fiction, photography

CODA

Chris R-1-101 Image by Christine Renney

Peter walked behind the shops, not a shortcut as such but it seemed to him a better prospect than the high road at rush hour. It was bitingly cold and, hunched in his jacket, he trudged with his head down.
He heard them first and, looking up, saw the girls, pole dancers, huddled in front of the door at the back of the club beneath a small oblong canopy of whitewashed concrete. They shivered, drawing hungrily on their cigarettes, teetering on stiletto heels, naked but for a little shimmer and sparkle.
It struck Peter that this would have made a great photograph and if only he had his camera how easily he could have captured it. But he hadn’t and as he stood watching the girls the irrefutable fact that he couldn’t change this caused him to feel nauseous.
Forcing himself he turned away and moved on. Walking toward home Peter re-played the moment in his head. He had watched the girls for a minute at most but this would have been long enough. He could have taken ten, fifteen, even twenty shots, each of them a masterpiece and all potential prize-winners.
Peter couldn’t accept that he had missed the opportunity to photograph the dancers. To contemplate the idea that the image didn’t exist and that he wasn’t responsible for its existence was simply too much for him.
Before he had reached his flat he had managed to convince himself that it wasn’t too late, that the girls would of course reappear the following evening and that all he needed to do was be there, armed with his camera.
The anticipation was almost unbearable and that night he rested fitfully. Over the course of the next week or so he revisited the back of the club. From late afternoon until the last of the light died he paced with his camera, a stone’s throw from the busy high road.
Each day his impatience lessened just a little and at last Peter raised his camera and started shooting but the girls failed to emerge and the door remained firmly in place.

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fiction, photography

IN A PARIS HOTEL ROOM

Chris R-1-93 Image by Christine Renney

When it happened they were away from home. The smell was so invasive that, for a moment or so, Harris was unsure of where he was. Lifting the thin sheet he looked down at himself and at Geraldine, sleeping soundly on her side. He remembered then that he was in a hotel room in Paris and although the smell didn’t lessen it did suddenly seem a little more bearable. He was abroad, in a foreign country and this was something alien.
Convincing himself that it was coming from outside he slipped from the bed, careful not to wake Geraldine, crossed to the glass doors and stepped out onto the tiny balcony. It had been raining, the air was still fresh and the street below was still wet. In the cars’ headlights the moist air glinted.
The smell didn’t dissipate and at first he couldn’t locate it. It remained exactly the same despite the open doors. Harris realised it was coming from him, that he was the cause of it and he started to claw at himself, to pull at his pyjamas, to sniff his underarms and his hands. Harris was sweating, despite the chill of the air, and suddenly he was aware that his awareness of anything other than the smell, of anything outside of it, was non-existent, that it was all he could taste.
He stepped back inside and, swiftly and quietly, made his way to the bathroom. He pulled the cord and in his bare feet he stumbled on the tiles. This was something at least, his fleeting blindness, his blinking, his needing to adjust but the smell, well it was still rife.
Standing in front of the mirror he lifted his pyjama top and let the bottoms drop. He looked but there was nothing.
Why?, he asked himself. Why here and why now, so far from home? How could he hide this, how could he conceal it from Geraldine?
He stepped into the shower and again it was something, the water hitting his face, stinging his eyes, burning his skin but he knew it wouldn’t last. And afterwards, wrapped in a towel, he dropped the toilet lid and sat. Had he ever felt as ashamed as he was about to? As embarrassed as he would be when Geraldine awoke and found him like this?
He seriously considered leaving, going home but how could he? He imagined himself trudging through the streets of Paris, hunched in his overcoat. How could he make use of public transport or take a taxi? And then there was the airport and the flight. No, it was impossible. He couldn’t leave, not like this. He had no choice but to stay and face Geraldine.
They were here for three days and Harris felt sure that it would pass. That if he could sit quietly in the hotel room he could conquer it.
At first Geraldine didn’t mention the smell, but although it was only a matter of minutes, to Harris it seemed like an eternity.
‘You’re not well, are you?’ she asked. Pulling her robe tighter around herself she stared at him. ‘You poor thing,’ she said moving closer to him and placing her hand on his forehead. ‘Well you don’t have a fever;
what do you think it is?’
Harris groaned. ‘I don’t know. Can you smell it?’
‘Yes I can smell it.’
‘Then why didn’t you say?’
‘I didn’t want to embarrass you.’
‘Oh.’ His heart swelled. ‘I’m sure it will pass, given time but I’ll have to stay in here I’m afraid.’

