Thank you to Cyril for inviting me to guest post on your blog! 🙂
It was a Tuesday when I first met her.
I had been battling with a nasty article all morning and could barely think straight anymore; when I closed my eyes I saw the computer screen’s imprint on my retinas in fluorescent green. I’d been getting accordingly crabby, so my colleague who has the dubious luck of sharing the office with me, suggested I “take a hike, Tommy!”. Which I did, seeing that it was lunchtime.
I had wandered down a few roads, and found myself out of the city centre, at Finch Park, with its stream, its willow trees, noisy kids and dog walkers. I breathed the air, which was a few cigarettes short of centre of town, and my attention was drawn to two finches having a tiff. They came across just like a young married couple. With a smile I took out my camera and trained it on the two, and forgot about the article about the new road regulations, and the stresses of work.
As I was filming the small domestic drama, I realized I was being observed. I lowered the camera and glanced at the little girl who’d parked herself, arms crossed, at the edge of the playground.
“Hello,” I said.
“Are you a photographer?” she asked sternly, as though it were some kind of misdemeanour.
I smiled at her. “Photojournalist,” I said. “I first take a lot of pictures and then I have to write an article about them in the newspaper for your parents to read.”
“Uh-huh,” she replied knowingly.
“Here,” I said on impulse, bending down to show her my camera. “Have a look.”
I don’t generally bother with children, to be honest I’m not even aware of them. But there was something about this little girl. Something dreadfully mature and serious.
So I let her have a peep through my camera; but – and coming to think of it, this should have struck me as odd too, but as I said, I don’t know much about children – when I offered to her to hold it and make a few snapshots, she shrank away. Oh well.
I pocketed my camera again, thinking in retrospect that it was probably better that way and that it was silly of me to allow a small tot to handle my work equipment. She started chattering away, telling me all about her playmates and the kids in school, and not to be rude, I followed her as she walked down the road, inserting the odd “uh-huh”, and “really?” into her monologue.
“I’m Suzie,” she volunteered at one point.
“That’s nice. Suzie, where are we going?”
“Oh, I’ve just got to go home, Mommy will be ready with lunch now,” said the little girl. “But you can come along some of the way.”
I thought I had better walk along. The road we were following was quite a busy one and I wondered at her mother’s lack of judgement, letting her little daughter of probably six or seven, no older, walk home alone.
We got off the busy roads after a little while. I wondered at the distance this child was walking all by herself. These were smaller, older roads now; the properties were beginning to look a bit dilapidated. I took a few shots, wondering whether there shouldn’t be a community project about this place; all the while Suzie was bopping alongside me, chattering on happily.
“Do you walk home by yourself often?” I asked.
“Every day,” she replied. “Mommy always tells me to play in the park after school, until she is ready with lunch. It’s because of the baby, he takes such a lot of time.”
I nodded to myself and thought I should give that mother a piece of my mind, letting her daughter play hungry in the park because she was inefficient… though it really wasn’t my business.
And then Suzie held up a hand.
“This is how far you can come with me,” she said. “Bye!” And she bounded off, her red dress bouncing with her running leaps, and her blond pigtails flapping next to her ears.
“See you,” I called after her and waved, and watched how she disappeared up the steps and into the doorway in one of the elderly houses.
I took a few snaps of the houses, fascinated by their style; that kind of image comes in useful for all sorts of things and even fetches a nice price online. And then I turned and retraced my steps back to the office, getting stuck back into that boring report with a sigh.
My thoughts kept returning to Suzie, though, and how she had imperially ordered me not to follow her beyond that point.
The next day I was still wondering about her, so I returned to Finch Park at lunchtime to see if she was there. I took a few choice photos of silhouettes of trees and the playground, discovering that children are actually natural photo subjects, especially when they don’t realize they are being observed.
And suddenly I felt her stare in my neck again, and I turned; there she stood, in the same little red dress as yesterday that was actually getting too short for her with her skinny legs sticking out, and her fierce, piercing gaze and her folded arms.
“So you like my playground?” she asked.
“Hi, Suzie,” I replied, feeling oddly guilty at her accusation. It was after all a bit odd, me hanging around a children’s playground. One could almost get strange ideas about me.
But I am a photojournalist and our job is to be everywhere; and a good opportunity for pictures should never be ignored. I aimed my camera at her.
“You shall not take a picture of me!” she said with such vehemence that I lowered the camera, taken aback.
“It wouldn’t be right,” she said with determination.
