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There was no shame in it. He liked perfect specimens. Models, he said. But models was the wrong word. They were extra terrestrials. Long-limbed, wide-set cheekbones, eyes unblinking with otherworldly control. He took their pictures as they tried to shun their inhibitions, vacuuming their gauche youth into his camera. Immortalising the sublime.
I suppose he told me this because I was not a model. Or particularly interesting looking. I had unremarkable features. My skin was covered with peach fuzz, acne at my jawline, thin, sparse eyebrows, deep-set eyes. My androgynous haircut designed to hide all these things. I took his candour to mean he found me trustworthy or talented but throughout the meeting my portfolio remained open on the first page, barely glanced at on the table.
“If it sounds arrogant that’s because people are afraid to acknowledge their instincts. I don’t give a shit about that. You got instincts? Act on them. Besides, you’re going to find most guys are guilty of the same thing. Even the inadequates who pretend not to notice their wives or girlfriends look like shit, on the inside we’re all the same. We like beauty. So shoot us. Where you gonna go from there?”
I was flattered he was talking to me straight. I was a wisp of person. I had yet to complete two decades around the sun. I felt he was being honest with me. That he was treating me as a potential equal, revealing truths weaker people tried to hide.
He asked me if I smoked. I shook my head.
“Everyone important in this industry smokes. You should take it up.” I thought this showed faith. After all, the reason I was there was because I wanted to become somebody like him.
He told me how he got into the industry. Photography being the result of a failed attempt at being an artist.
“Most people fail right? At something? I was awful at painting to be honest,” he said, tapping the ash from his cigarette. “You ever fail something?”
“Piano?” I said. I didn’t realise that all my answers were questions and all his questions were answers. He nodded.
“I made sure I succeeded at photography. You’ve got to make sure.”
His name had weight in certain circles. They were crucial, he said, the circles. Being in the right ones, having his name pass from one mouth to another. Making sure the things he said or did came back around. It was always circular.
“Look at the earth, the sun, the moon. Everything’s based on orbits. What goes around and all that. However, it helps to be outrageous,” he explained. It was one of the ways to keep the money coming in. Especially in fashion. They liked controversy.
“Just pick a taboo – something shocking,” he asked me, “there’s plenty of angles to be had.”
I tried to think of one. I could think only of my shyness, crippling my chances at impressing him one stumbled word at a time. He didn’t wait for me to speak.
“Wanna know how I made it? I came up with concepts. Muses, locations. And here’s the trick – I started dark,” he said. “Darkness adds drama to the clothes. And let me tell you, some of the clothes demand drama. Don’t blame me. I just have the ideas, but everything comes from somewhere. I can’t be held accountable. Blame Hollywood. Blame Hitchcock. I don’t know. Example: the kidnap shoot I did for Praye. Masking tape over a pair of made up lips. A red smear on the cheek. Smudged mascara. Stiletto’s sticking out the trunk? There’s something so visceral about it – you can’t look away. You mix menace with fashion, and you’ve got yourself a fucking photo shoot. So I started there. Everyone was so upset. The fashion houses! The feminists! But that’s the point. Give them a reason not to forget you. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, you’re just looking for a taster right?”
He talked in monologue. He was my first celebrity. My first American. My first solo trip to London. I was that green. Fresh from nowhere. I didn’t know it was charisma he possessed; I didn’t have the vocabulary. His skin had a different quality – greased with the protective Vaseline of fame. I still remember how he looked at me and how it made my stomach clench. Just for a moment when he checked in on my face to see if I was still listening, still being astounded.
I was taken aback with my reaction to him. My words static. He dropped names while his cigarette smouldered. Said he’d “made” several models like they didn’t exist until he pressed the magic button of his camera.
Frederica Prince. Hadley Birch. The Nymph. Rosa May. Waifish girls who had struggled to become women after their modelling days went into decline. Now you saw them shooting breast cancer campaigns or making ads for heirloom watches, preparing to hand over to the next generation. Alien looks grown strange in age. Artificially preserved. Each time I saw another “new face” dominating the magazines I was reminded that women live longer but their lives are so short.
“She nearly suffocated.” He laughed to himself when I said I admired his work with Hadley Birch. I was thinking of a museum-themed shoot where all the models posed amid cabinets of taxidermy animals. A menagerie of chimps, jackals and birds. I remembered a model holding a lifeless tortoise like a clutch bag, its neck wound with pearls, shell concealed under the drape of her sleeve. And Hadley who was styled as a dead version of herself, body mounted inside a glass box, her lips two purple lozenges, pearls of perspiration beading on the pane, giving her away.
