Loosely based on my own experiences, Snapshots of a Broken Mind follows Austin, a recently divorced Londoner, as he tries to piece his life back together after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
Some scenes may be triggering for those who suffer with mental illness or sexual assault victims. Has some adult content as well.
Car horns blare, the constant roar of traffic echoes through the streets of London. Angry drivers tut at red lights, fight over parking spaces. I swerve into an empty one before someone else does, outside a grubby newsagents’ in the Shepherd’s Bush suburb. I am determined this time. I make my way to the flat above and hammer on the door.
“Open up, Austin. I know you’re in there.”
No answer; but the vague buzz of a TV suddenly cuts out. I roll my eyes.
“I just heard you switch the TV off! Don’t make me pick the lock…”
After a few more minutes of hammering, the door finally flies open. I almost don’t recognize my brother. His face is dirty, unshaven and the dark circles around his green eyes look like bruises; his dark hair is a tangled mess. He’s stick-thin and wearing dirty pyjamas that look like they’re stuck to him. Not to mention the smell coming out of the flat…
I ignore him and shove past before he can shut me out again. The flat’s in as bad a state as its tenant. Pizza boxes, Pot Noodle cups and beer bottles are scattered everywhere; everything is covered by a layer of dust. There’s an ugly stain on the wall and I’m not sure who smells worse, Austin or the dog.
“Bloody hell, mate. How many rats do you have in here?”
“Leave me alone.”
He soon buries himself back under his blanket on the sofa, switching the stereo on to block me out. Jesus, he was listening to the same bloody Green Day record last time I tried to get in. At least he’s opened the door this time.
“Stop listening to this depressing crap and pull yourself together!”
I pull the plug on the stereo and the blanket off the sofa. Austin glares at me.
“Look, mate, I’m only trying to help. C’mon, why don’t you try to get changed?”
I begin to feel hopeless. I’ve never seen my little brother this bad before. He often goes in phases, though; so I give up for now and leave him alone. While Austin switches the stereo back on, I go to the bedroom – which is in a worse state than the lounge, with dirty underwear and sheets all over the place – and pull some clean clothes out of the wardrobe. I shove all of the dirty sheets into a pile and go to the bathroom in search of clean ones… and Jesus Christ! I nearly leap back out in horror. There’s vomit everywhere. I feel like I’m gonna throw up myself.
What is wrong with Austin? He was diagnosed with depression a while ago, and the divorce and job loss have been hard on him, but bloody hell… is he even paying his rent? I tiptoe around the vomit – don’t love my brother that much – and pull the last lot of clean sheets out of the cupboard. After changing the bed I consider opening the curtains, but I don’t think I want to see the flat in the daylight. At least not until I’m over the vomit.
Eventually I sit opposite Austin, pretending I’m enjoying that record. Finally the vague shadow of a smile passes over his face.
“You’re trying hard.”
He sits up, rubbing his eyes. “Sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“It’s alright, mate. Got you some clean clothes and changed your sheets. Why don’t you go and have a shower?”
“Do I smell that bad?”
He rolls his eyes. “Fine.”
To make sure he actually does it, I stay in the bathroom, trying not to look at the mess. I accidentally end up staring at him instead, and get a nasty shock.
He’s truly skeletal, his legs are covered in scars clearly from self-harm; and next time I can’t help seeing that vomit, I don’t tut at drunkenness… I remember Austin’s bulimia as a teenager.
I’m suddenly scared for my brother’s life.
I stay overnight, giving the sofa a good scrubbing before I sleep on it. In the morning I gently suggest that Austin sees a doctor.
“Why?” he snaps. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“I just thought, you know, maybe anti-depressants would help you or-”
“I’m already on anti-depressants.”
“Maybe a counsellor then-”
“I sure as hell don’t need someone else like that damn divorce counsellor in my life!”
“Well, of course you don’t have to…”
It’s too late. Austin has already flown into a rage and throws his cereal bowl at the wall. I wince as he storms out of the room. Soon I hear the front door slam.
I try to follow, but he’s already disappeared. Eventually I get sick of waiting and go down the shop to buy a drink; and the newsagent cheerfully tells me that the bloke in the pyjamas has been arrested for indecent exposure.
Has my brother gone insane?
I call Bea, my wife, to let her know I’ll be late back; and with a groan, force myself to drive to the police station. Maybe I can get Austin out of this if I can somehow get him to a doctor.
