A photograph captures a mere moment in time. What are the secrets behind a feigned smile or a flirtatious glance in an unfitting direction? Why are there flowers on the mantelpiece? Who is that woman? Why is she crying? In some cases we don’t know how a photograph came to look as it does and what confluence of events brought people together to pass in front of a camera shutter for a brief moment, before moving off into immortality, leaving behind an indelible footprint of a set of circumstances, which to them were everything, but to us are a mystery. We can imagine though and we can guess.
A forgotten photograph lies discarded. Robert Leeming conjures up his version of the story that lies behind the image in this short fiction.
New York – New Year’s Eve – 1967
“Behold the customary loves and friendships,” Michael flipped over the page, “I am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting, and I am one who is kissed in return.” He threw the book onto a chair. “Am I ignorant not to get,” Michael leaned over the back of the sofa to gain a better view of the cover, “Walt Whitman, because I don’t get Walt Whitman?”
Sally, his girlfriend of three years shouted from the bathroom, “That’s natural, you’re a student doctor, if you liked Walt Whitman there would be something quite wrong.” Their flat was a mêlée of the scientific and the artistic. She was a painter turned waitress who had filled the room with half finished canvases and sketch books while his medical journals and texts were left to take up any remaining space.
“I don’t like that comment,” he yelled back, “if I wanted to get Walt Whitman I would, I like poetry, when I’m in that kind of a mood.” Michael reached for his grey overcoat and mumbled underneath his breath, “I’m just not often in that kind of a mood.”
Sally, girlish and twenty-five walked in, her blonde hair tied back, she was wearing trousers beneath a brown coat, trousers like her hero Katharine Hepburn and trousers, more realistically, because it was freezing outside. “What time are we meeting Archie and Margo,” she asked, “are we meeting them in town?”
Michael had sat down again and was mired in her book. “I introduce that new American salute, behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious,” he read aloud. “Always suspicious, does Walt Whitman know something I don’t?” Sally was used to his delaying tactics, Michael hated New Year and she knew it. “Come on,” she asked again, “when are we meeting Archie and Margo?”
He stood up and fastened the buttons on his coat, “I think I’m going to introduce a new American salute, something rude and distasteful, something Walt Whitman would love.”
“What time are we meeting them, we’re meeting them in town, aren’t we? Aren’t we?” Margo paused for an answer and stared into a large mirror covered in old tickets and playbills, lipstick red messages and bright reminders scrawled on the glass for memories sake. “Aren’t we?” she shouted again.
Archie appeared in the doorway a dark trench coat folded over one arm, he looked younger than he was and still had possession of a roundish baby-face.“You’re a Virgo aren’t you Margo?” Archie asked, “A Virgo?”
“Oh, Jesus, not again,” Margo replied, eyeing his reflected image in the mirror, “What time are we meeting Michael and Sally, Archie?”
“Only I was talking to one of my hippie friends today,” Archie continued, ignoring her question, fiddling with the cufflink on his left sleeve, “well I say hippie, no, he is a hippie, and he said that Uranus and Pluto, you know the planets?”
Margo spun around from the mirror to face him and shouted, “What time are we meeting Michael and Sally, Archie, stop fucking around?”
“Oh come on Margo, the planets,” Archie said, glancing upwards, “Uranus and Pluto, they’re going to be in direct conjunction, happens once every oh, thousand years.” Archie stretched his left arm into his coat and made for the coffee table and a bowl of fresh fruit resting on top of an old and curling copy of Vanity Fair.
“This apple, Uranus, stands for rebellion, vicious rebellion, ironically enough against power,” he leant down to pick up an orange, “and this orange, although it is exactly the same size as exhibit A, is Pluto, stands for empowerment and the radical, Karl Marx and long hair and Jefferson Airplane and things like that.” Margo rolled her eyes and picked up a glass of red wine resting on top of the wooden mantelpiece, she was ready to go, her coat was on, with its fur cuffs and collar, real fur, she was the type.
“They’re both going to mirror each other, this year, in your sign, Virgo, you are a Virgo, right, Margo? Margo?!” She failed to reply and stared at Archie. “And you know what that means don’t you, when this apple and this orange meet, collide even?” He stood, holding the fruit aloft, hopefully awaiting an answer.
“Fuck you Archie,” she said, in desperation, finishing the wine in a gulp, “I’m going.”
“It means revolution and crisis and riots and bomb squads and misery, that’s what it means,” he sank into the easy chair, creasing his coat in the process, “and you want to go out and celebrate, to whoop it up, to toast our own imminent demise,” he jumped upwards so his knees were digging into the dark leather, his feet facing outwards, his front against the leather back, balancing precariously, “oh Margo,” he laughed, “you’re so reckless!”
