Monday, June 11, 2018

Depth of Field by Martyn Clayton

As a favour Maggie takes a picture of her friend's father at the moment of his death, and soon discovers a wider demand for this morbid service; by Martyn Clayton.

It had begun innocently enough. A rarely seen friend mentioned something as a possibility over coffee. Jo said she didn't think her dad had long left to live. He'd been a life-model in his youth. He'd been so good looking back then, super-confident, never talented enough to make it as an artist but he liked to hang around with the art school crowd. That was where he met Jo's mum. Her parents had been interesting once, she'd laughed.

Maggie's heart ached for a friend coming to terms with imminent bereavement. You get older and one by one friends and family members begin to fall away. A circle that had once felt tight and invincible is shown as frail and vulnerable. Maggie had reached the point where she said a silent prayer of thanks to God knows what for each new day.

Then had come the phone call.

'It's dad. He'll be going soon. How soon can you get here?'

There was a hospice on the site of the old cottage hospital. It was paid for by charitable endeavour. Maggie read about the bed pushes, the cross channel swimming, the heads being shaved in search of funds. The town needs a place like this, said the lady who lobbied for it her hair going progressively greyer in every promotional photograph. It was open now and it was named after her partner:

The Steve Benton Hospice

Steve hadn't died in a hospice. He'd passed his last week on a trolley in a hospital nearly forty miles away. "In the name of humanity let's give people here somewhere decent and dignified to pass over." That's the language of the place. It's the language Jo had been using for weeks now.

Maggie had grabbed a camera from the kitchen table. It probably wasn't the best one for the job. It was left there from her trip out into the hills to gather more of her seasonal landscape shots that would make up her calendar. She perhaps needed her portrait camera. The one she used for the commissions, the weddings, the gruesome posed family portraits, the bread and butter work that just about paid her bills. But there was little time to waste. She couldn't hesitate. In those seconds she might change her mind. She'd never been present as someone was dying. There'd been opportunities but she'd swerved past them, had something on, admitted she couldn't really face it. And at times like these people tend to be generous and understanding, it's only after that the recriminations start. None of the people she'd lost had been close enough by blood for her presence to be expected.

She'd cycled through the town's empty streets. It was always a curious feeling to be out late on her bike. She felt so fragile on streets which she knew so well and rarely considered. A couple of taxis passed her by, an empty bus with 'out of service' above its window headed back to the depot. A solitary teenage drunk, one she didn't recognise, weaved this way then that on the broad pavements as she reached the hospice. Tony Trees, the displaced scarecrow, was in his usual spot, legs dangling, arms stretched across the lower branches of a plane tree. His head was lolling, his button smile threatening to fall off at any moment. A placard hung around his neck read:

I don't know what I'm doing.

She knew how he felt. There were turnings to right and to left that could reverse her route, send her back towards her flat. It would be so easy to do. Then she remembered Jo, her friend alone with her father, and wondered what kind of person could leave someone like that. Her hand was shaking as she locked her bike. There was a nurse sitting behind a reception desk. The light was dimmed. She looked up from her computer screen and smiled at Maggie.

'You must be here to see Mr Fawley? I was told to expect you.'

From behind a closed door Jo appeared. She'd been crying but her face was lit up by the most beautiful natural smile. The last time she'd seen Jo so happy she'd just given birth to Maya. It reminded Maggie that her friend had experienced so much more life than she had already despite her being ten years younger.

But you have other things Maggie Solent. You have your work. That's creative enough. A child would only get in the way. The classic pram in the hall limiting you, particularly if you're on your own. She was too old now anyway. It might still be possible but it was inadvisable. Even if she were to set her heart on reproducing herself the most likely outcome wouldn't be a child, it would be heartache.

Death had circled around the edges of her friendship group, taking much loved cousins, kind hearted uncles but no one immediate. Her mother was fond of telling her she came from healthy peasant stock. All that fresh air and home grown food had served to polish and refine the DNA down the centuries. What was left was as strong as it was cumbersome.

'I intend to make a century,' says her mother. She will be eighty next birthday.

Her father confided that he was considering leaving his current wife Jennifer before he turns 81.

'Is that terribly wise dad?' she'd said.

He came and went on impulse. His marriages had mostly been the same. She may theoretically be an only child but her father had ensured there were a host of half-siblings scattered across Europe, the UK and North America all as equally myopic as she was and the man whose inconsistencies had given them all life.

'I've never made any claims to wisdom Maggie, you know that only too well.'

