Read the first two chapters of The Photographer’s Wife online below, or even download the sample for your Kindle <here>, or for your iPad, Kobo, or Google device <here>. (Just download the file and drag it onto your device). You can also order The Photographer’s Wife right now from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Amazon.com.au, Amazon.fr, iTunes, Kobo and Google Play.
Do let me know what you think. I’m so excited about this one! Nick xxx
The Photographer’s Wife (Sample). A novel by Nick Alexander.
“Don’t think you know what battles I had to fight to get where I am today. Don’t think you can even imagine what suffering we had to go through, what secrets we had to hide. You think you know everything but you know nothing. You don’t know me – you don’t know anyone. Because that’s what life is. It’s thinking you know everything, and thinking you know everyone, and finding out, the older you get, that you didn’t – that you had it all wrong.” – B. Marsden.
1940 – Shoreditch, London.
Barbara pushes up onto her toes and grasps the windowsill with her small, pale hands. A flake of green paint breaks away and falls to the floor and momentarily she is distracted by the fact that it is green on top, yet white underneath.
“Look!” her sister says again, squashing a finger against the window pane.
Barbara looks at the finger and notices the way the light shines through it from the other side, then looks at the dirty pane itself and then finally shifts her focal point to whatever is beyond the window – whatever has her sister so excited.
In the distance, high above the rooftops, she can see a group of dots floating in the clear September sky. They are still only dots but Barbara can hear a droning sound and already knows, even at six years old, that these dots are warplanes, that these dots are bombers.
The door behind them bursts open and she turns nervously to see her mother. She’s not sure if she has done anything wrong but it’s best to be prepared these days just in case – it seems to happen a lot.
“And what the hell are you two doing at the window?” Minnie asks crossly, as she pulls off her coat. “And don’t tell me you didn’t hear the warnin’.”
“But look!” Glenda says, still pointing.
“I’ll give you, ‘look’,” Minnie says, but intrigued by something in her eldest daughter’s voice, she crosses the kitchen to peer from the window all the same.
Troubled by Minnie’s momentary silence, Barbara turns back to the blue sky beyond the window and watches the dots again. They are bigger now; the droning is louder now. She tilts her head towards the ceiling and looks up at her mother, whose upside-down face is shifting from its usual, almost permanent expression of annoyance, to puzzlement, then concern.
“Bleedin’ Krauts,” Minnie whispers after a moment, then, with a deep, sad sigh, she drags her regard from the sky outside and, tapping Glenda gently on the side of the head, she says, “Kitchen table, Madam. Now!” She grabs Barbara’s left hand and drags her from the room.
Barbara sits with her back against the lathed leg of the table and runs her index finger along the grain of the wood above her. The droning noise from the planes is loud now and a little frightening, and is soon joined by the rattling crackle of the anti-aircraft guns.
“Definitely Germans then,” Glenda says, addressing her mother’s knees as she moves quickly around the table preparing sandwiches. Barbara can tell from the smells wafting down that these will contain fish paste, her least favourite filling.
“Who else are they gonna be?” Minnie replies, the table resonating strangely with her voice.
“I thought they might be our boys,” Glenda says. “They’re a bit early in the day to be Krauts, aren’t they?” The limited air-raids to date have been almost exclusively nocturnal.
A chipped floral plate appears, floating beneath the edge of the table. It is piled with three doorstop sandwiches rather than the usual triangular bite-sized kind.
Barbara, who in these times of rationing has been told off repeatedly for helping herself, hesitates a moment before delicately taking one.
“Well, take the plate!” Minnie says. “D’you want me to stay out here till a bomb comes or somethin’?”
Glenda reaches past her sister and takes the plate, then snatches the sandwich back from Barbara and returns it with the others. “Stupid!” she whispers.
“And I’ll have none of that!” Minnie tells her, now crouching down and joining the two girls on the thin mattress beneath the table. She brings with her a pottery jug filled with water and a tin mug which they will share.
“Shouldn’t we go to the shelter?” Glenda asks. “Because Mary over the road said–”
“It ain’t finished,” Minnie tells her. “You know it ain’t.” The Andersen shelter in the garden needs another full day of spadework and considering it all a bit unnecessary, believing, along with most of the girls at the factory, that the threat to London has been exaggerated, Minnie, exhausted by the end of her working day, has been reluctant to put in the hours.
“Not ours. I mean the proper one. At the youth club,” Glenda says, “cos Mary over the road – you know, the one whose Granddad’s an air warden – well he said–”
“We’ll be fine here,” Minnie says loudly, cutting her off. “Now be quiet and eat yer tea or I’ll eat it myself.”
