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Source Magazine: Thinking Through Photography - Web Articles - Writers Prize - What Remains - by Liam Etheridge. Posted: Tue 28 Nov 2023.

WRITERS PRIZE: 28 / NOV / 2023
by Liam Etheridge

The last photo of my mum was taken shortly after she was. The photo is of our hands holding, and it is shut away in a folder where I can’t see it. This is because when I once glimpsed the picture by accident, it put me in a bad mood for days. Nevertheless, I couldn’t simply delete it – it seemed disrespectful somehow, like flushing her ashes down the toilet. So I am stuck with it, tucked away somewhere in the digital recesses of my old laptop.

Somebody told me that crematoria only give you some of your loved one’s remains, a kind of representative sample. So who’s to say we buried any meaningful part of my mum in the clay mud of the bay? Once a person dies, your relationship with them becomes abstract very quickly: one moment you are holding their very definite hand, attuned to their very definite breath; when all of a sudden you are not even sure whether the box of dust you’re weeping into contains a beloved kneecap or fondly remembered elbow. A forelock? A toenail? An eyelid? These all will have vanished up the chimney as gas. Her body has become like her self, a diffuse thing; scattered like the many versions of her in the hearts of people who loved her. But does my photo, a distinct arrangement of pixels resembling part of my mum, contain any less of her than the ash we put out to sea?

Though I haven’t seen it since it was taken, the thought of that photo occurs to me often, conjuring with it mundane details of the hospital side room. I think of my grandma on speakerphone reading a description of heaven from the Bible, like she was describing a retirement village with unbelievable facilities. I think of my stepfather’s infuriating cough on the other side of the bed. I think of mum when she briefly opened her eyes, smiled, farted, and died. I think of the beach we went to afterwards, where we had spent our childhood, and where on this day the sea seemed to have stopped dead. We stood knee deep 30 meters from the beach, the sky so blue it was white over a cut-stone sea, everything silent like a postcard. A year on, we would bury mum’s ashes in view of our home in the same clay that was between our toes now. I would smile at my 3-month-old daughter, grafted to my fiancé with a complicated strap, waiting for me on the stony shore. The photo shows me all of this and gets fuller by the year – but maybe all I really have is a picture full of things that aren’t in it.

Even as a write about it, I can only describe it to you by looking at my hand in front of me now, and the space where my mum’s hand isn’t. Three years on, my hands already look older like a man’s, and teeming with life. My younger snow-white flesh has thawed into a more weathered landscape. Knuckle crags seem to rise between vein rivers, with crops of light hair bent forwards as though blown by the wind. A scar glistens, a tiny reservoir in the foothills of my fist, becoming shallower with every year. Beneath, on the cave-ceiling of my palm, sweat creeps through pores as unquenchable as a groundwater spring. In my mind’s eye it’s strange how my mother’s hand, limp in my grip, had returned to that frosty-paleness, as cold and as white as seafoam. The picture is of our hands together like that, land grasping at the retreating tide.

What Remains was shortlisted for the Source prize for new writing about photography in 2023.

About the Source Writers Prize ▸

Other articles in the ‘Writers Prize’ series:

Other articles on photography from the ‘Family’ category ▸