The end of the year found me driving to my sister’s house deep in the fens.
She had sent me a message on Facebook after they had legalised gay marriage: “Good news for you Simon?” Anybody else would have meant this as a joke, but Pat has persuaded herself that I am now too despondent to take advantage of any good news for myself. She will break into the same strain of wistful encouragement at every opportunity, whilst making me conscious that this is purely a formal policy. She sounds like she is trying to hearten somebody who has been just run over by a bus. I don’t know how to grunt dismissively on Facebook, so I had not replied.
Two things had upset me before I left for the fens.
The first: I had finally got a gig after the unbearable terror and woe of six months without work. When I arrived at the wedding, however, there was another photographer already setting up. We stared at each other, like two cats which have crossed paths for the first time. It turned out that the father of the bride had roped in a business crony’s son to do the shoot, and that the best man had forgotten to cancel me.
I needed the cash from this gig to have enough in my bank account for the next month’s rent. The in-house photographer could not stop admiring his own camera, as if it was Christmas morning and he had only just unwrapped it. It was plain that he didn’t know which end to point at the bride.
“Excuse me son.” I was appealing beyond the boy to the wedding in general. “I’m a professional. I can do the shoot quickly and the shots will be done to a professional quality.”
“Yeah and we’ll pay through the fucking neck,” a voice came unexpectedly from behind me. There were uneasy sniggers and somebody whooped.
I continued to stare at the boy.
He was unable to look at me, but he could not turn away. “We’ll be okay,” he insisted uncertainly.
He jumped back as the camera fell from his hands. “You expect to take wedding photos on this?” I held the thing in the air. “It’s little more than jewellery.” The boy took a tiny bold step towards me, only to find the camera safely back in his hands. Without him realising it, I had changed the setting on the lens from automatic to manual.
I was walking away when the boy began to yelp. Imperceptibly, my walking was no longer innocent and I had assumed a guilty waddle.
“He’s done something to my camera. It won’t focus.”
“Ere!” the bride bawled at me. “What the fuck have you done?”
Everything was going wrong. Humiliated, the boy should have recognised that he was out of his depth. The wedding party should have been relieved and grateful that my expertise was on hand. Instead, they made a sudden rush for me and I was their captive.
The father of the bride was jabbing a finger in my chest. Then, the bride elbowed him out of the way to wave a little fist in my face. The tyro photographer took my arm, although it was probably heavier than his entire body, and he was trying to steer me back towards his unresponsive camera. It was as if my mind was sliding into an unearthly hallucination. I wiped the air with the boy and he landed on his back in the grass. Cries of indignation were flung past my head like stones. I blundered back to my car and drove away leaving half my equipment outside the church.
The second: I was so desperate for cash that I agreed to help out a pal of mine who unblocks gutters. We were doing a job for an old boy in Merchiston and I got to talking with him as we were reloading the van. I must have mentioned that I was a professional photographer, for he suddenly wanted my opinion on some prints that his granddaughter had given him for his birthday.
We all trooped upstairs to inspect the pictures and found them lining the walls of a spare bedroom. There was a medley of landscapes and close-ups, all apparently shot in a forest in the early days of summer. The photographer’s eye had picked piercing colours from the drabness of the forest: the long purple throats of foxgloves; a cock pheasant strutting about like a courtier in gold and red livery; a dragonfly which resembled a fairy dressed in cumbersome emerald armour.
I was anxious to compliment these pictures, but my voice was suddenly out of tune – the words sounded false and tinny. The grandfather nodded in encouragement. “It’s these new digital cameras,” I tried to explain. “All you do is point and click. It looks incredible but all the pictures are the same.” His face fell and I was left grabbing for words which were not there.
He then told me that his granddaughter was ten.
“Are you okay?” he asked. I only hope that he thought I was impressed.
Life has left me behind, I thought sadly as I washed down the motorway to the fens. I was getting more and more fat, the slabs pouncing out in every direction when I peeled off my tee-shirt. Soon these bulges would harden into permanence; they would become as impossible to shake off as an old woman’s superstitions. I hoped that Pat would not commiserate with me about my weight. I was falling into her clutches. She would sit me down and we would discuss all of my options for the future, and then the conclusion would steal bleakly over me that there were no options and no future. I hated how her children dutifully called me “uncle” – I would never be jolly enough to cut it as an uncle. Uncles are supposed to have rosy cheeks and slip their nieces tenners. Pat would never lend me any money to give to her kids.
