Mr. and Mrs. Hope

It was the first day of spring. The previous few weeks had been cold and bitter with rain, but the first day of spring was different. The actual date did not matter to me, for the sunshine said it all, and I was certain in my conviction. I would go and rejoice - another vessel of love on earth, one among many human beings taking to the streets in the bright release, walking in light. It was the birthday of the world.

Several weeks prior, I had inherited an ancient machine from my Ukrainian grandfather. It was a film camera, a Kiev 4M from the 70s, though the year of manufacture escaped both myself and my father. It was my father who held on to it - the camera had been gifted to him in the 90s, and because he had little use for it, it stayed squarely in the styrofoam packaging that shrunk around it as years went by.

I had spent three years not speaking to my father, but when I reconnected with him, we spoke like the greatest of friends. We would send each other photos of beautiful things we saw and passionately discuss theories about the nature of God. He was proud of me for everything I had achieved, and I was proud that I was able to speak to him. He avoided any conversation that would hurt me, and I pretended my anger did not exist.

When my father found the KIev 4M among dusty old belongings, he offered it to me, hoping that I would give it a purpose. Perhaps, it was to bridge the gap between myself and his father, who died in my first year of silence.

The last time I saw my paternal grandfather, he called me by every name he could remember, save for my own. He ceaselessly offered me warm buckwheat with milk, always looking for someone to care for, someone to feed. I am not sure he knew who I was. When he was well, my grandfather was a photographer. It was a hobby, not a job - but he cared for his cameras as I cared for mine.

My digital camera is a Canon EOS 2000D, and it is beautiful - but on this first day of spring, I had to do something special. I had to use the Kiev 4M, and though I had no idea how to work a film camera, I would try my best to learn.

The manual was too dry and technical for me to be able to read, as my Russian mother tongue had been sorely wounded by me tearing myself away from my home. I am three quarters Russian, one quarter Ukrainian. Some measly fraction of this heritage is also Tatar. I was born in the United States to immigrants from the Soviet Union, and I spoke mostly Russian until I was 3. By the time I was in school, my grasp of the English language had shot up and overtaken the Russian that was tenderly nurtured inside of me.

Now, I write in English. I speak to my father in English, and I hate myself for it.

I could not hate myself on the first day of spring.

In trying to understand the letters on the pages of the faded manual and the physicality of the Kiev 4M, I discovered there was film still inside of it. My father had not loaded it in, so he was as clueless as I was regarding the nature of the photographs, if any could be salvaged.

And so, an adventure began - I would go to the camera shop in the city centre, and I would go to the film shop right beside it, and I would ask anyone who knew how to operate it to instruct me, and I would take shaky photos until the sun went down.

I smiled for the entire duration of the bus journey into town. I was wearing a skirt with sunflowers on it, and my earrings were in the shape of daffodils. I was the light I desperately needed, and I illuminated the shining future I faced.

The people at the camera shop informed me that the Kiev 4M seemed to be in mint condition, but that they specialised in digital cameras and that I would have better luck learning the ropes at the vintage film camera shop on the other side of town. The man at the film shop scolded me for opening the film compartment in the daylight, but he took the film for development anyway, and supplied me with another roll.

When I got the developed film back on the third day of spring, I was astonished with photos of me with my parents from when I was only two years old. I could not remember the day that was captured on film, and I could not recognise myself. The child in those photos knew very little of the English language, and even less still of the pain that drove me to separation. The only things that child knew were love and sunshine, and it brought me to tears as I looked for the mark of myself on their face.

Of course, while it was still the first day of spring, I had no idea what I would discover, hypothesising that it would perhaps be photos taken by my late grandfather. With the Kiev 4M loaded with new film, I was to take the bus across the river Itchen to a part of my city I had never seen. As I was waiting to be carried across the river, I received a text from my father. He was apologising for all the trouble, feeling as though this was wasting my Saturday. I assured him that I was having the time of my life.

This bus journey was mostly taken up by me explaining to my father that film photography was just as interesting as digital - that people still drew with pencils on paper despite the advancements in technology that allowed them to emulate the stroke of any brush on a glowing white screen. I told him that the experience and process mattered more than the result, sometimes, and that I wanted nothing more than to experience. I also told him that I had named the Kiev 4M “Old Man”, in contrast to my referring to the Canon as my “Baby Boy”.

Soon, I was at the vintage film camera shop, informing a man with long hair of my predicament. He figured out the workings of the Old Man almost by touch, and showed me how to use it and adjust the shutter speed and aperture. The man with long hair had me download an app to use as my lightmeter, as that was the only part of the Kiev 4M that had degraded over time. I tipped him for the lesson and bought a funky camera bag.

