Photograph by Amir Hosseini

Fiction

by Peter Stead

Sully buys a camera which takes pictures of people’s souls. The insight it gives him into his friends is disturbing. Then he takes a selfie.

In your home town there is probably a shop you have never been inside. You’ve walked past it many times, but only glanced at it maybe once or twice. Almost as though it were invisible. As though it mostly sat outside of human perception. You never entered because you never had reason to. For Sully, in Abaddon Hill, London, that was the old camera shop, a stoic reliquary of an obsolete technology. 

Later, Sully would try to clearly remember what prompted him that sunny, clear day to enter it after so many years, but could never be sure what had been behind the push of that moment. 

As the heavy door closed itself behind him, a loud, old bell, which he had somehow expected, announced his entry to every depth of the shop. 

He stood still, alone, in its centre, like an accidental intruder, enveloped by an unfamiliar silence. 

There was a wooden shop counter, but it yielded no sign of a proprietor.

He advanced a little further into the interior, looked around. He had a feeling…not quite that he had stepped back in time, but more that he had entered a liminal space where the solid and immanent, and where the past, present and future, intersected in a different relationship.

Suddenly, he saw – or sensed – a pair of human eyes, which had been watching him. They belonged to a man who had now appeared behind him, surely the owner. He was bald, but with a combover of the kind you don’t see any more.

The man’s eyes continued to look into him curiously, until he fumbled on the counter for a pair of shaded glasses, which looked prescription or medical in some way.

Sully broke the deadlock.

‘Hi.’

Inwardly, he winced at the word, which seemed out of place in this space.

The man smiled, non-judgmentally, enigmatically. When he spoke, his gentle, rich voice seemed to fill the shop.

‘Do let me know if you have any questions.’

Taking this as his sign to commence some kind of awkward, observed promenade, Sully nodded and walked in further.

The vintage cameras and other objets d’art had that old smell, the smell of grandparents, of things that had weathered, but endured. Although inanimate, their gleams seemed to indicate some kind of interior life, as though the deep mirrors of these old cameras did not merely reflect, but also
collected, impressions. Rows of their dark eyes watched Sully.

He drifted to the most inviting shelf, picked up and stroked one particularly beautiful, quirky SLR with Japanese writing.

He looked back at the owner who now sat at the counter.

‘May I?’

The man said nothing and did not move. For some reason, Sully took this as permission. He held the camera, felt its weight. Reassuringly heavy, as he had expected, and the solid metal silver-coloured buttons, gears and dials made you want to press, flick and turn them. He looked through the viewfinder around the shop. The lens blades gave a razor-sharp focus. Thus comfortable, he replaced this one and soon became utterly lost to the world, trying camera after camera.

After what felt like both a long and short amount of time, he saw a camera on a back shelf, in a small corner. It was an unassuming piece, but seemed to be a true black, rather than an off-black, like most of the others. It had a strange, indescribable shape. He hesitated. He looked up at the proprietor, who read his newspaper.

He picked it up. Looked through the viewfinder and pressed the buttons. It had beautiful action, even smoother than the others, as though it sensed what he wanted. And it felt the most snug in his hand, really like it was an extension of him. Cradling it like a living thing, he brought it to the counter. The proprietor looked up.

Sully mutely looked over the whole body unsuccessfully for a brand name.

‘That’s a Camera Anima Mea.’

The proprietor paused, took Sully in, then continued.

‘A ‘soul camera’. Take a picture of anyone and it will show you their true selves. It’s very rare, very expensive and more ornamental for the shop, really. It’s not for sale.’

But Sully already cradled it, proprietorially, like some gold ore he had just prospected.

***

As he let himself in his house, Sully had this sensation of time dilation. The simple action of unlocking the door, opening it, took place as though in a slow motion nightmare. Closing it seemed to waste valuable milliseconds until Sully could be alone with the thing. He went up twenty one steps. He had never counted them before, but there were twenty one steps in his house. 

He imagined his parents waylaying him somehow in a variety of scenarios and he mentally rehearsed dealing with each one, which would end with him dancing past them in a way he could smooth over later. Nothing like this happened, however, and he finally closed the door of his bedroom, heard its familiar click, and listened to the peculiar silence of the room mingled with normal everyday noises he had stopped even hearing, but now noticed anew. 

He hadn’t even looked at the camera anima mea on the way home as he had clutched it, even though its strap was around his neck. And even that strap seemed a part of him now, but finally he could take it off and look at it, alone for the first time. 

As he looked over its sheer obsidian surfaces, he remembered what the proprietor had called it. ‘Soul Camera’… he imagined some kind of combination and quality of colours that made each picture like a painted portrait of someone, which helped capture their essence. Yes, that must be it. 

