All my childhood, I had thought my father’s mother, the late Victoria, was much the same way as me, reserved and intense. I do not start conversations. I do not react when people shove past me. I listen to my music with earbuds in, even though I live alone.
So why would I inherit Volume 16? There were numerous cousins – there were my sisters. And yet I am the one on the train up to collect it, my coffee acrid, my view rendered green and sodden by the rain.
The most rebellious thing about Victoria was this: before she met my grandfather, she had once been a lover of the revered artist and filmmaker Paul Domeo. People considered her pliable, and she was, except when it came to her craft.
Victoria scrapbooked obsessively, it was a lifelong pursuit, every memory pinned down. I remember her snatching our tickets the second we entered the cinema. She used her “personal allowance” as she called it, on hand-pressed paper and Staedler felt tip pens; and later with her children grown, the little she made working part-time in a gift shop went towards it too.
The books were densely layered – windows of laser-cut papercraft opened onto old receipts, and pages popped into dioramas. Quotes from conversations floated up the margins. In her muted dresses, with her lanky brown hair and small features, she evaded attention much of the time, and she’d listen in on conversations. I once found a baby monitor beneath my bed. When she lived with us, we all agreed the books were art and belonged in a gallery, really; but we agreed upon this wearily because this was all she talked about, had ever talked about.
And now she was gone and Volume 232 would remain forever unfinished, mostly just thick blank pages of cardstock, notes scrawled in a shaky hand. After all that Domeo went on to do, accomplish and squander, we understood that somewhere in the squat, dusty airing cupboard of Victoria’s retirement home was a small landmine of gossip.
But why did I have to inherit the volume I did? I suppose I know. I’d seen the videotape stored inside the back of it, depicting my father’s birth. When I was fourteen, Victoria and I drank absinthe and watched it together in our modest flat. My father had passed away the previous year, and my mother barely tolerated her antics, but we had grown close. I wasn’t having a great time at school, and she listened to me as long as I helped her scrapbook. A lot of people had seen the video, years previously – it was one of the first films of its kind to gain major underground attention.
I had been curious, I guess – I wanted to be a doctor back then. I don’t think I asked to see it but I didn’t say no. It was the first time I had seen a woman without her clothes on. It was shot like a movie, there was something spiritual about it – Victoria, naked, surrounded by gauzy white curtains, both midwives all in black. The midwives spoke about Victoria in a low, solemn chatter, but rarely responded to her questions. And behind the camera hovered Domeo, who said nothing, made no noise at all, even when addressed directly, desperately. There was blood and shit and screaming. It seemed to go on for days. Despite my protests, Victoria would not let me turn it off. Planting herself between me and the screen, she glared at me. Her gaze kept me pinned to the couch.
“This happened because your father was born, you little shit,” she hissed. “You are going to bloody watch the video.” She said it so vehemently that it felt as though my existence was the cause, rather than an effect, of the happening in the video. When my mother got home, I excused myself. In the bathroom, I threw up.
It was not until the following Wednesday we were alone together again. She greeted me serenely. My hands were shaking but I did not bring up what happened. She reheated a bowl of chicken tikka for me and we watched Midsomer Murders together. We never discussed it again.
The baby in the video was not Domeo’s, which would eventually feature in the disintegration of his and Victoria’s relationship, but I would not learn that until much later.
But why do I have to inherit Volume 16? Surely not to leave on my desk, to become water-stained and buried in bills and paperwork. Surely not to haunt me, to lie shut in my own airing cupboard, a dark stain seeping out from the back of my mind. That couldn’t be what she intended, could it?
— Sophia Holme (she/her) is a queer writer from Canada. She currently lives and works in Oxford, England. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Molotov Cocktail, Rejection Letters and Magma Poetry, among other places. She can be found on Twitter @holmesophia