Every time I look through the shop window there is no one inside. The space is a graveyard of glass cabinets, inside which rest old cameras and dusty boxes of film. The clutter is appealing, it seems to hold secrets.
The biggest secret is how Koles Foto has remained unchanged on Ashfield’s Liverpool Road, now a street of bargain shops, and restaurants with glazed ducks dripping in the window. It is old, anachronistic, a gift to the imagination. For many years I have passed by, looked in the window, and dreamed up different stories explaining how it came to remain there. Through it I can travel back in time, as I look in though the glass the street reflected behind me winds back 30 years or even more. People’s faces and clothes change, the cars on the street become the boxy, bright wagons that prowled 70s streets.
This time, to my shock, there’s someone in there. A tall, old man with neat black hair, wearing big, yellow-tinted glasses. I tap on the door and he comes to open it, and then I am standing inside. It is peaceful, dimly lit, with the particular comfort of a place that has been unchanged for many years.
After I buy a roll of film, which I notice has passed its expiry date, we quickly fall into talking. To explain my purchase I tell him I am old-fashioned and still use a film camera sometimes. This information is like a password. Mr Koles tells me that since he was ten years old he wanted to be a photographer.
My first camera was made out of wood, he says, stretching his hands out to indicate the size and shape of this invisible antique. The action opens the door to his memories.
I have two loves, the other is music. He tells me how he played the trumpet and the accordion, and used to work as a professional musician before he gave it up for his wife. Her Jewish parents forbade her from marrying him, as he was Russian Orthodox. She gave up her family, and he gave up the orchestras and wild life that came with playing in them, and they married.
He gestures next door, to the shop that was his wife’s. It is the haberdashery equivalent of the photo shop, with old, still-bright teatowels and sewing equipment neatly arranged in the window. This shop is the ghost, preserved in perfect detail. He tells me, to the day, how long his wife has been gone.
“We were married 59 years. I see there are tears in his eyes, and although I am not the kind of person who usually does such a thing, I put my hand on his. It is then I notice that he has big, big hands, so big they look out of proportion to his body. I imagine them stretched around an accordion. My palm is hot against his skin, and I leave it there for a moment, saying nothing, as he tells me that he can’t sleep, that it’s at night he misses her more than anything.
He tells me their story. Up until now I have not been able to place his features or accent. Both are unusual, and he has a particular kind of grace and gentility that I imagine must be from somewhere very removed, in time and place, from here. He tells me he is 90 years old and from Harbin, in Manchuria. All I know of this place is that it is very cold, and every year there is an ice festival there, with huge ice sculptures. This year, I had seen on the news, there was a giant ice Santa Claus.
All I know about Harbin is that it gets very cold, I say, and he tells me, with a look of joy, that it gets very very cold, and very very hot. But not the Sydney kind of heat.
I played with the Czechoslovakian orchestra, on the river, on a day that was 47 degrees, but we did not sweat! he says, gesturing to his armpit. I picture this like an old photograph, sepia and crumbling, the dapper expressions of the players, stoic inside their suits.
My wife does not like the heat, but I do, I like to float in the salt water…
We speak for almost an hour, although I say very little apart from the odd question. His life tumbles out, grief and love and risk and change. These are stories he must have told countless times, and they come out in a mixture, skipping decades, skipping continents. He tells these stories with great zest, as if to tell them he is able to bring the times and people back.
He leans against the shelf with the packets of film on it, then forward again, to rest his hands on the counter, and I think how many times he must have done these particular movements, while telling these stories. The Russian army took his watch. He has two accordions but not longer plays them since he lost his wife. He went to Shanghai with the orchestra and played in the Park Hotel, 11 storeys high. Russia is in a mess, but look at China. Everything you buy is from China! He gestures outside.
I don’t remember how to speak Chinese. Since I came here, all English.
Did you grow up speaking Russian? I ask, a guess.
Russian I never forget, he says, looking proud and strong. It is now that a bewildered looking teenaged couple enter the shop and I decide it’s time to go. He smiles widely, as his hand grips mine in a firm shake, and I can smell the faint trace of cigarette smoke on his clothes. I imagine him in a room out the back smoking, developing photographs, thinking in Russian.
I recognise you, he says. I’ve seen you before. Make some good photos.