He was too eager to see results to bother with the handwritten instructions. He opened the box that came with it. It contained individual gelatin quarter-plates, of the kind used before the invention of film. He slid one in, looked again at the darkness of the contraption, paused as he caught a distorted reflection of himself in its deep lens. He suddenly felt as though he were about to go past a point of no return. Suddenly, he squeezed the shutter release button. 

A firm, final, but quiet guillotine sound, then a faint noise like a sigh. 

He took out the delicate plate and placed it in the container of solution. One hour it would take to develop, he had been told. An eternity. 

At that moment, a text message came through from Jessa – his girlfriend. ‘Where are you??’ He glanced at the time, gasped. Two pm? He had meant to meet her, Tara and Ben on the heath at one pm to go to the funfair. The time really had slipped – somehow, he still thought it was midmorning, even though he knew this could not be possible. He pushed his face up to the plate that was still developing. Sully faced a series of agonising dilemmas. Take the plate with him? What if he lost it? And he wanted…privacy to look at it. So, should he take the camera with him? What if he dropped it? What if it smashed on a ride? Taking it to the funfair was unwise, he concluded, yet his hands wrapped its strap around his neck like a comfortable noose. 

*** 

Clutching the camera anima mea tightly, he traversed the heath until he finally found Jessa and the gang. When he got to them, she shaded her eyes to look up at him, didn’t change her position. Yet this was the most welcoming body language of the group. He seemed to be intruding on some kind of private dynamic. A further apology at his own lateness somehow died in his mouth. 

‘What’s that?’ Jessa asked. 

For a moment, he wondered what she meant, then became conscious of the purchase he now cradled and wore. Instinctively, his index finger brushed against the shutter release button, and as if in response to the question, there was a click, and then that guillotine slam. He looked at them, guiltily. 

‘Some kind of vintage camera.’ 

The group looked at each other, laughed. It irked Sully that Ben was there. He was an ex of Jessa’s. Tara was Jessa’s best friend, even though she kind of seemed like she didn’t have any friends. 

Jessa stood up, wrapped her arms around Sully. This crushed the camera uncomfortably against them both, but she didn’t seem to notice as she smooched him, gregariously. He briefly took his hands off the sleek shape, placed them reluctantly on her waist, conscious of the others. Jessa suddenly looked deeply into his eyes, as though searching for something. She’d never looked at him this way before and he had no idea what it meant. 

‘Shall we?’ Ben said. 

The other two roused themselves stiffly to standing. 

Jessa held Sully’s hand proprietorially as they walked across the vista of the heath. They beheld, in the distance, the funfair, and beyond it, the cityscape of London, which merged the modern with the baroque, in a timeless fabric that seemed like an optical illusion. 

*** 

This was not the usual fair. The one that came every summer. It was also a much older one, which had made a comeback and, rather than thrills, opted for more antiquated attractions. There was a ghost train. There was a hall of mirrors. It was quaint. 

The strong sunlight cast shadows everywhere, even between the grass blades beneath their feet. Chintzy music, of the kind only ever played at funfairs, piped through the place. Ben smirked at the childish rides. Groups of equally ironic younger teenagers laughed and ‘screamed’ on them. No attraction here was to be taken seriously, even though the people operating them appeared to be unsmiling automatons. Sully wondered what their lives were like, what their names were, their stories, how they came to be travelling with…this. Whenever he could, he would slip Jessa’s hand and surreptitiously take their picture from a respectful distance. It became a convenient excuse to subtly extricate himself from her hold and from the group as they made fun of everyone and everything. 

He hadn’t been on a ghost train in many years. It was like stepping back into his early childhood. Ben and Tara hung back, evidently catching on to a couple vibe. As Sully and Jessa took a seat, she coiled her arm tightly around his waist, even though she wasn’t scared. To his surprise, he actually was scared – as the slow train moved stiffly off, it seemed on an inexorable path off its rail until it violently veered right and smashed through a door made to look like a wall. 

In the darkness, he listened for Jessa’s breathing in between the wails and moans. Nothing. A sharp bump made the camera go off in his hand. Fingertips, which belonged to someone dressed in a skeleton outfit, stroked his hair. It wasn’t unpleasant. He looked at Jessa and she smiled back at him, as a different hand ran through her hair. 

Outside, the sun had moved behind a heavy bank of cloud. The subsequent dark was lit by many premature lights, which made the rides appear more vivid and gaudy. It was the perfect light for funfairs. They completed several circuits, ate candy floss, drank old fashioned lemonade, assassinated clanging metal targets with pellet guns, the echoes of which rebounded, rippled and died in the storm-charged summer air. 

