The photographer’s heap — Thomas McMullan

Your tongue runs against the roof of your mouth. Snow falls outside the window and you think of the best word to describe it. Heavy, still, soft. Heavy is the best word; heavy enough that the world creaks under its weight. As you think of the word ‘heavy’ the snow seems to become heavier, neither as still nor as soft as it had been moments before.

You walk from the bed to the desk and you stare at the photographs on the surface. They are [[strewn]]. No, [[spread]]. No, [[curled]] at the edges.

Strewn

The pictures overlap one another across the table. You run your tongue against the roof of your mouth again. There are still marks on your knuckles from where you punched the side of the table and, smoothing your hand against the wood, you look for signs of damage.

You consider the pictures. Forests overlaid with a motorway, a motorway overlaid with a bedroom. Her hair falling across her cheek, the light pouring through the window. You think of a word for the light. It [[shimmers]]. No, it [[glows]].

Spread

The pictures cover the table from one side to the other. It took time to arrange them like this, overlapping at the edges but each image isolated. Last night you separated the small piles into individual pictures and it felt as if you were spreading butter across a slice of bread.

You touch your tongue against the roof of your mouth and you survey the scenes. The bedrooms beside the motorway, the motorway beside the forests. The trees are dark in the background. You think of a word for the trees. They [[stand]]. No, they [[sway]].

Curled

The pictures towards the sides of the surface have dried but those in the centre are wet. You stoop to feel the underside of the table, to see if there’s a dip in the wood. The surface is flat. You touch the curled edges and they feel hard and brittle. If you hadn’t woken up in the middle of the night more of the photographs would be lost. These are already lost, you say to yourself.

The scenes in the wet pictures are smudged. A forest bleeds into a bedroom, a bedroom bleeds into a motorway. The cars are blurred. You think of a word for the cars. They [[shoot]]. No, they [[stalk]].

Shimmers

The light in the picture shimmers as it comes through the open window. The light is on her thigh. It is spread thin. If it spreads any further it will break.

The snow is heavy outside the window. It is no longer still or soft. You run your tongue against the roof of your mouth and you try to think of a word for her skin.

You put your hand on the table. You begin to order the photographs. You pick up those closest to the edges and you hold them in your hands. Here is a coastline, here is a dockyard, here is a bench. She is sat on the bench and she stares into the camera. You look at the grass below her. It is hard to tell if it is real. You can’t remember if you took this photograph inside or outside. It was [[inside]]. No, it was [[outside]].

Glows

The light in the picture glows as it comes through the open window, warming the sheets of the bed. The light covers her thigh and runs up to her stomach, marking out a white square of skin.

The snow is heavy outside the window. It is no longer still or soft. You run your tongue against the roof of your mouth and you try to think of a word for her skin.

You put your hand on the table. You begin to order the photographs. You pick up those closest to the edges and you hold them in your hands. Here is a coastline, here is a dockyard, here is a bench. She is sat on the bench and she stares into the camera. You look at the grass below her. It is hard to tell if it is real. You can’t remember if you took this photograph inside or outside. It was [[inside]]. No, it was [[outside]].

Stand

The trees stand in a row. Beneath the branches she stands with arms outspread. The size of the trees makes it seem as if she is standing beside a wall. With their trunks firm in the dirt they tower over her. Her neck is turned to the side. Her shoulder is bare.

The snow is heavy outside the window. It is no longer still or soft. You run your tongue against the roof of your mouth and you try to think of a word for her skin.

You put your hand on the table. You begin to order the photographs. You pick up those closest to the edges and you hold them in your hands. Here is a coastline, here is a dockyard, here is a bench. She is sat on the bench and she stares into the camera. You look at the grass below her. It is hard to tell if it is real or not. You can’t remember if you took this photograph inside or outside. It was [[inside]]. No, it was [[outside]].

Sway

The trees sway, their bodies pushed to the side by the wind. She pushes her boots into the dirt and stays put. She fights against the wind but the trees behind her let themselves be led. Their trunks bend and their branches dip. A leaf has fallen and is resting on the skin of her shoulder.

The snow is heavy outside the window. It is no longer still or soft. You run your tongue against the roof of your mouth and you try to think of a word for her skin.

