Mark Aitken © 2004

Published in Aesthetica Magazine, Issue 4, 2004


Norman was doing a favour for a friend of a friend. The kind of friend of a friend you wish your friend didn’t have. She was Italian and had come here to be a pop star and wanted him to take photographs of her band. His friend had been very supportive of her – especially since they’d split up or he kicked her out or whatever you want to believe.


So she was using her ex-boyfriend’s friend to take cool photos of her cool band. He didn’t mind, really. It was a chance to get his camera out and have a go. She wasn’t bad looking either. If only he didn’t have to bite his tongue every time she flapped hers. Sarcasm is wasted on narcissism. That’s what it took to be a star. Don’t listen to anyone else unless they’re telling you what you want to hear. So he didn’t say much and slipped into his role paying service to the star. And this was really a favour for his friend who had done him many favours in the past. He might have even said that out loud to make it clear that he was nobody’s fool.


They were all in his office or the studio, as it became known on that day. His office became a studio when he unpacked his lights. He told everyone to go into another room and they dutifully obeyed. His role, at least at that point, had clout. No one had seemed exactly clear what the photographs were for. Some non-specific publicity to do with a possible publishing deal through a supposedly successful Italian DJ come producer who had done a lot of coke with the Italian girl at some point in the past. He thought that the photos were probably being taken to validate the band’s existence. They needed to exist in a fixed image.


He wasn’t really sure what to do with the lights so he just turned three of them on and scattered any shadows out of the white room. He wasn’t sure what sort of style this effect lent itself towards but it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that he had lights and they were calling this white room his studio, which, of course, rubbed him up the right way. Then the phone rang.


It was a Saturday and the phone didn’t ring much anyway during the week so this was an odd time for the phone to ring. He thought it might be his girlfriend who had declined to be involved in this caper. He picked it up and his mother was on the other end. His mother lived in South Africa and said his name on the phone. There’s nothing quite like your mother saying your name. It sounds different when your mother says it and evokes a whole wave of feelings that come crashing in. You sit in the wake of hearing your mother call your name realising that, but for her, you wouldn’t even have a name. Mothers have that kind of down payment on you. So he heard his name on the phone and said. ‘Mum’, back to her and then she repeated his name. The second time, she said his name more slowly. The pace of his mother saying his name seemed to be telling him to sit down so he sat down. He felt like Michael Caine in his acting master class when you learn how to move in sync with the camera. He was moving with his mother’s voice. Then his mother said that something had happened and she started crying.


Now, he knew his mother had a penchant for the dramatic pause. She was adept at holding back a punch line while expertly manoeuvring herself into being a magnet for attention. He found this sort of drama tedious and always told her to get to the point. He used brusque shorthand with his mother in these situations. His mother then told him that he wasn’t going to believe this and that it was all her fault. There was a cycle of tit tat feuding that had gone on for so long in his family that he was always expecting a call that announced the ultimate tragedy. But with his mother, he was never too sure.


She wanted him to get on a plane straight away. She’d pay the ticket. Still not knowing what was going on, he thought how nice a plane ride would be. Going on planes always made him feel grown up. Especially the long haul flights with their films, free food and drink. Then his mother told him that Jack was dead. He’d killed himself and it was her fault. Now that his mother had finally announced the news, he felt a mixture of relief and dread. He hadn’t spoken or had anything to do with Jack for years. Their last encounter was etched on his memory as a nightmare. A flashing kitchen knife; a thunderstorm at dawn and his mother beaten continually all night. He could or should have killed Jack himself with his bare hands and teeth but decided to never speak to him again. He still doesn’t know if he chose the cowardly option. Now he felt relieved.


His feelings of dread came from not knowing where these things lead to and even how he should be feeling at this dramatic juncture. He wasn’t aware of it, but a shadow crept up the wall behind him. The lights didn’t want anything to do with this shadow that hung over a conversation about death.


He decided it was best to be a trooper and carry on with the job at hand. He didn’t want exclamations and platitudes from his present company and why should someone’s death suddenly interrupt everything? Especially when the death brings a sense of relief. He wondered how to explain this feeling without sounding satisfied. Vengeance was satisfied through this death if it was revenge he’d wanted. It was horrible but sweet and then sad. Very sad that such a twisted self-destructive man should kill himself. Sad but predictable, he thought.


The lights were very hot and bright and made the pop star’s skin appear blotchy and greasy with all the pores opening like little volcanoes. No one questioned the bright lights because they looked professional and that’s what this whole exercise was supposedly about. They didn’t have a clue just how professional he was being at that moment. He thought that being professional helps develop the impersonal touch. He felt out of touch with himself like a telly with a remote control that won’t work no matter how hard you push the buttons.


