“Can you develop a film from an old disposable camera?”
I produce one from my bag and hand it over to the guy behind the counter.
“Haven’t seen one in a while. Can’t promise, but I’ll give it a go. When did you take the photos?” He inquired.
“Eleven years ago.”
Eleven years ago today, actually. I wasn’t likely to forget.
“Leave it with me. Come back in an hour.”
Back home I put the kettle on. I live with my fiance – Steve. He’ll be at work until five. Sitting down with a cup of peppermint-tea my pulse accelerates. In sixty minutes I might see Susie’s face again.
Fingers crossed I was doing the right thing. Steve and I were getting married in a month. I wanted it to be new start, put the past behind me. I’d begun to clear out my old trunk. You know the one full of childhood remnants? Most of it went into the bin. Then I found the camera. Immediately I remembered why the film hadn’t been developed. After what happened I had been in no state to do anything. The police said I must know something, but I didn’t. That was eleven years ago – when I was eleven. Being a bit of a numbers freak I thought this was an omen telling me to develop the photos from that final afternoon with Susie.
I’ve replayed that day in my head so many times.
Susie and I had met in our usual spot, the field next to the woods that separated her road from mine. Over the years we had built dens, camped out and even attempted a tree house. We’d always been best friends. That summer was hot, the grass dry and brittle. I had just turned eleven and Susie was nearly twelve. We were due to start Ripley Comprehensive the following month.
My brother Pete had been at the school for a while but I was still tentative about moving. Susie was confident, looking forward to it. There was only a matter of months between us but she looked a lot older. Pete had noticed.
“Susie’s grown a bit lately. Got tits. Whereas you’re… still… a scrawny girl.”
He’d taunt me about being flat-chested. But he was right. She had already started her periods and wore a B cup bra. Half the time she didn’t even behave like a kid. But I did. I was skinny, all legs and brown as a berry. Of course Susie had started experimenting with makeup and boys. After hanging out with me she was usually off to meet a lad.
That day, the last day, was no different. I’d bought a throw-away camera and we’d had a laugh taking photos.
Then, she had a date.
“C’mon Susie who is it? Dan?”
“Give over Ells. Can’t tell you. Even my mum doesn’t know. It’s a secret. Right? He’ll be here in a minute so you better scoot.”
She took a small mirror and some eyeliner out of her bag. I snapped a couple more shots, hugged her goodbye and ran off. The aroma of her cheap lavender scent tickling my nose. As I let myself out of the five bar gate I noticed Bill taking his dog Boo-boo for a walk. Bill was about thirty, not very bright so still lived with his parents. He would often chat to local kids. I think he could relate to us.
Early evening the phone rang during Coronation street. My mum called out,
“Ellie… when did you last see Susie?”
I thought quickly and replied,
“About four. Left her at our spot.”
Mum put the phone down, frowning.
“Is Susie OK? What did her mum say?” I asked. A sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Pete arrived home and plonked himself down on the sofa.
“She’s not back yet. Probably gone into town with a lad.”
Mum gave me a sideways glance.
“I know what that young lady’s like. I’ve eyes in my head. And for goodness sake Pete, take off those muddy boots – now!”
Next day the police came. Susie was missing. I explained exactly where I’d left her; didn’t mention the boy. She had told me it was a secret and we had a pact: secrets couldn’t be shared. Like when I stole a Cindy doll from Woolworth. Mum nearly had me marching back to the store to confess. Susie covered my back, said the doll was hers.
This was the same. I couldn’t squeal on her.
Then, everything happened fast.
Susie’s dead body was found. Strangled and sexually assaulted. Bill had been taken in for questioning. When I heard I became hysterical.
“Who will walk Boo-boo now?” I screamed.
What I meant was, what will become of me, without Susie?
Within days Bill was released. Not enough evidence to hold him.
I was in a bad way – too many questions from everyone. A massive gap was left in my life. Unable to cope my mind shut down. I would sit for hours staring out of the window and got held back a year from school. Luckily, having a summer birthday that didn’t really matter. When I finally started I was the oldest in the class. Like Susie had been.
Susie’s case was suspended and life went on. Occasionally I came across the camera from our last day and pushed it to the back of the drawer, along with my memories.
Pete finished school and went travelling, abroad. Bar-tending. He didn’t seem in any hurry to come home.
I began University still a virgin, not keen on letting anyone get too close – understandable really. The summer before graduation I met Steve. I’d seen him around for ages as he lived in the next town, and caught him looking at me. We’d never actually spoken.
One day, leaving the local pub, I found him walking me home. Didn’t ask, just said he used to play football with my brother. We took it from there. Being five years older his manner was assertive from the start. I liked that. He asked me for a date and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Coming round to pick me up in his MG sports car he’d chat to my parents. They took to him, happy he was helping me come out of my shell and that he lived locally. They missed Pete and wanted me to settle nearby.
Steve was a grammar school product and had prospects. Mum was impressed. His job as an estate agent meant he’d already bought a fabulous little cottage. Where we now live.
Of course I told him about Susie, but her death was something I wanted to put behind me. He never pushed, just let me talk when I wanted.
Sex was great. He took his time at first, knowing I was a virgin. I was a good girl, he said, and too many people acted like sex was a commodity. He treated me with respect.
Once we were an item I realised Steve knew exactly what he wanted sexually, behaved very much as he did on a daily basis. Confident and assured. One of his favourite things was driving down the quiet roads from my parents’ place to his cottage. He’d unzip and I’d have to give him a blow job on the journey, trying not to giggle if the car went over bumps. When we parked outside the house he’d hold my head firmly in place and with a couple more thrusts, shoot his lot down my throat.
Within an hour we’d be at it again. Steve was never soft for long. Laying the table for dinner took on another meaning; he’d push me down flat, pull up my skirt, yank down my knickers and fuck me roughly from behind. Right by the window. Anybody passing could have seen. But I got off on that too. After Susie died I had felt numb for years. Steve made me feel alive.
I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s my rock. The only person since Susie to get close to me.
It’s surprising how quickly an hour goes when you’re reminiscing. I knock back cold tea and with heart in mouth, walk round to the camera shop.
“Think you’ll be happy with the result. Those cameras were cheap at the price.” He hands me a folder. Without speaking I pay and leave.
Once home I run upstairs and slam the bedroom door. Steve’s not back, which is great as I need to be alone with Susie. Nervous, shaking, I remove the images from the slip. The first is me, knee-deep in branches making a camp. Then Susie. Laughing, black bushy hair framing that impish face.
Tears stream down my cheeks as memories from that day flood my mind.
I peruse the others, drifting in time, lost in the past until I hear the click of the front-door downstairs. Steve’s home.
The last couple show Susie putting on makeup, looking straight into the lens with steely blue eyes as she defines them with black kohl.
But there is something else…someone standing or walking along the treeline behind her. Almost camouflaged in a khaki, safari-type jacket.
I grab some strong reading glasses and peer at the corner of the image. It’s clearer now. Magnified. Yet, I can’t… believe… my eyes.
“Steve!” I exclaim, a moment before the bedroom door opens.
This story has been updated as Part 1 of the Fiction Relay – I have passed the baton on to Cousin Pons to add his piece of the puzzle…
Header image of disposable camera from Pixabay