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Chapter 1: it's all in the details
Disclaimer: The characters and anything else you recognise belong to J.K. Rowling.
The style of this story was influenced by a short story, local girl goes missing, by New Zealand author Emily Perkins from her short fiction collection, not her real name and other stories, published by Picador. The first line of this fanfic is borrowed from this story, and has been altered slightly. The original sentence by Perkins is as follows: “My mother was an amateur photographer.”
you can write the book
My brother was an amateur photographer. He used this old-fashioned Muggle camera which belonged to our Mam. She gave it to him on his ninth birthday because he‘d always been so fascinated at the lens jolting back and forth, at the hatch clicking open, waiting to be fitted with rolls of Kodak film snug in their small black canisters, and at the way he had to close an eye and squint at the world through a tiny Perspex window.
Here are some of the photographs he took – the earliest ones snapped minutes after he’d received the camera, ripped it free of the wrapping paper Mam had saved from last Christmas. Our Mam always saves things up: wrapping paper, shoeboxes, old clothes which she’d tear into strips and use as rags to wipe the windows. She fretted a fair bit that day, with the only twice-used wrapping paper lying in jagged pieces around her ankles. Colin took a picture of her and made her even crosser. See? Her forehead pleated into a frown, the corner of her bottom lip pinned between her teeth. Hands on her hips cutting a pair of triangles along her sides. And there’s half our Dad over there – the margin of the print slices clean through his face and so he’s one-eyed, quarter-nosed, with an unfinished smile. He seems so much younger, his face red with laughter. Dad doesn’t look like this anymore, not these days. In a sense this is no longer our Dad.
That’s what Colin’s pictures do to you – they make strange folks out of the people you know.
When him and I were kids Mam and Dad would, for one weekend of the year, bring us to this small town by the seaside. It wasn’t much; we took the train there, passing through fields spotty with houses, hills bleached with salt. The summer after Colin got his camera, we went on one of those holidays and he spent the whole time recording the entire trip in snapshots.
Our Dad didn’t understand it. “You’re missing the real world with your eye down that thing,” he said.
Mam came to Colin’s defence. “And you’re missing all the other details.”
Here’s one of Dad lugging along the single suitcase we brought with us, bulging at certain spots, the seams thin with strain. And another of Mam, reaching an arm into the sky to catch a slip of cloth – a red and white polka-dotted handkerchief, which she used to wrap round her hair but had been tugged loose by the wind. There’s the takeaway – wedged between a shop selling fishing tackle and a grocery store; we bought fish and chips parcelled in newspaper, the grease soaking through and onto my fingers, making them all hot and slippery. So many things. The smallest of things.
I remember a beach – it wasn’t the prettiest of beaches. All sorts of rubbish washed up on the shore – Styrofoam packaging full of tiny crabs, coils of polypropylene rope, fishline, tangles of black oily kelp. There’s a picture of me here. I’d been walking along the tideline, my feet sinking through the wet sand and my ankles getting all looped up with the rope and rotting driftweed. There’s something like disgust on my face, and my eyeballs are rolled up into my forehead and my mouth is ajar, poised at the rim of speech. I don’t think it was an actual word I was about to utter – just an exclamation like “Ugh!” or “Yech!” or something.
Colin and I had gone on walking to the base of the cliffs in the distance, the chalky headland sloping upward to poke its nose into the sky. There were rocks like a string of grey molars, flat-topped and covered with barnacles. Waves slapped at them and a thin spray fizzed up from the crevices in between. As we were climbing up them my foot slipped and my knee crashed into the side of the rock and the barnacles sliced open the skin. I must have yelled because Colin came scrambling back to me.
I hauled myself up. “It’s nothing.”
But there was a funny sort of glow in his eye and he put a hand on my shoulder and pressed me back down, saying, “Wait a moment. Mind if I get a shot of you?”
“What, like this?”
“Yes, just like that. Don’t move.”
I looked up at him, rather irritated, and pulled a big stupid smile showing all my gums.
