The Photographer’s Assignment

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My heart sank. He was the person I least wanted to see. I recognised his tall silhouette as he pushed open the glass door to the general store where I worked each Saturday.

Brad Jackson meant trouble.

I felt under the counter for the panic button, letting my fingers hover over it, ready to summon my supervisor from the back office.

I hesitated.

Brad swaggered past me with the air of the eighteen-year-old who owns the world. He glanced over his shoulder to where I was standing behind the till. There was a flash of recognition in his deep blue eyes. Was that a smile breaking across his face?

“Oh hi Claire,” he called. “Be with you in a minute.”

I managed a curt nod. I could hardly wait.

“OK,” I mumbled disinterestedly.

I watched on the CCTV monitor as he made his way down the aisles to the toiletries section. I had a fair idea what he’d be buying. They all did it – all the cool guys from school – they’d swank up to the counter and slam down a box of condoms with that ridiculous smug smile plastered all over their faces. Sometimes their partners would be with them too; the girls would stare coldly, judgmentally at me, making sure I knew.

Brad was coming up the aisle towards the counter now. I saw him pause in front of the alcohol section and grab a bottle of rum. He turned and smiled. I looked away, pretending to count the books of postage stamps.

“Didn’t realise you worked here,” he said, advancing towards me.

His voice was friendlier than I was expecting. It was a surprise he was speaking to me at all – normally he’d blank me completely.

He slid the bottle across to me and put a pack of razor blades down on the counter.

“I normally work in the mornings,” I said. “Swapped shifts as a favour,” I added tersely.

“I’ll have to come in earlier,” he replied with an insincere smile.

“Next week’s my last week,” I explained as I scanned the barcodes. “Dad didn’t want me working when exams are on.”

I looked up at him.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Packet of Grafton Lights please,” he responded.

I gave a disapproving look and turned to the cabinet behind me, instinctively picking the right cigarettes.

“What time d’ya finish?” he asked.

“Eight,” I replied.

Why was I telling him that?

“Doing anything later?” he asked as casually as he could.

I shook my head.

“Just going home and crashing in front of the telly,” I responded.

Brad pulled a dejected face and stuck out his bottom lip.

“I see you’ve got plans,” I indicated the bottle of rum.

“Not seeing Peter?” he asked, arching his eyebrow and ignoring my previous comment.

I was getting a little irritated at his questioning.

I shook my head.

“Peter’s in Cambridge,” I replied. “On a maths training camp.”

“Oh,” he replied. He paused for a second or so then leaned into the counter. “Are you, um…?”

He gestured with his hands to ask if we were finally a couple.

“That’s none of your business,” I snapped.

Brad took a step back and held both hands up. He knew damn well Peter and I weren’t together. He gave another of his stupid leery grins.

The subtotal flashed up on the display. I pointed to the little green numbers.

“You paying by card?” I asked.

Brad reached into his pocket and brought out his wallet.

“I hear you’re working for Mum again this summer,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “should be good fun.”

He tapped his Dad’s credit card against the reader. There was a beep as the transaction went through.

“Cool. I’m gonna do some stuff for her too. We might get to work together.”

My heart sank.

“Really?” I said – I could hear a little anger in my voice. Really? “After last time?”

Brad gave an embarrassed snigger and waved his hand dismissively.

“Hey,” he said, “everyone deserves a second chance – even me Claire.”

‘Third or fourth chance more like,’ I thought.

“The new you obviously hasn’t given up smoking yet,” I snapped, a little more harshly than I’d intended.

Brad looked a little hurt.

“Give me time,” he said softly. “Give me time.”

Jen Jackson was everything her son was not – kind, caring and a joy to work for. Ten years ago, she’d been made redundant by her firm in the city at the same time as getting a divorce from Brad’s philandering father. Most others would have taken the double whammy of bad news pretty hard, but not Jen. She’d decided her new life as a single woman also meant a complete career change and trained as a professional photographer. Most of the year her income ticked over doing corporate events and the odd journalism assignment, but in the summer months her diary was swelled with bookings for weddings – and that’s where I came in.

Jen had one of those personalities that every professional photographer needs. She was technically brilliant, of course, but she had the knack for making nervous brides relax, cajoling groomsmen into a semblance of order and herding large groups of lightly anadolu yakası escort drunk guests into the frame. My job was as her assistant, helping her to set up and take down, to run the odd message to the best man and the catering team, but also to take some of those candid shots that somehow complete the story of a wedding – the embracing old friends who haven’t seen each other in years, the maiden aunts cooing over the newborn and the adventurous kids slipping away from their parents to explore the hotel grounds.

