Authors: Richard Burke
Was it bad enough for her to kill herself? It wasn't a thought I wanted to pursue. I set the bills on one side, and moved on.
There were three messages on the answering machine. One would be from me, of course, my petulant message from Wednesday. I assumed the other two were from that bastard Karel—he'd probably tried to call before coming over. I couldn't face the prospect of hearing him again, so I left the machine alone. Its flashing light followed me as I moved around the flat, a blinking, reproachful eye.
Verity was all around me. The hot yellow walls, the thin muslin instead of curtains; the mad tangle of ironwork that served as a candlestick on the dining table, the calico sofa she loved. And everywhere the kitsch touches that had changed almost every time I visited. An irregular clump of unmatched tassels hung from the main lightshade. A furry pink boa framed the doorway to the kitchen, and clashed boisterously with the walls. A voluptuous nude in Perspex stood next to the candelabrum, its base lit up in acid green, a flex trailing to a wall socket. There was a second telephone, not plugged in, shaped like a randy frog.
Verity loved to laugh.
And alongside the always-changing parade of frivolities, her other things, the things that were always with her. The shabby old furniture salvaged from a nurses' hostel, the oval oak table Gabriel had given her for her twenty-first. Two of my photos were mounted on stands on a bookshelf: one of her holding a rude-looking lollipop, on a day at the seaside we'd had years ago; the other of a row of schoolchildren, all with their tongues out, except one urchin on the end with a gap-toothed grin.
And the zoetrope.
I'd made it for Verity long before I knew what its proper name was. I eventually found the name “zoetrope” in a book about the history of cinema at a friend's. When I got home I looked the word up: “An optical toy... A cylinder with a series of pictures on the inner surface which give an impression of continuous motion when seen through slits with the cylinder rotating.”
Yes. Well. Whatever. The one I made for Verity was hardly posh. It was a broad hoop of card, with a series of photos spaced around the inside. Between each photo, I had cut a narrow vertical slot; on the opposite side of the hoop from each slot, there was a photograph, so if you peeped through each slot, you saw a different shot. There was a spindle sticking up in the middle, and the hoop had cross pieces that rested on top of it so the whole hoop could spin freely. You put your eye against the first slot, spun the hoop, and image after image flickered in front of you, like a primitive movie projector.
Each picture was of the same thing: a girl, frozen in mid-leap and mid-happy-yell. Her arms were thrown out, her hair lifting, her slim legs kicked up behind her. A great hornbeam arched overhead, a brilliant green shell. Some pictures were larger or smaller, some were a different colour, but they were all of the same moment. In each shot you saw the moment from a different angle. When the hoop was spinning, you had the feeling that you were flying jerkily around her.
I spun it—and there she was, free and happy, for one mad instant long ago. Verity, frozen forever in the middle of the air.
A horn sounded in a staccato burst on the street below. I looked out, and saw Adam peering up at me through the windscreen of his BMW. Startled, I checked my watch: ten-forty. He was late. I had been in the flat almost two hours, and I still hadn't accomplished what I came here for. I waved at Adam, then hurried into the bedroom and rummaged for nightclothes.
I found a large old shirt that she could only have slept in; she certainly never wore it out. I felt very uneasy going through her drawers; her bras and knickers brought out thoughts in me that I would rather have kept buried, and which, in any case, were more than a little inappropriate when the woman you were thinking of was in a coma. I found a dressing-gown folded away in a corner of the wardrobe, some warm socks in a drawer, loose calf-length trousers, and a sweatshirt. I grabbed a toothbrush, a hairbrush. There was a leather case on top of the wardrobe, and I jammed everything in. I closed the windows, grabbed the zoetrope, and carried the bag down to the car, double-locking the front door behind me.
“So this guy Whatshisname—”
“Karel. He's got a key?”
“Yes.” I was weary. “I'll have to get someone in to change the locks tomorrow.” I didn't really want to talk about it, but Adam was doing his best to be supportive and I didn't want to seem ungrateful.
Verity's suitcase was on the back seat. Next to it, in two halves, was the zoetrope. It looked impossibly fragile. The paper hoop was so light that it bounced off the seat with every bump. The base was solid enough, but the thin wire spindle jiggled subtly in time to the vibrations of the engine. I hadn't designed it with travel in mind. I had made it for her birthday, inspired by a drunken evening of reminiscence. When I gave it to her, she had hugged me. She laughed and she cried. And when she spun it and looked through the slits at the tiny world frozen inside, her eyes were as large and glossy as they had been all those years ago. To her it was ancient history, but once I had reminded her she had been swept up in the idea all over again. We'd sat in silence, both staring into a long-gone past, me staring at her, she through the open window into the dark, gazing at somewhere far away.