There were two boys in the band besides the loud Italian. He set them up with her centred and flanked by either boy. One of the boys didn’t seem very comfortable and kept asking if he looked alright. He had a large hooked nose and when he raised his head you could see up his nostrils. He wasn’t what you’d call a natural or perhaps he was too natural. It didn’t really matter because the Italian was up front and giving it some with a serious sneery pout and half dropped eyelids. She wasn’t so much a natural as a pocketful of poses.


He told them all to relax. Maybe put their arms around one another. Look like they’re in this together as a band. They’re going to stick together. So, the Italian, being the tallest of the three, puts her arms around the shoulders of the boys. Snap snap and then she drops her head. The boy with the nose begins to feel the strain of the girl’s weight. She rolls her head to one side with her eyes closed. Her wrists go limp and her hands sag. Some sort of Madonna on the cross pose. Great, he says.


He has to keep reminding himself about the phone call. A twinge of excitement because the world will never be the same again and he’s getting on a plane and he’ll have a story to tell people when it’s all over but then he remembers how much he hates funerals.


He’s used all the film up and gives the exposed rolls to the Italian. He wouldn’t normally do this. The bit he likes about taking pictures is the editing. Selecting some pictures against the others and being surprised at the mistakes. It’s the mistakes he likes. The ones he thought he’d like almost always appear contrived – like he’s seen them before. Almost like they’re pictures someone else has taken. So he gives her the rolls of film because he said that he’d take the pictures for free but wouldn’t pay for processing or printing. He knew that if he processed the films he’d never get his money back and he didn’t want to hold these pictures to ransom. He’d sooner bin them. But he still wanted to see the results. He knew that he’d never see the results once he’d handed them over. Really, there was no point to this apart from doing a favour for his friend who should have dispensed with this insecure wannabe pop star ages ago but then he never got involved in other people’s relationships. He knew how he felt when people had tried to so much as pass an uninvited comment on his own predicaments. They can fuck right off. Forever.


The shoot over and the studio slowly regressing back into a white room and his role of photographer with clout vanishing seemed like an opportune moment to announce the news. He spoke with his friend.


‘My Mum’s bloke has topped himself. I didn’t like him much anyway. He had a good sense of humour but he was a psychopath. I didn’t like him.’


So much for news. What did any of this mean? Especially to these people. Saying it out loud seemed to confirm how extraordinary this news was. He’d tried to mellow the tone with the word, ‘topped’. Topped sounded like clipping the top of your head off on a low ceiling. It could happen to anyone. A casual pitfall. But what about ‘psychopath’? That made him think of werewolves. What else do you call someone who is on a mission of self-destruction and feels the need to bring anyone who cares down with him? I’m going to destroy myself but if anyone gets in my way then they’ll have to kill me first. A psychopath can only win under these conditions. Pathological was another word he used when describing Jack. He wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. It sounded like something associated with violence. Something singular and obsessive. Something medical. A condition. A disease. The man was sick. He’d just topped himself.


So after spreading the news, he didn’t know what to do with himself. He had a whole Saturday afternoon to kill and didn’t want to go home and be alone. He knew that much. He’d spoken to his girlfriend and told her the news. It was good to tell someone who cared about him but it didn’t make any difference to how he felt. He knew what he wanted. He wanted a little oblivion and he knew how to get it. His friend lived on the other side of town and he headed back with him and the Italian. His friend had some pills he could take that would put everything on pause. He demanded the drugs because they owed him. He’d done them a favour. Especially when he’d been working under such difficult conditions. Death demanded a little oblivion in his life.


So they got back to his friends house and he swallowed a pill and after half an hour he went all floppy and knew that his life was on hold for a few hours and all of a sudden he wanted to fuck the Italian pop star who looked much better now she wasn’t under the lights. But she was having none of it and told him to fuck his friend instead. So much for favours. Really, doing drugs alone is one thing but doing drugs alone with other people when they’re straight and don’t like you is pretty tragic. Especially when you want to fuck them and they brush you off. Anyway, he didn’t persist and tried to enjoy being wasted on a Saturday afternoon in someone else’s flat.


They decided to have an afternoon nap and all three of them lay down on a futon. He managed to get within an inch of her body and then stopped because he didn’t want to be told off again. He’d make do with being that close and maybe he’d sling his arm over her shoulder later. If he got lucky.