It felt like Christmas Eve and I tried to sleep. Would I wake up to the Oor Wullie Annual or socks. I woke up to socks, used socks.
So. I have been working on a new novel for a long time now. It is hard to write without an editor pushing me. The novel is set in 1882 and is about a Tinker who becomes a successful photographer. After a series of events, he loses his wife and his business and moves to America. There he crosses paths with a variety of characters in Missouri. In the first chapter there is a hint of the scandal that destroys his reputation.
The Manse was situated in an attractive part of town, douce, lined with leafy trees and cobblestoned pavements. The street was not unlike his own, but considerably more patrician. He waited until Wee Hugh had stepped off the carriage and tethered the horse before stepping onto the pavement. He straightened his suit, clapped his top hat onto his head and looked down at his youngest apprentice.
“How do I look?”
“Like a million pounds,” Wee Hugh replied, grinning up at him.
"I’ll settle for just not embarrassing myself in front of the Laird.”
With wink, he turned and pushed open the heavy wrought-iron gate and up the cobbled path to the Manse. The tall, lacquered door opened before he touched the heavy brass knocker. A wizened old crone in a maid’s uniform glared up at him, the door open only enough for her to stick her sizable hook nose out.
"Tradesmen’s entrance at the back. Aff wi’ ye!"
She started to shut the door but he held his gloved hand up to it, stopping her.
"Madame. Do I look like a tradesman to you?"
"It makes nae mind what I think. Rules of the house."
She swung her head in the direction of the back entrance. “Tradesman entrance at the back.”
He didn’t let go of the door as he slid his calling card from his waistcoat.
"Madame. If you don’t mind, could you pass my card along to your mistress and explain to her why her poor departed daughter won’t be photographed today?"
"And what shall I tell her the reason be?"
"Because the photographer she hired wasn’t allowed to pass the front door on account of a pauchtie auld cailleach!"
The hag looked suspiciously at the card for a moment before snatching it from his hand. She peered at it, moving it backwards and forwards until her eyes focused.
"Archibald Scott," she read aloud. "Photographer, Portraitist, Documentor."
"I am amazed that someone took the time to teach you to read,cailleach," Archie replied, slightly more impressed by the old woman. It was a rare thing to see a woman who had an education, never mind one as old as this.
"Aye, I can read. Write and do my sums and all."
She crumpled up the card and shoved it into her apron pocket, all the while looking up at him.
"Archibald Scott my wrinkled arse," she spat. Her accent had turned coarse, and Archie was reminded of his old haunts.
"What’s your real name, then? Cameron? MacDonald? You have the black hair and the pale eyes of the MacFee’, I’d wager."
Once more he was impressed by her ability. She grabbed his right hand and looked at the webbing between his thumb and finger. He grabbed it back, but not before she saw the mark there.
"What did you use then? Bleach? Bromine? It’s still there, though. For those who have eyes to see."
She straightened up and looked at him. “You can wear your fantoush suits, and put on airs and talk with that pan-loaf accent. But I know ye, I can see right through ye, to the theivin’ Tinker ye are!”
"I suppose it takes one to know one."
"Aye, you’re right there."
"So, Cailleach, if I have to take the tradesmen’s entrance, which door do you use? Or do you crawl from the bowels of the earth each day at dawn?"
The old woman actually smiled at that. She was about to reply when they heard another voice from behind her.
"Mavis? What is going on here? Who is it at the door?"
"He claims to be a hired photographer, Madame. I was instructing him to use the proper entrance."
"Nonsense. Open the door and let the gentleman in this instant!"
With a final scowl and a deliciously rude gesture, hidden partly by the door and the old woman’s body, she stepped backward and opened the door to the photographer.
He stepped into the foyer as the woman of the house walked forward to greet him. She raised her gloved right hand and Archie took it and bowed over it slightly, in the accepted greeting of these circles. The silk glove was black, as was the rest of her outfit. The only hint of color was a fresh Calla Lilly pinned to her bodice
"Good Morning. Mrs Fleming, I presume? I am Archibald Scott, the photographer."
She nodded politely and let her hand drop.
"Mavis, do take the gentleman’s coat and cane. Goodness I don’t know what came over you, making him stand in the doorway like a common tramp."
"It isn’t your woman’s fault, Madame. I am a student of human nature and find myself infinitely curious of the people I meet. I beleive it is what makes me good at my work as a Social Documenter."
