‘Charlie, don’t shoot it in here.’
It was very important that the first ever image we developed shouldn’t be a blurry snap of my feet or the living room carpet. The first sound to come from a new piano should be a proper tune and not a few notes struck at random. First contact with water should be a dive, not toes in the shallows. I didn’t want us—me and my cousin Charlie—to christen our new camera with any old photo. Our first picture should be the best. How could I make someone like Charlie understand something like that?
‘The light’s all wrong in here,’ I said, prising the camera from his hands.
It wasn’t really a new camera. It was older than me, and its lens had seen places I’d never heard of, but it was new to us. Grandpa had waited until all the other presents were unwrapped, and our mothers were distracted by the turkey, before unveiling it.
‘It’s a crime how little I take her out these days,’ he said. ‘You two can probably show her a better time than me.’
Two mounds of presents soon lay forgotten by the fireplace. My new watercolour set, Charlie’s clock radio, and the dozens of socks and books we’d acquired between us had been upstaged by Grandpa’s big black camera. We sat cross-legged at his slippers while his fingers twitched and quivered, showing us how to work the shutter and change the film. Charlie’s fingers twitched too, mirroring Grandpa’s movements on an imaginary camera in his own hands. When Grandpa finally handed it over, Charlie put his eye to the viewfinder and took aim at the carpet, but I stopped him.
‘We’ll take it out later,’ I said, holding the camera away from him. ‘The light will be better outside.’
It was probably best to keep it out of Charlie’s reach. Any pen or wristwatch left in his charge would be taken apart and reassembled a dozen times. He had already conquered every small appliance in the house, so the camera was an exciting new challenge. There was no point trying to explain my idea about a perfect inaugural photo. Charlie knew how things were put together and how they worked, but he wouldn’t understand something like that.
I shovelled Christmas dinner into my mouth without really tasting it and then snatched Charlie away from his own half-eaten meal. We put on three pairs of new socks and went out into the cold.
‘Lucy, can I carry the camera?’ said Charlie, shutting the gate behind us.
‘Alright, but don’t take any pictures until I say.’
‘I won’t take any pictures until you say.’
I handed over the camera. ‘And don’t try to take it apart. Grandpa said if you open it then you’ll ruin the film.’
It made sense that Charlie should be the one pressing the buttons, since he knew how things worked, but I would tell him when to press them. I had always looked at the world through a viewfinder; I saw things and imagined how they would look on paper, hemmed in by four edges. I thought of everything I saw as a series of still images. And those images I divided into the picturesque and the unremarkable, filing away the picturesque in my mind and leaving the unremarkable as forgotten as our Christmas presents.
We walked slowly through the village. A few times I almost told Charlie to take the photo. The Christmas tree outside the church wouldn’t have made a bad picture, but I wanted better than that. I saw a robin washing its wings in a puddle, but it finished its bath and flew away while I stood debating its artistic potential.
When our quest led us towards the playground, Charlie slowed his pace and started plucking at my sleeve. ‘I want to go home,’ he whispered. ‘I’ve had enough of being a photographer. Lucy, can we go home now?’
‘But we haven’t got our photo yet. Just a bit longer, then we’ll go.’
He stopped walking. In the playground, two boys I recognised from school sat on the swings, passing a cigarette and a can of cider back and forth. They were about fifteen, a couple of years older than me.
‘Do you know them?’
Charlie nodded and shrank inside his anorak, trying to make himself invisible, but it was too late. We’d been spotted. The cigarette butt and drained cider can lay abandoned on the bark chips, and the boys were walking towards us.
‘Who are they?’
He stared at his trainers as if hypnotised by the laces. I pinched his arm—maybe a little too hard—and mind returned to body.
‘Who are they, Charlie?’
‘Eddie and Jack Cooper. They’re in my class. They’re twins, but they’re not identical, which means that two eggs were independently fertilised.’