I explain to the police that I’m sure he’s sick, and he desperately needs help. It’s true, the whole thing does seem desperate.
They aren’t sympathetic and stifle laughs, but grudgingly agree to call a doctor. I just pray to God that he is sick so he can get out of this.
When that doctor walked into the room, I was embarrassed, ashamed, felt bad for John and more than anything, I felt pathetic. Thirty-five years old and arrested for flashing someone… in my pyjamas. I didn’t even know what was going through my mind at the time. I suppose I was about to find out.
“So, Austin, you were arrested for… flashing?”
“No.” I snarled. “My trousers fell down. It wasn’t my fault.”
“The police disagree.”
I don’t know why I lied. It just made the doctor speak in a more patronising tone. John had obviously spoken to him already, because he knew about my divorce and losing my job. When he left, I went with him. He had me hospitalised.
John went with me, too, but they wouldn’t let him stay overnight, and I encouraged him to go home since his wife was going away soon. I was surprised that the doctors just let me sleep; but then the questioning began the next day. They examined me and of course, one of them found my scars. I didn’t want anyone to see those. When he wouldn’t leave me alone, I punched him in the face and there was blood everywhere. I’d broken his nose.
I was furious and all I could see was how much I wanted to hurt that bloody doctor for humiliating me. A nurse tried to hold me down, but I threw her off me and kicked him in the stomach. He was doubled up on the floor then, and I managed to kick him one last time before a bunch of uniformed guys came to really hold me down. The nurse soon sedated me.
When I woke up, I’d been diagnosed as bipolar. After stuffing me with medication, they said I’d have to stay in hospital until I was stable. I felt truly like a crazy person locked into a mental home.
It was this Dutch doctor, Daniel, who saved me. I wasn’t his problem, but he insisted on dealing with me anyway. I thought he just wanted to humiliate me more, but the first thing he told me was that the NHS was useless and my diagnosis was wrong. After seeing him a few times, I was finally diagnosed correctly, with the three words that were going to tear my life apart.
Borderline personality disorder.
Daniel thought that hospital wasn’t the answer, and managed to get me out of there. There’s no medicine for BPD, so the only option is to pray that therapy helps. Daniel said he’d come to see me at my flat, until I was ready to see him in his office. He was just an NHS doctor, and I didn’t understand why he was going out of his way for some asshole who’d flashed someone. Especially since he was pretty important.
Months later, I eventually found out that his mum had BPD and killed herself, which is why he’d strived to become a doctor; to help others with the disorder. Since then, he’d had a BPD patient who got better, but suddenly drove out to the coast and shot himself. I guess he’d developed an obsession with BPD… and I was bloody lucky that I’d met him.
I began to slip back into my depression again, despite his visits. I cleaned the flat when I got out of hospital, but the pizza boxes were beginning to build up again and my poor dog had fleas. I probably had them. I ended up staying in the same clothes for weeks, since John had confiscated the pyjamas.
Eventually my parents descended, gasping over Mind leaflets that they couldn’t believe they’d never realised. At least they cleaned the dog.
They began to bicker while they were cleaning the flat, and even though it was nothing so extreme, it reminded me horribly of my divorce. It was something so small, but I suddenly felt myself stifled by unbearable feelings of emptiness that I couldn’t fill. I hurried to the kitchen and stuffed my face with chocolate, Pot Noodle, everything I could find… but all it did was make me feel fat, so I made myself sick. They were right. How had they never noticed? I was realising that although I was worse than ever, I’d been like this my whole life. Then I was angry at them for not knowing, and screamed at them that they were uncaring assholes. Even though they’d read the leaflets – and knew I could be like that anyway – they obviously weren’t used to me anymore, because they took it personally, called me ungrateful and left. Maybe they got scared because they knew about me attacking the doctor. I don’t know. It still hurt and then I was sad that they’d gone. I’d stopped paying my TV licence so all I had was the stereo, and I felt so alone and terrified of facing myself that I rang John in tears, begging him to come round.
To my surprise, he happily said yes, and was beaming when he arrived. I remember looking at his big grin nestled in his bushy beard, and wondering how, why someone could possibly smile that much.
“Guess what I got for you?”
“Don’t be so miserable!”
He whipped a piece of paper out of his pocket. I half-heartedly pulled it out of his hand; it was a booking confirmation for some tickets.
