The Colorist

by Susan Daitch


Fariba Hajamadi, The Telescope with its lenses had swallowed the stars, 1987, oil and emulsion on canvas, 78 × 40 inches. Courtesy of Chirstin Burgin Gallery.

Pictures which pose a threat, present danger, belie codes, give away information, the camera never lies. Photographs tidy up, make accessible, and establish distance because they remove the fire-bombed pub from its context. Rolls of barbed wire become a black and white abstraction, an endless concertina. Eamonn examined negatives, prints in their baths of chemical solutions or prints just back from the lab. No captions, no titles on the margins or on the back. These were disassociated from language. The power of specific site and circumstance was lost.

His passport was a picture of innocence. This was his American passport, not the Irish one. It was new and bore no stamps other than the oval recently acquired at Shannon. The guards, when he reached Ulster, would find no evidence he’d been in Spanish-speaking countries. For them, he was just an American with a camera and a name with a rolling sound. He was a tourist. See, he’d take postcards out. He’d been to the Joyce museum. He had postcards of the Book of Kells. He had seen a map of Hibernia and England drawn by Ptolemy. It seemed surprisingly accurate, although Caledonia was bent out of shape. He had been to the Museum of Natural History and seen trilobites in long tubes of ether, tiny wood lice, opossum shrimps, and livid crabs in glass thimble jars, translucent in their preservative baths. He’d seen a book of Dublin corporation reports in which layers of bullets had been concealed during the 1916 Easter Rising. He heard a woman in a pub ask another how she liked the cut of a certain man. They might have been brassers and the man in question might have been himself but he wasn’t sure. He’d seen men with little gold-colored pins in the shape of feet attached to their lapels. The feet were supposed to be the size of those of an aborted fetus. He had seen women waiting for the ferry to England at the Dun Laoghaire pier. The guards wouldn’t be interested in his postcards.

Eamonn wasn’t sure what he expected to find in the north. He and Freddy Driscoll hadn’t much use for each other, really. Driscoll’s plans were too deliberately vague. A photographer could be useful. Driscoll had given him a number to call in Dublin, but though he dialed it many times over several days, no one ever picked up. He had only recently written ahead to Belfast. His letters might not yet have arrived. No one was expecting him. He’d called no friends. Each time he rang one of Driscoll’s useless numbers, each time he entered a telephone box, he almost made one of his own calls, but then he didn’t.

The Blanket Men in Long Kesh were rationed three squares of prison toilet paper each day. Some also used two squares and saved the third to write letters upon. Eamonn had smuggled one out last time. Tiny words, sentences in long lines, there were eight consecutive ragged bits which composed one letter. The writing was in modern English but cramped, angular letters looked like script from a Celtic text. It described a brutality which relied, in part, on modern methods of degradation and on a cruelty which required no special equipment. Each detail was so important. When words faded at the end of a line, or if a bit accidentally tore off, there was no way to retrieve those words, once Eamonn was outside the prison gates. He couldn’t ring back and ask was this what you really meant? The eight squares described dirty food and cells so cold, breath misted in the air as if you were out in the bog. All the beatings denied would resist denial when these bits of paper were reproduced. Far from Long Kesh, Eamonn put the eight squares in a thick envelope and had them photocopied in a shop where he could work the machine himself and not have to hand them over to a clerk. He gave the original eight squares to the man’s brother who lived in the Divis Flats but was reluctant to let go of them. They belonged to the prisoner’s brother and were addressed to him but had become precious to Eamonn. He had the copies blown up and sent the enlargements to New York.

Eamonn had one series of the letters with him on the train traveling north. If it was dangerous to be carrying them now, he didn’t know. He would watch the faces of the border guards as they went through his papers. The photocopies might be too difficult to read and the guards wouldn’t bother to examine them but one might come along who was a real stickler, who would remember that every document was potentially important. As the one guard would peer at blurred lines photocopied from prison toilet paper, one or two words might glare out at him: Blanket, maggots, disinfectant in the tea. He wasn’t at the border yet. He could leave the papers under his seat but he did not.

They stopped at Newry, a loyalist town at the foot of the Mourne Mountains, just over the border. From the window Eamonn could see UDA graffiti and British flags painted on the walls. Usually the border crossing was casual but there must have been a bomb threat because guards in flak jackets boarded the train. They took his American passport, asked where he was going, how long he intended to stay, who was he to stay with? What was the nature of his visit? He’d been through this before, played the tourist, gave the address of a hotel. Down the corridor he could see more soldiers carrying machine guns and checking baggage. Out came every article of clothing and every pocket was felt. Film was opened, cameras taken apart. Books were thumbed through and shaken.