They had known each other for a year, Michael, still at college and about to return for his final months before he took up residence at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, had rented a small flat on the East Side with Sally. Theirs had been a powerful affair to begin with, but it had levelled out and settled into the mundane perhaps a little too quickly. Archie and Margo were new acquaintances, thrown together as squash doubles and yet to reach the level of fully fledged friends. They were a little further down the path, both had jobs, Margo a secretary and Archie a rising star at an IRS office downtown. She was content, he was not content, she was happy with simplicity, he wanted more and exercised his energies on hopeless hobbies and wild schemes which always came to nothing. The two couples were friends because they were there, because friends were hard to come by and acquaintances old or new were always easier to keep than dispel. There was no inherent attraction.
“Don’t get Archie started on facts, useless facts I might add, we’ve already had the progressions of the cosmos acted out tonight, he doesn’t need the encouragement,” Margo shouted, guffawing at the end of the sentence. The four were having dinner at a restaurant before heading to Times Square for the New Year celebrations.
“The stars? Oh I love the stars?” Sally replied. She had opinions on everything and liked to express them, it was an unlikely mix him and her, too much chaos facing too much practicality.
“Not the science though darling, not the science,” Michael said, taking a sip of his wine.
“Michael’s into science, the clinical appraisals of things,” Sally added, “he is going to be a doctor soon after all,” she placed a hand on his knee under the table, “aren’t you?” He failed to reply but Sally continued, “No, I tend to hope there is a little bit of mystery in things, that everything can’t be summed up in boring chemicals and equations and particles and physics.”
Michael rolled his eyes, “She likes the horoscopes in the Post too, everything has been in the horoscopes hasn’t it, Sally?” She glared at him.
Margo who could sense trouble at a moment’s notice, but tended to like to dabble in it once spotted, changed the subject immediately, “Where’s the food? This is what happens when you don’t go to a top tier restaurant.”
“This is what happens when you eat out on New Year’s Eve,” Archie insisted forcefully, eyeing the peripheries of the room.
“I’m going to become one of those ladies who lunch,” Margo announced, ignoring Archie’s complaints, “at the Colony Club, with the Duchess of Windsor, I’ll go there in my pill box hat, pay over the odds and eat nothing.” Allowing her meddling nature to get the better of her Margo launched back into the previous conversation, “Hey, that’s what you were talking about earlier,” trying to disguise her poison with enlightenment, “wasn’t it Archie, horoscopes, tonight, wasn’t it?”
“Well,” Archie started, thrilled to get a shot at his pet subject, “I’m not usually one for predictions, but.”
”I like to think back to what I was doing this time last year,” Margo interrupted, shrilly regaining control after seeing Michael squirming in his seat, “and to try and figure out if I’m any more content now, than I was then.”
“I’m content,” Sally said almost innocently; she looked to Michael for support.
“What were we doing this time last year?” He asked her, turning in his seat to look into her eyes, trying to dodge the issue.
“We were with Alvy and Kate, here, don’t you remember, in New York?”
“I think I’m content,” Archie said to Margo, as Sally fiddled with her knife and fork, still unused.
“She’s pregnant you know now, Kate, she’s pregnant,” Sally whispered, looking up from the table.
Michael was surprised, “Pregnant, Kate and Alvy, it’s funny, they never seemed that close.”
“If you’re content, then I’m content,” Margo replied, placing her head on Archie’s shoulder.
“Well, I’m content up to a point, Margo, content up to a point,” he ventured, stiffening in his chair.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she snarled, her body snapping upwards like a dreadnought aligning its guns for battle. “Well, this is no time for complacency after all, is it?” Archie chuckled into her face, before bracing himself for the immanent bombardment.
“Everyone should just concentrate on trying to be happy,” Michael announced idealistically to the whole table. It was a sarcastic comment on his part, something which he wouldn’t normally have said, but he could sense an argument brewing and he loved to be outrageous under such circumstances. In reality happiness didn’t really figure on his radar, only survival.
Sally laughed, “Unlikely doctors orders those,” she said irately, “coming from you.” A waiter, his arms covered in plates piled high with steaming food caught their eyes and came within millimetres of their table, before changing his course.
Michael looked at his watch wondering how long it was worth waiting before casting a complaint.
“Are you trying to say you’re not happy Michael, are trying to say you’re not…” Sally started, before Archie, in full flight, moved his arm forward and almost knocked a glass of water into her lap. Sally stopped, acknowledging the near miss, while Archie continued, “Content, the world isn’t content Margo, this is going to be a hell of a year, I’m wise to be cautious.”
Michael seeing the mistake tapped Archie on the forearm, “Excuse me” he said, failing to get his attention, “excuse me,” he repeated.
“What?” Archie responded indignantly, he hated being interrupted.
“Will you calm down, you almost drenched us!”
Archie scowled, he hadn’t noticed, “Sorry,” he said curtly before resuming his lecture to Margo.
