WRITTEN BY VALERIE BOWES
Cliff was drawn to the mysterious woman who appeared in all his pictures
The photographs were selling well. Most of them had been collected and Cliff was just thinking about shutting up and going back to the darkroom, when a giggle of girls suddenly appeared at the kiosk window.
“There’s me! Goodness, what an absolute fright!”
“Ooh, Maise! Don’t you look a one!”
“Are you going to buy yours, Ruby?”
“Ooh, I’m not sure I should. You two look alright, but I look like the Wreck of the Hesperus.” Ruby winked saucily at Cliff. “You could have waited until I’d combed my hair!”
“You could’ve waited until she’d got out the way!” Maisie sniffed, indicating a figure behind her on the photograph.
“Sorry, Miss,” Cliff said, “but if I’d have waited, I wouldn’t have got such a good shot.”
“Yes, come on, Maise,” Ruby said, pulling out her purse. “It’s a lovely snap of you. He can’t stop everyone else from walking down the Prom while you have your picture taken.”
“She’s in yours as well,” the third girl pointed out, but Ruby was already handing over her fourpence.
“I ’spect she is. We were all together, weren’t we?”
They clattered off, cloche hats curving over bobbed hair and low-waisted frocks daringly showing off their knees. Cliff decided to call it a day. He still had all his film to develop.
Beaming faces swam into being. Cliff bent over the tray, watching the images appear through the fluid as if he’d called them up by magic. It was magic of a kind, he supposed, smiling at the image.
A person walking down the Prom hours before, captured in a small black box, to appear again in the red glow of his darkroom.
He kicked himself back into reality and bent with renewed concentration over the tray of developer. This was a fledgling business, and he couldn’t afford to make mistakes. People wouldn’t pay for a bad photograph.
It had been a splendid couple of weeks, though, he thought with satisfaction. Lovely June sunshine, plenty of folk happy to have their picture taken by the man from Seaside Snaps. Now the photos had to be washed, fixed, numbered and taken up to the booth on the Front to be collected. Cliff reached for the wooden tongs and began to transfer the prints to the washer.
How on earth had that girl managed to get in every single shot?
It took a while for it to penetrate his consciousness, but he gradually became aware that, just as she’d appeared in the pictures of Maisie and her friends, the same figure was in the background of his shots time and again. A young woman, sometimes walking towards him, sometimes away, but as he took print after print from the drier, she was always there.
Bother. Folk didn’t want strangers in their photographs, although it was inevitable when the Prom was crowded. He hoped people would be as understanding as Ruby.
Given the crowds of day-trippers on the Prom, how on earth had that girl managed to get in every single shot? Especially when he had no recollection of seeing her. Puzzled and more than a little disturbed, Cliff finally locked up and went home.
Business was brisk the next day. If it carried on like this, he’d be able to afford an assistant to look after the kiosk while he went out with the camera and developed the films. More photos for folk to buy, plus offering a quicker service. Maybe he could charge sixpence, or even a shilling for the bigger size.
Cliff dreamed his dreams as he hung the prints enticingly on the board at the back of the booth.
He thought he was seeing things again, when he turned round. The girl stood there, staring at his pictures, dark eyes wide and unreadable.
“You!” he said involuntarily.
“Me?” she queried, with the shadow of a laugh. Cliff felt the faint breeze of her breath.
“I’m sorry, Miss,” he apologised with an answering smile. “It’s just that I keep seeing you in my photos. I was beginning to think I’d got a ghost in my camera!”
“Well, it’s certainly strange. I thought it was me, myself! When did you take the photographs?”
The girl scarcely seemed to breathe
“Ah, then it definitely can’t be me. I wasn’t here yesterday,” she said at last.
“Oh.” Cliff looked at the photos again. Same sort of dress, same sort of hat, although they all looked alike to his male mind. It certainly looked like her, but if she wanted to maintain she wasn’t here yesterday, then what had it to do with him?
She stood gripping the counter, those dark eyes flicking from photo to photo. His gaze followed hers. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps there was a difference.
An idea popped into his head.
“Would you like to have your picture taken?” he asked. “I could make it a proper portrait – you know, make sure it’s just you and not half the Prom.”
It meant he’d see her again when she came to pick it up, and the thought gave him pleasure.
She shook her head
She looked at him for a moment, then shook her head decidedly.
“You’re very kind, but no. I’m only here for the day, anyway.”
Cliff felt disappointment drag the smile from his face. He suddenly couldn’t bear the thought that she would just walk away and he’d never see her again. Pull yourself together, Clifford Stone, he adjured himself sternly. She’s only a visitor. You see hundreds of ’em.
The girl glanced over her shoulder, then back at him. “But perhaps you would be kind enough to tell me the best place to get a cup of tea?”
Afterwards, he could never think what had prompted him. He wasn’t usually given to impulse, but he heard himself saying the words before they’d properly formed in his brain.
“Forte’s is good. In fact, I’m just going over there myself. Would you like to join me?”
