Barbara is sitting on a cushion in the corner of the room. Cold air from the draughty sash windows is drifting down her back, but she won’t move just yet. She’s determined not to make a sound. Between her legs, her son is playing with a bright yellow submarine, driving it along the lines of the rug making spluttering, farty engine noises through pursed lips.
The purple sofa, a recent (second-hand) acquisition via a work colleague of Tony’s, is occupied by four tightly packed friends from his new photography class. They are, from left to right, dark-haired Dave – in a thick, off-white, Arran jumper – pretty hippy Alison, quiet-as-a-mouse Wendy, and sensible Malcolm.
Tony is offering them nibbles on sticks – cocktail sausages and pineapple and cheese cubes – which Barbara prepared earlier.
“The thing about cameras,” Dave is saying, “is the way they make people look at things they wouldn’t otherwise notice. All the little details.”
“A camera is kind of like a butter knife,” Alison says, wide-eyed.
“A butter knife?”
“Yeah,” she says. “A hot butter knife just, you know, slicing through reality and saving it for later.”
“Gosh, I like that,” Malcolm says. “A hot knife through reality.”
“How do you feel about the still-lives next week?” Alison asks. She always looks a little astonished at the sound of her own voice. Barbara wonders if it’s because she’s surprised that suddenly, unexpectedly, a woman is allowed to express such complex thoughts. None of them really expected that, and some, through luck, are better prepared than others.
“I think I prefer photographing people and places,” Tony says. “I’m not so sure about bowls of fruit.”
“Do you really think that’s what it will be?” Dave asks, picking at his teeth with the now-empty toothpick. “Bowls of fruit?”
Tony shrugs. “That’s what still-lives usually are, aren’t they?”
“Hey, bowls of fruit have rights too,” Alison says.
“Fruits have rights too!” Malcolm agrees, and everyone laughs, and though she doesn’t get it, Barbara fakes a smile too and turns her attention to her son. “Are you pleased with your new submarine?” she whispers.
Jonathan looks up at her and beams and nods ecstatically, and momentarily, there is just Barbara and Jonathan, Jonathan and Barbara, and all is right with the world. “That’s Ringo,” he says, pointing at one of the people in the submarine and emulating her whispered tone.
“That’s right,” Barbara says. “Well done.”
“…looking forward to the darkroom sessions,” Tony is saying when she tunes in again. “I’ve mucked around developing with a friend of mine – her dad has a photo shop. But it will be good to learn all the techniques properly.”
Malcolm is studying a duplicated sheet of paper covered in purple text. “It says we’re studying dodging and burning,” he says. “Whatever that means.”
“It’s about changing the exposure for different parts of the print,” Tony tells him. “Dodging is when you use something opaque to reduce the exposure, and burning is the other way around. I think that’s it, anyway.”
Jonathan crashes the submarine into Barbara’s foot and makes a loud “pow” noise and everyone turns to face them.
“So how are you over there, Barbara?” Alison asks, now the submarine explosion has pierced Barbara’s cloak of invisibility. “Are you sure you don’t want your turn on the settee?”
Barbara smiles and shakes her head. “I’m fine here with Jonathan,” she says, her heart starting to speed up as the attention of the room turns on her.
“Tony told me that you make your own clothes,” Alison says earnestly.
Barbara nods and swallows. Her throat is dry. “Yes,” she croaks. “Sometimes.”
“That’s really cool,” Alison declares. “I’d love to know how to do something practical like that. I can’t even sew a button on. I have to get my mum to do it.”
“I… I think I’ll go see how that quiche is going,” Barbara says, now standing and pulling down her very-ordinary, shop-bought skirt.
“She cooks too, then!” Malcolm comments.
“She sure does,” Tony says. “Barbara’s a great cook, aren’t you?”
Barbara runs a hand over Jonathan’s head, and the gesture calms her nerves momentarily, and allows her to take one almost normal breath which she uses, smiling demurely, to sidle past Tony’s clever friends, before escaping to the kitchen. Alone, she grips the cold hard edge of the sink and stares out at the yard, damp from recent rain. She tries to take deep breaths. She struggles to still her racing heart. She’s having one of her “turns”, but she got away with it. She doesn’t think anyone noticed.
As the conversation next door continues, she takes a tea-towel, dampens it beneath the tap, and dabs at her forehead. Tony is changing before her eyes, and she can sense herself being left behind, can hear him learning to have new kinds of conversations. Right now, she can hear him saying, “The thing about the camera is the way it democratises image-making. And that’s going to change the way we record history.”
She runs the phrase through her head repeatedly, until, on the fourth pass, she works out what it actually means. And then she manages a series of jerky, difficult breaths, and crouches down to pull the quiche from the oven. It’s so perfect, so symmetrical, so smooth and glossy, that it looks like a quiche from a recipe book. “I can do this,” she says out loud. “I’m fine.”