“I just can’t believe that Kate is pregnant,” Michael said, sitting back, changing the subject, in an attempt to calm down, “Alvy struggled to walk in a straight line, never mind get someone pregnant, but then again I suppose it doesn’t take too much, does it?”
Another waiter dressed in black and white appeared on the horizon catching their eyes. “Are you trying to say you’re not content Michael,” Sally pressed, “are you content?”
“I’m perfectly happy with me and you Margo,” Archie continued, summing up, “perfectly happy, I’m talking about Pluto and Uranus, Pluto and Uranus, rebellion and.”
“Walt Whitman,” Michael shouted over everybody, “has anybody read Walt Whitman?”
“What do you do with it, come on, you must know, what do you do with it?” In the crush to leave the Square Archie had found a blue plastic cavalry horn lying in a gutter, a novelty, a year’s end souvenir a man with a wooden wagon had been selling on 53rd Street along with a pile of Richard Nixon masks and some spinning bow ties.
“You put it to your lips and you blow,” Sally replied, sliding her arm underneath Archie’s as they walked. The couples had changed places, mixed in the crush by accident largely. Nevertheless the drink had loosened the ties of their traditional symmetry, so they were content, for the time being, to be in different company.
“They’re having quite a time back there by the sounds of it,” Michael said to Margo, they were quite a few paces in front of the others and Michael was walking briskly, trying to reach the subway and home in the quickest possible time, such was his desperation for the evening to end.
“Why are you even with her?” Margo drawled, she was drunk, ever-so, a combination of wine at dinner and numerous bottles, plastic cups and communal gulps of liquor in the street. “Why are you even with her?” Margo repeated, “You’ve hardly said a nice word all night.”
Michael bristled with an increasing level of contempt, he hated questions, he hated personal questions in particular, but he felt a little more at ease than he would have normally knowing this conversation would be expunged from memory by alcohol come the morning. “She’s probably on my side, I just hate rolling through the motions,” he explained, quietly.
Margo blatantly wasn’t listening, her concentration was focused on walking, but she managed to mumble, “Why don’t you just be nice,” as Michael moved on ahead to reach the subway.
“Michael you’re a fine man but you’re a dullard, you need some life breathing into you, I want you to have this,” Archie thrust the blue novelty trumpet towards Michael’s grey raincoat as he arrived at the station, swaying slightly as he did so, the drink hindering his balance, yet making his confidence bulletproof. “Blow in it once in a while,” Archie daringly continued, “it might make you feel better.” Archie and Sally, still arm in arm for balances sake if nothing else, giggled, as Michael took the horn.
“Come on Sally, you’re drunk,” Michael said, holding out his hand, hoping she’d clasp it, but he put it down again before she had the chance.
“Aren’t you a little drunky too Mickey,” she laughed, “oh don’t tell me, you’re a student doctor, someone might be giving birth,” she started shouting, “if anyone’s giving birth around the block Michael will help you,” she gasped for breath, “he’s not drunk!”
Michael closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, pinching the middle of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, “Come on, I think it’s time for us to go.”
He waved Archie and Sally into the subway first and followed with Margo towards the metal escalators which led to the tunnels. “Are we home,” Margo slurred, suddenly springing from her drunken stupor, barley able to put one foot in front of the other.
The escalators had stopped, it was late, but despite the likelihood that the last train had already gone Archie and Sally tentatively set off down the metal steps one at a time. At the bottom Archie’s legs gave way and he sank to the floor, taking Sally with him, slipping into a mess of cigarette butts and colourful streamers. “I’m gone,” he sighed, as he fell towards Sally’s shoulder and she rested her head on the back of his neck.
Seeing the obstruction Michael sank backwards too, in an almost hopeless gesture, giving up to the metal grate below him. Margo followed, the floor being the best place for her. She nestled her head into Michael’s shoulder and said to him, her eyes closed and barley conscious, “Archie,” she sniffed, “stop being a bastard to Michael for God’s sake, he’s only trying his best.”
Michael placed a gentle arm around her shoulder and balanced the blue horn on the step in front. “Behold the customary loves and friendships,” he said to himself.
“What?” Margo whispered.
Margo raised her head for a moment captivated by his words, “Bullshit,” she muttered, before slipping back into drunkenness.
“I’m so gone,” Archie repeated lower down the stairwell, “so gone.” He coughed, “You know Pluto and Uranus, rebellion and,” Archie searched for the words and then raised his voice when he had found them, “misery, well,” he paused for breath, “they’re going to collide.” He moved his head towards her elbow and then back up again, yawning, “It’s going to be big trouble.”
Sally fading into sleep just about heard,” You never said,” she objected, “you should have said.”
Archie smiled, finally comfortable, the left side of his face warm against her coat, “Well,” he replied, “everyone’s got the right to be happy, don’t they?”
Short Fiction by Robert Leeming