Once, There Was a Photographer
By MARK NIXON
Once, there was a photographer.
Capturing images had been his passion ever since an uncle had gifted him a small, cheap camera one Christmas morning, many years ago. Rather than losing interest, as his parents had predicted, he spent his free days honing his skills, and began to garner the admiration of those that cared to look.
After leaving university, despite his distinguished initials, he found work hard to come by. After a few months he conceded, and fell into to the lucrative, if unfulfilling, world of wedding photography. The venture paid well, and even gained him a favourable reputation among his peers. Yet, half a decade later, he felt his artistic appetite begin to stir, and he decided to take a vocational sabbatical.
Following a flurry of summer weddings, his bank balance dictated at least a three month break in fiscal comfort. With a view to creating a new portfolio, he made way to Northumberland; a place he had spent many a picturesque holiday as a child.
Arriving in a small, relatively obscure village, he settled at a bed and breakfast and quickly unpacked. The afternoon light was ebbing away, and he set out to make the most of the remaining day, on the moors that enveloped the village.
Racing against the vanishing light, the photographer dashed across the flat, lifeless moors. He soon came upon a gathering of hills, standing defiantly in the way of what he knew would be the perfect shot. He scrambled up the hills for a better view, and was rewarded with the sight of the setting sun over the peaks of Northumberland. And what a sight it was. Instinctively, he raised his camera to capture the majesty of the moment.
The cloying mud tugged at his boots as he shifted his footing, oblivious to anything beyond the lens of his camera. He felt as far from the bustle of city life as a man at sea; a great peace settled in him at that moment. Eventually the sun retreated to the other side of the world, leaving only an orange glow peaking over the horizon.
With some distance separating him from a sound sleep back at the bed and breakfast, he made his way back with haste. It took longer than he had anticipated to travel back over the moors, and as he reached the edge of the village, twilight had long since passed; he was now in the midst of darkness. The streetlights were a welcome presence, and though there were few buildings in this outpost of the main village, he felt glad to be back among civilization.
He estimated it was another twenty minutes back to his lodgings, so when a lone, elegant streetlamp caught his eye, looming outside an abandoned house some distance away, he couldn’t resist pursuing one final photo opportunity.
Even with a camera as sophisticated as his, the photographer found his shot somewhat wanting. Dawdling back to the village, and after viewing the picture on the small camera screen, he decided something decent could be salvaged, with the help of his photo editing software back home.
He idly passed another house that seemed to be empty, and found himself on the brink of what looked to be a shortcut, in the form of an alley between the house and an old church. He remembered seeing a similar wall circling an entrance not far from the bed and breakfast, and assumed it to be the same one. A chill was setting in and his lengthy coat failed to sufficiently shield him, so with his mind made up, he took the first few tentative steps upon the path.
It was merely another five steps before he was enveloped by darkness, the shadows of the buildings masking the presence of trees on the left. He looked back and saw the dull glow of the streetlights; it would be easy to find a better illuminated, if not longer journey. The cold however, was starting to bother him, and the thought of the roaringfire a mere twenty minutes away spurred him on. He dismissed his childish longing for light and continued on.
He waited for his eyes to adapt to the dark, but strangely, the adjustment never came. As such, his pace slowed and when turning back clearly became the sensible thing to do, he had already covered too much ground for it to make a difference. His walk became uncomfortable, and he found himself blindly reaching forwards to find any obstacle in the darkness. Yet there seemed to be nothing of the sort, the path was long and perfectly straight, leaving him no option but to continue blindly.
He heard the distant roar of a vehicle speeding along, and felt relief at the hint of life. But as it passed, so too did his reassurance, and with a single swallow, the unease came rushing back.
The bushes around him rustled, but there was no breeze; the photographer felt his anxiety intensify. Against reason he opened his mouth to call out but something else, something deep within, told him to be quiet.
He stood silently, as if to be invisible in the dark. If fight or flight were instincts deep within our DNA, surely he had chosen the third option; hide. But as time passed, and his paralysis began to feel foolhardy, he motivated himself to continue. As he picked up the pace, he became aware of the soft pat of his keys in his pocket, and held his hand firmly against them, silencing the noise.
The bushes shook again.
This time he was sure he was not alone. But surely it was only some kind of harmless wildlife? In fact he could have sworn he’d seen some rabbits while making his way back across the moors. Yes, he decided; it was some innocent beast and nothing more.
Yet another rustle ahead of him bypassed his logic and triggered a deep and primal response.
I’m not alone, he thought.
As soon as the thought was raised he dismissed it; he was a logical man after all. Still, he had to know for sure.
Light. He thought. He needed light.
He grabbed his camera, which had been dangling from his neck, and firmly pressed his finger on the button to take a picture. Light instantly filled the path in a blinding flash, offering only the briefest moment of illumination. He blinked rapidly as his own vision was robbed by the new light.
His eyes began to recover, he squinted, bracing his eyes against the flash as he took another picture.
Just as the flash died away, it glinted off two singular objects down the path. Something at his own height.
Two eyes, in the darkness beyond.
A veil of hazy green spots hung over his flash-addled retinas; perhaps it was a trick of the mind.
