Sometimes you need a magic wardrobe, a flying carpet or a secret garden. A means to step out of this immediate, ugly, threatening world into some other place. A place where evils banished stay banished, rather than suffering a resurrection every time the sun returns to the sky and draws you back to their clutches from the comfort of sleep. Mark had read more than enough to understand this, but although he could easily let his mind fall into the pages of any book, his body was altogether unco-operative in this matter. Sleep was a help when it came, but always he'd awake to the same dismal nightmare he was encouraged to call home.
Some homes are castles, or palaces, Mark presumed; for he knew not all fiction was lies. It came from somewhere. Some grain. Somebody must be happy. Most homes were somewhat more modest of course. Like those of his teachers who grew beans in their gardens that he'd steal whenever he could. Or quite shabby like the one on the corner with the crumbling coal shed that sprouted wild rhubarb, which he'd never stolen. But from things he overheard or read in his books he'd come to believe that all these different buildings shared a thing in common that transformed them from bricks and mortar into actual fairy tale homes; the adults called it love, but to Mark such a small word seemed utterly inadequate to properly describe what made a house a home. Such a small word couldn't possibly account for the vastness of the emptiness he felt he was stepping into whenever he slipped the key into the latch. He was encouraged to call it home, but he knew something big was missing from within. He retrieved the key from under the bin and momentarily allowing the hallway gloom to seep out into the bright late afternoon, he let himself in once again to the eery silence.
Pausing for a moment he imagined he could hear the gentle pad of Lady's paws as she trotted over to briefly yap and welcome him home, as she used to do. He couldn't of course, she was no longer with him, but Mark had an impressive ability to project his memories if he didn't think too hard. For a moment he conjured the ghost of his dog, a golden labrador, to take away the depressing edge he felt whenever he arrived home. He missed her so badly, even though she'd only survived a few short months.
The house was damp, condensation drops continually dribbled down the vinyl paper that in places was held in place by yellowed sellotape. Cold stone clad uncovered floors sucked the heat from any lifeforms that shuffled across it. A threadbare blanket covered the window with none of the modern convenience of draw pull curtains. A little used electric bar fire sat crookedly on the brown tiles of the hearth, in front of a hardboard sheet that attempted to block the sooty gale incessantly twisting down the flue. The single room was stuck in a permanent winter. Once, it had seemed jolly, happy even. Warmed by the packing of familial bodies cohabiting in confinement. But they were gone now. It was just Mark left living here. With her.
He was glad that today she occupied the upper room. He needed the space. Dropping his knapsack onto the permanently erected drop leaf table in the centre of the room he turned his attention to the sideboard. Gingerly pulling open the wood wormed door hanging from its single hinge he squatted down and peered into the compartment. He scowled and peered harder still, as though force of concentration alone could somehow magically fill it with goods. Tinned pear halves in syrup. Perhaps a four pack of wagon wheels. An uncut loaf and a pat of butter. A tin of beans or even just a packet of rice. Anything! Anything other than the mouldy slice of Mother's Pride he'd found there that morning. As though in protest, his stomach grumbled.
"Is that my Marky there?"
He jumped, startled. Surprisingly he hadn't heard her stumble out of bed. He hadn't expected she would. Or could.
"Yes mum", he called back dutifully and moved to the foot of the stair to see her at the landing.
She stood, swaying, wrapped in once fine silken pyjamas now frayed and bursting at the seams. She didn't stir from the bedroom very often. Either she would be semi lucid and he'd be trapped into an evening of grotesque make believe listening to her tales of the happy life they'd had because she was such a good, and loving mother. Or she had some errand or chore for him to snap to. He hoped the latter. At least it would be quick, and he had his homework to get through.
"Nip down the shop and get me some some ciggies, love"
"Is there any money? We've got no bread", he inquired quietly but she was already heading back to the comfort of her bed, so he supposed not.
