The posts below are an archive of my blog, The Stopping Service, which I wrote in 2007.
I’d just started drinking a pint of Spitfire at Shoreham air show in the moments before the Hurricane crashed, killing its pilot. In between the third and fourth sips, a little girl who was sitting in front of me, comfortably nestled between her parents, turned round and spoke to me. With the messy beginnings of a FAB all around her mouth, she announced “I’m eating a lolly; it’s got sprinkles on it”, before turning back to watch the planes in the sky.
The Hurricane came down vertically, and a plume of black smoke billowed up. There was a shocked hush, and then people turned to each other to ask if what they thought had just happened had really happened. A police van set off across the concrete, followed by an ambulance.
“These things happen” someone said.
And we are obliged to notice, and to know, and to go on thinking about what we saw.
There’s a tiny little photography shop in Hove that I walk past most days – the kind of shop that has faded Kodak posters on the walls, and displays of mid-priced cameras in the window. The other day when I was walking past, I saw a teenage girl standing just outside, examining a set of passport photos she had had taken. She was leaning forward, and her long black wavy hair was shielding her face, as she looked down at the quadruplicate of pictures. I was struck by the nervous way she peered at herself, as if looking for something, some feeling, that this face belonged to the person she knew herself to be. Since everyone started to transfer over to digital cameras, there are inevitably less scenes like this outside photo developers – engrossed patrons flipping open the paper wallets of snaps in the doorway, oblivious to everything else momentarily, leafing through to see if there are any good ones, or to check out their double chins. I suppose seeing yourself from the outside is always interesting, and it’s not something you stop wondering about. We look at the bits of ourselves we can accept, and worry about the parts of reality we’d rather not know. The teenage girl looked like a language student, but she was on her own and seemed somehow vulnerable in that moment, all imperfections repeated four times over like an error in a document rolling through a photocopier. Be it a genetic or inherited slip, or an unpredictable arrangement of features, it only is and isn’t us after all; what we really are cannot be photographed, although character can certainly be transmitted through expression and gesture. But you can never be sure. Photographs are mysterious, fraught, and intriguing, all at once.
I was sitting in a friend’s garden the other day, chatting and enjoying some late afternoon sunshine, when her cat emerged from the undergrowth with a newly-caught bird in its mouth. Without even thinking, I jumped out of my seat, grabbed the cat, and forced it to drop its prey. It tried to outsmart me by reaching round my ankles with its swiping paws, and I was forced to lift up the complaining, squirming furball, and lock it indoors. My friend and I investigated the state of the bird, which was lying motionless on the ground, unharmed apart from a few tugged feathers, but clearly deeply shocked. Its blinking eye stared up at the clouds. It’s hard to know quite what to do in these situations – I realised immediately that it might have been kinder to let the cat kill the bird, but I couldn’t have allowed that to happen. And the bird showed signs of life. We trooped indoors to look on the RSPB website, brushing past the sulking serial killer in the hallway, and whilst Claire scrolled through numerous paranoid FAQs about avian ‘flu, I glanced back out of the window to the garden . To my absolute horror, another cat was on the patio, sniffing around the casualty, and I was forced to perform an action-thriller style run down the corridor in order to get to the back door in time to scare it off. I was really upset for the bird by now. I sat on the steps guarding it, marvelling at the formulation of the pretty brown feathers on its back, each individually embedded like an arrow in its quiver.
We put the bird in a shoebox (lined with the Guardian Sport section, which is unread by every female I know,) and carried it to a nearby park, where we left the box open under a shady tree, reasoning that at least no cats would be able to get him there, and that the shock was likely to wear off. Claire wanted to go back later to see what had happened, but I couldn’t bear to see how it turned out. It was awful to see an animal lying injured, and would be even worse to feel that I had failed to help it. I know it’s childish, but I’ve always wondered how nature documentary-makers can film animals catching and devouring each other without intervening. I know I would be the one banging on the jeep window, mouthing ‘There’s a lion in those bushes, Mr Wildebeest! Turn back!’. I realise that we’re all animals, but I suppose human beings have the luxury (or curse) of being able to reflect on what they see around them. Consciousness leads to many actions which are far from natural, but are still part of our will to survive, which is ultimately the most important thing. I wouldn’t be human if I hadn’t wanted to save the bird – and the cat wouldn’t have been a cat if he hadn’t wanted to kill it.
Dusty, framed photos of nights out, or of family members with their arms around each others’ shoulders. Beads, necklaces, earrings, opened bills and packets of pills, contact lens solution and lens cases balanced on the width of the radiator, dried flowers in a glass, plastic sunflowers in a vase, shoe-boxes, scissors, framed Klimt photo waiting to be hung, squeezy pink pig, old teddy bear, Marie-Claire, spare buttons in their packets, scarves and umbrellas, perfumes, hair grips, old travelcards, cables, pens, Germolene, sun-block, business cards, cheque books, tea-light candles, old mobile phones, an ipod, hair removal cream, hair lightening cream, postcards, blu-tac, five pence pieces.
On my way to London, I walk the length of the busy train to find a seat. A ruddy-necked man soon plonks himself down in front of me. As we are pulling out of Brighton station, his mobile rings:
“I’m nearly there, just five minutes away from Victoria”, he tells someone, puzzlingly.
I instantly realise that he must be talking to the significant female in his life. The conversation cuts in and out as we go through the tunnels on the outskirts of the Brighton line, yet he is at pains to repeat his lie again. I try to think of charitable interpretations for his casual deceit – he’s buying her a special birthday treat, setting up a surprise anniversary party, or trying to ease the suffering of an agoraphobic partner who fears he will never come home. Like I say, I try, but I fail. I glimpse his name, Des Turner, on the illuminated screen of his mendacious mobile, and wish I had leaned forward and bellowed ‘Actually, we’ve only just left Brighton’ over his surprised shoulder.
I’m not sure why his casual lying bothered me so much. Perhaps I was just pissed off at being forced to witness it. We all tell lies, and for a multitude of reasons – sometimes over unimportant matters, or to be kind. But this seemed like an ugly, sneaky lie to me. If you’re reading this, Des, be assured; us women weren’t all born yesterday, and I for one have my eye on you.