Chapter 11 : Photographs
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My Nan had a wall in her house devoted solely to photographs of the family. The scant amounts of wall which peeked in the gaps between the picture frames were a deep cranberry color, which seemed to blend with the honeyed oak of the frames. The wall faced a western window and every sunset the wall would blaze with color, each photograph lined with honey and crimson flames.
My Nan told me that every picture is worth a thousand words and that if you look hard enough at one of the portraits, that person’s story will unfold itself. I used to sit and watch the pictures when I was younger and tried to find the story behind the faces I never knew.
The stories never told themselves, and often enough I had to ask Nan to come and read the picture for me. She told me stories about her father, the great coal miner, her uncle, who had been all the way to India, and her mother, who had been the best seamstress in town until old Mrs. Ruby Gallagher bought a new sewing machine that could do everything her mother could do and faster.
I heard about the weather in the portrait’s year.
I heard about who went hungry.
I heard about how my mother and Aunt Esther had once stayed up all night sewing a bunny costume for Aunt Betsy’s first Halloween.
I even got to see a picture of my mother, aged twelve, standing next to newborn Betsy’s cradle.
I asked Nan one day if I could have a story too. She smiled and pointed to the recent picture of me hanging on the wall.
She went on to say that when I did get my own story, I’d have to be sure to tell it to her, in return for her telling me everyone else’s.
The smudged windows of the train let in several streaks of pale, crisp sunlight. I watched as several of the streaks fell upon my hands, which were clasped tightly around the handle of my mother’s old carpetbag. I didn’t know when carpetbags were last in style, but it was the only thing of my mother’s that would fit all my necessities.
I didn’t dare relax my hold on the bag while the other occupant of my compartment was present. He was a grungy looking fellow, with greasy brown hair and an unevenly shaved face. I couldn’t help but wrinkle my nose at his shabby clothes and long, dirty fingernails.
The man gave me a yellow-toothed grin before reaching into one of his deep pockets and pulling out a greasy wrapped package. As he opened it, I caught a whiff of fried fish. Turning my head to the side, I tried to ignore the munching sounds he made as he ate.
He then proceeded to do something even worse than chew with his mouth open.
He tried making small talk.
I noticed he had a small, almost unnoticeable lisp when he talked. I don’t know why, but when he spoke, all I could think of was that insignificant flaw in his otherwise deep voice.
“You know, I’ve got a neighbor who makes the best fish sandwiches. Better even than my own Mum used to. My Mum used to say that the secret to making anything good is lots of love.” He took a large bite of his sandwich, as I listened disgustedly to his loud chewing. “Of course, my neighbor made this one. It’s right delicious you know.”
I nodded silently, hoping that he’d stop talking and let me have the next two hours in peace.
He tilted his head to the side in apparent puzzlement, before one of his eyebrows quirked up. “I wonder how much love he put into making this sandwich…”
My eyes widened in irritation as I kept my head bowed ever so slightly.
I thought that if I just avoided eye contact with the man, he’d stop talking.
Apparently he never noticed my lack of response because he kept going. “Of course, I had to bring my own food up. I don’t trust train food. You never know where it’s been.”
I nodded, vaguely wondering where he had been.
Another half hour of relative silence passed before he spoke again. “I’m heading on up to visit my niece and nephew. Apparently they’re expecting twins. I reckon that I ought to go visit my dear Sophia before she pops. After all, I reckon she’ll want a real man around the house. Not like that sissy husband of hers. He’s a psychologist. He’s always trying to be all touchy-feely. Not the way to raise strapping young boys.” He shook his head. “A good lad doesn’t need all that, eh?”
I nodded quietly, hardly listening to his words as much as the faint lisp in his voice.
The streaks of light flicking through the windows slipped over my hands as we kept going. The two of us sat in the compartment quietly, and on occasion, the man would ramble on about some small tidbit of his life while I nodded quietly. Finally, as the train was pulling to a stop, the man let out a loud, fish oil burp. The mere magnitude of the burp nearly blew me backwards, and I glared at the man. He put on a puzzled face at his burp, and said absently. “You know, I probably shouldn’t have saved that fish sandwich for the train ride. My guess is that it had time to ferment or something…” He breathed outwards, “A good reminder of what I ate though, no doubt.”
I gave him one last look of utter disgust before picking my bag up and storming out of the compartment.
Nan and Aunt Esther were waiting for me at the station. As Nan escorted me to Aunt Esther’s tiny car, she spoke excitedly about her friend’s grandson, the photographer. The whole purpose of this trip had been for me to meet him, as he was holding a job open for me. As a favor to his grandmother, he had been holding the job of his secretary open for me.