In the distance, the deep boom of a five-hundred-pounder resonates and Barbara postpones the first bite of her sandwich to listen, leaving it hovering before her mouth.
“The docks again,” Minnie says. “It’s always the docks. Poor buggers. Wouldn’t get me working down there.”
Barbara bites into the sandwich and, as another round of popping anti-aircraft fire coincides with a second distant bang, thinks, fish paste. Yuck. But despite the fish paste, she quite enjoys these hours spent under the table snuggled between her mother and her sister. It’s as much fun as ever happens at home these days anyway.
Something whistles overhead and is followed by a new kind of explosion, and Barbara sees Minnie frown and look up at the underside of the table as if it has some secret to impart to her about this new sound. Minnie reaches for the three hated gas masks beside her and pulls them within the safety zone provided by the table. And then it happens – another explosion, only this is much closer and they not only hear it but feel the thud of it coming through the floor, through the mattress. Minnie inhales sharply and closes her eyes, Glenda’s actually widen, and Barbara’s sandwich slips from her grasp and falls into her lap.
“Woo!” says Glenda, grinning a little crazily once the moment has passed.
If her mother shared Glenda’s excitement, Barbara might have been able to follow her lead – she might have been able to think that this was fun as well. But as another bomb hits and then another, and then another, and as the blasts are ever closer, ever louder, Minnie is realising that this is very different to the old Zeppelin raids of her own childhood, where the Germans simply chucked bombs out of the windows of the airships, different even to the strikes that have hit London to date, and that, solidly built as it undoubtedly is, they may not be as safe as she assumed, here beneath the oak of the old kitchen table.
Barbara studies her mother’s face for clues and sees her swallow and lick her lips. She can’t know what her mother is thinking but she can sense her feelings almost as if they are her own, and in this case what she senses is fear. A new thought crosses her six-year old mind, one that she has never had before: that her mother may be fallible, that there may come a time when her decisions are not the right ones. Even sandwiched between her mother and her sister, she suddenly feels unsafe. She starts to cry.
“And you can stop that right away!” Minnie says, threatening a slap by half raising her free hand.
Barbara swallows with difficulty and feels as if her face is swelling, doubling in size as she struggles to contain the next batch of tears.
“Crying never solved nothing,” Minnie says, and Glenda shoots her sister a discreet wink and hands her the sandwich again.
“Eat up, Sis’,” she says softly. “You’ll be alright. We wouldn’t let anything happen to you, now would we?”
Barbara follows her mother out of the newly finished shelter and pauses in the grey dawn light to take in the smog in the air and the sunset-red blaze lighting the horizon in every direction.
Other than the all pervading smell of smoke and the permanent, multi-directional sunset, everything in their immediate surroundings seems unchanged and this morning, as every morning, this is a surprise. The noise from the night raids is incessant and terrifying and it’s hard to imagine, lying there in the dark, that anything beyond the shelter remains.
“Come on,” Minnie says. “Let’s get you out of those damp clothes,” and Barbara touches the sleeve of her nightshirt and senses the all-pervading dampness of the shelter still with her, lingering in the material. She is pulled, with a jerk, forwards past the tiny vegetable patch. “What about Glenda?” she asks, straining to look back at the open door of the shelter.
“Let her sleep,” Minnie says. “You two have a big day ahead of you.”
Yes, a big day. For today is evacuation day. The “phoney war” is over; no one is any longer in doubt that the danger is real, and Minnie, under increasing pressure to evacuate the girls since the beginning of the war, has finally caved in. She is dreading letting them go. She’s terrified for them, has no idea where they’re going, no idea what awaits them in Wales… But she’s also scared for herself. The air raids are so frightening, they make her feel sick, and her life here now that Seamus has gone (and is he even still alive? There have been no letters…) is miserable. With the kids around, she at least has to pull herself together. But what happens once they’re gone?
As Barbara eats her bread and marge, Minnie watches her and wonders how this day will pass, wonders even if she herself is really capable of this – capable of separating herself so geographically from her flesh and blood.
“Glenda’s a sleepy girl,” Barbara says, through a mouthful of bread.
“Let her sleep,” Minnie replies. Yes, let her sleep, she thinks. Let her sleep till the last possible moment. Barbara is too young to understand what evacuation really means but Glenda, Minnie knows, is going to scream blue bloody murder.
They are at the train station, and Barbara, who has been told a secret, is surprised that her sister is here at all.
There are children everywhere, groups, like cattle, forging their way through moving rivers of other children, being herded by the unlikely association of teachers and fat-people and old-people and pregnant-women that have been assembled to travel with them.