“The best thing is they don’t even realise how important they are to the whole thing. Especially when they’re new. You can tell them to do anything. Be obscene, bend their necks right back. Do the fucking splits. It’s the model who has the power to make the shoot fly or fall fucking flat. But it’s the photographer that gives them that power. You manage their ego. You create the rapport. You’ve got to make them hate you and love you in equal amounts. I tell you this in confidence,” he said patting my shoulder.
He laughed. I remember thinking he had misunderstood my gender.
“Question. What kind of a photographer do you want to be?”
“A good one,” I said, making him snort.
“And how much do you want it?”
“Right then, the job’s yours. You do what I tell you. You watch what I do. That’s how you learn. You’ll have to sign an NDA. Think you can handle that?”
I made a submissive nod. My desire to be accepted fulfilled.
I hadn’t thought about him for a while when I heard what happened, the shock of it made my insides swing. He’d been out of the spotlight, going quiet the way famous people do, attention something they can turn on or off the way most people manage the notifications on their phones. I was on my way back from a shoot, taking a cab through London’s side streets, radio reciting his career highlights amid reactions from fellow stars.
By then I was counting down to my arrival home. I was desperate for a cigarette. It made me edgy not smoking all day but I didn’t like to do it at work, I thought it showed weakness. I asked the driver to take a shortcut, suddenly anxious to light up and read the news reports on my own.
By then I was established, I photographed food for Michelin star restaurants and luxury hotels. It hadn’t taken me long to figure out I preferred subjects I didn’t have to seduce. I never got good at directing people. I was never able to find a way to extract confidence from others, perhaps because I had too little myself. I felt awkward around nudity and beauty, like I somehow didn’t deserve to be near perfection. I told my friends I found fashion blithe, but this wasn’t the case. I had failed to belong. I was trapped in my own skin, unable to escape the discomfort I felt within it.
I guess this made me a different kind of photographer to him. I didn’t take risks or try to elicit love or hate from anybody. I styled food and made everything look expensive and dramatic. I wanted my photographs to look like oil paintings, lots of low light and penetrating shadows. Capturing the promise of uneaten food still plump with steam. Maybe what I did wasn’t so different. My friends joked that I shot food porn and it was true I made eggs look explicit with their translucent skins gently split, wet yolks glistening. Asparagus spears oiled beside them. I was satisfied by my work. I made enough money to pay my rent and splash out on new equipment. I bought overpriced clothes and went to watch obscure bands. I liked to see the desperation on their faces, front men with neck muscles straining, voices veering off key, trying so hard to exude their star potential. I liked to see people attempt to leave their selves behind.
Outside the window the road was dim lit. Sun dying. Grey streets made greyer. Through my reflection I watched pedestrians in dense overcoats, bodies disappearing into the shadows, faces floating like apparitions, all holding some inner thought or objective at the fore. At a red light a woman with a vape made eye contact with me before obscuring her expression behind a nicotine mist. I took out a cigarette and placed it behind my ear.
Of course, it wasn’t unusual for there to be stories about him. He had acquired further levels of influence since I’d met him over fifteen years ago. Ascending to that level where one becomes a cliché. He had released expensive coffee-table books of his work. Collaborated with Liberty’s on a print. London’s favourite American. The world saw him as predictably rebellious. It seemed to make him endearing, the way he did it.
I was guilty of using his name. It was a risk, but I figured no one would call him for a reference. I found it opened doors and made clients take me seriously, as though I could handle anything they might throw at me. It unsettled them too, I could tell, like some of his chaos might have rubbed off. If anything I surprised with my efficiency, although deep down I knew I was capable of losing it, of going too far.
Following that first meeting, he took me on for a month as an assistant. I checked light levels and packed his equipment, handling each piece as tenderly as a newborn. The last shoot I went on was at a manor in the Cotswolds. He had a suite at a five-star hotel and I was booked into a cheap bed and breakfast down the road.
I remember holding a reflective pad in front of a model’s chest for an hour while she writhed in a sequin dress. My arms burning with the strain. I was scared to evoke his anger, which was always there under the “darlings” and “buddys” – a rage that would see him throw props or scream at underlings until their cheeks were tearstained, just like he wanted. He’d shouted at me for bringing him the wrong lens. I was a “fucking useless idiot”. I hated myself then, but as soon as he thanked me for being on hand with an emergency battery, my faith in myself was restored. He had the power to create people’s self-worth. I saw it in action, expanding the model’s ego until she transformed from reticent novice to world-class phenomenon, her former self wrapped beneath layers of his approval. It was strange. All he had to do was walk into a room and people handed over their agency.
“You’re going to be somebody,” he’d say to the models until they believed it. I used to wish he’d say it to me. The closest I got to acknowledgment was when he said I’d earned myself a drink.