Nan was very excited for me. “Oh Petunia, just think of what you’ll be able to see working with Nathan! He’s an excellent photographer if I do say so myself, and I’m sure the two of you will get along splendidly.” She beamed
I nodded to Nan as we walked back to the car. “I’m sure we will, Nan. I’m sure of it.” I smiled back down at her happily and looked to Aunt Esther, who was hiding a knowing grin. Confused, I asked, “Auntie Esther, what’s so funny?!”
She shook her head and put a hand over her mouth. “Nothing, dear. Nothing at all.” She kept her hand over her mouth and I was sure she was still smiling. “I just think that the two of you will get along wonderfully. That’s all. Wonderfully.”
I continued to give her a puzzled look, before looking to Nan, who shrugged and continued to lead me to the car.
I’ve often heard that good things will find you when you least expect it, but I never really believed it until I stepped off the bus on that drizzly Monday morning with Aunt Esther into the photography studio. The lighting in the hallway was dim, yet the red carpet made it seem rather cozy. The reception area was no different. There was a nice desk in the corner, piled high with papers, and four chairs lined the walls. As my eyes took in my new surroundings, I was caught by the sound of a shrill woman’s voice coming from the back room. Leaving Aunt Esther flipping through a lady’s magazine, I walked towards the partially closed door and listened.
“Oh, Nathan! I’m sure you did a marvelous job with her! I think she looks absolutely stunning. I’ll be sure to send in your check as soon as my pictures come in darling!” The door was pulled open then, and a woman with a blue felt hat jauntily perched upon her head walked out.
The hat was what got me the most. It wasn’t a normal conservative blue, but a bright cerulean. In the dim lights my eyes had grown accustomed to, the hat was blinding. Perched upon the short brim was a nest of blue and brown ribbons circling the most atrocious looking bird I had ever seen. The bird looked as though it could fit in the palm of my hand, were it not for the garish sky blue feathers jutting out from its wings. I could only gape in shock as the monstrosity approached me, followed by a meek looking brown haired girl and a tall young man with a self-conscious smile.
The little girl’s bobbed brown hair curled around her ears, and she looked back at the young man apologetically as her mother kept talking. “Oh Nathan! Is this young lady here to take some pictures as well?” She said, upon noticing me, her voice getting even louder. “She’s absolutely stunning, even though she looks a little simple compared to my Margaret.” With that, the woman pulled the little girl in front of her, as if to show me that I could never compare to the beauty that was her child.
The tall man blinked at me, his bashful smile fading slightly as a confused look crossed his face. “I’m not entirely sure, actually.” He walked over to the cluttered front desk and began to shove some papers around. “Aha!” He said, upon finding his appointment book. The man flipped through the pages madly, as I stood speechless in front of the lady in the blue hat. Confusedly, he spoke up. “You’re not Howard Freeman, right?”
I shook my head, finally finding my tongue. “No, I’m Petunia Evans. I think you were supposed to have a job for me?” I asked, still affronted by the sheer blueness of the other woman’s hat.
The man’s face lit up excitedly as he saw me in a brand new light. “Of course! I remember now!” His fingers flipped a few page. “Miss Evans, here for the secretary job.” With one arm supporting the appointment book haphazardly, he extended his free hand. “Nathan Pimpernel. Pleased to make your acquaintance Miss Evans.” He smiled broadly as the lady in the blue hat stood between us, looking from me to him in a most curious manner.
Almost instantly, I heard her loud voice in my ear. “Oh! How lovely! Finally, a lady to keep your desk in order!” She looked at me once more, eyes appraising. “And isn’t she adorable?!” She looked to Nathan excitedly. “Of course, this means that I can’t take up the space as your secretary, but I’m sure she’ll do a fine job nonetheless!”
Grabbing one of my hands, the woman’s voice, if possible, got even louder. “It’s a pleasure to meet you my dear! I’m Mrs. Eleanor Birch, and this is my daughter, Margaret. I’m sure you’ll love working here, and Nathan is an excellent photographer! Why, you’ll be working for someone who’ll be famous in the next ten years, you mark my words!”
Margaret looked up at her mother fearfully before dropping a quick curtsy in my direction. “Mum,” She piped up quietly. “I’ve got piano lessons soon, we’ve got to go.”
The woman looked absolutely dismayed at leaving Nathan and I, but nevertheless, she clasped Margaret’s hand tightly with one hand, and held down her hat with the other. “Oh, she’s right. It’s such a pity I don’t have time to get to know you better Miss Evans, but I must be off. Ta ta!” With that, Mrs. Birch and Margaret left the room, all the while, I could hear her voice booming down the hallway, exclaiming over some of the pictures Nathan had placed on display.
