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Short Story - Underground

They say that a picture can often be good for a thousand words. Sometimes that barely even starts to scratch the surface ...

Click through to read this tale ...





Underground

It was strange. In a city of so many million people, amid the thousands that you might pass on any single day, that one particular stranger would give you that strange feeling which was so hard to place.

It was probably just paranoia from her new found ‘fame’ but Amy was sure that the guy in the grey hoodie had been following her for a while now. It seemed like a while at any rate. There was just something unnerving about him. At least she presumed it was a he, although it was hard to tell for sure given their slender frame, and the fact that their hood was obscuring any good look at their features from a distance.

She couldn’t be sure, but she was almost certain that he had even been lurking around this morning while she was waiting for her cab to the studio this morning.

Amy kind of wished a cab had been an option now, but the London traffic had deemed otherwise, they were walking faster than any of the cabs would have managed. At least she had company. She was glad that Claudia was with her and that Claudia rarely shut up, so as not to fixate on what was probably nothing.

Claudia was much more interested on fixating on the billboard, much like everyone else in Amy’s life.

It had been the only topic of conversation all the way from their agent’s office.

“You know how many men must be having fantasies about you now?”

“I’d rather not.”

“Just think, there is probably some loser whacking off thinking about you right now!”

“Claudia!”

“Oh shush you. You know it’s true, and why not. It’s a fuckin magnificent shot. I’m just jealous you know. The only action any of my pictures is getting if some sad fuck is desperate enough to be resorting to page fifty six of the Marks and Sparks knickers and bra catalogue … Look there it is again.”

There it was, all thirty feet across of it, and that wasn’t the largest of them currently emblazoned around the city. Amy still had a hard time reconciling the fact that it was her in that image. “On the plus side, not everyone recognizes me. Hell, I barely recognise that me.”

“You’re just being modest. Christ girl, they didn’t even ‘shop it did they?”

“Apparently it was in the photographer’s contract,” Amy shrugged, “he insists his shots are never manipulated.”

“Fuck, and you still look amazing girl.” Claudia sighed, “Like I said, jealous. You know, years from now when your tits need surgery, and you wish you looked like that, everyone is still gonna remember that picture. That’s a once in a career type thing. We’re all just jealous nags.”

“It’s hardly all that.” Amy lied, given it was fast changing her life. “It almost never happened.”

“Really? You never mentioned that.

“The photographer, the strange Japanese guy I told you about? Yeah. He disappeared for a while after the shoot. He didn’t answer any of the agencies calls. I mean everyone, and I mean everyone, loved that one shot, but then they couldn’t get hold of him for finals.”

“Given he doesn’t seem to have a name, did that surprise anyone? I mean how the fuck do you get away with not having a name? A symbol? Didn’t that get old with what’his face?”

Amy was half listening as she scanned the street as they crossed. Noting she couldn’t see her hoodie clad shadow, she turned back to her friend.

“You mean Prince?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. Your name can’t just be a damn symbol.”

“A Kanji.” Amy corrected her.

“A what now?”

“It’s a Kanji, it’s like a Japanese letter. Kinda.”

“Except his one don’t mean anything right?”

“It’s supposedly some ancient form they don’t use anymore. That’s what his translator said.”

“He sounds like a weird one to me either way.”

“Oh, he was weird, and all the rest. That whole shot was all kinds of strange. He only took that one picture himself.” She explained, “Most of the time it was one of his assistants.”

“You were there for four hours weren’t you?”

“Yeah,” Amy nodded, “he had these three female assistants, they might have been triplets, all dressed identically in white dresses, all with identical cameras, they took all the pictures, while he paced around the studio, always eyes locked on me, never said a word for hours.”

“Sounds fucking creepy.” Claudia shivered.

“It was odd, you’re right, it should have been creepy, but for some reason it wasn’t. Can’t explain it, just wasn’t.”

“He really only took that one picture?” Claudia asked again, “Guess he is as good as they say then. That’s why they pay him whatever ludicrous amount they pay him. So that’s probably actually a fucking million dollar picture?”

 “I guess so.” Amy smiled, “it was like he was stalking the picture, just waiting for his inspiration to strike. That moment, when he took that shot, it was like I just knew what pose he wanted, it just happened.”

“Tony said that it was an old SLR too, not even a digital?”

“So I’m told, can’t say that I noticed, it was like he had me in a trance.”

“See, told ya, fucking creepy.”

“I guess a bit, but it really didn’t feel that way.”