“Your favourite band just a few streets away, Austin! Green Day are playing at the Empire tonight! It sold out in two minutes but I scored a ticket for you!”
“…Are you joking?”
“No. Have a shower and get dressed – well, change your clothes. Doors are in a few hours.”
Something about being in a room full of people terrified me, and I almost said no; but thankfully, I loved the band enough to see sense for once. I had a shower, changed my clothes and even combed my hair. It was getting pretty long and combing it wasn’t a nice – or quick – experience. John offered to drive me to the venue, but I knew what parking would be like and it was only a few streets, so we just walked. My problems temporarily dissolved into excitement, for the first time in months. This was surreal and I wondered if I might remember what happiness felt like.
Well, I’ll tell you, it was an amazing gig. I do struggle a bit to remember it now, though, because it was so overshadowed by what happened afterwards.
I met Emily that night, and I fell in love with her the first time I set eyes on her. Everyone blames it on my disorder but that’s one thing I know it wasn’t responsible for. I was leaving the venue when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned round. I had no idea what she wanted, but she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, with red in her wild hair and matching lipstick; her big brown eyes sparkled, and she was grasping a camera that looked too big for her little hands.
“…Can I help you?”
“Would you mind if I took your portrait?”
Looking slightly nervous, she gestured to the camera. My brain had pulled the plug on logic and I’d probably have said yes to anything she asked.
She took a photo of me in the middle of the street, telling me to pretend she wasn’t there and tutting at the people who barged in; fiddling with buttons on the camera that I’d never understand. Eventually she sighed and asked if I didn’t mind moving to somewhere less crowded. I said it was fine. I was thirsty and needed a drink, anyway.
Shepherd’s Bush is a strange place at night. Some guy ran up to us, holding his car keys and promising that everything he had was ours if we’d just let him use one of our phones. Emily’s eyes lit up and she handed over her phone in exchange for taking his portrait. He gave it back afterwards, but I don’t think she’d have cared if he hadn’t. I couldn’t understand why she’d want his portrait – or mine, to be honest – but I was shocked when she showed me her shots of him. She’d turned some random weirdo into an emotional image that captured all of his turmoil, whatever it was about. I looked at his crazed expression and immediately realised why she wanted to photograph me. I didn’t know whether to be happy about it or not.
“So you’re a professional photographer?” I asked as we carried on walking. “Your shots are great.”
“Yeah, I’m working on a project about the people of London, at the moment. What do you do?”
“That’s cool. I’m a sound technician.”
I decided not to tell her that I wasn’t really a sound tech at the moment, since I’d lost my job. We talked about the gig and she told me how excited she was to shoot her favourite band, even though music photography wasn’t usually her field. Eventually she stopped walking and almost pinned me against a wall. She was just overexcited about finding a good background for the photos, but my borderline personality assumed it was a sexual gesture… so I kissed her.
I don’t know whether it was a mistake or not. She awkwardly kissed me back for a moment, then stepped away, looking confused.
“Um… you mind if I still photograph you? You’re such a great subject.”
She probably meant that photographically, too, but I hoped she meant that I was attractive. I smiled and said it was fine. She snapped some shots of me against the wall, waving her arms about in excitement when she got a good one. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
We went into a nearby shop in the end and bought some drinks. I kept hearing her camera click. Everyone probably thought she was crazy, but I just thought she was beautiful. She was just a bit shorter than me, and the perfect weight; not fat or thin.
When she eventually checked the time, she realised that she’d long missed the last tube and had no idea where to catch the bus. If my brain had pulled the plug on logic before, the socket probably blew up now.
“Stay over at mine. I live just down the road.”
I don’t know whether it was hopeful lust or desperation not to say goodbye, but she didn’t seem bothered either way. She just asked if I was sure and said that’d be great, so we walked back. It was months since I’d seen my wife and years since I’d brought a girl home. I only remembered the state of my flat when I opened the door.
Emily didn’t seem to notice or care, though. She just settled onto the floor and asked if I had a computer.
“Sure.” I shrugged, pulling my laptop down from a shelf. “It’s a limited edition Shite 100, though, I’m afraid.”
She laughed and said I was hilarious. Although she didn’t seem to care about the living room, she did look a bit ashen after using the bathroom. I realised that I’d left a smelly housecoat and some boxers lying around in there. Oh well.
