Photo Album

Its battered, faded green opens to my father’s happy grin
posing beside the Sphinx.
Its head my mother’s smiling face.
In some Egyptian photo booth he’d stood,
skinny in khaki and lemon squeezer,
to show those at home
he’d made it, was ready to do battle amid the pyramids.
Had taken from his wallet, the photo,
a pacific love token,
allowed the darkroom magic to place his lover’s face,
on the enigmatic gaze of centuries.

Later photos log his journey toward a peace.
Standing proud beside his tank
Arms folded, strong across his chest.
His grinning mates, arms draped on others shoulders,
lean over guns,
wave greetings to the lens.
For some, fading ink records a last farewell-
“Jack, Bill, Ben and Ron –aren’t we all handsome chaps?”
A photo of Ron alone records his death
“A brew-up in the tank.
Somewhere north of Rome.”

Pressed between black pages the Pope,
pious in name and deed, stares blankly from the page
blessing those whose mission took them
to dusty roads and ruins dark on golden hilltops.
Cassino’s smoking cliffs and a note,
“Stella got a telegram today – Thank God it’s wrong.”
Some other, unmet relative had died instead.
His body marked, a number,
Far from southern skies.

Florence, a blur of souvenir images of Duomo, Baptistery and spires
Unfolds across a page while smiling groups of men huddle
over fires waving battered mugs of liberated wine
and tanks, guns shrouded in winter snow, stand ghosts against the leaden sky.
Silence waiting for a final call,
the rumble of advance, the thudding heave of shells
an echo from ancient walls frozen, compressed in kodaked black and white.
Laconic record notes “The castle had a cellar. The boys enjoyed the booze.”

A tank, turret twisted to the sky, smears smoke.
A bridge tilts its road to nowhere.
A line of tired men march toward the horizon
and bodies, grey in muddy waters, swirl
a macabre dance around a bridge,
arms raised in stiff salute to those above.
A note records “German bodies in the Po.”
“We had to shoot them. The bastards had ‘em mined.”
As if one death was not enough.

My father’s album closes to return.
A promised time of ease, comfort secure in knowing
a smile well meant was true and life could come and go
without the horror of the past.
Until today when those less able to forget
come, full of early morning dreams to visit,
lean on his rough humour,
trying to relieve their horrors over tea and present talk.

For the first year life was one of women.
Milestones measured in months,
recorded in smiling women’s faces,
clucking over chubby hands and puckered mouth,
laughing over this accident of pleasure.

Regardless of event the group remains,
Preserved in frozen smiles of contact prints.
“Alan – three weeks” is Mum, young,
in print and slippers-
smiling from the doorstep shade –
holding, to the camera, my shawl wrapped form.

Later, at three months, the ranks grow large.
Mrs. Rushton, tall and dark in tweed,
Smelling, even now in two tone memory, of talc and heather.
Eleanor – smiling at a child she would never have –
holds my mother’s arm.
Nana, powdery, eyes twinkling, holds her court
and Mrs. Knowles, dumpy beside her daughter-in-law,
smiles her secrets to the lens.
My Aunts- Gertie, Audrey and young Isobel – wait their turn
gathered to admire, advise and pose in pride
around the shawl.


The climate changes at a year
when, judged to be ready for the world of men,
Father appears to hold me to the lens,
to show his creation, proud, to all
who browse this way.
Women fade to backgrounds,
events – birthdays, gatherings of family and
Mother’s friends smiling to the sun.
While Grandfathers flicker past – holding
awkward, the families’ growing tribe,
pride holds firm on faces as yet unlined while
standing, proud in army baggy pants, my father grins
proud above the group.
Life moves on.
Another frozen image labelled,
filed for later time held reference
on these graying pages of family history.

4.Ball Player

Miniature worlds of black and white
brief contacts in time
as negative becomes a positive
recording progress - of returns, births and smiling parents.
Here, in army greatcoat and heavy boots,
my father stands, his bicycle against his hip,
and I, wrapped in coat and blanket, balance,
waiting for my mother's hasty focus
of proud parent and first born son
as yet too young to hang to handle-bars,
sit astride the bar, to cycle cross town
to stand, wind-blown, on the bank
and yell encouragement to the team,
yet old enough to clutch my father's hand
to be ready for the off and Kaierau playing at the Park.

In later shot I stand, alone,
muddy-kneed in black and white,
clutching, against a grass-stained jersey,
a battered rugby ball - a birthday gift - along with boots.
The game as yet unplayed, the team unknown
but winter lawns became the Park
for the single family hero to kick and chase,
grub and punt, drop and place, ruck and maul my way to fame.
To hear my name whistle from whining speakers,
echo across the windswept terraces, roar through crowded stands,
to join the Gods: Whineray, Dalton, Nathan, Scott and Clarke.
Find no answering call from my sidelines
but Mum's quick unfocussed snap -
The family's future All Black.

Alan Papprill

If you've any comments on this poem, Alan Papprill would be pleased to hear from you.