Spirit Transcends Time

Does the world really need another book of photographs of London? Perhaps not. Yet when the book in question is the recent Thames and Hudson publication of Sergio Larrain’s ‘London 1959’ the answer is certainly, yes. Made in the wake of his extraordinarily gritty yet compassionate photographs of Santiago Street Children of 1957, these London photographs were shot thanks to a British Council grant, Larrain taking advantage of the opportunity to also visit Paris, meet with Cartier-Bresson and become a member of the then-fledgling Magnum organisation.

It could easily be argued that any photographs of cities will capture to a greater or lesser extent a state of flux, for what are cities if not endlessly shifting canvases of change? Yet much like Robert Frank’s London work of ’51 to ’53, or Gerard Depardon’s photographs of Glasgow in 1980, Larrain’s pictures capture London at a particularly poignant moment, where old ways shift into new on the fulcrum of generational shifts. From a personal perspective Larrain’s pictures have a special resonance too, for 1959 is the year my parents met in London and I wonder if  they might be captured in any of these shots. Perhaps a blurred face on the Underground escalator or a distant figure walking in the park? Perhaps not.

These pictures remind me that one of the essential paradoxes of photography is that it presents the illusion of freezing moments, yet simultaneously spans time. Photographs shift meaning and purpose according to context. We read them differently each time they are unearthed and perused. Even family albums packed with memory and fading recollection are subject to this state of flux. Stories are re-told with a subtly different slant each time, meaning forgotten and reinvented with the passing of lives until eventually they become lost entirely to house clearings or, if fortunate, the contents of charity shops to perhaps become inspirations of flimsy historical fiction for art students at a loose end.

Sergio Larrain – London 1959

I’m sure there are art students in Larrain’s photographs of London in 1959. Certainly there are beatniks populating the later pages of the book as we delve into the black of night, down in the bars with jazz and sex swirling around us in grainy deep and seductive shadows. In a series of shots we see wire-frame figures floating ghostlike above the smoke-shrouded floor of a haunted dancehall. It could be a scene from ‘Absolute Beginners’. There’s Blitz Baby and The Fabulous Hoplite. Maybe even Crepe Suzette escaping into the light. And is that Big Jill with with her shirt knotted around her mid-riff and an unlit cigarette between her lips, staring us down with a look of ‘who the fuck are you?’ In another shot we are lost in the thrumming crowd, hands up high, reaching for the stars (or at least the festoon lights). Close your eyes, lock the time circuits for 1988 and this could be Shoom. Specifics may root us to years but spirit transcends time.

There are echoes of course of the aforementioned Robert Frank photographs, and back, back, further back to Bill Brandt’s documentation of London in the nineteen thirties. Now I admit that I have never explored Brandt’s work in much detail, perhaps because some of this images have always felt so familiar. This may be time playing tricks of the light on memory of course, but I seem to recall seeing his images reproduced in stark, rudimentary black and white in so many school poetry anthologies in the 1970s and early 1980s. Did they appeal? They must have done on some level for the memory, real or not, to have formed. I’m sure it must have been something to do with the harsh contrast of positive and negative space, the almost abstract composition of black and white. The same ingredients, in short, that led me later to be enthralled by Robert Motherwell’s paintings.

Brandt captured the London bus. Of course he did. There it goes, peeking above the strong black arch of the bridge, Heinz advertising resplendent on its flanks as the towers of Battersea power station loom ghostly in the distance. It’s not a photograph about a bus at all of course. Nor is it a photograph about the bridge, the river or the power station. All are just compositional elements as Brandt enjoys the interplay of the deep shadowed forms of the arch and the Thames mud. No more, and certainly no less. Or rather, that’s certainly my feeling on reading the photograph from my faded 1983 edition of ‘London In The Thirties’. However, on recently seeing a sharply printed reproduction of his 1933 ‘Parlourmaid and underparlourmaid’ photograph in David Campany’s wonderful ‘On Photographs’, my interest in Brandt’s work has been refreshed. The print in Campany’s book brings out so much more subtlety in tone and detail and I’m left wondering what more depths of pleasure I might find in looking at better quality reproductions of his other work, including the bus on the bridge.