Of course you never take a picture of a subject against their express wishes, so I put the camera away, and she lightened up.
“Did the birdies fight again today?” she asked, and off we were into her bright, non-stop chatter. And before long we were trailing down the same busy roads as yesterday, and then the older roads; and I realized that what had brought me back was worry over her.
A child like Suzie makes it on her own, or she dies, and nobody cares. I set my mind that I’d definitely be doing an article on community involvement in the safety of such children.
It also explained to me, at the time, her unusual air of maturity. If you have to fend for yourself, you grow up fast.
At the same place she’d left me yesterday, she once again held up her hand.
“You can’t come past this point,” she commanded, and I had to smile. It sounded like a magical incantation, with me the demon.
“Don’t worry,” I said.
“Will you walk with me again tomorrow?” she asked brightly.
“Sure,” I replied.
“Bye then,” she trilled and bounded off.
I escorted Suzie home every day after that; every time resolving to speak to her mother, and every time being warded off like some thing from the underworld. She did it so naturally that it would have felt like letting her down to go against her wishes.
Who knew, maybe she felt self-conscious about the mess in her house? Or perhaps, I mulled, her mother earned her keep in ways Suzie would rather not have people know? Had the little girl been warned off from telling anyone? And what of it? If her mother was one of those ladies of the night – or mid-morning, as is often the case – then who was I to disrupt the family’s income by sticking my journalistic nose in their affairs?
Still it sat wrong. Sooner or later, I knew, that journalistic nose would get the better of me and I’d knock and drop in on that lady and ask a few interesting questions. Maybe a morning would be a good idea, while Suzie was in school.
I was on my way to that area a few mornings later at eleven, well before lunch, resolved to find out what was going on there. Past Finch Park and down the busy Main Avenue; left into Narfington Street, and down past those colourful shop fronts…
A car hooted at me and pulled up next to me. It was my boss, Jenny.
“Tom! What are you doing in these parts?”
“Following a lead,” I replied glibly.
She reached over and opened the passenger door, and smiled her dazzling smile.
“Hop in, Tom! You work too hard. I’ll stick you for lunch.”
Jenny had mid-brown hair that she wore in a chic French bob, and always power-dressed to perfection. She couldn’t know how often I had contemplated her slender, silk-stockinged legs for a photo-motif or potentially, starting at photos and ending at more; and how my insides turned whenever she bared her cute pearlies in one of her staggering smiles and turned her lights – golden-hazel, large eyes – on some unsuspecting victim to demand an unreasonable deadline from them. So perhaps I can be forgiven for swallowing my tongue, hyperventilating a bit and forgetting all about a pig-tailed little girl in a red dress to whom I had a walk-home-safely commitment. I “hopped in” and off we sped at stomach-churning speeds in Jenny’s little red bubble car, playing dodgems with the cars around us and drawing up, brakes screeching, at a nice uptown sushi bar.
I swallowed a few times and asked then, “this is where you have lunch?”
“I like sushi,” she stated as I scrambled after her towards the place that I would never have considered for anything edible.
We talked and laughed, and I discovered that she could be a normal person too, not just a boss. It took me a bit to settle into this new concept. We discussed work, she turning the conversation this way and that with natural ease, discussing colour play, light, and the use of chiaroscuro effect in design. I realized just how versed she was on these topics. By the end of lunch I was sorry it was the end of lunch. I hadn’t tasted a single bite of the fishy whatevers they served here.
She picked up the bill – something that was very uncomfortable to me, but I really couldn’t afford that sushi place, and after all it had been her invitation, and we walked to her car, still chatting easily. She applied some of her insane driving style, and only slowed down a little, a block away from the office.
“That was fun,” she said airily, turning to me. “Tomorrow again?”
My brain stopped for a moment. Yes!, I wanted to shout. But… “Can’t,” I said. “I’m working on a project. But – if you like – if you don’t mind – what about tomorrow night?”
She laughed. “I don’t mind, you silly goof. Yes, that sounds like more fun.”
“Tomorrow’s on me,” I still managed to squeeze in as she manoeuvred her bubble car into the tiny space between a sedan and a no-parking sign in front of the office.
She swung her shapely legs out of the car.
“So,” she said briskly, and it was as though a switch had tripped in her head, “back to work, Tom. I want your report on that eco project on my table today at four.”
I couldn’t sleep that night. Worries about Suzie started creeping into my mind within half an hour of getting back to work. It didn’t help telling myself that she’d been walking home alone for months, possibly even years. I had broken my commitment.
