[Issue 11 / November 2014]
Be calm, Graham. Calm down. Take three deep breaths.
The policeman seems to be staring directly at me as he walks the length of the bridge. Through all the CCTV cameras around I must look like a suspicious character, a dispensable old oddball. I’ve seen on the news they have been stopping people, pedestrians shortlisted by some geek sitting in a room watching footage all day. Perhaps just for spite he shortlists anyone who does not fit in: people like me.
Three Deep Breaths...
I walk down the millennium bridge, the third deep breath catching the fragrance of roasted peanuts cooking in chocolate. Sure enough, a few paces ahead the snack seller with his tiny cart–some way to get by! I look back as the Kevlar and walkie-talkie clad policeman walks past me. I watch him walk ahead and then focus onwards towards Saint Paul's Cathedral. It looks so far away.
Open-mouthed, an old man completely cognisant of his own state, 'Hahh!' I go whispering into the air.
The news about CCTVs has had me worried. I am a British citizen. It is stupid. I needn't bother. Right? Nothing, nothing. I just cannot be bothered. They can't do anything to me. Can they? No, no, spare me the bother!
'Oh! Hi. Hello!' I say to this little girl who has smiled at me and said hi. She asks me to take a picture of her and her friend. There are not many helpful souls around, I guess. I take the camera phone from them and ask them what background they prefer.
'Err... Umm… I don't know.' She turns her head to look behind her and decides that the part that stretches from the Tower Bridge to the tallest building would be nice. I comply politely. Tourists in London. What a delight they are. Young kids discovering this melting pot of culture, life and the circus of it all.
'I will take three pictures.' I tell them where they might want to look as I capture their moment of adventure and friendship in a new city. I hand the camera back to the girl, smiling and delighted to hear, 'Thank You.'
'You're welcome, dearies,' I bid them, then bow subtly and raise my flat cap.
I move on, walking towards St. Paul's. I will miss the fragrance, oh, the chocolate peanuts cooking in that tiny cart. I mustn't give in to tempting treats. My promise to Elena must stand. I walk on. Cruise boats full of tourists vanish under the bridge and reappear on the other side. Excited faces wave and smile at me, yes, and at the other walkers who all wave and smile back in unison to provoke a loud cheer from the tourists. How wonderful to be out.
The summer, year after year, within this short window of evening hours makes possible, perhaps contrasting the uncomfortable spike in temperature common of boiling hot afternoons and the resultant echoing announcements warning against a heat wave, an evening of soft, infinite melody, salty and sweet with every gush n' wave of breeze blowing off the water. It is that time now. The setting sun has lost the ferocity that had warmed my neck and now the wind tickles cool, combing my unruly grey mess of hair that wisps beyond the flat cap's jurisdiction as I take this long daily walk along the Thames to the Tower of London.
I reach the fort walls to find a couple, free from their corporate duties, the man in a formal grey suit and the lady in a formal black dress, something that looks like... erm... yes... a formal black maxi, the same as Elena wore at our 30th anniversary. I remember, yes, that is what the dress is called. The man has a camera phone in one hand and with the other he is supporting the small of his darling's tender back. He has failed at attempts to take a picture of the both of them with some of the romantic surroundings in the background. He’s spotted and approaches me. It must be my face. It is an approachable face, a function of age, perhaps. I am not considered middle-aged anymore. What is that word? Innocuous—yes. That is what I must seem: an old man in a flat cap, carrying a heavy looking ancient camera around his neck. I do hate all this weight around my neck. I wish my shoulders were still broader. I could do with hanging the camera sideways. Now, it just keeps slipping off my shoulder, bangs against my chest when I move my tall, bulky and cumbersome body. Oh! Gentle giant, am I? Perhaps that is why.
Anyway, this camera, I have tried, believe me, hanging this ruddy companion on my shoulder but being the royal pain in the arse that the camera is, longing to hang around my neck, worsening my neck pain, like my prodigal petulant child, the reason for my preoccupation and my tan. Elena loved the tan. No complaints. Nothing to complain about at all. Elena. A smile finds its way to my lips. Whatever brings the thought of Elena is welcome—even the corporate clowns, who have come out to enjoy all this, loitering aimlessly for a change and groping their partners' backs and arses in public, peering into each other’s eyes, mumbling, whispering decent and indecent romantic somethings. Serves them right to get a picture done by me, for free.
