“GETOUTOFITT YOU RAVING PILLOCK!”
The huge jaws of the truck’s grab stopped moving an inch from my hard-hat as I dived down underneath them.
I was on site there with my client, American actor Hardy Nicolls, who was having this house demolished, so as to rebuild another one according to his own design, for which I was preparing the plans. When I noticed the sun’s rays reflected off a glass item in amongst the broken bricks, smashed timbers and rubble, I knew instinctively it was something precious that shouldn’t be destroyed.
“Oh boy, Jamie, you sure like taking risks,” Hardy joked as the truck driver who’d been operating the grab called me a “blanking blanker, who deserved to have his blanketty-blank head smashed in” because I’d inadvisably ducked under the dangerous machinery.
“I had to,” I explained to Hardy, carefully sifting through the rubble to locate the object that had drawn my attention, finally extracting it carefully.
It was a piece of glass, about a foot square, on which there was what appeared to be a photograph. The lady in the portrait was in Victorian clothing, that I estimated to make the date around 1850. A small crowd of the building workers had gathered round to see what I held.
Joe Weston, the amiable chief demolition contractor, was craning closer to look. “That’s quite a find, Jamie,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ve never seen such a thing before, but I’ve read that in the very earliest days of photography, they used all kinds of mediums to print their pictures on. I think they’re called Colloidal photographs, and I know that a Serbian man called Johann Pucher invented a method of printing photographs on glass plates. I’d say we’re looking at one of the very earliest photographs.”
“Is it worth anything?” asked jug-eared Toby, one of the demolition crew, sniffing a dewdrop of snot back up his nose.
“I haven’t a clue,” said Joe. “It’s obviously got rarity value. I bet a museum of photography would love it.”
“Trouble is,” I went on, “my guess is that the photo was in the loft of the house—obviously some previous owner forgot to take it. So the chances are it’s a picture of someone’s ancestor. The right thing is to try and return it to them.”
“Yeah?” jeered Toby, the sharp-eyed demolition worker. “So how on earth are you going to do that, mate?” He glared around with a smirk. “And if it’s worth a few quid, why bother?”
“Anyway,” I ignored him, looking at Hardy. “This belongs to you, it was on your property.”
“The heck it is!” Hardy beamed at me, clapping me on the back and laughing. “Jamie, if you hadn’t risked your neck just now, that thing would be in a million pieces. You have it with my blessing—if it’s worth a few dollars I guess you’ve earned it, and if you want to find its rightful owner you go right ahead. How would you do it anyway?”
“Land Registry records I suppose,” I thought aloud. “Get a list of previous owners of the house.”
“Blimey, you’d have more chance of finding a needle in a knocking shop!” declared Toby, belching and kicking a broken brick a few yards, and thrusting out his lower lip. “All right for some. You wouldn’t catch me turning my nose up at a few quid.”
Clearly the chances of finding the descendant of the lady in the glass was a longshot, but, as I looked down at her, something in her kind, eloquent expression moved me. She was middle aged, with long dark hair, and an elaborate looking dress. I felt an instinctive affection for her, whoever she was, as if she’d wanted me to find her.
Tony, the grab operator who’d abused me earlier, apologised for his outburst as I was leaving the site: “Sorry for mouthing off at you Jamie, mate, my nerves is right on edge. On the way in I saw this terrible car crash on the road—this young girl on a stretcher, she looked in a bad way, same age as my daughter she was, it really upset me. . .”
Next day I asked a private detective friend, Peter, to do the research for me. He found me five names to follow up, each of whom had at some stage in the last forty years lived in the house which we’d just demolished.
So over the next days I phoned the people and after the usual delays and left-messages, four of them got back to me, and all were certain that the lady in the glass was no relation to them, nor had they put such an item in the loft of their erstwhile home.
The fifth names, Mr and Mrs Chambers, appeared to be impossible to contact by phone or email. A few days later, as I was driving home, I realised I wasn’t too far from their address, so decided, as a last ditch attempt, I’d try knocking on the door.
There was a long wait after I heard the door chime. Just as I turned to leave it opened, and a small lady peered back at me through the narrow crack. “Yes?” she snapped angrily. “What do you want?”
My heart skipped a beat! There in front of me was the same expression as I could see in the eyes of the lady in the glass. Same eyes, even though this lady’s expression was anxious and wary. She looked as if she’d been crying.
I gabbled on with my explanations, and, since she seemed keen to get rid of me, I immediately unwrapped the photograph and showed it to her.
She gaped at it as if mesmerised. “Gracious,” she stared at it, blinking her reddened, strained eyes. “I think that’s my great great grandmother, Phillippa Subatov. We lost this lovely photo of her when we moved! She was Serbian you know, she was supposed to be a white witch or something, she could heal people, my father once said. Oh this is amazing!”
She was crying. I didn’t know what to do, or why she was so upset, but I followed as she stepped back into the hallway, still staring at it.
“Please, I’m sorry, do excuse me.” She couldn’t stop her tears, dabbing her nose and eyes with a handkerchief. “You see my daughter’s in hospital. She was in a terrible car accident last week and she’s been in a coma ever since. My husband’s still there, we take it in turns to sit with her. We’ve hardly been at home at all. It’s amazing you caught me. Ordinarily I’d be over the moon to have found this portrait, but as you can imagine nothing matters but—”
I heard the sound of a ringing phone and she rushed away to answer it.
Since Mrs Chambers obviously wanted to be left alone, I carefully knelt down and propped the glass photograph against the wall and left by the front door, regretting having intruded at such a terrible time.
I’d got halfway down the front drive when I heard her footsteps behind me, her hand on my arm, clutching the photograph in the other.
“Please, please, I haven’t thanked you!” She was smiling for the first time, a real smile, gloriously shining through her tears. “That was my husband on the phone. Our daughter’s woken up, and they say she’ll make a full recovery! It’s silly, but it’s almost as if seeing that photograph of great great grandmother Philippa made the difference. As if she was actually trying to tell me that everything was going to be all right! As I told you she was supposed to be a witch.”
We both looked down at the photograph. And I swear it looked as if the lady’s expression had fractionally changed, as if her quiet smile had somehow become wider.