Frank photographs buses too. In one picture we see a Routemaster’s backside in the middle distance  as the black form of a city gent strides purposefully forward, looking for all the world as if he owns the street (he probably does), newspaper and walking stick clutched firmly behind his back. Then there are the blurred phantoms bookending Eros with what for all the world looks like a bloke pissing in the fountain. Or an upper deck with hats and overcoats illuminated by the blast of interior lighting, framed by an advert for the Co-operative Wholesale Society below and the brooding black of a soot stained building above. Frank would revisit the bus a few years later for The Americans, this time with the more starkly confrontational gazes of passengers meeting the camera’s eye. A reflection of the difference between the national psyches, or of Frank’s growing strength as photographer. Both, perhaps.

Frank also has buses on a bridge, but unlike Brandt he positions himself looking across the bridge that diagonals to the centre line of the picture. The buses and the lines of composition all lead us away to the hazy distant shore, in contrast to the direction of the stream of pedestrians crossing towards us. Intriguingly, Larrain makes almost the exact same photograph of London Bridge in 1959, choosing instead to shoot in portrait orientation and thereby omitting the dark presence of buildings to his left. This directional opposition in both photographs lends a dynamic to the picture, but Larrain takes this to a whole different level with his closely cropped shot showing the side of a Routemaster. Here, the form of two windows are positioned as a blurred diagonal bookended by bowler-hatted fellows, the dual thin light lines of the wheel arch and the edges of letters completing the composition. It is a daring and modern photograph. Elsewhere, Larrain again utilises the diagonal, this time with the interior of a bus as a stark framing device and perspective platform as the artist looks down on milling shoppers. The bus turns the corner, literally and metaphorically. The 1960s are coming. Swinging, and Swingeing, London are just over the horizon, and intriguingly Larrain will have a hand too in the defining cinematic moment of those times. For whilst ‘Blow Up’ is inspired by a Julio Cortázar short story, this story itself was inspired by a story told by Sergio Larrain. Antonioni, Cortázar, Larrain: Outsiders all.

Insider Colin O’Brien also captures London around this time, and continues to do so for the rest of his lifetime, but unlike Brandt, Frank and Larrain, one gets the sense that O’Brien uses photography more as a means of exploring London, as opposed to using London to explore photography. As a London insider, O’Brien likely always considered the London bus as much too obvious subject matter for a photograph, and it is not until 2005 that we see one appear, and then only because it is an opportunity to record the final day of the iconic Routemaster running the 38 route from Clapton Pond to Victoria. It echoes the shot made in 1952 by the 12 year old O’Brien on the occasion of the last running of the Embankment trams. Both are essentially historical portraits, the driver of the tram posing for the youngster as the passengers queue tidily in the shadow of the trees. Fast forward 53 years and the Routemaster is also captured fully face on, but this time it is the passengers who pose for the camera, the youngsters all eager smiles and full of anticipation. It is a charming photograph, but it is clearly a photograph about the people as much as it is about the bus. Indeed, without the explanatory text explaining the historical context, what kind of photograph is it? One might see a similar kind of picture in any number of family albums, perhaps accompanied by a voice warmly explaining that “Here’s one that dad took of us and the family next door on a trip into the West End for a shopping trip.” And then the page will be quickly flipped.

I do enjoy flipping through the pages of ‘London Life’, the hefty retrospective of O’Brien’s photography, but admit that these days I’m drawn particularly to his early shots from the 1950s period. Certainly these photographs tell a compelling story of a young artist experimenting with their chosen medium. His pictures from this time of the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, documenting car smashes, processions and just occasionally not very much at all are tremendous. The birds-eye perspective may have been borne from the necessity of living four flights up, but they are captivating images precisely because of this unexpected viewpoint. If we might be disappointed that O’Brien’s later work rarely, if ever, utilises these kind of unusual visual perspectives, perhaps it is only because he has made those angles metaphorically in how he approaches his subject matter of the people of London. Still, from a purely aesthetic point of view I’d take Larrain’s shots from the top floor of the bus or from a camera placed on the Underground platform over pretty much anything else by anyone any day.

So as much as I enjoy the sensibilities of the insider that permeate O’Brien’s comprehensive, life-long exploration and documentation of London life, it is the work of outsiders Brandt, Frank and especially Larrain that continue to resonate most strongly with me. These photographers’ forays into London may have been brief (certainly compared to O’Brien’s) but the documents they left behind show artists’ eyes that are finely attuned and yet simultaneously detached. Intensely connected and yet fundamentally apart. A powerful combination.

