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They're so young. They're so young. I feel like my life has passed me by.
And they're happy. Not a care in the world. I haven't smiled like that for so long. They aren't posing for the photograph, those aren't fake smiles, they're smiling because they're having the time of their lives.
Well, they are posing, of course. Their smiles are real, but their pose is far from effortless. How long did they manage to stay like that for? Did they plan it or was it a spur of the moment thing?
It's a ridiculous photograph, really. There's six of them, four girls and two guys, all covered in paint. None of them older than twenty-one. They're on their hands and knees in a pyramid, three on the floor, two on top of them, and one brave girl on top.
They're naked, as far as I can tell. Almost every inch of them is covered in splashes of blue, red and yellow. How liberating, to walk around wearing nothing but paint.
It looks slippery - but it can't be too slippery or the pyramid would have been impossible. I suppose the paint is drier than it looks. Cracking on their skin.
I can feel it for a moment. My imagination is consumed by this photograph and I can feel it. The paint, wet and dry, cold and warm on my skin. The sound of laughter, a shriek as the pyramid wavers. The bitter taste of blue paint on my lips. The weight of a friend on my back.
The wonderful lightness of a friend on my back.
What happiness this photograph represents! What privilege! The harshness of life ends within the boundaries of this picture. It contains a perfect little world, full of trusted friends and time to spare.
Out here, there are bills to pay, overtime hours to work, films of starving children on TV. But in this photograph there is only the moment.
I try to put the photograph away, but as soon as it leaves my line of sight I miss it. I long for it. I feel like Dorian Gray, my soul bleeding away into this picture.
In the background of the photograph, I can see colourful blocks of paper stuck to the wall, decorated with body prints. I close my eyes and imagine pressing myself against the paper, leaving behind a bright red handprint. Spreading paint onto the sole of my foot to create a footprint. Trying a cheek, a thigh, a breast.
The thrill of experimentation, the childlike wonder of play, fills me to the brim until I have to laugh to let it out. My laugh echoes in this empty room and I remember that I'm not in the photograph. I'm in my living room. My only company is a widescreen TV. My only escape is the books on my shelves. My only comfort is this faded three piece suite.
What convention is it - what conspiracy! - that says as grown-ups we must buy our fun in pre-fabricated packages? Sure, we are permitted a moment of abandon on a designated paintball field - or go-kart track, or fairground ride - but not without safety briefings, security deposits and would you like Coke with that?
How envious I am! How I wish I could call my friends and invite them to a paint day! But they wouldn't be able to find a babysitter, they couldn't take the time off work…
My friends are so scattered now, so displaced. Each of us has gone away to find ourselves, then found that there was nowhere to come back to when we were done. No community anymore. The nearest person I would call a friend lives miles away.
And even if I could bring them all together again, it wouldn't work. We'd be worried about the effect the paint on our skin, we'd feel awkward about undressing, we'd be loath to mark the walls.
It is sad that the people in this photograph are strangers to me now. I used to know them so well. It's sad that my memory of this moment has shrunk into the bounds of this photograph.
I took this picture. I was behind the camera, leaving yellow fingerprints on the mechanism, laughing as the pyramid swayed. Those were happy times. We were so young.
Are the best years of my life behind me? Is it all a struggle from here on in? It pains me to admit it, but I cannot picture ever again being as happy as I was when I took that photograph.
I cannot picture ever again being as happy. That thought makes me want to cry. It makes we want to run away. It makes me want to tear myself apart. Is this it?
How do I come out the other side? How do I reach happiness again? It seems so impossible. Is this why people have children, to distract themselves from how hollow their lives have become? Is this why people turn to religion?
The more I think about it, the more the whole world seems like a distraction. A veil of meaningless activity to hide the emptiness. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I would trade the rest of my years to be within this photograph again. Where is my Faustian devil? Where is the genie that will grant me my wish? I can't achieve it alone.
Or is this just a phase, a kind of adult adolescence - a puberty of the mind? Am I merely suffering an adjustment from one kind of happiness to another?
Maybe it's wrong to lament. Maybe by mourning the death of my past I'm constricting my future. Perhaps the only thing to do is to accept this universal human challenge, and fight it with all my soul. Imagine a better future and rage against my limitations until it is achieved.
Even thinking about it tires me. I had so much more energy back then.
It's too daunting, too difficult. I need something smaller. Something easy to get me started. Happiness seems too far away - I need to start with just one step.
I haven't spoken to these friends in ages. Maybe that's the first step. I'll invite them for a reunion. No paint this time, we've grown up. A chance to reminisce, to get it out of our systems; and to rebuild our friendships, to reframe them.
But I don't have all of their contact details anymore. They will have new addresses, new phone numbers. I'd hate to send an email and never get a reply. How would I track them down? What would I say? They'd think I was pathetic, desperate. They'd prefer to spend time with their new friends.
No. I mustn't get caught in this downward spiral. A small step. Even smaller than that.
One friend. I need to call just one friend. I'll invite them round, or go and see them. We can reminisce together, and talk about maybe organising a reunion.
I have a phone number. It's not too late to call. If they don't answer, I'll leave a message. I can arrange to see them this weekend. It's a start.
I pick up the phone. I can still see the photograph in the corner of my eye.
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