Dad said, ‘Imagine if you had a photograph of every important thing that has happened in your life. Your first child. Your wedding. A death in the family. Your first job. A car crash. The day you were ill. The night you won a competition. The time you lost a race. Everything.
‘Imagine that you carried them in your pocket. Imagine that, depending upon the importance of the event in the picture, the lighter or heavier the photograph became. The heavier the photograph, the bigger the event. Eventually some of the photographs become so light that you don’t even realise you never look at them any more, they just fall out of your pocket and disappear forever. But one photograph, one of them, will get heavier and heavier, and you’ll never lose it, never. One of them you’ll always keep, and it will weigh you down until it becomes so heavy that when you think about it, it feels as though your heart is being dragged across the floor. And you’ll never be able to pick it up again. This is what happens when you get older. You lose all of your photographs, they become light, they become air, they become indistinguishable from dreams you had and places you imagined. But you can never get rid of the heaviest. My photograph is of TauTona.’
The line twitched in the water and Dad didn’t notice.
‘Before you were born I worked at TauTona. It means “Great Lion”, they told me. It’s a mine in South Africa, just west of Johannesburg. At its deepest it’s three and a half kilometres underground. Do you know how deep that is? That’s very deep. That’s one of the deepest mines in the world. Few people in history have been deeper inside the earth than the men who have been down TauTona. And they go there to collect gold. They dig it out and they bring it back up and it gets sold so that people can wear jewellery and be rich. And it was my job to get them down there safely. It was my job to oversee the building of the cages and lifts that lowered those miners deep down into the earth, deeper than the weight of the world and everything on it.
This is what happens when you get older. You lose all of your photographs, they become light, they become air, they become indistinguishable from dreams you had and places you imagined
‘It would take one hour to get to where you are going if you were a miner in that lift. That’s the descent, and then the long walk to the face of the mine, which, if you’re with a good group of miners, gets further every day. Further and deeper and darker, gold doesn’t glisten underground.
‘That lift drops at sixteen metres a second. A double-decker bus in the blink of an eye. Can you imagine that? That’s fast. That’s really fast. And I helped to build those lifts. I was there when they were installed. I stayed there for six months. Teaching miners to use them and to maintain them, to make sure nothing went wrong.
‘That’s what I did, you see. I made lifts. Pulleys and chains and cogs, shafts and drives. The expertise and engineering that goes into the vertical transportation of people. The physics and mathematics of figuring out what force is required to lift what weight what distance. Working within limited space to build a machine that will change lives. That’s what I did.’
I’d never asked him what he did.
‘And it failed one day at TauTona,’ he said. ‘One day it all went wrong.
‘I’d just finished work. It was my last week in South Africa. I couldn’t wait to see your mother, we were very close back then. Before Malcolm. I was maybe half a mile away from the top of the shaft, but I heard it give way. The entire structure we’d created, an immovable force, bent and twisted. Sounded like two trucks meeting head on, a great metallic roar. A freak occurrence, that’s all.
‘There were sixteen men in that lift as it plummeted towards the centre of the earth. Doctors told me that the force of the fall would have ensured that they were unconscious by the time they hit the bottom. They’d have become five, maybe six times their own bodyweight. They would never have stood a chance.
When we got there, those sixteen men fitted into an eight-inch gap between the floor of that elevator and the roof. They had been packed into their hard hats
‘It took ten days to reach them using the parallel emergency shaft we’d built alongside it. Ten days. Of course, we knew they would be dead. When we got there, those sixteen men fitted into an eight-inch gap between the floor of that elevator and the roof. They had been packed into their hard hats. Completely crushed upon landing. There was nothing to rescue, no one to save. We couldn’t even bring mementoes for their wives who’d held vigils on the surface since news of the accident first spread. All they really wanted of course was answers, just something, a word or a line for their grief. But I had nothing. See, we didn’t know why it had happened. We had no idea why that lift fell with those men inside it, it just did. We blamed ourselves, everyone blamed themselves. But the truth is that I don’t know. I don’t know if it was my fault. I’ll never know.
‘See, whichever photograph is the heaviest in the end, that’s your legacy. That’s what you leave behind. Question is, do you have time to change it? Or do you avoid ever having one at all?’
We caught no fish that day. On the way home we picked Mum up to go to the supermarket, where we bought rich foods to eat to celebrate Mal’s return – she loved to feed us – and where Mum would let me think I was in control of the shopping trolley even though I wasn’t because she knew it made me happy. She climbed into the car and kissed Dad on the cheek. He kissed her back and smiled. I saw then that we weren’t three people who didn’t know each other, we just acted like it.
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