GREY BETWEEN - Opening Chapter
The wind runs in circles round me, calling me, pushing dark clouds over the rooftops and tugging at my arm as it flicks water in my face. “Look what I found, look, look!” It drags a rainstorm towards me, “come and play, come and play!” Normally I’d walk, but today I duck into the metro and funnel through the ticket barriers with people in shirt sleeves and bare arms.
I asked my brother if I could take his photograph. I wanted a portrait of him. I wanted to make a representation of something I know as well as my own face; an image that would be more than just shapes and tones, with more meaning and memory than the fine lines across my brother’s brow and at the top of his cheeks. This photograph would be a story, or a poem, with words woven into the fibres of the paper, like an undulating voice tracing the forms and highlights, whispering textures that not only caress the surface, but pierce deeper than the limitations of life or fiction.
I turn a corner and my feet patter down the steps. On the floor in the middle of the passage there is a leather sandal, as though someone was walking in the other direction and one of their shoes decided not to carry on. I look round, half expecting to see a man with one bare foot walking away. How could he have not noticed? But there’s nobody and it strikes me as odd – I’m on my own in the metro when it should be bustling; the sandal’s on its own when there should be two; I’m on my own when I should be two. It can’t have been there long - no one’s kicked it or trodden on it. My fingers trace the clip on the bag with my cameras in. Footsteps bring people behind me; I don’t want to be caught staring at the floor, so I carry on walking and as I turn the corner I look back briefly. Someone’s foot accidentally clips the edge of the sandal and it spins off sideways and the next person stretches their stride to avoid it.
We’re identical. We have the same eyes, nose and mouth, and jaw. We’re the same build (although I’m quarter of an inch taller). We’ve got the same hair and we wear the same clothes. It’s not deliberate; we just have the same tastes and influences. We like the same people, eat the same food, buy the same things.
I set up a tripod in his living room and he is nervous, which surprises me. I’ve got two cameras with me: a medium format Hasselblad that I fix to the tripod (it’s a box you look into from above and wind on with a lever that gives a satisfying whisper of ratchet as you turn it); the other is a 35mm Leica. It’s small and simple like a curious and tactile object you might find in a second-hand shop and wonder if it still works. There’s nothing automatic, but it’s the best camera in the world.
The wind sprays rain at the window and knocks clumsily against the glass. My brother looks at me, then outside, and back at me again. Too impatient to wait, the wind skips off with its cloud and leaves us to our business and the sky a little lighter than before. Better for the photos I want.
“I know, let’s drink beer,” he suggests, which makes me smile because it seems naughty and I want to be in complicity with him. He runs to the shop and comes back a few minutes later with damp shoes and the smell of outside. I click away while he opens the bottles laughing to himself, and me. Then he sits at his desk and turns, bracing himself for the camera, quiet and unsure. There’s no hint of shame in his anxiety, which makes it light. And oh how I want that picture.
Of course, geographically we occupy different spaces. There isn’t room for us to be at the same point at the same time. But that doesn’t make us different; it makes us double. Two brains, four hands, twice as many hours in the day.
And my pulse races thinking of his eyes burning out of the paper in the developing bath, staring up at me dark and grainy. I take a sip of beer. “I could get used to this,” he says and I open the aperture wide and move round until the shape of his head jumps at me and the shadow sculpts his brow and washes the wall behind.
In many ways he’s my opposite. He’s funny and can make everyone laugh while I am serious. He’s natural while I am posed. I take care not to make mistakes when I speak, but whatever comes into his head falls from his mouth like a magnificent accident, without guilt or second thought, as if truth were something that happens with the changing of time or of the mind. And when I’m bitter he says kind things that make me shut up and stare at his beautiful face; my face; my brother.
“I feel a bit guilty having all the attention on me, but I kind of like it,” and he’s laughing again. “Is this what it’s supposed to feel like?”
“I expect everyone’s different,” I focus tight on his eyes.
“What does it feel like when people take your picture?”
“I don’t know. Nothing really. I don’t think I feel anything.” I say.
“I guess you’ve got used to it.”
The grey thins and the sun pushes into the room. I pull one of the curtains across the window to stop the light glaring on his face.
