I hope that my readers will indulge me for this post: I have written a (very) short story – my first – based upon a photograph.
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Bryn Roberts slung his Leica over his shoulder, turned into Vaughan Street and crossed the road near the Imperial Hotel and searched for somewhere to sit. The short walk from the photography shop brought about a need for him to rest for a few minutes and ease the pain in his right leg. The promenade was quiet on that early spring morning and it didn’t take him long to find an empty bench from where he could gaze out on Llandudno Bay. The shore was tranquil, in stark contrast to the beach at Dunkirk where, two years earlier, Bryn had endured the chaos of the evacuation of thousands of soldiers driven out of France by the advancing German army.
Despite the disturbing images that invaded his mind, Bryn persisted in his daily walk to the sea front. He was determined to confront the horror and confusion of his thoughts and daydreams by sitting quietly, looking out on the calm water of the bay. He imagined that a regular dose of stillness helped to cancel out his memory of that other beach.
Bryn had been woken by a recurring dream just before dawn earlier that day. The skies above the beach were heavy with the buzz of enemy aircraft strafing the lines of desperate soldiers waiting in long, thin lines that stretched out to sea. Bullets that missed their target spat into the wet sand, sending spray and a chorus of curses into the air aimed at the retreating planes until they turned and sped over the beach again.
Bryn, and what was left of his platoon, had waited for hours to be rescued. They had been lucky: most of the air attack had been further along the beach, where the density of men had been an easier target for enemy pilots. Bryn’s turn came when the head of the line of men he was part of came under attack from the air. Soldiers in front and behind him fell into the shallows; others shouted to leave them and keep going towards the waiting ship.
As he continued to look out to sea from his bench, Bryn remembered for the thousandth time how it felt when he was hit twice in the right leg. The man behind him caught him and helped him to stumble through seawater that was almost up to his chest. Without the help of this fellow soldier, Bryn might never have managed to reach the deck of the ship. The next thing he remembered was coming to in the vessel’s makeshift hospital.
Bryn picked up his camera and strolled along the promenade, crossed the road and turned into Clonmel Street. His regular amble along the sea front had, once again, pushed the memory of his escape from the beach at Dunkirk into the background. He knew that he would probably have the dream again but he also knew how he could stand up to it: the placid bay would be his therapy for as long as it took to recover from his wartime experience.
Bryn had been invalided out of the army. He had volunteered for a desk job but the authorities told him he had “done his bit for his country”. He returned home with his head held high and rejoined his father’s photography business. Professional photography was Bryn’s trade before the war and although work had been scarce since the war broke out, he and his father hoped that it would pick up when the it was over and holidaymakers would return to Llandudno.
He didn’t anticipate taking many photographs of holidaymakers that morning. It was, perhaps, too early in the season to stroll around the town on the lookout for suitable-looking candidates who might be willing to purchase a portrait, so he made up his mind to walk directly back to the shop and give his father a break from behind the counter. Then he saw them: an attractive young couple striding towards him along Bodafon Street. They were smartly dressed and confident-looking with an outward innocence that was immediately captivating to his artistic eye. As they approached him, he stopped before them and asked if he could take a few photographs. “There’s no obligation to buy,” he explained. The man and woman looked at one another and nodded their agreement without a word passing between them.
“No obligation?” repeated the young man. Bryn nodded by way of reply and asked the couple to walk towards him as he walked backwards. He could still manage his backwards photographer’s walk even with his conspicuous limp and he was almost as quick as he used to be before the war when taking photographs of people walking towards him.
When he had taken a few shots, Bryn handed his card to the young man: “If you would like to purchase one, please come by the shop in the morning.” They both thanked him and continued on their way. Bryn always handed out his card after asking permission to take some photographs in the hope that he might make a few sales whilst he was out in the town with his camera.
Later that afternoon, while his father manned the shop, Bryn developed the film of his morning’s work. When he saw the results, he sincerely hoped that the young couple would come and see him and purchase a photograph. He was more than simply pleased with the result. As good as a Henri Cartier-Bresson, he thought to himself. In his best shot, he had captured the couple in mid-stride: the young man looking relaxed in his trench coat, facing directly into the camera, a faint smile on his lips; the young woman looking slightly to her left. That didn’t matter, thought Bryn, her look added to her mystique. Her coat had just flicked away from her knees at the moment he took the shot. And their hair: they both had wonderful hair. He also loved the way they held hands: her’s under his. The man and the woman looked at ease in each other’s company; they looked very much in love, thought Bryn. He enlarged his favourite shot and put it in a presentation folder.
Against his expectations, the young couple presented themselves at the shop the next morning. Bryn showed them what he considered to be the best shot. Bryn studied the couple as they looked carefully at the photograph. “It’s very good,” said the man. “We’ll take it.”
“Thank you,” said the woman, turning and smiling towards Bryn as they neared the door of the shop. It was the briefest of transactions but one that affected Bryn deeply. The sight of the couple who had just left his shop reminded him of his innocence lost on the fields and coast of France two years ago. He silently wished the retreating figures all the luck in the world. For all he knew, the young man might be called up very soon. Would she wait for him; how would they be affected by the war? These questions rattled around in Bryn’s mind as he took a final look at his copy of the photograph and wondered what the future would hold for young attractive couple. As he filed his copy, he also thought about how long they might keep the photo and who might look at it as their lives unfolded. He flipped the OPEN/CLOSED sign on the shop door, and locked up for the lunch break.
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The short story about Bryn Roberts is fiction; it is the photograph that is real. A professional photographer in Llandudno took it in 1942.
The photo of my in-laws is still admired over 70 years later. A copy of it stands in our dining room; my brother-in-law has the original. My father-in-law, Bob, was 18 and my mother-in-law, Betty, was 17 when the photo was taken while they were on holiday in Llandudno just prior to when Bob joined the RAF and served in the Second World War. Bob and Betty were married in 1945, shortly after the war ended. Bob and Betty are much missed by the family, now that they are no longer with us.