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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Connecting Spaces
by Christopher Rooney

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Pounding printing presses in warm womb darkness, a maze of long dim corridors, a world away from the brightness of the newsroom.

Garner put on his facemask, a protection against the dust, and went into the room where the dirt danced in the air in tune to the ceaseless pounding of the presses.

The crates were piled like coffins in the darkness. Garner prized away the nails from the lid of the nearest with his hammer. He was soon sweating. Straightening up, he wiped his brow. Opening the crates, which had been lying stored down here undisturbed for decades, was a hell of job.

Inside the crate lay small boxes, blackened with dust and age. Garner put four on his tray then left the room, locked the door, removed his facemask.

"Leave that on mate, it's a definite improvement."

Garner jumped. "Rob, what are you doing here? You never come down here."

"I'm asking meself the same thing about you matey." Rob wrinkled his nose and peered dubiously through the dirty window at the printing presses hammering away below. Then there was a sudden burst of music that Garner instantly recognised as the theme tune to Thunderbirds. He watched in disbelief as Rob went bright red and took his mobile from his pocket. Dum de duuum, went the phone, dumm de duumm du dumm de dum, Thunderbirds are Go!

"Never in the world," Garner said.

"Shurrup," Rob mouthed. He flicked open his mobile with a flourish. Everything he did was with a flourish. His voice rattled away then he snapped the phone shut. "It's wor lass," he protested, "she keeps downloading tunes from the Internet. Anyway, fancy a mineral water after work?" He prodded a chubby finger at Garner, "You'd better after I've come down here looking for you."

"Yeah, sounds canny."

Rob smiled expansively. "Once you're working for me you'll have to get used to mineral waters after work."

"That's the second time someone has hinted, is there a job going?"

Rob winked knowingly. He leant forward and grimaced at the grimy boxes on Garner's tray. "Oh dear, and put that mask back on before you come upstairs, we don't want you frightening people."

For the duration of his contract they'd put Garner in a corner of the newsroom with a scanner and computer. He settled down to work with another unspeakable coffee from the drinks machine, the worst coffee he'd ever bludgeoned his system with.

He liked the newsroom. He was never alone here and Garner so feared being alone. A banner above the editor's office proclaimed: the Newcastle Daily, Serving the Community. Rob, meanwhile, rotund, black and white braces, was making the sign of the cross over a sports reporter who was suspected of being a Sunderland supporter.

Garner smiled. He picked up the first box from his tray, smoothing away the dust over the branding of Newcastle Daily Photographic Services with his thumb. Faded writing also said Tyneside summer scenes, various dates. Inside lay three glass plate negatives.

Garner placed the first on the scanning machine. He loved this bit, sat transfixed, his eyes fixed on the computer screen as the image slowly appeared. He never knew what he was going to see, images of people and places stored in time and space on the glass plate.

He studied the image that slowly appeared, recognising Tynemouth Pier. People were walking on the beach. The men wore suits and hats, the women long dresses, coats, hats and gloves, even though it was summer. A young boy crouched over a rock pool. He wore shorts, scuffed shoes, no socks and a jumper that was too big for him. He looked absorbed in his own little world. Going by the adults' clothing, Garner dated the photograph to sometime in the 1930s, though he couldn't be more specific than that, for his catalogue entry.

He began electronically removing the scratches on the image. The picture, he thought, was familiar. Probably seen it in a pub. But this - Garner picked up the fragile glass plate - was the negative and it had been sealed in a crate for seventy years.

He digitised the second glass plate: Two young men walking down a street to a pub, sometime in the 1950s, thought Garner.

And then he froze.

He looked harder. Never in the world... One of the men was his father. Garner knew from the photograph albums at his mam's what his father looked like as a young man and he was certain the man on the glass plate was his dad.

Garner returned to the Tynemouth Beach photograph. He remembered now where he'd seen it, in a box under his mother's bed. The day dad had his picture taken as a child on Tynemouth Beach by a newspaper photographer had gone down into family folklore.