Glenda is sulking, gently kicking her small brown suitcase, but not, Minnie notes, making a fuss as yet.
Barbara, she can tell, is tense, hesitating between seeing this as an adventure or a trauma, watching her sister, her mother, everyone around her for clues as to how to react. Only Minnie herself comprehends just how enormous this rupture will be for them all. Only Minnie is bracing herself for the aftermath.
To the right, a little girl cries out, and is lifted, kicking, into a carriage. Barbara swivels her head and watches and hears the little girl’s vibrato voice: “I won’t go, I won’t go! I won’t!” Barbara clasps and unclasps her fingers around the rough weave of the shopping basket containing her clothes. The coarse fibres prickle her skin.
A man with a clipboard is heading towards them. “Mrs Doyle!” he says, theatrically.
“Mr Wallace,” Minnie replies, emulating his officious tone of voice.
“Glad to see we finally saw sense,” he says, smugly.
“If you call ‘seeing sense’ sending your kids to god-knows-where to be brought up by god-knows-who, then yes, Mr Wallace, we’ve finally seen sense,” Minnie retorts, thinking only once she has said it about the fact that the girls have overheard. But Minnie just can’t help herself in these situations. She is not someone who likes to be told what to do and Grenville Wallace has been doing just that ever since he traded his grubby, overpriced little corner shop for this role as evacuation officer. His attitude alone is almost enough to make her turn around and head home.
A train behind them hoots and puffs and starts, groaningly, to pull out of the station, and Barbara watches the slideshow of passing faces pressed at the grubby windows. Some of them seem happy and excited, while others are red-eyed and tear-stained. It’s confusing.
“I don’t have all day to discuss the pros and cons of government policy, Mrs Doyle,” the man is saying, waving his pen in the air with flourish. “So it’s just this one, is it?” he asks, nodding at Barbara.
“No, it’s…” Minnie says, turning to where Glenda should be standing. “Where…?” she murmurs, reaching to pull Glenda’s suitcase closer before scanning the hordes around them. “Where did your sister go?” she asks, frowning heavily.
Barbara shrugs and stares at her feet.
“Did she go looking for the loo?” Minnie asks.
Barbara shakes her head.
“Mary mother of Jesus,” Minnie says, now grasping Barbara’s chin and forcing her to turn towards her. “Did she say something?”
Barbara nods vaguely.
“Mrs Doyle!” the man says.
“Just wait, won’t you?” Minnie tells him, then to Barbara, “What did she say? Tell me what she said.”
“It’s a secret,” Barbara whispers.
“What’s a bloody secret?” Minnie asks, and Barbara, who understands this tone of voice only too well, knows better than to obfuscate.
“She said she isn’t going to Wales. Not for anything, she said.”
“Mrs Doyle!” the man says, and Minnie scans the horizon once more before turning to face him.
“It seems you’re having trouble controlling your brood. Perhaps the Welsh will fare better! But in the meantime, there is this slight matter of these forms and what I should inscribe upon them. So just Barbara here, travelling alone is it?”
“I don’t know,” Minnie says. “Sorry, just… just hang on a mo.”
Minnie starts to push her way through the crowds, pausing to ask people, “Have you seen a little girl? Have you seen my girl? She’s got brown hair and a blue coat. About this tall. Have you seen her? Have you seen my girl?”
The people around her either ignore her – they’re just too busy – or frown at her as if she is mad. Even Barbara can see that expecting anyone to answer this particular question, today, in the middle of this mass of children, is indeed a kind of madness.
The man with the clipboard grabs Barbara’s hand and, initially, because it feels reassuring, she lets him do this. But when he starts trying to pull her towards a train carriage, she begins to struggle. “No!” she says, then, “Mum!” But Minnie isn’t looking. Minnie is lost in her nightmarish search for her other daughter, running towards girls who look a little like Glenda from behind and pulling them by their shoulders to face her.
“Mum!” Barbara shouts again, then, emulating the little girl she saw before, she says, “I won’t go. I won’t!” Seeing that this is having precisely zero effect, she begins to scream and her piercing cry registers on some primeval level and Minnie stops in her tracks and turns to see her youngest, in mid-air, held at arms length, being passed by Grenville Wallace to a bald, greasy-looking man in a three-piece suit. She sees Barbara’s legs flailing and runs back through the crowd, knocking a little boy over as she does so; she offers a fumbling apology over her shoulder to the boy, now crying but continues to run all the same.
Wallace attempts to block her path, saying, “Mrs Doyle! In God’s name! This is all most irreg–”
But Minnie pushes him aside, lurches past the bald man, and grabs her daughter’s hand just as she is being sucked into the darkness of the train – jerkingly, painfully yanking her back out onto the platform. “She ain’t bloody going to Wales on her own!” Minnie says, her voice incredulous. “She ain’t going without her sister! What are you thinking of?”
“If she doesn’t go today, then she won’t be going at all,” Mr Wallace says. “I’ll make bloody sure of that. Thousands, millions of children to evacuate and you think you can muck us around like this?”
“Don’t make me go,” Barbara sobs. “Please don’t make me go, Mum. I’ll be ever so good. I promise I’ll be good.”
“She’s on the list now anyway,” the man says, waving his clipboard at her.
“Well, you can bloody well take her off the list,” Minnie tells him. “Go stand by Glenda’s suitcase over there,” she instructs, prising Barbara’s hand from her own and pushing her across the platform away from the train. “And stop bloody crying!”
Barbara forges her way though a sea of children moving in the other direction and places one hand on the suitcase as she watches the altercation between her mother and the man. She can’t hear what she is saying but there is something magnificent about her mother’s posture, hands on hips, giving him what-for. She feels proud.
“Right,” Minnie says, once the man, with a shrug and a disparaging wave over his shoulder, has turned his attention elsewhere and she has crossed to join Barbara. She picks up the suitcase and heads for the exit.
“Aren’t we being ‘vacuated, then?” Barbara asks.
Minnie pauses and, uncharacteristically, crouches down in front of her daughter. “Do you want to be evacuated? Do you want to get on the bloody train and go to Wales? Because believe me girl, you’re one step away from it. Just say the word.”
“No!” Barbara says, starting to cry again.
“Then stop your sobbing girl! I’m taking you home.”
“And Glenda?” Barbara asks, trying to look over her shoulder as they pass through the echoey madness of the station hall.
“She’s twelve. She knows how to make her own way home,” Minnie says. “And she’ll find a nice hard slap waiting for her when she gets there. The little cow!”
Unexpectedly, Minnie stops walking, so Barbara peers up at her. “Where’s your basket?”
Barbara looks at her empty hand and tries to remember when she lost track of the basket. “The man,” she says, pointing backwards. “He put it in the train.”
“Jesus! That’s all we need,” Minnie says. “We won’t be getting that back now. A right bloody waste of time this has all been. And what am I supposed to dress you in now? Honestly! As if times aren’t hard enough! You had better behave, girl. You had better be so bloody good. I swear, you cry once, you’ll be on that train to Wales and it won’t be just for the war, it’ll be forever!”
Barbara squeezes her eyes shut to prevent more tears, so close now from leaking out, and she fails as a result to see an uneven paving stone. She trips and is yanked upright again.
“Walk nicely!” Minnie says.
Barbara sits alone, her legs crossed, on the single bed they have moved into the shelter. She is supposed to be reading but is instead studying the reflection of the candle in a newly formed puddle on the ground. She is listening for the first bombs to arrive. The air-raid siren was five minutes ago.
The door to the shelter opens and Glenda appears. “It’s ‘orrible out there,” she says, starting to pull off her wet coat, hesitating, then finally removing it after all. “It’s horrible in here too. Where’s Mum, then?”
“Gone to get soup,” Barbara says. “She said don’t move a muscle.”
“Mapledene Road got hit,” Glenda announces.
“Fell in someone’s back yard. Blew all the windows out. And blew the shelter right out of the ground too. They wasn’t in it though.”
Barbara blinks at her sister, then looks around at the corrugated iron walls and tries to imagine them being blown out of the ground.
“Don’t worry,” Glenda says, sitting on the edge of the bed and removing her shoes. “Lightning never strikes twice.”
“Here they come,” Barbara says, cocking one ear to the distant whistle of an incendiary bomb.
Glenda nods, waits for the explosion – it’s a long way away – then crosses her legs and sits opposite her sister. “Oh Sister,” she says, dramatically. “Whatever am I going to do now?”
Barbara folds her book – a tattered copy of Little Black Sambo – and looks up at Glenda, her wrinkled brow somehow exaggerated by the candlelight. “What’s happened, Sister?” she asks.
“Johnny’s being evacuated tomorrow. They got hit three doors down and his Mum says it’s just too dangerous to stay.”
Barbara nods seriously. Johnny is Glenda’s boyfriend and though she has never seen him, though, even now, she doubts his existence, she has heard all about him. “Is he going to Wales?”
Glenda shakes her head. “Not everyone goes to Wales, silly.”
“I knew that,” Barbara lies. “I just wondered.”
“Oh, it’s the worst thing in the world when they leave you,” Glenda says. “I just want to die.”
“Oh Sister!” Barbara says, opening her arms, now hugging, awkwardly, her sister.
“He was the only thing that held me together,” Glenda says, a phrase that she overheard her weepy teacher, Mrs Richardson, say that morning.
“Don’t cry,” Barbara says, rather enjoying her role as confidante in this melodrama.
“I can’t help it,” Glenda says, leaning back just far enough for Barbara to see that she has managed to produce a real, single tear. The ability to form tears on demand is a gift that Glenda has and this is perhaps one of the reasons why Minnie has so little truck with them.
“You mustn’t cry,” Barbara tells her. “If Mum catches you, you’ll be sent to Wales.”
“Maybe I should cry,” Glenda says. “At least that way I’d see Johnny again.”
“But Johnny isn’t in Wales,” Barbara says, confused now.
Another bomb whistles outside, closely followed by a far-off explosion and then, without warning, there is a stunning, earth-jolting sonic boom that shakes the bed from side to side, makes the flame of the candle flicker, even makes the ground ripple. Afterwards, everything is deathly silent, and it is only after thirty seconds or so when their hearing starts to return that the girls realise that this is not silence because the world has ceased to exist but a silence born of the fact that they have been momentarily deafened.
The girls remain immobile, cross legged and facing each other, until Glenda – looking genuinely panicked – swings her legs over the edge and starts to pull on her shoes.
“Where are you going?” Barbara asks. “Mum said…”
“Mum said, Mum said…” Glenda repeats.
“She said to stay put. She said you mustn’t.”
“It’s Mum I’m going to check on,” Glenda says. “What if she got hit?”
Barbara bites her bottom lip. She doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know what to say.
When the door to the shelter jerks open and Minnie appears, Barbara releases the breath she has been holding. “Did you hear that?” Minnie says, blustering into the shelter. “I almost spilt the soup. I swear the blast messed up me bleedin’ hair.”
She puts the pan of soup down on a small stool, then turns and closes the door behind her. “You girls bein’ brave?” she asks, and Barbara turns away just long enough to wipe a tear – a genuine tear of relief – from her cheek. “Yes,” she says. “We’re absolutely fine, aren’t we Sis’?”
The fear is so pervasive, so constant, that it begins to seem normal. But being scared, even all the time, is still being scared, and Barbara wishes she could be harder, like her mother, or even better, like her sister – apparently immune, apparently still thrilled by every bang, still excited by every near-miss.
But the danger is undeniable, the signs are all around them now. The house at the end of the street is gone, the family within all dead; the gasometer around the corner is in flames. Barbara’s days at school are spent listening for distant air-raid sirens, which sometimes, if she concentrates, she can hear before anyone else. Sometimes she can hear them whole minutes before the local siren prompts their descent into the cellar where, despite the games and rhymes and distractions the teachers attempt to organise, Barbara listens, still, for clues from above. She’s trying to detect a secret sign that might differentiate this bombardment from all of the others; she’s trying to detect some dark, non-audible vibration which might reveal that everything has changed, that Glenda and Mum have not, this time, escaped.
Once the air-raids are over, she walks home in the pitch black, past the vague shadows of bombed out buildings, past smoking, steaming remains, past shadowy figures who might be friends, only it’s too dark to see. Sometimes a blazing building provides light and she jumps over vast, snake-like fire hoses dragged by exhausted, blackened firemen. She tries not to notice the child’s toy poking from beneath a collapsed wall, tries not to worry about the origin of the red stain on the pavement. War provides no censorship, so Barbara tries to create her own. And now she must round the final corner – she holds her breath. Will the house still be there? Will it be in flames? Or will it be flattened?
She lets herself in and sits watching the door, waiting for Glenda and her mother to come separately through it, hoping that the siren won’t sound before they do so. And here they are, revealing that it has happened again: they have been spared – another daily miracle amidst the mayhem of bombed-out London. But today something is different. Barbara can sense a change. Minnie is holding Glenda’s hand, and Glenda is as white as a sheet.
“Come on,” Minnie tells her. “Get your things. We’re going to the shelter tonight,” and Barbara doesn’t ask why; she doesn’t want to know what has happened, because she has learned that there is enough terror in each day for everyone and that sharing it around is superfluous, that sharing it around just adds to everybody’s burden. It’s one huge life-lesson that she will never forget.
