A Scene Like This

Commissioned by The National Library of Wales for #ExploreYourArchive Week 2020

Birt Acres’ Camera, 1895

A Scene Like This                   Cardiff, April 1896

It happened again this afternoon. A bench in the park, and I sat looking up at the trees, the tips of each branch the finest green against the sky and the buds just opening. I was on my own, looking at those perfect colours, thinking about paint and perspective, when a man walked up to me, smiling. 

He was young, glowing, and I’m too old for that sort of thing, only I forget sometimes. I looked away, smoothed my skirt, and then he sat down next to me without asking. His strange smile made me think I must have looked odd, craning up at the leaves, only no, that wasn’t it at all. He asked if he could tell me something and gripped the edge of the bench as he spoke. Of course, I said yes because it would be rude not to, and he told me he’d just come within an inch of taking his life. But didn’t. Chose not to, he said, and laughed. Then he said it had felt inevitable for so long, and he’d gone to the train station at the right time, watched the clock, and when the train appeared – the 2:37, which doesn’t stop, just thunders through – the thought struck him that he didn’t need to jump after all. He could walk in the park instead, and so he did, and here I was, sitting, looking up at the light, and wasn’t it wonderful? That light.

He looked so thankful, and, for something to say, I asked what he was going to do next, and he said he might like a meal even if it was only the middle of the afternoon. A proper meal with a white tablecloth and a glass of wine – yes, a glass of white wine – like all this bright spring light. The right thing to do after all.

Well, I said I must go, and he said of course, as if it actually hadn’t occurred to him I might hear that talk as an invitation. I stood up, and he said wait and took a book from his pocket, tore out a page – just ripped it out without pause or thought – and wrote his name and address right over the printed text.

“Here,” he said. “For you.

“Thank you.” I took the paper, and he smiled again.He didn’t want to shake hands, so I folded the paper and put it in my pocket, and it’s on the table now, there by the window. There’s a small breeze blowing in, ruffling the sheers and catching the corner of the page, lifting it. White tablecloth, white page. I don’t know what book it’s from. I don’t recognise the story.

So, things like this happen. I collect them, these small scenes. People tell me things. Or I find myself in the right place at the right time and witness something. Bright, dangerous and frightening, or something beautiful just under the surface. I don’t seek them out, these small moments splintered away. Maybe it’s luck, or something else. It isn’t new. I’ve always seen them.

Ten years old, winter, and it’s midnight. I am the only one awake in the house – maybe on the whole street. Everything is quiet, and I am vividly awake. When I open the curtain at my bedroom window, the moon pools in onto my feet and the cold floor, and I’m startled because, standing in the garden, watching me, is a fox.  Bright moonlight makes the shadows blue, and the fox is motionless, bright against the snow. A line of silver edges his fur, and his eyes are fixed, watching. He must have been watching before I opened the curtain. I feel he knew I was here. Now neither of us want to look away. This moment, this scene, perfect until the clock in the hall chimes and I’m startled again, the curtain falling from my hand and the room dark without the moon. I look back to the garden, and the fox is gone. Later, in bed again, with my head on my pillow, my feet warming, I can see him, imagine him walking away down the street in the night’s light and shadow, thinking of me thinking of him.

Eighteen, and a young mother on the street stops me, pinching my sleeve and holding me tight. She tells me I’m just like her sister who’d run away, married a sailor, refused to write. I smile awkwardly, and her thumb tightens on my arm.

“Yes,” she says, convinced. “You have her look. You are just the same.”

Her baby starts to cry, and she turns away.

She had a green ribbon at the edge of her collar, a soft, browny green, just the colour of the bruise on my arm before it healed.

Younger – when? – just younger, and a man comes up to me while I’m painting in a gallery, my mother at the other side of the room. My mother is younger, too, standing straight and looking the other way when the man steps close. He wears clean eyeglasses and a white beard and tells me his wife had been putting poison in his afternoon tea each day. Just a pinch, but he knows. He’s seen the packet under the sink and one blue grain on his saucer, but he has decided he isn’t going to be difficult about it, because what does it matter? He is old and has had a good life. She must have her reasons. He looks at my canvas, smiles as if he is relieved to have spoken, then offers me a peppermint from a little tin he extracted from his pocket. The mints inside are robin’s egg blue. He smiles again, sadly, when I say thank you, but no, holding up my painty fingers by way of excuse.

