Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it. – Roland Barthes
I am writing blindly. – Dmitry Kolesnikov in a note to his wife from the sunken Russian submarine KurskAugust 2000
TWO HUNDRED AND forty frames. Ten seconds long. Twenty-four frames per second. In the popular version of the mpeg – that is, the version lifted by the news editors from the website, the version that was then edited and rebroadcast on television, and therefore the one that actually matters – on that version we get about 240 frames of video. These frames are all the life the man has to me. They are his landscape, his memory, his past and his future. The persistence of my vision of him. Here, before the flinch.
I am lying on a bed, crisp hard sheets folded over me, drowsy, uncertain of many things, not the least of which is how I got here. An air-con unit in the wall gurgles to life and hisses into a rhythm. The TV news says it is Tuesday today. Then they play the video. I have seen this version of the mpeg maybe ten or twenty times already, and I haven't even shifted from the bed. It is on every one of the cable news channels. The local stations, with their dancing girls and cash prizes, seem to take extra delight in repeating it in freak show loops.
Here it is again.
A low-res room at the end of the world. The man in the chair. The weeks of facial hair. The tired, spent, dead eyes. The orange jumpsuit. This is hardly a man anymore. He is no man. The man who is about to die leaves no message, except his name and those of his parents. I can't make them out. Martin maybe? And Cristina? Or is it Terri and Peter? Then cut to another scene. Another day? Another hour? Who can say? The man in the orange jumpsuit kneeling, it seems, a news ticker crawling across the floor of his death chamber. Over him looms a brace of men in masks. Shouts of glory. A banner. The A-man waves his finger in judgement as he shouts from a sheet of A4 – words of power, a ritual. He declares year zero, or some such, in a language I don't understand, and now here he comes again in his almost skilled, but not quite certain, way. He hasn't done this before; he is always doing it for the first time. He topples over the still-living man, the one who has given his name, then draws out a blade. Now here is the flinch and freeze frame, the blade at the almost-dead man's throat.
Two hundred and forty frames. Fragments in a bleak corner as the man in orange begins his long forgetting. Here, where I am, the whole proscenium of death is whittled down to just this moment of terrible anticipation in the few seconds between the rigid blade being drawn behind the man's turned back and what I guess is his first sense that he is about to die. I know he is to die before he does. Of course, his death has already happened. This is not a live syndicated telecast with six-second delay. Still, the terror remains. The terror is in the flinch of the frames, it is their sudden disruption that shouts loudest amongst the voices in the chamber. In that flinch I can feel it – even the camera operator is shocked by what he sees. I know some of his epiphany, that sudden ecstatic revelation of his power to murder this man a billion times over – or are there more television sets than that in the world? I can imagine the math.
I try to imagine that face hidden in the eye of the camera, the eye that is watching, composing, framing what I see. I try to weigh it up, to feel its shape, but it conceals itself better than any man in a mask. Perhaps the camera operator senses his place in the line of succession from Zapruder to the news camera bomber who went off in the face of Masood to the Naudet brothers wandering through the World Trade Center as it burned over their heads. The camera as instrument of murder – a multiplier of terror. Unknowable faces.
Now here comes the bit that gets me. What follows, says the grave news narrator, is too gruesome to show. They all say it. What follows then is the words that take its place. It is the words that make the scene so terrible. The orthodoxy says that writing, narrating, is freedom – that storytelling is at heart the most noble act of humanity, of civilisation. But this story, these words, do not illuminate the darkness; they are left to stew in the imagination as abstract ghosts brewing the elixir of death.
I SIT UP, forgetting to watch the television for the first time since waking (did I really sleep?). My whistle-smooth neck in the mirror comes as a surprise. I arrived late, ill. This is not the version of me I expected to see. No, I am too neat altogether.
Out of bed now, I shake off the wet sackcloth of sleep. It is then, as I put weight on my feet and become aware of my body for the first time, my knees shinboning, that I sense my nakedness. I straighten my body and catch sight of my face in the mirror again. I step back to get a full look at myself. My body is clean, white like a lamp. My chin sags a little, my breasts hang across to my armpits; my gut is tense, but threatens to collapse over my pelvis. I scan for some clothes. There are none I can see.
