Authors: Richard Burke
The contraption—I can't think of anything else to call it—was eleven cameras in a circle, all primed to fire at the pull of a string. They were each perched on their own small mound of earth or rock or wood, carefully arranged in a ring nearly twenty feet across. Each camera pointed in towards the centre of the clearing beneath the tree, and each had a cable release wedged to precisely the right position, so that the plunger itself pointed upwards and outwards. Carefully lined up above each plunger was a weight—logs or stones—held up by the lightest twig possible. The plan was that strings would yank away the twigs, and the weights would fall on to the plungers: all eleven cameras would fire at once. The strings were to be pulled from behind the tree, where someone could crouch without appearing in any of the shots. Two mounds flanked the hornbeam's broad bole.
“So, who goes first?” Adam asked. Verity tutted impatiently.
“Verity,” I said piously. “It was her idea.”
Verity squealed, held my arm, and jumped up and down. Then she gave Adam a contemptuous glance and handed the strings to me. I had to give one bunch back for her to pass to me round the other side of the tree trunk. It was a tricky operation, because the strings had to be held almost taut, ready to be triggered. I crouched against the bark, and gestured with my head for Adam to stand behind me. He did so, stepping over the strings, then leaned out to peer at Verity. He seemed as excited as she was, focused and tight.
“Okay.” Her voice came from the clearing. I could not see her. She giggled. “I'm going to count down from five. You fire on zero. This is brilliant!” Then she yelled at the top of her voice, “BRILLIANT!” and whooped. It was so loud I half-expected an echo—but woods don't do that. All that came back was a nervous, insistent “Ssssh!” from Adam and me.
“Ready?” She was still talking loudly, but at least she had stopped shouting. I tensioned all the strings.
“Ready,” I whispered. “Verity,
“Okay.” She was still loud. “Here goes... five, four, three, two, one,
I tugged as sharply as I could. There was a sort of crackling-crumpling sound as (I hoped) all the twigs flew away, the weights fell, the plungers sank home, the camera shutters opened. The noise seemed to go on forever—a second, at least. I hoped it was just the sound of twigs and strings settling, not the cameras firing too late, or tipping over before the shot was taken. If it had gone wrong, the pictures might be seconds apart. There was no way to know until we developed the films.
Adam and I rushed round the trunk. Verity was collapsed, giggling in a tangle of skinny limbs. She bounced upright.
“That was brilliant!” she said. “They all went! It worked, I know it!” And she threw her arms round me and pressed her cheek against my neck. Hesitantly I put my arms round her, afraid she would move away. Instead I felt her take a deep breath, then sigh it out happily. Adam hunched a few paces away with his arms folded, trying hard not to look. I nuzzled Verity's hair. I could feel my groin stirring—and panicked in case she pulled away. She squeezed closer. Her cheek rubbed against my skin where my shirt was open, and her hair smelt of woodbark and grass.
We took photos until the light failed, and then we sat on the edge of the treehouse, legs dangling, Verity sandwiched between us clutching eleven rolls of film. We shared the silence and the birdsong.
“Where'd they come from, then, Adam?” Verity said, after a while.
“The cameras. You nicked one from your sister—”
“Not nicked. I'll put it back.” His tone was pleading.
“Yeah,” she said simply. “But what about the others?”
Adam drew his knees up and hugged them. His face tightened.
“They're your dad's, aren't they?”
“Shut up! Just shut the fuck up!”
He swung himself down off the platform, hanging by his arms and then dropping to the ground. I thought he was going to leave—and I felt guilty and excited at the same time, because if he left it would mean I was alone with Verity, and I remembered that embrace—but instead he crouched against the tree trunk, out of sight because he was immediately below us, but still there. You could glimpse him through the cracks in the boards.
We sat in our own private worlds as the dusk thickened around us. A gust sighed through the leaves, and then faded.
“What would he do if he found out?” Verity called quietly. “Does he hit you?” There was no answer. “Scare you, then?”