Gladys screwed up her face and looked down at him as she would a dog turd spoiling a lawn. It was a pokey shop carrying the minimum of provisions at the fanciest of prices. It wasn't much of a business, especially since the Co-Op had opened up the road. But since the shop was basically her own front room overheads were low and so she was able to struggle on. The Co-Op of course would never offer 'the tick', that line of credit that meant the difference between making a sale or not, whatever the prices. Of course there was no real certainty her customers would ever pay their bill, but mostly they did. And although the Co-Op did well on a payday, they inevitably came crawling back by the week's end. And besides, they were mostly her neighbours; an outsider may have been fooled into thinking, her friends. Gladys preyed on their wanton needs and to ensure they understood the service she was offering, she would always meet their requests with contempt.
"You know she hasn't paid for three weeks?" Gladys snapped, thoughtfully fingering the golden packet of twenty B&H in her claws.
Mark scowled down at the floor chewing on his lip. There wasn't anything to be said. He just hoped he could get the cigarettes and get out of there fast. It was never a certainty. He remembered bitterly the last time she had refused. She'd let him take a small bag of Winalot Shapes for Lady but had refused him the cigarettes. That had been bad. The dusty atmosphere was clogging his throat. The thought of going back empty handed, having to explain, and then, and then... Tears almost welled up.
"Please", he whispered again in case he hadn't said it right before. He understood words had a kind of power and hoped he was invoking it correctly - with fingers and toes crossed.
Gladys sneered somewhat. Happy that she had him in his place. That he knew the power she had over his life and that he felt suitably indebted to her. She slapped the shiny box down on the counter. Mark snatched it up and with force of will gushed out a 'thank you' before bolting out the door. Running down the street gulping in the fresh air, all of a sudden the loose flapping toe sole of his shoe snagged on a raised paving stone and brought him crashing down. He hit shoulder first and his momentum tumbled him over in a graceful somersault, the kind of fall he imagined James Bond would take. He was instantly on his feet totally unscathed standing outside the shabby house on the corner. Again his stomach complained with a mild rumble and he regarded the unappealing wild rhubarb.
Gingerly Mark lifted the rotted wooden gate which, like the sideboard door in his own house, rested on a single hinge. His feet slid about on the mossy flags of the yard as he crept over to the rhubarb. It was growing in a slimy puddle of overflowed drainage water which flooded into his shoe through the yawn of his loose sole and spread unctuously between his toes. Grimacing he leaned forward and snapped off an enormous stem that was almost as long as he was tall.
"YOU, you boy. What are you doing there", the old man yelled from his window.
Mark jumped and almost fell over into the fetid pool at his feet.
"Come here boy. No not right here. Come inside."
Mark was familiar with trouble and knew he was in it now. His experience of adults had taught him that silence compliance was usually the best course of action, so he approached the door.
With the lightest touch it swung easily open. Stepping across the freshold Mark almost felt his body jolt, as though it were falling into another world this time dragging his slightly sluggish and resistant mind with it. Not at all like the many times he'd felt himself falling into the pages of a book.
He'd expected the place to be shabby and dingy like his own, but it most certainly was not. There were an almost impossible number of lamps and light shades, all shining brightly with slightly different but universally warm hues. All around he cast a crowd of shadows and he had an uneasy feeling that each belonged to somebody else. Some other version of himself from some other world. There was one with his long wavy locks and another, taller with a short spiky crop. Spectres of himself from other lives he could have, should have lived. The old man was sat at a grand solid wood table that was covered. With foods. Foods of all kinds. All colours. Much of which Mark had never even seen before. But he surely recognised the cakes and the trifles, and the biscuits, and even the wagon wheels. His stomach demanded attention.
"Help yourself boy. Just don't be sick", the old man chuckled.