Harris insisted that Geraldine go out and explore, see Paris. He didn’t want her to miss out because of this, because of him. He realised as much as he needed her, that if he was going to beat this he needed to do it alone. But the idea he might lose her was something he couldn’t put out of his mind.
Geraldine had left the television on and, flicking back and forth, he eventually settled on one of the music channels. Turning the volume low, he lay back and tried to concentrate.
Although he wasn’t really interested in the constant stream of videos he found himself drawn to the screen and, despite himself, he watched the unceasing parade of forgettable pop stars until at last he recognised a piece of music.
Harris turned the volume higher and listened. It was Radiohead’s ‘The Pyramid Song’. When it was finished he hit the mute button and tried again to relax. But a pattern had been set and in this way he passed his day. Whenever the animated film accompanying the song appeared on the screen again he hit the button and listened intently.
When Geraldine returned that afternoon, nothing had changed. The smell was no worse and no better; it didn’t drift on the air and escape through the open window. It was bearable now perhaps only because she believed it would pass, that it would go, but when?
Harris was sitting stiffly on the side of the bed, waiting yet again for her to speak. She stood mute, trying to make some sense of it but struggling. It was like a block of ice that wouldn’t melt.
‘What have you been doing with yourself?’ she asked.
‘Trying to relax.’
‘Have you been reading?’
‘No.’
She glanced at the television.
‘Have you been watching this all day?’
‘Yes, well some.’
‘Does it help?’
‘No – maybe. I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve been listening to the same song all day long; each time it comes around I turn it up and listen.’
‘Which song?’
‘Radiohead.’
‘Which song?’
‘The Pyramid Song.’
‘Ah.’
‘Do you know it?’
‘Yes – which album it is on?’
‘Amnesiac.’
‘And you have the album at home, right?’
‘Yes.’
‘Would it help if you could listen to it here?’
‘Yes, I suppose it might.’
‘Then I’ll go out and buy it and something to play it on.’
‘Yes,’ Harris stood and began to pace excitedly, ‘I think it might help. We’ll try it tomorrow.’
‘No, the shops are still open. I’ll go now.’
‘And the Messiaen ‘Quartet For The End of Time’ if you can find it.’
‘Okay,’ she said, ‘I’ll see what I can find. I know what you like.’
Geraldine lifted her handbag from the top of the bedside cabinet.
‘I’ll be back as soon as I have found them.’ Standing in the doorway she smiled at him.
‘I really do believe this is going to work. In fact, I think it’s working already. Just keep thinking about the music you want to hear and then perhaps tomorrow you’ll be able to see a little of Paris before we go home,’ and turning she pulled the door to and was gone.

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fiction, photography

PRECINCT

Chris R-1-81 Image by Christine Renney

After visiting the shopping centre they always lingered, had done for years. It was difficult now to pinpoint exactly when this had begun, much less how or why. It was unspoken that, once the shops had closed, they would skulk along at the edge of the precinct where the teenagers gathered.
Pubs, clubs, burger bars and pizza joints dominated and the couple would find a table where, from behind the plate glass, they could gaze out across the now car-less car park.
The litter, the day’s debris, had been swept and shovelled against the kerb and in each and every corner and crevice. The youngsters didn’t seem to mind. They kicked through it, tramped on it, added to it, restless and eager for the night with all its possibilities.