Sergio Larrain – London 1959

‘Thames 1959’ by Sergio Larrain is published by Thames and Hudson
‘London/Wales’ by Robert Frank is published by Steidl
‘London Life’ by Colin O’Brien is published by Spitalfields Life

We recommend looking for all of these and other photobooks at the terrific Beyond Words website: https://beyondwords.co.uk/

Tracing The Infinite

The always ace Caught By The River kindly published a piece I wrote about rivers, and photographs of rivers. It’s ostensibly a review of Chloe Dewe Matthews’ newly published ‘Thames Log’ book, but I also wanted to weave something about Jem Southam’s photographs of the river Exe and recollect Sian Davey’s excellent ‘Martha’ photobook of a few years ago. The article went live today: www.caughtbytheriver.net/2021/02/tracing-the-infinite-river-photography/

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Matthews, from ‘Thames Log’

When Love Breaks Down


where did it go?, originally uploaded by unpop.

‘The Two Ronnies’ played silently on the television in the corner. ‘Last Christmas’ on the record player provided the soundtrack. Sharon’s new pink leather trousers lay neatly folded on the drum stool whilst beneath the duvet Marc imagined her legs warm and smooth.

‘Pickled onion?’ asked Sharon, passing the jar across the width of her double bed.
Marc nodded, said ‘sure, one, why not?’ in reply and plucked a silverskin. The vinegar made his hang nails sting but the onion was good: sharp and spicy.
‘It’s not Christmas without pickled onions in bed.’
Marc didn’t quite see what pickled onions in bed had to do with Christmas, but knew too that his lack of understanding didn’t matter. After all, our own personal traditions are worth a million of those worn thin by time’s passing. He reminded himself to listen to Cristina when he got home.

Outside the window the moon hung over the snow clad trees at the end of the garden. In the hedgerow beneath those trees lay piles of empty bottles and cans from surreptitious summer parties; an epitaph to dwindling youth and to glimmers of those impossible loves that flicker and fade in an instant, never to be reclaimed.

Marc sat on the edge of the bed, letting the moment seep slowly into his memory so that he might feed from the warmth in years to come. An envelope rested between his fingers. Sharon said she didn’t have any more cards to give, but he could have an envelope. She had written some of their favourite nonsensical words and phrases in her loping hand. Some festive cheer. Four crossed ink kisses. And although those were the closest he would ever come to the touch of her lips on his, in a quarter of a century they would seem physical enough amongst other x’s and o’s lost to digital decay.

Downstairs the front door crashed. Heavy steps on the stairs sounded beneath bellows of laughter. Then Robert’s grinning face at the door, flushed from vodka and the cold. He held up a large christmas bauble. ‘Mentl!’ was all he said, eyes flicking quickly between the bauble, Sharon and Marc. Sharon rolled her own to the ceiling and groaned.

A belch escaped Robert’s alcohol soaked stomach. Another grin. ‘We’ve been on a Commando raid’ he said, staggering to his feet and grabbing Marc’s wrist. ‘Come and see!’ Marc stumbled up from the bed and allowed himself to be pulled. He turned to Sharon and shrugged an apology, attempted a smile. He thought that Sharon smiled softly and sadly in return and would swear there was a breath of disappointment to the waggled fingers as she waved farewell.

Robert steered Marc back in Andy’s bedroom, where on the floor lay five more Christmas baubles.
‘We went through the woods and climbed the church wall’ said Andy, pausing briefly from swigging the contents of an angular bottle whose label said ‘Bezique’.
‘We raided the Christmas tree’ grinned Chris, pointing somewhat redundantly to the treasure laid on the carpet.
‘Came back through the woods too, to avoid the pigs’ nodded Robert, another belch making the word ‘pigs’ sound elongated and drenched in echo.
Marc nodded and tried to look serious; didn’t dare suggest the real reason his friends had walked back through the woods was more to do with avoiding the war memorial Punks than the Police.
Robert threw an empty Tennents lager can across the room. ‘Put on the Redskins!’ he called, and Marc slipped his single onto Andy’s record player. He joined in the communal singing, though secretly he knew he would rather still be hearing Wham!