He took another picture, and this time he saw no eyes looking back. Satisfied, he allowed his camera to hang again from his neck and carried on.
He cursed his decision to take the supposed shortcut; surely he been walking for far longer than twenty minutes? He wished he could run, but that was not an option, in the darkness that had swallowed him.
He went on, resisting the help of the flash to guide his way. He may have been sure there were no eyes, but none the less there was no need to announce his presence. He sought to pass the wretched pathway unnoticed by nature, unnoticed by any prowler.
His arms were still raised, despite having failed to detect anything the entire journey. Suddenly, his hand made contact with something. He felt the sensation of something hairy under his fingertips. Hair, which was thick and firm, like that of a shaving brush. The kind brush he remembered was made from badger hair.
But what he felt was far too tall to be common wildlife; indeed it was something not natural to this world.
He instantly withdrew his hand in both fear and disgust. While the owner of the hair stood rigid, he himself fell backwards in shock, landing harshly on the ground. Unconsciously, he grabbed the camera and aimed it in front of him. His finger found the shutter, but his courage failed him and he screwed shut his eyes. Though closed lids he saw the flash of the camera and he heard whatever it was lumber in the explosion of light. He called out in fear, but was not answered in the way he expected.
Light flooded the path from two huge spotlights somewhere over the stone wall. He shielded his eyes, and quickly looked down the path only to find it empty. Nothing unusual, save for a gate set within the stone wall on the right. Satisfied the prowler was gone, he stood and dashed into the spotlights.
A gruff voice, that of an older man with a thick accent called out from the light.
“Who the fuck goes there!?”
He could not answer, it was all he could do to keep himself upright. However, the owner of the voice could clearly see the intruder at his gate.
“Who is it?” the voice snapped.
The photographer cleared his throat and shouted back.
“I’m sorry!” he stammered “I’m lost! But thank god you-”
“Jesus-fucking-Christ!” Interrupted the voice, as it seemed to draw nearer.
The photographer watched a silhouette enter the light, unable to make out any features in the blinding glare. What he could make out however, was that the figure seemed to be pointing something at him. Something long.
“What the fuck are ye’ doing out at this time of night?” the shape demanded, jogging over to him and at last becoming fully visible. He was clearly a farmer, his attire and flat cap a dead giveaway.
The photographer was startled as he realised the farmer brandished a double-barreled shotgun, only pointing it away as he hastily swung open the gate and ushered him in.
“Come in! Quickly lad!”
The photographer responded to the order and quickly allowed himself to grabbed by the sleeve. The farmer pointed his gun beyond the gate and barked back at the stranger.
“Up to the house lad, now!”
There, he was greeted at the open door by an older woman. Her face was pale, and the glow from the spotlights only served the illuminate her ghostly expression.
“Come in, petal,” she said. “Quickly now.”
The two men entered the house, and the farmer quickly flicked the key in the door and secured not one, not two, but three bolts across the door. The hallway lights were off, and the house was illuminated only by a lamp in the kitchen opposite the front door. The farmer thumped at a switch by the door, and the floodlights went dead.
“Thank you,” sighed the guest, bemused at the situation.
The farmer pulled up a chair and sat diligently by the door, shotgun in hand.
“So, are you simple, lad?” he snapped.
The farmer’s wife laid her hands on the photographer’s shoulders, and replied on his behalf.
“Leave him alone, John!” She looked at the stranger. “He’s clearly not from around here.”
“Aye,” came his grunted reply.
The hallway fell awkwardly silent. The hosts were in no rush to explain the situation.
“I’ll – make some tea,” the woman said, retreating into the kitchen.
The photographer, unsure of what social niceties are appropriate at such a moment, simply met the eyes of the farmer and nodded.
“You’d do best to sit down, lad.” He said. “I imagine you’ll need to rest.”
“Yeah, thanks.” He replied, allowing himself to sit on the stairs. He wasn’t sure how, but the couple seemed to know what he had encountered outside. Had they seen it from their window?
With nothing to do while the kettle boiled in the other room, the photographer took his camera from around his neck and switched it on. He pressed the preview button and the most recent picture appeared on the screen. What he saw, caused his stomach to drop and his eyes to widen.
On the small screen was something so distinctly horrible he felt inclined the smash his camera there on the spot. He saw a snout facing down at the lens, but not the sort belonging to a dog or even a wolf. The photographer has never spoken aloud of the picture since, but on his darkest days, he has dared to privately describe it as otherworldly.
Above all else, what stood out about it was not the jagged teeth protruding, but the upturned nature of the lips, as they formed some kind of snarling smile. And, above the snout, were unmistakably the eyes from before: yellow and without iris. Yet somehow, they seemed to display a sentience about them, a knowing. And furthermore, a craving for blood.
The photographer wished he had never seen that picture. Deleting the image and later destroying the camera had failed to erase the memory. Even now, one year later, as he stands snapping pictures of a newly married couple embracing under the rotating spotlights of a dance floor, he swears he can see two yellow eyes watching him from the darkness.
His work has never been the standard it had been before.
His hands just won’t stop shaking.