Sunday, 1 April 2018

It would soon be midnight. Though neither of them would care to admit it – for they were young enough to not want to be thought of as so predictable – Lucy Meadows and Mia Brookes were usually out at this late hour on a Tuesday night. It was the night that their boyfriends played football so the girls would meet up, sometimes at Lucy’s terrace house and sometimes at Mia’s flat. They would usually discuss Lucy’s marriage plans before heading off to The Woodcutter’s Inn for drinks as it was currently the most popular pub for those in their early twenties. 
They had found each other at the age of eleven after they were both flattered to discover that they had each thought that the other was too pretty to talk to them and they forged a friendship based on similar tastes that protected them from bitchy classmates and fickle boyfriends. The relationship survived the test of distance during college years and a seemingly subliminal agreement brought them back to their home town to find jobs: Mia worked at the travel agents on the high street and Lucy at the local council offices next to the library. They had then rented a flat together for almost a year before each of them met a serious boyfriend within the space of three months. The fact that the boyfriends had got along well – Mia’s boyfriend invited Lucy’s boyfriend to join his friends for football – seemed like a sign that the gods were smiling on their shared destiny. 
The ladies were heading home on their usual route, talking about the onrushing stages in life and which of them they would resist and which they would accept. 
“But I can’t see myself having kids,” said Mia.
“Not yet, anyway,” said Lucy. 
“I just don’t know whether to travel,” said Mia.
“Best to stick at work to save up. Depends if you want to get a better place,” said Lucy. 
“Oh look,” said Mia as she stopped, her attention caught by a glint of light from a silver object. It was a camera; sleek and flat and laying on the arm of a thickly painted bench outside the graveyard of Saint Peter's Church, incidentally the venue of the intended wedding. She picked it up. It was covered in textured chrome, with a large circular eye-like lens on one side and a rectangular black screen on the reverse. The girls looked around conspiratorially but found the orange-lit road deserted, as it usually was at this unproductive time. 
A shadow hung heavily across the graveyard and the enormous oak tree rustled, encouraged by the late autumnal breeze. Feeling the chill air, Lucy hooped the large button at the neck of her duffle trench coat. Mia felt the sudden breeze too and dipped her chin into her thick snood scarf which sat around the collar of her black leather jacket. She was holding the glittering prize by her fingertips. She glanced at her friend and then adjusted her hold on the camera which burned with the reflection of the orange streetlight. Now holding it more firmly, she turned the camera over in her hand and located the ‘on’ switch. 
The camera introduced itself with a triple-tone melody and a red light came alive. It was followed by a blinding flash and the imitation sound of a picture being taken with an old-fashioned shutter camera. Both girls blinked at the exploded white cloud in their eyes which filled their vision.
“Urgh! Idiot,” said Lucy.
“I didn’t touch anything,” protested Mia.
“You must have,” said Lucy. 
“I didn’t. I just switched it on. Hang on.” 
As the atom bomb behind her eyes faded and the camera came into view once again, Mia focused on the touch screen on the reverse of the camera and located a triangular play symbol. When she touched it, a picture appeared on the screen of a disparate group of women lined up and facing the camera, all with impassive expressions. Mia touched a button to cycle through the pictures on the memory card. The rhythmic bleep from the camera sounded like a heart monitor as half a dozen pictures passed by: each of them showed a small town street place at night. The final image was of a large house. 
“Doesn’t look as if it stored a picture of us. Maybe it doesn’t work. Maybe that’s why it was left it behind.”
“But they wouldn’t want to leave the photos behind,” suggested Lucy.
“They’re pretty boring,” said Mia.
“Only to us. They might mean something to the owner. Let’s have a look again.” Lucy took the camera from Mia and cycled through the pictures once again. She looked more closely at the first, the image of the group. 
