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Source Magazine: Thinking Through Photography - Web Articles - Writers Prize - The Only Photograph of Mr Pencil - by Sinéad Corcoran. Posted: Thu 14 Apr 2022.

WRITERS PRIZE: 14 / APR / 2022
by Sinéad Corcoran

Mr Pencil survived the War by turning sideways. Every movement of his comrades looked like the worst case of having a fleshy body that Mr Pencil had ever seen. They heaved and dragged themselves up and down the mountainsides. Blinded by their own sweat and slowed by their own feet that rejected their duty to move, move, move, hide, hide, hide. They staggered under the weight of their own selves and when they fell, he – like a sliver, a ripple, a faint glint against the sky – watched the shrapnel and the bullets press into the thickness of them.

Since childhood, Mr Pencil was always looking at the sky: the chance of rain, the chance of wind, the chance of a sudden summer storm. His mother said he was of a delicate constitution, a nervous disposition, running inside at any sign of danger. In fair weather, however, he was the finest scout in all of Western Macedonia.

When the War was over, as if making up for lost time, everyone in the village launched back into bitter, longstanding disputes with their neighbours, with much enthusiasm, and no one with more relish than Mr Pencil’s future wife.

Stout and broad, with her feet rooted in the mud as if she had grown from it, she berated her neighbour and his mother and his father and his grandmother’s aunt on his mother’s side. Her opponent shouted and swore, waved his stick and whacked his fence, so overcome with glee was he to be back in familiar territory with his familiar, formidable neighbour. And just as she paused to take a breath, to fortify herself for the next round, the pitiful sight of Mr Pencil, returning from the battlefields, turned the corner of the street.

She paused, told the neighbour she would never forgive his treachery as long as she lived, and took a pencil from her apron.

An immovable rock. An ox. An oak tree. A village-dwelling queen of a woman.

She made him a hat, to cover up the uneven patches of hair. Studied his remaining shoe and sketched another, holding his ankle firmly as the glue took hold. A few heavy strokes gave him a moustache. She replaced a missing button on his shirt, and restored the timeworn texture of his jumper. His jacket looked new again and he looked at her in awe.

They married that autumn.

His small army pension, and her digging, chopping, grinding, preserving, cooking, cutting, feeding, boiling, retting, dragging, pulling, steaming, wrangling, weaving, picking, scything, holding, steadying, grounding and growing, was enough for a comfortable life in a solid house with no sharp edges.

When word went round that a photographer was coming to the village and setting up his studio in the school, everyone was surprised that Mr Pencil’s wife convinced him to join the queue for a portrait. But go and face that flash (like lightning!) he did, standing just ever so slightly behind his wife’s shoulder, just in case. And when the photographer returned to the village with boxes of prints and frames to sell, while others grumbled and swore at how they looked as a photograph, Mr Pencil drew himself up into a smile for he looked exactly as he did in the mirror. His wife scowled at her scowl, tightened her lips and glared at her glare. Look what he’s done to my chin, she said.

As the years passed, Mr Pencil’s wife and their neighbours looked less and less like their photographs. But every Sunday, before church, he would stand beside the photograph, and his wife would scrutinize his appearance for any indication that his looks were deviating from the version of himself in the frame. Any slouching, crumpling, undoing or unravelling, she took the pencil from her apron and fixed them all.

And so for as long as she lived, Mr Pencil continued to look as he did the day his portrait was taken. The photographer made many more visits to the village over the years but, such perfection was the first, and such meticulous skill did his wife possess, Mr Pencil had no need for a second photograph.

Other articles in the ‘Writers Prize’ series:

Other articles on photography from the ‘Portraiture’ category ▸