This Old Man
He handed her the camera. "Go on then," he said. "That's what I
bought it for."
She looked at him blankly, leaning in the doorframe. "You mean, take
one of you now? Right now?"
"Well, yeah," he said. "It's just a natural sort of picture. That's
what they should be like."
"But you don't look natural," she said. "I've never seen anyone look
less natural. You're posing."
"I'm not, I'm not. Look - " he began, and realised he was sounding
uptight and angry again. He didn't want to make it sound like he was
giving her an order to take the pictures. "I'm sorry. You know, it's
just - " He looked helpless for a moment, and to cover it he got hold
of the damp cloth by the sink again and swept it hard over the
"You're trying too hard," she said. "Stop thinking about it." She
watched him, standing in front of the kitchen window, looking anxious
and disappointed and apologetic. She knew him well enough to know that
that was natural, but it probably wasn't the right moment to snap the
"Okay," he said. "I'll make a cup of tea. How about that."
"That's a nice idea," she said.
He filled the kettle. Half-smiling, she watched him and shook her head.
"The great writer makes a cup of tea," she said fondly. "What are we
going to do with you."
"Well I don't know what else to do," he said, putting the kettle on and
opening a cupboard for some cups. "What do you think 'natural' means
"Well what do you mean by it?" she said. "You were the one who said it
in the first place."
"Just a normal picture of me doing whatever I do. Look, you should be
taking pictures now, not talking to me about it!" Taking the milk from
the fridge, he contorted into a camp exaggeration of a fashion
photographer, with a furrowed brow and a transatlantic accent. "The
moment's going to pass! The light's going to go, and then where will we
"Now you're being silly," she said. But that was natural, too. "Stay
like that," she said.
He groaned as she took the picture. It wasn't what he'd had in mind,
but he couldn't resist it.
They chuckled. He turned silently to look out the window, as he often
did while he waited for the kettle to boil. He liked living in a flat
above a shop in a high street because it meant he could stand at the
window watching the random comings and goings of many different people.
He enjoyed that, losing himself in the crowds, although he thought he
probably did it more often than he should. The way he stood now was
natural - but because they'd just shared a tender moment, in that
instant they both forgot the camera, and she didn't take the picture,
and he didn't ask her to.
"I know!" he said, snapping round and going to the fridge again. "Jam
on toast. Now that's natural."
"Jam on toast?" she chuckled.
"Yup." He began gathering items from around the kitchen. "That's just
the sort of thing I'm talking about."
As he put the bread into the toaster she wondered again whether he was
for real or not, and either way, at what point in the jam-on-toast
process she was supposed to take a picture. The whole thing was
undeniably silly, but she loved him and would do anything to encourage
his writing. She believed, for him as much as herself, that he was
going to be a great writer one day, and as he'd said, it would be
essential to have some pictures of these early, unpublished
It was his idea. He'd bought the camera she was holding especially for
her to take some 'intimate, domestic, natural' pictures of him as he
put it, because he'd suddenly got it into his head that no such
pictures existed, and he ought to have some because he was going to be
famous one day, and it would be sad not to have a few snaps from this
time in his life when he was young and lived in the flat above the
shop. For a while today he'd forgotten about their rows and everything
else and thought how lucky he was to be here in this place with her and
have so many things to write about, and that was what the pictures
should be about as much as anything else. But they were also for
She realised he was wittering on about something as he made his toast,
but suddenly she wasn't listening.
She'd been trying hard not to think about it again, but it was no good.
She couldn't help thinking that if he was seriously a great writer, or
if he really had it in him to be great, he should stop larking about
with cameras and toast and get to his wordprocessor. Thinking that made
her feel bad because she enjoyed larking about with him, but she
couldn't help feeling that he was wasting his time worrying about
posterity when it was now that he needed to be working. When he was old
or dead, who would want to see pictures of him aged twenty-five making
toast if he hadn't done the great work that would justify that sort of
interest in him?
She consoled herself then with the thought that if the worst came to
the worst and he never made it as a writer, at least they would have
each other and be old together and they would have these pictures of
them larking about when they were young, and that would be what it was
The toast popped up and shook her from her thoughts. She tried to look
attentive as he waffled on. At least he was talking again now, talking
like he did when he was happy, with enthusiasm and humour. She hated
that silence, the little-boy-lost look he had when he was sad or
frustrated. She hated that even more than when he was angry. That had
all gone for the moment.