“Weird, random group of women,” she said studying the individuals of different ages and wearing a variety of different clothes; from an underweight teenage girl in an unfashionable blue shirt that displayed a name tag to two elderly women in almost identical grey overcoats and a sad look of resignation in their posture. Lucy counted seven in the line-up which included a short-haired woman in a checked shirt and pale chinos, a young lady dressed for a night out, a friendly-looking woman in a tight black shirt, trousers and half apron that brought to mind a waitress and a tired-eyed brown-skinned woman wearing a coat, jogging bottoms and slippers. 
“It looks like they’ve been dragged onto the street together for a photo.”
“They don't look very happy about it,” said Mia.
“I wonder what…” Lucy trailed away. “I can’t tell where it’s taken.” Then she flicked to the next picture: a closed, darkened shop at night. “That’s the One-Stop on Dolphin Road.”
“It’s recent too. They’ve only had that poster about the J2O offer up for a couple of days,” said Mia.
The next one showed a white Ford Fiesta outside an Italian restaurant, also at night.
“That’s Carvello’s” said Lucy, identifying the restaurant. “And that car looks like the one Ian was telling me about when he got home from work today. Tom said it broke down in the middle of the street and it was holding up the traffic so he helped the owner push it to the side of the road.”
“If these were taken tonight the owner might come back for the camera. We should leave it here,” suggested Mia. Lucy brought up the next picture of a residential street at night, most of the homes in darkness.
“That’s the top of James’s Street. There’s the skip outside that house on the end.” 
The next photo showed an orange-lit alleyway lined with garden fences on either side that neither girl recognised. Then the final photo of the large house. Each window was lit up behind the curtains and it had a broad but empty driveway.
“Where’s that then?”
 “Don’t know,” said Lucy. “Shall we go and find out?”
Mia pursed her lips. “It’s late.”
“It’s not far though is it? And that house might be where the owner of the camera lives. If we take it back, they’ll probably give us an enormous reward.” The girls laughed easily thanks to the alcohol in their blood. It also seemed to encourage acquiescence because without another word of discussion about the matter they began to walk. 
Neither girl had noticed that the trees had fallen silent and that the scenery was as still as a photograph.
“Makes a change I suppose. Tom’s always in bed asleep by the time I get back anyway,” said Mia.
“Yanni always makes like he waited up for me in front of the telly but I know he’s been dozing because he hasn’t a clue what he’s been watching.” 
“Sounds like he’s just hoping for a tipsy guilt-shag.” 
The girls laughed again and while they chatted about the play of expectation between men and women, a conversation they had had many times in different forms, they soon reached the darkened One-Stop store. 
Mia and Lucy stood looking at the shop, reflected in the darkened window as if their ghosts were inside. A scuffed red shutter was covering the door.
“I think it’s closed,” teased Mia.
“’I’m just wondering why someone would take a picture of it,” said Lucy. 
“Shit; I forgot to get a lottery ticket for tomorrow. I’ll pop-in in the morning.”
“Come on. I’m starting to fancy a Yorkie bar now.” 
They continued the two-minute walk to Carvello’s restaurant where the broken-down Ford Fiesta still waited on the pavement, orange rather than white thanks to the streetlight above it. 
“Well it’s very shiny-clean but I wouldn’t feel the need to take a picture of it,” said Lucy regarding the car. “Unless it’s owned by the person who owns the camera. Maybe they took the picture to remind them where they’d had to leave it.”
Mia was casually looking in at the darkened restaurant fantasising about breaking in to fix herself a bowl of their popular banoffee pie and whipped cream; a pudding she had indulged in every time she had eaten there.
“Tom’s lovely isn’t he?” said Lucy in a way that sounded as if her thoughts had just tumbled unexpectedly from her mouth. “The way he’s always first to help out. Even strangers. He’s always been like that. It’s how we first met: he helped me reverse into a tight parking space.”
Mia gave a throaty groan because she had heard the story far too many times. “Come on. Let’s keep going,” she said.
After initially taking an incorrect turning and then re-tracing their steps, the ladies found James’s Street which, as Lucy had correctly identified, included a house with a skip on its driveway. The silent street was long and straight and the sight of it drained the enthusiasm from the companions.
“This was a stupid idea,” said Lucy.