Last night’s raids were local and lethal, and the youth club shelter, in the arched tunnel of the basement, is packed solid. There is sitting room but no more. Minnie tells Barbara to look after her big sister and starts to tiptoe to the far side to fetch soup from the WVS ladies. Everyone around them looks exhausted; no one slept much last night.
“Are you OK, sister?” Barbara asks, a little unnerved by Glenda’s silence. She hasn’t said a word yet.
Glenda nods and blinks slowly. “They were asleep,” she says, quietly. “The whole family. It was an unexploded one from the night before, so they wasn’t even in the shelter. Not that it would have done ‘em any good. That was flattened too.”
Barbara nods and hopes that Glenda won’t tell her who has died. She doesn’t like to put names and faces to these stories, because once fleshed out she knows that they will have the power to haunt her dreams, turning them into nightmares.
“Poor Billy,” Glenda says, shaking her head and breathing erratically with the effort she is making not to cry.
Poor Billy, Barbara repeats in her head and then, despite herself, the image of Glenda’s schoolfriend Billy Holt comes to mind, closely followed by Mrs Holt sweeping the front porch. She wonders about Billy’s sister Harriet – with whom she sometimes played – but decides, quite consciously, not to ask. All the same, she imagines Harriet, whose pretty dresses she was always so jealous of, buried somewhere beneath rubble, the crisp starched cotton crushed by the weight of fallen brick. She imagines what that would feel like.
Minnie returns with mugs of watery soup and Barbara takes hers, grasps it between both hands, and counts to twenty so as to delay the first sip. Her anticipation of the soup is, she knows from experience, more powerful than its ability to actually satisfy her hunger. She likes to wait as long as possible.
“Eat your soup,” Minnie tells Glenda. She crouches down and pushes the hair from her daughter’s eyes – a rare display of affection reserved for exceptional circumstances such as these.
Someone at the far end of the cellar tries to start a singalong with a warbling rendition of Doing The Lambeth Walk but tonight it fails to catch on – it doesn’t always work – and the singer falters at the end of the first verse, then mutters, “Bugger you all then,” which at least provokes a few laughs.
“We’re all knackered, Annie,” someone shouts, and Glenda, who would have found a singalong hard to bear, feels relieved.
Minnie, who claims to be unable to sleep sitting, (even if the girls have frequently caught her doing so) heads to the far side to “have a natter” with Mrs Peters.
In the farthest corner from the gas lamp, a couple are discreetly canoodling beneath their coats and Barbara peers at the shifting shapes for a moment and wonders what that feels like, then turns her attention to the woman beside them who is knitting what looks like a glove.
Once she has finished her soup, she closes her eyes and, ignoring the rumbling of her tummy, tries to imagine her favourite scene of the moment, a farm in Wales.
“Do all farms have cows?” she asks her sister, momentarily opening her eyes, and Glenda, who knows as much about farms as her little sister, says, “Oh yes. They always have lots of cows. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any milk, would there?”
Reassured not only about her conjured image of a farm but also that her sister is talking again, Barbara closes her eyes anew and pictures a rosy-faced Welsh woman squirting the cow’s milk straight into a bottle. “Take that to the dairy would you, Babs?” the woman says. “And help yourself to some cheese if you fancy it.”
2011 – Shoreditch, London.
“Sophie, darling!” Genna Wild floats through the dazzlingly bright expanse of the gallery to where Sophie is shrugging off her wet coat. Behind her, rain is falling from a dark October London sky.
“You made it!” Genna says, helping her out of the coat and smiling beatifically, as if Sophie is her very favourite person on the planet. “How marvellous!”
“Are you kidding?” Sophie says. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything. Not even on a revolting evening like this one.”
Genna wrinkles her nose. “It is horrid, isn’t it? Come get yourself a drink. The white is rather special. It sounds German but it’s from Alsace, apparently.”
As Sophie follows her across the room, she takes in the assembled crowd – forty, perhaps even fifty people who have braved the weather to see Arakis’ photographs, or perhaps, like her, bask by association in the glow of his exhibition.
As she reaches the drinks table, she starts to notice the photographs themselves, vast three-metre black and white prints, mostly of naked women, most of heavily bound naked women. To her right, the image is of a woman tied up in an enamel bath, to her left, it shows a nude suspended by rope from a ceiling.
She hates these photos. That is her first reaction, and she tries, as she sips at the wine, to analyse why this is so, tries to decide just how much of her aversion is political and how much is, well, for want of a better word, jealousy. As far as her eye can tell, these are porn shots – technically masterful, beautifully-lit porn shots but porn shots all the same.