Nathan and I stood in silence until we heard the clang of the door being shut, and all else was quiet. Together, we stood awkwardly as I looked around the room once more. I couldn’t see Aunt Esther, and my only reasoning for her absence was that she must have had to use the bathroom. It seemed like such a shame, as I was sure she’d have known how to handle a woman like Mrs. Birch quite well.
I bit my lip and looked at my new employer. He didn’t look a day over twenty-two, and if it weren’t for his long crooked nose, he would have instantly been handsome. He had light brown wavy hair, and equally light brown eyes that radiated a type of warmth I hadn’t see before. They were simple eyes, without the complexities of blue or green specks I had grown used to seeing whenever I looked at Vernon. His camera hung by a thick strap around his neck, and he was currently fiddling with some of the knobs.
“Well then,” He said, still looking down at his camera. “I just need to change cameras for Mr. Freeman.” He looked to me apologetically. “I’ll show you around in a bit, but I’m sure Mr. Freeman’s been waiting for ages to have his picture taken.” He grinned sheepishly. “For some odd reason, Mrs. Birch likes coming around to the studio a lot. She claims that I’m an artist in the making.” His cheeks flushed pink, as he once more attempted to remove his camera from the strap.
For whatever reason, his fingers kept slipping on the catch, and exasperated at his apparent helplessness, I reached over to help him.
Just as the two of us attempted to fiddle with the clasps that held the camera to the strap, my aunt walked in. “Oh, hello Nathan. I can see you’ve met Petunia.” Immediately, the both of us turned to look at Aunt Esther, and for whatever reason, I felt like a deer in the headlights. I had done nothing wrong, but I suddenly began to see what she had been hinting at before.
Flushing as much as Nathan was, I let go of the camera. “Well, Aunt Esther…” I trailed off. “I…I guess this is where I’m working now.” I let out a breath of air, still trying to grasp why I felt nervous about being caught doing nothing by Aunt Esther. It didn’t make sense at all.
Nathan piped up. “Yes, I think she’ll be fine, Miss Kent. I was just about to show her what she was going to have to do, right after I finish working with Mr. Freeman.” He tried peering over our shoulders. “That’s odd,” he started, seeing the empty waiting room. “I wouldn’t have imagined he’d be late.”
He began to flip through the appointment book as I looked over his shoulder. “Oh,” His voice sounded shocked. “I was looking at the wrong week, apparently.” I glanced up at him, eyebrows raised as I watched color spread throughout Nathan’s face. “I guess I have time to show you around the studio then.” He mumbled.
I took the appointment from his hands and placed it gently on the cluttered desk.
It was probably best that he didn’t touch it again.
I had settled into Nan’s house pretty easily. I loved my new room. It overlooked the neighbor’s backyard, which was lovely, as they had one of the best gardens on the block. Often enough, I’d lean against the window and look out over it. The last summer flowers bloomed the best and brightest, trying to show the world that the only reason they had taken so long was because they had needed the extra time to become more brilliant than their predecessors.
On this particular day, I was sitting in my room, staring absently at the dying flowers. From what I could see, a few orange tiger lilies were all that remained of the beautiful garden.
The phone rang. I was the only person in the house at the time, and rushed to get it. Chances were very good that family was trying to call.
“Hello?” I queried into the mustard yellow plastic receiver. “Kent residence, Petunia speaking.”
A familiar male’s voice spoke into the receiver, and my heart nearly dropped out of my chest to hear the deep tones. “Petunia? It’s me, Vernon.”
I swallowed, unsure of what to say. In the past few months, things had been tense between the two of us, and I really had no inclination to talk to the man. All I could utter was a faint “Oh.” in response.
Thankfully, Vernon either took no notice of my quietness, or ignored it. He continued to ramble on. “Guess who got a new promotion at work?” He boasted over the phone. Not giving me the chance to answer, he exclaimed loudly, “Me! It’s so exciting, and I can finally get that new car I wanted.”
I nodded silently on my end. “That’s great Vernon.” I said hesitantly.
He continued. “Anyways, I just wanted to let you know that I’m coming up to take you out for lunch on Monday to celebrate. I’ve got the day off before I start my new job.” He took another breath. “And who knows, I might even get a little surprise for you too!”
I frowned. “Vernon, I don’t think I can take Monday off. I have to work too…” I started cautiously.
He exclaimed vehemently. “What?! Your boss can give you the day off, or if not, just skip! Petunia,” His voice took on an explaining tone. “Don’t you see? This new post could mean everything for my future! Everything! So what if your little boss doesn’t care? I probably make more in a month than he does in half a year!”
Something struck me just then.
I don’t know what it was, or why it happened just then, but something, some very small detail about Vernon’s last line settled upon me the wrong way.
Taking a breath, I growled into the phone. “Nathan may not make as much as you do now, but at least he loves what he does! And what do you have, selling drills all day?”