“Yeah, I’m tired now.”
“Do you want to head back?”
“What are we going to do with the camera though? We’ve either got to take it back to where we found it or leave it here. We can’t keep it.”
Lucy’s body exaggerated the actions of a stroppy teenager who has been told that they have to go to Church on a Saturday night. It made Mia smile and re-awakened a sense of fun.
“We may as well carry on,” she said. “Think of the reward.”
If there’s a reward.”
“It might be money. You can use it towards the wedding.”
“We’d be able to afford a better honeymoon.”
“You could take me along.”
“I will,” said Lucy earnestly. “Honestly Mia, you should come. We’ve known each forever. I’ll tell Tom in the morning. He won’t mind.”
Mia laughed. “You’re so pissed. I’ll remind you you said that tomorrow.”
They both giggled. Neither of them had noticed that they were walking again. Mia looked at the houses they were passing. “Didn’t Em used to live down here? Years ago.”
“Oh yeah. God, I remember being ten or something.” 
“I didn’t know you when we were ten. We must’ve been eleven or twelve, because we were at the academy,” said Mia.
“She would never let us in because her Mum didn’t like visitors.”
“Unless you gave, like, six weeks’ notice.”
“They had a nice back garden as well. Didn’t it have a tree house?” 
The girls were half way down the street by now. Memories engulfed their words while the steps they took were on the same street but in a different time. But their silence exposed the emptiness around them and it was painfully obvious that the only life in the street emanated from them – even the soft footsteps from their trainers resonated in the silence. 
Though neither said it aloud, they both found the quiet disconcerting not because they felt vulnerable but rather there was a feeling as if the world had deserted them; left them behind. They distracted themselves by admiring the houses, which they agreed were much nicer at this end of town. This street, they decided, would be where they would move to when they had outgrown their starter homes.
They both noticed the alleyway at the same moment. A shiver passed through them both despite the empty air and they both shared a feeling of recognition without a memory to inspire it. 
It was a narrow alleyway; the width of two people walking arm-in-arm. It was also quite short; the length of three reasonably-sized back gardens. It was lined by six-foot-high fences constructed of slim vertical panels. The street light at the far end washed everything in piss-yellow and cast shadows across the fences like prison bars. Spider-leg dry grass crookedly lined the pavement which was potted and uneven.
“Did I come off my bike here when I was young?” asked Mia. 
Lucy’s body shrugged in response but her mind was elsewhere, searching for the memory attached to the scene before them. Without even a shared glance, the young women walked forward. They didn’t feel scared; or at least if you had asked them they would not have identified it as fear because you need a reason to be afraid, otherwise it is a childish response to the unknown, like fear of the dark. What they felt was uncertainty, though the passing of midnight had also cast its spell. 
Lucy activated the camera and flicked to the photo of the alleyway – in the dead silence the rapid beeps were loud like an alarm, which made the girls flinch and look around; but it was as if they feared for wolves rather than men. 
The photo on the camera had captured the vista exactly as they found it, even with the sprinkling of discarded litter which had not moved even a millimetre. The way the alleyway, indeed the way all of the locations, had matched the photographs was more than unnatural; with the ambience of silence and stillness it felt nothing less than supernatural – but to acknowledge it out loud felt like a display of drunken hysteria so the observation that, in fact, both girls had made remained unspoken. Instead, Lucy brought up the next – the final – image: the house. 
It was so welcoming with its brightly lit windows open driveway, flowered bays and- 
There was a woman standing in the open doorway. 
“Shit! I didn’t notice someone outside the house,” exclaimed Lucy who had stopped in the middle of the alleyway.
Mia brought Lucy’s hand and the camera closer to her so that she could see the screen. The woman looked old, the age of their grandmothers and, improbably, both girls saw a resemblance. She had white hair circling her head, she was of medium build though framed by the doorway she looked short; she wore a dark tracksuit and her hands were clasped together at her stomach which gave her the appearance of someone anxiously looking out for the return of a loved one. She was the figure a young girl might draw of how she may look when she was older. 
