Second Strike

Howard’s suit jacket slips off its hanger onto the backseat of the car, onto the floor. This does not concern him; it is a terrible suit. He possesses better – more expensive ones, just about – but he enjoys embarrassing his brother, and the latter – a lawyer specialising in theatrical interests – enjoys being embarrassed by his little brother, the owner of a ‘camera shop.’ (Though Howard does not know that his brother feels embarrassed for him.) He prefers the term ‘photographic supplies store,’ but the place is successful enough; ideally placed in a part of London where young people still think film superior to digital, or, at least, it’s more authentic. That they cannot take a picture that isn’t variously tragic is no concern of Howard’s. They have money, I have toys, he thinks.

It is his brother’s fiftieth; he has been invited mainly so that the ordeal might be captured for free. There is mutual benefit: free booze, free food. Plus, a legitimate reason to stare at starlets all night. Life is the simple considerations.

Yesterday was its own ordeal for him: his beloved toy poodle, Kiki, a lively bundle of uncoiffed chocolate curls, was struck by lightening and, forgive me, barbecued. There is no other word for it – ‘burnt’ doesn’t properly convey the grisliness. In the middle of Shoreditch Park, surrounded by tall trees, humans of all sizes, and larger dogs, Kiki was chosen. Poor Howard had no choice but to wrap her up in his cagoule – as mothers hatefully placed hands over their children’s eyes – rush back to the shop and fling her into the shared dumpster behind the parade. Perhaps, he thought, the reptile place would’ve wanted her; but the overriding concern which lingered? Why didn’t he have a camera for that?

Sick, perhaps, but the only hope remaining in Howard’s life is that he might one day win some regional photography award before cancer – or, more ironic for the serial shutterbug, severe rheumatism. Or is parkinsonism all the more ironic? That is, of course, the sort of choice only a Greek god could make. Which is most fitting: the inability to take a shot at all or never being able to take a good one? A tripod might resolve the latter. Howard revolves such thoughts around his mind, like images in a zoetrope, weekly, sometimes daily. Nevertheless, this time Zeus chose a bolt to his bitch as punishment. But Howard always thinks, and can never resolve, if that the punishment, what the crime? Running a very adequately successful small business? Keeping himself to himself? Having a bottle of Pinot on a Friday night?

Howard is a small-scale sinner.

His brother, however, lives – or, rather, has a second home in – Kent, which is, to Howard’s mind, no small imposition upon the social contract, i.e. why make people leave London, which has all one could want, for a single night? Let alone a night dedicated to celebration of oneself. On his last birthday, Howard had a few pints down the Feathers, as he would affectedly put it, with acquaintances whose presence would’ve been assured on any given night of week.

He is a paragon of humility. His brother didn’t send a card.

Now, let us suppose that Howard has arrived at his decadent destination – a country pile larger than the row of terraces they grew up in – and unloaded his suit, baggage and equipment, with the help of a butler – hired only for the weekend, his brother is parsimonious, in his way. He stands face to face in the hallway, imposing staircase leading off, mahogany panelling ensconcing all, with Allan. Both brothers are tall, but the younger is sparsely padded whereas the older is generously upholstered, which Howard attributes to too many dinners with clients at the Ivy and Rules. Allan grins, his bald head shining in the dull manner of an egg blown-up to the dimensions of a cantaloupe, and shakes Howard’s hand too many times.

‘You found the place okay?’

‘I have satnav and I’ve been here before. Twice. I see it’s still big.’

Allan ends their union of hands and slaps his brother on the shoulder before abruptly turning away. ‘You’re a card. Such a card,’ he says and sweeps away, noiseless in tuxedo. Howard follows him into the ballroom – always too big for the select guest list – and deposits his camera equipment near the bar, before putting on his suit jacket and finding himself disappointed there aren’t more creases on it. ‘You’re wearing that?’ asks his brother. ‘Excellent, excellent.’ He disappears – to check on the canapés, no doubt. It isn’t just the suit of which Allan disapproves, it is the length of the hair – too louche – it is the beard – too desperate – it the spectacles – too, well, suffice to say Allan believes glasses to be a sign of weakness. Which, in turn, Howard believes to be a sign of vanity, despite the fact that his brother brandishes his baldness with stoic pride. Who would have a sibling? An unfriendly friend for life.