As yet he hadn't left his fourth wife. Maggie hoped he'd grown too tired to be bothered. Jennifer was fifteen years his junior, her daughters doted on him for some inexplicable reason. He'd end his days in the Californian sunshine.

Jo moved through the world differently. She was of the town. Rooted in a way Maggie could never be. She belonged to some deeper tradition.

'He's still here. Just,' she said.

Maggie had frozen for a second before Jo took her hand and led her into the room.

'I'm the only one here. The others have left. It's how I wanted it though. The chaplain's been. She said he seemed ready and she sees them all like this. All the believers anyway.'

'Your dad?'

'Yes, he was. I think. At least he never said he wasn't. And she was kind. Closure I think.' Her words were hushed but spilling out.

'Oh right,' Maggie didn't know what to do with herself.

'Get your camera out then.'

There he was. The man she'd met on a few occasions when Jo invited her to family gatherings. The raconteur in his floppy cricket hat from summer barbecues, the solemn soul having a bad day in his study rocking chair to whom she'd carried a mug of tea while Jo fed Maya, he suddenly remembering not everyone present was family and partially perking up, the man who waved at her as he left the Post Office and she cycled home from a GP appointment. She didn't know him that well. Certainly not well enough to be here now as his final moments of life ebbed away. Perhaps that was the whole point.

He was almost all gone. The covers over his ribcage rose and fell with a drawn out irregular rhythm.

'The gaps between his breaths are getting longer. I've been counting them. It was sixteen seconds earlier. It's around forty two now. They sometimes go to one a minute.'

Maggie was incapable of words. It wasn't a new sensation so she did what she always did under such circumstances and brought her camera to her eye. It clicked and beeped as she turned it on sounding intrusive in the peace of the room. She couldn't really see much through the viewfinder. Her finger hesitated on the button.

'Oh no, sorry.' The flash. She really didn't want the flash. She fumbled with the flash button switching it to manual as the sheets slowly rose and fell. Then she did it. She pushed the button. There was a rapid series of clicks as the body in the bed let out a long low sigh. Then there was nothing else. She slowly removed the camera from her eye and sat back in the chair. Jo was still holding her father's hand, gazing at him. She was so calm.

Maggie quietly stood up. She took one last look at them both, her friend now totally oblivious to her presence. Then she quietly left.

It had taken her three weeks before she could look at the photos. There'd been no further word from Jo, not even about the details of the funeral and Maggie had felt too shaken by the experience to make contact. It was the intensity of the emotion that was the problem. It was shocking, the atmosphere in the room had almost been tangible. She presumed the funeral had taken place. There was no question of her going anyway. She didn't want to have to look the family in the eye knowing what sat waiting on her camera. On a couple of occasions she'd come close to deleting the entire memory card but had hesitated long enough to change her mind. When she finally came to look at them her heart had been racing, a feeling of deep welling sickness in the pit of her stomach. There was the first one. It wasn't so terrible. Just a man lying there with his eyes closed. He could be asleep if his drawn cheeks didn't suggest something wasn't quite right, his few thin wisps of grey hair standing up as if animated by static. She'd read something about the dying. There's often a static charge about their person. She wasn't sure where she'd read it or how reliable the source but something about the image reminded her.

You could see Jo's hand intruding in the corner. Her chipped nail polish, the creases starting to form, holding a hooked arthritic hand now almost drawn into a claw. The light was interesting. Immediately she felt herself slipping into professional mode. No flash. Just the hospice light. And what was that around the head of Jo's father. It almost looked like a halo. It was soft and warm, like a candle in a dark church. It was surely a trick of the shot something perhaps reflecting in a polished surface. But the overall effect was to make him look ethereal, as if he was existing in two places at once. Or as if something was leaving his body at that very moment. She sat and stared at the image on her laptop. Within a couple of days she had a print. It was captivating. This couldn't be the last time she did this.

It was surprisingly easy to find dying people to photograph. Families, friends and the dying themselves were forthcoming in wanting to record the moment when they left this life. They all talked about going on a journey, even the ones who claimed to be devout non-believers. There was so much space-time and space to get lost in.

They knew her at the hospice now. She'd stopped travelling the country and the ideas she had about taking the project overseas were quickly forgotten. If there were any truth in this it lay here, in this small town in middle-England filled with the quietly remarkable and completely ordinary. She didn't have to publicise her work for it to be known. People talked about the woman who spent her weekends photographing weddings and her early hours at the bedside of the dying. People asked for her like they did the chaplain. She knew how to comport herself, how to be unobtrusive, learnt not to worry about the click of the camera which no one ever noticed. Sometimes the families wanted to see the photographs, more often than not they didn't. Sometimes it was only her who accompanied the dying person.

