Authors: Richard Burke
“What we need are cameras,” she said, and she gave me a certain look: that questions were not allowed. She frowned intently for about a minute, and then her teeth flashed as she giggled. She ran down my garden and through the hedge. For a few paces, I swear I saw her skipping.
I knew what that meant. She had a plan.
Verity had a little sixteen-millimetre Instamatic. Mum didn't have a camera, but I knew that Dad had left one behind when he went, an old Olympus he'd always said he should throw away.
I climbed up into the loft. It was intolerably hot, airless, with no wind to ruffle the layers of dust. The camera was in a packing case full of things Dad hadn't bothered to take, underneath a few shabby items of clothing he'd used for working round the house. It was in its own box, frayed brown leather with two clasps, set in sparkling grey foam along with a flash, a trigger-wire and a couple of spare lenses.
I set it on one side and continued to delve. I don't know what I was searching for—clues, perhaps, to the muffled yells and shouts that had kept me awake night after night for months before Dad left. I felt guilty that I was peering into his private, unhappy world. I stopped at the slightest sound, fearful that Mum would discover me, because Dad's Old Things were a no-go area. I found nothing. I heard Mum coming upstairs, and hurriedly tidied everything away. I hunted for a tripod, but there wasn't one, so I swung myself out, pulled down the camera case, and closed up. Mum was in her bedroom, so I slipped downstairs and dodged quickly out of the kitchen before she could ask what I'd been up to, and then hurried down the garden with my trophies. There was still time to get to the woods and set up.
As well as her own camera, Verity also had a professional-looking machine, which she held as though it was infinitely precious—I know now it was an SLR, a single-lens reflex. Very posh. She wouldn't tell me where it came from; she just said that it had been hard to get, and looked distantly at the nearest wall. So that made three cameras—and she insisted we take the sling, plus a supply of empty milk cartons to fill from the stream. I couldn't see the need for three cameras—but, as usual, she was ahead of me.
“Insurance,” she said brightly.
She began to construct a simple hide of twigs and leaves around the first camera. She squatted with her knees high. She moved quickly and easily.
“When we get him,” she grunted, as she yanked a branch towards her, “we need three photos of him. If we only use one camera, he might be facing the wrong way.” She hid all three, with logs balanced precariously above their shutter buttons, hooked up to strings that trailed away from them to where the trip-wire was to be set. The idea was that when the intruder triggered the wire, the logs would fall and set off the cameras.
Verity sat with her legs half-curled under her. Her big serious eyes seemed almost emerald in the shade. There was a green-brown scuff mark on one cheek. “And another thing,” she said firmly, “he might realise we've taken his photo. If we're lucky, the milk cartons will distract him—but even if he does spot a camera, he won't spot
, will he?”
“Devious,” I growled.
“Mean,” I added.
“Underhanded,” I suggested.
“I like it,” I grinned.
Verity smiled, as if all was suddenly well with the world. She twitched her eyebrows up and down to show how cunning she was. When she set back to work, she hummed absentmindedly. If I had recognised the tune, I would have joined her. Instead, I smiled at her—and her eyes shone back.
Unbelievably, it worked—all of it.
We set the trap, left it there for a day—and when we came back, the wires had been tripped and the sling had fired. Most amazingly, though, all three cameras had gone off. The falling logs had knocked them over, they looked a little beaten, but they'd taken the shots. We fired off the remaining exposures, and took the films to the nearest chemist in north Oxford. A few days later, the prints were ready.
There was the intruder, frozen from three angles, his arms up to ward off the flying milk cartons, water already looping from them. One carton was clearly going to hit him.
We crowed. We hugged each other excitedly. Triumph was sweet. Her fine hair tickled my nose as she pressed against me, and I bent over her to get my first glimpse of our villain. The first shot showed his back, his arm half raised, the cartons motionless in mid-air, flying straight towards the camera. In the second shot, he was smaller—the Instamatic had been further away from the action and (I now realise) had a wider-angle lens. His face was indistinct and too small to recognise. The third shot was from my Olympus (and why shouldn't it be mine if Dad didn't want it and Mum had left it in the loft for so long?) and it was the clincher: a three-quarters profile with the spray from the cartons hanging out of focus in the foreground, the face recognisable. Not bad for my first-ever photo. Verity spread out two shots and handed the third to me. Our hands touched as we arranged them in a neat row.
Adam Yates. A boy at school. He was a year above me, but I knew who he was. A big boy, but often picked on. He was always the one whose gym shoes got peed in; smaller children threw things at him because he never fought back. I had teased him myself, from the safety of a sniggering group. I knew him without knowing him. I opened my mouth to tell Verity, but she was already thinking about something else.
