Thirty Six Pictures

A short story, submitted for my Creative Writing module.

‘Hey babe…’ Liam said tentatively, making his way back into his girlfriend’s bedroom with a fresh mug of tea. Bella stirred and lifted her head reluctantly from the pillow. Her fine blonde hair was scraped into a scruffy birds nest of a bun because she hadn’t taken it down last night, and as she stared bleary-eyed into her pillow she noticed it was streaked with teary mascara stains.
‘Oh fuck…’ she muttered, remembering why they were there, ‘my camera.’ She couldn’t handle it right now. She propped herself up and turned to Liam who was now sat on the edge of the bed. ‘What am I gonna do?’ she asked hoarsely, with a hopeless look on her face. Liam stared back at her blankly. He didn’t have a bloody clue. She had blotchy sad black eyes and lipstick smeared round her mouth, forming a comedic frown. He resisted the urge to laugh and instead proffered his cup.
‘Tea?’ No, that wouldn’t fix things either. Bella’s head was spinning now, and she could feel a deluge of vomit bubbling in her belly.
‘Oh god,’ she groaned, rising suddenly to dash to the bathroom. She spewed sambuca coloured bile into the basin, and tears of self-pity ran down her cheeks. Once it was over, she washed her face, brushed out her hair and cleaned her teeth, skulking from the bathroom and back into bed. Liam clambered in next to her, kissed her head, and she nestled into his sweatshirt, taking in his comforting familiar scent. They both slept restlessly.

Peter finally arrived at the bottom of the stairs, a little breathless. He liked living on the sixth floor, because he could observe the sprawling city for miles, always finding something he hadn’t noticed before. When the lift broke down though, he really begrudged it. Embracing the cool spring air made him shiver. As he followed his usual walk to work, he kicked something small that made a metallic clatter along the pavement and was now a few paces ahead of him. When he had caught up with the mystery object, he stooped to examine it. It was a camera film. There was no one in sight, so the owner of it must have been long gone. He slipped the it into his trouser pocket thinking that perhaps if the owner came to look for it he would bump into them en route to the pharmacy. It wasn’t long before he was engrossed in the morning’s work and he forgot all about the film in his pocket.

‘Oi Bella. Bels. Bellaaaa!’ Liam was holding a Pyrex dish. Bella stretched and smiled. She was feeling a lot better, and had momentarily forgotten about the issue of her lost camera.
‘What’s that?’
‘Tried to wake you up to come round my mum’s for lunch but you were gone. You know what she’s like, she plated some up for you and told me to bring it over.’
‘Ahhh, amazing! You’re the best. Your mum’s the best! Choose some music to put on, yeah?’ Liam went over to the stacks of records and picked up The Ramones’ debut album – not his favourite album, but a good choice nonetheless. As Blitzkrieg Bop began to play, he sat on the edge of Bella’s bed.
‘Good?’ He asked, as she chewed on a mouthful of chicken and pasta.
‘Mmmf!’ she responded, sticking her thumb up. He loved it when she was in a good mood.

Peter stepped out of the little pharmacy into the day, feeling contented. The sun was now shining brightly and it seemed to be affecting everyone. His boss, a no-nonsense miserly bloke, had given Peter some money and told him to go and get them either a cake or biscuit each from the local bakery. As Peter queued up, he absentmindedly stuck his hand in his pocket to fumble for the change, and instead found the film. He took it out and examined it once again.
‘When I get back, I can process this in the mini lab and see what’s on it,’ he thought.

‘Bollocks…’ Bella’s hangover had faded and after eating Liam’s mum’s filling lunch she was painfully aware of reality. ‘Liam, I just remembered the photos. Those pictures I took of you – they were on the film. They’re for my project.’
Liam frowned. He didn’t like the idea of those pictures being lost somewhere; he didn’t even like posing for them. Bella had dressed him in a bag of old clothes she had procured from her landlady. They belonged to a dapper old tenant who had long since forgotten about them. Kitted out in the mysterious man’s old clothes, Bella had slicked his hair and rouged his cheeks and taken pictures of him smoking a Vogue cigarette or drinking black coffee from fine bone china. Liam suddenly realised he was secretly quite pleased the pictures were gone forever…

Peter loved developing the film; it made him feel like David Hemmings in Blow Up. When he left, he surreptitiously closed the door, only to notice Mr. Wilson standing just a few feet away from him with a stern look on his face.

‘You told me you were going to clear away this waste packaging and organise the basement,’ he said in his thick Brummie accent. ‘We don’t have any films to process in there Peter…’ he trailed off.
‘I know, I’m sorry. They were…’ he didn’t know what to say – they weren’t his photos, but it wouldn’t make much difference if he explained that he had wanted to know what was on the film he had found in the street. ‘It’s just a personal project. My mum sent me a film! Thinks it might have some old family snaps on it!’ he blurted out. Mr. Wilson frowned.
‘That’s all well and good Peter, but I’m not paying you to fart about doing favours for your mum, you’re s’posed to be working. I’ll have to dock your wages, the supplies for the machine don’t come cheap either!’ he exclaimed indignantly, turning to head back up the stairs. Peter mutters a response, but Mr. Wilson doesn’t hear it: ‘Miserable tightarse.’