Mark, a sensible boy, hesitated but it seemed his shadows were less reticent and as if led by them he found himself tucking in, heartily. In almost no time it seemed as though Mark and his host of shadowy spectres had all but cleared the enormous banquet. He ate until his stomach was packed like a drum and grumbled that it could take no more. He ate in a way he had never eaten before. He felt a sense of contentment he didn't know people could feel. Mixed with a wistful longing for other feelings he suddenly expected might exist. His very understanding of what it meant to be alive had suddenly, and fundamentally, shifted.
The old man was rummaging for something in a cupboard. Questions were welling up in Mark's mind whilst all his many shadows dozed. But he didn't have the energy, or focus, to organise them. He sat back and let his confusion mingle with his pleasure while he waited to see what might happen next.
"You see the thing about magic is not to ask how, or why, or what or wherefore", the old man was muttering as his search continued, "but rather Who. Who needs it? Whom should it serve." He stopped his rummaging for a moment and turned his wizened countenance on to Mark, his fierce eyes blazing for a moment. "THAT'S why all faith was lost. That's why magic retreated from the minds of men. Because we turned our backs on each other, it turned its back on us". His face softened and he turned back to his search. "Heh, but for me of course. And you boy. And you... Ah! There you are."
The old man extricated himself from the cupboard he'd half disappeared into holding aloft a very dusty, very, very old camera.
"This is for you my boy", he said.
"What is it?", Mark replied quizzically.
"Why it's a camera of course! Perhaps not the best of marques being a 1970s Russian model, but this one is rather special", he enthused.
"Oh you'll see when you use it"
"No, I mean why are you giving it to me?"
"But that's obvious! Now run along before you're missed"
And before anything more could be said Mark found he was quite alone, in the dingy and scruffy small downstairs room of the tumble down house on the corner clutching a thing he knew nothing about and had never even imagined he might own. He instantly loved it.
Mark crept upstairs with her begged for cigarettes and was thankful to find that she'd returned to her normal comatose state of sleep. Gently he dropped the packet on her bedside table, eliciting no more than a single snort. Back on the landing he breathed again. The atmosphere in the bedroom had almost been enough to make him baulk on top of the rich heavy meal he had recently so enjoyed.
The camera was emblazoned with the tag 'Zorki 4K' which Mark pronounced 'Zorky Forky', although he quickly adopted 'Zork' as a pet name. Sat back at the table in the downstairs room he turned it over in his hands. It felt solid, dependable, in a way nothing else in his life ever had. Of course, he knew it was an old film camera. He knew what it was. But he'd never before handled such a thing, and he certainly wasn't sure where to get film from or what to do with it if he did get his hands on some. Nevertheless it had an irresistible draw, and he slowly explored all of its moving parts.
He refused to immediately lift it up to his eye and gawk uncomprehendingly through its viewfinder. That seemed disrespectful. He twisted the rings on the lens barrel to get a feel for their degree of travel. The one marked off in old imperial distances had a gritty feel halfway through as though, he supposed, there was grit trapped inside, grinding away at the soft metal of the lens barrel. The other had a number sequence inscribed on it and there was a positive 'click' at each point. Examining the lens closely it was apparent this ring controlled a diaphragm. He wanted to understand the camera from first principles before he read anything about it, so he was concentrating hard and he came to the conclusion that here he could control the distance and the brightness of the scene.
Turning his attention to the body of the camera there was an obvious priming lever, but again he would not allow himself to immediately and clumsily yank at it. On the other end what could only be the reverse function, a knob that rotated in the opposite direction. Clearly between them this knob and lever provided the film transport mechanism.
On the outside of the camera that left one more control, aside from a button which would obviously take a picture. A spiked cog like affair also marked off in a number sequence. It didn't seem to want to turn, until he realised it had to be pulled up to release its locked position. The spikes dug deeply into the pads of his finger and thumb until he'd rotated it enough for one of the numbers to align with a mark and allow the cog to drop back into place. He quickly found his fingers hurt after a few goes with this, but he still wasn't sure what it was for. Satisfied exploration alone would reveal nothing more, he decided it was time to fire it.
