Steven Michael Photography and Art
This is where it all began. This is where everything changed. I light up a cigarette and inhale, the nicotine rushing through my veins and calming my nerves, the lamppost propping me up as I stand on the street and look up at my old study, the indistinct movement within making me feel uneasy at the thought that someone else is in there. The light is on and I can see someone moving around, a shadow passing between the open curtains, the glass filthy and barely secured by the rotting panes. I haven’t been back here in over forty years and as I stand at the roadside examining the new shops, it’s remarkable how vastly things have changed. I wipe away the faint trace of a tear, kidding myself that it’s the effect of the wind, and suck heavily on my cigarette, the need for a stiff drink rising within.
The figure moves inside the room again and I throw my cigarette down onto the pavement and step on it, the grit grinding beneath my boot as I twist my toes to extinguish the remaining embers, the ash momentarily staining the asphalt before the rain washes it away. I flick my collar up and lift my shoulders closer to my chin, the chill trying to catch me on my skin and remind me that I’m stood outside at six in the morning, in the middle of January when the sun is somewhere else, comforting someone else. A car crawls by and I stare at the head lights, my pupils straining at the glare but readjusting accordingly beneath the dark sky, the stars gradually disappearing amid the increasing illumination of the stirring city. I light another cigarette and cup it in my hands so the rain drops don’t kill it, our lives inextricably allied, for the moment at least. I inhale and close my eyes. When I open them the room is still there, as it always has been, despite my disappearance.
Behind that unassuming window, mere metres away from my present position and with only the uneven tarmac and aged bricks between us, is the tiny bedsit in which I wrote my first novel. It was 1973 and I was fresh out of University, eager and impatient with my mounting inspiration. I was informed about the bedsit by a friend of mine who was moving back up north and in a couple of days I was packed up and standing on the doorstep, my few possessions stacked beside my feet, the Olivetti tucked under my undernourished arm. Within a week I was settled, the abandoned furniture carefully positioned among the cracked and pealing plaster, the rattling pipes beneath the boards and faulty kitchen faucets welcoming me into what would become, and remain, my only home. I had finally arrived, and I was ready.
After a couple of weeks I developed a strict routine. I woke up early and worked until my stomach began to cramp and I was forced to walk the markets, haggling for food and striking deals with sellers who eventually became my only friends. After I’d eaten I would resume my work and type until the evening when darkness descended and flickering flames ensured I never froze. Every day it was the same. I sat behind a stolen school desk with my back pressed against a distorted plastic chair, the ashtray full and overflowing, my fingers battering the keys. I went on like this for months, the paper piling up amid the plumes of smoke and stirring shadows. I locked myself away from the distractions of the world outside and wrote about my own, and when it was finished I sent it off and waited, hopeful but not naïve. I continued to write and found myself a part-time job waiting tables in a little Italian Restaurant in North Ealing. I made enough money to pay the rent and random bills, and what tips I made went on ribbons and paper and the beer that soothed my throat and made the smoking sweeter. The stories piled up and the practice was doing me good, I was getting better, I could feel it. I was getting closer.
On the 16th April of the following year I descended the stairs to go to work and saw the envelope lying on the matt, brushed aside by the opened door, crumpled and creased and waiting. I picked it up and immediately recognised the logo. This was it, I thought, and tore it open with little regard for decorum. I read the words and stood there, stuck to the dirty floor and trembling. I read the letter again. I couldn’t believe it. They liked it. They liked my novel and wanted to meet. They wanted to discuss publication. They wanted me. I’d done it. I’d finally done it. I stuck the letter in my jacket pocket and left, my mind focused solely on the pint waiting for me at the bar, my toast to impending authorship. I got drunk and continued to do so until the book was published and I could hold it in my hands, and weep. Staring up at the window, eleven novels, two Pulitzer prizes, several films and a play later, I wonder where it all went wrong. I wonder why I left. I see my reflection in a parked car and shake my head at the sight of my stupid hat and silly Barbour jacket. This is what I wanted to be. Him. I look up at my old flat and wonder if I would do the same again, if I would willingly position myself here, forty years later, knowing what I would leave behind. Despite it all, I remember when it happened. I remember typing the final sentence of that novel, the feeling of elation at realising I had finished, that I had actually done it, and done it the way I wanted. I remember sitting back and smiling, the droplet from the faucet echoing in the room. I reach for another cigarette but realise I’ve got none left, so I turn to walk away as somewhere in the distance a telephone rings.
