Staying true to the form of the last twelve months, February appeared to offer a little light in the distance only to reveal its culmination was an illusion. I was on the coast. Early as usual. Too early. Wanting to make a good impression, not that the pay cheques noticed. The temperatures had plummeted unexpectedly; minus four once again. Another added pair of socks and my brogues would split at the seams. The towns round here merge into one. Seemingly tied together by twisted metal forming tracks for cheap thrills come summer. I had with me a pair of gloves, but one had fallen into a brown salty puddle when wedging it between my knees whilst zipping up my jacket. I contemplated wearing just the one but didn’t want the local lunatics, wearing Adidas tracksuit bottoms and leather jackets, thinking I was one of them, so instead buried my hands deep into my pockets. Not that it made any difference; the Irish Sea squalls will ransack any and all nook and crannies. I was stood outside some abandoned yacht club just off the docks. Tarpaulin flapped and whipped in a frenzy despite best efforts to tie it down sufficiently. Upright masts ticked like amplified clocks all running at different speeds. Bulky rusted chains chimed as they smashed against king piles. The sooner I could leave this time travellers nightmare the better. My bottom lip and chin felt like I’d just left the dentist’s chair after root canal surgery. Steel clouds barricaded the land from the heavens. ‘“You won’t have a friend in the world…even those who understand…will despise you!”’ Called out an elderly chap with a carrying London accent walking past. ‘Excuse me?’ ‘A View from the Bridge.’ He continued, ‘One of my favourites. Directed it years ago on the West End. This place reminds me of it. The ambience that is, not the architecture.’ He wore an expensive long black winter coat, a thick cream scarf and a blue and green tartan flat cap. His face was old and white, except his crystallized blue eyes; they still looked game. ‘You’re a theatre director?’ I asked. ‘Used to be. Retired a few years back. Always wanted to move to the Lake District. Live amongst the memories of Wordsworth and Coleridge.’ ‘This ain’t the Lake District fella.’ I answered. ‘No, but it’s an affordable stone’s throw.’ ‘I would’ve thought a theatre director from the West End would be wealthy enough to retire in Grasmere if he wished?’ ‘Not one who was taken to the cleaners by his ex-wife who was aghast at the idea of moving north.’ ‘Well on days like today she had a point.’ I answered. ‘I guess you’re probably right about that.’ He chuckled. ‘Well, enjoy retirement.’ I replied and began walking away only for the old man to continue talking. ‘Is that a camera bag?’ ‘It is.’ ‘Are you a photographer?’ ‘I am.’ ‘Anything exciting?’ ‘Not today. Not many days.’ ‘Kubrick was a keen photographer. Street photographer. That’s how he started out. I worked a few days on “Full Metal Jacket” back in the eighties, helping a friend out in set design.’ ‘You worked with Kubrick?’ I asked, my ears pricked. ‘I worked on his film, didn’t actually meet him. Saw him in the distance. He carried a 35mm around set with him. Even from afar you could feel his brooding intensity. Long days on a Kubrick set. Lot of takes.’ ‘So I’ve read.’ The old fella had a charm to him. Intelligent but easy going with it. No pretension. I bet he had more than a yarn or two. Shame I was chatting to him on a freezing cold dock and not in a warm, dimly lit boozer sinking pints. ‘Listen, I gotta go. But it was nice talking to you. Take it easy.’ ‘You too young man. Enjoy your day. And shoot from the hip whilst walking the streets. You’ll be surprised at the great shots you’ll take.’ ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
I walked away, hunched over attempting to form some sort of protection from the elements; not that it worked. The wind bit down hard on an old broken bone in my left hand and spiralled around my knees. Ten years ago, I was invincible; time draped its arms around my shoulders as if we were triumphant teammates leaving the field of play. Now…now I had rapidly come to terms with the fact I wasn’t unique. I wasn’t indestructible. No wonder I clung to escapism. I needed it. Needed to escape the sorrow of those misplaced dreams.