The sun came out when I thought about the pictures that I was going to shoot in the fens. I would appropriate a darkroom from somewhere, even if it was in a kitchen cupboard. Photography is my only connection to the past. When I think of myself in the 1980s, it now seems more like a legend than a memory. Myself in a neat denim jacket and jeans, with peroxide tinsel for hair – everybody dressed in simple primary colours like small children – the blokes in fresh shell suits and the chicks exhilarated to be finally liberated in menswear – they now all seem like lavish illustrations from an old book of fairytales, rather than things which I have seen with my own eyes.
I had a girlfriend back then – for the only time in my life. There was always a particle of myself which was careful to remain cynical. I assumed that she only hung out with me because I was a photographer and this helped her to dream that she was Madonna. We could not walk down the Cowgate without me having to use up three rolls of film, whilst she cut completely identical poses in front of every available backdrop. Later, intimate together in the darkroom, she would be enraptured in the process of transformation. To her it was as magical as alchemy how the base chemicals could produce the shining images of herself. She would emerge from the developing fluid like the lady of the lake.
It was the 1980s. At weekends on the Cowgate, everybody knew each other, as if we were all farmers gathering together in the same market town. I have a vivid memory of waking at three in the morning in a nightclub which had been emptied like a bottle of beer to leave only the dregs. I was lying on a sofa half-stupefied and my girlfriend was untucking my tee-shirt from my jeans and pulling it back to reveal my bare chest (then, nobody had yet told us that we were not obliged to tuck in our tee-shirts). My girlfriend was stroking the muscles under my stomach and she fondled one, completely absorbed in it, as if it was the largest and most brilliant diamond in the world.
This will be nothing compared to what the kids know these days, with a million pornographic movies on their mobile phones, but to me it remains the most erotic thing I have ever experienced. Pat was waiting for me in the front garden and she stepped out to wave in my car. Rather than summoning me back to the present, the sight of her long sprawling house seemed only to bleach the colours out of my legend of the 80s. Whilst I had been taking endless photographs which would whirl away like winter leaves to feed the world’s mulch, my sister was working hard to secure a future for herself. She said I should leave my gear in the car. Her husband and kids were already waiting in the pub where the village would welcome in the new year.
Jeff looked glad to see me. He is short of allies at home, with two little girls for children. Although we have never explicitly agreed not to talk about Pat, we seem to have between us delineated a conversational universe for ourselves which excludes her. He called over the vicar and a neighbouring farmer, and like everybody else in the pub, we talked about our work.
“Pat tells me you’ll be doing some photography whilst you’re here,” Jeff inquired with distant airy courtesy. “Is this a job?”
I did not like the question and I felt uncomfortable at being forced to explain myself. “Well, it depends how good the pictures are. But I like photographing nature. It kind of has… err… glamour.”
“There’s not much glamour in this world,” Jeff conceded cheerfully.
Finally, the vicar had remembered something with a little snap. “I say Jeff, what’s this about your Georgina? Sounds bad news…”
Jeff looked nonplussed and then his eyes were very beady. “Is she is trouble?”
Perhaps the vicar feared that he had committed a faux pas. “Err… I expect Pat has been told about it.”
“Told about what?”
“Well…err…” The vicar looked like he had been caught with his fingers in the jam. “She was approached by a strange woman. In the fens.”
The offending child was fished out of the games room.
“What the devil were you doing out there by yourself?”
Georgina was outraged. “There are no lights on my bike and so I have to walk when it starts to get dark. Mummy makes me. And it’s quicker to go past the lake.”
“And what did this lady say to you?”
“It was a grey lady and she was standing in the lake.”
“Standing in the lake?”
“A grey lady? She had grey clothes or grey hair?”
“She was grey all over. And she wanted to pull me into the lake.”
This was enough for Jeff. “I’m not going to bring you to the pub if you’re going to tell stories to all our friends,” he hissed viciously. “You can stay at home by yourself.”
Georgina went as white as a ghost. She tried to gibber something in confidence to her father, but he flapped her away.