He set the top dial to the largest number (1000) and the lens ring to the smallest (2) before activating the cocking mechanism. Taking a firm, two handed grip with elbows on the table he pointed Zork at the open, still empty, sideboard cupboard. He twisted the lens to its closest distance setting and raised the viewfinder to his left eye. He saw the cupboard clearly. He twisted the distance setting but nothing seemed to happen. He'd expected some kind of focusing effect, and was a little worried the old man had only given him the camera because it was broken. Old people did weird shit like that.
But he didn't really believe it. Everything about Zork felt good. It must just be that he wasn't getting something about it. Yet. He tripped the shutter release. It made a solid, satisfying clunk and for a brief, barely discernible, moment something about the room shifted and Mark was overcome with a strong sense of deja-vu.
It was quite unsettling. He put the camera down and thought he should get on with his homework. For the next two hours Mark immersed himself in maths problems, working through two chapters ahead of the assignment because he basically loved maths. He did though find, his eye was constantly drawn back to Zork and much to his personal embarrassment he couldn't resist occasionally reaching out to touch it's cool metal casing and feel the ridges of its body. He just wasn't that tactile, as a rule. The physical world had just never particularly interested him before. It was dark, and late when he finished.
Although tired, he picked up Zork one more time. The top plate control he noted wasn't just marked in numbers, at one end of the range was a capital 'B'. He twisted the awkward dial all the way round and re-cocked the shutter mechanism. Leaving the distance scale at just a few feet (he still wasn't sure if that worked) he gently pressed down on the shutter release...
The room was filled with light. He felt that strange sensation of his body falling into another world dragging his reluctant mind with it again. Squinting against the sudden brightness he looked around. He was still in the same room, stood in the same place, but instead of being almost bedtime a cool morning light was flooding in. Catching sight of the sideboard, with its rickety door hanging open he saw a single slice of mouldy Mother's Pride. The very one he'd disposed of that morning. While all this registered with him, he released the shutter mechanism and with the 'clack' of the closing shutter everything suddenly reverted to how it had been; almost bedtime, if he were not already dreaming.
But he hadn't been dreaming. Somehow the awkward little camera had taken him a short distance back in time. Thanks to the peculiar natures of time and magic he found that within only a few minutes he'd managed to fully explain the operation of Zork to himself based on the years of experience he would eventually acquire. Zork could take him to any time of day on any day he liked, past or future with the correct careful adjustment. So a few minutes later he found himself sitting down quite exhausted. 'I'd better get some sleep,' he thought, 'seems I'll be busy tomorrow'.
It was the worst kind of day. Once in a blue moon something would shift in his mother, like a grinding gear box had suddenly found its bite. All of the disconnected slow doziness was gone, as though it were woven into the fabric of her pyjamas so that when she was actually dressed in day clothes she was transformed into a cruel, hard creature. He feared the creature that lived in his mother. She snatched the bag of Winalot Shapes from him, tearing it open in the process, and flung it across the room in fury. The little shapes exploded everywhere, any other puppy's dream scenario. Lady cowered behind Mark's Legs. She lifted her booted foot high, ready to lash out, to kick or stamp, inflict an injury beyond that she felt herself. As though it was Mark's or Lady's fault he could not get the cigarettes. He should have tried harder. He should have made sure he said please properly. He was truly scared now. Terrified that...
But then something shifted, some subtle tiny change. He felt himself impelled to take a step forward, slipping his hand in his pocket and say
"But mum, I've got your cigarettes here".
Holding out the shiny golden packet he had no idea how he came to have them but he felt perhaps that things were going to be okay.
For many people photography can become their reason for seeing, for delighting in all that light can reveal. For Mark and Zork and Lady, photography became their very reason for being; between them they transformed this ugly nightmare world into a place of beauty - and in due course, Mark even came to learn that 'Love' was not quite as small a word as once he thought.