A December Saturday afternoon. The camera and I have been distracted by the festive lights on the way home, and we’re sheltering in the lee of a bank, trying to catch a shot or two of the Christmas market. The rain’s intensifying the colours of the trinkets on the stall opposite, and I’m watching a man steal sweets from behind the girl in charge, so I’m not taking much notice of the grey shapes next to me. I’ve near on perfected the art of invisibility over the years, and it’s a great strategy for photography, unless you happen to relish a good punch-up, or being asked to take endless snaps of tourists. Sadly, my cloak is rendered ineffective in the face of a fellow wannabe photographer.
The male half of the couple next to me has peeled away from his partner and wants to engage me in conversation. Scenarios like this go one of two ways. There’s the superior-photographer-who-wants-to-show-off-his-knowledge version, or there’s the wistful-camera-envy one. This turns out to be the latter. The woman wanders off toward the pick-n-mix stall while he’s telling me how he’d love to have a camera like mine but he can’t afford one, so he has to take photos with his mobile phone instead. I find myself hugging the camera close.
It’s not actually mine. It’s on loan from a friend
Who am I kidding? This camera is the extension of my soul. You’d have to prise it out of my cold, dead fingers. He nods toward the pick-n-mix.
There she goes, spending all my money again
His bitterness takes me for a split second to a place I have no desire to revisit. Quite why he imagines I’ll empathise with such a savage remark about his wife is beyond me. Maybe my fraudulent possession of the camera has temporarily liberated me from gender stereotypes. I take a couple of shots of the light reflecting on the bike locked to the bench in front of us.
My money’s all my own these days
I feel a sudden surge of pride in my hard-won independence. The woman returns with a bulging shopping bag, he makes a polite goodbye and the two of them melt into the shadows.
Last week was an odd one. There was Donald Trump, then there was Leonard Cohen. I’m not ashamed to say I shed tears over both, albeit for very different reasons. Cohen was a poet, a thinker and a spiritual man. His music’s so deep in me I can’t imagine a world without him. It’s part of the very dirt that nourished my roots, and to be writing about him in the past tense breaks my heart. Trump is none of those things. He breaks my heart for very different reasons. On Wednesday evening a friend posted on Facebook.
America is now in an abusive relationship. That’s how I keep picturing it.
Another friend works on a telephone helpline. Every abused woman she counselled on Wednesday mentioned Trump. I’d watched his body language during those debates with morbid fascination. The nods, the knowing looks. I’ve seen them all before. Even that sideways glance at Melania’s voting slip was a classic.
Trump has wooed and won America with wild claims and impossible promises, just as any abuser charms his victim. Relinquish control, and I’ll sort out all your mess. Leave your intelligence, integrity, personal autonomy – everything that makes you who you are – at the door. Trust me. I’ll fix you. Charlie actually said that to me once. And it’s so seductive. Isn’t there a frightened child in every one of us who wants somebody to wave a magic wand and make the bogeyman go away? Small wonder 53% of white American women voters were seduced. The trouble is, people like The Donald usually turn out to be far worse than the bogeyman.
From Cinderella to Hollywood, and regardless of gender, we grow up believing in The One. That perfect soulmate with whom we’re destined to walk hand-in-hand into the sunset for ever. If we can only find them, everything will be happy-ever-after. Films and fairy tales alike end that way. They never show you the smelly socks, or the endless rows over who does the dishes. This pressure to perfection is sheer cruelty.
This person is supposed to make me happy. Why isn’t she or he giving me what I’m entitled to?
I ought to make this person happy, but he or she is always angry and miserable. What am I doing wrong?
It’s a dance of death.
My latest job has me cooking around five hundred meals a day in a drop-in near the city centre. I glance up from a half-chopped pile of onions to see Laura at the counter. I’ve known her a while, but I’ve never seen her here before. I drop my knife and run round the counter to hug her. She bursts into tears. She’s homeless, she tells me. Her so-called boyfriend has gone to prison for beating her up. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do without him, and now all his mates are saying she grassed him up.
I didn’t. Really I didn’t.
She wails, while the thoughts clamour in my head. Not least of them is, you’re better off without him, girl. But what do I know? In a world as dangerous and uncertain as the one Laura inhabits maybe you need a protector, a knight to fend off the bogeyman, even if he does rearrange your face from time to time.
So many of us believe it’s impossible to be happy alone, and of course it’s great having someone else around. Loneliness is a risk factor for both mental and physical ill health. But to carry the can for someone else’s happiness is too heavy a burden, and one nobody should have to bear. If you’re demanding that of someone, you’re abusing him or her. You’re using that person to meet your needs, just as Donald Trump is using America to satisfy his lust for power. You may never go so far as to rearrange his or her face, but you’re trying to rearrange their soul, and in the long run that’s far worse.
There’s a flipside of course. Melania wouldn’t be picking out metaphorical curtains for the White House if no-one had voted for her husband. What was that about turkeys and Christmas? Somewhere around a quarter of the American voting public actually chose this relationship with a crazed, narcissistic psychopath. They gave him permission to walk all over them. Waking up on Wednesday morning was rather like the moment your best friend tells you she’s marrying that man who’s had her crying on your shoulder for months.
I’m the one person who really understands him.
No. You’re not. You wouldn’t be doing this if you did.
He just can’t live without me.
Yes he can. He got along just fine before he met you. Ask his twenty-seven ex partners, always assuming they’re still alive.
I’m the only real friend he’s got.
I rest my case. If he’s lived all these years without making any lasting friendships, don’t touch him with a barge pole.
Only you can’t say any of this, or she’ll drop you like a hot brick, and she’s going to need all the friends she can get when she finally decides to go cold turkey. Yes, a toxic relationship can be just as hard to let go as a Class A drug. Take it from one who’s tried.
But some of us get wise in the end. I turn my back on the gaudy baubles of the Christmas market. None of the photos I’ve taken are great, but I don’t know that yet, and when I find out it won’t be the end of the world. For me, the important thing is the freedom to exercise my passion, combined with the support and kindness of a friend who demands nothing in return, simply enjoying the snippets of time we spend together. The crowd flows around me. I imagine the thwarted photographer and the grey ghost, trudging the weary round of festive duty, each regretting the life they might have had, while silently accusing the other. From time to time, the glowering embers of resentment will spring to life in a shower of blame. I grew up in an environment much like that. They’ve long forgotten how to live their own lives. Maybe it’s too late now. Perhaps they’re just too afraid to make their own mistakes, and to have nowhere else to pin the blame. This is not for me, I think, as I photograph reflections in the rain. Too many people die this way. I’m learning to be happy for myself at long last, and I’ve come way too far to think of going back. I join the queue huddling under the bus shelter, with the shadow of a song slow-dancing through my soul.
Maybe there’s a god above, but all I’ve ever learned from love
Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya …