Authors: Richard Rider
by Richard Rider
Ebook Edition | Copyright
2014 Richard Rider
All rights reserved.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Cover image by
John T. Fuller
, who is to blame for most things.
Sorry I called you a pampered little catamite who sells his arse for fancy suits.
December 7th, 1843
My dearest Miss Mitford, do you know anything about that wonderful invention of the day, called the Daguerrotype?—that is, have you seen any portraits produced by means of it? Think of a man sitting down in the sun & leaving his facsimile in all its full completion of outline & shadow, stedfast on a plate, at the end of a minute & a half!!– The Mesmeric disembodiment of spirits strikes one as a degree less marvellous. And several of these wonderful portraits .. like engravings—only exquisite & delicate beyond the work of graver—have I seen lately—longing to have such a memorial of every Being dear to me in the world. It is not merely the likeness which is precious in such cases—but the association, & the sense of nearness involved in the thing .. the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed for ever!– It is the very sanctification of portraits I think—and it is not at all monstrous in me to say what my brothers cry out against so vehemently, .. that I wd rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest Artist's work ever produced. I do not say so in respect (or disrespect) to Art, but for Love's sake. Will you understand? even if you will not agree?–
It was a warm spring day when I met Archie, and it happened by chance.
There was an accident, some kind of collision, which broke a stranger's carriage and sent his horse galloping down Shaftesbury Avenue and into Great Windmill Street with a splintered strut of wood piercing its flank, running full tilt at Mr Ralph Everett who just happened to be crossing the road outside his photography studio at that precise moment. If it hadn't been for the accident, and if Mr Everett had gone for a walk only five minutes earlier or later than he did—
"We would have met anyway," Archie always said, but then Archie always did believe in miracles.
I could hear Mr Everett's voice outside, and curiosity made me take up the cloth I kept behind the counter and step closer to the window in the pretence of rubbing away a smear. From there I could hear better, and see a bit as well, although the queer angle at which the people were standing meant that Mr Everett's wide back and gesticulating arms were hiding the person he was addressing almost entirely from view.
"I must give you some money," I heard Mr Everett say, and saw him extend his arm to the other person – a young man, I could see now, wearing a cap and a shabby coat – and clap him on the shoulder like a friend.
"I don't want any money, sir."
"My dear boy, I simply must reward you – here, I've a sov and half a crown, do take it."
"Honest, sir, I don't want a reward, I didn't do anything."
"Didn't do anything!" At this, I hastily began rubbing at the window glass again to cover my eavesdropping as Mr Everett turned and opened the door to the shop, arm firmly around the shoulders of the young stranger and ushering him inside to stand before the counter. "Tell me, Jim, do you know who this is?"
I wondered whether I was supposed to know, or this was just Mr Everett's penchant for the theatrical making itself known again. I decided to play along, as I usually did; it seemed to please the old man, and besides it bought me some time to study the stranger and try to recall whether we had ever met.
"I'm not sure, sir. Is it Lillie Langtry in disguise, perhaps, or could it be Prince Christian, run away from school to mingle with us commoners?"
At that the stranger gave a smile, surprised and amused, when up until now he had only looked uncomfortable. I smiled back; it was the kind of grin one had to respond to in kind, wide and open like a book of pictures, and Mr Everett laughed out loud. His was a booming, contrived sort of sound that always made me think of footlights and velvet curtains.
"Better, I'd say. This is my guardian angel."
"Really, sir? Where are his wings? And he doesn't have a halo. I think you're being taken for a fool, sir, if this charlatan's calling himself an angel."
Looking back on it with a romantic's eye, he did have a halo of sorts; the light overhead made his bronze hair glow gold, soft tumbling little
of it that framed his face beneath his cap and made him look like something from the walls of the Royal Academy, some pretty model masquerading as Narcissus and painted in oils. He had flecked green eyes with lashes as long as a girl's, and that smile was still present on his lips, crooked and lovely, when he spoke.
"My wings get dusty in the street, sir, I keep them folded in a hat box at home while I'm out in town."
Again Mr Everett laughed, but this time he sounded like he meant it, delighted and entirely charmed by the game. "I've been trying to get him to take some reward, but angels are stubborn blighters – if you'll excuse me saying so," he added to the stranger, who lifted his shoulders and looked, baffled, at me, as if to say
I don't know what's happening and I'd like you to help
, but Mr Everett went on before I could try. "My name is Ralph Everett, this is my studio, this is James Sinnett, my assistant. If you're not Prince Christian or Mrs Langtry then who on earth are you, and how will you let me thank you?"
