Tuesday 30 April 2024

The Girl in the Photograph by John Saunders, mojitos

 Judith and Steven live in the flat next to us although you'd never know. They are rarely seen or heard and when they are it's when they are going out in the morning or coming back in the evening. They keep themselves to themselves and if you pass them on the stairs, the best you get is a cursory nod of the head or a momentary glance as if they are hiding something. They dress like young professionals. They might be doctors, solicitors, architects, who knows? There is something stand-offish about them, reserved, or perhaps they are just shy. The only reason we know their names is from the nameplate at the street door. When they are in, you'd never guess it. No music playing or even the whisper of radio through the thin plasterboard walls of the duplex. They seem to be away every weekend. Most likely they visit their parents or maybe they have a country retreat. Whatever they do, they have a very quiet life. They mind their own business.

We, on the other hand, are party animals, always looking for an excuse to go out or invite friends in. There's rarely a quiet night with us. We work hard and play hard as the saying goes. We are young and sucking at life like hungry calves. And why not? When you are in your early twenties that’s what you do? You attack life without fear or worry. Consequences don’t exist. You take risks because it's always someone else that shit happens to. Not me, not us.

Pam and I have lived here for the last twelve months. We’re serious and not serious if you know what I mean. We work for iPoint, the new tech firm. Both of us are in Sales and Marketing, so lots of big bonuses when we score hits. Our job is to sell online adverts at an astronomical cost to the big multinationals who want to take over the world. We’re happy to serve them. So you see we have little in common with Judith and Steven. They are boring late twenty-year-olds, probably planning to get married and saving for a down payment on a house. Wage slaves if ever I saw them. Pam and I might get hitched, we don’t know. For now, it's party time.  The weekends are best, late nights at our favorite nightclubs, lie-ins to let the hangovers evaporate, lounging around with friends over good wines and craft beers. If you're ever looking for a party night, Pam and Jimmy’s is the place to be.

It's a Wednesday night in June when there is a knock on the door, a gentle tap. Judith is standing there when I open it. She is dressed in a dark knee-length dress, her brunette hair tied back in a tight bun. She’s in her stocking feet. She looks at me sheepishly.

“Hi there, I'm Judith, from number fourteen next door; I hope I not disturbing you.”

“Not at all, come in,” I say.

Pam is in the kitchen and steps into the sitting room to meet Judith, now standing between us. There is an embarrassed silence.

“Judith”, I say to Pam, “from next door."

“Hi, great to see you, we've met in our comings and goings, I'm Pam, this is Jimmy.”

Judith looks around the messy flat, the table still has dinner leftovers, and the armchair is piled with laundry just out of the dryer.  Pam quickly moves it, I turn off the TV. Pam and I sit on the sofa, Judith on the armchair. She sits upright in the chair with her hands on her lap gently clasped. A regal pose or maybe like a model. I note the silver jewelry, rings, earrings, and a light chain around her neck. There is an air of calmness about her, a self-assurance as if she is an honored guest and she is about to be presented with an award. But she’s not, instead, she is here to ask us a favour.


The following Saturday, we both checked in on number fourteen. They are both away in Budapest for two weeks, a sort of holiday mixed with work. It turns out Steven is a professional photographer and he's got a gig there with a tourism company. A step up from the usual weddings, and baby portraits. She's a secretary in a medical clinic.  They have asked us to keep an eye on the flat and look after Gretta and Sarah. They're guppies, both about four inches long and multicolored with the most stunning fan tails. They are rather beautiful as they swim about the lit-up tank in the sitting room. It is a simple job. Feed them every other day, be careful not to overfeed, and check the temperature is stable. That's all.

The following Monday, I drop in, feed the babies, and check the water temperature. All good and they look good. I stand for a moment mesmerized by them swimming like underwater ballet dancers through the tepid water, peaceful, unconcerned about the world around them. My eyes wander to the wall behind the tank, drawn by the photograph. A portrait, framed in wood, head and shoulders. A beautiful woman, with long dark hair flowing about her face, her skin, perfect ivory, her eyes bright stars shining from dark circles of mascara. The look is sultry, her lips parted in a half smile. It's Judith, but it takes a few seconds to connect the picture with reality. The background is subtly lit, a professional shot of course.  I look around and notice other photographs, on the walls, sideboard, and desktop. All of Judith but all different in pose, lighting, and dress. They have one thing in common. She is beautiful in all of them. There are a couple of small ones of both of them but clearly, they are amateurish, snapshots taken on the hoof at some event. The room is a photo montage of Judith. That evening, a rare night in, I cannot get the pictures out of my head. Pam is making mojitos for us and a couple of friends who have just dropped in. I join in the crack but my mind is distracted. Never before have I seen such beauty captured and I keep thinking about how she looks in reality, how she keeps her hair tied up, uses the minimum of makeup, and wears dowdy dresses that a nun wouldn’t even wear.

I volunteer to feed the babies. Pam doesn't mind since I’m always home from work first and she thinks tropical fish are not the most exciting pets and are a little bit creepy. They swim in silence for most of their lives, in a glass tank with no interaction with the rest of the world. She can live without seeing them. After doing the necessary, I wander around the flat staring at the photos, mesmerized, as if they have a magnetic force that draws me in. It is the eyes that catch me, the lips that call my name, and give the invitation to stay. It's as if she is posing to please me, to satisfy my every desire conscious and unconscious. I feel an inner urge. I'm curious about other rooms and against my better judgment, I explore, the kitchen, and the bathroom and find myself in their bedroom. The curtains are drawn and I can just make out in the half-light, the bed, wardrobes, dressing table, and a chaise longue strewn with clothing. I scan the walls and sure enough there are more photos. Some head and shoulders ones similar to the sitting room. But there is one other, a larger one, and guess what, there she is, in full pose, lying naked on a chaise longue, most likely the one in the room. She is stretched out full length, her hair draped over the velvet headrest fanned like a guppy’s tail, her arms extended over her head and her legs spread to reveal all.  A reclining goddess. Her face has the same warm, inviting look that takes me in. By now I am flushed with the rumblings of desire. I sneak out of the flat quietly, as if the fish might hear me.


I was almost glad when they arrived home. I had fulfilled our commitment dutifully and had taken my time with each visit. The babies Sarah and Gretta are warm and well-fed. Judith and Steven dropped by with a present to thank us for our baby minding. We invited them in for a quick drink. Judith had a wrapped parcel. Pam said that I was the main minder so Judith handed me the gift and smiled at me in that warm and inviting way that I had not witnessed from her before, at least not in real life. 


About the author

 John Saunders is a founder member of the Hibernian Writers’ Group. His collections are After the Accident (Lapwing Press, 2010) and Chance (New Binary Press, 2013). He is one of three featured poets in Measuring, Dedalus New Writers, 2012. 
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