This story is for Jason, for giving me a nudge. (It’s not about him)
“It’s a job in itself sorting out the photos, isn’t it?” he says.
I grunt, stare at the screen.
I can feel his leg jiggling again.
A constant metronomic vibration under the desk, the tap tap tap tap of the cheap heel of his cheap shoe on the tired office carpet, the surface tension of my tea, black two sugars, constantly oscillating at the same frequency as his fucking leg. Why should he be allowed to control my tea? What fucking right does he have?
He says, “I got my car back from the MOT clean as a whistle, clean as a whistle! Only cost me three hundred. They had to change the headlight cover on the inside because the light cover on the inside of my car isn’t like most cars, it’s sealed, against condensation, so that blah blah blah…”
He lists details about oil, wiper blades, filters, seals. The noise washes over me, I can feel the jiggle inside me, whale song, the shifting of tectonic plates, brown noise delivered by the cunning devices of shadowy hostiles, an idling engine, thunder.
He describes the job on his computer monitor, gives a little fist pump that he’s managed to place a text box in just the right place, first hit, first time.
Now he is talking about the photos again.
“…she’s only five months old and I’ve taken 5773 photos and 112 short films of her! She’s so lucky! When she’s older she’s gonna be able to look back at these pictures, see herself, see how happy she was, see how happy we all were…”
He is adjusting colour balance, curves, contrast, red eye. Feverish clicks, creating perfection. He airbrushes away unsightly drool, a smudge of pureed carrot, a tear.
“…yeah, she’ll see how happy we all were…”
I’ve got kids. Two, in fact. Well done me. I’ve taken photos of them, when I’ve remembered to. I’ve stayed up all night with them, searched for them, terrified, when they were lost. I’ve wiped their noses and, occasionally, smacked their arses.
I’ve done my flawed best.
I’m not perfect.
But he thinks perfection is simply a click away.
He moved house recently. He took out all the lightbulbs and replaced them with LED bulbs. He bought the best, spent three hundred quid on the brightest, the most efficient bulbs on the market.
I worked it out. It’ll take 57 years to see the financial return on that lot.
He’ll be dead by then.
But for him, that’s not the point.
Those bulbs are the best.
They won’t fail.
He can rely on them.
He just bought a new car, an Audi. He tried to sell his other car… but he couldn’t do it.
“What if I need it? What if something happens to my new car?”
So he pays tax and insurance for both cars, just in case.
He bought a pram for his baby. It was the best, you can bet on that.
It didn’t go over rough terrain so well. What if they wanted to go for a walk on the beach or in the woods or across a field or… or… ?
So he bought another pram for that purpose.
But it was pretty big…
So he bought another to fit in either car number one or car number two or his girlfriend’s little car, car number three.
Three prams, just in case. A pram for all seasons, a pram for all cars.
Just in case.
A new phone, every year.
A new television, every year.
When the best is no longer the best it is no longer reliable, something is doing the job better.
He must have it.
Best phone best car best camera best lights best pram best TV package best bank account best energy tariff best life.
He fitted cameras around the house to watch the dog when he’s not at home, just in case.
He studies his phone with a worried frown, leg jiggling…jiggling.
“She looks like she’s barking. What’s she barking at? Oh God, just settle down! She’s stopped barking. Don’t lick that! Dirty girl. She’s settling down… she’s settling down…”
The leg jiggle working overtime. The heartbeat of a frightened animal, the tick of an overwound clock.
He reaches back, eyes glued to the screen, digging and scratching at a scabrous growth that peeks grotesquely from the back of his underpants with his uncut fingernails.
He makes little grunts while he stares, scratching, working the itch, leg jiggling, itching and jiggling and staring and scratching.
Staring, he scrapes dead skin from under his nails, onto his desk.
He likes the best.
Only the best.
He eats smart price chicken.
He buys three hundred pounds worth of bulbs to stick in the ceiling but buys budget meat to stick in himself.
“Chicken is chicken,” he says.
“What about animal welfare?” I say.
“It’s a fucking chicken.” he says.
He hates vegetables.
He loves cheese.
“What’s your favourite cheese?” I say.
“Yellow cheese.” he says.
He’s never read a book.
He says, “If the book is good enough, they’ll make it into a film.”
He gets his politics from his dad who gets his politics from the tabloids.
All soldiers are ‘heroes’.
All muslims are bombers.
All mothers are saints.
And always the photos, more and more photos.
“…she’ll see how happy we all were…”
The baby’s view must be a floating black square instead of a face, a black snapping eye saying smile, calling her name, encouraging tricks that are rewarded with clicks.
“I might miss something,” he says, “…something important.”
First smile first cry first sleep first shit first bath first meal first drink first steps.
A budget Truman Show, life in the lens, scrutinized and sanitized and categorized for future posterity.
He showed me The Film once.
It is the most important film in his world but he doesn’t know it, not yet, maybe never.
In the film a boy runs silent on a beach, grinning and running, sky blue, sea blue, hair red. There is mum, running too, catching him, holding him, all in the wonderful warm silence of the cine camera, a flickering technicolor whirr, the soft vibrations of film on a spool that digital killed making history commonplace, memories mundane.
Later there’s dad, hair red like the boy and his mum, together and laughing, laughing in silence. Ayres Rock, before it became Uluru once again, Sydney Harbour bridge, a kangaroo, the ocean. A dusty car and long lost uncles, dinners around tables, glasses raised, the boy and his cousins and the boy with his parents and always the blue of water and air, the red of their hair, the smiles and the waves and the sand and the love.
“…yeah, you can see how happy we all were…”
The big Australia trip, the holiday that couldn’t fix a marriage, the divorce that ripped them apart. It hit him hard and he still bears the scars.
He got the film transferred from cine to DVD and he gave it as presents to his mum and his dad but they didn’t watch it, they found it too painful, but he watches at home on his fifty inch telly, watches perfection, the happy times, when things were safe and there was warmth and love and they all were together, trapped in the eighties.
He clicks the buttons, purchases online safety nets, premium padding to cover the sharp corners of fear, clicks buttons to capture the laughter, reminders of love and comfort and security, and with a click of the button he can delete the frowns, the tears, sadness and stress.
His leg moves faster, vibrating through the table and chair, a silent whirring that can’t be heard but is felt in the air, and he presses the buttons and stares at the screen and I go for a walk before I start to scream.