I share everything with him. He though, is protective, holding all he has close, strapping down his precious thoughts so that not even one can fall for fear it will be lost, or no longer his own. His life exists in the privacy of his writing - his wildest adventures journey only between the pen and page. For my adventures I need him. I need to show him the things I see as if I couldn’t have seen them, or they wouldn’t even exist if he weren’t there to witness. So I point out the shadow of a flame when you shine a light on a candle, the worn stone on a corner where a million hands have dragged as people passed, the clouds pushing through trees at dusk and rolling like treacle down, and he gasps: “You’re my eyes,” he says, and, “my God, you see such wonderful things.” And I laugh because more than anything I love that my brother needs me as much as I need him.
I fear that the moment is too big for my camera, that a photograph will be inadequate to explain what I see. I hide my face in the camera and stare. And I stare like you haven’t the right to stare at people. I stare like you can only stare when you know someone can’t see you. A thought comes into my head that I have no name for: I’d like to bite his face; sink my teeth into his cheek. My finger taps on the box near the shutter, one, two, three. I wonder if he really is as innocent as he looks.
I get a flash of discomfort like he might be able to see what I’m thinking and we’re quiet for a moment. I’ve only been here half an hour, but I’ve got what I came for. I make reasonable excuses about the day slipping away and escape home and to my darkroom where I am king.
I love the dark, the real dark of my darkroom. Darker than night or anything. I don’t fumble round though, my fingers go directly to the things I need, at exact distances and in the correct order with the correct rhythm. For one obsessed with the visual, one of the most exciting things I know is the 60 seconds of blindness while I take the film from its cartridge, load it onto a spool and seal it in a developing tank. It actually takes longer than 60 seconds because when I’ve put the lid on I have to take it off again and check that it was done correctly the first time. Sometimes I do this a third time as well (it’s very important no light can get in).
Once the film is in the developing tank there is a sequence of three chemical solutions which are poured in, left for a specific length of time and then poured out. The first is the developer which turns the opaque film into a translucent negative. The second is the stop solution. This stops the development which would eventually render the film completely clear if it continued. The third is the fix. This holds the image on the film and stops it fading.
I’m tempted to take short cuts in order to have the negatives more quickly (mix the developer too concentrated with water, too hot, to save 30 seconds here or 10 seconds there), but there is an order, rules I have made to keep me patient.
So, when I’ve mixed the developer and checked the temperature, and when I’ve poured it into the tank, swilled it round and tapped the container on the surface, one two three, to make sure there are no bubbles on the film, when the stop clock is started, when I’ve put the tank in its place to the left of the sink and I’ve checked my breathing is in time; then I wash the measuring cylinder and the thermometer (which goes back in a case in a drawer). The cylinder goes on the right of the sink and in front of it I put a funnel upside-down like a spire, and I take the ‘stop’ from the shelf and put it next to the cylinder just to the right – ‘stop’ is the strong smell that comes from every darkroom. Next to the stop goes the fix. I pick up the tiny corners I’ve cut from the film so that it would feed easily onto the spool. I pull off the inch or so of film left taped on the interior of the cartridge and carefully peel the label from the casing and put it back together with the metal discs on either end and put it in one of those desirable and tactile black film containers. I stack it with the other empty cartridges that I’ll load with film on another day; another dance with different steps. The rubbish goes in the bin, the scissors in the drawer, I funnel the stop into the cylinder then put the funnel in the container ready to pour back the used solution. I wipe up the drop that always falls from the funnel when I transfer it, and I wash my hands and dry them. I do this every time. I never make mistakes and I never go too fast. Then four and a half minutes are up. I always check the clock, but I know this anyway because that is exactly how long it takes.
I have two films today: a 120 (medium format) and a 35mm. When they’re both rinsed and hanging in the drying cupboard I clean up and put everything away.
And my eyes feel heavy like the afternoon beer just reminded me that when you finish a task it’s best to sleep and avoid the self pity that comes with the end of every project. I wash my hands carefully and make coffee then stand at the open window smoking. The sun is out again and I watch it move to the right and the shadows to the left.
