Getting the Picture

Sarah Salway

Our second Dean Street Press extract is from the third novel by Sarah Salway, a creative writing teacher who has also published volumes of short stories, poetry and non-fiction. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a previous Canterbury Laureate and Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Getting the Picture by Sarah Salway

Once Upon a Time

The studio was just a room over a newsagent’s shop.

When her friend had told her about a photographer she’d met at a nightclub and what he’d asked her to do, Maureen begged to be allowed to come too. She’d pictured something different— lots of mirrors with those Hollywood lightbulbs around them; walls of purple or red suede; jazz music playing in the background; strange beautiful men and women smoking long cigarettes as they lounged on uncomfortable furniture. Maybe even a lion cub like the one in the photograph of an American film star she’d seen in a magazine once.

No lions here. The only other person in the room was the photographer and he was far more interested in fiddling around with the equipment than talking to them. First of all, he placed these huge white umbrellas on the bare floorboards to surround what she presumed was the set, a chair placed on white pieces of paper laid out on the floor. There were several colored blankets, which the photographer draped up against the white plastered walls. One corner was curtained off.

“You can undress in there,” he told Pat. “There’s a gown hanging up for you to slip into.”

Maureen wanted to follow, but there wasn’t enough room behind the curtains for two so she stayed outside. She walked over to the photographs pinned up on the wall until she registered they were all of naked women and looked away quickly. The photographer had his back to her; he was putting on a record now, blowing at it first to remove some imaginary dust. Her husband did that. But then there was a screech as the photographer cleaned the needle with his fingers. Her husband definitely didn’t do that. The grainy voice of Elvis Presley sang out. Maureen knew she was supposed to love him, all her friends did, but there was something animal about him that frightened her.

At least the photographer was small. Small and young, and a bit shabby in his blue sweater and jeans. If the worse came to the worst, she and Pat would be able to overpower him between them. She went back to the curtain and tugged on it, hissing, to get her friend’s attention.

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Maureen asked.

I’ve got a fever, Elvis sang from the other corner.

“You bet. It’ll be a laugh,” Pat called out. Her voice was muffled, as if her dress was covering her mouth. Which it would be if she really was getting undressed. “Are you sure you don’t want to have a go?”

Maureen grimaced. “Not me. I can just imagine what my old man would say. He’d be bound to find out, although—”

At the thought of George buying the sort of magazine thesephotographs would appear in, Maureen burst into giggles. The port and lemon must be kicking in.

“We are naughty being here,” she said.

When no response came, she went back to stare at the wall of photographs. The women in them looked so happy, as if they lived in a different land from the one she knew. A happy- women land where no shopping needed to be done, no children needed looking after, no men to moan at or to chase, no chores to never quite catch up on. One woman wore a beret, long dangly diamond earrings and a necklace, thick black stockings, high heels, but nothing else. The trumpet she was playing covered nearly everything. Another was on a swing, her head back, neck arched toward a window that seemed familiar. Maureen looked around the studio curiously, and yes, there was the swing hanging from the corner
beam. She hadn’t been in a kiddies’ playground for years. Her daughter, Nell, was still a bit young for that, but she used to love going on the swing herself. George was more of a slide man, a brisk up and down, but Maureen had always liked the gentle to and fro, the way you could watch the clouds drift over you, never sure if it were you or them moving.

She tried to sway with the music. At home, they normally listened to singers her husband preferred, ones like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Pat said it was because George was frightened you could get arrested from listening to the new bands like the Beatles. Although Maureen laughed at the way Pat imitated George—“where will it end?”—it wasn’t fair, really. Pat was free so she could do what she wanted, even go to the America she was always rattling on about. George had her and the baby to look after.

“So, Blondie, you don’t fancy being a model, then?”

She twirled around to find the photographer behind her, a camera slung around his neck. His name was Martin, although Pat said they should call him Mart. That felt a bit informal to Maureen. Overfriendly. He had a nice smile and an easy manner but there was something about the way he was looking at her now that made her want to take a step back.

“I’m a mother.” She made a strange grimace, trying to make a joke of it to show she was comfortable being there. “Who’d want to see me naked?”

