It was the pale, milky light that registered initially. Sudden, out past the harbour of my cornea. Beyond the see. I was startled enough to glance up from the book I was reading (I forget now what). It was an involuntary movement - the banking light pulling me like a puppet - one that was over and done with in a handful of seconds. I thought it had been sunlight sprung from the chrome of a passing taxi.
There had been sunlight earlier that morning; curdled sun seeping through dense clouds of smudged charcoal. It had dripped onto the pavement; weak canary yellow paint spots. Much of the light had been quickly washed away by rain that had fallen heavily, noisily; like an upturned bag of nails. It was one of those days when the arrival of rain brings with it the electric smell of the sea.
When I got there, fixing to tie the steam from a freshly ground coffee to a sapphire tangle of cigarette smoke, I discovered the chairs had been left out in the rain. Stacked high like a termite nest. Dotted over the tabletops small round ashtrays had been caught in the downpour, helpless like late-summer porcini.
Then it came again, that obtuse light; nearer now. I recognised it as the bluster of a camera. In an instant the table in front of me, the coffee, and the burning cigarette, all vanished - were all taken away - and I was seven again. I went missing for five days when I was seven. I don’t remember anything about that other than the day I was found. Actually to say I remember nothing isn’t strictly true. I have recollections that may or may not fit together: the deep reek of mouldy earth, cheap, gristly hotdogs fed to me in the dark and later, a lot of grown-ups all crying together. But then, soon after, far too soon after, I remember a gruelling horizon of cameras exploding in front of me; each flash bursting like a star dragged out from the night time and smashed to smithereens in the day light. Like seeing stars where they don’t belong.
I caught sight of a man stood just outside the seated area of the café I was in. He was tall, well built, with a silvery crew cut and beetle black eyes; the kind of man that may once have worn a pressed uniform and killed people for a living. He stared at me for a few seconds without smiling, before looking back at the tables and chairs in front of me, his gaze slow like spilled molasses. The camera was large, supported on a heavy strap around his fat neck and looked expensive. I expected him to apologise, or at least justify himself as he seemed to be stood with the camera pointing right at me. I stared back, frowning. I despise having my photograph taken by people I like, let alone thickset strangers lurking around a café seating area. I leant forward in my chair meaning to have words with the man, but he backed away as I looked like getting up.
I watched him move away, unhurried. He sauntered around as though he had every right in the world to take home strangers in his costly, single-eyed black box, before stopping in front of a bench. I watched as he lined up the picture, stepping back slightly and adjusting the camera. There was no one on the bench. He collected a few more images of the empty bench then nodding slightly to himself, moved around to the next bench. A woman sat reading on this bench and he passed her by with a momentary expression of pain on his face. The third bench was also empty. The man crouched down as though photographing a child, shuffling slightly to his left then back a shade to his right before firing off a series of shots of the empty bench. Standing up he moved until he was looking at the bench off at an angle and took yet more pictures. The woman on the middle bench glanced up from her book momentarily, shuffled uncomfortably then returned to her book, though not without a sideways glance every few seconds.
Prowling over the hot concrete he moved his automatic eye slowly; deliberately. From the benches he moved to the outside of an adjacent hotel, up narrow stone steps to a raised outdoor seating area freckled with rain. His shadow fell long over the emptiness as he adjusted his lens. Unsatisfied, he used a foot to move a chair or two with a loud scraping noise. It was like a drawbridge from an old history lesson bulleting through the open air. Like a victory in reverse he moved in a solemn semi-circle, his camera spitting lit venom. Something about this open area outside the hotel restaurant seemed to have quickened his pace.
Behind the glass of the hotel a man in liveried uniform paced back and forth like a caged animal. He attempted to shoo the man with the camera away with arm movements and banging on the glass. Minutes later the liveried man appeared outside having slipped through a glass door. I was too far away to hear the exchange. I imagine the conversation frothing between them like a burst drain. There seemed to be no apology from the man with the camera. He stood his ground, legs apart, camera in hand. The last photograph before moving slowly away is a close-up of the hotel manager waving a finger of warning in his direction, anything assertive in the gesture immediately disabled by the grasp of the lens.
Without a backward glance toward the hotel, the man with the camera circles an empty phone box. He studies it as he moves around it before opening the door to the phone box, freeing two wasps and a strong smell of urine in the process. Holding the door open with his right foot he prises free a likeness of the interior. The phone receiver is not in its cradle but instead lolls like a hanging. Three images are removed before the man allows the door to close languidly on its buckled hydraulics.
I watch the man walk away out of sight. His camera brimming over with borrowed emptiness, seized through a lens he polishes with a soft cloth. In a darkroom later, red rose light trembling like a shutter, these moments will be pegged out like washing.
In time they will be taken from the darkroom and glued to the walls of his rented room. It is a tapestry of emptiness from floor to ceiling. Even the windows of his room are covered, the photographs patiently overlapped. No light comes in from the outside. Sat in a chair in the centre of the room, slowly polishing the lens of his camera, he is a man surrounded by emptiness. He has spent a lifetime building this collection; piecing it together from curling chances, cancelled hopes and a future left out so long it has become furred with damp, black mould.