You put your hand on the table. You begin to order the photographs. You pick up those closest to the edges and you hold them in your hands. Here is a coastline, here is a dockyard, here is a bench. She is sat on the bench and she stares into the camera. You look at the grass below her. It is hard to tell if it is real or not. You can’t remember if you took this photograph inside or outside. It was [[inside]]. No, it was [[outside]].

Shoot

The cars shoot down the motorway. On the photograph they are blurred. She stands against the barriers. There are weeds against her feet. There are people in the cars behind her. Only the smudge of wheels and metal casing can be made out behind the skin of her arm.

The snow is heavy outside the window. It is no longer still or soft. You run your tongue against the roof of your mouth and you try to think of a word for her skin.

You put your hand on the table. You begin to order the photographs. You pick up those closest to the edges and you hold them in your hands. Here is a coastline, here is a dockyard, here is a bench. She is sat on the bench and she stares into the camera. You look at the grass below her. It is hard to tell if it is real or not. You can’t remember if you took this photograph inside or outside. It was [[inside]]. No, it was [[outside]].

Stalk

The cars stalk along the motorway. There has been an accident and the traffic has ground to a halt. There is a lone policeman signalling for the cars to pass the wreckage one at a time. The drivers stare out of their windows at the accident. She is standing behind the police tape beside the ambulance, her hands touching the skin of her arms.

The snow is heavy outside the window. It is no longer still or soft. You run your tongue against the roof of your mouth and you try to think of a word for her skin.

You put your hand on the table. You begin to order the photographs. You pick up those closest to the edges and you hold them in your hands. Here is a coastline, here is a dockyard, here is a bench. She is sat on the bench and she stares into the camera. You look at the grass below her. It is hard to tell if it is real or not. You can’t remember if you took this photograph inside or outside. It was [[inside]]. No, it was [[outside]].

Inside

She is sat on a bench under the corrugated iron roof of a garden centre. It is evening. The light above her head is too white to be sunlight. It must be fluorescent. She watches you half-interested, her eyes looking through you. She looks past the glass windows of the garden centre, out into the field where the sunlight is dying. Do we need more seeds, she asks. We haven’t got enough pots to put them in. They brighten up the place and you can eat them, you tell her. You look at the receipt in your hand. You’ve already paid the man at the counter. It’s autumn, she says. Who grows flowers in autumn? She tucks a fingernail into the corner of her mouth and chews.

You point your camera at her and she makes the face she has in the picture. She makes a [[grin]]. No, a [[grimace]].

Outside

She is sat on a bench outside your friend’s home. There is a birthday party and you’ve stepped outside for a cigarette. It is summer and the garden is in bloom. There are flowers above her head, little red ones. She is blowing smoke and it pours up around the petals of the flowers. You’ll kill them if you do that, you say. No I won’t, she says. They like it. They are gagging for it. She blows more smoke and the little red petals quiver. You pick one of the flowers and give it to her as a romantic gesture. Oh God, why’d you do that, she says. You’ve killed it. But she takes the flower anyway and puts it in behind her ear.

You point your camera at her and she makes the face she has in the picture. She makes a [[grin]]. No, a [[grimace]].

Grin

Her whole face is a grin. She bares her teeth. You think of a word to describe her teeth. You touch your tongue against the roof of your mouth and look at the heavy snow. You run your tongue against your own teeth.

By now you’ve collected all the photographs on the table into a heap. At the top of the heap is a picture of a bird. The bird is [[black]]. No, it is [[dark blue]].

Grimace

Her whole face is a grimace. She bares her teeth. You think of a word to describe her teeth. You touch your tongue against the roof of your mouth and look at the heavy snow. You run your tongue against your own teeth.

By now you’ve collected all the photographs on the table into a heap. At the top of the heap is a picture of a bird. The bird is [[black]]. No, it is [[dark blue]].

Black

Its feathers are black. Its head is turned to the side. Its eye is a yellow circle with a black hole in the centre, up above the black body, up above two feet, pink and thin, like two sewing pins stuck on the branch.

It’s strange the things you fix on.

With a certain amount of effort you lift the heap of photographs and carry it in your arms across the room to an open drawer. You tip the heap into the drawer. The picture of the bird remains on top, beneath it slips another picture of her.

In this picture she is in a room full of computers. They extend in rows behind her. It’s an office and she is working.

Her eyes are [[fixed]] on the camera. No, they are [[stuck]].

