A/N: Last edit: September 2016.
The photographer stood alone on Warders Bridge. Long coat, short hair, stubble along his chin and a shiver in his fingers. His 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 a building in the distance. It looked like negative space around a cut-out of the sky, as if waiting for something else to slot in there, something more alive. More figures moved past with no origin or 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, resting one hand 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 seeped progressively 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." 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 heard himself answer, "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 his trenchcoat 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. It was like he'd fallen into a pile of magazine pages and had to scramble for the nearest headline for something to say.
"To capture something real." He blinked, grabbing the nearest line only to realise he'd written it himself. And it didn't make sense. Rafael gave him a look and he felt stared at in a way that he didn't think cameras could stare.
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 a dimmer switch turned up to maximum meant the same as having a light on. 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. Missing a dimension – perhaps missing several, or maybe they were all one, maybe they were all nothing.
He'd forgotten what company meant, beyond being amongst other people. They moved around him, ignoring him, even as he stood there. He was the background, part of the scenery.
It came first as an ache – silence became a noise, time became a force, movement became searching. 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, words chafed. His past had gained a sudden momentum into his present; the weight of lost hours pushing at him where before they had merely joined. He'd been alone for years and nothing had ever changed. And yet.
Before he'd subconsciously forgot. Now he consciously tried to forget. 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 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 before Ben could even think of a single word 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 worse. And then the hand was there and it was warm and solid and comforting — and then Rafael and his beige trenchcoat were gone.
It came then as a burn. Even printed, the thick glossy photos merely flapped in the breeze; 6 inches of lost by 4 inches of confused. He leafed through his paper memory. Stacked together, so many images, an inch-thick wad; the gap between him and them. It hadn't mattered as the photographer.
Why had Rafael talked to him?
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. The problem now was that now so did photographs. His sunsets had splintered into pixels.
One day, any day. A Tuesday.
Rafael turned around and smiled. "Hey."