Garner got back to work. What a coincidence! Finding two photographs of his father like that - he shook his head in amazement. He cleaned up the second digitised picture then carefully lifted the third glass plate from box, placed it on the scanner and set the machine off on its noisy way before going for another unspeakable coffee.

Sipping it, Garner sat back down at his desk, opened the digitised image on the computer screen. Then he jumped up and stared round the newsroom for the guilty face, the idiot playing pranks.

There was no such discovery, just the newsroom as manic as ever. Garner stared at the third image in a row of his late father, again as a boy, sitting on a doorstep, looking down at a cat curling round his legs.

Garner had never seen this photograph before but it was definitely the same boy from the first picture. Garner sat down, slowly. He studied the third image. It was Shipyard Road, where his father had spent his childhood in the late 1920s and the 1930s with his grandparents. It was the same street down which strode the two young men in the second photograph; there was the pub, the Anchor.

Garner zoomed the third image up, studied the boy's face. The head was lowered slightly as he smiled at the cat. In the corridor a figure looked at the cameraman. Garner tried zooming the photograph up more but the image began breaking down. He saw the flash of a face and a dress, his father's grandmother, Garner presumed.

Then he knuckled down to work, he couldn't sit gawping all day. The little grimy room over the printing presses was full of sealed crates awaiting his attention. The newspaper was going to make a fortune from this newly discovered photographic collection and Garner could add to his meagre post-university CV.

The following days were a blur of pleasure because Garner prized open the lid of an ancient crate and found boxes full of Victorian photographs. He loved the old photographs, the older the better. Amazing, thought Garner, Newcastle Daily photographers had been walking Tyneside's streets for over one hundred years, capturing everyday life. He studied a photograph of 1880s Newcastle, Grey's Monument crowned with a huge Union Jack. There were flags everywhere in the old pictures.

Two women in their Victorian finery walked towards the camera, one smiling, the other with face down, shadowed; a young boy ran across the road crowded with horse drawn carts; flashes of lives long gone.

Garner wondered about all the people he'd seen in the hundreds of glass plates he'd worked on. He endlessly pondered this, obsessively. He studied in detail this current image. The boy would probably have been too old for the First World War even though, Garner knew, by about 1917 they were calling up men in their forties. Garner was pleased for the lad. What had happened to all these people in the photograph? He wondered. How did they live... and die? How did all that time pass? How -

"What's this eh eh?"

"Oh Rob, what can I do you for?"

"Lunch you divvy - you haven't anything planned?"

"I was thinking of going into Newcastle, picking up a couple of hot chicks, the usual stuff."

"Aye aye aye. Downstairs in ten minutes matey the usual place?"

"Er no, I thought we might try the Anchor, nice little pub in the West End, you know, the new business estate."

Rob nodded. "Ten minutes matey," he said. "Be there or I'll get the Mrs. to beat you up."

Garner smiled. Rob looked more like a Roman senator every day, especially wearing his holiday tan and several hundred pounds worth of Armani. Rob: urbane, approachable, charismatic, and, Garner suspected, very, very tough. Twenty minutes later Rob turned up at the staff entrance. Garner was waiting for him, arms folded, "You said ten minutes."

"I did," Rob searched his pockets for his car keys. "Ten minutes for you and I turn up when I'm ready."

"Cheeky sod."

Rob drove with panache, his short black curly Emperor Hadrian beard wagging as he muttered at other drivers. "Why the Anchor?" he asked.

"No reason," Garner lied.

Rob nodded. He knew Garner was lying and Garner knew that he knew and Rob knew that Garner knew that he knew. They got stuck in traffic at Central Station.

"What's this?" Rob muttered. "Eh eh eh?"

"I dunno."

"Why not?"

"Well... I don't know."

"And how long have you known that you didn't know?"

"Is psychic ability important in journalism?"

"Aye matey!"

"And having an embarrassing mobile tune?"

"Shurrup."

"Thunderbirds, I'd die of shame."