I arrived at the house I was photographing. It was around ten-thirty and I needed that second coffee, badly. Terrace houses in neighbourhoods like this either go two ways. One: quick and easy because they’re small and there isn’t much to photograph. Or two: a total fucking nightmare because the tenant hasn’t tidied or has too much junk, so you spend an hour or so trying to roll a turd in glitter. I could tell this house was going to lean more toward the latter. I knocked for a few minutes, but the happy hardcore blasting from the inside drowned them out. I peered through the smeared windows on the ground floor but there was no movement. Looking up, I saw a young girl looking down at me from one of the bedroom windows. She smiled and waved. I gestured for her to come and open the door, but instead she flicked me the V’s. Little shit; she’d been trained well. ‘Her and those bloody tunes.’ Shouted a small, round woman bouncing across the street towards me in a pair of baggy jeans and lime green vest. ‘She loves her music.’ ‘If you can call it that.’ I said. ‘You’ve got to bang harder than that to get her attention. Like this.’ She began beating the door with her fist and knee, ‘Shell, open the fucking door. You’ve got a guest.’ Turning her attention back to me, she paused momentarily before asking coldly, ‘You’re not council are ya?’ ‘No.’ ‘Pigs?’ ‘No.’ ‘Her new fuck buddy?’ She laughed, winking and nudging me in the ribs with her elbow?’ ‘No. No I am not. I’m the photographer. I’m here to take photos of the house with it going on the market.’ ‘Oh right, yeah. That landlord’s a right twat. He never liked Shell or her kids from the start. You see him, you can tell him I called him a twat.’ ‘I’ll make a note of it in my reminders.’ The music cut. The door opened. ‘Yeah?’ answered a tall, skinny peroxide blonde, with a long neck that had a prominent blue vein running down one side. It was difficult to judge her age. She had an eyebrow piercing that added only difficulty to the equation. She wore a baggy bright orange jumper and pink pyjama bottoms. ‘He’s here to photograph your house.’ answered the bouncing lime, before I had chance to take a breath. ‘I thought it was two you was coming?’ ‘Fraid not.’ I said. ‘Any chance you could come back in a few hours?’ ‘Fraid not.’ ‘For fuck sake.’ Sighed a pissed off Shell. ‘Girls get down here. And make sure you’ve made your beds. Dean! DEAN!’ ‘What?’ Shouted down a muffled male voice that I presumed was Dean’s. ‘Get up. Better yet, leave. So much for a quickie.’ Said Shell turning back to me. ‘I can’t apologise enough.’ I replied. ‘What you doing ere Sam?’ ‘I came to show this fart in the wind how to knock on a door.’ They both looked at me. Unsure of how to react, I smiled back with frowning eyes not focusing on either of them. ‘Who are you?’ Asked the little girl from the window who was now hugging her mother’s legs. ‘I’m here to take pictures of your house.’ ‘It’s not my house it’s my Mummy’s house’ I wasn’t having a good time. Rolling thunder came bounding down the stairs. ‘What the fuck’s going on?’ asked the man of the muffled voice who was a tad smaller than Shell but just as skinny, zipping up his hoodie. ‘Who are you?’ Asked the little girl, looking up at him. ‘Never mind who he is.’ Shouted Shell, ‘Get back inside. And get your sister.’ ‘She’s gone out.’ ‘What d’ya mean she’s gone out? Gone out where?’ ‘I dunno.’ Who’s he?’ Interrupted Dean, looking me up and down. ‘He’s here to photograph the house.’ ‘At this time? Nice one cock block.’ He snarled, showing his teeth that resembled the top wall of a fort. ‘I can’t apologise enough.’ I replied.
Finally, I was inside. Mask on. Leaving Shell, Sam and Dean talking at the front door. The houses I photograph are supposed to be in a photogenic condition upon arrival; some aren’t. This was one. Dirty dishes piled high in the kitchen with a slightly tipped bowl precariously balancing on top, dripping chocolate milk onto the lino. Every ashtray in the living room overflowed with cigarette butts; a couple still smouldering. Empty wine bottles mixed with children’s toys lay across the stained carpet. Wishful thinking took me upstairs in hope for better results. To my surprise the children’s room was the tidiest. An acrid smell coming from the master bedroom caught the back of my throat. If this was the aroma pre-quickie, I arrived right on cue. I walked into the bathroom; my camera lens steamed up immediately and every pore in my body burst open. I leant over the bath, opened the window to realise some of the heat and moisture. The window frames and grouting were black with mildew. I snapped away at what could pass as mildly acceptable which wasn’t much, but I still wasn’t convinced. I was convinced that I’d have to come back at a later date and start over. A thought that got under my skin more than the mites that had begun biting.
