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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Photograph, a short story


Last night was the Christmas party for our writers' workshop and as well as mulled wine, chocolate goodies and nougat (this is a small French village near Montelimar after all) we had our only competition of the year. The theme for this one was any piece on the title 'The Photograph' and I decided to join in for once. Not to compete of course - think of the humiliation if I didn't win! But seriously, I've always thought that it's good for the teacher to try at least some of the tasks set for the students - you learn a lot that way.

locket on black satin

Dedicated to all the photographers in my life:-

The Photograph


I thought I’d seen every over-decorated room in the house but no, there was always one more.  ‘This way, Mr Taylor,’ I was told. Hiding a yawn, I followed the owner into the conservatory, which piled chintz on wicker in a maze of small tables.  A ray of sunlight had forced entry through the Venetian blinds, dancing on glass and a woman’s smile, a brown-eyed gaze that passed directly to my gut, or lower.  She’d hit that sweet spot at the back of the lens, reaching the photographer, reaching me. That’s the real professional secret but no-one believes me, even if I tell them. Beauty is indeed in the way you look.
‘That's my late wife.’  He took the photo back from me, his tapered fingers stroking a curlicue at the edge of the gilded frame. Frowning with what could have been concentration, he replaced the portrait on what a thin line of dust revealed to be the exact spot that it had previously occupied. ‘Looking as if she were alive,’ he murmured, his finger-tip, delicate, tracing the woman’s throat from the jut of her chin down into naked shadows.
                ‘The sittings took an age but that’s why you pay a top photographer, isn’t it.  Not to make her give that smile.’ He nodded at me, complicit. ‘I saw you notice. Everyone does. Everyone did. There was no need to ‘make’ her smile – she smiled at every puppy, every ‘Have a good day’ from strangers, every clichĂ©d compliment. If Drandle – yes, I see you know the photographer  – if Drandle said the light on her hair was pretty, or green suited her eyes, that would do it. She smiled at me too, the same smile. No moderation, no distinguishing between what I gave her – a name nine centuries old! - and their daily trivia.
                It wouldn’t do, you know.’ His finger tapped the glass, hard, once. ‘ So I stopped her smiling.’ He shook himself out of the reverie. ‘Enough about the Drandle. You must see the garden and gazebo; designed by Harbisher himself, the perfect background, don’t you think?  I’m glad you like the house.  My fiancĂ©e told me you’d be the ideal wedding photographer.  I think you’ll do nicely. Just the job.’

Some of you will have recognized the inspiration for my very short story; 'My Last Duchess', a famous 19th century poem. I don't see anything wrong with reworking old stories but I do think it's polite to credit the authors, regardless of how long they've been dead. 

Please let me know if you would like to use any of my work. If you're looking for workshop material, this poem (and my version) can spark all kinds of activities; themes, viewpoints, sequels, modern versions... 

Thank you, Mr Browning, for a story that lingers in the mind, a story of arrogance, jealousy, possession and murder.

My Last Duchess – Robert Browning 1842

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, 
Looking as if she were alive. I call 
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands 
Worked busily a day, and there she stands. 
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said 
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read 
Strangers like you that pictured countenance, 
The depth and passion of its earnest glance, 
But to myself they turned (since none puts by 
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, 
How such a glance came there; so, not the first 
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not 
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot 
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps 
Fra Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps 
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint 
Must never hope to reproduce the faint 
Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff 
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 
For calling up that spot of joy. She had 
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad, 
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er 
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast, 
The dropping of the daylight in the West, 
The bough of cherries some officious fool 
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule 
She rode with round the terrace—all and each 
Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked 
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked 
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name 
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame 
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill 
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will 
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this 
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, 
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let 
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse, 
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose 
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, 
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without 
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; 
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands 
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet 
The company below, then. I repeat, 
The Count your master’s known munificence 
Is ample warrant that no just pretence 
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; 
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed 
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go 
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, 
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!