I hit a nerve, I think, as Vernon’s always been touchy about his job. “And taking pictures is any better?!” He cried out into the phone. “It’s a sissy job! What kind of man takes pictures for a living?! For goodness sake, Petunia, see some sense! You’ve been working too long with that sissy man. I should just take you back home. Apparently being away from good sense is screwing around with your mind!”
I didn’t like that he was insulting Nathan one bit. “He’s not a sissy, he’s a good man! And at least he’s not a brute like you!” I started to speak incoherently, trying as I could to be calm and logical.
Vernon, already on a short fuse, shouted back into the phone. “Oh really?! Well why isn’t he your sodding boyfriend instead?”
I only had sense enough to stop slamming the receiver against the wall. “Well, maybe he ought to be! Maybe I’m done with solid idiots like you!”
I heard a growl on the other end of the line. “If you really want, then why not? He can have you, for all I care!”
In a deadly whisper, I spoke into the phone. “Fine. We’re through, Vernon. I never want to see your flabby face again.” Hanging up the receiver before he could have the chance to retort, I shook with rage. How dare he insult Nathan like that?
He had no right, not one iota of truth behind his little argument. He couldn’t ever hope to be half the man Nathan was.
Closing time. I opened the top drawer to the newly organized desk and placed the large appointment book inside. The way I reasoned it, was that the less chance Nathan had of finding the book within reach, the less chance he’d have of opening it. Goodness knows that as soon as he’d open the book, the disorganization would start again.
The sound of whistling drifted in from the doorway, and Nathan walked out of the other room, fiddling with his camera. “You know Petunia…one day I will figure out how this new clasp works…” The camera slipped from his fingers and dangled helplessly around his neck.
I stood up. “It’s not that hard,” I said wearily, “Come here, let me help you.” Holding out my hands, I drifted towards him as he approached.
“Well, I know it’s not that hard. It’s just the stupid clasp thing that I can’t get my fingers to grip on.” He grumbled, once more letting his fingers slip upon the plastic. Upon closer inspection, it seemed to me that his fingers were just too big to get the tiny clasp.
My fingers, on the other hand, were much slimmer.
Moving closer to Nathan so I could reach, I lifted the camera gently. It was still hanging from around his neck, and all I needed to do was separate the camera from the strap, so he could have it open to replace with a different camera tomorrow. He had several different kinds of camera, for what purpose I never knew. He used to tell me it had something to do with different people, and how he had different cameras for different situations.
At any rate, the dratted clasp continued to slip through my fingers as well, and in my irritation, I brought the camera closer to my face. Since Nathan was still attached to the camera, he came closer too.
I paid no notice.
The clasp must have been jammed. I’ve always prided myself on my slender hands and while I could definitely get my pinky finger in there, the clasp wouldn’t budge. I refuse to believe that it was just me. It’s likely because companies don’t make quality products like they did when I was a girl.
At the point that I was giving the camera the evil eye, I happened to glance up, and noticed a very pink Nathan looking down at me. I blushed, not realizing I had dragged him so close. “Forget it, Petunia.” He said, awkwardly pulling back. “I guess I’ll have to place an order in for a new one or something.” He shrugged as he removed the camera and its attached strap. “I suppose there are just some things you can’t make let go.”
He was silent for a moment, and the warmth that had crept onto my cheeks before only seemed to grow in the awkward silence. Wordlessly, Nathan went into the backroom to put his camera away, while I placed the rest of my files in the desk and gathered up my coat.
I peeked into the back room to wave goodbye to Nathan, and he gave me the oddest look. “Petunia,” He started slowly, “Where are you going?”
It was such an odd question. I responded, puzzled. “I’m going home…it’s closing time…” I looked awkwardly at the floor with the feeling this was more than Nathan’s curiosity getting the better of him.
“Oh,” He responded lightly. “Well then…I’ll see you tomorrow.” With a sharp nod of his head, he went back to placing his camera back in its case.
I nodded and turned around to leave. I couldn’t begin to explain why, but the heat was simply radiating off my cheeks, and there was nothing I could do to make it stop. Clutching my coat tightly in my hands, I reasoned that I’d just let the cool outside air fix me up.
I was nearly out the door, when I heard rapid footsteps moving towards me from down the hall. “Petunia!” A man’s voice called. “Do you think I could escort you home?”
A/N: I've been horrible in not posting the next chapter for so long. All of you readers have my deepest apologies for taking forever. Right now, I'm hoping to post quicker, since I want to be done with this by next fall. Hopefully it won't take so long, but what with graduation and stuff taking up a lot of my time and thoughts, I don't know.
Thank you for your patience, and for sticking with me. Please leave a review, because as always constructive criticism is welcome.