In a way I suppose I’d already anticipated his demise. The way you predict the course of your own life and that of others. The kind of house, lover, kids, career you might reasonably expect. My life had shaped up better in some ways. My name was respected in my niche. I turned in circles of my own, chefs and PRs and brand agencies. Restaurateurs and publishers liked my work. All of us microcelebrities in our own spheres. I never forgot what he said about circles. In general, I tried to leave a good impression.
All this time I’d been single, although I no longer had the same hair cut, my body seemed foreign to me – a device I carried about, facilitating me only in practical affairs. Whenever I saw a mirror I’d look away. I pretended to be at ease with my looks but I was playing the role of someone who’d risen above the limitations of their plainness. I suspected people found me boring. Weird. That my life had already reached its summit and that I was descending the other side. I imagined myself eventually coupled with a divorcee. Me, a late bloomer. Moving into a home I wouldn’t have chosen, taking on some children. Falling into the remains of somebody else’s life.
As for him, I imagined he’d meet his death via an accidental overdose or suicide on board a yacht. Something flamboyant. In the Cotswolds he’d often have powder dusting his nostrils. I didn’t expect him to get old in the traditional sense but the last photo released of him showed how he’d become frail. Something had hollowed him out, reducing that external gloss. Time perhaps. In the picture he was wearing a tracksuit. A cigarette clenched in his hand. He was less than he had been. Perhaps that’s why I felt able to get in touch.
When I left the Cotswolds I didn’t expect to come into contact with him again. I was relieved it was over. I was barely spoken to apart from terse instructions, while he put on his performance – talking himself up, sharing anecdotes, laughing. I hoped I might get close to him, become someone to mentor, but it didn’t turn out that way. Every day he’d be at the centre of the shoot and all the other somebodies, hierarchies muddled; the models and makeup artists and editors from the magazine, all hooting and squawking and overzealous as though they were having the best time of their lives, all secretly stressed, afraid to do something wrong.
I listened to their conversations. Everyone flirted with him but he kept a little distance so that every time he gave a compliment the effects were amplified.
“I need a coffee,” he’d said that last day. Everyone else chimed in with their orders. I had to ask his personal driver to take me to the nearest town. It was Starbucks or nothing. I made it to the counter with a list of elaborate requests for low fat milk or soy or extra shots of espresso. After a wait I had two trays trembling on my lap in the back seat of the car. Hot milk spilling on my jeans.
I handed out each drink, rematerializing in the collective consciousness, briefly hailed as a “lifesaver” before fading into insignificance. I approached the photographer with a steaming cup but as he turned around his elbow knocked my hand, the coffee slipped and spilt onto his laptop, which was set up on the floor.
“You fucking idiot! What have you done?” His anger sent magnetic heat into the room, drawing everyone toward the crime scene. Several more people chastised me but he’d knocked into me – it hadn’t been my fault.
I was mute with shame and indignation as the photographer shouted I could get the fuck off the shoot. I ran to the bathroom. When I saw my reflection my face was blurred and frightened, mucus glossing my lips. It was the face of someone fragile. Despite trying so hard, I was convinced I’d ruined my life. All month I’d carried out instructions. Done my best to help. He hadn’t bothered to learn my name. I was interchangeable. I wondered why I was so little in comparison to him. He was just another person, yet more convincingly real.
I remember seeing my face change in the mirror. Myself, but another version. I splashed water on the back of my neck. Wiped the coffee stains on my clothes. Dried my hands and waited while my adrenaline steadied. I wasn’t thinking straight but at the same time I felt clear, like things were suddenly in focus.
I walked out the bathroom, went across to the hotel, taking the stairs to his bedroom, anger pressed against my pores. His door had a passcode on it which he’d shared with me at the start of the shoot in case he needed me to collect equipment, but I’d not had reason to use it. I looked down the corridor and listened for noise. Punched in the numbers, heart pacing.
The room was unaired, the atmosphere dense with ash and sweat. The ceiling low beamed and the huge bed ornate and oaken. Everything was in a state of disarray. The creased covers on the bed were peeled back like a shrivelled skin. I kicked a pot plant over then lay on the bed. Tried to imagine myself as him. I wanted to provoke. I didn’t know what I was looking for but I got up and went through his drawers, tipping them onto the floor, his designer underwear ridiculous in butterfly colours. I wanted to expose him, if not to the world, then to myself.
In his bedside cabinet I found a half-empty carton of cigarettes in which he’d hidden a pouch of powder. I slipped the box in my pocket. On the floor, a few magazines with post-it notes stuck in them. I flicked through. Biro annotations, captions included “these shoes – but blue”, and “this model – make blonde”.
