It’s National Short Story Week and we’ve got just the thing to celebrate. A superb piece of short fiction from Akiho Schilz. I, a Stranger is a tale of a photojournalist struggling with his humanity in a post-catastrophic world.
I, a Stranger
I, a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made
Here is where the travellers come. Driven by hunger or fatigue or bladder or bowels: the same basic needs and desires and instincts. Or perhaps they just got lost. The sign says ‘Welcome Break’.
Indicators flicker to ease the cars one by one down the slip road and gently into the services. Thick painted chevrons point the way, and white lines on either side of the road contain the spillage of tiredness and will and conscience, distilling the travellers into a neat single file pouring steadily into the car park.This Way. No Exit. Petrol Left, Cars Straight Ahead, Coaches Right. He drives straight ahead.
He scratches the stubble on his jaw and pushes his glasses up, which have slipped down so the world is split into a bifocal vision of blur and sharpness. Raindrops splash wetly against the glass. He remembers the smell of a different rain, that flung the rich earth upwards into his nose and skin, that was thick and warm and whose wetness he could part with one hand, holding his Nikon F 35mm close to his chest with the other. Monsoon rain. The windscreen wipers creak and scrape the service station into view. Coffee. Coffee, then back on the road. Everything is smaller here, he thinks.
At the entrance to the main building, in the shadow of Burger King’s maroon lettering, a red-faced woman is trying to draw money from the cash dispenser whilst her four-year-old yells delightedly. She glances at the man who is climbing out of his square grey Volvo with its foreign number plate. He passes without looking at her. Despite his scruffy hair and clothes, there is something charming about the way he walks; languidly and almost with arrogance. She notices he has a camera hung around his neck. He looks up and she is startled by the brilliance of his dark eyes. He is younger than she thought. The toddler continues to scream.
The man slips through the sliding doors.
The air con and intercom empty tinny tones and filtered air into the centre. He stands for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the harsh light emitted from the fluorescent strip bulbs that buzz gently above his head and stretch across the length of the centre. There is a main seating area, with shops arranged in a neat square around a plastic piazza. White wire baskets outside WH Smith are crammed with rolled-up blankets, adaptor plugs, solar powered radio alarms, travel pillows. The espresso machine at Caffe Ritazza steams and gurgles. Rows of exotic fruit individually wrapped in polystyrene netting sit like eggs on the shelves at Marks and Spencer. He picks up a papaya, brings it to his face. The skin is cold against his nose. It smells of wax and detergent. He tries to recall the smells in the papaya plantation he walked through only last month on a rare off-duty day in Mexico, admiring the thick green trunks with their deep scars, hearing the jigsaw puzzle leaves whisper in the breeze, giving glimpses of the blue sky above and the white sun dazzling. He remembers picking fallen fruit from the ground, surprised at the weight, at how easily the skin came away, how bright the exposed yellow flesh. And when he lowered his face to it, the sweet muskiness reminded him of the smell of a woman. The image of a child’s arm, pale and bloated in the sludge, enters his head and he puts the fruit back, gently.
He remembers the exact moment he knew he wanted to spend his life as a photojournalist: the wild joy of his first crystal clear negative, the face of a child peering out from the gloom of a tiny concrete space slowly emerging through the solution in the tray he held in his trembling hands. It had been his first big story. A flood. And he’d had a moment of pure, dizzy genius. The lighting had been perfect, the composition perfect; all he had to do was lean out of the boat, adjust the focus and click the shutter. He remembered the roar of the motorboat’s engine and the hammering in his chest as he left behind him the small room with the water rising around the Bangladeshi girl whose photograph he kissed when his name was put forward for the Breaking News Photography Prize. It didn’t matter that he didn’t win. He was a name in print. He’d made it.
He looks around at the seating area with its metal chairs and metal tables. The floor is black and white linoleum. Chess board patches. He sees water creeping over the floor, and feels a coldness in his belly. This flood, the last one, had been different. It was nothing he hadn’t seen before: buckling roads and uprooted trees; rivers turned to mud and streets turned to rivers; the bloated carcasses of cattle in the muddy water; families huddled on rooftops around what possessions they could save. Tins of food, blankets, cuddly toys.
At first, he had snapped and snapped. Then, perhaps on the third day, perhaps on the fourth, he stopped. The hand-held radio crackled out the rising death toll. First tens, then hundreds. Further hundreds missing. Thousands stranded. The earth rumbled and landslides were frequent. A smattering of rain on the surface of the water, then a slew of water and racing winds that ripped the tarpaulin from their hands as they struggled to keep their equipment dry. It was only in the awful silence after the storms that he realised the cries had stopped. He got a few shots. They were good. But the best opportunities, the frames he knew the editors would call ‘compelling’ or ‘poignant’, were different in the silence, and he couldn’t bring himself to click the shutter.