“I can’t tell if she looks friendly,” said Mia.
Lucy took back the camera. As Mia looked over her shoulder Lucy tried reverse-pinching the image before noticing a symbol of a magnifying glass at the corner of the screen. She touched the symbol and then touched the woman in the photo. The image disappeared for a second before reappearing, now focused on the front of the house. Both Lucy and Mia leaned in closer; the woman was wearing large glasses which covered her eyebrows and her cheeks and shrunk her eyes to nothing. Her mouth was pinched shut.
Lucy switched off the camera with another twinkle of sound. Beyond it, on the pavement, the girls noticed a rocket-decorated empty packet of crystallised sherbet – the sort that crackled and fizzed in one’s mouth and spiked at the back of the throat. Was it true or just an urban legend about the boy who choked to death after trying to swallow a whole packet? 
The girls continued through the alleyway noticing several fruit chew wrappers, the kind that were always advertised to quench ones’ thirst on sunny days but would stick in the chewers teeth and the sweet fruit tang would leave one desperate for drink. 
The sweet-tooth memories distracted Lucy and Mia from their trepidations and they continued onwards down the path as if they had no choice in the matter. Out they came on to a cul-de-sac featuring three houses: the two on either side were so dark they appeared to shrink into the shadows or maybe draw away from the third. The only house that mattered was the house at the end.
The lights were still on despite the fact that the night had now aged well into the witching hour and while there was no-one waiting for them, as Lucy and Mia approached they saw that the front door was ajar. 
A black cat darted across their path and then stopped frozen near a sun-dial in the centre of the lawn. It watched the girls with cracked emerald eyes. Sensing sport, or at least a diversion, the cat curled into a royal sitting position looking so dark that it betrayed the night as merely an envious shadow. 
Walking side-by-side, perfectly in step, the girls walked up the curved yellow brick driveway and then stepped over the red stone step. They pushed open the white door and waited on the chocolate coloured doormat. 
“Hello?” called Lucy, though not too loudly. “We’ve brought your camera back. If it’s yours that is.”
The hallway was decorated in biscuit beiges: the wallpaper; the carpet; the simple light shade hanging from the ceiling. The doors on either side were closed but the door at the end – the one to the kitchen – was open. The kitchen. In bygone times it was a spider web thread that led through the ages from Mother to Daughter. The club house; the exam room; the chamber of secrets.
“That’s so good of you both. I had wondered where it had got to.” The voice from the kitchen crackled with age but was lightly tuneful. “Would you mind placing it on the kitchen table?”
There was a circular scrapping sound from the kitchen which brought to mind butter cream being whipped in a bowl. Lucy and Mia looked at one another but neither found any resistance to their journey. They walked through the hallway. The air was dry and warm with the smell of sweet baking. The warmth began to stifle, heating their faces as they passed into the kitchen where their attention was immediately stolen by what looked like an enormous white washing machine. There were dials and levers and buttons either side of a yawning round opening that filled its white face. 
The girls peered inside the metal hole, they heard a ‘thunk’ from behind and they turned to see the old woman’s face racing towards them smiling a toothless grin, thick-lensed glasses obscuring her eyes and her strong wart-wrinkled hands outstretched. She scooped them together and bundled them into the machine slamming the door shut with a violent bang. The girls found the air to scream as clunking levers scraped and grinded and the machine began to rattle and hum.
The screaming stopped. Round and round and round they went until their bodies were crushed and their spirits extinguished. Except that they weren’t really. As any schoolchild with a rudimentary knowledge of physics knows, you cannot create or destroy energy; it is merely transferred into another form so that it exists forever. The machine hummed contentedly with the energy it stored for the witch’s purpose. 
But that is another story. For now, the old woman picked up the camera from where it was dropped on the floor and, switching it on, she recalled the first picture: the photo of the sullen individuals. And there amongst the group were the faces of Lucy Meadows and Mia Brookes, blank except for only the merest hint of terror in their eyes and forever frozen for prosperity.