I walked slowly back down the stairs itching the back of my legs, trying to piece together in my mind a sentence to tell Shell that I’d have to come back due to her home being a shit tip. Not a single possibility I could conjure derived in her not erupting in some fashion. Worse still, a commotion at the front door was taking place. ‘What did he say to you?’ Shouted a vexed Shell, ‘Ruby-Rose Kendall Lennox, answer me when I’m talking to you.’ Either Ruby-Rose Kendall Lennox was a countess of sorts or there was some discrepancy over who her biological father was, so to spare any injustice the two strongest candidates were added to her title. Through the living room window, I saw a young girl of around twelve. She was hidden in a cheap glossy purple duffle coat, hood up. ‘He just told me and the others that when performing we should always make sure that we face the audience.’ ‘What else?’ ‘Erm just that we were too pretty not to be seen by the audience.’ ‘He called you pretty?’ Ruby-Rose Kendall Lennox shrugged her shoulders. ‘Answer me please!’ ‘I dunno. I guess. He’s nice. We like him. He gave Elsa one of his pear drops.’ ‘My Elsa?’ Asked an irate Sam. ‘Yeah.’ ‘Where’s he at now?’ ‘I dunno. He walked off down toward the seafront.’ ‘And he never said anything else or touched you anywhere else?’ Asked Shell. ‘No.’ ‘You sure?’ ‘YES MUM!’ ‘Get inside.’ Ruby-Rose Kendall Lennox came inside. ‘Who are you?’ She asked, looking at me. ‘Get upstairs.’ Shouted Shell. Ruby-Rose turned pulling a face toward her mother, saw Dean and asked, ‘Who’s he?’ ‘NOW!’ came the reply. I walked over to my belongings on the ripped leather sofa. A black cat with a white diamond on the end of its tail sat in the pouch where my camera fits. I tried to move it on its way, but the vicious bastard hissed, baring its teeth. I picked up an empty wine bottle, prodding the cat out of my bag. It finally scarpered hissing some more. I looked down into my bag. The bottle wasn’t completely empty. Red wine now soaked into the interior, staining it. ‘Oh, fucking hell.’ I shouted. ‘Everything ok back there?’ came a voice from the door. ‘Not even a little bit.’ I called back irritated. There wasn’t a reply. The conversation at the door was fanning its own flames. ‘He’s a fucking nonce that old man.’ Shouted Dean, ‘That’s why he moved up here. Had to leg it from down south cos he’d been fiddling kids. Tommo told me all about it.’ ‘I knew there were summet wrong with him. I could fucking tell.’ Agreed Sam, ‘If he goes near my kids again, I’ll kill him.’ ‘What did he do down south anyway?’ Asked Shell. ‘Some fucking actor or some shit like that.’ Answered Sam. ‘See!’ Said Dean. ‘They’re all the fucking same them acting lot. Either fucking gay or nonces. Like that man who walks funny in that thingy suspect film.’ I’d heard enough. Zipped up my bag, walked over to the door. ‘Excuse me.’ I said. ‘That didn’t take long.’ Said Shell. ‘I’ll have to come back, or someone will have to come back.’ ‘Why?’ ‘The whole point of me taking photographs is so the property can be advertised on the website or a brochure. Your house is in no state to be advertised.’ ‘They’ll get the gist.’ ‘It’s a potential home for somebody, not being brought up to speed on a film after nipping to the loo.’ ‘Fucking perfect. Can you not get any shots?’ ‘If you three would be kind enough to move away from the door I can take a couple of exterior shots.’ The three moved to side grumbling amongst themselves. I changed to a wider lens and began snapping. ‘I don’t believe it. He’s got some fucking nerve.’ Shouted Sam.’ ‘Oi!’ Shouted Dean, ‘Get off this street, you fucking paedo, unless you want your skull kicking in.’ I looked behind and saw walking towards us the old man who I’d been talking to earlier. I stood staring, not taking my eyes off him as venomous insults from behind me fired in his direction. Others, upon hearing the commotion, walked out of their front doors and joined in. Only pitchforks and flaming torches were missing from this witch-hunt. The insults were spewed with such assurance and belief that I couldn’t help but wonder if the mob was right. The old man walked past; he raised his eyes off the road briefly to look up at me. His face was smeared with either shame or embarrassment, I couldn’t work out which. Is there even a difference in expression for the two emotions? His crystalized blue eyes now dulled, flickered like lightbulbs in a horror film. ‘Look at the look on his face. He knows he’s guilty. Stay away from my kids. You so much as look at them again and I’ll kill you.’ Cried Shell. I walked back over to the three once the public shaming reached the other end of the street. ‘I’m all done for the time being.’ ‘Whoever’ll live here next will have a decent neighbourhood watch. We all stick together round here. Especially from paedos like him.’ Shell proudly announced. ‘That’s an ugly rumour.’ I replied, ‘You wanna be one hundred percent sure on the facts before shitting on someone’s name. People don’t recover from accusations like that.’ ‘We are sure. We have the facts.’ ‘Yeah?’ I asked. ‘Yeah.’ Dean answered. ‘Well I was just…’ ‘Just what?’ I paused for a moment. Looked into their frothing eyes. Whether they had the facts, thought they did or were just taking vicious gossip as gospel, their minds were made up. Anything I said would more than likely lead to me being accosted as well. And I needed that like I needed an arsehole on my elbow. ‘…nothing.’ I finally replied.
I got back in my car. Checked my phone. Faye had text, “Don’t forget to say hello to my friend Carly if you go into the office today. It’s her first day. Xxx” I didn’t reply. Instead I phoned my boss. ‘Jack’, he answered, ‘How was it?’ ‘Theatrical.’ ‘Get what you needed?’ ‘Not even close.’ ‘I thought that might be the case. The landlord emailed yesterday warning me there could be an issue.’ ‘Thanks for heads up.’ ‘We’ll try again next week.’ ‘Alright.’ ‘Where you off to next?’ ‘Arnside, then home. Got a load of editing to catch up on.’ ‘Oh yes, that’s right. Speak to you later.’
I arrived at Arnside just under an hour later. The traffic hadn’t helped. I queued for the chippy that people round here go wild for. I’m not a fish and chips kind of guy, but thought I’d give them a go considering I was parked outside.
The batter sat heavy in my stomach; I regretted every mouthful. I got out the car to walk it off, resisting the urge to stick two fingers down my throat for a good old-fashioned cleansing. I still had half an hour to kill so swapped my brogues for trainers and walked along the beach. The train rolled across the viaduct toward Grange-over-Sands like an elongated hearse ready to pick up those ready to have their final ticket punched. I remembered learning to kayak off the beach here years ago. The quicksand sucked in your arm given half a chance. You’d then have to pull with all your strength with the other arm to free it, only for that arm to then become stuck. It was funny at first, until panic set in. My canoe instructor once told my mother I had the potential to become an Olympic kayaker. Looking at the chests of some of those guys and girls on the telly, I know he was just trying to squeeze a few extra quid out of her.
To the side of the estuary a mixture of sand and limestone lined the banks. Dogs ran in any direction, happy to be out in wide spaces, distracted by various smells caught up in the wind. Out on the water paddleboarders struggling for balance wobbled and tipped. In the distance the landscape was filled with the Lakeland Fells. The further back they sat, the smoother and bluer they became. An air raid siren sounded, blaring across the bay; a warning that the tide was changing and quickly. The noise reminded me of a peculiar dream I’d had a little while ago. Something about a man on a cloud being stung by a wasp. I couldn’t remember. I stood and stared out toward the sea, entranced. Drawn in by something but unsure of what. My phone vibrated in my pocket. It was my boss calling. ‘Hello?’ ‘Jack, you at your viewing yet?’ ‘Just on my way.’ ‘Don’t bother. We’ve cancelled it. Somethings come up.’ ‘What?’ ‘There’s been a complaint. An accusation’s been made.’ ‘Some out of focus photos?’ I joked. ‘No.’ His voice was stern, quiet. It made me uneasy. ‘It’s best that you come in immediately so we can straighten this out.’ ‘Look, if this is about earlier, I was only saying that if you’re going to make a strong allegation like that you better have proof.’ ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about Jack and honestly, I don’t want to know. This is something else. Please, just come back to the office immediately.’ He hung up.