"That may be, Sir. But there are more pressing matters." Her eyes turned a little hard, and he knew that she did not take kindly to wasting her families time whilst he interrogated servants.
"Indeed," he replied. "And please allow me to offer my deepest sympathies at this terrible time."
She softened slightly at this.”Please follow me to the room where we have…” she paused, her veneer almost crumbling. “Where my daughter is.”
He followed her through the expansive foyer. It was floored in marble, the walls were rich in velvet and gilt. Potted flowers and trees took up much of the space, helping to deaden the echoes of their footfalls and soften the mausoleum look of the place. Almost every inch of wall was covered with Scottish landscapes and fashionable photographs. Portraits of venerable ancestors lined the wall beside the huge marble staircase that led to the upper rooms.
They finally came to the room. The lady of the house turned to her maid.
"Could you please bring a tray of tea?"
The Cailleach nodded and started to turn away. The lady of the house had a sudden thought.
"Oh," she said looking at Archie. "Your assistants, would they like anything?"
"I’m sure they will be fine, madame,"
The lady thought. “Bring them both a mug please, Mavis.”
Mavis nodded again and walked away. Archie watched her but she never turned back for a final scowl.
Archie took a deep breath and followed the lady into the Dead Room. He wanted no part of this business, this grotesque fashion which had erupted in the last decade or so. But, he was a businessman and this was a lucrative part of his business. Archie hated that his second-assistant was ill. He hated the fact that his prime assistant - his best photographer - was on an island in the Inner Hebrides photographing fishermen for a series of “Scotch Scenes” for a genteel but xenophobic weekly magazine published in London. Most of all he hated the fact that he was here, in the stuffy Dead Room of a Laird’s mansion in the fashionable West-End.
He had worked his way up and had provided himself with a similar respectable set of rooms in a similar fashionable area. Although not quite to this level, of course. But he did not belong with these people and would never associate with them on anything more than a professional level.
He stepped into the room and his gaze immediately fell on the small walnut coffin propped up by the tall bay windows. The wood had been expertly polished and the copper and gold fixtures gleamed in the early morning light. Bouquets of flowers surrounded the child’s coffin, expensive ribbons festooned them, each with hand-painted expressions of condolence.
The Laird was a tall man, once known for is athleticism but now rather corpulent. He stood beside a fireplace, hands folded behind his back as the Lady sat herself down on a plush sofa, her thin face hidden now hidden behind a veil. She held a delicate lace handkerchief, with which she daubed her dry eyes.The rest of the family, a young girl of perhaps sixteen, and a boy a few years younger sat fidgeting beside her. The servants were all lined up along the far wall. One, hardly more than a girl herself, obviously a Nanny, was, to her employers embarrassment, shedding soft, quiet tears in a grand auld-Scots manner.
The Laird stepped forward and extended his hand to Archie.
"Good of you to come on such quick notice. My family and I appreciate that you came yourself and did not send one of your subordinates."
"I would do no less at this most terrible time," Archie lied.
The Laird nodded. There was no trace of Scots in his accent, like most of the Upper Classes he had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge to wipe any trace of the colonial from him. Archie knew that this was the end of any pleasentries, that he was now expected to perform the function to which he was hired.
The child, who had been named Margaret, had been only six when she succumbed to a fever. It was clear that in life she had been inexceptional beauty. The fever had left young body wasted, it was evident they dying had been long and horrible. Moira Connolly, the girl he employed to make up the corpses, had done an exceptional job. The girl’s fine red hair was freshly washed and styled, the rouge and powder expertly applied to give the illusion of life. In this brightly lit room, the make-up was overly vivid, garrish even.
Archie was busy making his calulations, the depth of field, total exposure, finding the best point to set up the heavy camera.
"Do you not think that she is overly-painted?" the Lady asked. Archie looked down at her, slightly annoyed that he had been interupted in thoughts.
"In the flesh, she does seem so, I admit," Archie said, taking on the tone of a funeral director. "But in the final portrait, she will seem as natural as though she were merely sleeping."
The nanny took a deep intake of breath at this, and nearly wailed. The Laird winced and his wife ducked her head, the kerchief slipping back under the veil.