The couple talked over their pizza, dissecting the lives of others, of old friends, people they rarely or never saw anymore, colleagues from work and people they barely knew. They raced toward conclusion after conclusion, invented scenario after scenario. There was something about that place, that time, that offered obscurity: a middle aged couple with nowhere particular to go, nothing to do except to visit the multiplex cinema to see the latest blockbuster – ‘Action/Adventure’ or ‘Romcom’, sequels and prequels they watched indiscriminately. But this particular night their hearts weren’t in it and so they began to wander.
This, in fact, was what they had wanted to do all along. Simply to walk, just to be here and not feel the need to dress it, to skirt around this fact. They were elated and entered a busy pub. It was like walking on air and the drink helped to prolong this feeling and then, suddenly, the moment was lost. The revellers had deserted them. Of course, they could have followed, chased the party, found another pub or even a club but – they had shopping bags to cart and so stayed put, drinking until common sense prevailed at last and they began to make their way toward home.

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fiction, photography

THE EMPTY STATION

Chris R-1-78 Image by Christine Renney

The reception area is so vast that it easily engulfs all of those waiting. Each has found a space for themselves, somewhere to sit, to stand or to lean, even to pace, unhindered. Only he is unencumbered – he hasn’t a briefcase, no portfolio, no evidence of his brilliance. He has nothing to declare.
He watches the girl behind the desk and awaits his chance, the opportune moment to approach. Unlike the others, he hasn’t an appointment but instead a little insider info and a name and his plan is simply to wing it.
He isn’t sure if he is ready for what might be possible here and, standing in front of her, is suddenly aware of his ambivalence and casually he begins to improvise.
‘I don’t have an appointment.’
‘Oh,’ she looks up at him.
‘I know this is a little unorthodox but about eighteen months ago I worked with one of the employees here, freelance of course. He said that I should keep in touch, that I could contact him at any time. Well, I’ve been trying to reach him for days now, on the number I have for him, but keep hitting a wall and so I decided to come down here myself.’
This little speech rings in his ears, echoes in his head and sounds like utter bollocks. Even if it were true it couldn’t possible convince, could it? Surely not. But, yes, she asks it, the loaded question.
‘If you let me have your name,’ she says, ‘and the name of the employee I’ll see what I can do.’
And so he tells her and watches as she scrolls down the screen of her computer, searching for the name and number, for someone to call. He doesn’t bother to act incredulous, doesn’t pretend to be surprised when she tells him his colleague is no longer there. But although he isn’t really listening to the answers he already knows, when she asks him to go sit and wait he obeys.

It has all gone swimmingly and now that he is safely parked in lay-by a mile or so from there, he can give it some thought. It had worked like a charm; the name and his supposed association with a long since departed maverick. But his complacency had played its part, he had been impressive. They had repackaged their offer again and again. Coaxed him with the finer detail and all he had done was act aloof, as if he was about to get up and go.
Yes, without a doubt it had been the most auspicious of beginnings and eager to talk with his wife he reaches for his phone in the glove box, waiting impatiently for her reply.
‘It worked like a charm.’ It feels good saying it out loud but he now almost incoherent and the complete antithesis of his earlier self. Excitedly he blathers on, trying to tell it all at once, just what it will mean for them. A regular salary and the proposed bonus scheme, the health cover, the pension plan and the projected trajectory of promotion after promotion.
‘Are you sure about this?’ his wife sounds doubtful.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean are you absolutely sure about this?’
‘But we discussed this already, we decided together.’
‘Yes, I know, but aren’t you doing okay on your own? We’re all right aren’t we?’
‘Is it the deception? Because I lied?’
‘No, it isn’t that, well, yes maybe. I don’t know, I’m not sure. I know that you’re good at what you do and of course you will be good at it there and I know that it doesn’t matter, that we’ll forget but, I’m sorry, can we talk about it when you get home?’
‘Isn’t it a little late for that now?’
At her end she presses the red button and for a moment or so he sits with the phone clamped tightly against his ear to listen to the silence, to the highly charged static.

He is being led to his work station, not by one of the guys who last week conducted the impromptu interview. No, this is a fresh face, although following behind he hasn’t seen much of it.
The office is scarily large and he is reminded of a news room in one of those old black and white films, the chaos and the clamour. But he is mistaken, overwhelmed by the sheer scale and number of employees, all of whom are quietly engrossed at their screens. No, there is no chaos, no clamour here.
Up ahead, his guide is talking but he has fallen back and can’t hear. He can see the windows at the far end and hopes his desk will be in that area. At least then he will be able to look out.
And there it is at last – the empty station, his allotted space. He doesn’t stop but instead, forging forward, he pushes through the fire exit and wonders if it is alarmed.