A thought struck me and then I had blurted it out.
“It could have been a heron. They are grey and quite a size. If it was twilight, it might have looked like a woman.”
They were suddenly pleased by this. “Logical thinking!” pronounced the vicar.
Jeff eyed me cannily. “If I tell you which lane to take, you can go and see for yourself. I imagine they’re pretty photogenic, herons.”
“Yes, it’s a good tip.”
Jeff and Pat never stayed up past ten o clock and certainly no exception could be made for the new year festivities. They led away their drooping children and although I stayed for a while and the vicar made strenuous efforts to include me, I felt as if the pub was a space station and I the astronaut who had let go to plummet away. I discreetly escaped and followed my way back through darkened streets. Pat’s front door was thrown wide open and her house waited in silence.
I saw in the new year sitting at the kitchen’s breakfast bar. I contemplated sleeping in the car, but I finally ventured upstairs in search of my designated bedroom. The corridor ended in a box room with the door left helpfully ajar. I sank on to the bed without undressing and pulled the duvet over my head.
It was dawn, the soupy light finding the world itchy and unsettled. I threw off greasy bedsheets, jittery in the cold, and crept downstairs to rifle through the kitchen cupboards. I finally managed to make myself a forlorn little breakfast of bare toast.
My camera and all of its gear were spread out like a suit of armour on the back seat of my car. Everybody feels young at this time of the morning. The fens whispered invitingly – aside from the odd gruff dog-walker, I would have them all to myself. There were Wellingtons and a Parka jacket packed in the boot, and a stump of old Digestive biscuits half-compacted into dust. I munched unappreciatively on a few select shards and then set off.
I intended to walk in any direction until I lost the houses, but I soon surprised a yawning opening beside the entrance to a suburban close, which led down to a pathway lined with ash trees. Eventually, the path lost its smoothness and became chopped up with mud.
The lake waited at the end of the pathway, as dull as an old coin. The path assumed its new task of encircling the lake, occasionally dipping down to little pockets in the foliage where one could inspect the water. At one point I descended to a fisherman’s platform, to stand in the spotlight like a diver. The sun was still below the treetops and there seemed to be more light in the lake than in the sky. A single black ripple raced over the water’s surface.
The lake was too quiet. There was occasionally a strange snort or sort of clap from amongst the trees, but no birdsong. I fancied that I could have picked up some soil and held it lifeless in my hand, without even a speck stirring. Suddenly, a vision came to my mind of all the photographs that I had ever taken, dispersed throughout a thousand archives and scrapbooks, now coming together in this lonely place, fluttering from the trees and bobbing in the hedges and laid out like tiles at the bottom of the lake.
It was somehow clear to me where Georgina had seen the lady. The water here was as still as the moon, willows leaned over to take the lake in their washerwomen’s arms and a tiny rickety pier led out to where the water became deep and solemn. I could picture a heron standing vigil here without blinking for days. I dumped my camera and lenses in the grass and pulled off my jacket.
I was unbending a Wellington boot into the water, moving with slow stealth, immensely anxious not to rock the surface. I would stop whenever ripples began to spread out, as if the water was busy sleeping and I was in danger of waking it. Once my other boot was in the water I had the odd sensation of being briefly suspended in a boat, but then the water began to slop over the sides of my boots and the spell was broken.
Still wary of every tiny movement, I pressed forward. Prehistoric murk was unclotting beneath my boots in little spurts. I was vaguely sceptical that I would sink. The waterline plunged with a shriek to my waist but then everything seemed to settle once it had reached my neck. The coldness flooded out of my body and I felt a frisson of liberty and unexpected energy.
It was now greedy for all of me, impatient for the dryness of my last hair.
(“Why couldn’t the bugger take his dirty business to somebody else?” Jeff demanded over the sound of clinking glasses. The vicar’s eyes flashed like those of a cat whose fur is being stroked the wrong way.)
I could do nothing except count them all out. The second bubble followed the first bubble and then the third followed the second like pearls on a string. I was being sucked down through nodding blackness.
Then I had dropped on to a couch and I distinctly felt a small hand under my tee-shirt, searching for the diamond.
[Tychy‘s last good weird story was “The House Across The Street” Ed.]