One final trip to the hall of mirrors and they were to call it a day. Everyone took out their phones to take selfies. They laughed at distorted versions of themselves in mirrors that, in emphasising certain aspects of their faces, seemed to show a version of the truth. They were already posting these on social media – that other hall of mirrors. Sully’s heart started to pound and then flutter. Not anxiety, not exhilaration. It was impossible to define, but something close to extreme anticipation, as though today were the last ever day. 

As they made their way back across the heath, the sun was finally setting in a sky now partially clear. Deep red wisps contrasted with an intense blue heralding the onset of inexorable night. They were all chatting, but Sully wasn’t really paying attention. He seemed to catch snatches of Jessa talking to him. Something about him being weird all day, about being obsessed with that camera he pawed more than her. Ben and Tara usually enjoyed any fireworks between them, but they were both silent. Jessa had to go home and study for some exam she’d probably mentioned before. 

He found himself walking alone. As ever, gripping his camera. Its smooth black now matching the silky night as he walked the lonely roads, past lights from windows, each one a tiny soul chamber. 

*** 

An eternity later, and he was home. Home. The bedroom. The silence. Relief flooded through his body as he took off his camera anima mea and placed it reverently on his bed. Just then, a text message came through from Jessa – ‘Is everything okay?’ He stared at the image of her in his contacts – a good photo of her, taken on her best side having used god knows what filter. ‘Is everything okay?’ The question, for some reason, enraged him. He breathed in, he breathed out. He picked up the plates and slid them into the developing container, like it was some kind of final, horrifying revenge on her, his blood boiling. 

That hour he paced the small floor or sat on his bed, as he waited. He looked round at shelves of books, piles of DVDs, hatefully. Things that related to an absurd, freakishly inauthentic former life. To something so grotesque, he resolved to throw them all out after he’d looked at the plates. He didn’t want the TV on. In fact, he wanted that gone, too. He looked again at the question on his phone… ‘Is everything okay?’ – and, next to it, at the two dimensional image of his two dimensional girlfriend. Is. Everything. Okay. It was at once intrusive and vague, designed to elicit some kind of stumbling apology, or behavioural modification from him. But he was going through something. He was going through something.

In the final ten minutes, he entered a kind of serenity, except the last minute, which felt like the final moments before an execution, for which there was to be no clemency, no reprieve. 

His stopwatch hit zero, and stared back at him blankly. He felt as though time itself had stopped and he wasn’t really breathing in and out. He took the developing container and pulled out the ordinary-looking plates. 

Pictures he had taken of landscapes were indeed remarkably beautiful, remarkably clear, like a photo, but like a painting also. They made him look skilled. 

Then came the pictures of people. The one he took of the group on the heath startled him. The first thing he noticed was that Ben seemed distorted, red. Not demonic as such, but malevolent. He faced Jessa in the photo, but another similar face like his looked straight at the camera. Tara, on the other hand, glowed with a white light. A copy of her face looked benevolently at the heath. 

But it was Jessa who really shocked him. 

There was simply nothing there – only a white silhouette or an outline of her. 

The pictures of the workers were various types of smudges, he didn’t know what they meant. 

He found the plate from when the camera had gone off in the ghost train, of the person who touched him. There was simply this…being…glowing, watching him, staring at him quite directly as if to say ‘I know that’s a special kind of camera.’ 

There was one more plate. He frowned, confused – he thought he had gone through every one – then remembered, with a jolt, the selfie he had taken before leaving the house. He just hadn’t noticed till this moment, as though it, like the camera shop, had briefly left human perception, only to return unexpectedly. 

It had been way more than an hour. Had it been over-developed? Should he just toss it? Should he just toss the camera?! The plates?! 

He closed the container, gulped. Then it was as though his body moved independently from his will. His hand reopened it. Took out the plate. Looked.

The room began to blur, distort, spin. Shooting pains went from his heart to his arm and head. They paralysed him. Racked his body. Warm blood poured from his nose, from his ears, as he beheld the plate he could not tear his eyes from. Every time he tried, something stopped him.

What looked back at him was his own picture, but bursting out from his chest was a dark vermillion entity, which stared back at him with a horrifyingly knowing look. Streaks of yellow flame danced in the plate.

He looked down again and saw that his real torso was also immolating from the chest outwards. Flames licked and lapped his whole body with long, lascivious fingers, blackening his skin, choking his throat and lungs, singeing his hair, incinerating him.

***

The next day, his parents found his charred corpse, an apparent victim, so it was later ruled, of spontaneous human combustion. The rest of the bedroom was left completely untouched, unburnt.

On his bed, next to his phone that still displayed ‘Is everything okay?’ there were just used plates which had now gone as blank as the unused ones and, next to those, that strange, sleek camera with instructions on how to – and how not to – use it.

Picture of Peter Stead

Peter Stead

Peter Stead is a screenwriter, filmmaker and podcaster. You can find him at petersteadwriter.wordpress.com

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