“And he nicked the money right in front of you?”Adam shook his head. “Amazing.”
We rode in silence for a while.
“Sounds like she has some rough friends,” he said reflectively.
“She has pretty bad taste in men,” I admitted.
He glanced sideways at me. “Yourself excluded, Harry.” He laughed. I snorted back, to show I appreciated it. Sort of. Adam peered at me again. I had a feeling he was about to say something I wasn't going to like—again.
“She did care about you, you know, Harry.”
I snorted again. “How would
“Point,” Adam conceded. “I can't claim I
. But you only have to think about it. She spent an evening with you once every two weeks, minimum. And there's all the things you've told me—she listens to you, she doesn't care if you're up or down, she still wants to see you. You always said she was there for you, no matter what. She cared, trust me.”
I really didn't want to hear this. I tried to concentrate on the road, the ceaseless loom and whip-past of trees, bollards, signposts... and failed.
“Trouble is,” Adam went on, “there's caring and then there's
I said nothing. Tried to think nothing. He was only trying to help. But I wished he would stop, until later. I knew that one day I was going to have to face all this—but for now, even a glimpse of the truth was unbearable.
“Hey,” he said. “You think Whatshisname's the reason she jumped?”
“Karel, he was called.” I could see what Adam was thinking, but I couldn't bring myself to accept that Verity had ever really...
for such a bastard. It was a horrible idea, and I didn't want to think about it. “Listen, Adam—”
He held up a hand to forestall me. “Didn't mean to open wounds, Harry. Sorry. How about some music?” He rummaged with his free hand among a chaotic assortment of cassettes in the well by the gearstick.
Before I could answer, he slapped in a cassette. The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” at top volume. It was a blast from the old days, the words and tune familiar, the delivery so confident, the comfort of another old friend. Adam's fingers drummed the wheel in time to the beat. I looked ahead. The road blurred towards and underneath us, and Eastbourne drifted ever closer, while behind me the zoetrope tapped restlessly against the seat.
“BUT I HAVEN'T
a camera,” Adam said miserably.
problem,” Verity said self-righteously. “Four cameras or you don't go anywhere near the treehouse again, not ever.”
He stood with his back to a rotten oak tree on the outskirts of the village, at bay after a quarter of an hour of yelling and poking by us both. We had his confession, we had his apology and we had him pinned; and Verity had surprised me by not following through. I had thought the idea was to warn him off—after all, the treehouse was our private domain and it had been Verity who wanted to keep it that way—but here she was, telling him he could be part of the treehouse gang (she'd made up the “gang” there and then, I'd had no say in it) on condition that he could get us four cameras. I can't say I was happy about it. And to make matters worse, through a mixture of threats and will power, it was looking like she'd won.
Secretly, I think I understood why Adam wanted so much to be allowed to use the treehouse. I can't say I was happy about it, but the sympathy was real whether I liked it or not. When I looked at Adam, I saw a boy a little like myself. Adam was lonely. He craved solitude, but he was also desperate for friendship. He wanted to be alone and he wanted to belong. Verity's “gang” was perfect for him. And although I hated the prospect of his intrusion, I also felt sorry for him—and for that, I loathed him.
I wanted a private world that only Verity and I inhabited, a world of secrets and intimacy and mad fun. I was happy and I hadn't been for ages, and what had changed was that Verity was there and that she liked me and I liked her. She was half a friend and half an object of hopeless desire, and I wanted nothing to stand between me and either. But she had made up her mind and I couldn't stop her any more than Adam could.
Adam never stood a chance. At first he had denied that he had been anywhere near the treehouse. The photos had soon put paid to that. Then he admitted he had been there and told us that it was none of our business. Verity told him that the treehouse was ours and ours alone. He said that it wasn't, because it had obviously been there forever, and we couldn't have built it. Adam was big, but that didn't stop Verity. She screamed and pummelled him with her tiny fists. He had no idea how to deal with it. That was when he'd started the slow stagger backwards that finally put his back against the rotten oak. At that point, Verity stopped hammering him and the stand-off began. She told him that the treehouse was now booby-trapped with far more lethal weapons than milk cartons full of water; she said that her dad had a pistol and that it was set up to shoot anyone going near the treehouse; she said there were big wooden spikes that would impale him if he crossed a trigger wire. And he believed her—or, rather, he didn't have the spirit to question her.
