The work here was done, done well and done long ago. It was time to leave. Billy splashed water over his hands, dried them with the small square hand-towel which use had dulled from white to grey, and once again tried to remember to either bring it home with him and wash it, or simply go out and buy a replacement.
He slung the towel back on the small hook beside the sink and repeated the thought through his mind.
By the time he had flicked off the red-light that hung low over the laboratory, plunging into darkness the small space with its low hanging lines of drying photo prints, the matter of the towel had already retreated from his head.
Mr. Abbot was Billy’s boss. Abbot could be one king hell son of a bitch when wanted to, and right now he was in the fullest pomp of his malignancy. The lab work had been a welcome little island of darkness and calm for Billy in this week of shifting and violent seas. But that safety had passed now, and it was time to face back into the storm.
He slipped out through the laboratory door, being careful to not open it more than was absolutely necessary, and was birthed back into the light of the tight but high-ceilinged store-room. The main shop was visible through the doorless entranceway that separated the two spaces. He could see Mr. Abbot talking to a customer towards the front. A spotless glass case of photography paraphernalia carefully separated Abbot’s immaculate grey suit from the who was stood tourist stood opposite and dressed in shorts, sandals and white socks drawn up around the shins. Beyond them, pulsing and molten summer sunshine spilled in through the shop’s main window, obscuring the cameras and model photos that crowded the clear plastic display shelves.
Billy’s eyes flicked up towards the store-room clock as it ticked its way towards the half-hour mark, leaving only thirty minutes of work left before he could escape into the warm remains of the languorous evening outside. Thirty minutes more only assuming that everything went well. Billy feared this luxury would be denied to him by Mr. Abbot.
Every morning that week Abbot had arrived into work with an unsettling air of ferocious calm, declaring things like, ‘This is simply not good enough. Not good enough by a long shot’. This would then be followed by a rigorous rearrangement of the stockrooms, the photo-lab, display cases or anything that caught Abbot’s attention and ire. Anything found to be wrong was deemed to have been both Billy’s fault and his duty to rectify.
When he has angry Mr. Abbot did not yell. He did not or curse, and he was not rude. He simply exuded a black and implacable disapproval. It was insidious in how it squirmed into your soul and eroded your own sense of yourself, until you could do nothing but look for Mr. Abbot to grant it back to you. He would stand with his arms spread apart like pillars against any one the glass cases that flanked the left-side of the shop and regard you through dark and glassy eyes.
It was impossible to surmise the origins of these foul-turns. Mr. Abbott denied you the ability to know or even imagine his life outside the confines of number 42 Talbot Street. Billy assumed he had a wife since there was a ring on his finger. He guessed he had children just by the way be held himself with younger people. But all of this was nothing more than conjecture in the absence of actual proof.
So for reasons unknown, at intervals impossible to predict, Mr. Abbot would descend upon Billy with the force of a white-squall, wreak quiet havoc for days, and recede silently back into the depths of the sea, leaving behind no trace of his presence.
Billy set about fixing his appearance for public consumption in the square section of mirror that dangled from twine on a waif-like wall tack. A flat, short, almost non-descript bang echoed in the distance from somewhere across the city. By reflex everyone glanced towards the window to see the cause of the disturbance. Abbott looked back towards the tourist, dismissed the noise as a car backfiring, and drew the stylistically-challenged target’s attention back to the glass case before him with a flowing sweep of his hand.
A car the colour of diluted sky blue puttered and stalled directly in front of the shop. The woman in the passenger seat slapped her hand off the dashboard as the driver hunched over the steering wheel and tried to will the car back to life.
Billy took a deep breath and emerged out into the main shop floor. The drama of the blue car had diverted the tourist’s attention, who had left Abbot in mid-sentence to drift outside and see the show. Dignity pinned Abbot to the spot, so he let the mark leave and instead cast his eyes around the shop, landing on Billy as he stepped out.
‘Where were you?’
‘I finished the last batch of prints. They are drying now. They’ll be ready to first thing in the morning’.
Abbot turned away from Billy and moved around the glass case to retrieve a notebook hidden beneath.
‘I need them tonight’ he said, throwing the remark casually at Billy. ‘And I want the front display redone for tomorrow. It’s not good enough. You need to have that finished before you leave.’
This would take hours. It had been the third time this week Abbot had instructed him to re-do it. Billy stood stock still for a few moments as the heat and life of the city outside slowly slipped away from him. He considered, not for the first time, just walking past Abbot and out of the shop without a word or regret. His stomach skipped at the idea, but when he did move forward it was not to leave. Instead he made for the main window to begin the task set to him.
As he drew level with Abbot, a second flat crack thundered the street. There was a brief moment of pause after the sound when everything seemed to dip underwater and move in liquid slow motion. Then the world exploded in a pulse of shattering glass. The windows and cases seemed to flex then splinter, sending thousands of shards hailing everywhere. Mr. Abbot dived at him, knocking Billy to the ground and sheltering Billy’s head with his body.
The sound of glass rain rang on and on for what must have only been seconds. When the last shard had dropped with a tinkle onto the floor, then the other sounds of smoke and screaming began to filter through. Billy hadn’t known his eyes were closed until Mr. Abbot took his face in his hands.
‘Are you hurt?’ he yelled at him, though his volume had been muted to a base thrum behind the high-pitched whine that rang through Billy’s ears. Abbot began patting Billy down, checking for injury.
‘Billy! Are you okay?’ He repeated. Billy managed a nod, only vaguely noticing a line of blood that was tracking down Abbot’s forehead. Abbot locked eyes hard with Billy.
‘Stay here. Do not go outside.’
Billy absently reached up and touched the stream of blood that was now halfway down Abbot’s cheek, stemming the flow for the moment. Abbot looked at the blood and then checked his head.
‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘Stay here. Do you understand?’
Billy nodded again.
Mr. Abbot picked himself up, checked his head once more, and then ran out into the street. Billy turned to watch as he crunched over the glass and disappeared out the door, lost in the clouds of smoke that were sweeping by the shop.
Billy looked around for the clock, not knowing why. It had been knocked off the wall and lay askew on the ground. The second hand had been chipped half way down. The time read half past five.
Billy sat up in the midst of the pool of glass and cradled his palms in his lap. He turned his head and listened to the steady rise of the panic on the street outside. He sat there and began to wonder when Abbot would return.
Written by Adam O'Keeffe / ©2015 Project Bowes