Marc looked at the snowy residue that fell from his friends shoes as they stomped in time to the beat. In years to come he would sometimes wonder what might have happened if the three of them had not returned at that particular moment. What if they had not been content with six baubles from the village Christmas tree and had returned for more? What if the churchyard wall had been higher and had taken longer to climb? What if the snow in the woods had been deeper and their progress through the drifts much slower? Would Sharon’s inky kisses have transformed to reality? Would the looping circles have transformed themselves to embraces beneath the duvet?

He knew however that his shellshocked, skinny self-consciousness would have conspired against any unlikely opportunities that Sharon might have presented. Knew too that all he would then have remembered from the night would have been the disappointing taste of pickled onion kisses.

All I Need Is Everything


After a Fullarton Wheelers' 10 mile TT – summer 1984, originally uploaded by unpop.

“Bidon!”
A hand and a laugh in the air. Five boys on bikes. Nothing much in common except a whisper thin belief in themselves and the bonds that brought them together.
“Allez! Allez!”

So together they rode, each secretly playing out the roles of the faces they glimpsed frozen in the inky pages of The Comic; the faces they pinned on bedroom walls beside Madness and Morrissey. Hinault, Maertens, Van Impe, Moser, Zoetemelk, Saronni. Names filled with European magic. In moments too they thought of Kelly, Roche and Millar: the Celtic soul brothers ploughing their solitary ways through the peloton towards legend. The strong devoted, no less.

Five boys on bikes on a summer habble. Sprinting for road signs, no holds barred. Imaginary primes at the top of each gentle rise, no quarter given. Double points on any real hill. The illusion of a polka-dot maillot on someone’s shoulders, or a maglia verde if they were talking Italian. For whilst no-one enjoyed language lessons in school, out on the road it was different. Peloton, casquette, musette, maglia, maillot, bidon. Bella, bella.

Naturally it was important to dress the part. Chris wore the Splendor of Criquielion, Robert in Saronni’s Del Tongo. Andy sported the Gis of Moser whilst Nick went for Anderson’s Panasonic. Marc meanwhile favoured the Mondrian themed La Vie Claire of Hinault. A modernist classic, as he would tell anyone close enough to listen. Yet although each wore a different jersey, they thought of themselves as a team, a gang, a grupetto. The Velo. They were simply The Velo.

So The Velo rode the coast as they often did, but for once dropped down through the tree lined avenues to the castle on the cliffs. Roosevelt and Churchill met there in the second war, so it was said, and Robert insisted there were ghosts in the old mill. Bunny-hopping speed bumps, they passed cars on the left and right. An old gentleman soaked in the sun’s warmth on a felled tree trunk and Chris cried “Bonjour Monsieur!” as they passed. Andy, at the back of the bunch, saw a walking stick raised in a bemused returned salute. A gaggle of teen girls stood waiting for parents, bored in the car-park. “Ca va?!” called Marc. Banal glares bounced back at them and Marc looked to his friends. “Les mademoiselles – elles sont tres, tres froid.” he shouted, and Robert responded with his best Gallic shrug.

They soft pedalled around to the castle entrance, but its imposing facade held no interest. Three riders took quick drinks whilst the other two held track stands between the cream stone pillars of the elegant gateway. The sun continued to slide through the sky towards Arran in the west as the vapour trails of trans-atlantic airplanes drew chalk lines on the blue.

A call went up.
“Alors!”
“Allez, allez!”

A sprint back up the road and more miles in their legs. Further from home then eventually switching back: a return to the girls of summer and the illusion of love. Five boys on bikes with nothing much in common except a whisper thin belief in themselves and memories that momentarily brought them together.

Come Back


paris 1984, originally uploaded by unpop.

 

‘Love to Locust’ it said on the sketchbook page. Just that, with a smattering of kisses and hearts. 

At the time Marc had not known who had written it, though in his heart he had his thoughts, ideas and wishes. It could have been any one of the unknown faces he had spent the week with, cramped on coaches and in cheap hotels, trailing around Parisian galleries and along Normandy coastal paths. At the time it was the only scrawl on the page he didn’t recognise; the only one without a name by it. Funny thing was though, that when he looked through the sketchbook five years down the line, some of those names he wouldn’t remember either. In ten years he would have forgotten half. In twenty it would be all but two, whilst in twenty five he would have lost the page and would recall none of the entries except the unsigned one. The one with the kisses and the hearts. 