I heard him sniff away tears and shuffle himself into a new position.
“Mine does. Sometimes,” Verity offered.
I looked sharply at her, but she didn't seem aware that I was there. Her legs kicked back and forth in a slow rhythm, and she whistled absently, a sound like the wind. The silence was something between the two of them.
“My dad took his belt to me once,” I said. They both ignored me. The silence persisted.
I tried to imagine Gabriel beating her: a belt, or a slipper, maybe, his wise eyes full of fury, his thick brow knotted. The image didn't fit. I decided she must be lying; she was doing it to get something out of Adam. It was another hook. She was wielding her power. I felt inadequate; I think I came as close to hating her as I ever could. I didn't hate Adam for it; he was as much a victim as I was. And, of course, I didn't hate her either, not really. But I felt bitter and defeated. Today, of all days, with the labour we had put into her crazy camera plan, the reward for success should not be rejection.
Mind you, she did have a point about Adam's dad. He was a man with a reputation. I had never actually met him, but even seeing him from a distance you were aware that there was something wild about him. Perhaps it was in how he moved or stood. You had the sense that he was unpredictable and unrestrained, that anger was never far away. He was talked about: his womenfolk (village gossip had it that there were three, none married to him); his three children, Adam, his sister, and an older brother in prison; the farm labourers who worked for him occasionally—all were the subject of the village's collective sympathy. I was scared of him, just like everyone else. So was Adam. He avoided talking about his father whenever he could.
It was obvious that neither Verity nor Adam was going to say another word. It was getting dark, and I sensed a lightening of the silence: enough time had passed for their strange mood to dissolve.
“Better get home,” I said.
They both stirred, and in the half-dark I could see Verity next to me blink hard and become alert again.
“What's the time, then?” Adam mumbled, from below.
“Dunno,” I said. “Late.”
Verity stood up and headed for the rope ladder. I swung down the same way Adam had. We collected the cameras, and picked our way through the woods towards our bikes, and home.
The next day, whatever had passed between them was gone. We needed money to develop the films, and to get it, Verity was prepared to use every weapon she had.
“Ten quid, or I tell your dad about the cameras,” she said contentedly. She already knew she had won.
“I can't,” Adam whispered. “He'll kill me. He will.”
“Best not let him find out, then.” She shrugged unhelpfully.
I felt sorry for him, but the extortion seemed justifiable. She and I had dredged up ten pounds each; surely, it was only right that Adam should do the same. The truth is, though, that we were bullying him—and I knew it. I hung back, guiltily letting Verity twist the knife. It was doubly unfair, because we had only let Adam stand in on the seventh set of photos, and by then it had been so dark you could hardly make out his face: we knew the shots wouldn't come out. I knew Verity was being cruel, but I did nothing to stop it, and that made me part of it.
“I don't have a tenner,” Adam whined. “Where am I going to get a tenner?” He looked scared, as though he had shrunk.
“Don't care,” Verity said idly.
“You wouldn't tell Dad, though, would you? Not really?”
She picked up a pebble and examined it, disinterested.
“Please, Verity. He'll kill me.”
“You owe us a tenner, Adam.” Absently, she threw away the stone. He stared at the ground and chewed his lip, arms crossed, hugging himself. “Suit yourself,” she said. “Come on, Harry.” She walked away. I mumbled something apologetic to him, about needing to check the treehouse and, sheepishly, I followed her.
“Harry?” Adam called feebly. “Please, Harry. He'll kill me!” I didn't dare look back. The nape of my neck burned as I carried on walking, as helpless in my own way as he was.
We had the money the next day—and the photos the day after.
Some of them were quite good. The first three or four sets were fine. After that, the sun had been low enough to white out some shots and sink others into irretrievable gloom. The last five attempts were useless, and the last two utterly black. One by one, we put each set of pictures in a line and crouched over them.