“Then he sends you the original, signed? Still sounds creepy to me.”

“I thought it was a nice gesture.”

“You would, naive innocent Amy.” Claudia teased, “Always seeing the best in folk ain’t ya. I don’t know of any other photographers that send me signed pictures of myself.”

Amy had considered getting the picture framed, but almost a month on she still couldn't quite get used to seeing herself staring back at herself somewhat vacantly from that antique suite in the picture. The photographer had managed to catch a moment in her eyes, and Amy found it more than a little disconcerting to be caught looking into her own gaze like that. Really though she didn’t want to cover the message on the back. Scrawled in English were the words ‘Your Soul,” with the Kanji symbol beneath it.

“Anyway, he wasn’t as creepy as I make it sound. Just the real artist type you know.”

“I’ve never been booked with one of em,” Claudia sighed, “not sure I’m in that league yet. Correction my worthless, good for nothing agent, isn’t sure that I’m in that league yet.”

“I was just lucky.” Amy shrugged.

“Good people always say that,” Claudia laughed, “fucking hate that!”

Amy slapped her friend playfully, “you don’t mean that.”

“Only a little.” She smirked, “well, this is me. See you tomorrow?”

“Yup,” Amy nodded as she turned to head down into the underground, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Amy glanced around again before descending down to the station. She was glad to not spot the hoodie clad stranger. She still found herself walking just a little bit faster than normal.

Amy had found that she could stand, as she found herself down by the platform, no more than an outstretched arm from any of the billboards, posters or screens that carried her likeness, and next to no-one would notice the similarities. Few would even take a second glance at the slender, hawkish frame of a girl, whose long, almost angular straight hair bore little or no resemblance to the stylised perfection of her refined alter-ego.

As the train pulled away from the platform she settled down with her current book, she always found even the shortest of Underground trips much more bearable escaping into a book.

The train hadn't been more than a minute or two out of the station before it shuddered to a sudden halt, snapping Amy from her book as the lights faded quickly before throwing the carriage into darkness briefly.

Smaller lights hummed and flickered into life as the train came to a stop in the tunnel. The emergency lighting was greeted with an audible sigh from her fellow passengers. Most though went back to their newspapers, books or iPods, apart from a few who took to complaining, mostly to themselves, about the reliability of the London Underground in one form or another.

A train stopping in an Underground tunnel for no apparent reason was not anything that was going to particularly phase anyone who used it with any regularity.

After a few minutes the intercom crackled into life and a fractured, white noise-consumed voice informed them that a power cut at the station ahead was the culprit and they would look to be moving along as soon as possible. Amy was vaguely aware of a particularly vocal older lady saying something about demanding a refund when someone slid down into the seat beside her.

"Excuse me miss?" the man asked in a deep, kind of rough south London accent, "but it's really you from the pictures ain't it?" It was the type of voice that you would instantly associate with someone who drank or smoked far too much than was good for their lungs. There was a slight rasp to it when he breathed in after speaking.

She half expected it to be the hoodie clad stranger from earlier, but Amy looked up to see a middle aged black man with slightly bedraggled, matted hair and who was wearing clothes that had clearly seen better days. The type of appearance you might assume belonged to one of the many vagrants you'd normally ignore completely. "Of all the people to recognise me it had to be him?" Amy thought to herself as she smiled and turned to face him.

"Sorry?"

"It is you, I know it is, can't miss his mark on you, I can see why he choose you. Fucking beautiful you are."

"Pardon?" Amy said, interrupting the man. She couldn't smell any alcohol, but she was imagining that she wasn't wrong to presume he was a vagrant, and probably suffering from the effects of something, "what do you mean, who chose me?"

"Sorry, rude of me," he said smiling broadly, his grin was perfect and white, if he was a vagrant he had good teeth, "getting carried away with myself again," he continued, "prone to that, sorry. It is you though ain't it. In the picture, the sexy one on the posters. The picture he took. You look different in real life, but I knew it was you. It is isn't it?"

Amy sighed slightly, trying not to look irritated, "Yes, it's me, thanks for saying you liked it, but they do a lot with the computer you know these days, and the lights, it's just plain old me, nothing to see I am afraid."

"I didn't say I liked it did I?' The man laughed loudly, "You presumed that, I just said it was sexy, but then again we don't have a choice about what people think of it when he takes the picture now do we?"

"I am not sure I quite know what you are talking about I'm afraid. Who do you mean by 'he'?"

