Through the tinted glass of the office window, the clouds above the sea seemed to Joseph like enormous swollen bursts of orange dust. He sighed. He looked from the flat plane of glass to the bowed screen of his computer monitor. He tapped weakly at the keyboard. Symbols flickered back at him, tiny and meaningless.
Joseph glanced at the clock on the wall above the photocopier. 12.40pm. He darted his eyes over to where his Team Leader was sitting. She hadn’t noticed his attention shift away from his desk. She hated it when people clock-watched. Joseph felt his stomach contract and heard its mournful complaint. He would have to eat more for breakfast tomorrow than just a coffee and a Kit-Kat. He wrote a reminder down on a Post-it note and stuck the square of pink paper carefully to the front of the monitor. He would take the note home with him later and stick it to his fridge door.
After a few more minutes of baleful typing, Joseph felt a hand flutter on his shoulder. He looked at the clock. 12.46pm. He shot a glance at the Team Leader’s empty chair. Then, relieved, he swivelled his chair to meet the smiling face of Rebecca.
She asked him if he was ready to go, as she did every day.
Joseph, reaching for his coat, replied that he was and stepped away from his desk. He swirled his coat around himself and plunged his arms into the sleeves, shrugging his shoulders into place in the waterproof jacket. He winked at Rebecca, eliciting a tiny giggle from her. She gently grabbed the fingers of Joseph’s right hand as they protruded from his sleeve and she grinned elaborately up at him. The couple did not see the smirk on the face of the girl by the photocopier, or the raised eyebrow of the man by the water-cooler.
Once downstairs, they passed from the climate-controlled office into the pale winter light. Joseph and Rebecca pushed their way through the clot of ashen faced smokers packed together around the door. Forbidden from smoking inside, they used the porch as a shelter against the harsh sea wind that surged up the hill from the harbour.
This wind was known to Joseph and Rebecca as The Seven-Layer Wind. You could wear that many levels of clothing, and the cold would still get through. It was one of their little word-plays. Joseph enjoyed them. A drizzly gust spattered water onto his glasses.
Joseph walked into the smoke that plumed out of the mouths around him. He caught his breath. His smile twisted into a sneer as he moved through the nebula of smoke. The smokers saw it. They watched his face change as he floated away in the haze. A man from accounts swore at Joseph as he passed. He didn’t hear it. He followed behind Rebecca dutifully as she pushed through the throng.
The smoke cloud whipped away and unfurled to become nothing. Rebecca walked in front of him, buttoning her duffel coat against the moist bursts of sea breeze. The hooded coat made her look like she was eight years old. Joseph saw she was almost skipping. Her steps were light and frivolous. She seemed happy to be outside. The black material of her tights was visible below her coat. Joseph averted his gaze and looked at the ground so the rain would not hit his glasses.
Water droplets fell in a chaotic swirl towards the earth. They pattered a tiny rhythm on the paving, the road, the grass. Shallow puddles welcomed new guests into themselves. A million tiny messages spoke every second as Joseph looked at Rebecca’s boots. They were red and had eight holes for the laces.
They purchased sandwiches from their usual “Fine Eatery.” Rebecca called it that ironically every day. Joseph’s smile returned at her choice of words, and it remained on his face. Their seat was waiting for them. They had their forty-five minute break there together most days, unless the other was busy or off sick, but that only happened rarely. They found the covered shelter unoccupied, and the wooden slats of the seat were dry.
Rebecca spun around and sat down heavily on the seat, swinging her feet as Joseph caught up with her. Smiling at her playfulness, he seated himself next to her. They sat with thighs touching, sharing warmth. Together, as they did every day, they looked out at The Photograph Man. He stood facing out to sea in his regular place in front of them. Joseph and Rebecca opened their sandwiches, the crackling of the plastic loud in the shelter. They ate, and watched him.
Today, the Photograph Man was using the big boxy camera. He was wearing the long raincoat, and on his head was that old battered Russian-style fur hat, wet with the mist. He stood motionless behind the camera as it rested on its tripod. It was as dark as a lump of coal. He was watching the skies, and the clouds and the rain as they limped across the treetops.
Rebecca asked Joseph what he thought the man was doing out here every day. Rebecca asked that question often. Joseph replied that he had no idea. A couple of times he had answered with the suggestion that the man was taking photographs. But that joke had worn itself out to nothing fairly quickly. The Photograph Man cocked his head to one side as they spoke behind him. The rear of the fur hat gave no clue or reason to the couple as they sat in the shelter. Joseph chewed his sandwich carefully and swallowed.
A thought occurred to Joseph. Maybe he comes here every day just because we do. Maybe he listens to us talking every day. He likes to eavesdrop. Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe he just likes the outdoors and takes artistic photographs for money. That’s why he is out here from the spring to the winter, both on hot days and on days like this. He has to be. He has to. He has no choice.