“Aren’t they gorgeous?” Genna says, following her regard, so Sophie wrinkles her nose cutely and nods. There’s no point falling out with the owner of one of London’s most successful photography galleries – there’s no point at all.
“Must circulate,” Genna says, turning then scooting back to the entrance in order to greet a new arrival – a slightly overweight and extraordinarily pale man with round glasses and a very wet, grey-checked suit. “Brett!” she exclaims. “Oh how wonderful that you could make it!”
Sophie moves to the right and positions herself in front of a vast photograph of a naked, pregnant woman, bound again with generous quantities of rope.
“Such energy!” a man beside her says as he peers over his half-moon glasses at the photo.
“Yes,” Sophie says, thinking, Really? Where?
But she must go to these events – she needs to understand what is happening here. She needs, more than anything, to find a way to inject some of this excitement into her own career. But how to do that? How to get people to start randomly eulogising about her work? Perhaps one really does need to shock, she thinks. Perhaps she should start tying up men and photographing them. That would make a bloody change. But no, too obvious, too derivative. But then, isn’t this?
“Sophie, this is Brett,” Genna, who has reappeared beside her, says. “I don’t think you’ve met, have you?”
Deciding that Genna is palming Mr Blobby off on her, Sophie conceals a sigh and takes Brett’s cold, damp hand in her own and forces a smile. She’s not here to date, she reminds herself. She’s here to network and she knows better than to let her disdain – disdain based on mere physical appearance – show. “Sophie Marsden,” she says.
“Brett Pearson,” the man replies, shaking her hand limply then letting it go.
Sophie resists the desire to wipe her hand on her dress, then squints at him vaguely. “Brett Pearson,” she repeats. “Now why do I know that name?”
Brett shrugs. “The Times, maybe?”
“Ah, that’s right! You’re the new arts correspondent.”
“Junior arts correspondent. Yeah.”
“How fabulous,” Sophie says, wincing at her choice of superlative. She mustn’t overdo it. She mustn’t sound like Genna. It’s important not to appear sycophantic.
“Marsden,” Brett says thoughtfully. “You know, there’s a photographer called Marsden. Well, was. Anthony Marsden. You know his stuff at all?”
“Vaguely,” Sophie lies.
“He died way back,” Brett says. “But he was good. A lot of social comment stuff. In the Seventies.”
Sophie squints and shakes her head vaguely. “I just, you know, know the name, really,” she says.
“So what do we think of these?” Brett asks, waving his glass towards the photo before them with such largesse that the wine almost slops out.
“I’m not sure,” Sophie says, tracking the sloshing wine from the corner of her eye just in case, and waiting for Brett to provide a cue. “What do we think of these?”
“Three words, one letter,” Brett says.
“Oh, it’s, you know, a game,” Brett explains. “I play it when I’m stuck for an angle for a piece. The first three adjectives that come to mind. But they all have to start with the same letter.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” Sophie says. “You go first.”
“Doleful, dysphoric and dirty,” Brett says.
“Ha, OK. I get it.”
“No hesitation,” Brett says. “That’s the whole point.”
“OK, then… enigmatic, exploitative and, um, empty,” Sophie says. She scans the room to check that Genna is out of earshot, then pulls a face and raises one hand to her mouth, Japanese style. “Did I really just say that?” she asks. “About the great Arakis?”
Brett grins at her strangely. It’s half grin, half sneer, Sophie decides. She’s surprised that she finds it such a sexy combination.
“I kinda know what you mean,” Brett says. “It’s a fine line, I guess.”
“I’m overreacting, probably,” Sophie says. “I just get a little bored with the abused-women-equals-art thing. It just all seems a bit Eighties to me. Do you know what I mean?”
“Madonna? Erotica? Feel the pleasure, feel the pain?”
“But very much in vogue now,” Brett says. “Ha! Vogue! Did you see what I did there?”
“I did, actually.”
“But what with Fifty Shades of Grey and all…”
“Fifty Shades. The S&M novel?”
“Sorry. I don’t read as much as I should.”
“Oh you don’t need to read this one. Unless you’re into that kind of thing. But it’s huge back home and no doubt coming to these shores shortly.”
“I’ll look out for it.”
“Anyway, as far as these are concerned, I’m not sure about exploitative per se,” Brett says, as they move on to the next, even more shocking photo. “I mean, she’s a professional model presumably. No one made her do that shit. She even looks like she’s into it.”
And suddenly, arts correspondent for the Times or not, Sophie can’t help herself. “So here we have a woman being paid by a rich man to be naked, being paid to be tied up naked, being paid, on the photographer’s whim, to let him stick the tail of a plastic dinosaur inside her … Inside her! Oh, and being paid, while we’re at it, to look like she’s, what was it you said? Oh, ‘into it.’ That’s it. And this is not exploitation?”