She surprised herself by not mentioning what her husband might say this time. But what shocked her more was her disappointment when Martin didn’t disagree with her. He just nodded, turned toward the curtain and started calling, “Trisha, Trisha, come out, my lovely girl, my Camberwell beauty, my pearly queen,” gently, almost caressingly, so that when Pat did come out, a red silk gown wrapped tightly around her, laughing, pinkcheeked, Maureen saw her friend had already turned into one of the happy- women- land- women of the photographs. Pat sat down on the chair with the aplomb of someone who did this sort of thing regularly. The photographer went over and draped a red blanket over the chair, standing back and then adjusting it some more. He handed Pat a book.

“Do you want to slip the gown halfway off your shoulders, and pretend to be reading?” he asked, but Pat looked straight across at her. She didn’t seem embarrassed though, as Maureen would have been in her situation.

“My friend, Mo, doesn’t approve,” Pat said, still staring at Maureen, the gown slipping off one shoulder. She exaggerated the “Mo” because it was the name Maureen had said she’d use if she ever plucked up courage to have her photograph taken. Pat said she’d be Trisha, because it was the one shortening of her name her mother had always hated. “It took several drinks just to get her here,” Pat continued, “and now she’s looking at me as if she’s not stopped sucking the lemon.”

“Pat! That’s not fair.”

“Not everyone can have a body like yours.” Martin ignored Maureen and leaned in toward Pat. “You’re peachy, Trisha. Like Venus. That’s what I want to catch, that look of yours, just as if you’re going to put down the book, stand up, hold out your hand and take me to your bedroom. Go on. Show me what it would be like to be the luckiest man alive.”

Maureen stomped over to the alcove and drew the curtain across sharply. After she’d brushed Pat’s clothes off the chair, she sat down to wait. The studio could do with a good sweep and clean. And she’d bet the woman in the photograph didn’t really know how to play the trumpet. She put her foot out and placed it on Pat’s minidress, smiling when she saw the dusty footprint it left. It was too short for Pat anyway, with her porky legs. From the other side of the curtain, she could hear the chatter, the occasional burst of laughter, the scraping of the chair as it was moved around and, as if underlining it all, the click- click- click of the lens. Maureen lifted her legs off the ground and held them in front of her, imagining she was on the swing. She arched her back, took out her clips and felt the weight of her long hair as she let her head drop. Then she sat up again and ran her open palms
down her body, feeling where her hipbones still jutted and her breasts were still firm, even after having a child. But she couldn’t stop thinking that no matter how many times George might say he appreciated her, luck wouldn’t play any part in his thoughts. She was his wife, the bed thing just part of the marriage contract.

She heard Pat giggle again. An annoying high- pitched titter that she’d never noticed before but she knew would grate on her nerves now. She should never have come. Pat hadn’t even particularly wanted her to. She was just full of Mart, Mart, Mart. Martin printed his own magazines, apparently. Sold them to newsagents like the one downstairs who kept them under the counter. There was a huge market. Photographs of women for men to dream about, but Pat said everything was done nicely. And apparently, he was going to make films. He had contacts. He’d told Pat she could be a film star if the photographs turned out well. She’d go to her precious America even. Mart, Mart, Mart.

Maureen peered into the mirror. Under her thick fringe, she could make out a white tense face and shoulders rising up to meet her ears. Maybe it wasn’t a reflection to inspire dreams, but she was still young, wasn’t she? What with looking after George and Nell, she forgot that sometimes. She thought about the photographer’s eyes. They’d been gray, that unusual color that made you think of the British seaside. She’d noticed them when he stared right into her eyes while they were talking. He hadn’t looked down at her chest or over her shoulder as men normally did.

She heard Pat laughing again, and Martin was saying something about it being a good shoot, she was a good model, the best model, a sweetheart of a girl.

Maureen drew back the curtains and stepped out into the studio. Pat had the gown wrapped tightly around her, and the photographer was stooped over the camera, his back toward them.

“You can take my picture now if you want,” Maureen said roughly. “Not naked though. And if Pat hasn’t used up all the film in the camera, of course.”

Martin put his head to one side and stared at her. Pat did her giggle again as she walked past to the changing cubicle. But Maureen stood still, unsmiling, chin raised, hands fisted by her thighs. She waited until she heard the swish of the curtain behind Pat.

“Just one, mind,” Maureen said. “And you have to take it as I am. I’m not taking my clothes off.”

He lifted the camera, put it to his eye and clicked. Then he reached across and with the lightest touch of his fingertips, he ran them across her cheekbone, backward and forward. A butterfly kiss.