By eight o’clock the clamjamphrie of guests have assembled in all their resplendency. Howard has had three glasses of champagne, which he considers an ascetic imbibition, and coupled with his lurking, like a scarecrow, on the periphery among suits of armour, adds to both the guests’ and the help’s confusion as to whether he is guest or help. He enjoys this classless ambiguity, convinced he doesn’t care what others think of him. The periphery, of course, is where a photographer belongs, and where, behind a lens, Howard comes closest to engagement with the world.

Allan will eventually demand posed captures of himself with each guest, to be forwarded as a memento of their visit, but Howard’s flare, and it is, admittedly, a genuine flare, is for capturing people’s unseen, unguarded behaviour. Here is the producer who lets her mask of severity slip as she cannot help but burst a cackle upon hearing a hackneyed joke told by the aged American brute of an actor. There is a director desperately dividing his attention between his wife and an actress. There again is another director desperately dividing his attention between his wife and an actor. The annual acidic reconciliation of the grande dame and the slippered old luvvie, a rekindling that will be overwhelmed by senility and returned to enmity by the night’s end. His brother, meanwhile, flirts with everyone. Is he gay or straight or pure bon vivant? He smokes a large cigar, but sometimes that is, as even the Witchdoctor of Vienna may, or may not, have conceded, just what it seems. Howard has never asked his brother about his preferences due to disinterest – possibly even less than that: bluntly, he is uninterested.

But, oh, those aforementioned starlets. This is not a purely prurient proclivity on Howard’s part, for over his brother’s years he has observed that many stage actresses leave you searching for an antonym of pulchritude when it comes to describing their screen sisters. But, blessing or curse, they remain on the stage, out of the more grotesque money and fame, because they are photogenically challenged. They do not, somehow, translate to a captured image. Howard can best liken this to the effect of seeing one’s own face in a mirror and then a photograph. Thus his enthusiasm is more for the challenge of trying to capture them as perfectly as possible. Why then, you may ask, did he not become a fashion photographer? Far too competitive an industry for his tastes.

Similarly, in the name of conflict evasion, Howard will not quibble with those who do ask him to take their picture. No matter how ridiculous or improvable their pose may be, he takes it. Ask and he shall click.

‘If I give you my email will you send those to me?’ asks a curly brunette after her fourth photo request of the hour.

‘If you like,’ says Howard, adjusting his camera’s settings. ‘No problem.’

‘Swell.’ She smiles and Howard responds capably in kind; after all, his inhibitions stem from decision, not design.

‘Do they look good?’ she asks.

‘Yes – I mean, best I can do anyway.’

‘Oh,’ her faces creases a little, ‘I guess you see a lot of girls like me.’

‘Not really,’ says Howard, reflecting that he is only really seeing her now, that is, out of frame. She is a little on the short side, but still probably approaches the immemorial patterns of beauty that provoke, in men, the construction of bridges, the writing of ballads, and the invasion of countries. Her dress is cut in a revealingly formal manner suited to the occasion. And a man, or at least Howard, can dream of exploring the lines of those cuts, ensnared by the intent of their designer – most probably, he reflects, also a man.

‘Too fat?’ she says, and turns away faster than our bemused friend’s comprehension.

The jazz band pauses for a round of tuneless singing and the ceremonial cutting of a cake. Candles deftly blown, Howard pulls his brother to one side. ‘That girl, in the gold dress, she seems odd.’

‘I’d call that bronze, my dear fellow,’ says Allan. ‘Why odd?’

‘She keeps asking me to take her picture.’

‘Say it ain’t so,’ says Allan, clutching at his heart with both hands. ‘You have a camera, and…’ he gestures expansively, ‘I told her you were a fashion photographer. She’s desperate to work as a model, never could of course, but why not let her dream for one night?’

Howard frowns. ‘Fantastic. And if she discovers otherwise?’

‘I suppose she’ll be sore.’

‘With you.’