She sat with my laptop for hours, her pretty face lit up by the dim light of the screen; occasionally sipping her can of Fanta. I watched her in silence, the clock ticking away in the background. I began to feel like it was a bomb ticking, and that I was going to blow up. I hadn’t had sex for God knows how long and I wanted her.
“Wow, it’s so late.”
The sudden break in the silence startled me. She yawned and rubbed her eyes.
“You know, I’ve got to send these photos straight off in the morning. I really ought to go.”
Why did she suddenly want to leave? I felt like she’d stabbed me.
“I… I don’t mind if you stay. You’re welcome to.”
“It’s alright, you’ve done me enough favours today! I don’t want to keep imposing on you.”
I wanted to protest again, but she’d already packed her memory stick and camera. Soon she’d put her jacket on and hurried over to the door.
“Honestly, I can’t thank you enough for the photoshoot and letting me use your laptop. It’s so nice to know there’s still good people out there.”
It’s a good thing it was dark, because I was probably gaping at her in a mixture of fury and disbelief. She handed me something and I could vaguely see her smiling.
“Hey, here’s my business card. Drop me an email and I’ll let you know when the photos are done!”
“See you! Thank you so much.”
Maybe she shook my hand, or even gave me a kiss on the cheek. I wouldn’t remember. The door snapped shut and I was so furious that I snatched her Fanta can off the floor and hurled it at the wall. It was half-full and split all over some photos of my kids. I didn’t care. I stormed into the kitchen and began to smash all my dirty pots against the counter, until my hands were so bloodied that I noticed the pain.
I looked down at them, wincing when I bent my fingers, and the anger turned to despair. I slumped down on the floor and cried, like a stupid oversized baby. I don’t know if I even knew what the problem was anymore; but I felt more alone and rejected than ever.
At least she never saw any of that… or maybe it would have been better if she had.
Sunlight bursts through the blinds into my study. I stare groggily at my computer screen. I should’ve known I’d regret missing the last tube… I had no idea how to get back from Shepherd’s Bush, and it ended up taking me so long that I might as well have waited. At least I got the photos from the gig edited last night.
I want to go and crash into bed, but I know I should start editing the others. I half-heartedly click through some shots of the queue for the show; then I remember the ones from afterwards.
I’ve photographed a lot of people for this project, but none as imposing as that guy I met last night. I saw him wandering out of the venue, with this unfathomable whirlwind of emotion in his eyes, even in the dark. I knew I had to photograph him.
They’re good shots, too; better than my ones of the gig. There’s one of him standing against the wall, and he’s sort of gazing longingly at the camera. That wasn’t how I wanted him to look, but it’s perfect. There’s so many emotions in there… it’s like his eyes are begging the viewer to help him. I forget my tiredness and quickly begin editing them.
He made me a bit uncomfortable, the way he sat staring at me with his big cat eyes. I was hoping to write something detailed about him to go with the photos… but I never even got his name. He’ll just have to be the mystery man I met in a London suburb.
I eventually emerge from my study, remembering with a groan that I’m meeting my best friends, Tia and Kieran, for lunch. We all studied photography together, and shared a flat for years. Tia is married now, and I guess me and Kieran were able to afford our own places by then. We worried that our friendship would dissolve, but we’ve just sort of grown together. We were always the outcasts, and still are, in a way. I don’t think I could get rid of them even if I wanted to.
I arrive at the café and Kieran is lounging around in a band shirt and lopsided glasses, looking out of place with his spiky blue hair and nose ring. Tia works for a company, so she’s reduced her crazy hair to a dull purple now, and looks vaguely normal next to Kieran.
“Photos from last night!” he demands as I sit down, before even saying hello. He’s probably still a bit sore about it, since he’s a music photographer and I’m not.
I click through them all, then I’m telling them about the night when Tia suddenly interrupts.
“Emily! What is it about this guy?”
“You shot your favourite band, but you can’t stop talking about a guy you met afterwards!”
“Well, he was a great subject.”
Kieran tuts. “Sounds like you’ll be cheating on Pentax soon, Em.”
“No thanks. His flat smelt like shit.”
Was I really going on about him that much? We all laugh and forget about it; but when I go out to take photos later, I find every subject dull and end up photographing some bickering pigeons instead.