“Mo, is it?” he asked, and she nodded. For some reason, she wanted to cry. “You’re a beautiful woman, Mo,” he said.

“That’s what you say to all the girls, Martin,” Pat called oufrom behind the curtain. “But we love you for it.” Maureen winced as she waited for the giggle.

Martin shook his head, and put one finger against Maureen’s lips so she couldn’t say anything. She raised her hand to his, as if to keep it there. She was right. His eyes were gray like the sea out of season, with flecks of light brown like sand. A shifting tide.

By the time Pat came out of the changing room, Maureen was standing at the door, ready to go. She clattered down the stairs, and waited for Pat outside in the street.
“You’re awful quiet,” Pat said as they walked to the bus stop together. “Cat got your tongue? At least old George has got nothing to worry about. You’re a good girl. Not like me, eh?” She let out a hoot of laughter.

Maureen shook her head. Her hands were thrust deep in her raincoat pockets, the fingers of the right one were playing with a ball of paper, as if they could make out the telephone number Martin had scribbled out for her just before she’d left.

The worst thing about swings, she remembered, was how, when you were going really high, the ground below seemed to turn to water so it became frightening to step back onto firm ground. You wanted to stay swinging forever, suspended in midair.


1. Letter from Dr. Michael Croft to Brenda Lewis, House Manager, Pilgrim House

Dear Mrs. Lewis,
Please find enclosed the medical details for my patient, Martin Morris, who moved successfully into Pilgrim House with you on Monday.

Although there have been situations in the past that have been of concern, he has no current medical problems. You will notice, however, that he has a tendency to introspection. I am hopeful that the varied social program at Pilgrim House will encourage him to form social links, and that this will have a beneficial effect on his health. He is, as you pointed out in your assessment, young to be in an establishment like yours, but unfortunately a lifetime of personal neglect has taken its toll. He has never married, and has no immediate family. His landlord, Mahad Jefferies, has always kept an eye on him, but he will shortly be retiring to Birmingham to live with his daughter’s family.

I should say Mr. Morris has been very concerned about whether, should he change his mind, he could leave Pilgrim House. I have assured him that it is a home he will be living in,
not a prison. However, in any discussion with him about this it is important to remember that Mr. Jefferies has sold the shop and therefore Martin no longer has a room to move back to.

Yours sincerely,
Michael Croft

2. Letter from Martin Morris to Mo Griffiths

Dear Mo,

Do you remember that first time we met? It was in the old studio in Brunson Road. The look on your face was so fierce that I wanted to take you in my arms right then and there and tell you everything was going to be all right with the world. There was no need to fight anymore.

We’ve been through it all over the years, haven’t we, angel? Had more than our fair share of heartbreak. And here I am writing to you at the start of a new adventure. You’ll laugh because it’s an old people’s home. Me— finally living with other people. Old ones at that. I never thought I’d see the day. Well, I hoped I wouldn’t.

It’s just that I was listening to this music on the radio. A proper concert with black tie and everything. Of course, you couldn’t see what they were wearing but the class shone through. You would have loved it. And it was coming from one of the new flats they’ve built opposite. They are a bunch of yuppies there, but this music was beautiful. I pulled my chair over to the open window to listen. It was like being a bird, floating up above everything and everyone. And then, daft old fool that I am, I started to cry, thinking how you and I had never danced. And probably you never danced without me either, stuck with that dry stick of a husband of yours. How much did we miss, love, by not being together?

So the next morning I went to my doctor and said, put me away. He’s young enough to have been our grandchild, although I don’t think any child of ours would be a doctor. More a painter, or a poet. Anyway, although he was relieved because he’s been on about my so- called options for a bit, he was surprised when I told him I wanted to come to Pilgrim House, and that I wouldn’t go anywhere else. Although he said not to get my hopes up, he rang then and there, and it so happened there was a place just come open. I had a feeling in my veins that it would be OK because there’s a reason why I need to come here. One I don’t think you’ll like. You see, George is here. Your husband, George.

I just need to understand what he had that I didn’t. Of course I know you had to look after the girls, Nell, and then later Angie, but it wasn’t the same as being with me, was it? And I had no one. All those years with no one to talk to.