Colin lowered his camera. “Minus the grin.”
“Not like that either. Just – pretend I’m not around, alright?”
In the end he got a shot of me, grimacing, looking past the camera with a deliberateness that he didn’t comment on, blood dripping from my knee. A wave hit the rock and spray flared up, poking me in the eye, drenching me. Now with that old picture in my hand I can see and feel everything as they must have felt all those years ago – the barnacle fragments sticking into my skin, salt burns on my lips, and the quick blinding light from his camera finding its way to me, catching me mid-flicker, like a star.
This is Colin: infinitely patient and infinitely awkward. He can sit and wait forever. But chances are he’ll track you down and shove his stupid camera in your face and say, “May I? It’s for a personal project.”
And God, did he have plenty of those. Once, he went all round our neighbourhood asking strangers to pose for him. He took a couple of hundred mug shots of those people after he made them pull their faces into all sorts of strange expressions. Some folks obliged us. But others like the homeless bloke in the park slung stale sandwiches at us, and some of the older kids in the playground sucking on their fags underneath the slides kicked sand at us and told us to shove off.
Sometimes I hated it. “It’s all junk,” I told him, sifting through the hundreds of photos, not liking the way they stared right back, “That’s all it’s worth.”
“Glorious junk!” he smiled and thumped me on the back before getting up and going to find Mam to help her with whatever errand she wanted him to do.
Nothing ever put Colin down.
Another one of his ‘projects’ involved this old Muggle woman called Doris who lived a couple of doors down from us. We didn’t know much about her except she always seemed to be sitting on her porch for hours at a time, knitting.
Colin leapt over her fence one day and I tagged along. He asked straight-up if he could follow her around for a few weeks and take pictures of her, if she wouldn’t mind.
“Something of a personal project,” he told Doris as she poured him a cup of pitch-coloured, almost viscous tea. When her back was turned, I lifted the lid of the teapot and saw that she’d dropped in at least six teabags with hardly enough water, and they sat at the bottom like puffy oozing cushions.
“Sorry, my dears,” she croaked when we left our tea untouched. “I haven’t had guests over in years. Now what were you asking again?”
He waved his camera at her. “Can I have a picture?”
After we’d left, I said to him, “She’s just some batty old knitting lady.”
Colin shrugged, polishing the lens of his camera with a pinch of shirt. “You wait and see.”
“One day you’ll have to tell me what you keep seeing when you take all these pictures.”
He frowned, thinking. “Everything’s always moving. Don’t know if you’ll understand this, Dennis, but sometimes, just for a split second, things stop. Just for that moment, and then click! It all makes sense.”
A few weeks later, he came back from the photo shop in town cradling a fat packet.
He spread them all out on the floor of Doris’ living room. Dozens and dozens of photographs, some of them blurry and others too bright or too dark, all of Doris and her things. Doris, pottering about in her garden, up to her elbows in filthy rubber gloves, her yellow-handled shovel dipping into the soil. The garden spilling around her in tangles of weeds, dotted with plastic gnomes and holey watering cans. Doris, pouring herself a glass of sherry; there was a thick vein in the glass, splitting upward to the rim. A shot of her empty sherry bottle collection with the labels peeled off; all the bottles glinted blankly, filling out her kitchen cabinets, which had no crockery at all.
Doris, glancing sideways with a twisted mouth at the frames of her grandchildren cluttering the mantelpiece (Colin said they were killed in a car crash along with their parents one icy December afternoon).
There was a picture of her sitting on her favourite armchair, and her folded forearms were all drooping flesh and liver spots. Another one, a close-up of Doris’s hands, with a scratchy shapeless mass of purple and yellow knitting pouring onto her lap, the balled ends of the needles jabbing out from between her fingers. There had once been an order to the colours – purple and yellow stripes, separated by waves of black lines – but any sort of pattern rapidly dissolved into slapdash patches of colour going down the stitches. Colin told me she knitted for her grandkids when they were still alive. And now that they were dead she didn’t seem to know how to stop.