I don’t tell people about these scenes. By people, I mean my parents, of course. They’d worry, and they are so good to me. Encouraging me, generously buying me paints, canvas, and the books on the shelves. They used to say it was all part of my education, but these days it is different. We look after each other. My mother needs nursing now, and my father is understanding but not practical.

He says I will always have a home there, as if he honestly thought I could imagine a way to leave. He wouldn’t understand about scenes.  Besides, they are difficult to talk about. I don’t think they mean anything. They don’t point anywhere or connect. They aren’t the sort of moment that can be explained. Light prismed on a polished table, the perfect curve of a fallen petal.

Six years old, and my mother reading, my father in his smoking jacket, and the tea tray on the table. I am sitting on the floor with a book, quietly, so possibly he has forgotten I am there.  He reaches out his hand and plucks a sugar cube from the bowl. I see him holding it and he sees me. I look to the sugar cube in his fingers. It’s so white, perfect. He turns his head, looks at my mother’s face, and she looks up from her page. When she sees him, she slowly opens her mouth. A perfect silent O. He puts the sugar cube on her tongue and she closes her eyes. For a second, I think I know this game, a choosing game, crunch or suck, sweet sweet sweet, but then I see his smile and she opens her eyes and now she’s smiling, too, and I don’t understand at all, but that sweetness hits me anyway. I can taste it on my own tongue. I can taste it even now.

My father knocks on my bedroom door, wanting to know if I am ready for the evening.

“Almost. My hair…”

“You will be perfect. Your mother can’t find her – we will need to leave shortly.”

He breaks his speech protectively, and I quickly push my last hairpin in place. This evening, we three are going out together to the South Wales Art Society Gallery to a meeting of the Cardiff Photographic Society. It’s one of my father’s interests, though not a hobby. He’s interested in the theory of photography, the idea of catching a true to life image, of stopping time. I’ve argued that painting does the same thing, but he disagrees. Painting, he says, creates time. It may capture form and colour, but it makes something new. It is not a reproduction but an expression of what is seen. He thinks things through carefully. My mother listens and nods, and I write words down in my notebook to consider later, making sketches to help me remember. I will need to do something with the scene I saw this afternoon, the green buds in the park, the shifting, warming light. I won’t draw the young man, though. People are too difficult, and my most successful works are landscapes – mainly seasides, because I like painting the rush of the waves. Any people I include tend to look like trees: heavy and rooted with no discernible feelings. They offer no beauty to the composition. At best, balance.

Downstairs in the corridor, my father clears his throat.

When I go through to her room, my mother is waiting for me. She would like a clean chemise and a fresher dress, if it isn’t a bother. I lay the clothes out on the bed, then help her undress and dress again. When I help her lift her arm, fold hand, slot arm through sleeve, I think of the softness of children. I’d always assumed I would have my own, but now I won’t. I look after her instead and think of her as a child, her own mother helping her years ago. Neither of us speak, and she is patient with both of us which makes our routine easier. What is difficult is the thought this will only get harder. Now she is weak, but later she will be old and fragile.

Tonight at the Gallery, an American will be demonstrating an invention he hopes to show at the upcoming Exhibition. My father says he’s also hoping for sponsorship, which is why he’s approaching the Society. His name is Mr Birt Acres – a strange name, I thought – and he has a strange invention to share, a new kind of magic lantern like the Sunday School uses to show slides of the Holy Land and missionaries in Africa, only this time the pictures move. If it is true, it will be astonishing to see.

“Another Edison,” my father said at breakfast. “Come right to Cardiff. We’ll all go, won’t we? Would that be a good idea?”

My mother smiled and nodded, then said she’d like that. She’d manage.

We last went to the Gallery together before Christmas for an evening “at home” with Mrs Austin.

Though I haven’t been enrolled in her painting classes for several seasons, she’s been continuingly generous with invitations and appreciative of my art, though she tends to remember my watercolour flowers better than anything I’ve painted recently. She calls them delicate and accurate.

The Gallery is on Queen Street, not far from the Castle. The afternoon had been warm, but the temperature dropped, and now the air is cold. We walk slowly from the cab, and my mother holds her shawl too tightly. It’s pulling across the back, making anxious horizontals across her shoulders. I’m glad to be wearing gloves. The door is propped open, and inside, there are more people than we expected, standing in clutches and bunches, blocking the way.  My father is practiced at supporting my mother without drawing attention, providing a strong arm as he greets and speaks with acquaintances on the way up the stairs. Mr Thomas I know from church on Sunday. There’s a couple whose daughters I was in school with and other members of the Photographic Society I recognise. My father nods at three thin men with notebooks, pressmen to be sure, and I think Mr Acres is guaranteed his funding if he’s gathered attention like this.