Anyway, I’ll tell you more later. I wanted you to know where I was, Mo. In case you were wondering. And no need to worry about how well I’m being looked after. We live like lords here. Every minute of the day there’s someone coming around to boss me about. Have you taken your pill? Have you done a BM today (excuse my language, angel, that’s what we call bowel movements here and they seem awfully fond of talking about them). Or else they remind us it’s supper in fifteen minutes, or music classes, or special talks. The other folks here say we get the infants from the local schools visiting us so often it’s a wonder there’s any time left over for them to learn how to read and write.

The children are about the only thing I’m looking forward to, but they’ve only come once since I’ve been here. “He’s a photographer,” the matron told them. I liked that, it must have been what the doctor told her. Better than a shop assistant, anyway. So when they asked me to take their pictures, I pretended. I’ve still got my cameras but I don’t put film in them anymore, Mo. I stopped all that a long time ago. But it feels good to lift the camera up sometimes, to feel its weight against my cheek and to be able to catch a certain glint in the eye. Trouble is I see you too often in the viewfinder. That look on your face I can’t get rid of.

I’ll write later, but everything will be all right. Mo darling. Haven’t I always promised you that when you are with me, you
didn’t have to worry about anything anymore? That’s my job.

3. Letter from George Griffiths to Brenda Lewis

Dear Mrs. Lewis,

Once again the soap is missing from the hand basin in my room. I have told you on numerous occasions that Florence Oliver is stealing it. This is an intolerable situation and I would be grateful if you could take action with immediate effect.

Yours sincerely,
George Griffiths

4. Letter from Florence Oliver to Lizzie Corn

Dear Lizzie,

That was kind of you to send me the spare photographs of young Brian’s birthday party. I thought he had a real look of your Frank about him, especially when he was holding that dagger to the other little boy’s face. I’m glad you told me it was plastic because it looks dangerously close to the eyes. And I wonder how they could fit so many children on the trampoline! No wonder Laurie was frightened it might collapse. Good of her to make the birthday tea so healthy, although I don’t see what’s so wrong with a bit of cake. Still, if you think Brian really didn’t mind the carrots. I just think young mums these days make so much work for themselves. But hark at me. As you have so often told me, I don’t understand what it’s like to be a mother.

Meanwhile, here in the land of the living dead, a new man has arrived, not that you’d know. What with the last one, and then this one, it’s as if we specialize in invisible men up there in that top room. Not like George Griffiths. His room is plum in the middle of everything, and you can hear him stomping around even when you don’t want to, but it’s like this new man floats. He’s always suddenly appearing in corners and giving us a shock. BethCrosbie says he gives her the heebie- jeebies. Mind, you remember me telling you about her. She’s the one who is still married but her husband lives out. In a flat. Does for himself and everything, although of course she’s been too ill to help for a long time. He
was practically looking after her himself for years. Strange thing for a man to do although he still fusses all the time about her. He’s the one who made them take up her carpet and put a pink one in. Everything gives her the h- j’s. It’s not just me who says she’s selfindulgent. Catherine Francis, the one who gets the bus into town every Friday to have tea at Hoopers, she says Beth should just pull herself together.

But that’s the problem of having a man around to care for you. You give in. We know all about that, don’t we, pet? Just think how many adventures we’ve had by ourselves since our husbands, God bless them, passed on. Take that time at the bingo in Portsmouth when that woman accused you of cheating after you called the Full House, and we had to run along the pier to get away from her. How we laughed. Well, we did when we were safely back in the B&B enjoying our Ovaltine. I just think about us being able to run anywhere now and I’m amazed. Seems like a different life.

Still, mustn’t get gloomy. It must be time for us to start planning my next trip to you soon. Do let me know when Laurie thinks it convenient to spare you.

We had a very interesting speaker here the other night. The young man’s mother, Joan, runs the corner shop and when Brenda was getting some bits and bobs in there, Joan was boasting how he’d just won some big essay- writing competition at his university. So he came in to talk to us about Virginia Woolf. It gave us all such a lovely nap and then when we woke up, Brenda made us a nice cup of tea.

Anyway, this comes, as always, with many best wishes to you and your family. I hope your cold is better. A nasty thing, a cold is. You don’t go out without drying your hair, do you? That often brings on a cold and yours do seem to linger.

Yours aye,
P.S. Naughty of Brian though to steal your stockings for his bandit costume. Did Laurie really not tell him off?

5. Note from Florence Oliver to George Griffiths

I have not touched your precious soap. Nor would I want to. If you tell Matron any more lies about me I will call the police.

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