As had been his habit since he moved back into his mother’s house, Ashley once more retreated to the living room after dinner to page through his vast collection of photographs. He kept them in an assortment of media: files, prints, some in albums, some unfiled, some on CD’s, hard-drives, and some on his computer. Most of the photos were his attempts at articulating sometimes a feeling, sometimes a sense of place.
His friends were frequent subjects and always enthusiastic to pose for him. People enjoyed his company. He was pleasant and witty; the long pauses with which he interspersed his speech were at times accentuated by a turn of phrase that captured the exact mood of the moment. It was a rare gift, this ability to know others and to make them feel understood. And it delighted people, warmed them to him. Even for this he has always felt that he has always came up just a little short, that he was always just out of reach of something that was not meant for him. That he was somehow missing the point.
The rest of his collection were made up of photos collected and saved ever since what seems like years ago when he had taken up photography. They were not so much photos that he liked, but rather a lopsided collection that he had snapped up on a whim. A good few he had found in books that had told him that these were really good, the works of great artists, the ones you have to study, ones you emulate but never copy. You have to be unique, you see.
He had no clear favorite. These masters, they all melt into one big monochromatic collage, and it was hard for him to distinguish what made these artists’ images stand out from the mediocre rest, how it was any different from his own sometimes-masterful attempts. From his own collection he had his favorites. One in particular where he lit the fading sun just so on a stack of his books and made them burn burn burn. He has never passed up a chance to compare his own work to those of the greats and feeling a certain smug satisfaction that he was as good - and he was never without the content knowledge that people will also find this to be so, long after he had gone. He was unfailingly patient and quiet in his suffering.
On this dry and balmy night, a few days away from New Year’s eve, and with a photograph of a man jumping through a puddle open in front of him; his eyes, thin slits, were tracing myriad lines, darting over the image, trying to find the elusive formula that elevates it, and it made him think again, ‘What if I had been there and I had seen this man about to jump.’ ‘Would I have acted?’ ‘Would I have known the tension it would create?’
It creaked somewhere far down the corridor and up the wall. It was ten o’ clock and the air temperature dropped a good few degrees at night up here between the mountains in this little valley. He could walk out on his balcony and could look at and count again all 46 tiny lights in the village below if he so wishes. And so he would have done but for the chill he felt at the nape of his neck.
Shortly after they arrived he noticed them in the same way you try to focus a lens. He started seeing lines and shapes and vague colours. Then an eye and a lock of hair. Then faces. And shoulders - except the shoulders weren’t shoulders as much as they were small bird-like bones, narrow and blunt, horizontally lined up to equally narrow hips. Elliptical eyes spilled onto the flat surface of their faces where their cheeks should have been. He had sensed a presence in the room and with a lazy turn of his head he had looked up from the screen. A little startled by their sudden appearance, he stayed quiet for a good while, studying their forms. He detected no malice in them. Not in the lopsided, almost liquid faces, nor in their hard, triangular noses. As quiet as the village were down below, with the occasional dog yapping and another answering further off, the quiet that fell on his visitors’ arrival was hushed.
They moved, and erased all sound in their way.
They were vagrants. They had to be. The brown, slightly soiled clothes that hung on them are those of vagrants. That he knew.
He heard himself shout, “Get out! Get out of my house! What the hell…! Where! How! You! OOUUT!” His arms were flailing and he felt ridiculous.
They looked on him with their quizzical expressions and pausing for a while, dispersed in separate directions, all leading outside. They left through windows, through the back door and the front; one sneaked up through the chimney.
Ashley was left mute. The edges of his words were blunted by their presence and remained only as frozen snippets in the thin thin air.
From here I can see the invisible city.
Coal mine navigator
That waning gibbous
Tokyo Police Cataclysm Divison.
An alleyway for my stomach