When, at the end, you ask yourself how it all began, you will look back to your uncle’s funeral.
It was a tearless occasion, for your uncle, though respected professionally, had few friends, and even your mother’s eyes were dry as the curtains closed on his coffin.
‘Christ,’ Neil whispered into your ear. ‘I thought dying was bleak – now I think it’s living.’
‘He chose his life.’
‘Did he? If people care as little when I die, I want you to kill me.’
Neil has always been the licensed cynic in your family. Your role – one you resent even as it defines you – is to be the dutiful, sensitive daughter.
At the reception, you stood beside your mother as she listened to your uncle’s colleagues: elderly men for the most part, retired journalists and press photographers. One of them, who looked familiar, perhaps from the television, said loudly, ‘You’re his niece, aren’t you? He was fond of you.’
‘You followed in his footsteps.’
‘But not in his line of work.’
‘Just as well, perhaps.’ The old man turned to your mother. ‘Malcolm Dennistoun was a reporter through and through and he lived a remarkable life.’
It was to learn your share in the spoils from that life that you met again a week later at a solicitor’s office in Holborn.
The solicitor was a stout Irishwoman with a fake tan. She put you at ease, offered you coffee, read the will.
There was the archive, of course, which your uncle had always intended for the Imperial War Museum. To your mother he left his flat in Maida Vale, on condition that half the revenue from its sale went to a charity for street children in Vietnam. (‘Now there’s a turn up,’ said Neil.) To your brother went shares in a South-East Asian shrimp farm and the hideous erotic art from Malcolm’s walls.
“And to my niece, Helen, I bequeath the antique travelling chest that so fascinated her as a child.”
Later, at the restaurant, you expressed your perplexity. ‘I don’t remember a travelling chest. What am I going to do with it?’ You own, at thirty-two, no property. All you have is a rented room in a house-share in Walthamstow.
‘You can leave it with us,’ your father said.
‘I wonder what’s in it,’ said your mother.
‘Not shrimps,’ you said. ‘Or smut.’
Neil muttered over the rim of his wineglass: ‘You never know your luck.’
The travelling chest went to your parents’ house in St Albans. You were in no hurry to investigate it; as deputy editor of The Guardian’s Parliamentary live-feed, you work unsociable and irregular hours. It is nothing like taking photographs in warzones, and sometimes you reproach yourself for the safety of your beat.
You looked up your uncle’s obituaries. They covered his first assignment in Vietnam and the other conflicts that kept him abroad until his fifties: Bangladesh, Cyprus, Angola, El Salvador, Bosnia, and Kosovo. This last war put an end to Malcolm’s heroics and he had retired from the frontline to take up a life of easy assignments, drink and dissolution. This was the Malcolm you remember: a disappointed man.
When, at last, you went to see your parents, their pleasure made you feel guilty for not calling on them more often.
The chest lay in the front room: a plain box, with much weathering and scarring of the wood. Your mother and father stood behind you as you unfastened the padlock and raised the lid.
The contents were a jumble of papers, plane tickets, Kodak film cartridges. There were yellowing faxes and tax returns, old receipts and bills tied together with paperclips. You dug up airport thrillers, a cigar box filled with political badges from long-forgotten and murderous election campaigns, a hand-carved wooden dolphin with a missing fluke.
Your mother left the room in a flurry and your father waited for a moment. ‘You know we intend to divide the value of the flat between you and your brother.’
‘Dad, it’s fine.’
‘He was an unhappy man. And he dealt with his unhappiness by trying to dole it out to those around him.’ The weight on your father’s face lifted. ‘What’s that, there?’ He knelt on the carpet and, rummaging inside the chest, extracted a small black box. ‘It’s a Leica,’ he said. Still got a film in it.’
He handed you the camera. It was heavier than it looked and had a feel of old plastic. You peered through the viewfinder; its glass was scratched by grains of dust or sand.
‘I wonder why he never developed the film.’
You felt a strong impulse to put the Leica back in the box. Yet the journalist in you – the investigator – insisted otherwise. You would find someone at work who could get the film developed.
‘That’s the spirit,’ your father said.
It was Andy at the office who sorted out the film for you: Andy, who sweats even in mild weather and carries a torch for half the unattached women at work. He deposited the film and prints on your desk.
‘I haven’t looked, promise,’ he said.