"Listen matey, just you make sure you've got a ten pound note for mineral water and chips, I'm ready for it after this traipse." Rob got sick of the traffic. He floored the accelerator and sped through a back lane. Garner clung to his seat; it was like being in an episode of Starsky and Hutch. "Rob you're mad," he shouted.

An injured expression came over Rob's face. "I can't help it," he said, "I'm a journalist."

Garner was shocked by how much of the West End of the glass plates had gone; the streets, the pubs, the shops, the communities, it had all gone. But the Anchor was still there, car park packed. "Looks promising," Rob murmured.

The old pub was rather at odds with the office workers relaxing in the beer garden. The Anchor was right on the banks of the Tyne, so clean now that the water sparkled and fish splashed around. There was even a dolphin. The Newcastle Daily had adopted it, had even run a naming competition. The dolphin was great copy. So now Newcastle had a mascot, Freddie the Dolphin. People came from all over the country and even abroad, to swim with it.

Garner got in the beers, mineral water was the technical term used in the newsroom, and two plates of chips. "Shall we sit outside?"

Rob wrinkled his nose. "Ugh, no mate."

Garner knew there was more to this lunch than beer and chips. Garner and Rob, both forty, had developed an almost telepathic understanding. Garner waited.

Rob ate with gusto. He said, "Do you want a job?"

"Doing what?"

"Writer."

"I'm not a trained journalist Rob."

"Neither am I."

Garner was shocked. Rob said, "It's hard getting into the business without qualifications now, though it was a lot easier twenty years ago when I started, which is just as well. It can still be done if you've a good mentor."

"You're my mentor?"

"Aye mate and that's official. The company is spending millions... and you haven't heard this... on developing its websites. I'm the new regional on-line editor and I want you as a content developer. I know you can write matey, plenty of evidence for that on your CD."

Garner shuddered, an educational CD mentored by the newspaper, a ridiculously ambitious project that had nearly broken him emotionally and financially, his one and only attempt at self-employment.

"Do you want the job?"

Garner's mouth dropped open. "What about an interview and all that?"

Rob waved a hand expansively. "Aye aye. Want the job?"

"Yes."

"Good matey." Garner shook Rob's hand. Rob asked, "Now, what are we doing here?"

"It's your idea."

"No matey, what are we doing here?"

"Just thought it would make a change." Garner hesitated before going on. He sat forward and washed his hands together and stared at the floor. He had no idea how to say what he wanted to tell Rob or indeed if she should. How would his new boss react?

He took a deep breath before saying, "Look Rob, you'd better know what you're taking on. Apart from anything else I think there is a legal requirement to tell a potential new employer about any serious disability. I've been poorly for some time and, well, if I start working for you and I'm going no need time of for, well, trips to hospital and so on, as an out patient," he added hastily, darting a glance at Rob who had remained impassive.

Garner was still washing his hands together; he swallowed before continuing, "I'm under treatment for clinical depression, the result of a nervous breakdown a couple of years ago, found myself wandering through traffic in the city centre, hoping to get hit by something." Garner was horrified when tears pricked his eyes.

He blew his nose and Rob said, "I'm glad you've told me Mike, that's a courageous thing you've done, it's taken guts, I like that. I know you've been through a tough few years since you graduated, it's always difficult for working class graduates. Are you getting support?"

Garner nodded. He made it look as though he was casually rubbing his eye.

"Good because in a situation like this it's important to avoid isolation. I'm not going to hold it against you Mike. You probably can't see it, not yet, but you've made real progress, Mike, you're a different person from when I met you a year ago. You've really come out of your shell and made an impact on difficult to impress people, like me."

Garner smiled. And suddenly he was talking about his father, about how he wished his dad had been there to see him escape the shipyards for university. And about his father's terrible death ten years ago from asbestos related disease.

And then he told Rob about the glass plates. Rob didn't snigger or smirk but listened. "It's so weird Rob, coming across photographs of my dad like that. Those crates have been sealed for, how long? Seventy years? The odds against the pictures surfacing together at the same time in the time place must be... It's like the old man is trying to communicate." Garner washed his face with his hands. "Oh I don't know, maybe I really am cracking up."