Archie cursed himself silently and turned back to the dead girl. Moira had used a thin, flesh-colored ribbon to hold the chin in place and a special glue to seal the eyelids. Archie looked over at her, standing next to his apprentice and gave her a quick nod. She looked relieved. This was by far the most difficult restoration in her short career. Archie now took to the task and placed a large glass plate in the camera. He checked his flash powder and took one last look at the scene. It was beautiful, the flowers that surrounded the girl were carefully placed, and the faux-marble arches he had brought added a classical look to the scene.
He stepped behind the camera and slipped his head and shoulders under the black velvet curtain. The image appeared inverted on his view plate, and he made a few more adjustments. All the while sensing the Laird’s growing impatience. At last he was ready. Once more he felt a loathing for the whole business, a loathing for these people, for subjecting their daughter to this circus. This new fashion had taken every level of society in its grip. And to Archie it was obscene. Let the dead alone. Bury them and grieve and move on. Photography was art and science combined and was never meant for such a ghoulish purpose as this.
Memento Mori was the name for these abominations. A latin term he felt that was used to add some kind of respectibility to the practice. If he had his way his studio would banish anyone who stepped through his door looking for this type of photograph. As it was, he was too good a business man to pass up such an opportunity. Death, as they said, was a booming trade and he had to follow it. These photos, especially the special large portraits, lovingly hand-coloured and gilt-framed as this portrait would, was a lucrative part of his trade.
Archie once more ducked under the cloth, for a final check before taking off the lens cap.
The girl. had been carefully posed so the camera would capture her full face. He had set up the camera so that the face would fill the upper right quadrant. He took an exposure, then carefully pulled the glass plate from the camera. Wee Hugh expertly took it from him and placed it in the light proof case near the camera. He handed Archie another plate, and Archie inserted it. He took two more exposures and by now the light had changed, clouds, the envitable outcome of Scotttish weather had moved in.
"Douggie. Set up the flashpan."
As the boy went to work, the Laird sighed and began to light his pipe.
"If you don’t mind, you’re Lairdship, the smoke will be seen by the camera and might spoil the exposure."
The Laird looked at him, astounded that a hired man would tell him what to do in his own home, at his daughter’s wake, no less. Nevertheless, He nodded and lay the pipe and match on the mantle.
"Do you really have to take more pictures?" The Laird asked. "Surely if you are the professional your repution states, then one or two at most would be sufficient."
Archie bridled at the implication, but managed to keep smilling.
"I know it is a great inconvienence for you and your family, but for posterity, I must be sure that I have everything just so."
The Laird said nothing, just stared ahead, and clasped his hands behind his back once more.
Back under the curtain, Archie set the focus and aperature. Slipping out, he checked the amount of powder in the pan - burning down the Laird’s mansion would be bad for business. Everything seemed right and pulled his stopwatch from his waistcoat, then with a glance at Hugh, he pulled the lens cap away. Hugh lit the powder and a brilliant flash lit the room, startling the family. They kept their silence, unwilling to admit any human weakness.
Archie knew he had to take at least one more and slipped again under the curtain to check the composition. Something was odd. The girl’s head was now slightly to the right, facing away from the camera.
He came out and walked over to the corpse, puzzled.
"Confound it now, man. What now?"
"I do appologize to you all. I assure you that my only concern is to get the perfect portrait."
He saw that the girl’s head had indeed turned. It was nothing, he told himself, the brace that Moira had used to hold the head steady may have come loose. He was about to reach out to re-adjust the head when he looked over at the parents.
"May I?" he asked.
The Laird and his Lady both nodded. Archie reached out and gently moved the dead girl’s head ever so slightly to the left, so that the composition was again perfect. Her flesh was warm to the touch, but he dismissed this as well. It was merely the sun falling through the tall windows.
Archie walked back to the camera, ducked once more under the black cloth. Satisfied, he stood beside the camera pocket watch in one hand and the lens cap in the other and nodded to weeAhugh. The magnesium ignited and the flash lit the room again. The smell and smoke took a few seconds to dissipate and while it did, there was a new sound in the room, overpowering the sobs of the nanny. It took a moment for anyone to understand the source of the cries. Then the Lady, before the embodiment of composure now screamed and ran to the casket.
The dead girl was screaming
They taste-tested the first lab grown burger today. It was described this way: The raw ingredients sound distinctly unappetising - 0.02in (0.5mm) thick strips of pinkish yellow lab-grown tissue.”
It will be sold in Canada under the brand name “Arbie’s.”