I can see her in the distance now as I cross the tower bridge. No, sorry, I couldn't have possibly seen her in the distance. The bridge arches so. I saw her when I was no more than fifteen steps away from her, past the middle point of the bridge, past the entry to the Tower Bridge museum, past the third of the four arches on the bridge.
She instantly reminds me of a cherry blossom tree in full bloom with all of its light pink flowers in the sunshine. Tall, beautiful and dressed in light pink with bright red lipstick on, busy looking for something, some-one perhaps. I know who and what she is searching for and that I can help her. With certainty that she will ask for my help as I stride past, casually making innocuous eye contact, I walk on. Innocuous. She looks at me. I pause and wait for her to walk towards me. She does. Her lips with that glossy red colour on them part to pose the question that I interject.
'Hey! You want me to? Right?'
'Hi! Yes, but...'
'No problem. That is no problem. I can...'
'Yes. But I... do... you. You... do... me... Okay?' She does not want it to be a favour. Rather, a quid pro quo.
'That's fine. That's okay.' I sense that she is a little nervous. What about?
'You first...' She wants to make the payment upfront. There is something naive and sincere about her. She seems a delightful creature. I smile.
'Okay!' She points a finger toward my camera. I shake my head and hand her my phone, asking her to use it to take pictures. 'Oh,' she says nodding, 'sure, sure.'
The camera phone her generation is supposed to be really good with did not help her. She took about twelve, thirteen shots of me in a style typical of her day and age, habituated to the kind of waste that the technology accommodates so well, hoping that in volume she would find at least one good shot. I decide I need to give her a quick tutorial on photography. She learns about light source, object placement and composition before I tell her that her mediocre attempts are actually good and will do for me. It is her turn now.
I take her camera phone which she was juggling about to get a good picture of herself earlier. I ask her to make a few simple gestures, to walk about a little and rest her elbows on the ledge, to tilt her head slightly, to put a hand on her forehead just above the hairline, like a half-hearted salute. Awkward at first, she jumps into action with a flash of trustful understanding. I take about five shots and hand the phone back to her. She is happy. These pictures, I want to tell her, will serve better than any mirror. She will discover that soon enough, anyway. So I remain mum. She cannot thank me enough. She fumbles about with her gratitude and tells me that it was a pleasure to meet me. She tells me that I look so 'unfamiliar', not like anyone she has met. So trusty! I laugh and tell her, in more suitable words, what she meant to say. She smiles. I wish her well and walk on.
I get to the end of the bridge, cross the road and turn back towards the Tower of London. The sunset is beautiful. Mid-way on the bridge I stop and watch a young couple kissing. The girl is sitting on the ledge and the boy is standing next to her. They finally hand over their camera to a professional photographer who was, till then, busily capturing the sunset, his camera set up on a tripod.
Onwards, I see an Indian-Asian couple walking up the bridge, perhaps newly-wed, the bride having just stepped fresh off the plane all excited about getting a picture with the Tower Bridge and, yes, well, her husband as well. 'I saw that place where we will get a good picture,' she tells her husband, adding, 'And God! Ask someone who at least looks like a photographer. The last guy made me look fat.' He looks at her head-to-toe and seems struck by the sudden realisation that it wasn't the photographer's fault. I see him gulp hard and say, 'Yea, yea!' I patronise the boy with a half-smile, shaking my head. He smiles back, perhaps feeling better discovering humour in his situation.
Just a few more moments of peace, I tell myself. After another five-ten minutes of walk, glancing around for others who could use my help, I find myself off the Tower Bridge, feeling melancholic. I know what comes next. The paranoia and then, just like that, I look at the bulky CCTV camera perched on the fat metallic pole ahead of me, staring me right in the face. I freeze momentarily, shudder and then walk on.
There is a tap on my shoulder. 'Excuse me, Sir! May I see some identification?' the policeman says.
