I just took part in the Gothic Day of Creation. This was a day-long event organised by Dr Sam Hirst, who has been incredible in delivering and organising talks about Romancing the Gothic for the last few months.
I’ve learned so much and, while I don’t always have the capacity to join in with the more social aspects like the group’s film nights or book discussion nights, I’ve found a wonderful community when I have joined in. Attend the lectures if you can (they’re free but you can also support via ko-fi and patreon).
I wrote the story below a couple of months ago, inspired by a writing prompt about captivity/escape. I submitted it for the Day of Creation’s Authors’ Showcase and was incredibly pleased to be able to do a reading of it.
To Be Seen
There was nothing in particular that drew me to her photo. It was simply there, shuffled in the pile, waiting to be claimed. Anyone else could have picked it out. But they didn’t.
I keep thinking, if only I’d spent more time researching. If only.
Still. I was the one who wanted to see.
My course was meant to be the first step in becoming better. While I’d got my photography degree over 10 years ago, I knew I hadn’t achieved as well as I could have. A nasty case of depression in my final year, and a 4 month waiting list for support, put paid to that.
I originally had plans to become a photographer. Instead, I stumbled into the first sort-of-related job I found. The next decade was just me going through the motions in an advertising firm. It was steady work, and kept me going.
But regrets erode you, piece by piece, and one day I decided to make a change before I became worn down by them. I wanted to go back to creating things for people to enjoy. Adult education centres aren’t as well-funded as they used to be, but there was still a decent advanced arts photography course to get me back into the game.
The first project was about using images of the past. One of my classmates wanted to colourise old photos, another was going to collect and arrange some to tell a story.
As for me, I didn’t feel particularly inspired. I thought that, once I got the materials together, I’d know where to start.
I left it to the last minute, partly thanks to an issue with an office project, but mostly because I struggle to get anything done until I’m right up against the deadline.
That’s why I ended up scanning the shelves of the local bric-a-brac shop only a week before the hand-in. To call Treasure Trove a shop doesn’t really do it justice. It’s spread over two floors and almost the size of a warehouse, an Aladdin’s Cave of antiques, eccentric objet d’arts and general weird crap.
Come for the 1930s bakelite phones, leave with a creepy clown painting.
This bizarre mixture means it’s favoured by local art students searching for resources, as well as determined middle class couples hoping to find some unique home decor trinket. I’m painfully middle class, but this time I wasn’t visiting for fun or to marvel at the 1960s magazines. This time, I was there as an aspiring art student.
One of the things they sell at Treasure Trove is photos. There are literally thousands of them, featuring people probably long-dead. Discarded photo albums packed with memories end up here, shaken apart for the paying public to pick through.
I’d had an idea to find pictures with a historical link to the area. Honestly, though, I just wanted to grab whatever intrigued me.
I found her photo, the first one, in an unmarked green shoe box. The scene was that of a young woman standing on the local beach. Judging by the colourful pier in the background, I guessed the photo was at least 50 years old, way before the fire that had reduced the pier to a charred skeleton.
She was standing on the sand a few metres from whoever was taking the photo. She was mostly turned away from the camera, one hand raised as if waving at someone in the sea. Her red skirt was ruffled by the wind, blowing up against her legs as strands of dark brown hair whipped across her face. With her blue and white striped top, she looked very nautical, like she had heard the word “seaside” and leaned into it, style-wise.
I rummaged through the box and was pleasantly surprised to find more photos of the young woman, all of her facing the sea. They were almost identical, but each one captured her arm in a different position as she waved.
Pleased with my haul, I went to pay. The owner, Gracie, is an odd sort. He runs the place, permanently fixed behind the counter, but I’ve never seen any indication that he actually wants to be there. There’s a scowl ground into his fleshy face, immovable after years of practice. I’ve maybe heard five words out of him in all the years I’ve visited.
So you can understand it was a shock when Gracie started a conversation. He had just taken the photos to check the backs for his pencil-marked price, and I was preparing to place the money on the counter for him, as he preferred.
Then he paused, looked at me with his milky blue eyes and said, “You interested in the lady?”
It took me a moment to respond, but eventually I replied that yes I was, sort of, for an art project.
Gracie nodded once and said he had got a whole batch of photo albums from a house clearance, and this woman was in most of them. He didn’t know if she was the deceased person whose possessions he had bought, catalogued and set upon his shelves. He said that, for some reason, her photos had caught the eyes of several locals, and they’d been buying handfuls of them.
I should have just left it at that, made a polite comment about the whole situation, and moved on quickly, but, like the fool I am, I asked what it was about the photos that made them so popular.