I chop an onion and a clove of garlic then dissect a green pepper. The knife crunches through its shell and the perfume diffuses in front of my face. I cut small cubes then slide everything into a hot pan on the stove with a splash of ground nut oil. It crackles like an old record and I turn on the extractor fan, not too high, so I can still hear the cooking. I cut olives, green and black, and I add chopped tomatoes, mango chutney, Japanese fish stock, and a teaspoon of honey, one of cayenne pepper, and some red wine from a half-finished bottle left corked on the side for that purpose. I taste the sauce and then turn it off to heat up later. There are two fresh trout in the fridge that I bought yesterday from the market. I unwrap them and scrub the skin. As a child shopping with our mum, I would stare at the fishmonger with fear and hate, at the clear, quick movements of his knife like a memory of ancient barbarism that I now replicate perfectly.
The phone rings four times and then stops. It’s my wife too impatient to see if I’ll answer. She rings my mobile on the table next to the house phone and tells me she’ll be home late. I tell her not to worry; dinner can be ready when she wants. “Thank you,” she says carefully (she wants me to know that she means it). She tells me she’ll be back about eight, which is the time I was expecting her anyway. This is a ritual, our daily test to check everything is normal, that the sky is still blue, that gravity still works, and that day follows night. We chat for a couple of minutes before she jumps like she’s forgotten a pan on the stove and says she has to carry on with her work and I go and check I’ve not left a pan on the stove, but I haven’t.
I sit down with a glass of wine from a new bottle and light a cigarette. The phone rings and it’s my brother.
“It was funny this afternoon,” he says, and I know there’s no reason for his call other than the hope of finding solidarity in the deflation after an adventure.
“I think I got some good ones,” I tell him, “The negatives should be dry soon.”
“Have you developed them?”
“Yeah. I’ll do some prints in a bit. You should come round tomorrow and have a look.”
“I can’t tomorrow. I’ve got things to sort out.”
“Sunday then. Come round in the afternoon, I’ll make lunch.”
“Yeah ok,” he says. He’s sort of tongue tied and low. I want to find something to pick him up.
“I forgot to tell you earlier that I read your new stories.” I said.
“Oh,” and he wants to know more, “I was worried you might not like them.”
“No I really like them. I like the changing styles and voices. The words are careful and deliberate. They make a nice sound.”
“Do you think so?”
“Thank you. I’ve, …I’ve written another one that goes with them, it’s an ending for the fairy tales; the ending for all of them maybe.”
“I thought the fairy tale ones might be finished.” I said.
“So did I, but they left me with a nagging feeling there was something else to say. Then I came up with this last one. I like it. It kind of changes the point of everything. I’ll bring it for you on Sunday.”
Out of the window the rooftops fall away down the hill glowing a thousand tones of grey, darkening and blurring as perspective pushes them together. Regiments of chimney pots and aerials parade in the foreground in ordered lines, or chaotic clusters, trying to steal attention away from the domes and towers below while open windows whisper invitations into shadowy rooms and closed ones reflect the white walls of their neighbours, the street below, or the sky.
I get the films from the drying cupboard and take them to the living room where I lay them out on the light box. I cut the 35mm negatives into strips of four and the 120 film into pairs and examine each shot with a mounted magnifying glass like a one-lens microscope. Normally I would do a contact print, but I know which one I want already. Soon it will be time for dinner; I’m only going to print one.
In the dark room I wipe the baths free of imaginary dust. There are four of them, plastic trays, I pour developer into one (it’s a different concentration for prints than for developing negatives), stop into the next and fix in another. The last sits in the sink and is filled with water to wash the chemicals from the paper. When my hands are clean and dry I load the negatives into the enlarger. I switch the white light to red and do a rough focus, then fine tune using the magnifying glass and slide in a number 2 filter to increase the contrast a little. When the enlarger is switched off again there are only two colours: red and black. I take a box of paper and pull a sheet from the light sealed bag inside (it’s cheap resin coated paper I use for tests and experiments). I lay it under the enlarger then cover it with a thin piece of board then I carefully reseal the bag and put it back in the box. I turn on the enlarger and the stop clock so I can hear it ticking and every three seconds I move the board to the left a little until the whole sheet is exposed. Then I slide the paper into the developing bath. The image comes up in six strips each darker than the last.