"The photographer of course, the man himself, the man of pictures, of moments of captured dreams." The man kept going, talking quite quickly and obviously slightly excited about explaining whatever it was he felt he was explaining, "The man who gives us all the dreams, all the images, snapshots of other places, other lives, so that they can live in our souls to his own devices."

Amy was slightly taken aback by his lyrical tone and rested the book on her lap, looking at him intently, "I'm sorry but I'm not sure what you mean."

"Oh crap," he uttered, as if suddenly aware of something and breaking out of his own verse, his eyes flicking nervously from her to the floor and back, "I am sorry, didn't introduce myself did I? Must seem like a loon or something yeah? Sorry, my name is Derrick, pleasure to meet you." He said thrusting his hand out from beneath his dark brown jacket towards her. Amy took his hand gently and shook it firmly, his hand's unexpectedly soft.

"I kind of spend my days down here, I like being around people, didn't expect to see you down here, although I guess if you are from his city chances are you'd be down here eventually you know, but just happen chance I guess that we crossed I paths.  I always pay though, always pay, won't ever catch Derrick begging, no sir, I just like it down here."

With that he slipped his wallet out from one of the deep pockets of his long brown leather jacket, "look, these are my tickets, I keep the ones from the days that I want to remember. I'll be keeping the ticket for today that's for sure, meeting you and all." He produced a stack of one day travel cards from the Underground, there must have been several dozen of them, and fanned them out for Amy to see, "all my tickets, all memorable days those."

"That's very nice Derrick, I'm Amy." she said politely, slightly surprised she felt comfortable giving the man her name.

Despite his coarse appearance and language there was a certain strange feel to him that put her at ease. Despite everything that suggested she should be otherwise she didn't seem to fear him, or the fact he was clearly not exactly sane at all.

"That's a lovely name," Derrick replied smiling again, "I can see you as an Amy for sure, goes nicely with that picture. A lovely name for a lovely soul. I knew there was a lovely soul behind that veil of glamour, doesn't surprise me in the slightest, just like him to do that you know."

"I'm sorry but I don't know exactly," Amy said quietly, vaguely aware of the fact she was blushing slightly at the compliment, "you didn't answer my question, who is this 'him' you keep referring to?"

“Curious ain’t ya?” He beamed, “told myself you would be.”

“Yes, I suppose I am.”

“I knew it,” he almost sung, his head bobbing side to side with a broad smile, “a lovely curious soul.”

“So who is this ‘he’ then?”

"He took my picture too you see, I saw his touch all over that picture, it's a picture to raise the spirits of those that see it, the type that he likes to have around his city, tell his story, keep all our spirits up and all. So I recognised you as soon as saw you from down there, I guess only someone else he had captured would recognised you. I can see your soul you see, see what it was that he was showing to all of us that share the space of his city. He did the same with me."

"You were a model?" Amy asked sharply, and probably too quickly disbelievingly, immediately feeling guilty for the tone.

He wasn't that unattractive of a man, in his younger years maybe he had cut a much finer figure. He laughed though and she felt relieved he didn't seem to have taken it the wrong way.

"Me? No, no, no, hardly model material me.” He laughed, shaking his head furiously. “No, he got me during the Brixton riots, candid style you know?”

“Candid style?”

“No idea he was there. Ninja style.”

Amy just nodded.

“It even got on the front page of The Sun it did." Derrick whispered, "Do you want to see the picture? He sent me a copy you know! No idea how the fuck he knew who I was, but sure enough, a few weeks afters this arrived in the good old Royal Mail."

Before Amy could answer, Derrick had brought out his wallet again and pulled an old small A5 print that had been neatly folded in four. He smiled again broadly, scratching his head with his other hand as he passed it to her. "I don't even remember him there, too busy dodging the fucking truncheons you know, splitting skulls they were. Don't think they gave a shit if any of us died you know?"

Amy was only vaguely aware of the riots, having taken place a good decade before she was even born.  She knew they were remembered as being serious though and as soon as she unfolded the picture she was aware she had seen it before as well.

It was creased badly where the folds had torn at the print, but it was one of those images you knew. Amy was pretty sure it had been in her history book at school and she had seen it reprinted in newspapers and magazines. When she actually looked at it here on the dimly lit underground carriage, she was aware it was probably the first time she had really actually looked at the image no matter how many times she might have seen it before. The black youth who was calmly staring down a clearly stressed and threatened Metropolitan policeman as a burnt our car lay ablaze behind them in the image was clearly a younger version of the bedraggled man that was sat beside her. It was one of those images, a picture that perfectly encapsulated a certain moment in time for posterity.