Gracie smirked then and I didn’t particularly care for it. He said he didn’t know, but there must be something I and the other collectors saw in them that he couldn’t.
Then he almost too-casually mentioned that he might have more of her photos, and would I be interested in them?
My immediate thought was no, not really: I had what I needed, which was the research material for my project. There was also something about the way Gracie was looking at me that made me feel like I was being weighed up, and that I had been found wanting. Something bristled against my skin and, in that moment, I needed to be as far away from him as possible.
But instead of no, the word that tumbled from my lips was “Yes”.
His mouth spread thin across his face like an elastic band stretched too far and he grabbed a pencil, demanding to know my contact number.
He was so eager, scribbling away, promising me more photos for my collection. At the time, I put it down to him appraising me, like I was a profitable source of further income. Nothing more.
When I got home, I began to think about what I wanted to do and I had the bright idea of taking this figure of the woman and superimposing her upon new photos of the same scenery.
It was supposed to be an image full of pathos, this carefree person set against the now ruined remains of the pier. Unoriginal, maybe, but quick and easy to complete before the deadline.
I took the three photos and, one by one, began to cut chunks of them away with scissors, freeing her from the surrounding scene.
The next few days, I took photos of the seafront during my lunch break. It was 5 minutes from where I work, so it didn’t take long, and I made sure the derelict pier was always in frame.
I printed the photos out and pasted her onto the new scenery. It looked better than I had imagined it would. She seemed so out of place, her brightly lit figure practically glowing against the murky grey of a September sky. Staring at her photo, for the first time in a long while, I felt a sense of calm fall upon me.
A loud, shrill noise interrupted my reverie. I remember snatching up my phone as if I was going to throw it against the wall, but I stopped myself when I saw the call was from Gracie. He’d found more photos and said he could drop them off, if I’d be happy to send him the money online. So I did.
That night, I dreamt of the woman. I was begging her to look at me, screaming until my voice evaporated. Her hair moved like crashing waves as she began to turn, only for me to wake, shivering alone in the darkness, tears still falling down my face.
The next day, I found a small envelope on my doormat. There were three photos inside, and I was excited because I recognised some of the places in them. A famous old pub (practically a national heritage site round here), a shot of the high street, and one of the clocktower.
The woman was in all three of the photos, still wearing the same outfit. Still as exquisite as before.
In each one, she was walking away from the camera, though looking back a little towards her mysterious companion. Her face always seemed to be out of focus or obscured, though in one of the photos I could just about trace the faint outline of a smile developing beneath the dark strands of her hair.
I thought about making the project into a series. Fired up, I charged further into town during lunch, taking photos at all three sites.
Cut. Shoot. Print. Paste. That’s all I’d been doing the last few days.
Then yesterday, I was woken early by the letterbox clattering as another envelope fell through it. In it, three more photos, this time of the woman strolling down what looked like Hilder Road, a street not far from mine. Her strides were getting wider, like she was almost jogging. She was moving towards the camera now, but her head was twisted to the left, towards a row of houses.
I could see her smile more clearly, her mouth curling at the corners, and I realised that my heart was racing at the thought she might reveal her face to me.
The joy and excitement all seemed so normal, at the time.
After work, I decided to walk home and get the shots I needed on the way back.
I left the office with a starless night beginning to settle upon the town. I found myself going past the old pub I had stood outside the day before. I then turned down the high street, and it didn’t even register when I walked past the clocktower.
I stopped at Hilder Road and decided to make the best of the dying light. I was so busy messing around with the camera, I almost missed her.
I felt someone brush past me and by the time I looked up, she was already at the end of the street. I saw the flash of a red skirt disappearing around the corner and I felt the cold air punch through my chest.
I chased after her, of course I did, but she wasn’t there.
I think I ran home. I know I didn’t stop.
There was another envelope waiting for me. This one was crumpled, almost balled up, just sitting on my doormat.
I shouldn’t have opened it.
But I needed to see her.
Three more photos of the woman. In each one, she’s now facing towards the camera. She’s sprinting down another street, the one at the end of my road, and her arms are swinging, her long fingers outstretched, and she’s running towards me.
In each photo, she moves closer to the lens, catching up to her photographer, until in the last one her entire face fills the frame and I can see everything now and I cannot understand and I can hear her whisper how she could never get the smile right.
I’ve tried calling Gracie. He’s not picking up anymore.
An envelope arrived earlier this evening, corners ripped. There are dirty, long fingerprints smeared all over it.
I don’t want to open it. I already know where she’s standing.