August · waiting · William's stories

Still Life

By William Gallagher

THANK God it’s you. How can I say this? You’re not the first person I’ve tried to talk to. And it’s taken a long time to get here. And, oh, there you go, there it is, you’re looking at me with that face: who is this guy? What does he want, where’s the silent alarm button? I’ve seen that expression a lot lately and I’d like to thank you for being more patient than some of your colleagues have been.

But it’s important that you understand me, and I really need you to get it quickly because it’s nearly over. All this time and it comes down to these last minutes. It comes down to you. Can you imagine what it was like seeing you, of all people, you? Entering this office block. If I’d glanced another way, we’d not be here. And you turning out to be a psychiatrist. I laughed. When I got over the shock.

Look, this will do it, this will show you that I’m serious. Have you got your phone? Has it got a camera? Of course it’s got a camera. Take a shot of the two of us, right now. Please. Cheese. Thank you. Now, don’t show me, but look at it. Turn your phone round, I need you to know I can’t see it, that I haven’t seen it. Okay? The picture shows me looking red-faced on the left, you looking pretty good, actually, on the right. I’m on your leather couch, there’s a bookshelf behind me.

Don’t look like that, here’s the kicker.

You’ve got an award on that second shelf down, a really nice glass piece inscribed by the IoP, the Institute of Psychiatry. Congratulations, by the way. And now I think you’ll find your phone can zoom in because if you do, if you do that for me please, you’ll see there’s a reflection in the glass of the award. It’s a reflection of the window cleaner’s cage hanging outside that window behind you.

I’m not saying it’s the clearest reflection but you can see it and you can see the window cleaner. It’s easy for you. All you have to do is look over your shoulder and the reflection makes sense. Bit harder for me. I’ve only had that photo to go by and I’ve been staring at it for 18 years.

Staring.

I’m not kidding. You took that photo right now in front of me and let me show you this. It’s that same photo. Printed out, bit faded now, but it’s the same photo. I’m right, aren’t I? Is that the best trick you’ve ever seen or what?

I wish it were a trick. I so wish that they all were tricks.

You took that photo now but I’ve had a print of it since I was a teenager.

I’d give you a moment to catch up, to let it sink in and all that, but I’m very much afraid I’m against the clock here. So can I just ask you to put what you’re thinking aside for a sec? You still think it’s a trick, please move on: I don’t know how I got the photo, I do know that I did, that this is all real. And I’ve got 39 other ones like it.

And I do know who gave them to me, but if you think I had to build up to the photo, you won’t believe how I’ve got to hold your hand on that one.

Please don’t press that alarm.

My name is Carl Anderson – yes, I know, of course I lied. You’re the seventeenth psychiatrist I’ve seen. More if you count the the ones before I tried finding you. Psychiatrists, counsellors, anger management, if people aren’t sending me to them, I’m going by my own choice. Never helps. Until you.

Just listen. My name is Carl Anderson, I said. I’m 38 years old and I have 40 photographs that show every major event of my life up to now. The only thing is, I’ve had them all since I was 18. They show my graduation – or what I thought was my graduation – they show my first wife, my second wife. A car accident. My daughter. My 30th birthday. My holiday to Norway. I have never wanted to go to Norway, who the hell wants to go to Norway, but there I was in the photo, so there I went. Missed out on all the Brexit stuff. Christ, that makes me want to shake someone.

Anyway. Norway. It turns out that it’s quite calming there. It’s nice. You should go. That’s a great restaurant there just behind me. Tell them I recommended it.

These photographs – here, the whole set is in this envelope, take a look, have the lot. I thought this was the most wonderful gift you could give me. Photographs. When I was 18, I was, well, I don’t know how else to say it, I was a geek and a very unhappy one. Zero confidence, and I wasn’t even that good a geek. But I got the envelope. Do you know what it said on the front? No, of course you don’t, I haven’t told you yet. Sorry. I still get confused.

It said “I’m sorry.” Right there on the envelope. See? “I’m very, very sorry.”  Look. Again, faded, creased. There have been countless times I’ve wrung that envelope like a rag, taking out my rage, trying to wrench it to pieces and yet never being able to just let it go and walk away. Never able to stop looking at the next photo.

I didn’t know why I was given them. I got them and I’m the same as you, I figured it was a trick, but still, it was a pretty fantastic trick. We didn’t all have Photoshop in the 1990s, if that’s what you’re thinking. Here. Look. There I am aged 18. I was given all 40 photographs in this envelope and photo number 1 is this, which I then saw being taken half an hour later. Half an hour after I was given that photograph, it was taken in front of me.

I don’t look geeky, do I? I look good. I look tall. I felt confident, I felt fantastic.

Because that’s Claire, the most popular girl in sixth form. I saw that photograph of my future and I saw her with her arms around me. What boy wouldn’t be confident after that? And it happened, it happened precisely the way the photo said. Sheer exuberant confidence, that’s what the picture shows because that’s what the picture gave me – and it was that same confidence that she liked.

Not everything went quite that well. Here, photo number three. Graduation. What would you do? You see a photo, an actual, real life photograph of yourself at your graduation day. It was going to happen no matter what I did, there it was in front of me, so, great. Let it happen. Bring it on. I didn’t lift a finger at Oxford, I had absolutely no reason to because it was right there in full colour, my happy graduation.