Sure, it wasn't up there with American soldiers raising that flag from the Second World War, or that lone student in front of that Chinese tank, but it was a history book shot for sure. The type of picture that was more important for what it stood for rather than what it actually showed thought Amy, suddenly aware that she couldn't even recall where those two other pictures that had popped into her head were from. The first she was fairly sure was an island somewhere in the pacific and the other was in Beijing, but where exactly she couldn't remember. It was one of those photographs.

"I have seen this picture before," Amy offered, actually a little surprised that she did in fact know the picture he had just handed her, "it's a famous picture isn't it? I think I saw it at school."

Derrick nodded enthusiastically, clearly excited she recognised it. "That's me that is," he grinned, "younger and better looking granted, but me that is. That was taken just near the library, what they call Windrush Square now. It wasn't called that then though, new name for the square that is, called it after the boat that brought us all here didn't they, few years back and all, I remember that. Not sure it had a proper name for it before that, maybe I should remember that too. I forget things though, didn't even fucking see him best as I can remember, but can't forget him now can I?"

"Why do you think it was the same man who took my picture?" Amy asked, "I'm afraid to say he didn't really look old enough, and he didn't even speak English very well."

Derrick laughed loudly enough that a couple of the other people in the carriage turned their heads briefly in their direction before returning to their isolation when there wasn't anything to see.

Derrick leant in and whispered slightly, "Age means nothing to him does it? Fucking immortal I guess, or very old at least, and I guess language isn't something he needs to worry about now is it? He plies his trade in images, in art, in the fucking magic in our minds eye." There was a sudden lyricism, albeit a slightly foul mouthed lyricism, to his little speech that struck Amy as she sat there silently as he continued, "it's all about the picture, we have to give up a little bit of our souls to capture a moment like that. To strike people, to stick in their feeble, preoccupied, fucking minds he has to take from souls like ours you know, takes from us to give a little bit of our humanity back to everyone who sees the picture. Bastard didn't really fucking ask either! Guess he knows we would have given it up willingly if he explained eh? Fuck, that's the point isn't it? He doesn't have to explain, he just captures that moment, wraps it up in an un-fucking-spoken message that everyone who sees it can get and the world does the rest. Take, take, take."

He seemed lost in the moment before he broke from his rambling monologue and looked at Amy directly, "School you say? Derrick in the fucking curriculum, now there is something! Plain old Derrick, who would have thought I'd make up part of the GCSE some day!"

"It was our A levels actually I think," Amy corrected. 

"Ow," he exclaimed, his eyes lighting up, "the clever kids eh? Now there is turn up for the fucking books. Derrick from Brixton educates the countries brightest and best!"

"It still doesn't explain why you think it was the same photographer." Amy smiled, feeling she was humouring him ever so slightly, "I don't think there is much chance it's the same guy. I think you'd have noticed if the guy who took my picture was hanging around Brixton in the 1980s." She struggled with the mental image of a gaunt, peroxide-blond young Japanese man with no English wandering around Brixton today with a camera, let alone in the middle of a race riot over twenty years ago.

"I don't think, I know." Derrick replied looking her straight in the eye, "don't you think I know what it feels like to be in one of his photographs, I know what it's like, I feel each little piece they take from me, don't have the soul to cope with it. Poor old Derrick isn't strong enough. Hope you are, think you might be, you burn brighter than I ever did. Spotted you didn't I? Could see it a fucking mile off."

His stare was every bit as intense as she remembered the photographers being that day as he paced behind the cameras. It was the only thing she could compare it to. Derrick blinked and looked down suddenly, his demeanour changing abruptly and seemingly now shy and maybe a little bit confused. "Turn the picture round." he stammered nervously, "turn it round, see for yourself." he repeated, waving his finger at the picture in her hands without breaking his gaze from the floor.

Amy flicked the picture round in her hands and looked slowly at what was once the plain white reverse of the image, now slightly tinged with shades of the bleak yellow and browns of age. At first her finger obscured the handwritten note in the bottom right corner, but as she slid her finger away she recognised the handwriting instantly. The text was the same as that on the print that had been delivered to her the week before, the same two simple words 'YOUR SOUL' and the same Japanese character scrawled in what was now faded black text. Amy sat there and stared, vaguely aware of Derrick rocking slightly side to side beside her.