It had been a strange trip. Marc thrown together with a few faces he had left a year before and others he had no knowledge of. He had felt awkward amongst his peers: they grown confident by a year of being the seniors in school and he shrunken in stature from being thrown into the cacophony of art school a year younger than everyone else. And when you are seventeen a month is a lifetime, after all.

They were kind though, those unknown faces with their familiar relationships. Stuart and Louise, the dauntingly mature couple who were clearly destined to be doctor and lawyer. Andrew and Eileen, so staggeringly fashionable and perfect, or Iain and Gillian, all whispered giggles and hands held tight. And then, always hanging on the periphery, Yvonne, skinny as a rake and so scornful of the world Marc was sure her permanent scowl must hurt like hell.

There was no great event to bring them together of course. No Saturday school detention and no body to be found at the end of the railway line. Just a school trip to France; a trip like a million others and no less or more important for all that. A trip where fragments of self would break off and be lost forever. A trip where imaginary kisses would descend amongst the sprinkles of blinding sunlight reflected from the towers of La Defense and where awkward conversations would dissolve in the drizzle outside the Orangerie.

In Normandy they had left messages for the hotel staff drawn on the paper table covers. Cartoon coffee pots and cups and ‘Pourquoi pas?’ in block capitals. Then, fuelled by cheap lager and pain killers they had walked the deserted streets of the town, two groups of four with arms entwined singing ‘Hey hey we’re The Monkees’, much to the bemusement of the elderly couple running the mobile creperie.

Back at the hotel Marc had played a mix tape called ‘Music To Kill Your Parents By’ that pretty much emptied the room. Only Yvonne stayed, rooted beside the greasy window, looking at the greyness of the English Channel lurking beyond the sands. The tape played ‘Come Back’ by The Mighty Wah! and Yvonne half turned, half smiled, said simply ‘I like this one’ and that was all.

They sat together on the coach for the long overnight journey north from Portsmouth. Sometimes they talked; already with remembrances of the week just past and occasionally of times to come. Marc had said something about wanting to live in London and Yvonne had shrugged and spoken of passing ‘O’ Levels. Mostly though they had plugged in their Walkmen and slumbered to their music; eyes closed and minds full of dreams. Yvonne had asked to borrow the tape with the Wah! song, had smiled into his eyes and lingered a moment, he was sure, as he passed it across.

The hours past midnight were spent in the midlands. Spaghetti Junction at 1am and Yvonne’s shoulder resting lightly against Marc’s arm. Through the Lakes and across the border with fingers gently touching; doves kissing as the dawn crept softly over the sky. Everyone asleep or at least with eyes closed and breath held deep, savouring the fragments of time that felt stalled and the feelings of hope frozen in the perfect amber light and the drone of the road.

The last thing he could remember was the sight of her walking across the parking lot. The morning sunlight bled through the trees that surrounded the Rector’s house and made things look like a 1970s episode of Columbo. A Californian tinge to a fading Ayrshire summer, Fujicolor halos on angels. They hadn’t even said goodbye.

Within a month she had gone. Moved to Liverpool so the story went, which might as well have been to the other side of the ocean. Marc wondered sometimes if she’d taken his tape with her; wondered if she played it and wondered if she thought of him. And sometimes too, down the years that followed, in moments of mad folly he wondered if he should have attempted to follow her. Insanity if course, for it wasn’t as if there was anything solid there, after all. Just some fleeting moments. Just the warmth of touching legs in the dark and dilated pupils in the sleepy early morning. Just some songs degrading on ferric tape, to be stretched and snapped by time.

‘Love to Locust’ it had said on the sketchbook page. Just that, with a smattering of kisses and hearts.

I’m Falling


Bluebells in Dundonald Wood, 1984, originally uploaded by unpop.

In years to come they would say that it was a great one for bluebells. Up in the woods they seemed to blanket everything. Great swathes of them stretched away into the shadows, gleaming in the soft evening sun of a late Spring.