And then Verity had dropped her bombshell about the cameras. I don't know who was more startled, Adam or me.
“I can't,” Adam whimpered.
“No treehouse, then,” Verity said. “Come on, Harry, let's go.” She yanked at me with a nod and we turned to go, both of us scuffing at the field's long grass, the tips of the stalks tapping tartly at our shoes. There was a dusting of pollen on her thin gold shins, evidence of the hairs there too fine and short for me to see. As we turned she looked up at me: her eyes were wise, her face was solemn and full of thought. And suddenly I was powerful again, because Adam was banished, it was just me and her, and we'd triumphed.
Then Adam yelled, “Wait! Wait.
!” And she smiled to herself and turned back, and suddenly I felt as low as before I had been high. I had lost, after all.
“Four cameras,” Verity said firmly. Adam nodded. He looked terrified. Verity clapped her hands and laughed. She hugged my arm and held herself close to me, a small comfort. Through the thin material of her dress, a small breast was pressed against my bare arm. I tried to stay as still as I could, desperate not to break the connection. “When we see the cameras,” she said, “we'll let you join.” I stared woodenly at Adam. He stared woodenly at her.
The next day, he had a camera.
Verity and I were in the garden at my place. We had reclaimed the sling from the treehouse and were experimenting with firing nails and marbles, which we planned to smash first to sharpen the edges. We weren't actually serious, but it was delicious to be so analytically gruesome, working out the most effective way possible of causing grievous bodily harm. Mum called that someone was here, and ushered a nervous-looking Adam into the garden. He was clutching a school satchel, the straps ripped and loose. He came hesitantly, the bag clamped defensively against his chest, and stopped a good ten feet away. He flashed a glance at the pile of rusting nails and the sling, and licked his lips before he spoke.
“I got one,” he said nervously. He rummaged in the satchel and pulled out a scuffed brown leather camera case. The poppers were open and I could see brushed chrome and black dials inside. He held it out in one hand, leaning as far forward as he could, as though he was afraid to come closer. Verity made no move to take it.
“One?” she said caustically.
Adam nodded. “It's my sister's. She'll kill me if she finds out.” He cleared his throat as unobtrusively as he could.
“No treehouse, then,” Verity said briskly, and turned back to the sling. “Harry, if we added an extra bit of inner tube, d'you think it would be too lethal?”
I squatted beside her, and glanced appraisingly at Adam. “We want to maim him, not kill him,” I agreed.
“Three! I can get three!” Adam blurted. He was nearly crying. His eyes were shiny and unclear, his eyebrows raised imploringly. His podgy lips were trembling. “I can't do four,” he said. “Honest. I
.” He slumped in the long grass with his grubby knees up near his shoulders, and wept. I immediately felt guilty. All I sensed from Verity, though, was excitement. Adam still had the camera in one drooping hand. She took it.
“Three? You swear? Before Friday?”
Adam nodded, without lifting his head. “I'll try.” His voice was muffled because his head was still buried.
“All right,” she said flatly. And my world changed.
She plonked the camera back down in front of Adam and headed for the gap in the hedge calling, “C'mon, Harry,” over her shoulder. As I wriggled through the spiky gap behind her, I heard her whisper, “Yessss!”
Behind us, I heard Adam sniffle, collect his single camera, and trudge back down our garden towards the street.
That afternoon I went to the library in Summertown and took out three books on photography and studied them whenever I could. I had competition.
When we had eleven cameras, Verity announced that it was enough.
Long after the event, it dawned on me that this was extremely odd—how did three children manage to get hold of eleven cameras? So, as an adult, I did some research. The answer was even odder than the puzzle. Almost every grown-up appeared to own at least one unused but fully working camera—and no one could say why. Camera manufacturers must have wet themselves with glee. It was our gain as well as the manufacturers', though, because without other people's surplus cameras Verity's plan would have foundered. The lineup went something like this:
Verity – 2 from Gabriel, one old, one new
– 1 she'd conned Gabriel into buying, and she wasn't saying how
Harry – 1 from Mum's loft
– 1 from Dad, broken but he agreed to fix it
– 1 from Dad, which he'd bought when the other one broke
– 1 from Mum
– 1 from Mum's oldest friend, Mrs. Scobie, an elderly and slightly scary woman, on condition I visited her once a week for the rest of the holidays—a painful sacrifice, but needs must...