In the bathroom I excavated his cupboards, throwing the contents onto the tiles. A spray for athletes’ foot, a box of nicotine patches and next to the sink, some extra-strength deodorant, hairs pasted to the rollerball. And in his wardrobe, my prize find – a taxidermy tortoise. I recognised it instantly as the one from the museum shoot with Hadley. It’d been made into an ashtray, shell hollowed out and inlaid with a gold dish, neck extended so that its face looked up beseechingly with dark, jewelled eyes. Next to it, a packet of blue pills.
I took these as well, storing them carefully in my bag before decisively pulling down my jeans and defecating on the carpet. I was a lot younger back then. I didn’t realise people were pretenders – fragile constructions with only loose frameworks holding them in place. I was eighteen. Despite my self-loathing, or maybe because of it, I thought I was the only one who mattered.
Before I left I emptied a sachet of coffee granules onto his heaped underwear and poured water from the kettle on top. Watching as the stains bled into the fabric. There didn’t seem to be anything else for me to do. Somebody hated him and now he would know.
I walked out. High. Buzzing with the belief that I could do anything – even become someone new.
My head was starting to pound, anticipating the relief of that first deep pull. We took a sharp corner, my thoughts breaking. We were now driving through Chelsea where the houses were perfectly painted, windows adorned with elaborate flowerboxes and blue plaques fixed to the frontages of random homes, announcing former famous residents. Artists. Inventors. Actors. Politicians. The taxi driver spoke to me over the news, turning the radio down. I still couldn’t believe it. He’d rebelled against all the rules except mortality.
“Quite a guy. He lived around here for a time. Dropped him off once. Years ago it was.”
Everything was years ago. We drove past another house, another plaque. Each one proof that somebody had made something happen in their lives. As though their achievements were somehow greater than the feat of living and breathing and dealing with life’s assortment of crap. I wound down the window to get some air. On the corner was a homeless man with dreadlocks, exposed paunch beneath a grubby t-shirt, his body letting him down, getting shabby, swelling up. I watched him put his hands to his temples, a gesture of habitual desolation before the car moved along.
At home I waited until I’d put my equipment away before finally settling with a cigarette, precious tortoise ashtray on the coffee table, iPad on my knees.
The news stories were already multiplying. You could sense the journalistic excitement, a celebrity death giving them weeks worth of content to churn.
His body had been found in a basement flat. Someone had noticed a smell. The last person to have seen him was a lover no one had heard of. In the video interview she looked subdued. She was buxom but puffy, her skin over boiled in the sun. Hair a brittle blonde. Her figure almost matronly with two slabs of flesh that met on her stomach. She was not a perfect specimen. There was even something repulsive about the raised moles next to her eyes. The way she licked her lips between sentences, eager to catch a taste of fame.
A spokesperson said his death was not being treated as suspicious although rumours were circulating. I guessed the press would have preferred suicide or one of the more elaborate deaths I’d fantasised for him. There was more mileage in that. I took a long drag, letting the warmth sink into my lungs. I held it there, picturing my insides darkening with tar. Each time I smoked I savoured it, vowing it to be my last.
I thought of my final contact with him, just six months before. I’d sent him a message after the photo had been released of him looking unwell. Impermanence revealing itself in the droop of his skin. It was late at night and I’d drunk a good amount of rum, alone. I felt guilty. Lonely. Sorry. Foolish. For being so foul. For stealing his irreplaceable ashtray and even the drugs, which I’d been too cowardly to try.
I said I was sure he’d forgotten about me, but I was sorry. I hoped he could forgive me. I mentioned I smoked.
A week or so later I’d received a package in the post addressed to “The Little Shit”. Inside the box was a box of cigarettes and a lid for the tortoise ashtray, its brittle shell polished to a supernatural shine, a gold stopper on the top. Next to it a post-it on a bundle of tissue paper announcing, “This one’s on me.” Inside, something dark and fetid and revolting. I’d thrown it into the bin outside and heaved onto the cement. I thought back to that moment with a smile. His revenge had confirmed my existence beyond what I knew of myself. I felt seen. Remembered. Equivalent on some sick level. Once the shock wore off, I’d felt absolved.
I put my tablet down. It was strange to think of him as gone. I took a final toke on my cigarette, stubbed it out, crushing the embers in the ashtray, wondering if it was worth more now he was dead, but as I moved I knocked the tortoise off the table, noticing for the first time the fine print under its stomach. Made in China. I picked it up, its synthetic eyes shining, mocking the unlikely permanence of death.
About Ursula Brunetti
Ursula Brunetti is a London based writer from the Isle of Wight. Winner of The Royal Society of Literature’s V.S. Pritchett Short Story Competition, her fiction has been published by Popshot, Prospect, Fairlight Books, The Willesden Herald, The Londonist and Visual Verse. Her work has also been shortlisted for the Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Competition, Mslexia and Vogue’s annual writing contest.