He picked up the tub of spread from the fridge and snorted. "'I Can't
Believe It's Not Butter'," he chuckled. "What kind of a name for a food
product is that? It's almost long enough to be the title of a Meat Loaf
song. All they need is some brackets: I Can't Believe It's Not Butter,
Baby (But I'll Perform 'Last Tango In Paris' With You
Anytime)&;#8230;" He took a knifeful and spread it on the toast
lovingly. "Actually," he went on, "I can believe it's not butter. You
wanna know why, honey?"
She raised her eyebrows at his rhetoric question.
"I mean it tastes fine and everything, nothing wrong with the taste,
and it's almost, nearly the right texture for butter. But, if it was
butter - " he pointed the knife at her pretending to be a poncey artist
sighting down his paintbrush - "you couldn't spread it from the fridge,
could you? It'd be rock hard, but it isn't. Now, sweetheart, that's why
I can believe it's not butter." They nodded at each other, pretending
to be pretentious artistic characters contemplating the fake profundity
of this point.
He unscrewed the jar of strawberry jam and began spreading a generous
amount over the bread. "I could live on jam on toast," he said,
smiling, "and you can quote me on that. Hey, look, quick, get one of me
spreading the jam."
"Oh." She'd forgotten about the camera altogether, and fumbled with
"What do you mean, quote you?" she said after she'd taken a couple of
"Well," he said, leaning on the worktop and munching, "it's
like&;#8230; I dunno, a picture in a biography of a young guy before
he was rich and famous, and you can see how he was living then, he
didn't have very much, only this little flat where he did his writing,
and he liked the simple things and he always had a thing about jam on
toast, and it's like I said, an informal, intimate picture just snapped
at home on a summer afternoon by his girlfriend..."
He almost said 'his girlfriend at the time', but stopped himself at the
last moment. He wouldn't have meant it in a malicious way, and any kind
of end to their relationship was the last thing on his mind - really it
was. But how did he know if they'd spend the rest of their lives
together or if they'd drift apart? They were both still so young.
"...and," he continued, "the caption would be something like, Making a
snack at the Hounslow flat where the first two novels were written.
Quotes, 'I could live on jam on toast,' he said to many friends."
"You're mad," she chuckled.
"What's mad about that?" he said. "It's exactly the sort of thing you
see in biographies. Without you taking that picture, and without me
saying that thing to you, you know&;#8230; what sort of details of a
person's life are there?"
"But the books are important as well," she said gingerly. "The
He paused, chewing. "Well, of course. But so is the life. I bought a
new Hemingway biography, and there's a picture in there..."
She looked at him as he chuntered on. She loved to hear him talk and
she knew he was happy. But Hemingway? Here he was living this
ridiculous suburban life as far from adventure as anyone could get. He
should be travelling and writing all day. What had he actually written
this year? How much of it was any good? Look at him, for God's sake -
standing there in his bare feet, in a teeshirt which he'd just dripped
jam on but he hadn't noticed yet, and a pair of old baggy shorts, too
baggy really for his funny thin legs. And the kitchen was spotless -
far cleaner than it would have been if it was her own flat - because he
spent so much time tidying up instead of writing. He said that was
because he needed something to do to get through his writer's blocks,
but she knew it was really only because cleaning was much easier,
infinitely easier than writing. And he had a full-time job which he
hated, it bored him to tears and made him, if anything, worse: but he
did it so he could stay living in this flat, and the long hours he put
in were another of his excuses why he hadn't written very much.
Sometimes he even blamed her for not getting his writing done - he said
once she was a distraction.
He was pulling daft faces again, putting on accents and all the rest of
it. And at that moment she admitted to herself, finally, that he would
never be a great writer. It was no good any more trying to deny it. She
fought back an urge to cry, remembering a line from Herzog by Saul
Bellow which had always stayed with her: "Don't cry, you fool! Live or
die, but don't poison everything."
She wasn't listening to him again. She wanted to say these things but
he was in full flow. She didn't have the heart to say it now, or to
start another argument. Sometimes it seemed she idolised him, and she
certainly did love him despite the times he was selfish and insecure
and said things which upset her, and more than anything else she wanted
him to believe he could be good, or great even, no matter what the
reality might be.
She knew then that she would never tell him what she really thought,
but she would always love him and be there for him.
Decades later, long after he had become a famous and successful writer
and he was looking through boxes of photographs from his life to give
to his biographer, he found the ones of him making the jam on toast and
remembered the afternoon and their conversation, and as he looked at it
he remembered how happy he'd been then, far happier and luckier than
he'd thought at the time, and he remembered how much he'd loved her,
and how much he'd hurt her in his quest for success and how eventually
he'd lost her forever, and this old man sat down and cried for the
idiot he'd been that afternoon and in all the years since.