Vicious, bold sunshine and a thick kilt in black-and-blue tartan are a brutal combination. Emily’s bare legs are burning as she tip-toes around a grassy square, trying as hard as she might to fit the full spectrum of her Victorian-built school into the frame. But this isn’t Emily’s only problem.
The auto-focus wants to play around the sundial which stands in the gravel octagon that leads paths to and from the entrance’s grand double doors. However much Emily fights the multitude of buttons and settings, the camera won’t shift its opinion to ‘landscape,’ refusing to disable the infuriating ‘facial’ recognition feature. And this isn’t Emily’s biggest problem, either.
Everything reflects off everything else – she sees herself scowling in the viewfinder, has to squint through it to find the image, but even when she does, the arched and lead-crossed windowpanes refract rays of white and yellow across the shot. Thus each click, when examined through the glare, results in something increasingly less close to the composition she has in mind. Still, this isn’t Emily’s real problem.
Emily twists and turns and contorts herself a little longer and then gives up on that plan, sweat running down her back. She longs to remove her blazer, but that wouldn’t be allowed, because she’s outside, during school hours, which she thought would be a privilege and a pleasure, thank you, final art project, thank you, great inspiration, and then it isn’t either of those things, it’s just hot, furiously so, where the air chafes your throat and there isn’t enough cold water in the world to slake your thirst.
She walks down the path, crunch-crunch, every step a weight with the little blue camera slippery-smooth in her damp hands, requiring just a little more grip than is comfortable. At the corner of a withering flower patch, an easy stone’s throw from the sun-flooded buildings, she re-angles the camera at one corner. Taking a deep breath, Emily ignores the dusty urge to cough it out again, holding, sharp focus, there, there, there except then not, because that sodding auto-focus is there again, great, get off the window, that’s not the point. She snaps the picture anyway, because at this rate not only will she not have the references for texture, perspective and light that she’s shooting for, she won’t have anything at all.
As the shutter clicks and the camera whirrs in digital imitation of those beautiful machines which rotated old film and didn’t try to decide on the subject, object, focus and face for you, Emily is surprised to feel a cold shiver at her sides, as if a wind has whipped around her. But there is no breeze. She blinks, as if hoping to clear her eyes of something – was there something? She creases her face tight, holding the camera a matchstick’s distance from her eyes to check she didn’t blur the picture.
She didn’t. It’s fresh razor-bright. The school looks luminescent. The ornate wallwork is cut perfect white against a bright blue sky, and the yellow haze of the day is finally absent.
But there’s something – someone – in the window, ruining the symmetry. Who? Logic suggests it’s the housemistress, mahogany-haired Mrs. Mellor, but… no. It’s a blonde girl. No one she recognises. She’ll be Emily’s insurmountable problem. But Emily doesn’t know it yet. She snaps on, satisfied by the sudden break she’s had. It’s as if everything plaguing her before has passed.
At this stage of the year, there is little time, or inclination, for socialising, and what there is has been quelled by the relentless layers of heat. Emily holes herself up in the computer room, hotter even than direct sunlight thanks to all the electronics, as desperate as anyone’s lungs for their next breath of fanned-up air to be cooler, and, on this day, just as unsuccessful.
The day’s photographs load as slowly as someone trying to sprint through the weight of the weather, but when they appear on the screen then once more there is a whisper in the air, and Emily feels her head swim like she’s weighted down at the bottom of the school pool. She clicks enlarge, zoom. She looks again, and again, but there is a girl there, in that picture of the corner of the building, and she is not just in the window, but leaning out of it. Staring, wide-eyed. Out at her.
That face doesn’t belong to anyone at this school, of this, after fifteen years in a wretched woollen kilt and hideously-cut shirt, Emily is sure. But the hair is tied in school colours – how can Emily see this, in such a picture? Yet she can – and her shirt is regulation, and there’s no other school left in the whole country with a collar so ridiculous.
“I can see you,” Emily whispers, the words falling deft from her lips as if they were incantation. In the next picture, and the next, where there had been nothing, there now are thin white legs, and a swish of golden hair, another kilt but there was no one else out front and there’s this face… this unfamiliar face.
I can see you.
Emily doesn’t even know if she’s hearing, or saying the words, now. She stares and stares, and when Anna comes by to check her course calendar she grabs her and says, “Do you know who this is?” but Anna yanks her arm free and looks at her as if they haven’t been fair friends since the age of seven. “I’ve got to get on, I’m sorry…” she says, and leaves, and Emily feels oddly alone.