Dark Blue

Its feathers are dark blue. Its head is turned to the side. Its eye is a yellow circle with a black hole in the centre, up above the dark blue body, up above two feet, pink and thin, like two sewing pins stuck on the branch.

It’s strange the things you fix on.

With a certain amount of effort you lift the heap of photographs and carry it in your arms across the room to an open drawer. You tip the heap into the drawer. The picture of the bird remains on top, beneath it slips another picture of her.

In this picture she is in a room full of computers. They extend in rows behind her. It’s an office and she is working.

Her hands are on the keyboard. Her eyes are [[fixed]] on the camera. No, they are [[stuck]].

Fixed

Her eyes are fixed. Fastened like a cog.

We should get out of the city, she says. She stretches her back.

Can you wait? Can you wait for me to finish?

You take a picture. Her back [[arched]]. No, [[bent]].

Stuck

Her eyes are stuck. Knee deep in mud.

We should go into the country, she says. She stretches her back.

Can you wait? Can you wait for me to finish?

You take a picture. Her back [[arched]]. No, [[bent]].

Arched

Arched like a [[bridge]], like a [[church door]].

Bent

Bent like a [branch], like a [[blade of grass]].

Bridge

Like a stone bridge seen from the river at night, lit up by the headlights of a car as the noise of its engine grows and passes along the road to the church. You point the camera as the lights dim. You are already late but you don’t want to move from this spot. There are three arches on the bridge. One, two, three. The stone is [[old]]. No, it is [[ancient]].

Church Door

Like church doors looming at night. There is no one else left and you point the camera at the open doors, through the wide open doors. There is a single candle lit somewhere far in the building. The light covers the wooden pews. The arch above the open door is made of stone. The stone is [[old]]. No, it is [[ancient]].

Branch

Like branches swept up. The storm is strong. The church was nearly blown to shreds during the service. The branches are bent to the side from the force of the wind. Several have snapped off completely and lay scattered on the ground at your feet. One tree in particular is clinging to the side of the church. You press your hand against it. The bark is [[tough]]. No, it is [[impenetrable]].

Blade of grass

Like a blade of grass bent underfoot. You lurch towards the doors. You can hear the organ music. The air is calm and the music passes far out into the countryside, past the gathering crowd over the river and towards the fields. You dip down to touch the grass and you pass your hand through towards the earth below. You press your palm into the ground and are surprised at how dry it is, as if its water had been emptied upwards into the green grass. The ground is [[tough]]. No, it is [[impenetrable]].

Old

The stones are old. They were put together before you were born. Men your grandfather’s age would have lifted them. Men who sit in front of radiators in care homes. Their hands thin and skin like parchment.

There is a bird perched above you. Faintly seen. Its feathers are [[brown]]. No, [[dark red]].

Ancient

The stones are ancient. Anglo Saxon. The effort to carry them here and put them on top of each other must have been enormous. They would have to use slopes, pulleys, rope. You have no idea what tools they used. Their hands are skeletons now. Dust.

There is a bird perched above you. Faintly seen. Its feathers are [[brown]]. No, [[dark red]].

Tough

It feels tough against your hand. Your own skin feels soft against it, pink and fleshy. If you scraped your hand against it you’d cut through your palm. Your fingers are dirty, there is grit beneath your nails. You wipe one hand against the other.

There is a bird perched above you. Faintly seen. Its feathers are [[brown]]. No, [[dark red]].

Impenetrable

It feels impenetrable against your hand. You could push against it with all your strength and it still wouldn’t move. Your hand feels small. Your fingers feel weak. You knock and it makes a dull thud that you barely hear. You wipe one hand against the other.

There is a bird perched above you. Faintly seen. Its feathers are [[brown]]. No, [[dark red]].

Dark Red

You look through the lens at the bird with the dark red feathers. Its head turns to face you. Its eye is black.

Its eye is [[deep]]. No, it is [[bottomless]].

Brown

You look through the lens at the bird with the brown feathers. Its head turns to face you. Its eye is black.

Its eye is [[deep]]. No, it is [[bottomless]].

Deep

My patience is deep but it isn’t bottomless, you say. She turns to face you. There are limits.