My mood swing lasted a few days, and I’m not sure it ever would have passed if it hadn’t been for Daniel. He took me to hospital to have my hands bandaged up, and came to see me every day for a week. Once I’d calmed down, I felt a lot better and more than anything, couldn’t stop thinking about Emily. I was going to see her again, no matter what it took. I managed to dig her business card out of the recycling bin, and looked at her website. She’d done a lot of work with self-portraits, and I must have spent hours gazing at them all. I also found out that her full name was Emily Jemima Germain, and she was quarter-Swiss. She was twenty-six years old at the time, and it seemed that she was single. As soon as I figured that, I picked up the phone and dialled her number.
I took a deep breath. “Hi, Emily, I don’t know if you remember me…”
“I recognize your voice! You’re the guy from Shepherd’s Bush.”
Well, I took that as a positive sign. She’d only met me once but she recognized my voice…
“The photos are all done. I’ve actually just finished this project, so the book’ll be out in a few months.”
“I’d love to see them!”
“What’s your email address? I’ll send them.”
My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, so I’m sure you can understand why I wasn’t rushing to tell her that. It was like she could read my mind, though.
“Come on, I won’t laugh. I’ve used the toilet amongst your smelly boxers, so we’re already intimate.”
I wasn’t sure whether she was criticising the smell of my underwear or hitting on me, so I just sighed and told her my email address. She couldn’t help giggling.
“Alright, I’ll send you the pics.”
I wanted to talk to her for longer but the conversation died and then we were saying goodbye. By the time my Shite 100 had accessed Gmail, she’d already sent the photos through. The email read Here you go. I hope I’ve got your asshole number right or someone else could run off with your photos. Enjoy!
The photos were imposing images in black and white. They were great, but I certainly wasn’t. I realised for the first time in weeks how awful I really looked. My cheeks were hollow and even though I’d combed my hair, it was a mess; my clothes were all crumpled and I was wearing my t-shirt inside out. I looked like a crazy tramp.
I wanted another excuse to contact Emily, but I couldn’t find one. I was considering calling her and just asking her on a date, but I got distracted. The solicitor I had for my divorce was completely useless, and not only did my wife take everything – the house, my money, most of my possessions – she took my kids, too. I hadn’t seen them since she walked out.
Daniel was in the process of trying to contact her, so I could see my kids again. I missed them and I felt like the worst father in the world, even though it was her who shagged a footballer and walked out. It turned out she’d been fucking him for months, but she left when I lost my job and was diagnosed with depression. I still get so furious when I think about that… I’ll knock that bastard’s teeth out one day, I swear to God.
Back when me and Austin were young, he was the popular one. After all, he was attractive, funny and always the life of the party. I was fat, ugly and boring. Still am. But now it’s his thirty-sixth birthday and he’s divorced, unemployed and branded with BPD, I’m not sure what to expect of this timid party at Mum’s house.
A lot of old friends show up, along with clumps of cousins and a few pairs of aunts and uncles. Austin has changed his clothes and actually washed his hair – I can tell from the smell – and somehow, he’s still that witty guy who’s the life of the party. I’m still a tad jealous… but hey, it’s me whose marriage has worked and has a wife who actually loves me. Why would I want to be him, with his toxic ex-wife and rampant kids? Shudder. A sound tech is certainly more exciting than a postman, but I’m just naturally boring. My wife is exciting enough for the two of us.
Eventually Austin is handed a stash of birthday cards. He laughs at the funny ones, smiles at the sweet ones; then suddenly he frowns, his eyes darting over to a cousin like daggers.
“Why did you put my age on the card? I don’t need reminders that I’m middle-aged.”
A few people laugh, but I know immediately that this situation is not funny. I try to take Austin’s hand reassuringly, but I soon get elbowed off. Don’t snap, I think, feeling a little hurt. Don’t snap, Austin.
There’s an awkward silence; but he opens the next card and smiles again. Relief. Soon Mum scurries over to the table with a big cake, and everyone sings Happy Birthday. Austin is hugging some friend when my eyes suddenly fall on the candles. Number candles.
I quickly try to pull them out, but Mum tuts and bats me away. “Don’t ruin your brother’s cake, Johnny. I know you’ve always liked your food, but at least wait until you get your own piece.”
I bite my lip, almost ready to get up and walk out. I can’t abandon my little brother, though…
“You clearly don’t get it.” I hiss at Mum. “He doesn’t like the candles. For some reason it triggers him.”