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She sits in the car and waits. The boy runs out of the nursery gates and hugs his father. He lifts a piece of paper and holds it up to the towering elder carer, his eyes wide in wait of scrutiny. The father looks upon the page and points, his question considered as he kneels beside the child and listens, tender and attentive. The boy nods and smiles and she shifts in her seat to get a better view. It’s a drawing of a man and child stood beneath a sun. She closes her eyes.
The boy hugs his father and the man lifts the child on to his shoulders. They walk towards their car, the strides of the man uneven and erratic as the child bounces up and down and laughs, waving goodbye to his friends as they depart. When they reach their car, the father sets his child down and he jumps through the back door and settles into the seat. He secures the boy beneath the belt and closes the door. For a moment she thinks he sees her, but he gets into the car and starts the engine. She slides down in her seat as the car passes her parked position and she watches it disappear in her mirrors. It’s 15.45pm. Home time.
After a further twenty minutes she shifts the car into gear and drives towards her rented flat, the uneven road passing underneath, the clouds hovering overhead. She fidgets behind the wheel, her fingers tight around the worn rubber, waiting at the traffic lights as the cars behind begin to beep, the lights green, again. The car moves off, her mind travelling a different, darker course. She thinks about her impending shift in the hospital, a night of caring for others and monitoring their recovery, wondering if they’ll make it, knowing she never will. She thinks about her walks along the wards and those that wait within, scared of what she might reveal, her most horrid truth hidden deep within. She thinks about the day she left, wishing she never had, wanting to return, but knowing she never can. She thinks about Colin, her son.
At home she heats up a bowl of soup and sits at the small dining table in the corner of her kitchen. She waits in silence for the soup to cool, the rubbish van passing outside, later than normal, but normal nonetheless. Placing a napkin on her knees she stares at the fridge, wondering what it might look like with photos of Colin and her together, their faces bright with joy and fondness, the man behind the lens loving, like he used to be. She wonders what it might feel like to see the smoothies and yoghurts and babybells and varied children’s treats inside the fridge. Chocolate delights reserved for after dinner during their favourite cartoons, the plates waiting in the sink, unimportant. She wonders how his breath might sound as he falls asleep on her lap, her fingers running through his short brown hair, the television flickering silently in the dark. She wonders countless things, each and every day, the answers hiding, her heart alone and hungry, like she no longer is.
The bowl has cooled and she sets her spoon down on the table. She looks at her hands, at the evidence of all the years given up to isolation, wishing she could get them back, wishing she could make the choice again. But it’s too far gone now. There’s no return. She knows the truth of where she is, and how she got there. It was her decision, and she made it on her own despite the loving a man she left behind for fear of death and desolation. And now, sitting in her silent flat, she knows her gift is greater than the grief. It’s better this way, she whispers, as the tears roll down her face and fall into her uneaten soup, the ripples spreading like the cancer will. The sickness is for now supressed, the therapy and drugs merely delaying what will come, eventually. Her experience makes nothing easier and she knows that if through some unearned miracle her health returns, the life she knew will not. She walked out and left them there, her husband and her infant son, unsure and afraid. There’s nothing she can do now. It’s too late. This is how it has to be.
She steps into the shower and stands beneath the scolding water. The steam rises and fills the bathroom, but the warmth she craves within is long since drowned and withered away. She recalls the time she held him in her hands, his tiny heart beating for the life he had yet to live. She remembers the feel of his flesh on her quivering lips, his eyes unable to comprehend the shadow of the shape above. That’s all I ever will be, she thinks, a fuzzy shadow fading with each passing day. She remembers crying when the doctors confirmed that Colin was healthy, that there was nothing wrong with him, that he would lead a normal life. She remembers wanting to keep it that way. She remembers sitting in the car outside the hospital, knowing she would never return, the fear of understanding forcing her further away. She thinks about it every day, the lives she left behind, the life she lives, alone.
The pain in her head subsides and she stares into the mirror, yearning to hear the voice of someone else, anyone, but there’s no one left. She thinks about Colin’s birthday and wonders when he might ask his father for a memory, a moment from a time when she was someone else, someone better. She wonders what his father might say, whether he will try to explain, or if he’ll admit to unknown answers and apologise. She wonders if he’ll hate her, more than she hates herself, or whether he might fight for a forgiveness she doesn’t deserve. She decides it doesn’t matter, her thoughts depleted by her definitive decision. It will soon be over. Finally. Only God can save her now, the pills disintegrating in her stomach, the rubbish van disappearing, her soup frozen like her heart.