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fiction, photography

TREMORS

Chris R-1-74 Image by Christine Renney

He wanted desperately to pinpoint when it began, the exact moment that he had felt the first tremor. But it hadn’t happened like that, suddenly and revelatory. No it had been slow.
Ever so gradually he became aware of something happening beneath his feet. Slowly he had become more and more attuned until he was able to anticipate when the next tremor would occur and, readying himself for it, he could prepare for the impact.

He wondered if there were others who felt the tremors and suffered as he did. He watched his family and friends. He studied people in the street, in the supermarket and on the bus, people anywhere and everywhere. He concluded that if they did, if there were others who felt the tremors, then they were much stronger than he and better at hiding it.

He sensed that he had always sensed them, subconsciously at first of course, and then consciously. They were buried deep down in the ground – the faintest of flickers, dying torches in the darkest mine shaft. The tremors hadn’t surprised him, hadn’t shocked him and this, in itself, was shocking. And now they were taking their toll and he could no longer stand firm and continue as if nothing was happening. He could no longer pretend

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fiction, photography

THE BOOKS IN THE BASEMENT

Chris R-1-63 Image by Christine Renney

The bookshop is busy and bright. Pushing against the throng Daniel moves toward the back of the store and down the rickety wooden staircase. Once below, he is able to breath again and, taking in the stale and musty but familiar aroma, he begins to relax. He finds making the short trip from the plate glass doors at the front of the shop to the basement so stressful. Daniel worries that he will be apprehended by one of the sales assistants, that they will demand to know what he is doing, why does he keep coming back and why does he spend so long down below?
Daniel has been coming to the bookshop every day for months now and he must have been noticed. But he hasn’t been stopped yet and no-one seems to care. And why should they? After all, the books in the basement have been forgotten and abandoned, left to molder and fade. And so why should he warrant more than a cursory glance and a fleeting thought.
Daniel is thankful for this. It means he is left alone to his own devices and he can read. It also means that at least some of the lost books will be rediscovered.

Daniel doesn’t have to worry about making the return trip for hours. He has a flask of coffee and sandwiches in his backpack and, if he wants, he can stay down here all day and quite often he does. Once settled on the old and cracked leather sofa in the far corner he loses track of time.

There are a lot of books in the basement. The shelving units run its entire length and the walkways are narrow, just wide enough for two people to pass each other sideways. But Daniel suspects that this has never been necessary, or at least not in years.
The shelves are tightly packed, mostly paperbacks and all have been read at least once. Most more than this judging by the creased spines and the dog-eared pages between the covers.
There are so many stories stored down here, so many ideas. It is an archive, an accidental one maybe, but an archive nonetheless.
Daniel wishes that he could reach all of the books but even if he were gifted an extra lifetime he knows he could not achieve it. But Daniel is determined to keep reading for as long as he is able, he is convinced that, eventually, someone will notice him, that someone will decide to care. After all, this is a bookshop and not a library and he is breaking the rules.

Occasionally others do venture into the basement and whenever Daniel hears someone on the creaking staircase he jumps up from the sofa. Although he is entirely hidden from view he tries to act nonchalantly, as if he is just another customer, casually browsing.
It is dank down here and poorly lit. No-one ever seems to venture more than a few metres into the basement. This time, however, he hears someone moving purposefully along one of the passages. Daniel is intrigued and, emboldened, he moves across until he sees her.
She is searching for a certain writer, maybe even a particular book but it isn’t there and Daniel sees the disappointment on her face.
Still she lingers, scanning the titles and occasionally reaching out and touching the books. Daniel moves closer but she doesn’t seem to be aware he is there and, turning, the woman stares right through him. And he realises that she doesn’t see him, that as far as she is concerned he isn’t there.
Staying with her, Daniel glides along the aisle until at last she works one of the books free and pulls it down. She studies the cover and flicks through it and, turning again, she doesn’t put it back. Daniel realises the woman is going to take it, that she is going to keep the book.

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