‘Alright, weirdo,’ said the bigger twin as he approached. He was a couple of inches too tall for his coat and trousers. ‘What’s that piece of junk you’ve got? Couldn’t your parents afford proper Christmas presents?’
Charlie hugged the camera to his chest. ‘Parent. I only have one parent, Eddie.’
I cringed while Eddie Cooper and his brother laughed. Why did Charlie say things like that? No wonder he always got picked on; he gave people ammunition for it.
‘Who’s your girlfriend, Charlie?’ said Eddie, smirking at me.
‘Lucy isn’t my girlfriend,’ said Charlie. ‘She’s my cousin, because her mum is my mum’s sister. We have the same grandpa. And she’s my best friend too.’
The Cooper brothers cracked up laughing again. Charlie didn’t make many jokes. Sarcasm went over his head so he was always straightforward and honest. It made perfect sense to him, and I was used to it, but not everyone liked it.
‘You’re such an idiot,’ said Jack. ‘No wonder you’ve only got one parent. Did the other one get fed up of you?’
My fists curled in my pockets, but that’s where they stayed; Jack was bigger than me and Eddie was even bigger than Jack. ‘Come on, Charlie…’
‘He didn’t get fed up of me. He didn’t like my mum anymore, so he went away. So now I only have one parent.’
They laughed harder and Charlie looked confused. Telling the truth only made them laugh more and he couldn’t understand why. I grabbed him by the sleeve and dragged him back the way we came.
Eddie and Jack howled some words at our backs. They were words I’d heard Charlie called before, although I didn’t know exactly what they meant.
I hated the Cooper brothers for being cruel to Charlie and I hated myself for not standing up to them. But then I also hated Charlie for needing me to stand up to them. He was two years older than me—why couldn’t he fight his own battles? Why couldn’t he figure out how people worked? Maybe the Cooper brothers were right; maybe Charlie was stupid. And thinking that made me hate myself even more.
‘Lucy, what are you thinking about?’
‘None of your business.’
We walked in silence. We took a path that led out of the village. We followed it as it snaked around and brushed the edge of the countryside and led us back to where we started. Then we looked for new paths to take. Charlie’s stomach rumbled but I didn’t suggest going home.
The way Charlie was hadn’t always bothered me. When we were small I was sure that he would always be my best friend. It wasn’t until secondary school that I began to think I’d outgrown him. Sometimes I avoided his eye in the corridors so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge him in front of people who laughed at him, in case they laughed at me too. The only people worth knowing were the ones who played football and told good jokes and threw bits of paper when the teacher wasn’t looking. Charlie didn’t do any of those things.
The sun slipped from the sky and soon it was too dark to walk on the unlit paths. We drifted towards the shopping parade in the centre of the village, where pools of lamplight punctuated the darkness. The car park was empty and the shops were closed. Christmas was the one day of the year when you couldn’t nip into the grocery store for emergency gravy granules or a last minute lemon.
But someone didn’t seem to realise that. Two hooded figures were lingering by the shop. The taller one was holding something heavy, judging by the way he stooped. The other kept a lookout. He wasn’t doing a good job; he hadn’t noticed me and Charlie walking through the car park.
‘Eddie and Jack,’ said Charlie, a little too loudly.
There was a skip not far away, full of plasterboard and broken furniture. I steered Charlie over to it and crouched, willing my breath to come more quietly and praying that Charlie wouldn’t say anything to give us away.
Jack Cooper decided that the coast was clear and said something to his brother. Eddie nodded, took a few steps back, and put his heavy object—a brick or a rock—through the window of the shop. Charlie clamped his hands over his ears as the glass shattered. A few seconds of silence dragged by, and then the burglar alarm ripped it apart.
Eddie wasted no time. Pulling the remnants of glass from the window frame, he swung a long leg over the sill and hauled himself through. He yelled as his hand caught a stray shard of glass. Crimson stained the bricks below the window, and Charlie whimpered in my ear, but Eddie carried on.