When Doris saw the whole set of photos she merely shook her head and said in a hoarse voice, “But I am quite a wreck, aren’t I?”
“Course not,” I lied and Colin nodded furiously.
She turned away but I could’ve sworn her eyeballs glittered just a little too brightly and there was a tiny spasm in her jaw.
“You and your stupid ideas.” I elbowed him and he looked down and jammed his hands into his pockets, looking ashamed.
I remember when he turned eleven and went off to Hogwarts. He was excited and his excitement was infectious and both of us were going up and down the stairs, up and down and through the house, nearly driving Mam berserk, going through all his new second-hand robes and quills and cauldrons and all the other new stuff.
“I’ll write every day!” he promised. “And I’ll take heaps of pictures! When I get back we can develop the lot and you can see Hogwarts for yourself.”
The letters came, the owls tapping on the kitchen window every week. Dad was always amused, but Mam would snatch up those little scrolls, wave us off before locking herself in the next room to read them in private. Ten minutes later she’d emerge, grinning and only then would she share Colin’s letters with me and Dad.
Colin told us constantly about some boy called Harry Potter, a living hero, and clearly the target of his newest personal project.
I’ve got this idea, Dennis, he wrote, when you get to Hogwarts (and you will, I’m sure of it) we could work together and write a biography of Harry. We’ll be the first people to do so. You have no idea how famous he is and the things he’s done! I’ll be taking the pictures, of course. And you can write the book.
I did not want to write a bloody book.
I spent the year waiting for him to come home with the films.
But there were no photographs of his first year. One of the film rolls was destroyed, melted into a toxic mush by the lethal glare of a giant snake, apparently. The other four or five rolls fell from his robes or got lost from his things amid the general chaos. The school wrote to us, telling us he’d been Petrified. None of us understood what it meant.
Colin came home that summer, dazed. He was like that for a few weeks. He dropped things, his eyes grew large and blank, gone far ahead of him.
“It’s that whole business of being Petrified, isn’t it?” I asked him. “What was it like?”
I saw the lump bobbing in his throat. His fingers drummed on the table.
“I lost track of time,” he said.
“But what did it feel like? Were you feeling anything at all? Were you alive in there?”
He thought for a long time. He looked down at his shoes and began tapping a foot to some rhythm playing in his head.
I shrugged, stood up, and was just about to leave when he said, “I couldn’t move my eyes. I had to stare at the same ceiling every minute, every day. There was a crack running across the ceiling and I looked at the crack every day. Sometimes I got lucky and a spider would crawl out of it. I can remember that crack, every notch of it, at least on that part of the ceiling I was staring at.”
Sometimes it feels like I can only see and remember things in snapshots, in moments of acute clarity. In between these moments are slabs of encrypted time – a scramble of people, voices, colours – the details lost.
Snap. I can see Mam and Dad, standing outside the milk float, Dad bending over and pretending to examine the tyre, the hem of Mam’s mouth becoming so thin until it was threadlike in anger.
Snap. Me arriving at Hogwarts for the first time, with its turrets cutting upward into the sky in a crooked sequence of steps, the yellow windows burning in the stone. Cold water clamping around my body. An oversized furry coat, smelling of dog and raw meat.
Snap. Among the wilting rhododendrons of our Muggle aunt’s house, far away from Hogwarts, Colin turning over a Galleon in his palm. A portable radio between us, voices shredded in a crunch of static.
Snap. Colin, lying somewhere in the middle of a row of people, his neck at an impossible angle – awkward, even then.
When I told our folks what happened they looked at me and said nothing at first. I thought Mam might cry but all she did was put a hand round my dad’s arm, her head shaking side to side. The movement was awful – it was so precise, the way she shook her head, like a pendulum. She was teetering on the balls of her feet. As she held on to Dad, he too began to sway. It made a rather ridiculous scene, the both of them mutely rocking side to side like that. Colin would’ve wanted to snap a photo if he’d been there.
“Is this true?” Mam said over and over again. “Is it really true?”