She said nothing for a moment, making him fearful that she thought him presumptuous. He opened his mouth to stutter an apology, but she smiled.
“Thank you. I should like that.”
It was a glowing, magical time
Cliff floated on air as he led the way to the gleaming chrome of the ice cream parlour. After they’d drunk their tea, he persuaded her to try one of Forte’s special strawberry ices, and then they went strolling down the Prom.
Normally, on a beautiful day like this, he’d be hag-ridden by the need to get out and take photographs. Today, all he wanted to do was be with Liddy.
It was a glowing, magical time. His usual tongue-tied shyness whenever he was with a girl evaporated in the warmth of her interest in his photography. They walked on the firm dampness where the waves frilled the beach, and clambered over the rocks at the Point while he explained the process, afraid he was boring her, but reassured by her laughter and her questions that he was not.
Her ability to see the picture made by the smallest shell, a warped piece of sea-worn glass or a child crouching by a castle built of sand made him almost envious. She’d make a good photographer, he told her as they were making their slow way back towards his neglected kiosk.
“There’s a dance at the Winter Gardens this evening,” he said tentatively when they reached it, wishing this day would never end, praying she’d say she’d go with him.
She smiled a little wistfully
“I’m sorry, Cliff. Today’s been wonderful – you’ll never know how much it meant to me – but I have something I must do this evening.” She smiled a little wistfully at him and held out a slender hand.
He took it, stammering simply, “Goodbye,” although he longed to beg her to relent. All desire to go to the Winter Gardens evaporated as he watched her walk away from him, even though he’d agreed to meet some friends there. Instead, he went back to his rooms and ate a tasteless supper.
The evening stretched out; endless, blank. He couldn’t settle to anything. Normally, he would have been poring over books and invoices, avidly trawling through catalogues full of the sort of cameras and developing equipment he needed if he was to build up his business. Tonight, his mind wouldn’t concentrate.
When he found he’d cast up the same column of figures wrongly for the third time, he threw the book aside. He’d go down to the studio and catch up on developing the photos he’d taken before Liddy came.
At the back of his mind, firmly unacknowledged, was the hope that she might be in some of them.
The light was fading from the sky above the advancing sea as he walked towards the darkroom. Reddish gleams snagged themselves on the waves as they curled around the rocks at the Point. He could swear he could see a figure sitting there, right down at the end which would be covered when the tide was fully in, in a couple of hours’ time.
It could be anybody, if it was somebody at all, he reasoned, straining his eyes in the uncertain light. Didn’t Liddy say she had something to do this evening? She’d be dining at the Grand Atlantic or one of the other hotels that lined the Prom. Why would she be sitting, all alone, on the Point?
His legs were taking him there without any conscious decision from his brain. His breath caught in his throat as he scrambled over the rocks.
She was staring out to sea
Liddy was staring out to sea with a kind of rigid stillness that rang shrill warning bells in Cliff’s head.
All his instincts were telling him to pull her away from the advancing tide before she was swept away from him into the greedy sea, to hold her close to him, but he was afraid of what she might do if he did.
“Hello!” he ventured, squatting on a rock just above her.
She didn’t turn her head, or seem surprised at his presence. Cliff searched his mind for something to say that would neither scare her nor seem so banal as to fracture the taut silence.
“I was going to wait until midnight,” she said. He heard the rattle of pills as she lifted the bottle from her lap. “I was so sure, but now I’m not.” She scrambled to her feet. “Come with me, Cliff. Please?”
He would go to the ends of the earth with her, if she only knew it.
She caught hold of his hand and tugged him through the darkening streets
They climbed back over the rocks and across the beach, then she caught hold of his hand and tugged him through the darkening streets without a word. He tried to guess where she might be taking him, but it wasn’t until he saw the high railings that he realised. He slowed, reluctant to pass through the cast-iron gates, for he thought he could see the answer.
Who lay under one of the headstones that looked like teeth in the shaded jaws of the grass? A husband? No, she wore no ring. A lover, then? Cliff halted, knowing he could never measure up to a love so deep that it would do… that.
“Look!” Liddy said, pulling him forward. “Cliff, please!”
The light had almost gone, but he could read the words cut into the white marble with surprising ease.
Lettice Parsons. April 2nd 1903 – June 23rd 1923.
“She died in the Sanatorium, a year ago tomorrow.”
Liddy’s voice caught and Cliff made a soft sound of sympathy. The Sanatorium was where they treated those with tuberculosis.
“She was my sister. My twin. We’d never been separated before. Why did she get it and I didn’t? I just knew she wanted me to come here today. I thought it was because she wanted me to join her, and when I saw her in your photos, I was so sure of it.”
Liddy looked down at the bottle of pills, then sent it spinning into the darkness.
“Now I think she had another reason.”
As they walked through the town back to the twinkling lights of the Prom, Cliff was certain that if she appeared in any of the photos he had yet to develop, Lettice would be smiling.