I knew it would be dark in just under an hour, so I asked the long-haired man where I could go to take photos, as I did not know the neighbourhood. I asked him for something cool and beautiful nearby, and he agreed with his coworkers to send me over the Itchen bridge so I could take photos of the skyline.

I took some photos of blossoming trees growing where the street gave way to the bridge. As I began crossing, the wind mercilessly beat my clothes into a flurry of colours. The sun was bright, unyielding. To my embarrassment, I flashed a gaggle of teenage boys because my sunflower skirt kept being lifted by the wild, piercing wind. They made animal noises at me, but it was the first day of spring, so I refused to feel ashamed.

The bridge over the river Itchen is long, and almost 30 metres over the water at its highest point. As I walked along it, pausing to take the occasional photo of the city and the boats beneath, I found that every ten paces, there would be a little poster on the railing that said something like “Are you struggling? Do you feel alone? Feel free to call this number for mental health support!”.

This was a suicide bridge.

I knew that I would make it to the other side of the water below.

At the highest point of the bridge, I paused to gather myself for a photo, and found, to my surprise, a protective ward against suicide quite unlike the helpline advertisements. There was a little mosaic of a silly creature. It was a funny Mr. Men type of character - his name was Mr. Hope. He was smiling, smiling for me and holding a lantern to be a guiding light through the darkness. His smile was so sweet and kind.

I tried to photograph him, but my hands were shaking. So I took two photos, and went on my way.

As soon as I stepped off the bridge, the weight of my emotions hit me like a hurricane. I wept in the name of Mr. Hope because he was so wonderful and I was so glad to have him in my life. Tears burnt my cheeks as I remembered my suicide attempt 9 years prior. It was foolish, useless - all I did was attempt to suffocate myself with an improvised rope and stay there, unbreathing eternally. I knew it would fail, but I was desperate enough to try. I hoped there would be an easy way out, but something in my body refused to let me go, and I gave up. I never tried again, and though I sometimes cut my thighs to feel the pain that refused to escape my body, I did not have the passion to escape my body. I thought myself a coward then - lacking the motivation to breathe or stop breathing with my throat restricted by a pair of nylon tights.

The lives and experiences of everyone who had ever committed suicide in my city were crashing down on me with a pure, oppressive weight. I felt the grief and the despair of all their families and friends as their bodies were found in the silt under that bridge. I remembered a homeless woman who told me that she threw herself off the Itchen bridge, but that she had the strength to drag herself out of the water. The hospital refused to give her anything but basic treatment for immediate injuries, not even a referral to the community mental health team.

I am lucky. I am so, so lucky. I was alive to see the first day of spring in a world where I have survived, and I was sobbing alone in the street to celebrate the birthday of the world. There was nothing heavier than this, nothing lighter than this. I was recovering, changing my life when so many people did not have the chance to. I lived for them, through them, and I took photos.

A woman approached me as I stood crying at crossroads. Before I could tell her that I was fine, she told me she did not speak English. In either Ukrainian or Russian, she told me she was Ukrainian.

The most I could offer her was my Russian, butchered by disuse. I told her that I knew the language, and she replied that she knew it too, and so I began telling her what happened, from the beginning. I told her about the camera, and about my Ukrainian grandfather. I struggled for the words as I told her that when I was a teenager, I was very sick and sad and wanted to end my life - but that I’m better now, I promise I’m better, even though I’m crying, I’m better.

The Ukrainian woman kept wiping the tears off my face with her bare hands, which were cold and slightly rough. The way she enunciated the letter “G” sounded soft, like the way they do it in Stavropol, which is the city both of my parents are from. She must have been an angel.

Was she a refugee? I listened as she told me that she visited Norway half a year prior, and that she was overwhelmed by the beauty of the natural landscape. It made her realise that we were all just tiny little grains of sand in the vast universe. Just tiny little grains of sand, she kept repeating. She was a living symbol of hope on the first day of spring, and as I gradually became less flustered, she understood what I was trying to say through my mournful tears, shed for lost lives that reflected my own in blistering clarity.

I did not lie when I told her I could get home safely, and she did not lie when she called me a good girl and told me that everything will be okay. She wished the kingdom of heaven upon my grandfather, and we parted ways.

We never spoke about Ukraine, not in any detail. Her beautiful country and the horrific weight of the lives lost to war amounted to a sentence between us: “yes, what is happening is just unspeakable.” I hoped then, and I hope now that the sunflowers on my skirt reminded her of home, gold under a blue sky. Screaming like the first day of summer, vivid light.

The sun began to set as I walked to the bus stop, still crying. Creamy orange wisps of clouds unfurled themselves like flags, floating and rippling against the brilliant blue. By the time I was on the bus and watching the sky from the window, it was vibrant and dazzling - shocks of defiant pink, alive and living.

would you like to read the sequel?

(it's the prompt from the week of april 1st)