You lift the camera at her and start clicking. The flash runs over the row of computers behind her. She squints from the light and puts her hands in front of her face. Stop that, she says. I’m nearly finished. But you keep pressing the button on the camera and the flash keeps blooming over the room. Other people are looking at you now. You grip the camera and keep taking pictures as the light travels deep into the office. She is covered in light and she stands away from the computer and walks away.

You stop taking pictures, stand and walk towards the lift. You press the button and the metal doors [[click]]. No, they [[slam]].

Bottomless

My patience is bottomless, you say. She turns to face you. It’s a bottomless pit.

You lift the camera and take a picture of her as she looks through the lens into your eye. She looks right through the camera and her eyes seem black and bottomless and birdlike. I’m nearly finished, she says. Her hands are on the keyboard and she is typing again. You click at the camera and take a picture of her like this, her back to you. There is no sound as the picture is taken. Her fingers continue to press the letters on the keyboard.

You lower the camera. You reach over to touch her. You put your hand on her shoulder which surprises her and she makes a sound, a [[squeak]]. No, a [[scream]].

Click

The lift descends and soon you are out on the street. Your passage from the building into the quiet of the outside world is seamless. Even though there is a crowd of people walking along the street no-one is making a sound.

You shouldn’t have stormed out. You lift your camera and take a picture of the crowd. The flash [[illuminates]]. No, it [[floods]].

Slam

The lift plummets and soon you are out on the street. Your passage from the quiet of the building into the outside world is harsh. The noise overwhelms you. For a moment you feel yourself carried away by the sound of cars, buses, people and footsteps.

You shouldn’t have stormed out. You lift your camera and take a picture of the crowd. The flash [[illuminates]]. No, it [[floods]].

Scream

The room is silent, the air vibrates as if from a struck gong. Everyone is staring at you with your hands on her shoulders. Your hands are cold, she says. Couldn’t you warm them up first? But she is smiling and soon she has taken your hands in her own and it rubbing them as if she is starting a fire with a stick and kindling. There, she says. Now you can rub if you want to.

You lift your camera and take a picture of her shoulders. The flash [[illuminates]]. No, it [[floods]].

Squeak

The squeak makes her laugh and she turns to face you. Your hands are cold, she says. Couldn’t you warm them up first? But she is smiling and soon she has taken your hands in her own and is rubbing them as if she is starting a fire with a stick and kindling. There, she says. Now you can rub if you want to.

You lift your camera and take a picture of her shoulders. The flash [[illuminates]]. No, it [[floods]].

Illuminates

The light illuminates. You tongue touches the roof of your mouth. You say the word aloud. ‘Illuminates’. You stare at the heap of photographs you have tipped into the drawer.

She is lying on the cushions. Her hands are folded.

The light from the window illuminates. Her face is illuminated in light. Her hair pools around her head. Her lips are closed. Her eyes are closed. They are closed lightly, as if she is teetering on the edge of sleep.

The light illuminates.

You close your eyes.

[[…]]

Floods

The light floods. You tongue touches the roof of your mouth. You say the word aloud. ‘Floods’. You stare at the heap of photographs you have tipped into the drawer.

She is lying on the cushions. Her hands are folded.

The light from the window floods. Her face is flooded in light. Her hair pools around her head. Her lips are closed. Her eyes are closed. They are closed lightly, as if she was teetering on the edge of sleep.

The light floods.

You close your eyes.

[[…]]

You try to find a word to describe her lying there but you can’t. You won’t pin it down with a word. You refuse.

[[….]]

….

You close the drawer and rub your hands into your eye-sockets. You blink once. Twice. You cross the room and look out at the snow.

There is a tree outside.

There is a bird on the branch.

Its feathers are [[grey]]. No, they are [[white]].

Grey

Its feathers are grey. Its head is turned to the side. Against the snow it is almost invisible. Its black eye looks back at the window, back at you.

The snow is heavy. Heavy enough that the world creaks under its weight.

White

Its feathers are white, its head turned to the side. Against the snow it is almost invisible. Its black eye looks back at the window, back at you.

The snow is heavy. Heavy enough that the world creaks under its weight.


Thomas McMullan is a London-based writer. His work has been published by 3:AM Magazine, The Stockholm Review, The Literateur and Cadaverine Magazine. He contributes to The Guardian and is currently looking for an agent for his first novel. www.thomasmcmullan.com. @thomas_mac

Image: © Lydia Smears