It's been a long time since I last saw Joel. Not that I'm surprised: we never intended – nor expected – to see each other again, and I doubt we ever will. I dug up a selection of old shots I took of him, back when we travelled the road together. That was a time when I felt like documenting things was worthwhile, a useful record for when civilisation recovered. It took me some time to admit to myself what nonsense that was; every photograph I ever took, both before and after the pandemic, was for me and me alone. After all, if all art is quite useless, then what better way to live out the last days of humankind?
This is Sarah, Joel's daughter. Sarah isn't around anymore. She was a good kid. She reminds me of my Sam.
Tess was an incredible person. Everyone used to hypothesise that she must have been toughened up by some unspeakable post-pandemic personal trauma, but I reckon she was always that way.
Ellie, the toughest kid I've ever met. Smart, too. Really smart. Joel was tasked with keeping her safe for a period, some kind of transit mission. She was nice to have around as someone to talk to for when Joel was in one of his usual moods; he had this incredible capacity to just disappear into himself, although he always claimed he was concentrating on the task at hand. Back when it was just the two of us, it wasn't uncommon for him to not speak a word for a couple of days. Ellie always knew how to bring him around, though, somehow. She had that relentless, questioning nature that kids have sometimes.
We parted ways before they got to wherever they were going. Joel wasn't the warmest person I'd ever met, but Ellie could break that down. His soul was like hardened clay, but she could soften him, just like that. To be honest, I don't know who needed who more.
I was always a portrait guy, but, as we searched various homes for supplies, I asked Joel if we could spend just a bit longer in each place so I could document the interiors. They were like time capsules that told unfinished, half-stories about the people who once lived there; little snippets told through old photos and dirty crockery; the everyday objects elevated to relics, chronicling the lives of the invisible. Ghosts and the possessions they left behind. Joel would eagerly ransack a place but I could never bring myself to even touch anything, just in case they were to return home as I was inspecting a coffee mug. I imagined their incredulous faces demanding to know what the hell I was doing touching their stuff.
Joel. I laid these photos out and, really looking at them for the first time, it shattered me. It was kind of embarrassing to be sat there with a load of old photos spread across the floor, sobbing like a toddler. I realised that these weren't portraits of Joel at all; they were portraits of Sarah. All the lines in his face, the scars. And his eyes. All Sarah. I didn't see it before, but that was before Sam. How did he carry on all that time without her?
We're nothing without family. Family can mean so many things; it doesn't just mean your dad, your daughter, your brothers and sisters. Family is a feeling. Belonging somewhere and to something. Family is what makes us human, it roots and nourishes us, stops our souls from withering and drifting away. I miss my own family routines; comfortable things, reassuring things, things that make you feel safe, things that make you feel connected. Stupid little things that seemed unimportant at the time. I understand now, mum, dad. I wish I could have seen you more often. I miss you.