Alan Fairburn was bereft of family and friends. He would joke that he was the kind of person that neighbours of a murderer would describe as someone who always kept himself to himself. She didn't think Alan was murderous. Shy perhaps with a compensatory acerbic tongue that had felt little in the way of restraint. It was why so many people who once might have cared for him had fallen by the wayside. He said he'd forgotten the reasons why he was alone but he was glad she came.

He'd sent her an email shortly after his cancer diagnosis became terminal.

'It's a relief in some ways. I can't face the thought of growing old alone. I'm 64. Historically speaking I've had a good innings.'

He lived in a flat in a converted warehouse by the canal. Maggie had been to see him after she received his email. It was filled with books on every subject under the sun. Alan spent his days tracking the movements of the global stock markets, moving around capital like chips on a roulette table.

Maggie never agreed nor contradicted people. She smiled and the let them talk. That was the better part of the whole thing.

'When I'm gone I'd be happy for you to put my photos on your website. Or in one of your exhibitions. When is the next one?'

'In the old Corn Exchange in November. Upstairs. They've just opened a gallery space.'

'Ah, I doubt I'll make November. I hope it goes well in my absence. Or perhaps I'll be there anyway. In spirit.' He smiled.

When they'd first met he told her that he was an atheist. Life was a fluke, a random bit of chance devoid of meaning. As he approached the end his language appeared to be softening. A week before he finally passed she'd been sitting with him in the hospice cafe;

'It didn't seem real until yesterday,' he said.

'What happened yesterday?'

'They came to see me. Two of them.'

'Family? Are they back in touch?'

'No, no not family,' he waved a hand impatiently. 'Nothing like that. I mean beings. From the next world. They sat on the end of my bed and told me they'd be coming to collect me.'

'Right.' She'd been taken aback. She'd heard these stories before. The hospice staff said the same. There are accounts all over the internet from people who'd been with the dying, those who had temporarily died only to be brought back by medical brilliance. They talk of the beings. Sometimes they are related, in other cases they are not. Maggie didn't know what she made of them. The elaborate delusions of a brain under intense stress perhaps? A painkilling chemical cocktail provoking odd visions? Who knew. Alan had been cogent though.

'I wasn't expecting them,' he said. 'I don't believe in an afterlife. I've told you that. This is all we have and what I've got to look forward to is the relief of sweet oblivion. Except.'

'Did they seem real.'

'God yes, more real than you. A lot more real than me.'

'You don't think it was the...'

'What? The drugs? No, I don't think so. I dabbled with hallucinogenics as a student. It was nothing like that. Anyway, I'm hardly on anything. Just a little painkiller. The treatment's stopped.'

He started to describe the beings. They were humans, but made of light. They began as a pin prick of light in the corner of the room then began to grow. They were like the nurses. There to comfort and reassure.

'I don't know why they came. I really don't deserve any comfort.'

Four days later Maggie received the familiar call from the hospice manager to say Alan's time was drawing near. There was no one else present. There'd been no one present for the previous few days but the nurses said they frequently heard him talking to someone as they passed his open door. As she held his hand in the moments before he passed his arm pointed to something on the far wall;

'The flowers Maggie. Would you look at those flowers.'

As he died a look of sublime peace crossed his face. Maggie lifted her camera to her eye and captured it. When she brought it down she noticed how charged the room felt. There were no flowers. A nursing assistant had taken out a vase of sorry looking supermarket blooms that she'd hastily brought for him the previous week. They'd been perched on the shelf slowly dying like the occupant of the bed opposite.

As she'd cycled home she'd felt shaken. It was the first time she'd felt so disconcerted for some time. There'd been something about Alan that struck a chord. He was a loner like her. An oddball. Someone who didn't know how to fit. Here they were drawn together, he with her out of fear of dying alone, she with him because of her artistic ghoulishness.

She'd cried when she'd looked at his photos. Her friend was gone. She wishes she'd got to know him sooner, when he was well, before any of this tragedy unfolded. Perhaps it wasn't a tragedy though. Perhaps the figures and the flowers were real. Perhaps the smile across Alan's face wasn't an involuntary final muscle movement.

She was haunted again by those same initial feelings. Perhaps she was mawkish and intrusive. People facing their own end or the end of their loved ones were not in a fit state to make a judgement about her presence. Perhaps she was taking advantage of them. Until now none of this had been done for money. That might soon change. The state of her bank account demanded that it should.