“Nonsense. Don’t be silly-”
“I told you not to put numbers on the cake.”
Too late. Austin is scowling at Mum. Silence. A few people look bewildered; I’m cringing inside. If she’d just let me get rid of the bloody candles… please let this pass like it did with the card. Don’t get angry, Austin…
Mum smiles sweetly. “I think they’re cute, but if you really don’t like them, we won’t have them again next year.”
It might have been left at that… but the same cousin who put his age on the card, Callum, just has to bellow across the table about it.
“Oh, come on, Austin! Don’t be a miseryguts. Being old ain’t all bad!”
The scowl turns to utter hatred. Austin gets up and kicks his chair over, spits at Callum. A few people are beginning to look frightened.
“Oh, dear.” Mum says. “Don’t take it personally, he has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder-”
“Shut the fuck up!” Austin roars. “Tell them all I’m crazy, why don’t you? Bunch of cunts. You all want a free meal on my birthday, but where were you all when Hannah walked out? Eh? Eh?!”
Oh, good Lord … silence, again. It just provokes him even more.
“So where the fuck are my kids? All alone on their dad’s birthday, while their excuse for a mother shags some footballer, in their dad’s house! But oh, no, not one of you gives a shit! Go to hell!”
His voice echoes in the neat dining room. Everyone is silent… everyone except Callum.
“Sounds like he needs to be back in hospital!”
There’s a hint of muffled laughter and that’s the final straw. Austin hurls his glass at Callum and then he stands up too.
“You wanna fucking fight me?” Austin screams. “Bring it on, motherfucker!”
“Austin, no!” I shout. Callum is far bigger than he is. He’ll crush his little body in seconds… but it’s too late. All Austin can see is fury. Mum screams as blood is suddenly splashed across the plaid tablecloth.
It’s Callum’s blood. His blue football shirt is dyed an ugly red. He looks hurt and for a second I think he’ll give up… but then he pushes Austin and smashes his face into the table.
There’s more screams now, more distant cousins stagger away in shock and fear. I spring up and with a few of Austin’s old friends, haul Callum off him. Once he’s free, he pushes them off and tries to get Callum in a headlock, but he’s much too little. He ends up on the floor. In the background, Mum is stammering on the phone to the police. Callum hears and worriedly steps away.
“I’ll take pity on you, nut job, and leave you down there. Where you belong. No wonder your wife left you.”
Austin sits up, blood pouring from his nose and face still contorted with rage.
“Suck my dick, asshole!”
Callum sniggers. “No thanks, mate.”
“Get out.” I spit, holding a cloth to Austin’s nose. “Or I’ll deal with you, and believe me, I’m fat enough.”
Eventually he sneers and leaves; Mum wishes quick goodbyes to everyone, then hurries over to her son.
“I wasn’t really calling the police. Just trying to scare him. Oh, Austin, are you alright?”
He looks up at her, dazed. “That bastard’s a pussy. I’ll fucking finish him off…”
He’s getting weak now, and we manage to hold him down. I call Daniel, and eventually he whisks Austin off to hospital. Although I’m filled with concern for my brother, I can’t help wishing that Mum might apologise for what happened with the cake; what she said to me.
She doesn’t. My wife is miles away in Bulgaria with work, and I lay alone in the cold sheets tonight, feeling 100% the fat and ugly old man that I’ve always been. Always will be.
My wife actually tried to protest when Daniel finally got hold of her, saying it’d upset the kids too much to see me. Fortunately, though, Daniel is not that useless solicitor; and Bitcho didn’t have any chance against him. He tutted “bullshit!” down the phone in his Dutch accent, and read from a law book all the reasons why I had a perfect right to see my kids. A few days later, I got a message from Hannah – my wife – mumbling in a defeated tone that she’d bring the kids round soon. Victory! Bitch.
I had a lot of dark moments in those few weeks, especially when she was protesting. There was my birthday, which I feel hideously embarrassed about now. I’d have repeated my “indecent exposure” if it hadn’t been for a dog wandering into the road. I was on the verge of suicide when I got an unexpected phone call.
I didn’t recognise the number, and I almost didn’t pick up, but it could have somehow been one of my kids. I forced my mind away from suicide and answered it.
“Hi, Asshole76. I hope you don’t mind that I saved your number…”
“Of course I don’t! How are you?”
