52 Stories from 52 Photos: ‘#02’

People called his city a ‘Student Town’ and it had always made him laugh. It suggested young, hungry minds ran the place, or rather, that the place ran for them. In reality, it was only a ‘Student Town’ in the same way as it was a ‘Fly’s Web’ and he was the spider. Waiting, watching as they got hopelessly tangled beyond salvation. The coast. When he was younger it had always felt like a prison. With your back up against the waves, you only really had one direction to escape in. But as he had grown up and discovered who he was, the seafront city had become the perfect lair.
“Qui court deux lièvres a la fois, n’en prend aucun” he was often told growing up. “You’re always with someone new. One day you’ll wake up alone and there’ll be no one left.” This was true, of course. That day had come and gone many, many times already. But just one hare had always struck him as no victory at all.

This goes some way to explaining why he was snaking down the promenade now through the late dusk that the summer brings. Weaving in and out of the tourists and the fools with nowhere to go he passed a demonstration at the entrance to the pier — a great killer whale trapped in a net. With the mad gulls in a frenzy above his head he wriggled free from the crowds and rushed away. The faces of passers-by began merging with memories; a young fresher pleading with tears coursing down her face, a strong but broken waitress coldly mouthing “I hate you”, an older woman blushing furiously, fighting herself inside. He slunk onwards to where they’d agreed to meet. “10pm by the building works, right down on the shore” her message had gone. El never had much time and he suspected tonight’s rendezvous location had less to do with the romance of a sea breeze; more shady deceit. But as always, this wasn’t his concern and wasn’t his problem. He prided himself on his ability to shut that out, and to do so he let his mind wander as he moved along the beach.

Most of his movement was after dark. To him, the darkness was a balm and he didn’t care why. Tonight though, as he stalked towards the building site his mind was restless, more alert than usual. It had been a particularly long year and tonight something was getting to him. The faces in the crowd were transforming faster now; the Czech blocking the door, shaking her head, the barmaid dancing and smoking the pain away, the tattooed girl sending photos from a hospital bed. He had relinquished guilt, regret and redemption long ago with his soul, he had thought. Shaking his head he brought his soft palms to his eyes, sliding them slowly and firmly down the length of his striking features and walked on. Murmurations arched and swept overhead through the violet sky like a blanket.

The sun had made its full descent by the time he trudged cooly to the water’s edge. The scaffolding stopped just short of the waves and he sat down between these two forces on the stones. He was tired, not just from walking but of his very being. The soft waves softened him for a moment and he felt a tug in his chest not dissimilar to loneliness. He heard the gentle crush of pebbles shifting as someone approached from the direction he’d come from.
“El?” he questioned the dark in a small voice.
“El’s not coming” the dark replied as it moved towards him in slow but impossibly vast strides. He rose to face the figure just as a flash of camouflage whooshed through the air between them and connected a heavy black boot with his cheek bone sending him scattering across the stones. All went dark.

“Wake up”
He was on his knees. Just in front of him he could see black boots, and next to them a shovel lodged in the shingle like a sword.
“I’ve been watching you for some time. You’re a very busy man.”
The pain wasn’t easing. He didn’t have the energy to reply.
“You think you can just do whatever you want, take whatever you please and give nothing in return. Where I’m from we call people like you cowards. And cowards are cut from the ranks. Discharged.”
He registered a crack in the man’s voice. Reality began to dawn on him.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know she..”
“I’m sure you didn’t. El was lonely, she made a mistake but I love her. You’re the goddam monster. You have to go.”
The figure stood over him now, huge hands tugging his limp, pained body towards where the shovel stood, and next to it a small, basin-shaped hole. His head was pushed into the hole and cool, damp pebbles caressed his cheek as if trying silently to comfort him. Staring down the pitch black hole, faces drifted again into view — his nana smiling warmly as she held a mug with both hands, his sister waving and laughing from the crowd, and his mother; smoothing his hair down and singing a lullaby. The hard point of the shovel was pressing firmly into the back of his head, just above the nape of his neck. He realised he was crying.
“Do it” he said as clearly and calmly as he could manage “It’s over, I’m ready.”

The weight of the tool eased off, and the figure let out a long, pained groan. There was the sound of weeping and the clatter of iron dropping on stone. Then foot-fall, running further and further away. He was alone, and at the bottom of the hole he could see the reflection of the moon.