A Sunday Newspaper columnist had discovered her work and pitched for a feature in the magazine. It was likely there'd be more interest. Every day when she looked at her inbox it bristled with vacant possibility in a way it never had before.

Out of the blue Jo called. She was pregnant again. Her third child. She knew it was going to be a boy this time. They hadn't had the test but she just knew. Aidan was pestering her to find out for definite but she said they could wait. Jo had been looking at the website. Said it looked incredible. She'd made so much progress. She was really going to try to make the show later in the year. It would be good to have a chat.

'Actually,' said Maggie, 'could we meet sooner maybe. I'd love to see your face again.'

The following day they were sitting at their usual table at Cafe Tiago as if they'd never been away. They were soon nursing coffee in oversized cups and nibbling on cake. Maggie wondered if one day people would look on these cake fixes the same way we now regarded smoking. Not something that was done in polite company unless you had a death wish. Her dad had recently told her he had Type 2 Diabetes but his was drink rather than cake related. Maggie had chuckled and congratulated him on getting this far with his lifestyle. It was a real achievement.

'I don't have a sweet tooth Maggie. That's the weird thing about it.' Maggie had rolled her eyes down the Skype line. Her dad hadn't noticed. He was peering down at the screen through his reading glasses. Maggie could feel her not yet dead mother squatting on her shoulders directing her own responses.

'And before I go I must tell you,' he said. 'I'm going to be a great grandfather. Isn't that incredible?'

Amy, the blonde, toothsome granddaughter who Maggie had only ever seen in photographs on screens was pregnant at 19. Some football jock she'd met at Auburn University in deepest Alabama. It sounded less like a seat of learning than an apology for ginger hair. 'It seems her moral aversion to contraception hasn't been allowed to get in the way of her sex drive,' Maggie's father chuckled.

'I'm very happy for you,' Maggie had rehearsed. Amy's mother was some kind of fundamentalist. She didn't believe in evolution. The world had been created one afternoon six thousand or so years ago, presumably when god grew bored of being on his own.

'We've had countless arguments about the dinosaurs,' her father once told her. 'I just indulge her now. It's sort of cute.'

Her faith hadn't stopped her having an affair with a visiting married Englishman however but to be fair to the woman it seems unlikely her father advertised the fact he was already wed.

Jo's eyes had grown wider. As if Maggie's family were the most exotic thing she'd ever encountered.

'He always sounds like quite a character your dad.'

'That's one way of putting it.'

'And you. How are you feeling? About the show I mean. I'm really sorry I fell out of touch. I don't know what it was. A bit of guilt perhaps. I wasn't sure if I'd done the right thing when I invited you to take photographs. I never told anyone else in the family.'

Maggie knew she was often a secret.

'I just wanted to do something incredible I think. Or at least give you the opportunity to do something incredible. I don't think he would've minded. He was that sort of person. He liked art. He liked photography. He would definitely be interested in what you were doing.'

Maggie admitted her own doubts. They were constant. Despite the chatter she kept turning up at the bedside of the dying with her camera.

'There's this photographer. He's in Ukraine or Belarus. And he takes photos of people in open coffins. They do that in the Orthodox church. They have an open coffin and friends and relatives can come and visit. The photos are really moving and interesting but after you've seen a few it starts to become normalised. Like people who take photos of dead children in war zones. It takes away all the ability to shock. You find yourself flicking through the pages a bit disinterested but you shouldn't be.'

'Perhaps you're not trying to shock. Perhaps you're just depicting something that few people see or if they do they never talk about it.'

'I don't know. Perhaps we shouldn't try and make death mundane. '

She can't get an image out of her head. She isn't sure where or when she saw it or even if it's real. It's of a child. The child is lying on the ground in some parched, famine ridden place. It is close to death with a grossly distended belly. A metre away from the child a vulture sits quietly waiting. It's clear what comes next. She recalls something about the photographer. He took lots that day. Photographs of children at the point of death. Their parents too but this is the one that made his name. It's a gruesome photograph. She recalls something else too. A story about the photographer. He was so distressed by his failure to intervene that he took his own life. Why didn't he help the little girl, they asked?

You can make yourself a voyeur. You can be there when life is slipping away but you cannot intervene. You are powerless. She is no more able to save a life than she can save all those wedding parties from the disappointments and tragedies that will follow. All the children they cannot have, all the children who go awry, all the children they have to bury, all the infidelity and the lies. All the brilliant photographs in the world cannot shield you from reality.