I forced the words out. “He’s a hero. Everyone in our world sees him as one.”
“And what is that to us?” was all Dad said.
You know how grief changes people and all? Mam shut herself off, and once I walked into the room she was in and she threw up her arms, saying, “Can I get a moment in my own house? Give me one, will you?” She stormed away but there was no real life in her stride. When she put her hands on her hips like she always does, her elbows became thin sharp blades. Her face was all cheekbones, a jagged reef of them. And Dad no longer slept. I found him downstairs one morning at 4am, sitting at the kitchen table, his face pressed into his hands, groaning into his palms over and over again.
I didn’t return to Hogwarts. I couldn’t. Instead, I got a job at the newly reopened Florean Fortescue’s Ice-cream Parlour, though Florean was killed in the war and it was now run by his sister, Freesia Fortescue. For the next few months, I did menial things like shovelling ice-cream into cones and glass shell bowls and counting out change in Sickles and Knuts. I left my folks for a while – I couldn’t stand to be around them – and lived with the same aunt, who never asked questions, and whose house Colin and I had taken refuge in.
Of course I returned home in the end. I went back to the room we shared. I peeled through his belongings. I found all his photos. I looked at every one of them, memorising them. The pieces his eyes had seen, that his viewer had caught.
The wall on his side of the room had been plastered ground to ceiling with the hundreds of mug shots of strangers he’d taken that summer long ago. I tried to pull off all the pictures, but the sticky tape left yellow marks and I couldn’t fucking stand them and I scraped at the walls for ages with my nails but they stayed and so I put all the pictures back. I had to put up with a wall full of strangers glaring, grimacing, pouting, smirking, blowing kisses, and squinting at me – all because Colin had asked them to.
I went round to see Doris. I hadn’t seen her for years and I couldn’t think of a reason why but she didn’t ask. She looked older and there was a limp in her step, and her long grey hairs were falling out, catching in the lint of her cardigan.
“Where’s your brother?” she asked.
“He died,” I said shortly.
She went to the kitchen. I heard a clink, a swish of liquid, and when she emerged she had two glasses of sherry in her hand. I drank it all without a word.
I used his camera once, you know. It was during my second year at Hogwarts and Colin’s fourth year and I’d been sitting through a stifling History of Magic lesson. And quite suddenly there was a tremendous bang and the walls shuddered. More explosions followed and someone outside screamed, “Fireworks!”
The whole class leapt up and dashed out and sure enough, the air was sparkling and fizzling with bursts of colour, there was this huge dragon with a tail that went on forever swooping at everyone. Spinners on the ground spitting at people’s ankles, stars and flowers singeing the tops of our heads. In the midst of all the commotion I ran into Colin, and when he saw me, he clutched at the sleeve of my robes, a horror-struck expression on his face.
“My camera! I’ve left it in the dorms – I’m missing all of this!”
Something about the way he spoke made me reply without hesitation, “I’ll get it for you.”
I raced all the way to Gryffindor Tower, retrieved the thing and ran back to the fireworks, which were still exploding ceaselessly. Sparks drifted before my eyes. People were shrieking and prodding their wands at gliding phoenixes, dodging handfuls of purple comets whizzing down the corridor. Some strange wheel began turning into place in my head, and for the tiniest of moments, everything outside of me seemed to stop – the movement, the light, the noise. There was a pinprick of calm. Click.
Here – I’m holding it now, the picture! The fireworks don’t show up well, they’re just daubs and splotches of light in the shot but you can see the people shouting and screaming, frozen in their happiness and they will be that way for quite some time. And there! Look how happy he is. A clear light falling on his eyes, taking in all the laughter of the scene, and giving out some of his own. He misses nothing.
You’ll have to look a little closer to find him – but he’s there. Near the top left corner, beneath the sweep of a stray arm – is Colin.
A/N: Thank you for reading! I know nothing about photography, so feel free to correct me about any errors! I've edited this for the ten millionth time now :) Many thanks to all my lovely reviewers, for all your wonderful support and sob-worthy compliments ♥