I can see you.
Emily shifts and switches this way and that in her seat, but there is nothing, and no one, left in the lab.
And now the voice has started, it refuses to stop.
Evening rushes up, and there is no relief in the air. Emily feigns a headache to get early to bed, glad of the chance to rest – delirium, begone – but bed doesn’t feel her own tonight. Her nightdress is itchy and weighty as the wool of her uniform. As if this were not enough, there is that voice, wheedling, a creeping pinch of a plea at the edge of Emily’s understanding.
It has to stop.
It won’t stop.
Emily rubs her eyes, and tries to relax, but there is no relaxing to be had. The windows are open wide, but they may as well be barred shut with a raging fire in the dorm for all the relief they give. Windows this old shouldn’t be left like this, but it’s so hot, someone must’ve thought it a sensible idea.
No, Emily thinks, but doesn’t say, because it’s all in her head, isn’t it, it’s not something that’s happening in her dorm, it isn’t real, no, ‘please’ is not something you whisper plaintively through the ether, not in the real world.
“Jump!” comes the plea, louder now, and Emily is sure, still, that this is inside her head. It is. There’s no stirring in the dorm. Emily’s heart is thumping apace once more; it is unbearable, but there is nothing to be done but bear it and repeat the facts. It’s just the heat. It’s only the weather. Tomorrow will be better.
Emily presses her face into the pillow, sucking in its feathery denseness, no storybook trustworthy friends to turn to, just her determinedly academic grit to get the last couple of months of A-levels out of the way so she can get out of this godforsaken school and into the real world which must, surely, be less cruel than this.
As the hours pass, she is swamped by the day, by the heat, by sweat and torment. The voice grows louder and the face is clearer. At one point she swears the girl is next to her, clear as anything even in pitch dark.
Emily doesn’t remember getting up, nor does she remember changing. Nor does anyone else in her dorm notice her movements. Greater forces are at work.
She would remember standing at the window. Furious and confused at what she almost did, but doesn’t do. No! she yells in her mind, turning, willful, definite. She is not jumping anywhere. She heads down the stairs.
The result is the same for Emily, but if she won’t jump, she must be pushed. That changes things for our whispering vision.
The discovery is made by the aforementioned Mrs. Mellor, on exiting the front doors for her daily constitutional. The scene is horrific. How can it be that no one yet has seen it? As it happens, this can’t be seen through the windows. Is it a trick of the light, strange fortune, an awful coincidence, or something else? It’s all four. Nobody saw.
Suicide, it must have been. What a terrible, unfortunate thing. Must be the weather, Mrs. Mellor thinks to herself, convinces herself, and she doesn’t worry about the strange angles of the leap Emily, never the most athletic of girls, would have needed to make, the hideous precision with which she would have to have arranged herself, mid-air, never mind the fact that she is merely stabbed, rather than halved, by the sundial.
Lucky, isn’t it, that there’s that camera, just there, on the gravel, placed neatly six feet from the sundial, to show that actually there’s more to it than that daft assumption. Mrs. Mellor goes to pick it up, but she realises just in time that there might be prints or evidence upon it, so she leaves where it lies. She saves lives and minds with this simple lack of action, although she’ll never know that, for the story now moves on, to the investigation of the contents of that camera, which happens first at the local police station, and then later in many, many more places, all of which will come to wish, quietly, that they had never offered to ‘take a look.’
Emily’s first pictures, those that disturbed her so, that plagued her mind, they come out now without a shred of interest to them, plain and dull, no shapes, no faces, no suggestions. There are twenty-odd, just the school, the topiary, the flowers. The sundial. It’s only the last two pictures that have any impact.
The second-to-last picture on the camera is that of Emily arched back, impaled upon the sundial. It’s shocking, of course, but it isn’t the worst. Poor Emily. She’s still alive, her mouth clearly open in an active scream, but her arms are already hanging limp and jointed back upon themselves as the nerves and muscles give out. She is neat and tidy, her school uniform as pleated and placed as if someone had arranged her, she might be resting at break time on a bench, save for that scream, that contortion of her mouth and face, and for the area between her shoulder-blades, pierced dark by the point of the iron gnomon, then at least still clean of the swarm of tacky blood she would later be found in.
The final shot is a smiling girl, long blonde hair tied tight in two tails with black-and-blue tartan ribbon, the collar of her white shirt starched bright, broad and round.