Miss Froy, just ahead of him, had yards of knitting in her bag. The soldiers squeezed each ball to be sure there was nothing hidden in the yarn. A young man with a thin moustache dropped an armful of them and the balls rolled across the floor, gathering dust as they unraveled. He started to untangle the strands and re-wind the yarn, then clearly believing he looked foolish, shoved the lot back in Miss Froy’s bag. The old woman looked distracted, as if all that mattered was getting to her destination, dirty yarn was part of the trip and the soldier must know he was a fool. There was no need to tell him so. He was now quite annoyed with himself and therefore Eamonn was sure he would be given a hard time. The soldier opened Eamonn’s bag, rummaged through folded clothing, didn’t examine books or open the envelopes which contained the blown up photocopies of smuggled prison letters from his last trip. He stuck his hands in the compartments in a cursory way, then waved Eamonn through. He didn’t want to appear ridiculous a second time.

Eamonn slept through the rest of the trip to Belfast. Miss Froy poked him when they arrived at the station telling him if he didn’t wake up, he’d be sent back to where he came from. Belfast was the last stop.

He wandered around the station like someone who had missed his train although he had arrived at exactly the location he’d set out for. He stopped for a paper and looked for signs of people who might live in Central Station. Homeless people lived in train stations in New York, but Eamonn would get arrested if he tried to sleep on one of the benches. He had friends in Belfast. He could still call them. He didn’t have to pretend he was desperate although he felt that he certainly was.

A woman’s voice announced the departure of a train for Londonderry. The day had turned so sunny it seemed to Eamonn he might get on another train, go further north, and take a boat to one of the remote clusters of islands, the Hebrides, Orkney, or Shetland. He sat on a bench and played with his camera, holding the viewfinder up to his eye, turning his head and focusing as he turned. A soldier crossed the frame and came towards him. He told Eamonn it was illegal to photograph military personnel. Eamonn explained he had wandered into his frame; Eamonn hadn’t been looking for him. The soldier replied no, Eamonn had been deliberately aiming straight at him. His American accent was difficult to control; it abandoned him altogether on some words. The soldier told him that loitering was illegal and he should move on. Eamonn left Central Station, walking until it was out of sight. He found a telephone booth and tried one of Driscoll’s Dublin numbers. This time a woman answered and asked him if he might be Eamonn Hanratty.

The woman said she’d been expecting his call and that he should go to a small block of flats on Cliftonville Park Avenue. He could get the key from the landlady, Mrs. Malone, she’d be expecting him, too. He would have a room overlooking the corner of Cliftonville Park Avenue and Cliftonville Road. What she wanted him to do was simple, he was to photograph whoever met on that corner, by the phone box; he would see the place as soon as he got there. He could ignore couples who walked by, but must photograph two individuals who would meet one day this week. She didn’t know who the two might be or what they looked like so he should photograph all who met, even if one of the two was a child. There was enough film and food to last a week. He could go out at night if he wished. At the end of the week he should return the key to Mrs. Malone. The woman asked where he was calling from and was very glad he was already in Belfast. She told him which bus to take to Cliftonville Park Avenue. Then she described seven boxes Eamonn would find on the kitchen table in the apartment. Each one would be labeled for each date. At the end of the day, he should leave the negatives in the box labeled with the appropriate day. He was not to have prints made himself. If he used less than 36 shots on any given day, the woman told him, he could use up the film in any way he liked. A new roll should be started each morning. Obviously, she explained, they didn’t want dates to be confused or overlap. What should he do at the end of the week? Whatever you like, the woman replied. Just leave the room as you find it with the film for each day in each box. Their conversation ended.

Mrs. Malone lived in the ground floor flat between a grocery store and a fish and chips stand. She said, oh you’re Mr. Shutter, yes, here’s the key. You’ll find everything you need upstairs. Whatever you don’t have, just ask me for. Mrs. Malone wasn’t joking. Eamonn thanked God Driscoll hadn’t told her that his name was Mr. Thirty-Six Exposures or Dr. Sprocket.