I fumble in my pockets, shaking from head to toe trying to recall my son's phone number and the country code for Spain. I had it in one of my pocket notebooks somewhere. I can feel my heart flutter with its feeble attempts at supplying more oxygen to my muscles. My heart is as senile as I am. One leg of the physical exertion is over. Heart, be the king of delayed reactions. Oh!
I wish the policeman well and wish he hadn't been full of so many questions and counter-questions. Yes, it felt good after so many years but frankly my body wasn't ready to take that kind of conversational pounding, and now there is this royal staircase to climb.
'Imagine, Elena, I used to carry you up the stairs for my romantically drenched frivolities.'
Sigh! The sound of breathing at this late hour, my own laboured breath bouncing and echoing about the staircase, is all I can hear. I never get used to it. Every day it scares me, unknowingly creeps into my ears and then the familiarity of it dawns. During the day I forget about the loneliness and while climbing this set of stairs I am reminded again–not just of this sound being my constant companion–but of Elena's last breath as well. How deathly quiet in that hospital room where she’d lain connected to all those tubes and machines. Amongst the blips and beeps that my ears grew trained to ignore, I heard only the sound of her breathing, my lifelong aural tonic. I had fallen asleep sitting next to her bed in the hospital that night. Then, I opened my eyes, came about from my nap only to hear her three quickly scooped breaths, the final one calm, her lips slightly parted as if in hopeless wait for the breath to return to her the life that had leaked from her deflated chest, perhaps so that the dream she was lost in could be concluded before her fall into the blissful black void. Maybe she was dreaming of us before she died. I hope so. I hope I go the same way.
I reach the top landing and hold on to the railing, waiting for the fatigue to subside, for the rush of blood in and out of my head and limbs to balance out, my head spinning. That conversation with the police officer, phew! What voluminous exchange of words! It took me a while to explain to him that I am a British citizen, a retired professional, who has chosen to spend the remainder of his life roaming the streets of London just helping anyone who needs a picture. Somehow he found the explanation ever more sinister, explained to me the reason for this questioning. A man roaming about, purposelessly popping up at different locations in the same get-up, does raise some suspicion, especially that out of date camera he carries around. Let them cite me as the prime example of a creature of habit.
Oh! Let them.
I open the door to my flat and cannot help but smile. Elena is there. Even the naked bulb right outside my door throws light through the doorway and on to her pictures, mounted on the handcrafted sheets she was fond of and used generously, in black polished wooden frames. Elena in every frame, everything her, everything about her: all her shades and profiles and frames and expressions greeting me and delighting the naked bulb outside my door.
I make sure that no one steals them. I count them every day. One-thousand eight-hundred ninety-three. I start counting them as soon as I shut the door, after a casual, 'Hey! I'm home!' I stop by each frame as I continue the count, falling in love, delighting in Elena.
One... hat in the wind on that pebble beach.
Two... blowing kisses at me at the Baker Street station.
Three... reading a book on the balcony, fingers ploughing through her rich brown hair with a forgotten cigarette, which smokes like an incense stick, perched on the ash tray beside her.
'Your pictures make the beholder fall in love with your subject, Graham!' Picture twenty-nine whispers. A simple idea packaged within a simple sentence in her voice. I believed it, I believe it.
I know I will soon grow tired and exhausted of all this recounting and fall asleep either on the chair or on the wooden floor. My senility has me bemused. 'I love you,' I whisper back to the picture.
I take off my camera, that weight around my neck, and place it on top of the cabinet closest to me. Exhaustion has me plonk it down hard. The camera makes an empty, hollow sound. The sound is a complaint. I haven't loaded a film-roll in it for seventeen years.
Sumit Kr Aggarwal is a published author of ‘Office Shocks’ (Rupa publications, 2011) and also does freelance writing. He's been working 4 years as a marketing professional in some office or other. He lives somewhere in Delhi and like any voracious reader, can be found lurking in book-stores. He tweets @officeshocks. The short story 'Unfamiliar' came to him on his London visit where he attended a writing workshop at the London School of Journalism.