‘Perhaps, but probably both of us. Be careful. You know, she’s the one.’

‘The one what?’

‘Who flew over the cuckoo’s nest.’ Allan guffaws and applauds his own wit, before landing another comradely blow to Howard’s shoulder and turning away, having realised how many minutes of mingling he’s lost.

Between midnight and one o’clock the guests disperse, some to cars, some to rooms. As Howard dismantles his camera, folds up the loathed tripod and secures a ‘spare’ bottle of champagne, he discovers a small card on which someone has written I’m not that fat, see for yourself, Olivier room 2am. He knows, of course, who it is from but is startled – like a charge of static along his spine – upon turning the card over, to discover her name: Kiki Desmond.

For one thing, Howard did not know that anyone under forty still possessed such a thing as a business card, but more importantly he does not believe in fate or kismet or any such nonsense. However, he thinks, however, who could dismiss the fortune of being propositioned by a beautiful young woman – even one under the misguided belief that you could further her career – who shares the name of your recently deceased dog? And the odds are improbable – a human named Kiki? Don’t make me laugh, he thinks.

Howard freshens up and considers the situation, champagne as boon companion, in his room, the Rutherford room – all of Allan’s bedrooms being named after departed thespians. True, he is tired and not a little drunk. He does not know what sort of performance he could put in or whether this girl really intends for any sort of performance beyond a heartfelt pleading to put her on the cover of Vogue. Nevertheless, despite his twin crutches of pessimism and indolence, he creeps – and the creeping part itself is mildly exciting – to the Olivier room.

He knocks gently. She does not come. He listens; music is playing. This is his brother’s house, so, surely, lacking any other heirs, Howard’s too. He opens the door, the room is empty, but the music comes in gently from the bathroom. He enters and shuts himself in. The music, coming from a laptop, sounds extra tinny in the poor acoustics of the bathroom. He calls out her name. Kiki calls out his. Finally, he puts his head around the bathroom doorway and sees her, curls tied up, sitting drinking wine in the sunken bath, her body only just submerged beneath a line of diminishing bubbles.

‘Now do you like what you see?’ she asks, coy as any carp one could name.

‘Yes,’ says Howard, rolling the dice, ‘not quite what we do at my studio, but I like it.’

‘Good. Join me?’

He undresses with such haste he almost trips over the laptop set at the water’s edge. He descends with more care, he is six years younger than his brother, but a fall in the bath would be a poor precedent for middle age. Once settled, close but trying not quite to touch her, before he can think of his next action she is upon him and Howard cannot help but picture himself in the clutches of an amorous squid. Between bursts of smearing her lips against his she ravishes him with platitudinous demands: ‘Tell me I’m beautiful’ – ‘Make me famous’ – ‘Tell me I’m a star’ and so on. All of which Howard concedes. Rash and insensitive as he knows this is, he cannot bring himself to care about the feelings of someone who thinks they are also using him. Nor, as Kiki extends herself out from the water to pour wine for them both, can he pity the purportedly demanding and stressful life of the professional fashion photographer.

‘Oh,’ says Kiki, with a giggle, ‘here’s my card.’ It must’ve fallen out of his trousers. ‘And this must be your card.’ A weight hits Howard’s stomach much like a bowling ball dropped into this very bath. ‘Howard Levine,’ she read enthusiastically – a tone which sharply falls: ‘Photography and Digital Imaging Supplies.’ She rounds on him with a splash, tossing the incriminating scrap at his distressed face. ‘What is this?’ Well, quite, but why couldn’t he have enjoyed this just a little longer?

‘I can explain – that’s my other card,’ he offers, attempting to take her arm but she is already up and out of the water.

‘Your other – do you think I’m an idiot?’

‘Please, it wasn’t my fault, my brother…’ His brother would able to talk this away.

Kiki turns, naked and nimbly, with little concern for herself, kicking the laptop – complete with a fatefully attached cable – into the bath.

Fuses blow. Howard and house fade to black. Soon his brother, disgruntled and swathed in a kimono, will stalk the house with a torch, believing himself to be in need of no more than an electrician.

Accidie, reader, accidie was Howard’s sin.