He had expected a broken down squat with graffiti on the walls but Mrs. Malone showed him to a neat, quiet flat which smelled of fried fish from the stand below. After she left him, he looked in the closets and drawers. They contained the clothing of a middle-sized man, shorter than Eamonn. The middle-sized man had a small shelf of books which included maps of Europe and Africa, a North American nature atlas, some reference books, the complete works of Flann O’Brien, and a book of crossword puzzles. It looked as if the middle-sized man had gone on vacation for a week. There was no name on the mailbox, no old letters, bills, or initialed objects lying around which might hint at the identity of the flat’s permanent resident. All Eamonn could conclude was that the man liked to travel.

The corner he was to keep under surveillance was empty. According to the dates written on the seven boxes, his watch would officially begin the next day.

In the morning he sat on the floor and studied the corner with the phone box on it. He got up to turn on the radio and returned with his camera, film, and a chair. Children went by on their way to school, individual men and women passed, then it began to rain. It rained in violent bursts which Eamonn rather liked because he felt safe in the flat and saved from carrying out his ambiguous job. He didn’t have a strobe flash. In the dark afternoon, little would register. When two black umbrellas met on the corner he decided to play dumb and photograph the twin bumps. Driscoll or whoever received the final prints might think he was making fools of them. He was just doing what they asked. Soon it would be completely dark. Eamonn took a chance that no further meetings would take place on that rainy corner and used up the roll of film by taking pictures of the flat. It was more documentation than the three small rooms ever needed but Eamonn wanted them to know he was following the rules.

The next Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were bright and sunny and Eamonn used an entire roll of film each day. He nearly missed one meeting because he got up to make a cup of tea. Afterwards he kept food near the chair by the window. The fifth day was dull. Eamonn watched the corner until he felt hypnotized, until he felt the only afterimage he would ever see was that intersection. He could have gone out at night and did once but the neighborhood was unfamiliar to him. He couldn’t find the local pub, didn’t know anyone, was afraid of running into one of his friends. Afterwards, even at night, he stayed in the little flat.

On the fifth day he remembered the telephone. There was one near the radio. Although it hadn’t ever rung, the phone did work. He considered calling Julie in New York but placing the call was like going out at night. It would be nearly dawn in New York and he didn’t know what he would do if Julie wasn’t in. That day brought only a few contacts. He noticed several of the contacts had also met each other on other days. A woman with short black hair in a denim jacket met a man in a long sweater. It was warm for the sweater. He also saw a middle aged man wearing American sunglasses although he didn’t otherwise look American. It was he who had the encounter with the long sweater this time. None of them looked up and saw him as he snapped their pictures. Perhaps they were informants Driscoll or the woman in Dublin expected might meet on this particular corner. Human watchers are fallible; a photograph is more concrete proof than the naked eye.

He didn’t know what to do with the extra film on the fifth day. There was a mirror above the fireplace mantle. He put his camera on it and took his picture looking into the mirror. Too late, he realized whoever printed the film would have a record of his face and his camera in this flat overlooking the corner of Cliftonville Road. He could take the entire roll of negatives with him when he left but that would leave no film at all for the fifth day. He’d followed the rules so closely up until now, Eamonn felt trapped.

On the sixth day he neglected to photograph two school children who met on the corner. A few hours later the short haired woman met the long sweater, Eamonn had left the camera in the kitchen. He had no idea who he was working for. It had started with the Grace O’Malley but by now his employer could have had any number of motives. The people he photographed on the corner could have been innocent neighbors who just crossed paths by chance. Driscoll might be selling to anyone. Eamonn could be traced and shot as he walked into a pub, a telephone box, down any street and all he’d been was an innocent eye, a hired gun. Boredom came and went in waves. He looked at the nature atlas, studied a few of the maps. Why had Driscoll wanted an American to take the pictures? He had led Driscoll to believe he hardly knew anyone in Ulster. Eamonn came out of nowhere and would return to nowhere, but having almost finished the job, he felt less anonymous. When he walked down Cliftonville Road and waited for the bus, he felt as if he had a spotlight on him. He left before the seventh day. The job wasn’t finished. He left the key under Mrs. Malone’s door. He still didn’t know if he had been nabbing informants or putting the finger on a pair who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong lime.

It had been a dreary corner. Maybe that had been what he wanted.

He took a ferry to Stranraer, Scotland, and from there an overnight train to Liverpool.

 

Susan Daitch lives in New York City. Her novel L.C. has just been published by Harcourt Brace. The Colorist is an excerpt from her next novel.

Tags:
Surveillance
Isolation
Short stories
Excerpt
Photography
BOMB 21
Fall 1987
The cover of BOMB 21
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