The demonstration is to be held in the second gallery, a long room with windows overlooking the street. The curtains have been drawn, and the walls are bare except for one large painting that hangs near the door. A group of students stand nearby, blocking most of the view, but I can see gladiola spears in the top right corner and Mrs Austin’s pointillism.

Chairs have been arranged in rows facing a large screen, in front of which a table sits, draped with a dark length of cloth. There’s the smell of limelight in the air. My father takes seats near, but not eagerly near, the screen and says he’s glad we came early, as it looks to be a crowded event.

“Plenty of time,” my mother says, vaguely, scanning the room for familiar faces. “Can you see any of your friends here?” She still speaks to me as if I’m a child at times. She forgets.

Two men stand at the front of the room, facing away from the chairs. One older, one younger, but not as young as the man I met in the park this afternoon. My own age, I think. Forty. Two score. Not young at all, really, and more than halfway there, if you can trust the numbers. He’s snapping his fingers as he speaks, keeping time like a metronome, like he’s counting. The man with him – the older one – laughs, and I know him. Mr. Allen, the president of the Photographic Society. My father told me that he would be introducing the American this evening, so the counting man must be Mr Acres.

Mr Allen steps forwards and claps his hands. The room quiets. He welcomes us with elaborate words, his hands held behind his back, and he looks from one side of the room to the other as he speaks.

Mr Birt Acres, Mr Allen says, is a remarkable man. An orphan of the American Civil War who, reaching the age of majority, moved to London, where he first perceived his calling as a man of science.

He found employment managing a dry plate works in Barnet and experimented with chronophotographic time-lapse studies of clouds. That early work led him to develop the Kineoptikon, the marvellous invention which takes a series of photographs and links them together seamlessly to the eye so as to create the illusion of movement.

Mr Allen pauses for effect at this point, and my father obliges by clapping his hands.

“And that is the invention we have gathered together this evening to witness. This instrument has already caused a great sensation in London at the Royal Photographic Society in January,  and in many of our large towns, and we are utterly delighted to be able to witness this innovative invention here in Cardiff this evening, in anticipation of a longer, brighter display during the upcoming Fine Art, Industrial and Maritime Exhibition.”

More applause, and Mr Allen welcomes Mr Acres to begin his presentation. As the American steps forward, an assistant removes the draping from the table so we can see the invention.  It is a large wooden box, brightly polished, with a brass tube that resembles both a nose and a cannon sticking out towards the screen. On one side, there is a crank handle like on a sewing machine, its grip black like vulcanite. The box is about the size of a sewing machine, too; you could hold it in your arms, but it looks heavy to lift. It’s strange to think there are scenes in there. Clouds that move. People walking.

Mr Acres spends a few moments explaining the technicalities of his invention and some of the difficulties with which he had to contend in bringing it to its present state of perfection. He is using limelight tonight, so the pictures won’t be as clear as he’d like, but at the Exhibition there will be electric light instead. He is also in the process of manufacturing a new and more transparent film which, combined with the extra power of the electricity, will enable far sharper pictures indeed. His accent is flatly American but lifts with enthusiasm now and then. His chevroned moustache is trim, and he’s snapping his fingers again, keeping time with his syllables. The pressmen write down every word, and Mr Acres says he will take questions a little later in his presentation. My father and my mother sit side by side, facing forward.

Now the gaslights on the walls are dimmed and the Kineoptikon lit. Greenish figures appear on the scene. Men around a table, playing cards. The contrast of card and table, the motion of taking turns. It only lasts a few moments, and it is impossible to tell the difference between red and black. Now, a grander scene. Soldiers stand in steady lines, straight as rulers, saluting a solid official with a chestful of medals and a turned-up moustache. Mr Acres says it is the Emperor of Germany, that he’d had the chance to film this review last year, when his travels were sponsored by Stollwerck, the fine German chocolate company. A rewarding way to travel, he says, and there’s laughter in the room.

The soldiers start to march, stiff-legged, abrupt. And now, a new scene: a tiger behind bars, pacing, pacing until a hand reaches out, throwing meat, a silent roar.

Mr Allen interrupts to say there will be a tiger at the Cardiff Exhibition, too, as part of the Jungle display, and all being well, Mr Acres will be able to produce more of this immaculate wildlife photography.