At lunchtime the next day I was faithfully back at Finch Park. I couldn’t see Suzie anywhere; so I took out my camera while waiting for her, and shot more photos of children on the playground. There was a nippy wind, and grey clouds hung above; none of the lyrical late-summer sunshine we’d been having the past few weeks, by sheer luck.
Suzie didn’t come.
This bothered me; had something happened to her? Once again logic tried to call me, that she’d been walking alone for a long time, but it didn’t convince me. I walked down the roads towards where she stayed, determined to check on her. Was she sick? Did her mother perhaps need help with that? That woman didn’t sound like the most competent kind. Psychiatric help, the thought crossed my mind, and I toyed with the thought of calling social services about the whole effect. I couldn’t, after all, put my own life on hold indefinitely for someone else’s child. I should probably have done that a while back.
As I walked, a miserable drizzle started sifting down. The dilapidated neighbourhood looked even more desolate in the rain. And with a niggle of bad conscience, as though I were betraying Suzie’s trust, I crossed over the invisible demarcation she had drawn for me, telling me “you cannot pass here”, in her Tolkienish little voice.
It was only fifty metres on to the run-down old house that was her home. I lifted the old door knocker – a once-brass lion’s head that came off in my hand. I instantly felt guilty about this, and put it to one side, determined to fix it for her mother, and I lifted my hand and rapped on the solid wooden door.
It wasn’t latched and swung slightly open as I knocked, so I entered cautiously – and gaped in astonishment.
The hallway was empty. No furniture anywhere; just dust. Some of the floorboards had been eaten by insects; there was damp in the corners, and cobwebs everywhere.
I shook my head, wondering just how destitute this family had to be to live in a ramshackle ruin like this. Vagrants perhaps? It occurred to me that Suzie only ever wore that one red dress. She probably had no other!
I walked through the rooms, one by one, the camera coming up reflexively and taking photos for a later case report. The place was deserted. Perhaps upstairs? I gave the creaky old staircase a doubtful look. And then I felt that familiar stare in the back of my neck, and turned.
She was glaring at me, arms folded; disappointed, cross. She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t have to. I had dropped her; and now I was breaking her rule and trespassing into her home.
And then she turned and walked off.
She marched on determinedly. I followed her down the deserted passage, feeling very guilty, still clicking away with the camera at the rooms though, and out through the kitchen that featured no fridge, no stove even, just old-fashioned cupboards and badly chipped tiles on the floor – out the back door.
The backyard was overgrown with weeds; it was a wet jungle in the rain and my trouser legs got thoroughly soaked as I followed her to where she stopped, under an old willow tree. She stood staring at the ground, at something. I looked too, and a chill went through me when I saw a grave. A smallish one, child-sized. It looked as though it had been there for a while. It had been planted carefully with dandelions and morning glory, and there was no headstone.
I looked up at Suzie in shock; she was on the move again, half-transparent by now. Back into the house I followed her, and then she rounded a corner and – as I followed her – was gone.
The sense of loss was sudden and final. The little ghost had left. I stared at my lonely set of footprints in the dust, and took photos; for myself, for later, to assure myself that I hadn’t been hallucinating – at least, not all of it. I had clicked away even outside in the yard, and taken shots of the grave, but never of Suzie… remembering how she had warded me from taking photos of her, I understood now. I trailed slowly through the broken old house.
There was a sound behind me. I turned. A huge man towered over me with an axe. I dodged and ran for my life; fleeing through rooms and slamming doors, only to hear him crashing them open and following. I found myself in an old cloakroom, and mercifully, I found something to grab. It was a large shard of a mirror that had cracked from age.
As the man came through the door, I stabbed wildly at him with the shard. To my surprise I hit a critical spot – the carotid artery in his throat. He collapsed, staring disbelievingly at me. The axe fell out of his hand as he breathed his last on the floor.
I snapped photos of the whole scene, battling to hold the camera steady against the adrenaline charging through my system. I had killed? Murdered? It had been self-defence – there was blood on his axe, and – I went down for a close-up – a bit of wispy, blond hair…
Later, when I downloaded the photos, they showed an old house with empty rooms, marred only with my own tracks, which churned a bit in that old cloakroom. Photos of nothing at all.
And the only piece of evidence I could give the police, was the real picture of a small, overgrown grave at the back of an abandoned house…
© Lyz Russo, 2012