The phone rings. I stare at it for a moment, its red bead of light wriggling on and off in concert with the pulse. Something for the benefit of the deaf. I'm not sure I want to answer it. Finally I pick up and listen for its voice to speak to me.
It is a woman. She is speaking a language I don't quite recognise. Italian maybe, with a delicious nasal, almost throaty accent and a slight lisp that recalls the Spanish dominance of the peninsula. I translate her words as I hear them. Then silence again. Mine. I am about to speak when I realise that I don't quite know what I want to say.
"Hello?" she says again, but in English this time.
I cannot speak. My words won't come. I put down the receiver and sit on the bed again. Perhaps I should call back to ask where I am. No. Is that a question a sane man asks a hotel receptionist? But then is this a hotel? It could be a hospital. A private suite where the dead come to sink into their pillows for the last time. Hotel. Hospitality. Hospital. Hospice. The dead or the mad. I am ill. Terribly ill. Terrified.
I need clothes. A pair of trousers must be around here somewhere. I tear the covers off the bed, feel under it, scrabble through the cupboards and drawers but there is nothing. Not a scrap. Not even a bag. I rip back the curtain. Still no clothes, but something else, something that suddenly interests me a whole lot more than the clothes – the world outside.
Of course, what I see is nothing more than the skyline of a city: a vast expanse of dawn-streaked sky, punctuated by the irregular beat of its buildings – some square and squat, others great shadowy oblongs. I open the window and step out on to the balcony. Even though I must be twenty flights up, the wind breathes warm over my naked skin. At my feet, a great crossroads squirms, a squish of small citizens who argue the space blindly with an endless column of cars and buses. On the horizon, at one end of the great boulevard, the sun is a fat gold disc, reflecting a web of roads that spans out across the flats; in the other direction, the road trails off into the half of the city still bathing in the shades of night. I am midway between light and dark, where the world is largest.
The city is a kind of London. Palaces of sorts. Parks. Squares. With a quiet kind of order that imposes itself on a great patchwork of advertising images – women's barely covered breasts, silver cars, flat-screen televisions, words colourful to the eye, but dull to the heart, electric, painted, carved; a great illumination, carefully rendered by some strange monk in his cold scriptorium, warmed by the electric vision of human possibility. Perhaps, like the scriptures made light, it is a copy – a city I know, with modifications and original additions. But really, as far as I know, this world, this metropolis outside my window, might be so new that it was only built this morning, just before I opened the curtain.
Truly, I do not know where I am. I forget my own soul. Perhaps I am the Italian the woman had expected to speak to, but have just forgotten. Maybe she looked up my name on the register – of patients? of guests? – and read a row of double-Ts, its Is and As and simply guessed. This sickness of self has emptied me. Perhaps I am the Italian. Perhaps not.
Then, for no good reason, I shudder – the recall of an utter loss of sensuality. It is the same glad jolt of recognition I feel under the shower, when suddenly a dream player strides across the stage, speaks a word then a moment later falls away. Death made small. I let it go; soft my eyes shut; the warm summer air over my skin, the hummed shouts and drones of the city. A word, the name of this sickness. I can half mouth it. I'm close; a picture comes to mind. A touch. Grass. Water. Sunshine. Real things.
It is gone.
I COME OFF the balcony to a woman in the doorway, standing almost to attention in a uniform that is, if not quite military, then at least boyish – high-necked androgyny. She slips into a blush, then giggles. I can't work out why, then I remember my nakedness. I cover myself with my hands. The girl sweeps in with her trolley, trying not to look at me, still holding back a smile. The impression of the uniform has bent my perception; this is no soldier in file, there is no discipline in her heart. When she takes the tray off the trolley and sets it down on the small dressing table, she cannot help but snort out her amusement. "Your eggs, Sir," she says, stuffing the laugh back behind her teeth. I make for the bathroom and take a robe, tying it around me. I hear the clink of cup and saucer.
