Short story extract

Paradise

Architectural photographer Sylvie got talking to a music student at a suburban station in Birmingham. When their mainline connection to London was cancelled, they decided to have lunch together.

Sylvie and the young man are drinking red wine and sharing tapas. Sylvie removes a sprig of rosemary from a dish of sardines. The sardines have been split open and fried in breadcrumbs. They look like scraps of used sandpaper. She lifts one onto her plate and douses it with lemon juice. The lemon wedge escapes the pressure of her fingers and goes skidding across the slate floor. He’s playing with the rosemary, rolling it between his fingers. The little dry leaves scatter across the table until there is nothing left but stalk.

A sardine bone, fine as a hair, lodges itself in Sylvie’s lipstick. She can feel it stuck there, but her fingers struggle to find it.

“Let me,” he says.

He leans across the table and picks the bone from her lip. He holds it out to her. Sylvie takes it and places it on the side of her plate. His fingertips are hot as they brush against hers, hot and dry.

“I don’t know your name,” he says.

They have crossed a threshold, Sylvie knows, into a place where it is natural he should know her name, where she should know his. But we wouldn’t be here, she thinks, if we had gone through the usual introductions.

“No,” she says.

A lump of potato falls from his fork, scattering tiny drops of oily tomato across his shirt and the white laminate tabletop.

“Well, don’t you think that’s strange?” he persists, scrubbing at the table with a crumpled paper napkin.

“No.”

“You don’t think it’s strange to spend two hours with someone and not know their name?”

“An accidental two hours,” says Sylvie.

“No, not accidental. Our meeting was accidental, but we decided to come here.”

Sylvie is bored of this conversation. He wants to be with her, she thinks, more than she wants to be with him. She puts her hand on his.

“I’m not going to tell you my name,” she says.

He takes her hand in both of his, bending each finger in turn, gently, as if he’s worried they might be broken.

“Tell me something else, then,” he says. “Something about you.”

“What sort of thing?”

“Anything.”

She tells him how she used to walk down Broad Street with her camera, documenting the buildings they were already planning to knock down. It started off as a modest project – a single black and white photograph of each building – then grew into something bigger, more detailed. There was a wall she began to photograph brick by brick using an instamatic camera and colour film. She intended to recreate it as a near life-size collage as part of her degree show. The wall was high, but she was lent a tall wooden ladder by the owner of the junk shop next door. On the third day, two uniformed policemen came and asked her to leave. She was on private property, they said, and the owner had complained. They were nice to her, helped her carry the ladder back to the shop. One of them told her he had a daughter who was an art student.

“She’s always taking things out of skips,” he said. “I expect someone will complain about that one day.”

Her disappointment was tempered by relief. At least she wouldn’t have to pay for any more film processing. Her daily visits to the wall had been followed by three-hour busking sessions on the ramp leading to the shopping centre before heading, cash in hand, to Boots’ photography counter.

“Do you still have them, the photos?” the young man asks as Sylvie pauses.

“Somewhere, I think.”

“I’d like to see them,” he says. He’s still holding her hand. Sylvie pulls it away to re-tie her hair in a loose knot at the nape of her neck.

“They’re just pictures of bricks,” she says.

“What about the others? The buildings?”

“I’ve got hundreds of pictures of buildings,” says Sylvie. And you’re not going to see them, she thinks. They’re in London, and I’m not going to see you in London. She motions to a waiter for the bill.

“Shall we go for a walk?” she asks.