They’d pulled the boat up close to a roof. All the tiles were broken, and a family sat, exhausted, around an empty plastic crate. The smell of blood and excrement caused the guard on board to retch. He’d raised his camera, and the mother looked at him dully, as if waking from a long sleep. She opened her lips to say something, but only a small croaking noise came out. The guard spoke in sharp tones to the man. The woman heaved herself to her feet. The guard was shaking his hands in the air and talking quickly. Without warning, the woman flung herself into the water. The guard barked out an order to his assistant and fired a shot into the air. The children were crying now, and huddled closer together. Their shoulder blades stuck out like bony wings. The man had pushed himself to his knees and cried out as the young guard pushed the boat away. The woman scrabbled and the boat tipped. Her cries were swallowed by the water that she slipped under as the boat rocked against her. The guard pulled out an oar. Dull thuds, splashes, then the unmistakable crack of wood on bone. The motor stuttered to life and they sped away, spraying dirty water into the woman’s face. He raised his camera, watched her go under through his lens, then resurface, paddling uselessly, her husband leaning out to pull her in, the water chopping and swirling until he could see them no longer.
He steadies his breathing. It was just another assignment. He had seen worse. He buys a coffee, balances his glasses between his fingers and the corrugated cup-holder, feeling the warmth through the cardboard. He sits at one of the tables. He is too tall for the chair and scrapes it back and forth, trying to get comfortable. He takes a sip through the small hole in the lid and feels the steam blister its way through his mouth. He winces, pushes his tongue into the roof of his mouth, searching the wet recesses for relief. The coffee has spilt onto the table. He readjusts his glasses, blinking nervously and looking around for a serviette dispenser. Then, he sees her.
She is sitting alone at a table in the far corner of the seating area. Like everyone else, she is preoccupied, busy, but there is a stillness to her that draws him. He sits very still, watching. Her small fingers move lightly over a few pieces of lined paper, torn out of a jotter pad. Her lips make shapes around words as she reads and she squints, concentrating. She has short hair that falls in thick blonde curls about her face and she tucks them behind her ears abstractedly, barely noticing them snag in her earrings that flash silver. Each time she pushes a curl away from her face he leans forward to get a better look, only for another curl to spring loose and fall to cover it. He notices she has small hands. So small, they could be comical, but they move so perfectly he is enchanted. They dart, like tiny birds courting. He imagines her naked, then feels immediately ashamed.
He wonders what she is reciting and feels suddenly, desperately lonely. If only you knew what I have seen. Then perhaps you would understand and you would let me take your picture, instead. He feels a pain in his chest and clutches his camera. The world is not beautiful. She shifts. I think… I think… There is no beautiful thing in this world, but you.
Without warning she jolts, her reverie broken. Her face snaps up. For one painful moment their eyes meet. He retracts his gaze instantly. He has blundered. She has seen him. She was not supposed to see him. A hot flush creeps up his neck and into his face. He keeps his head bowed, hoping she isn’t still looking, that she can’t see the shame reddening his skin. His neck burns.
When he looks up, she is gone. He quickly scans the seating area, but she is nowhere to be seen. He gets up and stands awkwardly, feeling too big suddenly, embarrassed by his height and his blinking eyes. People have started to notice him standing like a coat hanger and he sways, indecision tugging at him, then turns abruptly and strides hurriedly out to the car park, leaving his coffee still steaming in its soggy paper cup.
The travellers shift, like wildebeest with human scent in their nostrils. The young woman steps out of WH Smith with a new set of biros and a receipt and her notes clutched in her hands. It is the dress rehearsal tonight, and she will be playing the role of Viola. She has started to fall a little in love with the young actor who plays Sebastian, her long-lost twin brother. He is beautiful and when he is on stage, he is glorious. If only he were as resplendent off-stage, she muses. It’s cold and she shivers, then returns to her seat, pushing the chair deep into the corner. She notices that the young man who has been staring at her, with his strange, haunted eyes and long fingers curled around his camera lens, is gone.
The evening draws on. New people come, with their children and their partners and their maps and mobile phones. The woman leaves. The coffee cups are cleared away by staff in white aprons and are replaced by more used cups. People hurry in and buy blankets and bottled water and use the loos and curse at the vending machines that swallow their money. The woman leaves. A young boy toddles over to the empty seat in the corner, picks up the WH Smith receipt from the floor and pops it in his mouth. His mother scolds him and grabs his hand, dragging him back to his buggy where she straps him in too firmly and he screams, his eyes hot with tears. It is past his bedtime.
Hurried on by a sense of lateness, they empty out of the doors and emerge blinking into the car park, the cold night air shaking them into wakefulness, into remembering that they have things to do. They slam car doors shut and press onward, homeward. And with each mile covered the white walls and floors of the service station fade, dwindling slowly to nothing more than glancing memory. A snippet of tinny music. The smell of grease. The harsh lights. The rattle of food trays. Her perfect, tiny hands.
Akiho Schilz is a novelist and short story writer based in London.
She was recently a finalist in this year’s H.G. Wells Short Story Competition.