"Wilkes," the supposed guardian angel said as he took off the dusty cap he was wearing. "Archie Wilkes, human being. Sorry to disappoint."
"Mr Wilkes!" Mr Everett took hold of his free hand and shook it enthusiastically between both of his own. "So now I know the name of my saviour and he knows the name of his grateful watchee. Will you take that sovereign now?"
"Mr Everett," I interrupted to spare Mr Wilkes from dodging away again, "what happened?"
"A horse, Jim, a great mad black beast trailing half a broken carriage behind itself and foaming at the mouth, red-eyed and shrieking like something from Dante. If Mr Wilkes here hadn't pulled me out of the road I would have been meat for the crows, yet still he refuses my reward."
"Maybe he's just happy he could help, sir."
"That's what I've been trying to say!" Mr Wilkes – forgive me, I can't call him anything but Archie – looked at me in thanks and then back to Mr Everett, apparently trying to remove his hand from Mr Everett's grasp without appearing rude. "Honest, sir, anybody standing close enough would have done the same. I'm glad you're not hurt, that's worth more than a coin."
"Then at least let me replace that coat," Mr Everett said, holding Archie away from him with a hand on his shoulder and the other indicating a missing button and a threadbare place in one of the sleeve seams. "You must be stronger than you look, lad, to have pulled me back with enough force to tear your coat."
He always meant well, I knew, but Mr Everett could be awfully stupid sometimes. I noticed the way Archie's face flushed slightly at the words and the way his bottom lip disappeared between his nibbling teeth, and before even a second had passed I cocked my head at the doorway behind the counter and quietly said, "Follow me," to give him an excuse to escape.
The corridor was dim, lit only by a lamp turned down low. Mr Everett liked to keep the building lit as softly as possible so we could keep our eyes trained for work in the darkroom. I thought for a moment that Archie might not follow me, but he was only taking a moment to say goodbye and thank you to Mr Everett and then his footsteps sounded on the tiles behind me, tapping quickly to catch up. Neither of us spoke until we had entered the studio room at the back of the building and I had closed the door behind us, then Archie blew his breath out in a sigh that was embarrassed and aggravated all at once, looking at me with those same feelings in his expression mingled with hurt pride.
"Mr Sinnett, you know I never ripped my coat when I helped Mr Everett. You don't have to give me nothing."
"We've plenty spare, though." I led him to the shelves fixed to the wall at the back of the room, where clothes of every kind were neatly folded in piles and organised by size and item. "You're welcome to one. I know he's a bit overpowering but he feels it strongly when he's helped by someone, he wants to return the favour."
I looked Archie up and down, top to toe, and made a guess at his size – a little smaller than me, but taller and slightly broader in the shoulders than the young man whose photograph I had taken that morning – then chose a coat and held it out.
"You don't have to, of course. But since you did save him from being trampled by a horse from hell—"
I saw Archie's mouth lift up in that crooked half-smile again as he wavered and finally relented, taking the coat from me and beginning to unbutton his own so he could change. I turned to give him some privacy, finding things to tidy around the room.
"How come you got all these clothes back here?" he asked from behind me. "I bet you don't see this many suits in a tailor's, and you're photographers?"
It was half a truth when I told him, "Mr Everett used to be on the stage. We do a lot of work with the theatres, taking pictures for playbills, things like that. They're costumes really. He hires them out to music hall acts." The full truth... I wasn't sure whether Archie would have accepted the coat at all if he knew the full truth.
"Too bad I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, ain't it?" I saw a movement from the corner of my eye and turned to look at him again as he put his cap back on and folded his torn jacket over his arm. "Thank you for your kindness, Mr Sinnett. I best be on my way, my old man must be wondering where I got to."
But Mr Everett accosted him again as he was heading back through the corridor to the front door, poking his head out from his office door and calling, "Mr Wilkes, a word if you would?" and again I loitered outside the door to listen. I heard Mr Everett ask whether he could read and write, and Archie's slightly indignant
in reply; then the bell above the front door rang and I was obliged to go and see to a customer. By the time I had found the lady's photographs and taken her money, Archie was gone and Mr Everett was standing by looking pleased with himself.
"I gave that boy a job," he announced proudly after the lady had left, as though impressed by his own generosity and charity.
"As long as it's not
"Dear me, no. There's room for all of us in this old place, eh?"
