First published 'The Night Side' 1991
The music was a backing track: the sound of the military brass band in the park nearby.
Johnny liked the library for its quietness, broken only by the odd bluebottle or by some other reader's fingers flicking pages for a moving image. Today, however, Johnny was on his own. Even the lady with the stern expression, who usually sat at the front of the reading-room in a high desk, had outstared herself into a state of ever-increasing nothingness.
Johnny enjoyed browsing through old photographs of the town, particularly brown ones of the Market Square during wartime and of Temperance Street when the school was for infants only. Any old photographs, come to that, were appealing. They conjured up past eras better than the eras themselves. Better than words, he mused. Definitely better than any words. He often brought in his own family albums, since the ambience of the ancient library lent a tantalizing dimension to the memories that the photographs contained.
Not all the snapshots in the albums were real memories of his, however. Johnny had been born long after, for instance, the time of that yellowed oval of his great grandmother, in stiff wide skirts and a look too stern for the passage of time to diminish. One showed his parents sitting at opposite ends of a large family gathering. In later albums, he saw his mother, big with himself, sitting proudly beside the father he was never to know, she in the frilly clothes of her period and her husband in what appeared to be a religious get-up.
The library was hot today. Being a bank holiday, he had been surprised it was open at all. It was a pleasant refuge from the people in frolicsome mood outside. He turned the pages of the albums quickly, so as to allow the pages to breathe, seasoning the stipply grain of the images whilst they flashed by cinematically. He knew them by heart as well as eyes, so there was no real need to study the detailed backgrounds to the main subjects. All were pictures of people, formulating a dynastic flow of faces, amid a panoply of weddings, christenings, first communions, confirmations, Christmases and, last but not least, funerals.
Johnny finally arrived at a little nipper, bringing him to a halt. He never liked to stare at this photograph, there being something deliciously unhealthy in delving behind the tiny eyes, seeking the creature that twitched within, all the time knowing this was but a younger extension of himself Johnny by another name -- perhaps a realer Johnny. Tinged with sadness, this child�s soul he once owned was just outside his grasp.
As the brass band struck up their rendition of Oklahoma! he abruptly decided to return to the library book which had taken his fancy before resorting to the familiar albums. This contained a photographic history of the Falklands War, where Johnny's brother had been killed. In fact, one of the professional shots showed his brother in a group of other smiling marines only a few days before they were all burnt to death. Johnny wondered why he did not cry upon looking at this. It must be something to do with being the younger twin, he supposed, if only just.
He eased his club foot further under the trestle table, striking up chords along his ratchetted spine, which made him flinch. He shouldn't be here at all today. The lights were off and he had not seen anybody, except perhaps the shadow of the stern lady.
He concentrated back on the snapshot of himself as an infant. He was shocked to see a detail in the faded background which he had not noticed before. This was unbelievable, in view of literally hours upon hours of scrutinizing its every angle and facet. He was standing there with seaside bucket and spade clamped within a tiny hand. His sharp-creased white shorts showed no sign of blemish nor underlying manhood. His large-for-its-age face was poised in unassuming manner within what he then thought to be the all-encompassing innocence and safety of the world. The lips that formed the mouth pursed quaintly....
But the sign of the shop in the parade across the road from him, which he had always seen as CHINA AND CUT GLASS, actually said POGROM PANJANDRUM. Johnny put his nose nearer to the colourless surface and managed to discern a faint image in the shop window of a puppet on strings, rather like Muffin the Mule, but with bigger ears and a distended udder of tubes dangling from the belly-bottom.
A spider crawled across the library table, looking from side to side as if it were crossing a busy road with only the rudiments of kerb drill.
Johnny could no longer hear the brass band and, with the growing darkness, he could hardly make out the only door from the reading room.
Things crawled and slithered across the photographs, some even seeming to emerge from the frozen images themselves, things which should have stayed in the wings: thumb-sized monsters with hairy-ended backs, never photographed for posterity since they were ever beyond the range of the widest-panning cameras: living toy soldiers with red bubbly skin from over-exposure, twitching in the darkness like half-crushed insects: dollish women stuck halfway in giving birth, finger-holing eyes in the babies' beads, which reared from their red nests: creatures of every conceivable sex, in coitus interruptus, squeezed out from between other album pages, with sticky corners. And real children, who would never have lived at all if it were not for Johnny, pushing wormcasts before them in the shifting egg-sands of existence. And one who was Johnny now, or maybe his double, fleeing with flailing limbs but caught inextricably in its body's own knitting.
The brass band struck up the opening chords of Rule Britannia, while, unknown to those who would never know until too late, Johnny froze into black and white images little better than words on a printed page.