That night there was a phone call. The clock on her bedside table said eleven thirteen. She was in bed reading. Some dumb generic crime novel filled with everyday gore. It wasn't doing much to interrupt her troubled chain of thought.

'Is that Maggie?' asked a female voice. It sounded young.

It was a mother. Her daughter had acute myeloid leukemia. It wasn't going to be cured. She'd been moved to a children's hospice in a town a short train ride away. Maggie hesitated. She'd never photographed children.

'And how old is your daughter?'

'She's seven. Just seven.'

The silence at the end of the line must have spoken volumes.

'I'm sorry. Is it shocking? I've looked at your website but I haven't seen any photographs of children. I don't know if I'm asking for something you don't do?'

Maggie said yes. It just came out without thought or hesitation. She didn't sleep that night. Just sat up drinking coffee and flicking through the TV channels until the dawn broke and it was time to cycle to the station to get the first train. The mother was waiting for her on a bench outside the hospice that sat in neatly kept grounds, rose bushes in bloom behind trimmed box hedges. She was younger than she expected. Maybe not yet out of her twenties.

'Hayley is all I've got really,' she said. Maggie didn't probe. The young woman was called Ellie. It was a shock to see the girl. She was unconscious, her hair gone, her frame ravaged by illness. She looked tiny. Like a baby bird that had fallen from the nest. The room was filled with cards and balloons, a pink stuffed elephant sat on the end of the bed.

'I've been here four days now. The lady chaplain came yesterday. She said she'd come again today.'

'Have you slept at all?'

'A little. I don't like leaving her. I don't want her to be on her own when she goes. I never told her she was dying. I just said she was very poorly and that I'd be with her through it. I didn't want to scare her. She's not been scared.'

Maggie thought of the vulture. It had her face.

'I can't do this Ellie. I can't take a photograph of her.'

'Why? Is she not right?'

'No please, don't think that. She's perfect. I just can't do this any more.'

'I'd like you to. Here, have my phone. Just take one of us both. For me. That's all. It would mean a lot to me.'

Maggie took the phone as Ellie leaned across her daughter, clutched her hand and rested her smiling face hers. Maggie focused then clicked. Three times. She handed the phone back to the young woman. She was little more than a girl.

'Thank you. I'm so pleased you did that.'

'I usually go at this point.'

'Oh, but you've only just got here.'

Maggie sat back down in her chair. She would stay. It was something she could do.

'Where's Hayley's dad if you don't mind me asking? Did he not want to be here?'

'Prison.'

'Does he know she's ill?'

'No I don't talk to him. He's not a good person.'

'OK. What about your family?'

'Mum died of an overdose when I was four. Dad's nowhere. I don't know if he's alive or dead. I'm not even sure if he knows he has a daughter. It's like we came from nowhere, me and her.' She strokes her daughter's head.

Maggie looked on as the young woman clutched the hand of the only thing she had in life of any worth. 'I wish I knew what to say.'

'You don't have to say anything. Just take some photographs.'

Maggie reached for her camera lifting it to her eye. She peered through the viewfinder at the girl, her blonde eyebrows, the slow rise and fall of her chest.

'She's beautiful Ellie. She looks like you.'

The camera clicks. Four, five, six times. She slowly removes it from her eye and looks down at the bed. The girl reaches her free hand towards Maggie's and holds it.

'Thank you.'

They stay together in near silence for nearly three hours the nurses bringing cups of tea and sandwiches. It was almost evening by the time Maggie finally left them both, the little girl still tenaciously holding onto life, her mother still holding her hand as if to keep her tied to this world a little longer. Maggie sat in the bar of an old coaching inn, checking her phone, sipping on a pint and eating crisps. She took the last train from the little town shortly before seven.

The carriage was almost empty as the train rattled along the single track home, the autumn sun slowly retreating across the fields of stubble. The carriage was filled with a soft orange light as Maggie retrieved her camera and caught the tail of the sunset.

4 comments:

  1. A very beautiful story, well told with grace and courage - leaving the reader to wrestle with the questions raised. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. An intriguing and uncomfortable tale. The mix of present and past in the last few paragraphs gives the reader the impression that not only is Maggie photographically witnessing the deaths of others, but possibly she is confronting her own.
    B r o o k e

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  3. A haunting tale of strength and dignity. The comfort Maggie provides is a beautiful thing, with or without the photos...yet selfishly I wonder how many of the photos contain hints of afterlife inadvertently captured...would love a peek through Maggie's entire catalogue!
    Ron

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  4. I'm with Ron - I would love to see Maggie's photos! I'd be there at the Old Corn Exchange in November....

    ReplyDelete