You waited for him to slope off before taking out the photographs. There were thirteen in total, followed by several duds taken by mistake with the lens cap on. These you threw in the bin.
The images were in black and white; like stills, you thought, from a war film. Your fingers trembled as you laid them out on your desk.
A shot of Malcolm’s boots, half turned to hide by the mud and heat.
Three shots of a forest path wrecked by defoliant.
Five of battle-dazed GIs sitting against a pockmarked concrete wall.
One picture was a blur, from sudden movement perhaps. Another showed a helicopter with a red cross on its fuselage, soldiers crouching and holding their helmets against the updraft.
The penultimate picture looked to have been taken in a village. There were thatched huts and haggard-looking villagers and GIs shouting at them.
The last image, before those mysterious blanks, was poorly composed, as if taken in a hurry by unsteady hands. You had to bring it to daylight to make sense of it. You saw a hut with a smoking roof. It was just possible to see the flames. You were so preoccupied with interpreting these blots and smudges that you almost missed the figure standing in the hut’s entrance. It was a girl, or a young woman. The face in its frame of black hair was a pale blur, with only the eyes distinct, dark dots like the eyes of a doll, and those eyes, you realised, were trained on the camera, on the man taking the photograph, and so, in a sense, on you.
You have little time to think about the photographs. They sit in their envelope in your handbag while you haunt the lobby at the House of Commons and file your report on spats in the Chamber.
London swelters under a heat wave. You sleep badly, in a sweat, your window open to shouts and scooters in the street. Mercifully, you are getting away. A Cornish holiday with your old schoolmate, Charlie.
The day arrives, and you collapse with your bags on the train to Penzance.
‘How’ve you managed to stay so pale?’ your friend asks.
‘Scottish genes,’ you reply. ‘We have to hide from the sun or we burn up like vampires.’
Charlie makes a sign of the cross with her index fingers. Getting a tan is important to her. She cares about her appearance, and has always meant a certain glamour to you: not because she is beautiful, but because she seems at ease in her body. There is a solidity to Charlie that you find reassuring. Even in grief, or trailing as now the hurt from a failed relationship, she basks in being.
‘We are going to bake and swim and stuff our faces with cream teas.’
‘With no men,’ you say.
‘No whining, self-obsessed men.’
The two of you settle into a tiny cottage facing Mount’s Bay. The sun blazes, searing the land, and you hike along Porthleven Sands, taking selfies and sinking into the heat-trance of high summer. Stopping for tea in Mullion, Charlie scrolls through the photos she has taken on her phone. She shows them to you. You dislike yourself, and are brooding inwardly on the contrast between Charlie’s smile and your simper when your friend says:
‘I don’t remember anyone following us.’
‘How do you mean?’
Charlie shows you the sequence again. The first photo shows you squinting into the glare. Subsequently, there is a figure, far up the beach behind you. It’s there, in the distance, in every wide shot: half dissolved in the water-dazzle at Loe Bar, and once more behind your shoulder as you pose on the cliff above Church Cove.
Charlie shrugs, her mouth full of scone. ‘Doubt it’s the same person.’
‘We can hardly have the place to ourselves,’ you say.
Together, you flog back up the Sands in the late afternoon, and you are too tired to sit up, as Charlie intended, talking and drinking after sundown.
The following morning there is no breeze and the heat is intense, so you spend the day clinging to shaded pavements in Porthleven and wandering after lunch into the cool of the woods at Penrose.
On your third and final day, low cloud means cooler conditions, so you take a taxi to the heath on Goonhilly Downs and hike to the standing stone, meaning from that ancient spot to take in the view of the Earth Station. Each of you poses for the camera, and as you eat your picnic, Charlie busies herself applying filters and posting the photos on Instagram. She shows you these photos, but the reflection of the sunlit clouds obscures the screen.
That evening, back at the cottage while you pack, Charlie idles with her phone.
‘There’s your mystery walker again,’ she says.
A cold current shifts through you. ‘What are you talking about?’
Charlie hands over her phone and you scroll through the images. Your thumb leaves a smear on the screen.
‘It’s the same person,’ you say.
‘Oh Hels, hardly.’
It’s the same person.’
In each picture of you, there stands, in the background, the dark-haired girl. She is behind your shoulder, or half-obscured by your windswept hair. There she is, far away amid the bleached grasses; now a little closer, in the heather beyond the standing stone.
