by Claire Joanne Huxham
Right back at the beginning Lucy used road-kill. Flattened squirrels, hedgehogs pasted onto the kerb, sometimes even a seagull or pigeon. It always amazed her when birds got hit. You’d think they’d be quicker. When she drove out into the countryside she found badgers and foxes exploded in heaps of fur and meat, red bright against the tarmac. Family pets still made her feel uncomfortable, although it was only cats she saw, never dogs.
The wait that summer till their final year of university had left them all cranky, listless. They slumped in the living room until the first glimpse of dawn and wasted the daylight that followed. Cigarette butts and ash piled up in saucers and empty Coke cans. Half drained cups of coffee sat on the window sill, furry circles bobbing just under the surface. Lucy’s head constantly ached. She longed for fresh air. But one afternoon everything changed when Mike slapped a pile of photographs down on the table.
“Look,” he said.
Lucy pulled herself across the carpet and began flicking through the set. She recognised shots of Wales, mostly landscape: mountains, a reservoir, some sheep, a petrol station, the back of a man walking down a road. She’d been with Mike when he took them last Easter. He’d been planning to use them for his uni project before he abandoned the idea in favour of a city shoot. But each photo in her hand had another strange, alien image ghosting its surface. In a deserted valley, she could see what looked like a mother and daughter smiling for the camera, giant-size. In a country lane, palm trees sprouted. She looked at Mike.
“Double exposed,” he said. “Someone else’s holiday. Mallorca by the looks of it. Or somewhere Spanish anyway.”
“I buy expired film for cheap from that second hand Emporium down Richard Street. Must’ve got in there by mistake.”
“Well maybe you should stop,” she said. “These are ruined. Who would want to buy out of date film anyway?”
“Loads of us do. You should check eBay, loads of auctions are up. Besides, this double exposure thing? I think it’s pretty cool. I mean, I know it’s unexpected, but it’s an added bonus. Be great for a project.”
Lucy looked again at the prints. From the mother’s clothes she guessed they were from the ‘90s; the woman was standing on a wall by the sea in one, her daughter caught mid twirl with a doll flying out from her hand. She pushed them back towards Mike across the table. A scene from that Harrison Ford movie her brother always obsessed over popped into her head, when he’s being horrible to some android, telling her those Polaroids are fake memories.
“I think they’re kinda creepy,” she said.
But that’s how it all started.
They began collecting images. It was all Mike’s idea; he always said that great art creates a connection between artist and viewer, and other stuff like that. Lucy wasn’t so sure herself. She was studying marketing because it was a sensible choice; one which would hopefully give her a good career, her dad said. But she liked the way Mike’s eyes went wide when he talked about his art, she liked the way he looked at her when she helped him. So she borrowed one of his old manual cameras and bought new 35mm film. They wandered round the house and garden together, peered down side streets and in parks, looking for the perfect capture. But nothing was right. It all seemed boring and mundane somehow.
The next day Mike took her hand and pulled her out through the back gate. They threaded through the narrow lanes until they came out onto a busy road. A dead squirrel lay on the kerb. Someone must have moved it from the road, or perhaps it just bounced off the car. She was surprised at how perfect it looked, how whole. Of course, not all of them look like that. And it was then that Mike said this was what they were looking for, that they owed it to themselves to really make it something, to explore the whole range of human emotions, whatever that meant. Part of her still thought it was all bullshit, but another part was hooked.
“So what do we do with the film when we finish?” she asked.
“We give it back. Shoot more. Donate them to charity shops, slip them into the tub at the Emporium. I suppose we could list them on eBay, but I’d rather stay anonymous. Perhaps take a few to other towns and cities? Then we sit back and wait… become part of something bigger. All those holiday snaps we’re going to shake up.”
“Like Russian roulette.”
“Yeah.” Mike smiled. “Just like Russian roulette.”
Those next days Lucy woke early and slipped out the house before everyone else. Or at least tried to – Mike usually beat her to it. She’d walk down the landing corridor and push his door as she passed, seeing the empty bed. She found herself walking farther into the city, looking for sights Mike wouldn’t have claimed. Her eyes were fixed to the ground always looking for death and she started to forget what the sky looked like. In the evenings they’d sit together on the floor, showing each other their route on the map, talking about what they’d seen and shot. Until one evening Mike wouldn’t talk about it. He stared at the muted TV, flicking ash in a saucer.