Jack hopped around, calling to his brother to hurry up, until Eddie appeared in the window again.
By the time I saw what Charlie was doing it was too late to stop him. He was running towards the shop, wielding our camera like a sword in battle, and—click. There was our perfect photo: Eddie Cooper climbing through a shop window, arms laden with stolen goods and hand dripping blood. It would definitely make a more striking picture than that robin in a puddle.
Charlie stumbled back to our skip, bent over the camera like an animal protecting its young, but our hiding place was no longer a secret.
Eddie threw down his spoils and pushed his brother aside, leaving a red smudge on his jacket. Then he was towering over us, shouting words that I couldn’t make out over the screech of the burglar alarm. His good hand curled into a fist and hovered over Charlie.
Jack floundered around, picking up his brother’s scattered plunder. ‘Don’t hit him, Eddie!’
‘Why not? Why shouldn’t I just break the weirdo’s nose?’
‘We need to get out of here. Come on, Eddie. Please.’
Charlie twisted around so his back was to Eddie. He trembled and whimpered and waited for the first punch to fall, but it never came. Eddie put his bloodied hand on Charlie’s shoulder, jerked him around and then wrenched the camera from him.
‘You’re using this piece of junk to spy on me?’
Eddie turned it over in his hands, maybe wondering if it was worth anything. But even Grandpa’s tender care could not disguise the camera’s age. It wasn’t the sort of gadget anyone would part with much cash for. He finished his inspection and dashed the camera against the edge of the skip. Then he turned and ran, with Jack close behind.
Distant shouts and a police siren joined the burglar alarm in the racket now filling the night. Charlie let out a little moan at the sight of the camera’s innards sprawling across the pavement. Even with all the noise around us, the tiny sounds that escaped him made my stomach twist.
Shattered lens powdered the concrete like the Christmas Day snow we’d wished for. I didn’t bother rummaging around in the wreckage; the shrill street light would have blasted the image from the film. There was nothing worth salvaging.
Charlie crept forward anyway. He picked up the little broken body and cradled it in his arms. He picked up the fragments of the camera and put them into a plastic bag from the skip. Tears dropped onto the beautiful, smashed mechanisms. Some of the pieces were red with Eddie Cooper’s blood. He would have spent an hour checking the cracks in the concrete for atoms of our camera if I hadn’t snatched the bag and dragged him away.
We walked briskly until we were away from the sound of sirens, then slowed out pace. Neither of us were excited about seeing Grandpa and showing him the bag of camera pieces. He had kept it safe for half his life and we couldn’t even manage one day.
‘Are you angry with me?’ asked Charlie.
‘Angry with you? Eddie broke the camera.’ I wiped my nose on my sleeve and pretended I hadn’t been crying. ‘I’m angry with Eddie, not you.’
‘He broke it because I took his photograph. You told me not to take any photographs.’
‘I shouldn’t have been telling you what to do. Grandpa gave the camera to both of us,’ I said. ‘And at least we got one good picture out if it. Well, it probably would’ve come out good, anyway.’
‘How do you develop a picture?’
‘I don’t know, Charlie. Chemicals or something. It doesn’t matter now, does it?’
‘But I want to develop my picture.’
Charlie’s face was still all damp and snotty but he was smiling brightly. For a moment I thought he’d gone strange—stranger than usual—and forgotten about Eddie braining the camera ten minutes ago. Then I saw what he was smiling about; he was holding a film canister.
‘Where did you get…’
‘I didn’t think he’d want me to have that photograph in case it got him in trouble, so I took out the film while he was shouting.’
If anyone could rewind and unload a film while hiding behind a skip in the dark then it would be Charlie—he knew how things worked. He hadn’t been cowering from Eddie’s fist; he’d been rescuing our perfect picture while I was paralysed by fear.
‘Lucy, what are you thinking about?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Just wondering if there’s any turkey left. You must be starving. Let’s go home, Charlie.’