“I’m good, thanks. You’re going to be on the front cover of my book!”
“Really? Well, they were great pictures. I looked awful, though.” I said, laughing. “I was a mess that night.”
“You didn’t look awful, you were obviously just emotional. That’s what makes them outstanding shots. Images without emotion are just snapshots.”
She said that so beautifully, like a poet or something. We’d been talking for less than a minute and I’d forgotten about suicide; I felt like I was talking to a goddess. I didn’t really know what to say after that, though, so I told her that I’d looked at her website and was impressed with her self-portraits. She laughed and thanked me, saying that she got a lot of criticism for them because a photographer is supposed to be behind the camera… and eventually, I found out why she’d called me.
“So, I was wondering… would you consider being my model again? I keep trying to take photos of other people but they just aren’t cutting it. Of course, if you don’t want to it’s fine…”
“No, I’d love to!”
I look back now and wonder how desperate I sounded. If I did, she never told me; she just said that was great, and we agreed to meet up next week in Westminster. I didn’t even think about what I’d agreed to do – model for someone, ha! At thirty-six! – I just wanted to see her again, and find the chance to make her mine.
It’s windy; the sky is threatening rain. I stand outside a café near Big Ben, my clothes and hair blown in all directions by the wind; hanging onto my baby, AKA my camera. I hope this guy actually recognises me. It’s been a while since we met. The craziest thing is that I still don’t even know his name… he’s on the front cover of my book, I’m meeting up with him for a photoshoot and I kind of can’t stop thinking about him; yet he’s just a face without a name.
Tia and Kieran just wouldn’t shut up when they found out who I was meeting. I can live without hearing “Emily and Asshole sitting on a log, they fell off and had a snog” ever again.
Well, here he is. He sees me and waves. I smile, unsure what I’m feeling, and wave back. He’s all wrapped up in a big coat, hat and scarf; he certainly looks like he’s had a bath in the last month, this time. He’s actually pretty attractive, with his dark hair and perfect features. He has beautiful eyes, almost unnaturally green. Wow.
“Hi, sorry I’m late. You been waiting long?”
“No, it’s fine.”
He’s giving me that same look he had on that photo from Shepherd’s Bush; the one where he’s gazing longingly at the camera. He’s not like everyone else… I can tell he feels emotion very differently from most of the people crowding this street. I hardly know him, but I guess you develop a sense of that as a photographer.
And, well, that’s exactly why I want to photograph him! He seems to be pretty relaxed, so I just click the shutter and I’ve captured that look. Awesome.
“Sorry. Hope you don’t mind!”
“Sure. You’ll have to pose me, though. I’m not a natural model!”
I roll my eyes. “Just be yourself. This isn’t a Calvin Klein shoot… I want to capture you, not some obnoxious twat.”
“Alright. I’ll try not to be obnoxious.”
I eventually get some amazing shots of him looking all lost, a speck in front of London landmarks; I tell him to just walk, and although he begins to look awkward, I get some more great ones of him standing out in the crowded street, too. Then some chav starts jumping into all the photos, so we wander down into an underground station to get rid of him. I take a few more shots of him down there, then I offer to buy him dinner since he’s been a star. He insists on buying me dinner instead. Wow.
I show him the photos, then we get to the ones with the photobomber and we can’t stop laughing. There’s a guy in a proper chav kit, with a hoodie and gold chain, jumping around in the background of all these serious photos. Everyone is staring at us but it takes us a few minutes to stop spluttering.
I’m sure he isn’t a particularly successful sound tech, since he wouldn’t live in that shithole if he was, but he takes me to this ridiculously expensive restaurant overlooking the city lights. I still don’t even know his name. I feel like it’d almost be a shame to ask now… but I suppose I’d better find out.
“I don’t even know your name, you know.”
“Really? Ha. I won’t tell you, then.”
“Don’t blame me if I call you Asshole76 for the rest of your life.”
Oh well. I tried.
I ask him about his work, but he rolls his eyes and says we won’t talk about that. He asks about my work so we chat about photography for a while; I show him some of my older work on my phone. When dinner arrives, he suddenly turns a little subdued. I try to make him laugh, but he’s just staring at his plate as if it’s full of poison.
“Hey, are you alright? Have you seen someone?”
“Sorry. I just spaced out. I’m fine.”