Your friend’s voice has concern in it. ‘It’s just a rambler,’ she says.
You scroll back and forth. There she is. There she is again.
‘I mean,’ says Charlie, ‘Cornwall in the summer – it’s hardly surprising if other people are doing the same walk as us.’
‘On two separate days?’
‘Well no one was following us this afternoon, were they?’
‘We weren’t taking photographs this afternoon.’
‘I don’t see what that’s got to do with it. Come on,’ says Charlie, and she turns off her phone and stows it beneath her pillow, ‘let’s finish packing and get shitfaced.’
The bottles come out of the fridge. You try to keep up with your friend, but Charlie’s a harder drinker than you, and when the last drop of Prosecco has gone, you climb woozily into your bed.
You dream, mercifully, of nothing.
The next morning you begin the long journey back to the grime of London. You are hung-over, fragile like an old lady. Charlie, on the other hand, appears undimmed. A good-looking City lawyer has got in touch via her dating app, and she dips in and out of her phone, speculating about his income and other potential assets. You ask her if they plan to meet.
‘Might do,’ says Charlie. ‘I’ve met some utter dicks through this site – my luck’s bound to change some time. If there’s no spark, I can always send him your way.’
‘If he’s met you first, I’ll be a disappointment.’
‘Don’t put yourself down. Hels, you’re a catch.’
‘Like a codfish.’
‘Look, I’ll prove it to you.’
She points her camera-phone at you. You hide your face.
‘Maybe lose the middle finger.’
But Charlie does. You hear the synthetic ‘snap’. Your friend contemplates the picture she has taken.
‘I look like a hag, right?’ You watch your friend’s expression, anticipating a joke. She stares at the screen. ‘Come on,’ you say, ‘show it to me.’
You lurch across the table and snatch Charlie’s phone. She isn’t quick enough to stop you, but you forget at once about your friend.
You look at the image on the screen. You see yourself – your former self from seconds ago. Who you are now is not who you were then: wan, a little nauseous, but fundamentally at ease, essentially untouched by what touches you now, this picture on your friend’s phone that drains all the heat from your skin and channels it into your belly.
You stand up and begin to walk, jolted by the train’s motion, towards the seat at the far end of the carriage. You hesitate, your heart clenching and unclenching – then take three decisive steps to stand level with the sliding door and whoever it is who is sitting there.
You sway for a moment.
The seat is empty.
You turn about and hurry back, falling twice against headrests but feeling nothing. Charlie is watching you. You mean to speak quietly but your voice when it escapes is too loud.
‘Did you see her leave the carriage?’
‘Hels, what – ?’
‘Did you see her get up and go? Did you see her leave?’
‘It’s just a girl,’ Charlie says.
‘There’s nobody there.’
‘There must be.’
‘Both seats are empty.’
Charlie stands and tries to take your sleeve. You snatch it away. ‘Helen,’ she says, ‘we’re freaking ourselves out over nothing. You had your back turned to her, and while I was looking at my phone she must’ve got up to go to the loo.’
‘The girl in your phone is not on this train.’
‘Sit down, please.’
‘I want to change carriage.’
‘We might not get a table…’
‘I’m changing carriage.’
You have no thought to spare for your luggage, leaving it to Charlie to release it from the other bags and heft it up the train.
Three coaches ahead, you wait for your friend, then wordlessly get up and head for the buffet bar. You return with four miniature bottles of Chardonnay.
‘Hels, you’re not going to –?’
By the time your train gets in, you are in a stupor. Charlie gets you into a taxi, presses thirty pounds – far more than necessary – into the unhappy driver’s hand, and takes care in front of him to call your housemate, Mark, to be sure that you make it safely home.
The next day is a Sunday. No rain has fallen in your absence and the garden, such as it is, is mostly straw and papery leaves. After waking in the early hours, you go out to sit on your dismal terrace, among dead pot-plants, hoping for the heat inside you to abate. The air is cool enough after a few hours of darkness, yet you cannot shake off the sweat that films your forehead and upper lip. You drink sour London water to rehydrate, and try to clear your mind, focusing on your breathing as your therapist has taught you.
As the sun begins to burn away the cloud, you run up to your room to get your phone.
Back in the garden, with a trembling hand, you take a self-portrait. You turn the phone over to see the screen.
Relief floods through you like rain that breaks a drought. You take a second selfie, just to make sure. Again: nothing. Only you and the parched grass and the dusty holly bush along the far wall.