We were in Verity's garden. She and Adam were squatting side by side, and I was opposite, looking at the pictures upside-down and trying hard not to look up Verity's skirt. She leaned against Adam. As she looked at the shots in front of him, she seemed to nuzzle her head in towards his chest. He stayed very still, his eyes soft and nervous. I sidled round to the same side as them and crammed myself next to Verity, but she stayed closer to Adam, even when she was looking at the pictures at my end of the line of eleven. Perhaps she sensed that he needed reassurance. I hoped so.
The pictures were magical. The first three sets were of Verity. In the first and second, we had caught her in mid-air. In the first, she had only just left the ground; she was stretching upwards, toes dangling, her mouth contorted by a yell. But the second set was perfect, and the third was almost as good. In both, we had caught her in mid-leap. Her legs were kicked up under her, her arms thrown out. In the second set her mouth was wide open in delight; in the third her expression had begun to collapse into neutrality as she started to fall. The fourth set was of me. I hadn't known quite what to do with myself and the end result was hopeless. In any case, only about half of the shots had come out at all well: by then the sun had been too low. The fifth and sixth sets, of me and Verity together, were indistinct and clouded. The rest, including Adam's set, were useless.
I'm in love with those pictures now, and with the memory of them, but at the time I think we were more excited than fascinated. These days, my copies live in a brown envelope, worn soft at the edges, in a tea-chest in Mum's loft. When I made the zoetrope for Verity, I fished them out to copy them, but although it's important to me to know that they are there, I hardly ever look at them. Memories can be painful.
Adam leaned across Verity to look at the photos, and she stood up sharply, still staring at them on the ground in front of her. We both stood too, and spread out, embarrassed.
“Your turn first next time, Adam,” Verity said, with a bright smile. He grinned back. I felt a bitter little lurch.
Verity twirled from side to side, her short blue skirt kicking up with each swing. In its shadow, her legs were shaded green by the grass. She was smiling to herself. When she turned to look at me, I grinned back oafishly. She didn't seem to notice. She gazed through me, at what I could not imagine.
That was when the yelling started.
A door crashed inside somewhere, in her house. Then indistinct roars began, one man bellowing, and another—Gabriel—talking rapidly.
“Oh shit,” Adam whimpered. “Oh shit.” Suddenly he was crying. He was hugging himself tight, doubled over, rocking. A moan slipped out of him.
The back door smashed open. The man's voice exploded out at us.
“—don't fuckin' care, you slimy git, 'e's comin' away!
! Got that, 'ave ya?” Adam's father was blocking the door, glaring back at Gabriel who was still inside. I heard Gabriel say something mild. The man raised a finger and scowled. “Try it, mate! Go on, fuckin' try it!” He yanked his shoulders back sharply, and then sneered at Gabriel's reaction. “
! Wanker! Fuck off!” He swaggered towards us. He was wiry and wide. His arms bowed outwards, thin but knotted with muscle. His hair was crew-cut, his face contorted.
Adam was crouching, still whimpering, clutching frantically at himself, shoulders, knees, chest, shifting and twitching, curled into the tightest ball he could manage. A trickle of piss was running down his leg, a damp stain was spreading across his sock. A thin whine came out of him, punctuated by sobs.
His father kicked him savagely in the chest. It knocked him on to his side. After a moment, the moan started again and a sticky thread of vomit slid from his open mouth.
!” Adam's father screamed. Adam hunched round his own chest, his head thrown back, retching.
“Dad?” Verity ran to Gabriel, who was standing helpless by the back door. “Dad, call the police! Dad? Dad!” Gabriel was watching, paralysed.
Adam's father glared at Gabriel, his finger raised again. “I'll fuckin' 'ave you!” he snarled.
!” Verity hit Gabriel with both fists. Gabriel bit his lip. He turned and hurried into the house, grabbing her as he went. Adam's father howled after them inarticulately. He turned his attention back to his son. He crouched calmly down by Adam's head.