He starts chatting to me again, but something has shaken him. I look around but the restaurant is kind of empty. He isn’t eating much, so I try to encourage him; he’s going to pay enough for it! He does, as well. The waiter comes to give us the bill and it’s £165! Bloody hell. Most expensive dinner I’ve ever eaten.
We sit there for a while longer, then eventually he says he has to go to the bathroom. Ah, maybe that’s the problem. He’s in there for ages… and when he comes back, he looks awful. He smells awful.
“Are you okay?”
He smiles wearily. “Yeah, I’m fine. I think I’ve got food poisoning.”
“Oh, shit. Sorry to hear that.”
Maybe I’m just assuming things because it’s too close to home, but I see flashes of my teenage self and wonder if he’s bulimic. None of my business, I suppose.
He’s cheered up, anyway, and it’s a bit stuffy in there so we go back outside. I guess it’s finally time to go home now. I sigh and turn to the underground station.
“Well, this was my favourite photoshoot, you know.”
“It’s my first photoshoot, excluding the last one, but I’m sure it’ll be my favourite too.”
“I hope we can meet up again. Maybe just for coffee or something.”
“Sure. I’d love to.”
After awkward goodbyes we finally go our separate ways. The thought of the underground and my flat seems so dull… I almost expect something weird to happen, but the underground’s not even that busy. The doors are closing when there’s a thud behind me. Ouch. Someone trapped in the door. I should get a photo of that… so I switch my camera on, turn round and realise that it’s Asshole76.
“What are you doing?”
I grab his arm and help him out of the doors. A few people grumble as they slide shut. Poor bloke, this isn’t even the right train! I look at him apologetically.
“I don’t think you can get to Shepherd’s Bush on this line.”
“I’m not going to Shepherd’s Bush.”
Oh well. I don’t bother to question him. More people pile on at the next stop, and we’re crammed into some seats with someone’s bum in our faces. I turn to him to comment on the bum, and he’s staring at me intently with those cat eyes again. We both sort of twitch awkwardly; then he pulls my face close to his and kisses me.
For a moment I don’t notice that my camera’s getting squashed or that the whole train is staring. It empties out at the next stop and then we’ve fallen across the seats. He’s still kissing me, insistently running his hands through my hair. I can vaguely hear that automated voice announcing the stop after mine… oops.
“Hey, hey, I’ve missed my stop…”
We break apart and I sit up. An old lady is staring at us in disbelief. I shrug apologetically.
“Sorry.” he mumbles. “I got carried away.”
“I think we both did. Better get off here and walk.”
We manage to hurry onto the platform before anyone gets stuck in the doors, and make our way out onto the street. I smile wryly at him.
“So you got on my train because…?”
He shrugs and laughs. “No excuse. I think I’m obsessed with you, Emily.”
“I can deal with that.”
Wow. I begin to realise that I like this guy and I’m sort of thrilled. I guess he maybe just wants sex… but when we finally get to my flat, tired from the walk, he doesn’t even hint at that. He just kisses me again and says goodnight. I feel like I’d better invite him in for a cuppa or something.
“You want a coffee or anything?”
“I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.”
He winks. “Since you don’t even know my name.”
“Tell me your name and I’ll make you a nice coffee, not the Tesco shit I give to visitors.”
He tells me that his name is Cornelius. I don’t believe him, but I give him the nice coffee anyway.
It’s been a long time since I broke up with my ex. We were together for about four years, but he was a reasonably famous photographer and eventually it went to his head. He became all pompous and thought he had a right to treat me like crap… so I broke up with him.
Now here I am, in my flat with a guy whose name I don’t know. It’s, well, different, but sort of exciting at the same time. Imagine a photoshoot based around this… that’s soon the last thing on my mind, though.
After debating his name for a little longer, he looks at me intently and kisses me again. I ask if he has a condom and he grunts something that sounds like yes… it had better be a yes, because his touch ignites a long-forgotten fire in me and soon we’re a sweaty mess of ecstasy under my sheets. I laugh when he says he loves me – liar – but God, I haven’t felt like this for so long. I like this stranger.
When I’m bundled up against his sweaty body later, he mumbles something before he falls fast asleep. His eyes are half-closed, tired arm slung around my waist.
“My name is Austin.”
Please feel free to give constructive criticism, if you have any! I do want to publish so I need to know if there's anything that needs fixing up.