Adam – 1 pilfered from his sister
– 2 others, origin obscure
I once asked him where the other cameras had come from. He just stared at me and said, “I got them for you, didn't I?” I could understand his bitterness. He had only provided them under duress.
The project began, under Verity's direction.
She rushed around in an excited daze, aware only of the camera set-up she had in mind, and not at all of me or of Adam. She ordered us about with total confidence—and with total submission, for our separate reasons, we did as she said.
She was brilliant. She was sharp and intense and astonishing. She had a vision of what she was trying to achieve and she had no doubts that it would succeed. She flitted between her own work and ours, hopping excitedly; her words were so hurried that she never seemed to complete a thought before the next ran over it. It thrilled me every time she squatted next to me, her knee touching mine as she leaned in towards me, so close that I could smell the warmth of her skin.
Occasionally we stopped and played for a while, swinging out into that wonderful green space, crashing back into the tree's warty trunk. A favourite trick was to sneak away while someone was wrestling with twigs and string, clamber aloft, and dive-bomb them from the rope. The aim was to get as close as you could without hitting. Often one of us would cut it too fine, but the bruises never seemed to hurt. Sometimes Verity would join in, and other times she would snap at us to stop mucking around, her eyes sparkling with that strange mixture of excitement, anger and urgency I remember so well. And we would stop, of course—for a few minutes.
Once he was sure that he was allowed to join in, Adam turned out to be fun to have around. He was shy but he told good jokes, and whenever we stopped work and fooled around, he was vigorous and creative. I enjoyed having someone my own size to wrestle with and compete against—and if he ever got too competitive, there was always the unspoken threat of banishment. He wanted to belong, and Verity had allowed him to; conditionally, to be sure, but nevertheless he was in. It wasn't the treehouse Adam cared about; it was us.
I liked him, but I was also jealous of him. With Adam on the scene, I had far less time alone with Verity. There were occasional days when he had to stay at home—because his relatives were visiting, or because some family outing had been arranged. On those days I did everything I could to remind Verity of how it had been with just the two of us. I brought biscuits and bottles of Coke, I'd sit and reminisce about building the sling, or how she had not wanted to come here at first, or how we'd hated it when we found out there'd been an intruder. Sometimes she would come and sit beside me, so close that her dress would brush my arm, and I would think that perhaps... but her eyes were always on the cameras in the clearing below, and after a few minutes she would shin down the rope and get back to work.
And, of course, for every day that Adam was away, there was another day when I was. There were weekends at Dad's, there were pub lunches where Mum dragged me along to meet people she hoped might turn into friends—lunches where I would spend hours in the pub garden, rocking disconsolately on a rickety swing, and when we got home, Mum would bustle and fuss and be busy over the washing-up, the laundry, the cleaning, and then cry. I would comfort her, but only half-heartedly, because all the time I was gazing out of the window towards Wytham Woods, and Verity—and Adam. Those days were torture.
Worse, even when we were all together, Verity flirted with him. I knew that she was only using him—he was with us because of the cameras, that was all—but it was obvious that she liked him, too. She liked his devotion to her, his eagerness to please. She liked his roughness when we played; I was always hesitant to touch her, scared of the intimacy, what it might betray, what would happen if she hated me for it. Adam had no such inhibitions. If the game was physical, he was physical. So I reassured myself that she was only flirting with him because it made her feel good. Much to my relief, Adam didn't respond in kind. If anything, her play-acting seemed to annoy him. I think he understood that she joked with him because he was not a threat; it reinforced her control. I was only half-aware of it, but those rare moments meant a lot to me. They meant that, in the way that mattered most, I still had Verity to myself.
But the truth is, we were mostly too busy for these subtleties. We were simply glad to be there, each in our own way. We allowed Verity to sweep us along. She was doing what she wanted to do—and that made her happy.
Verity, happy. I do not know if I can describe to you what that was like. She glowed. Her skin was like rough gold. She squealed as she laughed. When she worked on the cameras her whole being bent to the task, and her face was still and calm as a picture. Her skinny body was graceful as a deer's. And her knees touched mine when we squatted as we worked. Her clean breath mingled with mine. Verity was beautiful when she was happy. I think we would both have done anything for her.
One day it was ready.
It was late afternoon, six-thirty or so. The sun was gold and low. The wood was full of birdsong and strange rustles. The air was thick and it moved in warm, drowsy currents. We stood together, Verity leaning against a drooping branch, me next to her, Adam on the far side. We looked at our work.