Flowers and smiling people and sundown skies appeared before me, everyday miracles in colour, gloss or matte, but I’ve always been a miserablist and don’t particularly care for that sort of thing. For a time there was nothing as terrible as flowers and smiling people and sunsets, but now I’ve better things to worry about.
A few years ago I worked with a guy called Ken, who was tall and smug and broad, and always smelt of oranges and cigarette smoke and too much cologne. He’d come into work and say ‘It’s a beautiful day, today, it is,’ and I’d say he should go fuck himself with a stick. It was our little joke.
We developed photographs at one of the better photographic supply and development places in Wellington, and I should’ve been happy. It was called Laird’s Photographic Supplies and Development. On our sign it said ‘Professionals Working For You’. Actual professional photographers came to our place to buy their films and cameras and to have their films developed. I got a staff discount and a whole hour for lunch. My job was to sit in front of a computer screen that was hooked up to one of the two big processors in the back room, which always hummed and smelt of photography and Ken. Ken would sit and hum classic rock tunes and I’d try not to tell him to just please shut up.
I had to make sure that the negatives were being processed properly. My job was to make sure that the colours turned out right and that the shots weren’t overdeveloped or underdeveloped. I had to load the negatives into the machine and take out the prints, and put them in an envelope and code them on the envelope and file the envelopes in the right place.
Ken and I looked at every single photograph we developed. Most photographic labs don’t pay for people like me and Ken, which is why actual professional photographers used Laird’s, and why we cost more. Every single photograph that went through my machine flashed in front of me for about two seconds, and then, for about two seconds between that and the next the screen was blank, and because of the way the light was, it became like a black mirror, and I could see myself, only darker.
I saw a smiling blonde kid in a wheelchair holding a bunch of daffodils in front of some shrubbery, and then me, only darker. Young people like me smiling, or laughing or drinking or kissing, at a party or a bar or the beach, then me, only darker. A family standing in an awkward line behind a shrunken old couple holding hands. A dog with a very red tongue. The Eiffel Tower. A house with pretty pink roses creeping up one of its walls. A man with no teeth, a statue, the sky, a drunken old woman with a small glass of whiskey pinched between her fingers, and me, only darker. Sunsets and the sea, places I have never been and probably never will go to, a happy girl, a boy smiling silly for the camera. Flowers in various states of bloom. Variations on a theme. All these cherished things, and then me, only darker and ill-shaven. Me hungover, me with dry skin and lips and darkness under my eyes. And everything seemed the same, all these things people wanted to remember and I didn’t care so long as the grass was green enough and the sky was blue enough and the air hadn’t turned glowing orange.
It could be boring seeing all the special moments in the world flicker by, so Ken and I tried to amuse one another. ‘Look at this one,’ I’d say to Ken and freeze an image on my screen. He’d come over and push his floppy hair back, that was what he did to show he was looking at something. I’d show him a picture of a naked boy standing on a lawn and pissing in a huge sparkling arc that caught the sunlight, or similar.
‘Disgusting,’ he’d say, and shake his head, and I’d thought it was funny.
‘Come and see this one,’ he’d say to me, and showed me a rose-coloured sunset, or pine trees black in the snow, or a blonde in a pink bikini giving a saucy look over her near-perfect shoulder. ‘Beautiful,’ he’d say. ‘Ay?’
I always nodded in a way that I hoped would let Ken know I understood whatever it was he was getting at.
At lunch I’d check my emails, and occasionally my mother would write about the neighbour’s leaky cat, or a nice time she and my father had, a lunch out, unexpected guests or a setback. I think she was pleased to have a reason to use the computer they kept in their spare room. She could’ve just called. I think she wanted to write an unremarkable memoir in small pieces and send it to me. I replied and said that it sounded like a nice time, and it must have been nice to see Chris and Yvette, and I hoped the furballs passed, that I hoped the garden was doing better and the weather would improve.
No one else wrote to me except anonymous people offering opportunities and pornography.
