A/N: Another impulse story. Oops.
The photographer stood alone on Warders Bridge. Long coat, short hair, stubble along his chin and a shiver in his fingers. The index finger tapped on the shutter release; one two, one two. The wind flapped at everything but his boots. He looked from one horizon to the other and the people passing across it, back and forth across his vision – abstract vertical lines, like a moving coloured barcode. Click click. Everything instantly 2D. He blinked at the little screen as the picture came up, his dark eyelashes going up and down over their own organic lenses. One picture was wonky. He pressed the little button illustrated with a trashcan. Gone. He looked up again and adjusted the zoom over on a building in the distance. It looked like negative space left around the cut-out of the sky, as if waiting for something else to slot in there, something more alive. More figures moved past, to him with no more origin than destination, flickers on a screen. Numbness. Click click. Artistic. Abstract. Colours, shapes, lines, patterns and eyes.
Eyes. The background shifted, becoming blurred and peripheral, the foreground sharpening to frame a young man with large glasses and small hands. Sound seeped into his mind like a greasy ink blot.
The man shrugged, turning to rest his elbows on the side of the bridge, looking out over the river. "I crossed this bridge twenty minutes ago, and you're still here."
The man's presence seemed to be progressively seeping outwards to fill his vision, a physical impossibility. A matter of focus. Interesting. Noise in a picture did not bring focus.
"How many pictures did you take? There are only so many views from here, surely." A pause. "I'm Rafael."
It felt like looking at an upside down picture. It made sense, but it just felt wrong.
"What's your name?" Rafael asked.
The bridge was smooth and solid beneath his feet, the wind moving past him from right to left. Something smelt of melted cheese and fried onion. His boot scuffed a little on the concrete as he shifted position. It was slightly cold. It was a Tuesday. His legs ached slightly and this man's appearance was like a light in a darkroom – just not meant to be there. Surprise. He registered surprise.
And then he felt his chapped lips part to say, "Ben."
"How long have you been standing there?"
And he found himself saying, "Ages." And his voice sounded tired.
"Are you a tourist?"
"No." He watched himself answer from a part of his mind without eyes. "I always do this." The sentence came from nowhere.
"Take photos of things. Places." He watched how Rafael reached up to brush his fringe out of his eyes, shifting his other arm at the same time to redistribute the weight of his backpack. He traced the movement of the hand back down to where it tucked into a jacket pocket.
And suddenly the odd black and white film in his head ran out of images, jolting to a halt, the reel of pictures caught on some unknown hook. Black and white blurred and jumped into colour as he failed to find the words that he should be watching himself say from that part without eyes. How could there be nothing there? It was like he'd fallen amongst a jumble of nonsensical magazine pages and could only scramble around to read the nearest headline for something to say.
"To capture something real." He blinked, hesitating as though he'd fumbled and grabbed the most crumpled page on the bottom of the stack only to realise he'd written it himself. And it didn't make sense. Rafael gave him a look and that dark part of him without eyes seem to twist and trip over itself.
"I go out every day and take photos. Only images and yet they're somehow solid – abstract, but real." The words seemed to flow from him as if seeking some mechanical recording device; it felt as though he was merely reporting something to himself, like a to-do list, relevant but irrelevant. Framing words as though they were another photograph.
The question jolted him like interfering static. "Yes."
"Don't you get lonely?"
He just stared, and Rafael just stayed there and looked back at him. And then they stood there some more. And then some lack of something meant that there was more noise from the man, some standard sequence of syllables, and then Rafael was gone.
And then, too late, it came rushing in like a wave; like suddenly realising that having a dimmer switch turned up to maximum meant the same as having a light on. The brightness had been going up and up and up – but only now was there light. Rafael had been a living breathing person and a man with glasses and small hands and a curious smile and a brown coat and dark jeans and fat trainers and a nice voice and they had been talking. Talking and…in that place in his head without eyes that felt big and meaningful in a way that was old and forgotten and numb and bright and sharp and wholesome.