Rebecca sat, eating in silence. Then, quietly, she turned to Joseph and said how, after all this time, they really should find out. It’s been too long. We’ve been sitting here for months and he’s here all the time, every day. I have to know, she said, and looked at Joseph imploringly. Go on, she said, ask him. Joseph frowned, and shook his head. Rebecca pursed her lips and half closed her eyes. Go on, she repeated, just for me. And she smiled. Joseph saw she had bits of food in her teeth.
Joseph sighed and nodded. Rebecca’s smile widened. Joseph stood up, placed his plastic sandwich container in the rubbish bin next to the shelter, and walked over to the Photograph Man. In the ten paces before he got to the man, Joseph realised that he had no idea what he looked like. In all the times they had sat there, they had never seen his face.
As he stood next to the Photograph Man, Joseph breathed in and coughed gently. The Photograph Man did not move. A fresh burst of air rushed up from the sea, scattering a fine mist of water onto the lenses of Joseph’s glasses. The man did not move. His gaze swept out before him to the horizon. Joseph followed the direction he assumed he was looking in. The sea far below in the harbour was dirty. Further out, the English Channel was choppy, flecked with white, and the sky was filled with grey clouds that Joseph saw meant more rain. He knew that much. Then the Photograph Man spoke.
“What can you hear?” he asked.
Joseph jumped at the voice. Low, clear and solid, it sounded like it rose from deep within a cave. After a pause when he flicked his gaze back to Rebecca, as she perched on the slats of the seat, Joseph replied in a shaken voice that he could hear nothing.
“You’re wrong. Listen carefully,” said the Photograph Man. “You can hear everything.” He continued to look out at the sea and sky. Joseph still could not see his face. “You don’t listen properly enough.” He turned to look at Joseph and fixed his wet, pale blue eyes on the young man. Joseph’s eyelids fluttered in surprise as the Photograph Man looked at him.
Joseph saw the man was old, and tired. His skin had been burnt in the sun and dried in the cold winter wind. Veins had flushed and broken under the wrinkled surface, and the dips and wells around his eyes held secrets. Joseph looked away, he looked at the ground, and he looked at the camera as it stood on its tripod.
“I can help you,” said the Photograph Man. “It is very simple, and you will see and hear everything you need to help you understand.” Joseph started to back away from the man, and looked to Rebecca. She was looking in the other direction, watching the trees as they moved.
“Come and look into the camera” said the Photograph Man, “and you will see what I see.” He stepped back and pointed at the camera. The black and aged device was flecked with moisture. Joseph, unable to think of anything else, walked to the tripod. He saw the name in silver on the body of the camera. Rolliflex. The black casing was chipped and worn.
“Look into the viewfinder on the top,” said the Photograph Man, “and I’ll bring it into focus for you.” Joseph stood and leaned over the camera to look down into the large viewfinder. As he did so, the Photograph Man gently touched the back of Joseph’s hand.
Then, through the camera, in a crack of light and a boom of movement, Joseph saw the clouds in the sky shift and change, whirl and dance. The light ripped the clouds, the beams poured down and into and through, the sea caught the rays of the sun, held it to its heart, and threw them back skywards. The waves danced and flung themselves against one another in an orgy of movement and colours from pearl to green to bright blue, to black. The lights danced in the core of the clouds, the moon rose and fell, the stars came out and wheeled and hurtled across the shifting milky blackness. The universe swallowed itself and vomited its own internal magic outwards into the golden harvest of a new dawn, and the days revolved. The colours spun light into a thousand shades, the clouds screamed in pleasure, the sea boiled like a mirror of the heavens and a whirlpool of tides and sand and waves refracted. The sound of waters and air and rain and sea and moisture danced and chorused around the soil and the stones and the grass and the world. The euphoric babbling of waters trickling and running and gushing and surging, feeling alive in its own flow and movement and in glee at the possibilities of chance, then it slowed and ebbed and flowed back into itself, and calmed and weakened and began to sleep once more, and Joseph breathed out.
He looked at the Photograph Man and smiled.
“Thank you” said Joseph, his voice cracking. The Photograph Man returned the smile. His eyes crinkled at the corners, and he nodded. Joseph stepped away from the camera and walked slowly back to Rebecca.
She stood up as Joseph approached, and asked him what the Photograph Man had said. Did he say why he takes pictures here every day? Why does he bother? Joseph looked upwards to the sky and spoke.
“He takes photographs because everything is fleeting. Things come and go. But people don’t see it,” said Joseph. Rebecca squinted at his words, and tried to take his hand. Joseph did not see her move towards him. Instead, he turned away from Rebecca and started to walk back towards the office. Rebecca was left standing alone. The wind flicked cold rain at her exposed legs below the hem of her coat.
Rebecca shrugged and murmured under her breath. She followed Joseph back towards the office. She watched him as they walked. His head was tilted on one side. Rebecca pulled up the hood of her duffel coat and sighed. Ahead of her, Joseph listened as the wind breathed and the raindrops sang their way to the earth.
Behind them, the Photograph Man looked up at the sky, and pressed the shutter on the camera.
by Bill Stokes