She was frowning at the photographs. She set her two prints at an angle to each other so that all three together made up three sides of an open square. Then she took back the one I'd been holding and squatted on the pavement. As I crouched next to her I could hear she was humming again, faint familiar snatches. Carefully, she propped the photos upright, as though she were building a house of cards; the prints all touched at their top corners, each becoming one side of a triangular box. She shuffled round them in a circle, nudging me out of the way. As she passed, I smelt a hint of woodscent.
“We need more cameras,” she said finally.
“What are you talking about? It's Adam Yates. From school.” I was getting a little exasperated.
“Yes, yes.” She waved her hands about impatiently. “But we need more cameras.”
“Look,” she said firmly, and grabbed my wrist. She dragged me round the tiny construction of photos. “Here. The same moment—here—here—here. One, two, three. You've got the milk cartons, Whatshisface Yates, the tree, all from different angles,
all at the same moment
! We need more cameras!” She clapped excitedly, and bounced to her feet. She shuffled the photos into a pile, and gave them to me.
I was perplexed, unable to keep up with her quicksilver thoughts. She stopped hopping around and frowned at me, then spoke slowly in case she lost me again. “Take a bunch of cameras, loads of them, twenty or something... put them in a big circle, all pointing in towards the middle... then set them all off at exactly the same time! Wham!” She threw her hands dramatically into the air. I still didn't get it.
She rolled her eyes. “Okay, stay completely still...” She mimed taking a picture of me and said, “Click.” Then she jumped round so she was sideways on to me—“Click.” Another jump, nearly behind me now—“click”—and so on, until she was in front of me again.
“3D photos,” she said simply. “Each picture's the same thing, at the same time, but from a different angle. Then if you hold them in your hand and flick through them like a book, it'll feel like you're flying around whatever's in the picture.” She rushed off towards her bike. “But we need more cameras,” she shouted over her shoulder.
I had to pedal hard to catch her. We rode home in silence, with houses and then fields flickering by. Some time after we reached open countryside, I plucked up courage. “What about Adam Yates?”
“Cameras,” she said, ignoring my question. “We need more cameras, Harry.”
She grinned and leaned her bike towards me until our shoulders bumped, and we both swung away, wildly trying to regain our balance. She giggled.
We cycled on in silence, and her eyes were alight, and the wind whispered for our ears alone.
THE PHONE WOKE ME. It took me about five rings to reach it. By then the answering machine had kicked in. I had to fight my own recorded voice while I fumbled for the off-switch.
ry Waddell. Sorry I can't get to
“Hello, hold on. Wait a second, I'll switch it off.”
I heard Adam's voice at the other end. Couldn't understand what he said, though.
—‘bout a job you can call me on
As I groped for the switch, I knocked the machine off the table. “Fuck! Oh. Sorry.” The machine gave one protesting beep when it hit the floor, and stopped. I looked at it, confused, trying to gather my thoughts. It was half on the floor, half suspended in a snarl of cables. Amazingly, the message light was still flashing. I stared at the machine. Probably broken. Great.
“You all right, Harry?”
“Yeah. Half-asleep. Woke me up. What time is it?”
“I didn't mean to, I thought you'd be up. Ten to eight. I wanted to check how you were, what you were up to.”
In my dream, there had been clouds, a huge cool storm that filled the sky but never arrived. Hungry faces, big wise eyes staring.
I rubbed my face fiercely.
“I'm here, just trying to wake up.”
“You up to listening?”
“Yeah. Sorry, Ads.”
“Don't go there, just listen. I'm taking today off. That's why I rang early. Fridays are almost as bad as Thursdays anyway. Court's closed because judge fancied a long weekend and I'm not going anywhere near the town hall—Appropriation Committee, Policy Steering Group, all garbage. So I'm devoting today to the newly created, officially sanctioned Harry Waddell Outreach Programme. HWOP for short. Catchy, don't you think?'
“I don't deserve you, Adam.”
“Shut up and tell me what we're doing.”
“Seriously,” I smiled into the phone. Grinned, actually.
“And when we're doing it.”
I'd been planning to go to Eastbourne. I wanted Verity to have a few of her own things, even if she was in a coma and couldn't appreciate them. You never knew. Then I was going to follow her footsteps and find the place in her diary, Birling Gap. She'd had an appointment there at three-thirty on the day she fell. “I'd like it if you could come,” I said. “I mean, if you're serious.”
“Deadly serious,” he said. “We'll take the BMW.”
“Pick me up at Verity's, then. Give me an hour to get there, maybe half an hour to sort out some things for her.” I glanced at a clock. Just past eight. “An hour and a half,” I said. “Make it half nine.”
“See you there, then—and don't say thank you again, Harry, or I might have to shoot you.”
He hung up before I could think of a reply.
I set the answering machine straight, and wandered into the bathroom to prepare for the day. When I looked in the mirror, the face I saw smiled back broadly.