"Hey…" He was calling after Rafael without thinking, re-orientating himself to that…that unfathomable something…but there was only nothing. Only familiar but different lines and shapes, moving, rotating, a coloured barcode blurring back and forth, coding for something he didn't need to buy.
Ben stood alone on Warders Bridge. It was cold and he was hungry. The camera felt heavy in his hand. He looked from one horizon to the other and saw nowhere he wanted to go. There was something missing even though there was nothing missing; an aftertaste without any previous consumption. He clicked through the photos stored on his camera. 2D. Disconnected from reality. He felt only now that 2D meant the same thing as missing a dimension – perhaps missing several, or maybe they were all one, maybe they were all nothing.
Before it was just pictures, now it was only pictures. Both were pictures, both were the same. They were different, they were different. He'd forgotten what company meant, beyond being amongst other people. They moved all around him even as he stood there, ignoring him. He was background, part of the scenery. Or were they the background? Was there background? When was the last time he'd talked, really talked? When was the last time he'd asked a question and genuinely cared about the answer? When was the last time he'd cared?
It came first as an ache – silence became a noise, time became a force, movement became walking. Pushing against a glass wall that would somehow give him depth, but the 2D screen just shifted with him. Click, click. Captured, captured.
It came then as a chafe – clothes chafed, boots chafed, time chafed, conversation chafed. His past seemed to have a momentum into his present, pushing at him where before it had merely been linked. He'd been alone for years. Nothing had changed and he'd never minded; he'd preferred it this way. And yet.
Before he'd subconsciously forgot. Now he consciously forgot. Because of one stranger and one question that he couldn't stop remembering.
He hadn't had a proper conversation for so long…so long…
One day, any day. Big glasses and small hands. Time suddenly compacted back on itself like a trampled insect. Chapped lips moved quicker than they had before.
"Ben, wasn't it?"
"How have you been?"
His mind drew a blank. Nothing was there. Not in a passive way, but in an all-consuming way; Nothing was all there was when he looked back, Nothing and Numbness took up all the space in his head like a fat stubborn man with a grudge against him.
"I don't know," he said honestly.
Rafael laughed. It started as a hiccup and then rumbled forwards like a happy stream bouncing down over a rocky riverbed. "It's a lovely day today," he said. And he said it with his eyes and hands and he looked up at the sky like he really meant it, as if it meant something.
"I hope you get some great photos."
Ben didn't know what to say. Rafael was smiling at him as though to enhance his well-wishing with his expression, to infuse happiness into him by sheer force of will.
"Well, I've got to go. Have a good day." He hesitated a little for Ben to return the sentiment.
But instead, unbidden, a thought came into Ben's mind: I wasn't lonely until you asked. And before he could even think about that thought Rafael was reaching out with a hand to clap him on the shoulder as he walked past and Ben thought: Don't touch me or you'll make it even worse. And before he could even begin to think about that thought the hand was there and it was warm and solid and comforting and then Rafael and his brown coat were gone.
It came then as a burn. Pictures weren't real, weren't solid, weren't satisfying. His escape and his calming self-distancing was now his restriction and his dullness. He felt the weight of years unspoken, a gap between him and them. It hadn't mattered as the observer. As the photographer.
Why had Rafael talked to him?
Without comparison, without reminder, the monotony had been fine. Or at least, he'd been able to ignore it. Now he felt anger, restlessness, a frustration that seemed to go to his bones and he didn't know why. He walked, and kept walking, hands in his pocket and his head down, his eyes staring into nothing because there was nothing worth seeing.
He paced by the river, the dirty rainwater in the street splashing onto his boots, the clouded sunlight giving everything the same monotonous lighting.
Don't you get lonely?
He didn't even know Rafael. Rafael meant nothing to him but as a representation of something, surely? The problem now was that now so did photographs. He wanted more. His sunsets had splintered into pixels. He'd looked into that dark place in his mind without eyes and he'd felt hurt and loneliness and numbness and distancing and separation and coping and cleanliness and clinical precision and reordering and recapturing but not quite…connecting again.
One day, any day. A Tuesday.
Rafael turned around and smiled. "Hey."