It wasn’t until the following day that Peter got to see the pictures. What he found was mysterious – they were candid shots, but they were all of the same person – a man either in his late teens or early twenties, it was hard to tell. In most of the pictures he had a haunting stare, like an indignant wild animal. His cherubic features were obscured by makeup giving him a striking, scarily beautiful appearance. Although his makeup was heavy, his pronounced cheekbones and square jaw were defiantly masculine beneath the blush and eyeliner. His eyes were a weird non-colour – a beautiful pale blue-green-grey – like the English sea in winter. He didn’t want to be caught slacking again, so he gathered up the photographs and put them in a paper bag inside his satchel. He’d give them his full attention later when he got home after work.

‘Hello darling!’
‘Hey mum,’
‘Bella, are you alright? You sound glum. How’s the work going?’
‘Yeah it’s fine!’ enthused Bella, trying to sound positive. She couldn’t mention the lost camera; it would upset her mum and make her feel even worse. ‘The pay isn’t great,’ she continued, ‘but it’s nice to work with clothes that I like, the customers are friendly and…’
‘No silly!’ interrupted her mother, ‘I know you’re more than capable of handling a bit of shop work! I meant your college portfolio. Did you get that project finished that you mentioned? The one where you took pictures of Liam? How is Liam anyway?’
‘Yeah, um it’s done. I’m fine, we’re both fine! Anyway, I need to go now. Got to get to Asda before it shuts…yep, love you too.’

The train pulled out of Slough station, and Peter breathed a sigh of relief. He hated visits home. The same old faces, the exhaustive questions, the dull brown scenery. He knew lots of people in Slough, but none of them were worth knowing. He had forgotten to bring a book or magazine with him, so he thumbed through the stack of photographs again. The stranger in the photographs intrigued him – it felt like they had so much in common. There were so many telling details to take in. He surely must be a fan of Blow Up too, as there was a L’Eclisse poster behind him in a shot where he was sat, on his paisley bed spread. One image showed him putting a vinyl on a turntable, and Peter could make out the distinct image of a Devo LP on the stack of records partially obscured by the young man’s arm. He had a hickey on his neck as he slouched topless in bed, with eyeliner smeared down his face, giving the camera a mock snarl. In another photo he sat at the table in a cream tennis kit and red running shoes, his quiff a little disheveled, downing a glass of milk with his eyes closed. There was also a photograph of him wearing a yellow two-piece suit outside an old-fashioned umbrella shop, and another where he perched on a garden wall outside a house with a red door. He was wearing a Madonna t-shirt and a leather jacket, and his black Chelsea boots rested on a sign underneath. He was perfect. When Peter looked closely at the photograph, he could make out the words “Brotherton Road” on the street sign.

From across the street, Peter instantly recognized the same house with its sparse garden, grey brick wall, and red door. The telltale sign was there too, and he knew it would say “Brotherton Road” because he had turned onto this street from the other side, and walked down to the end house – the place he was looking for. Perhaps the man in the pictures didn’t live here. It might have just been somewhere that he’d stopped to light his cigarette? It was nerve-racking that he might meet him, but Peter knew he’d feel disappointed if it turned out that he wasn’t here. He strode quickly across the road, wanting to get it over with. Rapping sharply on the wind-bitten door, he exhaled deeply while he waited for someone to answer. Shortly, he heard the twist of the lock, and the door opened to reveal a man – the same man in the pictures – yet somehow completely different. The startling eyes looked bland and washed out, and matched his dull complexion, which was pasty from bad diet and too much drink. The colour from his cheeks had gone, and his lips were a pale thin shadow of the ones in the photographs. His intimidating gaze had been replaced by a dim expression – a mixture of bewilderment and curiosity, like a particularly slow Labrador.

‘This is fuckin’ mental,’ said Liam, filling up the kettle. ‘Seriously, Bella is gonna be over the moon when she comes home, you dunno how much them pictures mean to her,’ he continued. Peter smiled awkwardly at the kitchen table, his hands stiffly by his sides. It was the same kitchen table where he had seen Liam in his tennis whites drinking a glass of milk. His suave outfits had since been replaced with paint splattered cut offs and a Millwall shirt. It was as though he had imagined the whole thing. It felt so underwhelming, being here with this man-child who had taken to calling him ‘Pete’ instead of ‘Peter’.
‘Sorry mate,’ Liam put a cup down in front of him – a Penguin classics “Vile Bodies” one. Peter looked up, momentarily confused, until Liam answered his blank stare with, ‘About the cup, you know…it’s proper poncy!’ Peter noted that Liam’s mug was one of those giant novelty ones, and it was emblazoned with the slogan, “YOU FUCKING MUG” The situation was getting more and more surreal. Liam started to drone on about his dull job as a painter and decorator. Fortunately, someone arriving home soon interrupted him.
‘Heyy!’ called Bella, and Peter turned to look. He observed her baggy fair isle knit cardigan, worn over a pleated skirt and that unmistakable same Madonna t-shirt, the tartan tights, the neat lace up brogues, the antique earrings, the retro scarf, and the could-almost-pass-for-genuine-Chanel bag. It all made sense. The man in the pictures was just an illusion – a reflection of her.

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