I was 21 when I was supposed to be graduating Oxford, that would have been 2002. There were digital cameras then – I tell you, ask me anything about cameras now, I was a very motivated amateur photographer though, Christ, it’s an expensive subject. But anyway, back in 2002, nobody had digital, nobody I knew could possibly afford it. What we did have was 35mm and do you know you get with digital that you don’t with 35mm? Datestamps. That shot you took of us on your phone, it’s datestamped today, it’s timestamped about five minutes ago. Pop it on to your computer when you get home, you’ll see.

And if 35mm had timestamping, I’d have spotted that this graduation photo was not taken in 2002. It was taken on October 16, 2004. 11:33, since you ask. And it’s not Oxford. It’s the poncy, up-itself so-called graduation ceremony at Teleperformance Academy, Burton-on-Trent. I’m in telesales. I never even made it to the second year of my art history course at Oxford.

Look at the photo again. You thought Claire was the proud wife, didn’t you? That’s not pride, that’s embarrassment. And it was pure, stunning, malicious fucking coincidence: she happened to be visiting her grandma in Derby, she and Steve were stopping in Burton on their way home. We never married. We never did anything.

After that, I still believed the photos but, you’ve got to have guessed this already, I didn’t take them on face value anymore. Here, this one turned out to be 2006. That’s me with Annabel Stopley. We were married six weeks later, I have no idea why there’s no photograph of the wedding service. Well, I have photos, we had a photographer on the day, but somehow it wasn’t significant enough for me to already have the picture in this set.

Whereas this one, this almost makes me laugh. That’s me with my second wife, Kate. Annabel found my envelope of photos. She pounced on that one, of course she did. To this day she believes I’m a bigamist because who’s going to believe I have the future in eight by 10 glossy photos? I have my fate in pictures and I always have.

Annabel wanted a divorce, obviously. I wanted her to stay. Naturally. So we compromised, went to a counsellor. And there she was, Kate Matheson, marriage counsellor. We were married within three months, I never saw Annabel again. I never see Pip, my daughter, though ironically I do get the odd photo.

I told Kate about the pictures and I think she believed me. She let me talk about them, anyway, and I can’t tell you what a release that was. Well, it’s your job to have people talk, look at you now, listening to me and looking all professional.

I didn’t realise how the pressure had built up in me. Once I talked, I couldn’t stop talking and it was fantastic. We studied all the photos, Kate and I, looking for a connection between them. There is one, incidentally, but it’s me. Nothing else. I’ve no idea why I matter. Makes me mad.

And it was Kate who worked out that this one is of a hearse. I know now, because I was there when it happened, but Kate was so clever. She worked out that this blurry shot that was taken at a funny angle is of a hearse. The photographer was trying to get out of its way and he accidentally pressed the shutter. What you’re seeing is a blurry shot of a black hearse and that bit, the lighter colours right there, that’s the very edge of a bouquet. You can’t work it out, we couldn’t work it out, but the bouquet was one of those spelling out a name.

It was spelling ‘Kate’.

I don’t see anybody now.

I can’t risk it, I don’t know what will happen to them. There were four more shots after that hearse one, two of which have now happened and were quite benign. Who chose the photos? I even beat up that hearse photographer but he didn’t know anything about it.

Then there’s the photo you took here today and now we’re at the last one. Photo number 40. Look at the back. It’s got a timestamp on it. That final photograph hasn’t been taken yet. It will be taken in about five minute’s time.

Looks like this carpet. What do you think, am I asleep?

Yeah, I know. Five minutes left.

I don’t know what to hope. Maybe the shot is taken just as I blink. And am lying on the floor. It could happen. It doesn’t have to be the last photograph of my life. It could just be the last of these damn 40 and then I’ll be free. No more trying to work out when the next shot will be taken, no more waiting to see if it’s bad news or trying to figure out where it took place, what it’s trying to tell me.

What time is it? How long have I got?

Wow. Going so fast now. Do you think it’ll be a heart attack? That’s my best guess. So I had a check-up this morning. Everything seems fine, though the doctor asked if I could come back next week for further testing. I laughed.

Pretty sure it’ll be a heart attack.The old ticker is pounding away right now, I can tell you.

I hope they’re as quick as they seem on TV. If I’m really in pain, would you hit me over the head with that award of yours?

I wouldn’t ask, but it is your fault.

That’s my biggest disappointment of all. You’re my biggest regret.

Because I can’t see why you’d give me these photos. You don’t know me: I could see that in your eyes as soon as I came in. So what is it? Do you find out something about me? Is there a version of my life where I didn’t have the photos and it’s somehow worse for everybody? Makes me so mad.

And to think I’m this close. You don’t know me, you don’t know why you’re going to give my teenage self these photos. And you certainly don’t know how yet, I can tell that for damn sure. But now I know how you got the photos, now I know you got them from me.

And I am so close. You are so close. Whatever your reasons for doing this to me, you’re going to decide it so soon. You’re going to do this to me so very soon.

Jesus, I can’t breathe.

Look me in the eye. Tell me why you would do this to me.

Don’t fucking pretend. I know. I know this is your fault. Look at the first photo. There.

Behind Claire.

It’s you.

Looking like you do now. Wearing what you’re wearing now. Back in 1998.

What if I beg you? I’ve saved some money, you can have it. Anything. Please don’t give me these photos. Or maybe you have to. Is that it? Is there something worse than this?

Because I can’t fucking imagine it. Could I have some water?

Give me the photos then. I don’t care. Just get me an ambulance now. Please don’t let me die. Give me more photos. Do something. I’ll take more photos. I’ll take spending every minute thinking about these photos. It’s no way to live, I can tell you that.

But it’s still life.

© William Gallagher 2016

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