Mr Acres nods and says he’d like that. Animals prove popular on film.

“Are there any questions to ask Mr Acres at this point in the demonstration?” Mr Allen says. “Scientific, societal, or popular, as the fancy takes. All questions are welcome and valid in this assembly. Yes, Mr Thomas, what is your inquiry?”

“Sir, I am thoroughly enjoying this evening’s presentation, but I do have a question of provenance to ask. A few years ago, I was in the Americas and was able to see a similar machine in operation at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, made by a Mr Thomas Edison. Did you steal your ideas from him?”

Mr Acres laughs and adjusts his jacket. “Ah ha, a well-educated spectator, I see, and an excellent question. But we Americans are not all bandits, I must say. You will have observed that Mr Edison’s machine – which he calls a kinetoscope – is designed to be viewed by one individual at a time through a sort of peephole. An uncomfortable arrangement and one that does not make for convenient social engagement. Since then, he has been devising a kinetograph – a kind of camera that records moving pictures – and this is similar in design to my own invention, though my own Kineoptikon projector makes it easier to share these films with a wider audience. Often civilization moves forward with multiple efforts along similar lines. I wish him every luck with his efforts, though I recently heard that his most accomplished film to date records his assistant in the act of taking snuff and then sneezing. Maybe you found the representation of the tiger more exciting than that. Who’s to say? Does anyone have another question at this time?”

I do, but I don’t speak. If I was brave, I would ask him how he chooses. What makes a good moving picture? Is it composition? Feeling? Or subject? Why is it obvious that a room full of strangers will be interested in a card game or an Emperor or a tiger? Why are these things worth sharing? How do you know? And how do you know when to start and when to come to the end? When is a scene over?

The room stays quiet, expectant, and I say nothing. Mr Acres returns to his machine.

“Now, the next set of pictures is longer,” he continues. “And I hope you will find it to your interest. It was an exciting piece to film, and so far, audiences have responded favourably. The first Saturday in June, Epsom. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you last year’s Derby Race.”

My father leans forward to see, and, on the screen, the course is a wide, empty path, the stands crowded, and two horses appear, followed by four more. They are moving more slowly than I’d expect, but I haven’t been to the races, so I’m not sure. There seems to be a great distance between the horses, too, and now more following, at a good but unrushed pace. I turn to look to my father, but he’s looking only at the screen. Now there’s a pause, the course empty again, and my father tenses, leaning in. He reaches for my mother’s hand, holds it tightly against his chest like a child holds a toy. She turns, surprised, watching him, her face soft and focused, and I see her give his fingers a reassuring squeeze. Suddenly, in the bottom of the screen, the close inside of the course, more horses, bunched together now, flying. My father lets out a shout and Mr Acres looks startled but pleased as, on the screen, the horses pass and the crowd surges out to fill the course. Men in jackets waving, striding forth, a few turning back as if to look in the camera, a woman in a pale blouse and a neat waist, and my father beside me, his face aglow.

“A close race that was,” Mr Acres says. “And a very good day to film. I think the film turned out quite well, don’t you? That first jockey in the pale colours of Lord Rosebery was quite clear on the lead horse, and as you’ll know, it was Sir Visto who won the race.”

“Can we see it again?” My mother’s voice is tentative but strong and sweet as she raises her right hand to get Mr Acres’ attention, while her left still holds onto my father.

“Of course. Of course, we can,” Mr Acres answers. “I’m so glad you liked it, ma’am. It really was a fine day to make a film.”

It takes him a short moment to return the film to the beginning, and when he is ready, he invites us to help him count down, and we do, all together, our voices like children now, excited to see the horses run.

His final film takes us to the seaside where the waves rush in, and it’s true and even better than horses, physical like every seaside everywhere, making you breathless to see how it keeps on going. Because that is the truth about the sea, isn’t it? It always will keep going.

The next morning, my father reads out the newspaper at the breakfast table.

“The representation of the waves at Dover was very real, and as each breaker rolled in rounds of applause were accorded by the delighted spectators. This was the longest of the pictures, and as showing the number of photographs required to produce a scene like this, it was stated that this wave representation was the result of 2, 500 separate photographs. At the close, Mr Acres was accorded a hearty vote of thanks upon the proposition of Mr S. W. Allen, seconded by Mr T. H. Thomas.”

Audio version of A Scene Like This available here.

A Scene Like This in Context: Katie Munnik discusses the inspiration for this new work as well as the research for her upcoming novel, The Aerialists.