“It’s not enough,” he said.
And he got up and left, pulling the door shut behind him.
The next week, she pushed Mike’s door as she passed in the morning like usual. She noticed the smell straight away. It was sweet, almost too sweet. And then she saw the small wired cage and something brownish inside. Flies circled it languidly.
“It was weak anyway,” Mike said that evening. “Probably a runt.”
“You killed it?”
“Like I said, it was weak anyway.”
He didn’t reply. Mike was starting to look thin, like he hadn’t eaten in days. He said he’s lost his appetite. Lucy however, was hungry all the time. She’d started dreaming about burgers and steaks and venison and liver, always rare and pink.
She bought an old fashioned mousetrap from the hardware shop down the road and set it in the kitchen. For days it lay empty, until it offered up awful fruit. The mouse had already stiffened by the time she shot it, its pink paws curled pathetically against its grey chest. It was cool in her hand when she laid it in the garden. Mike seemed impressed when she told him. Of course they couldn’t show each other their captures; they had to go on trust. Once they finished each film they wound the spool back and pulled out the end, just like you’d see on a new film. They lined each canister up on the mantel piece. They stood like strange monoliths and her eyes constantly traced their lines and curves. They seemed to absorb all light from the room.
Homeless people became her speciality. She scoured underpasses and condemned buildings, camera in one hand. At first she stood far away to take her photos, but she knew she could get better if she moved closer. She used food as a bargaining tool, although some asked for money. Only one crippled dark shape, barely a woman, refused to have her photo taken. Lucy took it anyway.
She was in the old warehouse off Grafton Street when she saw him. Her torch beam caught a greasy looking sleeping bag, pushed down to reveal a thin torso. He was twisted on his back, his head angled back and a mess of syringes and spoons by his unmoving hand. Dead. Lucy aimed the lens. The flash illuminated the room and she almost cried out when she saw his hand twitch, noticed the shallow rising and falling of his chest.
It feels like it’s all there is now. When she shuts her eyes she tries to remember a time before, but everything’s blurred. It’s been hot all summer and it won’t break, and every day she wakes up gasping. She’s developed some kind of ulcer on her leg and it itches and weeps constantly. She has to wear thick opaque tights to cover it up, despite the heat.
Mike comes home and can’t stop shaking. He twists his hands and looks at her with too bright eyes. He looks older, his face is creased with new lines that Lucy is sure weren’t there the week before. His skin looks powdery.
“I caught a crash,” he says. “Car went straight into a cyclist.”
“Oh my god – was he ok?”
“She. I don’t know. I think so. Ambulance came and stretchered her away. There was so much blood.”
Lucy starts hanging round the hospital. A&E is small though and she worries she’ll get noticed by the receptionist. But she can walk right into any of the general wards and as long as she’s in visiting hours, no one questions her. She carries a bunch of flowers just in case. In the cancer ward sunken faces stare out of hollowed pillows, stick bodies draw sharp lines under pale blue sheets. She shoots from the hip but no one seems to care, no one has the energy to say anything. Mostly they’re sleeping and don’t notice. Even the ones who’re awake don’t notice.
Summer limps on. There’s a problem with the bin collection and rubbish heaps in gardens and on streets. Flies burst when they move the bags. Foxes rip them open and pull rotting food across pavements. News reports show a woman crying in an arid land, hands clenched and beating her breasts. In Manchester, a teenage girl discovers a severed foot along a canal. They take the canisters of film, little black time bombs, to second hand shops and leave quietly. There doesn’t seem to be anything left to say.
And when they’ve taken everything they can, they look around with empty eyes. A roll of film lies fresh in the camera, waiting for shapes of light and dark to burn it and give it meaning. Lucy walks the streets in the early hours, searching, camera hanging like a useless limb. When she gets home she unscrews the light bulb in her bedroom and sits on the floor. What is left to take now? The grey of the ocean at midnight. This room with no light and the curtains drawn. A mirror with her own face in.
CLAIRE JOANNE HUXHAM lives in the UK and spends most of her time obsessing over Buffy and Battlestar Galactica. This probably makes her a bit of a geek, but she doesn’t mind. She’s also quite keen on sushi, UFOs, cats and cheese, but probably not in that order. Her fiction can be found or is forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, The Molotov Cocktail and Metazen.