He wandered off back to his office humming some old tune from his music-hall days and I watched him go, amused by his sham nonchalance. He thought he could fool me but he never could; I had known him long enough now, every one of my twenty-two years, to understand his bumbling, cheerful, rather uncouth ways, and the fondness he had for people he found interesting, or thought he could polish like diamonds.
I also knew he believed I was lonely and ought to spend more time with young men than I did with myself and my books and the giggling prostitutes with whom we worked at night.
I suppose that one backfired on him. This is a memoir of love, after all.
I saw nothing of Archie until the next morning, when he was sitting
on the front doorstep as I came to unlock the studio door. He hopped to his feet when he saw me, as excitable as a rabbit, and we wished each other good morning and went inside. There he stood by the counter looking about him until I checked my watch – not quite opening time yet – and said, "Would you like me to show you around?"
"I ain't – I mean," he said quickly, correcting himself, "I'm not working in here, I don't think. Mr Everett only said about deliveries."
"He says that to everyone. The last person he hired for deliveries ended up taking photographs within a week."
"Does he still work here?"
"No, he got the sack when Mr Everett caught him pilfering money from the till."
"I'd never!" He was looking straight at me when he spoke, suddenly as proud and fierce as a Bengal tiger. "I know I don't speak nice or dress nice but I ain't a thief or a layabout or anything bad you might want to think of me." He didn't seem to notice the lapse back into his normal vernacular in his sincerity, which somehow made me trust him completely: it was a moment of unguarded honesty, and I could never quite explain to Mr Everett later exactly why it
touched me. I found myself smiling at him, and after a moment he smiled back, looking rather sheepish about his outburst.
"It's been just the two of us for some time now. I'm glad of your company, Mr Wilkes."
"I'm just glad I ain't having to hammer shoes no more," he said, following me as I headed into the corridor that led to Mr Everett's office. "My dad's a cobbler, I been helping him since I was a boy, but Lord ain't it dull!"
"This can be dull too," I told him, gesturing
him to go ahead of me through the door at the end of the corridor; behind it the floor remained level for another six feet or so and then became a narrow staircase leading down to where the kitchen used to be when the building was a house, now mostly used for storage. One of our two darkrooms was in the old scullery; the high little windows were painted black, and overlapping walls set four feet apart, one behind the other, replaced the door to trap the light and keep it outside. "There's a lot of biting your tongue. 'Mr Smith, do try not to blink this time, you've looked blind on every single portrait I've ever taken of you' and 'Mrs Jones, could you possibly keep your baby from flapping its arms like an angry swan?' And every portrait is the same old motions as before, the same stance, same methods, every day."
"Don't you like it?"
I loved it. I couldn't imagine a job that would make me happier. It was like magic, alchemy, something from Verne come to life; but I was wary of speaking
as reverently as I
, fearing the irrational impatience and disbelief I always felt when other people were not as captivated as I.
"I like it very much," I said cautiously, "but I daresay you enjoyed making your first shoe, when it was
still new. One can tire of anything if it's repeated enough times."
* * *
I remembered that pronouncement now and then over the next few weeks, and in my more belligerent moments called myself a liar: Archie was one thing I never, ever tired of. As the days passed we began to feel more comfortable in one another's company, then began to learn things about one another as though we had been friends for years. We abandoned the
and became simply Wilkes and Sinnett. He showed me how to tie dozens of intricate, decorative knots in pieces of the string we used to tie up parcels of photographs, learned from his grandfather who used to work on a boat on the Thames. I taught him how to fit the plates into the cameras, how to take pictures, how not to jump when the flash powders burst into brilliance in front of him. He showed me card games I had never heard of and how to tumble a shilling over my knuckles. I told him we could no longer be friends unless he read Jules Verne and Mary Shelley and could answer any question of microscopic insignificance that I put to him, which to his credit he managed better than Mr Everett ever did.
Our friendship was something that revealed itself to me quickly, page by thrilling page, as though I were reading it in a novel I couldn't put down; but love, when it crept up on me, was insidious and sly like a disease borne in the air from his lungs to mine. I breathed him in and felt clumsy and foolish, as though I talked too much or too loudly or not enough, and then hot and giddy, as though my collar tightened an inch or two every time he came into the darkroom when I was already working there.
This is all in hindsight, of course. I folded my love up tight and tucked it away, unexamined and ignored, until the night of Archie's first private photograph session – then it took flight, and it soared.