52 Stories from 52 Photos: ‘#08’

I.

Jen always used to look forward to this time of year in her younger days. Almost peak summer; that sweet spot before the halfway point. The weeks used to roll out ahead of her with such glimmering promise, beckoning her into the warm, free sunlight. Of course, that was before the kids — little Jimmy and baby Emma. She adored them enough for two parents, but when she looked in their eyes she couldn’t help but plunge into a direct link to all that was wrong in humanity. They reminded her of her own absent father. They reminded her of the cruelty he and both kids’ fathers had rained down on her. They reminded her of life’s harsh and endless loops. As she trudged through the park that morning taking Jimmy to school the clear blue sky may as well have been thick with dark clouds. She was alone with her children and the passing of day and night made little difference to her. As she pushed the pram towards the centre of the park Jimmy tore away towards the fountain where a teenage girl was shouting. With barely the energy to call after him she picked up her pace to catch up. As she followed her son’s pointing finger into the water and saw what was there, all she felt was abject sorrow.

II.

Some days are just destined to be great from the moment you open your eyes. Charlie was walking to work in a tshirt and the early rays were caressing his skin so gently that, had he not been on the way to the office he’d have thought he was in paradise. He was in the prime of his life, working a job he loved in the city he adored — what could be better? But it was important to him to count the little blessings too, and having the time to take a scenic walk was just one. The road leading up to this precious summer morning had been long but he put his happiness down to his motto, Travaillez dur et soyez gentil. He was good to people, and they were good to him in return. Checking his watch he saw he was actually running early and afforded himself a slowed pace. He heard shouting by the fountain — kids playing, no doubt. As he wandered closer there were others who’d been drawn to the same spot. He smiled at them but none reciprocated and, as he glanced towards the water he realised why. Tilting his head upwards and away from the scene he felt lucky, so lucky that it wasn’t him.

III.

She hated the sun. Hated the heat. Hated what it did to people. It seemed to Cas that summer just gave everyone the excuse to act out; play the fool. Well, not her — she had more important things to worry about, like where she was going to sleep tonight. The world was cruel to her so she had to be cruel back. Since disappearing a year ago she had learned an important lesson that no one could teach her — anger can be a type of fuel. When there’s no reason to carry on, nothing to live for, it is rage against your circumstances that keeps you moving. Picking herself up from the shade of a tree she dusted herself off angrily and looked around. The sun had woken her up early and she was already sweating. She headed to the fountain she’d been using to clean up and cool down. She bent and began splashing handfuls of clear water on her hot, prickly skin, eyes closed. She plunged her hands back in for more and stroked something unexpected in the water. Wiping her face dry she looked down and a howl of rage burst up through her windpipe and tore out of her lips. The world was fucked, and all of us in it.

IV.

He had awoken that morning, like most, in a breathless fervour. He was tired as though he’d actively lived through a full seven hours of nightmares rather than passively observing in his sleep. Consciousness wasn’t much better and by the time he left the house his daily litany of real life terrors had begun to reel around him like fishing wire. Alan knew better than anyone that being careful didn’t stop bad things from happening. His wife had always been careful; more than most. And yet she was gone. Creeping down the pavement, the cars whizzing past could career off the road and blow his body away. Retrieving his rake from the park storage shed, the upper shelves could collapse and cave in his head. The shouts from the fountain could be a gang, ready to cut and stab away at his old body like a feather pillow. Adjusting his warden’s cap he bit his lip and edged towards the noise nervously. 
“Step aside please,” he croaked to the oddly diverse group of people there.
Catching a glimpse in the pool he stopped in his tracks. Something swept through his ageing bones like a pile of autumn leaves blowing away. He silently turned around and, clutching his heart, walked away, all the way home.

V

You never think about it until it’s there. Then you desperately pack all that existential grappling into a matter of seconds. This was how it went for me that night as I slipped and cracked the back of my skull hard on a cool stone fountain rim in the centre of a park. Moments earlier I’d been drunkenly anticipating the day ahead with bemusement, and the next moment I was thinking about all mankind. Had I dwelled too long on sadness? Did my happiness leave me numb? Had anger forced my hand? Had fear struck me dumb? My stiffening body eased gently into the still, calm water and once under; all my questions became the next man’s.