"Have you seen the television?" I call to her. "That poor fellow."
It is a terrible moment. Not just the girl's laughter at my nakedness and my attendant shame, but also the way I have used the murder, that brutal beheading of a man, to circumvent the entire sweep of awkwardness. I am offended that someone, a woman so pretty, should find it necessary to laugh – not feel aroused or at least menaced – but to laugh at my nakedness. Even worse, her apologetic self-denial means she understands the volume of her malice. I wish she had laughed out loud. I would have had reason then to make an issue of it to her. To complain that she hadn't knocked. That I hadn't even ordered room service. That this was a gross invasion of privacy, a disturbance of my small happy balance out on the balcony. But I know this is unreasonable, because things are as they should be. I am an image to her of a more weighty, almost sexless age. She has every right to tip the scales in favour of her youth, her ascendancy.
"I haven't seen a thing," she says. "What poor fellow?"
I wish I hadn't mentioned it now. Now I will have to make her see the
image I don't want her to see. "A man," I say, "was murdered."
"That's nothing new."
"Yes, but he had his head cut off."
"Oh! Terrible! Where did they find the body?"
"It hasn't been found."
"Then how do they know what happened?"
I emerge from the bathroom. The robe, I think, affords me fresh dignity. It
is white and whole. A cassock. A religious garment under whose threads I assume other names, new powers.
"A video," I say. "They made a video."
It is enough to make the girl shudder. The tray rattles as she sets it down on the small table.
"Did I order something? I don't remember ordering anything."
She takes a slip of paper from the pocket over her breast.
"The order is here. I don't take the order. I just bring the order."
"Here, show me."
I reach out and she hands the slip to me. I brush her finger unnecessarily as I take it. She doesn't notice the touch so much, more the attention, no more than a glance that I've paid the slim gold band on her finger. Without a doubt I am flirting. There is a will in me to remind her that I am not to be laughed at, though the shame of that is fading. The slip of paper bears a company logo, a hotel chain whose name I do not recognise. I don't see the name of a city anywhere.
"Well eggs might do me good," I say. "I'm not feeling so well this morning. I'm sorry if I caused you any embarrassment before. You caught me unawares."
There, I've taken hold of the situation. Made the thing that seemed an accident and unmentionable appear again. The image of me naked must now appear to her on my terms, without surprise, as something reasonable.
"There's coffee here too," she says, already pouring. "You look like you need it. Anyway, it happens quite a lot here when you go into people's rooms. You'd be surprised by the things I see."
She looks up from the coffee, steam softening her face. I resist asking the question about the things she has seen, but I let it appear silently in my smile. I won't let her name them. I don't want to go that far. I am sure now that she has felt the new balance between us and that this is some simple flirting as well. She wants me to ask her if these things made her blush. I lift the lid on the tray. Eggs. Two, soft boiled, in cups, with fingers of buttery toast on a plate. I salivate. A Pavlovian surge.
"Well this certainly looks like mine," I say.
"Then all you need to do is sign for it."
I pad the robe. It is pocketless. I make the international sign for pen by swishing my hand in the air. She has one ready. Now here I must make the mark that proves who I am. Have I already left my signature behind on something? I can't imagine that I was coherent when I came in. I can only wonder if I was brought here by someone else, senseless, blind. I hesitate, then make the uncertain mark, a tight curl of writing, somewhere between initials and a small portrait, fold the paper and press it into her hand.
"Tell me," I say. "Do you know how I came in here last night? What state I was in? I'm afraid I don't remember much."
"No I don't. I wasn't on last night. Why? Has something happened?"
"I'm not sure," I say. "Perhaps it has."
"Sorry," she says. "I can't help." She turns away and, as her straight little body moves away so that the hotel seems to pivot around her, my eyes don't leave her for a moment. She backs out of the doorway and pulls the door to. I wonder if she has unfolded the paper.