They were not his woods, but Marc remembered them well all the same. Through a gap in the fence from Helen’s back garden, with Gary and Elaine. An old gold Halford’s bicycle abandoned on the pavement. The Jam on the tape recorder and Eileen breaking everyone’s heart. She’d gone off with the rich kids from the big houses down in the town: the ones nestling between golf courses and the old estate. They filled you with a mixture of hate and jealousy. The houses, the kids, the things they said and the things they could do. The way they stole everything beautiful and precious.

In the year of the bluebells Marc remembered Eileen’s white bedroom furniture and feathered hair. In the woods that afternoon they had almost kissed. Almost kissed. Well imagine that.

In the year of the bluebells, when the Spring had come late, there were lots of almost kisses and nearly hands held. It had been cold forever and winter held firm all the way to Easter Sunday. Then, in one miraculous afternoon, the air suddenly warmed and everyone blinked in astonishment. Marc had been on The Screws with Chris and Robert when it happened, stealing bicycle race signs from telephone poles. It made for a struggle home with pockets stuffed with winter clothes, but the feeling of the sun on blinding white legs made it more than worthwhile. The fledgling southerly breeze helped too, blowing them home with the signs strapped to their backs like sails. Tail wind out and home? The old wizened club riders told them you could count your lifetime allocation of those days on the fingers of one hand, but it took that lifetime before any of the three would realise it was true.

Up in the woods the evening drooped silently onto Marc’s shoulders, Eileen’s almost kisses taunting him gently. Back in the houses there were more than kisses and more than almosts, just not for him. Not for now and not for ever. When he closed his eyes it sometimes seemed like he could touch the possibilities lingering in front of him, but when he opened them again they just laughed in his face then darted away in dances of wild abandon.

To the west the mountains of islands were just visible between the branches whilst in the east the crazy skinheads of the council estates guarded the war memorial. To the north the fading smoke from the Monsanto factory breathed its last and to the south, behind Marc’s back, the old radar station pointed its dish to the sky and pretended to look for aliens. A week ago he’d sat with Robert on this tree trunk and listened to him tell scrumpy-fuelled stories of universes and giants. Now all he heard were just whispers of times to come, memories of those almost kisses and the songs of bluebells stretching forever.

Breaking Point


playing mini-munchman, originally uploaded by unpop.

“It’s called Mini-Munchman” said Sharon, not looking up from the tiny yellow object in her hands. Marc peered over her shoulder, close enough to breath the smell of hairspray and her mother’s Chanel perfume.
“You mean its a Pac-Man ripoff?” he laughed into a silence broken only by cheap electronic chirps. Then, after a moment, “can I have a go?”

They sat together on the sofa then, passing the game to and fro, the warmth of their touch transferred through cheap plastic buttons. Between turns each of them glanced at the TV. Something about the miners strike on the news, then quickly flicked through to rest on Jules Holland and Paula Yates. Echo and The Bunnymen on The Tube. Sharon called it shit and hit the ‘mute’ button. Marc agreed in spite of himself. Some things were more important than music, after all.

The electric blips soundtracked McCulloch’s lips and big hair, prompting Marc to smile in spite of himself. He slouched further down in the worn sofa, resting his head on the tartan blanket thrown over the back cushions. Cat hairs clung to his cream Matinique shirt and he idly plucked them off, waiting his turn on the game.
“Hey Sharon” he said, savouring the heat of her thigh next to his through her pink leather trousers. “You want to go to the pictures next weekend?”
Sharon barely blinked. Marc knew because he was watching her eyes closely. Two brown pools that tempted you in with the promise of a warm embrace then cut you deep with a cold hard shoulder. Oh sure, he knew all about eyes. He looked at his own for too long every morning in the bathroom mirror and fought the urge to pierce them with the tiny points of his Rotring drawing pens. Sure, he knew all about eyes.

Sharon turned hers to him and passed over the game. “Your go” she breathed, and that was all.

Speed Your Love To Me


speed your love to me, originally uploaded by unpop.

 

A shiver the size of Finland and a sigh as deep as the North Sea. The wind scything in from the Firth bore snow flakes and mistrust; icicles and dancing skaters in the mist of frozen ponds. Marc watched the storms blow in from on top of Greystones hill. Below him the bay arced to the south. Behind him lurked starry eyes and insolent, pouting lips.