It didn't make any sense to her, how could he possibly know about the message unless it was indeed from the same hand. No, that was impossible she told herself, the photographer was far too young to have been taking pictures back then, and she was pretty sure that her agent had said that the shoot had been his first visit to England.

“I think your picture is a little more important than mine.” Amy said, turning the photograph around in her hand slowly, “an advertising shot for a fashion brand is hardly culturally significant.”

“Never can tell,” Derrick half muttered, “Does it matter how he gets our eyeballs on it?”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“People see it all the same … mysterious ways … all that.” Derrick’s voice drifted off into itself, almost to a whisper.

This didn't make any sense at all. She ran her fingers over the text again, it definitely looked like the same handwriting, even in capital letters and clearly printed she knew it had been scrawled there by the same hand. That of course was virtually impossible. Granted she hadn't asked the age of the photographer, but he certainly hadn't looked old enough to have been taking pictures in Brixton that many years ago.

“Question is why.” Derrick stammered suddenly, “why why why why?”

“Why what?”

“Why why why,” Derrick repeated like a nervous tick, “why now, why me.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Amy withdrew slightly as Derrick began to scratch his head with more and more agitation, “are you ok?”

Just as she turned back to Derrick, not exactly sure what to ask but knowing she had all manner of questions, they were interrupted by a deep east London accent. "Come on Derrick, leave the lady alone you know what we say about bothering the other passengers." Amy looked up to see a uniformed man from the transport authority standing over them. "Is he giving you any trouble miss?" the man asked politely.

As he did the lights in the carriage flickered and the growl of the engines kicked back in to a palpable sigh of relief from those around them. Derrick snatched the picture back from Amy's hand and quickly stuffed it into the front pocket of his trench coat. "Now you know Amy, now you know." he muttered quickly but forcefully before standing up from the seat and bowing his head slightly in the direction of the uniformed man.

"No, it's fine," Amy blurted out to the man, trying to catch Derrick's arm, but he was out of her grasp, "he wasn't bothering me. Derrick please don't go." she called out.

"Nothing else to share. Why why why." Derrick shrugged, still agitated, moving away and waving a hand dismissively in her direction, eyes still fixed to the floor, "you make sure you burn brighter remember? Make it worth it" he whispered turning away, at least that's what Amy thought he said. The uniformed man threw her a concerned look.

“Wait Derrick, make what worth it?”

"Are you sure you're ok miss?” Interrupted the guard, “I can call the police if we need to, did he just steal something from you? Was that picture yours?"

"No, no, it was his, he was just showing it to me," she explained as she watched Derrick disappear down the carriage as the train started to move again. The train was slowly crawling back into a forward motion causing the lights to flicker again and the cabin was briefly illuminated by the blue glow of sparks from the track outside, "do you know him?" Amy asked, "You used his name just then."

"Derrick?" The uniformed man smiled, "Yes, he is one of the regulars as it were, sad case, spends all day riding the underground, always has a ticket though, but he tends to not bother anyone, sorry if he offended you or anything. He is a strange one for sure. Part of the old 'care in the community' thing you know, think so anyways, always seemed a little, you know, unbalanced. He has never really been any trouble."

"No, no problem there he was just chatting to me," Amy explained shaking her head gently, trying to placate the guard, "just not used to it on the underground eh?"

"Aye, all these people around ya everyday and a shock if any of them utter a word to each other," The uniformed man mused.

As the train slowed to pull into the next station, Derrick suddenly wheeled around on his heels, as if having seen something and bolted back down the carriage towards them. He had a strange intense look in his eyes.

The guard raised his arms and swore, trying to get between them.

Someone behind her screamed.

Amy was suddenly aware of falling, bowled over by Derrick, suddenly frantic. It almost felt like it was happening in slow motion.

More swearing. More screaming.

A flash of a knife.

Amy felt her head hit the floor of the carriage, just as she saw the hoodie clad figure from earlier. A long broad knife in his pale boney hand.

There was blood on the blade.

She saw the guard tackle the knife wielding stranger as she felt herself bounce. Derrick was on the floor beside her.

There was blood on the floor.

Amy didn’t think it was hers.

She watched the life fade from Derrick’s eyes as he stared at her. She was sure he was smiling, and then whispering for her to be quiet. Not to worry.

“I know why now.” He whispered, “burn bright.”

The last she remembered was his smile.

short story 6070256709403514429

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