SHE LEAVES WITH me images of those things she has stumbled upon in other rooms. I try to place her in them, but she is too deep in uniform. I imagine the possibilities. Combinations of men and women, naked mostly; pornographic scenes I have seen before and try to reconstruct. The permutations arouse me to desire first and then to disgust, because soon I am also imagining crimes, unspeakable horrors. Sex and death together. Suicide. Torture. Events unrecorded, best left to another imagination. I crack the tops off the eggs and into them I dip the thin slices of toast the room service woman has left behind.
Still in my robe, I draw up a place at the desk and turn on the computer. I search for images to disrupt the flow of sore and desperate possibilities in my unruly imagination. Regular pornographic scenes – images of people in sex, their bodies splayed, filled, swallowed, engulfed. I flinch from the images of scared-looking women backed into corners, as if they have been poked into place with a sharp stick. That dull word comes to mind – consensual. The senses working together. I want to find something authentic. I imagine the women as libertines, free and easy with having their bodies sexed; women about whom I can suppose that what they are doing to the smooth men and women who join with them, they would also do to me. I quarantine the deeper knowledge that, really, I don't know anything about them, that between the image and the experience there is a gap of universal proportions. I imagine the room service woman again. I fix on images of women who look like her. Short, dark hair, a boyish body.
Then, somewhere between the image, the feeling in my body and my imagination, she appears. Has she knocked? No matter, she is already inside, the image consecrated. I am still facing the screen. She runs her fingers through my hair, bending over my body, wordless before the knots of bodies in threads pink, black and red on the screen. She wants to be one of those bodies for me. I stand and move to the bed. She releases the top few buttons on her uniform, then takes the slip of paper out from the breast pocket of the coat and hands it back to me. I read it. Where I thought I had signed my name is a single word. It is an incitement, a provocation, a seduction. Unrepeatable. She clasps my head in her hands, the grip so tight I am afraid she will rip my hair out. I do not flinch though, because she presses her mouth into mine, her tongue squeezed into a hard tip. In a moment her uniform jacket unbuttons to her skin, she pants into my ear, muttering the word. We crumple across the sheets. In my mind's eye we become the picture. The picture becomes us. I want her as a picture. I want her. Her. Picture.
When it comes, the flight of the image from the feeling in my body is swift. The synaesthetic weld between the image and my body evaporates, the haptic vision having played itself out. The image becomes the image again, small, insubstantial, and my body is dulled, like a church become an apartment block, its architecture now uncertain of its own purpose. I mourn the loss of the scene; the haze settles again, back from its flight into taboo.
Spent now, I doze. The feeling comes upon me again. That knowledge of the thing in me that is real. It is a memory. Not just one of these images. It is desire – real, remembered desire. The slim bodies of a man and woman. The man watches the woman against a window illuminated by the slow California sunset that moves from white to gold and somewhere, as the moment moves on outdoors, the warmth of a fine spray of golden water across both their bodies as they embrace in cool laughter with deep green grass curling and springing like a mattress under their toes and heels. I see places – the Alhambra and its music; the giant pincer of Europe and North Africa closing in the same way it opens, the places where all its people come together. Here are the woman and man again, still, on the edge of a marvellous reflecting pool. I sleep and remember this desire. I remember love. I remember the man and the woman and know that they are the centre of this desire. That no matter the place, the love is the same. I sleep and remember love and desire. I sleep and cling to life, to the knowledge that I will not let it go. That my soul's illness will not crush it.
I WAKE TO an orange flicker, and for a moment am afraid that the room has caught fire. But no, the television is still beaming in the corner of the room. There he is again, that man with so little life in him, the trivia of presidents and prices at his knees. He troubles me. I want to know whether he struggled, or if he went passively to his death. This is what lies beyond the flinch of the frames. This is what the newsreaders do not describe. Did the man have enough dignity left to resist? In that last moment, when he knew that the blade was on his throat, did he at least kick away? I want to kick with him, to feel in my body what he felt as his body was held down.
At the computer again, I type a phrase into the search engine: the name of the man in orange, and another word. Uncut.