I stop and fix the sheet and then turn the red light to white. I check each strip for brightness and contrast, and the mid-tones for texture then put it in the wash. I have a good idea how I want to develop this picture. I click the white to red and take out another piece of paper and hold my breath while a little rush of adrenaline courses through my body. I expose the whole sheet for eight seconds and then with small quick movements of my hands I block the light on the background and the left side of the face a little and allow the right side more time under the light. I slide the paper into the bath and gently swill the liquid.
He looks up at me soft and pale at first, but then sharp and his eyes hold firm, piercing through mine. He is beautiful and I am inflated to the size of my world, king of the darkroom. And now I want to lower my face into the bath and be submerged, bathing in cool liquid, red light and shadow.
When my wife comes in I’m watching a flock of birds skating round the sky. She squeezes into the chair beside me and whispers apologies for being late and I smile and kiss her lips for a second then turn back to the birds but it’s not the same. “Are you hungry?” I ask and she nods her head and grins.
My wife translates books from English to Spanish and she’s good at it. Very good. She flows and ebbs from unfathomable productivity to hours of juggling two or three words until they feel right. She likes to think that she finishes at six everyday, and she’s always surprised that in fact it’s much later. Sometimes I ask her why she doesn’t work at home and she replies “because you do,” and laughs, and I know this is the real reason and a good reason, but I don’t like it that she laughs. I’ve never said anything though. If she worked at home I’d have to work somewhere else. So a curious by-product of my wife’s long hours is that I seem to get a lot done too, but in a different way.
“I’ll put the dinner on,” I say, “it’ll only take a few minutes,” and she kicks off her shoes and follows me into the kitchen sliding her stockinged feet over the wooden floor for the sensation. She arrives where I am and touches my back with her finger tips and then carries on round the kitchen brushing all the surfaces, feeling the different textures and temperatures. I pour her a glass of wine and she picks at the food and then ventures off on a hand-dragging odyssey of the flat running her fingers over the spines of books and the smooth surface of the light box (I’ll clean it later) and in through the open door of the dark room.
“Oh my God,” she calls loud enough for me to hear over gas rings and simmering sauce.
“What?” I call back.
“Is this of him?” and now I laugh and she’s standing in the doorway behind me with the picture of my brother in her hands still not dry, but I’m not bothered, I made it for her to absentmindedly deface with her inquisitive paws (I’d have hidden it if I’d have wanted to keep it perfect). She looks from the photo to me and then back again. “Wow,” she says.
“The photo,” she says.
“Because it’s beautiful.”
I turn from the stove and grin at her. “Isn’t it,” I’m proud. “Where’s your glass?” and she looks at her hands and then round into the living room and slides off quickly and reappears a moment later with a nearly-full glass which I top up and then fill my own.
“Is…?” she hesitates accentuating the question like a child, “Is this how you see yourself as well?” and it’s a good question.
I only have one picture of him and me together. It was taken by our grandmother on the beach when we were seven, like a double exposure in glorious faded instamatic colour. It stands in a frame on our mantelpiece where my wife put it and I don’t mind it there. I don’t know which of us is which.
“I tried to make a picture of what I see when I look at him. I never would have taken a picture of myself like that.” I can’t find the words to explain and my face screws up, a bit frustrated.
“What’s the matter?” she asks.
“I think other people focus on everything that’s the same about us, or everything that’s opposite. The truth isn’t like that. We’re just brothers. It’s normal we’re similar; it’s normal we’re different.”
She’s quiet for a second and then, “sounds like you’re trying to say the right thing. I’m not sure it’s what you believe though.”
“Even you get confused between you and your brother,” she says.
“You’ve said that before.”
“It’s what I think.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t you?” she says.
“I know we look the same, but…”
“It’s a bit like you think he’s one of your limbs or something; like he’s something you own.”
“Of course I don’t!”
“You don’t seem to need much time to think about it.”
“I don’t need to think about it at all; it’s not true.”
“You’re a little too sure for my liking,” and she’s laughing and I bite my tongue.
I serve the dinner so I don’t have to look at her and I quietly tap my fingers where she can’t see them, one two three, one two three, but she’s not looking anyway. Then we sit down and eat and talk about her work and forget the photograph, left on the side, out of place in the kitchen. I’ll put it away later. I feel ok again