Rob said, "Now you listen to me, I'm talking now not as your boss but your mate. What would your dad say if he was here? I'll tell you, he'd be very proud of you." Rob sat forward and spoke with urgency, "As for the glass plates, it's a weird world Mike. Twenty years in journalism has taught me that; you wouldn't believe the strange things I've seen. But it's coincidence mate, keep it in perspective. Anyway, I'll get in another round of mineral waters and more chips. You're having another plate as well."

"I am?"

"You are."

Rob went to the bar and Garner to the toilet. He made it just in time to throw up. A side effect of the cocktail of medication they had him on. He crouched over the toilet bowl, feeling nauseous, breathing hard, eyes closed. The horror of the illness that had tortured his mind for twenty-eight months made him feel even sicker. "Oh God," he whispered to himself, "what a mess I'm in."

He came out of the cubicle and washed his face. Through the open window could be seen the Tyne Valley, and out there in the wilderness the Roman Wall where Garner had sprinkled his father's ashes. Anything to do with the Romans, his dad had loved it.

Garner washed his face, cleaned himself up. Took his first pills of the day, a tranquilliser and an anti-psychotic. He stood for some time at the window, enjoying the cool rose scented breeze and the effects of the tranquilliser on his mind.

The first thing he heard on going back into the pub was, very loud: Dum de duum, dum de duum de dumm de duuuum, Thunderbirds are Go!

Rob was talking frantically into his mobile, telling his wife not to call him but send text messages because his phone tune was just too excruciatingly embarrassing.

And the thing with Rob's mobile was that it never stopped ringing: the news desk, features, the editor, politicians, media people, writers, contacts contacts contacts, all wanting meetings, interviews; meet up for the match at St James's Park then a restaurant and then onto mineral waters roond the toon. Garner wondered if there was anyone on the planet Rob didn't know.

He was churning his fingers feverishly through his hair and had a desperate expression on his face as Garner sat down. "Wor lass is getting me a new tune," Rob said.

"Well that's good - isn't it?"

"No mate, she says she's getting Dr Who or Blake's 7 next!"

Garner started laughing, he couldn't help himself.

"Shurrup, it's not funny."

"Yes. It is."

The mobile went off yet again and Rob had to hide it in his pocket. People around them were smirking every time they heard the tune while in the newsroom the reporters had begun singing, very loudly, the Thunderbirds theme music whenever Rob's mobile started belting it out.

In the name of the Roman senate and the people of Rome, er, that'll be a mineral water and plate of chips please. Garner laughed so hard his sides ached. Then Rob's shoulders started heaving.

Garner doubled up and Rob cracked up too and laughed until the tears streamed down his senatorial face. When the mobile went off yet again and Rob started banging his head on the table Garner thought he would just die laughing. A member of bar staff asked if everything was okay. Wiping his eyes and with a nod at Rob, Garner told the barman, "It's ok, he's a journalist."

And that set the two of them off again.


Rob introduced Garner to the website team and he got on with digitising the glass plates. Just a month now and then he had a job - and not just a job but earning his living as a writer. He felt like pinching himself to make sure it was really happening.

For the first time in a long time he felt better. A little. As for the photographs of his father, Garner wasn't sure they were of his dad, really, thinking about it.

Three weeks later he opened the last crate, dated June 1940. He removed four boxes and took them to his workstation. He digitised the first glass plate.

Goose pimples swept Garner's arms. He stood up, sat down, stood up again, sat down. He put his hand over his mouth. The photograph was of a boy, the same boy from the Tynemouth Beach photograph.

It was Garner's father, aged twelve, photographed in the field behind Shipyard Road. He wore shorts, scuffed shoes, no socks, his one and only jumper, which was too big for him and, hands on hips, stood with one foot on the tin can that had been pressed into service as a football.

It was a glorious summer's day. The wind had ruffled his hair and he was squinting, slightly, into the sunlight but he was looking directly at Garner, looking right at him and smiling broadly.

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