I am surprised by how quickly I find it. A page with a new link to the video of the man's decapitation, his blinding. I click on it. The media player pops open and I catch a breath; the thrill of the ugly truth rises in the buffer and then the play. And here it is. There are titles in a script I cannot read; abstractions of sound and image that belong to another alphabetical empire. Then the man in orange appears, giving his name. It runs for longer than is played out on the news. Without the watermarks and market movements the video looks cleaner, less cluttered, closer to something authentic. But the frames still have that low-res digital flicker. Here again is the sentence being read over the man. Here is the blade, the man is pushed, the camera jumps a little. I come to the moment that I've seen on the news, to what I have calculated as the 240th frame. I click on pause. I have to make a choice. Do I watch what is coming or not? I remember the first pornographic picture I ever saw when I was seven. My friend had found it in his father's hidden laundry stash. A naked man and woman, standing, kissing, the man's erection standing between them, like an alien body. It didn't strike me as strange or titillating. It was only what it was. Something that before then had been hidden, secret, made plain. After I see these images now of a man losing his head, will I always watch images of men being murdered with the same indifference with which I make my way through pornography? What will I feel in my body?
There is another knock at the door. I click off the program and wait a moment, to let the knock come again and then for her to enter the room with her key. The smart girl in the uniform. She addresses me by name now, formally, with the Italian Signor. She makes a small gesture with her hand. I notice the ring is missing.
"Your bag has arrived," she hums, pointing to a case on the bell-hop trolley. It is green, soft. On the handle is an airline tag. So I have a life after all. I am not empty. Here lies the proof. Beside the bag is a black video camera case.
"Is this mine as well?" I ask her.
"I guess so," she says. "They just came in a taxi from the airport."
"Do you know which flight they were on?"
"No, I don't. The tags say Rome. They must have come from Rome, Signor."
Her formality tells me that she has either realised my true status – whatever that might be – or that she has already half forgotten me, or at least my shame and our candour. In any case, it is only right that she should forget me. Her place is not to remember me. I must bear the weight of remembering myself. It is how I will come back to myself, with the notes played in the songs of others who must make sense of me. People pointing out the obvious – that my bags came from Rome. That it is my video case. My title is Signor. The girl holds out another slip of paper. I sign it this time with my name as it is. Strong, fat letters.
She lifts the green bag from the trolley and hands it to me. I measure its weight: something inside is heavier than clothes, or books. Its weight shifts, rolls maybe, into one end of the bag. I carry it over to the bed. The girl stays at the door. She's waiting to hand me the camera case.
"You wanted to know," she says, "about how you came in here last night. I asked. They say you were like a madman. Not screaming or half-conscious. But your madness was in your silence. As if you had seen death."
I take the case, and then she is gone again. The same exit. A performance. The Pivot.
I RETURN TO the computer and try to find the link, but it is gone. I find another one. They fade and rise again, warlike. I open it. But this time the video looks different. I can't say how. I see something I missed before. The man in the video looks compliant somehow. I struggle through the disgust, the anticipation of what I am about to see in order to overcome the ghosts brewing that elixir of death, those words. I come to the frames. They unfold and as the knife is plunged in I swallow and flinch. But when I stare at the man, the blade moving deeper and deeper, and rewind across the cut, back and forward looking for his own flinch, I realise with utter certainty that there is nothing to see. The man falls. The video ends. It is simple to see. The man was not alive. There was no struggle. He was already dead, or he was no man at all. A fake.
I open the video camera case and plug the machine into the television. There is a tape already in the camera. I rewind it and press play. Images flicker past. A family in a kitchen with a birthday cake for a child, a giraffe and elephant at the zoo. No message for me. Nothing I remember. Then it comes. I see it as I have remembered it, from the same point of view. I am the third person. I see the slim bodies of a man and woman. The man watches the woman against a window illuminated by the slow California sunset that moves from white to gold and somewhere, as the moment moves on outdoors, the warmth of a fine spray of golden water across both their bodies as they embrace in cool laughter with deep green grass curling and springing like a mattress under their toes and heels.
This is the name of my terror. It is the terror of the images I have seen. It is my soul-illness. I am the man behind the video camera. Just another man, forgetful of his own place in the world, remembering himself, imagining love, wishing for blindness.