I was dreading going to Verity's flat, and at the same time I was desperate to be there. Of course, if I wanted to collect things to take down to Eastbourne for her—a decent nightie, ornaments for her bedside cabinet—then I had no choice. I was far from sure that such things were allowed in ITU, but I wanted to try—and behind that, of course, was the real motive: I wanted to see her again. I couldn't admit it to myself, because I already knew the horror I was letting myself in for—the stark white light, the damaged body, the blank face, the silence. Even so, the truth was that I wanted to see her.
Verity's flat also seemed the right place to go through her Filofax and ring everyone who needed to know what had happened to her. I had neatly asterisked the names of her friends, the ones whose names I knew. Most were just names I had heard; in many ways, I had always been on the fringes of her life, comfortably isolated from the neurotic world of fashion.
There were fewer people than I had expected; the address pages bulged and threatened to push open the Filofax's clasps, but most of the entries had been crossed out, some with a single neat line, others violently scrubbed. Not many were current. There were a few old and constant names—me, Sam, Gabriel, a couple of others from college days—but most were fairly new. There weren't as many calls for me to make as I had imagined. Probably I should have been grateful that I was not part of her social circle; if I had been, doubtless my name would have been vigorously scratched out years ago.
Verity had a way of reinventing herself. She had a regular cycle. It began with enthusiasm, and then there was a slow slide into aimlessness and dissatisfaction; then depression, and resurrection. Her friends changed with each cycle; she would move to a new flat in a new area, her ideals would change, she would announce a new creative vision to all who would listen (so, mostly to me). And, of course, she would still be exactly the same old Verity, brilliant, scatty, emotionally disorganised, and always on the rebound from some disastrous fling. Then the slide would start again, as the complexity and compromises of bank managers and men and fashion politics smothered her sense of self. It usually took about two years.
What was strange was that she had just come through her latest bad patch. She had been full of sap and enthusiasm. She was creative and alive. When I had seen her at Jim's two weeks before, her eyes had been clear and purposeful, lined with laughter. She had teased me all evening, told me that I wasn't irresponsible enough, that whatever was bothering me (work, I think, or perhaps that no one really loved me) mattered not at all. It had been Verity on top, mad form, full of big ideas and philosophies, so sure of herself. So happy.
And I think that perhaps that was the real reason I wanted to go to her flat. To get inside her head. To touch the same things, look at the same walls. Find the connection between the Verity I thought I had known and the new, real Verity, mashed and stitched, in a bright pool of hospital light.
I certainly did not expect to find the flat occupied.
He was tall and pale, with rough stubble on a narrow chin. His eyes were dull, his nose sharp and straight. His thin lips twitched sometimes at the corners. He smoked endlessly, pinched little roll-ups, preparing the next one as he puffed, his eyelids fluttering in the smoke. His booted feet were on Verity's white calico sofa, and grey ash flecked the cushions. He was using a saucer as an ashtray. Verity didn't smoke, and couldn't abide anyone smoking near her—unless it was one of her bits of rough, and this guy fitted the bill perfectly. He didn't look surprised when I walked in. He glanced at me casually, and then bent back to the cigarette he was rolling, twitching his head sideways to avoid the fumes of the dog-end in his mouth.
The television was on in the corner, a bland quiz.
“She out.” His accent was Slavic, his voice deep and blurred. He leaned forward to stub out his cigarette, and a thin line of ash dribbled onto the sofa, the floor, the table. The saucer overflowed as he prodded the butt around in it. He lit up once more, and leaned back to watch the quiz again—as though I wasn't there, as though Verity's flat was public property. I sized him up. Distinguishing features: (1) he was a bastard, clearly; (2) long legs in rancid-looking jeans, a ripped, over-tight T-shirt, groomed over-shiny hair; (3) probably a model; (4) probably unemployed; (5) probably Verity's type, damn him. She had probably pulled him at some two-bit fashion show.
I crossed the room, and switched off the TV. ‘You're going to tell me who the fuck you are,” I spat, “and then you're going to fuck off.”
He jerked upright and pinched the roll-up from his mouth. “Shit, man, relax, baby.” I wasn't sure if it was his weak English or if he was on drugs. He seemed to understand me well enough, though. “Hey, I say same for you. Who are you? What you do here?”
I hadn't expected him to challenge me, and it punctured my indignation temporarily. I told him who I was, and he shrugged. I told him about Verity's fall, and he shrugged. He didn't seem to care, although he obviously knew her, because here he was. Then he put the cigarette in his mouth and put his feet back on the sofa. After a deep drag, he introduced himself. “Karel,” he said lazily. “Verity and me, lovers. You know. I give her good time. She like me.”
“Well, stop smoking, then,” I snapped. “She hates it.” And I hated him.
