By Stuart Snelson
After the fire, he retrieved them from the safe.
His home a burnt-out shell, he had booked himself into a hotel. He ignored the pleas, the aggressive generosity of friends and family insistent that he should stay with them. He wanted time alone to consider what had happened.
Upon a table, he placed numerous shoeboxes: the contents of his safe. Opening one, he flipped through its contents: at his fingertips, hundreds of photographs. It was an accidental archive. Some time ago, his friend had casually mentioned that for insurance purposes he photographed his expensive belongings, had presumed most people did the same. Hearing this he instantly felt remiss, pledged to rectify this oversight. Upon returning home, he began snapping his prized possessions, lined up against a white background. He thumbed through the Polaroids.
Once he had captured images of his hi-tech trinkets, he began to photograph other items, moving systematically from room to room, itemizing everything that they held. With the single-mindedness he brought to any task, he exhausted all possibilities, engaged in the exercise with a thoroughness that was perhaps disproportionate to necessity. Cataloguing became routine. Every item that passed through the door was subject to his stark portraiture, each purchase logged in this manner. Small towers of photographs soon teetered into skyscrapers, a city skyline of static snapshots. Only perishable goods avoided his camera’s gaze. Everything else was ushered into his viewfinder. Soon he had photographed all that his house contained. Existing in their thousands, this was not a slideshow collection to entertain friends.
Within each box: the sub-divided elements of his life. Clothes, books, furniture, each allotted their own section.
Since he began his records before digital photography, he insisted on continuing in that vain. With his cumbersome Polaroid camera, he documented all that he possessed. He had bought a digital camera, but used his old camera to take its picture. His Polaroid, outmoded, flashed sadly and captured its usurper. He could have updated his data, shifted it online, consigned it to ethereal storage, his life’s blueprint hovering in a theoretical cloud. But he wanted to be able to touch them, to rearrange them. To him the task demanded tactility.
Before the fire, it seemed to become less about the object itself than the prospect of photographing it, items only becoming real when added to his index of images. Hearing of his photographic excesses his friend joked that in the event of disaster his life could be rebuilt from scratch. No longer was this a laughing matter. He shivered at the thought of starting afresh.
His finger lovingly traced the outlines of ex-assets. Revisiting his house, he had looked on, somber, aghast at his smoke damaged past. Armchairs were blackened fragments, skeletons, blistered springs about which frazzled upholstery gathered. His wardrobe was reduced to fire-riddled threads, molten coat hangers to which charred ghosts clung. Nothing, bar his photographs, had survived intact. Was it wrong to mourn the loss of consumer goods?
Whilst insurers assessed the damage, he rented a small place, moved in with his accumulated photographs. He spent evenings in their assessment, wallowing in what was lost. Seated at a table he would retrieve a handful, lay them out as though he was dealing cards, a backwards-glancing tarot pack. Slowly he shuffled through his regimented history. Randomly splitting them, he observed the perished--things incinerated that he would no longer hold in his hands. It became an associative task, each item dredging certain memories. Their well-lit, glorious reproduction caught them in their prime, before due wear and tear would take its toll.
In itemized memories he found consolation.
At night, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, he would stir, roused by imitations of a heat he never experienced. Panicked, sweating, he would lurch disorientated to the table to make sure that his photographs were safe. They were all that remained.
Though taken ostensibly for insurance purposes, he was reluctant to see them used in that capacity; the notion of someone else touching them horrified him. His visual records were now his most treasured possession, were in fact, save the clothes he was wearing as he returned to discover his house burning to the ground, his only possession. Nothing else proved retrievable from the smouldering remains.
He became possessive of his catalogued past. Visiting friends took him to task. As he showed them highlights of his collection, they accused him of not dealing with the situation, explained that he needed to move on. It wasn’t healthy to live in such a sterile environment, with just his intangible gallery for distraction.
Flipping through he realized the difficulty he would have in replacing many of the items: goods no longer produced, clothes comfortably worn to a sheen that had slipped from fashion many seasons ago, books that had gone out of print. Their replacement would be no intimate affair. It would become a quest, a checklist hunt for an extinguished life. The joy of each item had come in its initial purchase. He would not replicate that upon its repurchase. They would not be the originals, would be foreign objects: clothes that failed to shift to his body’s shape; books unthumbed, annotations lost or else second-hand copies dog-eared in the wrong places; every heartfelt gift replaced by its unloved double.
The thought of substituting his effects filled him with dread. He imagined everything arriving at once, bulk simulacra to be unpacked and arranged in a simulation of his former life. He considered the scorched husk of his house transformed, new carpets laid, factory fresh furniture installed, everything disconcertingly shiny and new, a show-home version of his former life. He pictured himself shiftless within a museum exhibit, tiptoeing through this homage, negotiating objects he felt no connection with, a synthetic recreation. His life would not be so readily resumed.
It would take time before his house was fit to live in again, before he would be compelled to make such decisions. At present, its gutted realm offered no suggestion of future comfort.
Perhaps he would be better off starting over, accepting what he had lost and moving on. He still had his archive, a solid database of life as it had been. Did the immaterial life beckon, an existence stripped of accoutrement, nothing to lose in the event of fire? He considered living minimally with his duplications, registered epiphanies, each retrieval stirring memories.
He accepted that this would not be the best way to proceed with his life.
At his table he ran through the images, items lost forever. As long as his repository remained, he would live in the past, dwell on what had been.
His friends were right: he had lost focus. Sidetracked by these representations he came to realize that they were not the essence of his life. He was more than the sum of his purchases. His archive relayed a cold history. He had all too readily turned the camera towards the inanimate. His life had been more than this. From his wallet, he removed photographs of his wife and children. He added them to the box of things he had lost in the fire.
Stuart Snelson lives and writes in London. His stories have appeared in 3:AM, Ambit, Bare Fiction, HOAX, Lighthouse, Popshot, Structo and Synaesthesia, among others, and have been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Links to previous stories can be found at stuartsnelson.wordpress.com. He dabbles on Twitter @stuartsnelson.