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Ken would ask me what was up, because he believed in smalltalk, and offer me crisps because he believed in sharing.
‘I’m okay,’ I’d say. ‘I’m feeling crappy enough this week.’ I’d eat my pasta salad, and he’d shrug his understanding.
Ken was the kind of guy who learned to play the guitar because he liked classic rock and he thought it would attract women. If you went to a party at his place, he’d get his guitar out once everyone was drunk and he’d start strumming away and singing because he thought it would impress whichever women were left. He’d start noodling quietly in the corner, on the beanbag, then try songs everybody knew and could maybe sing along to, and then he’d play Stairway to Heaven really badly, and people would leave, and then if you couldn’t make a good excuse, you’d end up listening to his originals.
‘Did you see that show about the plastic surgery makeovers last night?’ Ken would ask.
‘I don’t have a TV,’ I’d say, which was a lie. ‘TV makes you stupid.’
‘They sucked a lot of fat outta this lady, she looked real different, and you could see it, all the fat in a container.’
Ken’s job was almost the same as mine, but he was better than I was and did all the complicated prestidigitations of image that people required. He’d been there longer. I could alter the colours and the contrast and could try again with negatives, but Ken could do all sorts of things with the computer. If a woman came in and wanted her mother removed from a photo, Ken could usually do it, so long as the mother wasn’t holding on to the daughter too tightly. Or if a photo had been spoiled by being pinned to the wall where the sun always shone and there wasn’t a negative left, Ken made another that was almost new. If somebody had a photograph of a ghost but it hadn’t shown up very well, Ken made it clearer and more ghostly. All of this cost quite a bit, but people were always happy once their mother was gone, their sunlight undone, their ghost had the suggestion of a sad face.
People brought us rolls and rolls of amateur pornography, despite the invention of polaroids and digital cameras. The smut was usually embarrassed. For months a man brought us pictures of his wife, every time removing a new set of underwear. Her orange hair became familiar, then her pale complexion, then the freckles on her face and back. Sometimes she had a penis in her mouth. As the months went by, she looked sadder. There was a dreadfully thin Asian woman lying on the bonnet of a sports car. She looked like she was pretending to moan. The car was parked in front of a blue garage door. She spreadeagled and looked cold. There were pictures of men standing together naked, holding each other’s dicks. Couples and threes. Sometimes they were soapy, sometimes they were laughing, sometimes they pulled sexy faces.
None of them were particularly good pictures. I made sure the grass was green and the sky was blue, and I saw myself in between the shots, only darker.
There was this guy we had problems with once. He liked to take pictures of himself touching his cock. I think he was Austrian or something, he was getting older and his hair was receding so he kept it very short. In the pictures he would squeeze his penis so it turned a rosy purple. He came back three times to complain that we had the colour wrong. The guy would make such a fuss that Ken and me were called out from the back so we could listen to him explain the colour it should be. He looked us in the eye as he did this: ‘It is not the right colouring at all, I am much brighter, more red, deeper, I am very disappointed in this.’ We nodded and said sorry, we’ll try again. I spent too much time trying to balance the colours for this Austrian prick.
‘There are some people in the world who are just wrong,’ said Ken.
‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘How’s your photography going?’ asked Ken.
I never answered that kind of personal question, so instead talked about a wedding I’d shot.
After work, I’d check my email again, so as to seem unalone. Perhaps other people were pretending also. Because I didn’t want to correspond exclusively with my mother, because I wanted to appear popular, and because it amused me, I started replying to the opportunities and the pornography.
‘I would like to make my penis bigger and am interested in the revolutionary new treatment you have on offer. Where should I send my credit card details? I hope it will not take long, as I am eager to enjoy the benefits of my new cock. Will it hurt? I have tried creams in the past and found them ineffective – I’ve been waiting for this very scientific breakthrough. Also if you can make me a famous photographer I would like it very much.’ I signed my name, Davide.
Of course, I didn’t hear back.