In the kitchen, Mark is up already, inspecting the contents of the fridge. ‘How are you feeling,’ he asks.
‘Better,’ you say. You sit at the kitchen table with your phone on your lap. ‘A bit embarrassed.’
‘No – it’s good to know even strait-laced Helen can succumb to the demon drink.’
Mark sits beside you with a bowl of muesli and a glass of orange juice. You glance one more time at the perfectly normal image on your phone. ‘I quite fancy one of those,’ you say, and getting up to fetch the juice carton you set your phone on the table. You open the fridge door and close your eyes on its cool breath.
‘Taking selfies now?’ says Mark, and you look over your shoulder to see him looking at your phone.
‘Just trying out the settings.’
The orange juice is cloudy with pulp. You watch its sunlight fill your glass.
‘Who’s that,’ says Mark, ‘standing behind you in the holly bush?’
That evening, getting no response to her texts, Charlie calls on the flat in Walthamstow. Mark opens the door and ushers her into the kitchen.
You are in your room. The house is old and the floorboards thin, and by pressing your ear against them, you can make out what Mark and Charlie are saying.
Charlie is talking about your episodes in the past. Mark makes low noises to show that he is listening, but as usual, he is only waiting for his chance to speak. You hear him tell your friend what happened, at breakfast time, in the kitchen. How something seemed to break inside you. How you tossed your mobile phone in the bin, took it out, smashed it on the floor, binned it again. How, since then, you have refused to leave your room.
They stop talking, and tiptoeing to your door you can hear Charlie climbing the stairs. On her fifth knock, you turn the key.
You have looked at yourself a few times in the mirror, so you know what Charlie is seeing. There are red blots, almost welts, under your eyes, as if you have been knuckling at your skin.
‘I summoned her,’ you say.
Charlie persuades you to sit on your messed-up bed. She makes a show of paying you serious attention.
‘My uncle,’ you tell her, ‘recorded terrible things. I used to think that was heroic. But what if those pictures aren’t bearing witness? What if they’re a kind of plunder?’
Charlie hears you out. She tells you that she does not believe you are being followed, but respects the fact that you believe it. She has read books about how to handle this sort of situation.
‘Look,’ she says, ‘there’s nothing in this room right now. Agreed? It’s only an image, or a shadow, that appears on photographs. So, the solution is for you to stay away from cameras. Focus on that, and in the meantime I’m going to call your GP.’
‘How’s my GP supposed to help?’
‘You’ve been under strain, Helen. Anyone can burn out.’
You understand at this moment that your friend can be of no use to you.
‘All right,’ you say, but only to get rid of her. ‘I’ll see a doctor. And you need to know, it won’t help me in the slightest.’
You wrote all of this in your diary. You have been recording your life in a diary since you were a child, and the whole of it takes up a bookshelf – thirty-two notebooks to give an account of yourself, to prove to yourself that you have existed. You wrote your last entry only this morning, having spent two days locked in your room, leaving it only to scavenge for food in the kitchen or to use the toilet. As if you feared that Mark might be loitering with a smartphone.
Still, you should have been more careful about cameras. You should have remembered to cover the lens on your laptop.
The time has almost come when hiding in this room will no longer be an option; when it becomes necessary to go out into the world. Charlie keeps leaving messages on the phone. So do Neil and your anxious parents. They are on their way now.
When those that love you arrive, they will find an empty room, with the window open to the street. They will look for a sign, for a slip of paper with a note on it – for some explanation. No doubt they will turn the room upside down searching. Perhaps they will find Malcolm Dennistoun’s photographs in their envelope inside the bedside drawer. Perhaps one of them – not today, but at some point in the future – will sit down to look through the photographs. The GIs, like extras from a war film. The scorched and poisoned forest. The helivac. Finally, the image of a burning hut. It will be poorly composed, with no people in the foreground. Half in shadow, a woman will stand in the entrance to the hut. Her face, in its frame of pale hair, will be a blur. Only the eyes will be distinct, dark dots like the eyes of a doll, and those eyes will be trained on the camera, on the man taking the photograph, and so, in a sense, on me.
Gregory Norminton is the author of five novels – most recently The Devil’s Highway (4th Estate) – and two collections of short stories. He is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He lives with his wife and daughter in Sheffield. You can find our more about Gregory and his work on his website.
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