After E.L. Doctorow’s The Hunter
of the winter streets, of the steel-slung snow lining the border of the roads, or where they should be. See the echoes of footprints fading under cover. Traces of life. The damp, brown litter of autumn looks like stained decorations. It’s still noticeable at the edges of pavements, on the grass verges, swept away from doorways.
The café is warm, or seems to be. Condensation runs down the inside of its windows, masking the two or three occupied tables. Take a picture: at one a man in a thick, padded coat, his hands wrapped around a mug, fingers interlocked. He slides them up and down, slowly, hoping the heat will permeate. At another a woman counts out change, measuring the price of a bus ride against a bowl of soup and a dry roll. Beside her chair a carrier bag shouts her purchases at her, as if she could have afforded them.
Widen the view to accommodate the betting shop, a shuttered takeaway, the banner outside the primary school proudly advertising its officially-reported status as ‘Good’. The side door is open where Mrs. Heywood has gone in to try to bleed some life into the heating. She has fifteen hours until the children return, and the maintenance teams have too many jobs to do. She would call another company if the school didn’t have to rely on out-of-hours council helplines, and there were enough children to justify the expense.
This side of the school, just visible, the newsagent has a flow of customers out for milk or cigarettes. Anwar leans back against his hands while the single men and women choose, then rings up the sale. He has been there for six hours already, eight more to go. Salim is stacking up more instant noodles and packets of biscuits. He doesn’t look up as Annie comes in for a magazine and a lottery scratchcard, barely blinks when the door chimes her departure.
She walks carefully through the shot, glancing at the open door of the school as she passes. Mrs. Heywood is taking off her woollen glove to lock it.
Take a picture.
Take a picture to fix it all in place. Keep the café windows steamed, its customers partly obscured. Capture the luring lights of the betting shop, the dulled reflections of the takeaway. See the school banner, a glimpse of Anwar as Annie leaves. Catch her in the act of sliding her scratchcard into her pocket in case it falls out of her copy of Take a Break. Make the snow contrast with the dying leaves and pale grass.
Take a picture to perfect it, to hold that passing second forever. Give it life and resonance and remembrance. Grasp the scene so that its wonder will remain. Keep it safe. Post it on Instagram and Pinterest. Tweet it to so many followers, wherever they may be, have them hear the image arrive on their phones or flash onto their screens in living rooms and bedrooms, watching. Upload it to Facebook with a caption. Reply to comments, positive and negative. If the photograph suits the content then blog it, describing the moment and exposure, the angle and lens, the motive, the opportunity. Right-align. Add a border. Frame it in paragraphs of the self for context, inspire debate, clicks, likes, retweets. Perhaps send it to an agency which deals with the Sunday glossies, and see it featured in a custom-built article. Celebrate the success. Cash the payment, minus agency fees.
For the shot is of its time. It is impartial. It questions nothing and answers less. The buildings and faces rest in their motion. Those viewing cast judgement, but the picture doesn’t reply. ‘Take a picture,’ the sights say. ‘Don’t wait for a better composition, a more perfectly formed image. Just take it. Take it as we are.’
Annie walks carefully on the snow. She will go to wherever home is, hang her royal blue coat up and settle in front of the gas fire. She will read her magazine, at some point scratch away at those symbols in her pocket. Salim will rearrange the fresh vegetables to make them look fresh, and go upstairs to ask his mother if there is anything he can do for her. The customers in the café will find themselves both staring at the same patch of empty air and smile at each other out of embarrassment or recognition.
In the morning, just after seven, the school boiler will fumble into action. Somehow, and she won’t be able to explain it exactly, Mrs. Heywood has repaired the repair, at least for now. The side door will open to shivering fingers and stamping feet, to other cries and wonders. Take a picture and imply all this and more. Snow melts. Statements of before and after.
Simon Holloway is Programme Leader and Lecturer in Creative Writing at The University of Bolton. His latest novel, The Words We Use are Black and White, was published in autumn 2014.