He ignored me. He sat forward and started working on his next roll-up. When he was finished, he looked up at me appraisingly. “Is Harry, yes?” I said nothing. “Harry, there is things for you to learn. A girl like Verity, you know, you got to show her who the boss. She not like smoke, no problem—
like smoke.” He tapped his chest and scowled. “So smoke, no problem. She complain, I go. She not want this.”
A better man (meaning one with more guts) would have hit him. Instead I barked, “You've got thirty seconds to get out of this flat or I'm calling the police.”
He snorted. “And say what? Is burglar?” He fished in his pocket and dangled a set of keys in front of me, exact copies of the ones I was still holding. I took a step towards him. He shook his head soulfully and raised a finger to stop me. “Is all right, Harry, man. You stay cool. I go. This place is no point now.” His English was ridiculous, limited to hackneyed slang and compressed self-importance, but somehow it made his arrogance impossible to puncture. There was no way to hurt him. I stood firm, balled my fists and took a heavy breath.
He rose, relaxed and lanky. He flicked his roll-up on to the table, and left it to burn there. Then he walked—strutted—lazily towards Verity's bedroom. “Hey!” I yelped. He waved a hand dismissively without looking back. I followed and watched from the doorway. A few clothes were scattered on the floor. Three pairs of her shoes were jumbled on an armchair in the corner. The bed was unmade. He ignored this, and went to a battered chest of drawers on the side wall. He opened one of the top drawers and fished at the back of it, emerging with a small key. He unlocked the other top drawer and peered in. He tutted.
“Not much,” he drawled. He pulled out a wad of money and flicked through it. He pursed his lips. “Fifty? Eighty, maybe. Usually is more.” He walked back towards me, and waved the money at me. “I make her feel good. Is worth more than this, but… hey...”
He grinned nastily and pushed past me. I was paralysed by his contempt. I couldn't quite believe it. He turned when he reached the door, with Verity's keys hung casually from his finger.
“Hey, Harry, man,” he called, much more loudly than he needed to. “You know something? Your girlfriend, man, she frigid. She is worst fuck I ever do. Maybe she fancy girls, yeah?”
His boots jangled on the steps, and then the pavement, and his laughter drifted through the open windows as he walked away.
I started by clearing up the ash. I even took off the cushion covers to put them in the washing machine. I couldn't wash the sofa cover because it wasn't loose. Instead I hoovered it. Then I cast about for other traces of Karel. The work surfaces in the kitchen were a mess—crumbs and dried red stains from a tin of beans. The plate and saucepan would need to soak, as would the ash-encrusted saucer. I filled the sink, and then went into the bathroom—nothing there—and then the bedroom, the only other room in the flat.
It smelt of smoke. The snarled-up bedlinen and the confused piles of her clothes forced me to imagine them together here. How had it been?
She not like, no problem—I like
I put her room in order. I smoothed and folded her clothes and set them in piles on the shelves in her tattered wardrobe. I pulled away the sheet, pillowcases, and duvet cover, and put them aside to wash. I dressed the bed in clean white linen, straightening, patting, tugging at the corners. I threw open all the windows and let in clean air. I did all the comforting things for her that she could no longer do. I spent the next hour cleaning. I emptied the washing machine, reloaded it, hung everything out to dry. Then I made myself a coffee and sat on a hard chair near the windows in the sitting room—I couldn't bear to sit on the sofa—and I cried.
Who the hell was he, this man? She had never mentioned him, but he had the keys to her flat—which she'd never given me, because, she said, she cared too much about me. She didn't want me to catch her unprepared; it might put me off her. This man had walked casually over my feelings, in pipe-thin jeans and cowboy boots. What would he have done if he had seen her in hospital? Tapped ash on the white sheets, perhaps? Blown smoke at the ventilator, to prove his superiority? But no, he didn't care enough for that. He hadn't even asked about her or the accident. No point in staying. That was all he thought about it. He'd just stolen from her, and walked away. From his perspective she was all used up; time to move on. I was terrified that I would find she had loved him, that her growing happiness and certainty were because of him. The thought was intolerable. And if she had loved him—
—how would she have felt if he had rejected her?
I shook myself. Get practical. Adam was coming.
I went through her post. There were four letters. The first was a mammoth phone bill. I was glad it wasn't mine; the listed calls ran to twelve pages. Next was a letter from the bank, informing her that her overdraft now exceeded ¬£1,500, which was the limit she had agreed two weeks before. They had bounced her last two cheques—both to fabric suppliers by the look of it—and unless her finances were set in order immediately (underlined, in bold) the bank would be forced to demand the return of her cards and cheque book, and would warn all credit agencies of her unreliability. The third was junk mail, telling her that she had been exclusively selected for a platinum credit card with an automatic £20,000 limit. That made me smile—and then I stopped. Poor Verity. What a nightmare. The last was a credit card bill, spent up to its £8,000 limit and beyond. I'd known she was broke, she always was, but I hadn't known it was this bad.