this one,’ she said. It was the one in colour. ‘I’m going to put it in my kitchen,’ she said. ‘It looks like a tree from my grandfather’s garden.’
‘I know,’ she said, ‘but it does.’
‘And the others?’
‘I know, they’re all the same. But this one looks more like the one I remember than the rest.’
I set to work. On the back of each print I placed a sticker with the date of capture and numbered them in sequence. I hung one set of copies across three walls of my study at home. I knew that the light in the room was uneven and that some of the pictures would fade faster than others. But now that there were so many copies, it was hard to imagine a time when they would all be faded. They would outlive me, at least. When all the pictures were arranged, I stood before them, looking carefully. When I stopped at one, perhaps the fourth or the fifth, a warmth crept over my shoulders, radiating from the memory of the way the dining room window almost touched my father’s back. I felt the stone path beneath my feet and the change of the air against my cheeks. Though I had never taken a single photograph in that house, I felt the weight and the coolness of the camera in my hands and the presence of a young boy at my side, watching and waiting for the click of the big black button, the winding of the film, the tap on the shoulder that meant it was time to go back inside.
Laura gave birth to a girl, a long-limbed little thing with a shock of fair hair. We named her Carla, after Carla Fracci. She couldn’t take her eyes off us, when we were working or cooking or sitting down at the end of the day to listen to music. It was as if she were watching over us, and not the other way round. When she was very small, I used to carry her into my study. I held her to my chest so that her head poked over my shoulder. I walked her slowly from one photograph to the next, moving with my back to the frames, so that Carla could get the best view. I pictured each image as she arrived at it, her breathing soft and steady in my ear.
When she was old enough I gave her a set of copies. Just as I had done, she liked to reorder and reorganise the images, dividing them up, placing them in grids or columns or zig zags across the floor.
At school, her subject was art and she came home, night after night, with some new painting or drawing rolled up under her arm. At sixteen, she went to art school. At eighteen she decided to go professional, living at home, saving money for her first show. She was friends with the right people. She had Laura’s quiet confidence. I never doubted she would succeed. We gave her the dining room to use as a studio, taking our meals at the kitchen table. For two whole years she wouldn’t show us a thing.
In that time, I learned that the old house was no longer there. The family who had bought it sold it on to developers, who had simply waited for the right time to build. They razed it to the ground and, presumably, the plum tree with it. I was suddenly aware that there were no photographs of anything else. My father had not documented my childhood the way most parents do, the way we had with Carla. There were no pictures of our Christmases, our outings to the city, my football matches or school plays, though he had attended them all. There was only the plum tree, thirty two versions of it, and all more or less the same. Soon after, I took the photographs down and replaced them with bits of Carla’s work. I left them in their frames and piled them into a box.
When Carla was twenty, and I was as old as my father had been when he died, she unveiled the project. It could not be done at home, she said, so she hired a cheap space in Brooklyn, a room with no windows about fifteen feet square and painted white. When she ushered us in, it was pitch black. She held some manner of remote control in her hand. She clicked a button and the room filled with light, which cast peculiar shadows on the wall.
The back wall was filled with miniature spotlights and each light was fitted with a lens from which the shadows were generated. As my eyes adjusted, I began to recognise the shapes on the wall as images of the plum tree. I counted the lights. Thirty two lenses for thirty two photographs. I looked more closely at the projections, identifying the tree before the storm and after it, the pictures with clear skies, with dark skies with clouds. The shadows were all different sizes, the images magnified to different degrees and tilted to fall upon different parts of the room. In the middle of one wall, something strange caught my eye. I walked towards it. The tone of the shadow was faintly blue, and the sky not quite clean.
‘The one in colour,’ I said.
She handed me the remote control. There were thirty two buttons.
‘How did you do this?’ I said.
‘How long can we stay?’
‘As long as you like.’
I took them on a tour of the room. I told them about the storm, the years I had missed, the years I returned. We clicked the lights on and off, all three of us, and adjusted the angles, moving the images from ceiling to walls to floor, in order to find the most pleasing arrangement.
Anna Metcalfe was born in Holzwickede in 1987. Her stories have been published in Tender Journal, Elbow Room, Lighthouse and The Warwick Review. In 2014, she was shortlisted for The Sunday Times Short Story Award. She lives in Norwich, where she is working on her first collection.
Banner image: ‘The Brouhers’ by Ric Bower