“You’ll have to excuse Sophie,” Genna says, moving between them in what looks like a precise damage-control intervention. “She’s terribly political. Like father, like daughter.”
“Oh, I kinda think she’s right,” Brett says. “But you know, as long as the press chatters, the buyers buy, the punters get hard and the credit card machine keeps spitting out those little slips of paper (he nods here at the terminal in Genna’s hand), then who cares, hey?”
Genna freezes for half a second, clearly unsure how to react, then licks her lips, smiles and laughs. “Brett! You’re terrible!” she says. “Just terrible! Now promise me that you won’t be saying that in your write-up.”
“I promise I won’t be saying that in my write up,” Brett repeats, sotto voce. “Any chance of another glass of that white?”
“Of course!” Genna says, taking his arm and physically pulling him away from Sophie. “It is rather gorge, isn’t it?”
Damn, Sophie thinks. You screwed that up.
“So Genna tells me that Anthony Marsden was your father,” Brett says. “Were you offended that I didn’t know that, or were you just jerking me around?”
“Just… winding you up,” Sophie says, wondering how she ended up leaving the gallery with Brett. Does she find him attractive now, or was it just that third glass of wine? Or, even worse, does this have something to do with the fact that he is the arts correspondent at the Times. And what if it was a mixture of all of these things? Would that make it OK?
“The rain has stopped,” Brett says, folding his umbrella. “We could walk it instead. If we’re going to my place, anyway. I’m in Hoxton, so it’s, like, ten minutes from here.”
Sophie looks at him and thinks about pretending to be outraged, thinks about saying, “Now why would you even think that I’m coming to yours?” But then he does the smile-cum-sneer thing again – a leer, that’s the word – and she hears herself say, “Sure, let’s walk. I like to walk and I’ve been cooped up all day.”
It’s cold and damp but there’s something rather lovely about these early winter nights, something about the reflections of the lights on the wet pavement, about the swishing of the passing cars and the clip-clop of her heels on the pavement, that Sophie can’t resist. London always feels so much more like itself once winter starts to close in, when the streets are shiny with rain.
“And you’re a photographer too, I hear,” Brett says. “That’s some pedigree to live up to, right?”
“Yes,” Sophie says. “But I do fashion shoots mainly. So it’s, you know, a different world.”
“Huh!” Brett says, buttoning the top button of his jacket, folding his collar up against the cold and then yanking on his tie so that it juts out a little more from his collar.
“Fashion. Just doesn’t really fit with the discourse. About Arakis. I would have expected you to be photographing starving kids or lesbians or something.”
“Yes, well…” Sophie agrees, shocked that Brett has so quickly placed his finger on her weak-spot, the one spot that can actually make her want to cry. “We all have to make compromises, don’t we?” she continues. “And we’re all full of contradictions. It’s part of being human.”
“I guess,” Brett says, doubtfully. “And you don’t carry any equipment?”
“All my photographer pals have their cameras with them at all times.”
“Oh, I have this,” Sophie says, pulling her Leica compact from her inside pocket, then dropping it back in again. “But I don’t carry the big one around unless I’m actually going on a shoot. Why? Did you want me to photograph you?”
“Maybe,” Brett says, raising one eyebrow and shooting her another cocky leer.
His flat is beautiful. They step from a dingy external walkway that looks like it might feature in a Mike Leigh film, into a vast lounge that is so white, so chic, it almost resembles a gallery.
“Wow!” Sophie exclaims, heading straight for the bay-windows. “A room with a view!”
“Yes, you can see right down to the river,” Brett says.
“It’s a rental,” Brett says, “and shared. So don’t be.”
“I’m not sure I’m staying yet, so…”
“Yeah. I might be going back home.”
“And home is?”
“Right. Well, I can understand the appeal of that.”
“But London’s fine for now,” Brett says, hanging his jacket on the back of a chair, loosening his gold tie and undoing his top button. “So Drink? Food? Kiss? A spot of fiendish rope-work perhaps?”
“Let’s start with a drink,” Sophie says, “and see where it leads us.”
“Sure,” Brett says. “Let’s do that.”
End of Excerpt.
Thank you for reading this excerpt, the first two chapters of my full length novel, The Photographer’s Wife. If you enjoyed it and would like to continue reading, it’s available worldwide from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Amazon.com.au, Amazon.fr, iTunes, Kobo and Google Play. Love to all. Nick x