Freewheeling in the cold, hunched over bars with woollen gloves loose on the drops. Slice through the winter, a dream of warmth ahead. Always the dreams.

Marc reached one hand round to his back, reseating the musette on the curve of his spine. The letters on the fabric said ‘Campagnolo’ and in his mind Marc talked Italian just like Robert De Niro or Francesco Moser. Inside the musette sat a record. A gift. A quick step and a sidestep. Into a gap. Sprint. Relax. Then sprint and sprint some more. Something like that anyway.

The intended recipient of the gift was on the telephone, cord twirled idly through painted fingers. A bundle of cheap bracelets twinkled on her wrist, chinking a metallic and plastic discord when she moved. John Taylor gazed benevolently on her from the wall behind. Nik Kershaw smirked from the sidelines. Across the hallway her brother raised dumbbells and thought of flying.

Marc wanted to say that his mind was empty as he pedalled into the village, but the truth was that his mind was never emptied; was instead always filled with incessant voices that argued over every action. The impetuous optimism of a vivacious youth crossing swords with the doomed nihilism of a reality glimpsed daily in mirrors. The ‘yes she will’ attempting to raise a voice above the overpowering crescendo of ‘no she never will’. At the moment, as he guided the wheels around the bend and sprinted past the war memorial the chirping optimist was winning. The tubulars thrummed with that ‘yes she will’ on the cold tarmac and Marc’s lips cracked the smile of the limitless winner.

Sharon replaced the handset and looked out at the skeleton limbs of the trees that lined the foot of the garden. In a year the hedgerow beyond would be a graveyard of empty vodka bottles and crushed cans of cheap Dutch lager. Her brother would keep an inventory: lists of different drinks accounted for. At first it would seem like a joke, but in years to come it would haunt them as a nagging reminder of something lost, never to be reclaimed. But in that February cold all she could see were slender arms waving in the darkening sky. The door bell rang above Fiction Factory.

Pale yellow light glowed beyond the crinkled glass of the front door. Marc looked at the underside of the overhang and glimpsed cracking paint in the fading twilight. He rested his bicycle against the garage and twisted the musette to rest on his side. Gloved fingers grasped the record, sleeved in a cardboard envelope decorated with hand coloured stars. In his head he could see the music winding out of the cardboard, away from the vinyl, creating spirals in the night, dropping glimmering kisses of tremulous imperfection. He could hear all the sounds even as he watched the door crack open.

Her eyes blinked. One single heart shaped glow of lingering love seemed to pulse in the space between them before dissolving into the chill. A stammered greeting. An uncertain exchange and a smile that crept along her shadowed lips. Fragments of possibility and then, from far too close, the refrain of ‘no she never will’ hammering in his heart again.

Doors closing, tyres crunching on driveway gravel. A shiver the size of Finland and a sigh as deep as the North Sea. Marc ran his tongue over cracked lips as he hunkered down and rode hard into the headwind. Always the headwind home: biting, unflinching and uncaring.

Skip. Return. Replay.

Eyes closed, Martin thought how strange it was that you could see almost anywhere in the world frozen in a moment. He turned in his head to look at the gap between the lush green hedgerows. Just down there. Glide forward. Peer down. Through the leaves and into the dappled, sunlit grass. If you looked really carefully, he wondered, would you see drops of candle wax on the ground? Three tones of blue. Some cookie crumbs and a champagne cork.

A girl cycled past. In a daydream she waved and Martin shuffled on regardless with something about not falling in love if you wanted to die in peace flickering in his ears. Skip. Return. Replay. If there is music that can haunt and hurt, he remembered Julie saying, it is only because you want it to. There was something in that, wasn’t there?

Skip. Return. Replay.

Eyes still closed, there were ducks on the water, geese and goslings on the garden path. Summer shuffled off in a huff and Julie, resting her hands gently on his shoulders, whispered almost inaudibly in his ear.

“Did you ever believe in anniversaries?” she asked.
“Hell, no.” he replied, eyes still resolutely closed.
“Don’t you ever count the years then?”
“Never. The years count themselves, like drum sticks clicking on a count-in that just goes on forever. The music never starts. The rest of the group stand immobile, waiting for the crack on the snare that never comes.”
That was when he opened his eyes, adding “it’s better that way by far”.