Jen’s photography business had worked well with Brad when he was younger – he’d be with his Dad at weekends, which left her free to work various events. But as her son had grown into his teenage years, life at home had become increasingly difficult.

Her ex-husband had remarried and pretty soon after had moved with his new wife and their young family to the south of France. As his dad became more distant, Brad had found his niche as the school troublemaker. He’d been pretty angelic when I’d first met him, aged eleven, but as hormones had surged, he’d fallen in with the wrong crowd, or more accurately the wrong crowd had fallen in with him. Swearing, smoking, shouting at teachers, the occasional violent outburst – he was the kind of kid who’d be in detention twice a week. He had that contempt for authority, born of one who knows that school is a conspiracy imposed on free teenage spirits. Frankly it was a miracle that he’d lasted for his A levels.

But the girls all loved him – with that tousled blond hair, his bright blue eyes, deep bass voice and tall masculine frame, he could have anyone he wanted – and frequently did. He’d bedded most of the virgins in the school and, if the graffiti in the bathroom was to be believed, they were more than satisfied with the service delivered.

‘He’s got the equipment and he knows how to use it!’ one whore had scrawled. Others had written similar sentiments; it was no surprise he was so cocksure.

Despite his multitude of conquests, Brad hadn’t really ever had a steady girlfriend – or at least I didn’t think he’d had. True, there was a small posse of regular ‘friends-with-benefits’, but the dreary aspects of regular dating seemed to hold no attraction. He wasn’t a man who could be tied down for any length of time.

Brad’s plans to work for his mum in the summer troubled me. He’d helped her out at weddings twice before, with disastrous results each time. The first, when he was fourteen or so, he’d stolen (and quickly downed) two glasses of champagne and had spent the rest of the afternoon vomiting into one of the flowerbeds at the reception venue, while his mother flitted between him and the happy couple she was supposed to be photographing. The second time, he’d managed to seduce a bridesmaid on the dancefloor, and was just leading her upstairs to her hotel room, when his mum had caught him and dragged him away. Needless to say, the two escapades had merely added to Brad’s notoriety and he’d dined out on the anecdotes for many weeks afterwards.

I pulled on my coat and headed out of the shop at the end of my shift. I hoped Brad had changed, that he was now a new man, but somehow I didn’t believe it.

April turned into May and into June. I worked my final shift at the little general store and settled into my last term of secondary school. Exams started – they were neither easy nor hard, interesting or boring – they just happened.

Peter seemed different after he came back from Cambridge, a little more distant perhaps – I couldn’t really put my finger on it. To my shame, I felt the jealousy flare within me as he regaled me with stories of his time at maths camp. He’d fitted in well with all the geeks and he seemed to have formed a strong friendship with one in particular. Everything was ‘Alistair this, or Alistair that’ – it got a bit tedious after a while.

My ‘nearly boyfriend’ was good looking in his own way – tall and skinny, with short, straight black hair. He was the unquestioned brainbox of our school – fiercely intellectual, who’d attack his homework with a dedication unmatched by any other student. It was no surprise that Cambridge wanted him to study maths with them and he’d managed to get a place on a team to represent the UK at some international competition. He’d be going to Bulgaria to compete as soon as our exams were over.

I think I’d always been keener on him than he was on me. Peter and I had been linked as a potential couple for a long as I could remember, but somehow we’d never quite got it together. Part of the problem was that all our friends wanted, even expected, something to happen; we’d spent a long time trying to find that spark that maybe hadn’t ever been there.

Deep down I’d hoped for a gentle first relationship over the summer before starting university, but by the time that May ended, I’d realised that Peter and I would never be a couple. I was mostly OK with it, but I let a part of me feel a little sad that nothing would happen.

I’d just atalar escort finished my penultimate exam on the second Thursday of June when my phone rang. It was Jen.

“Is this a good time to chat?” she asked after we’d exchanged the usual pleasantries.

I said I was happy to talk.

“I’ve had a bit of bad luck,” she began.

I listened and let her continue.

“I’ve twisted my ankle. It’s not hugely serious, but I need to rest it.”

“Oh no, will you be OK for Kenya?” I asked. Jen had booked a once-in-a-lifetime safari trip for the final week of June – she’d always wanted to do some wildlife photography.

“It should be OK,” she explained, “but the doctor says I need to rest it completely.”

I murmured my sympathies.

“Anyway, I was booked to do a wedding on Saturday,” she went on. “And I know you said you didn’t want to do any work before your exams were over. But I just wondered if you’d be willing to cover it.”

There was a pause as she let me consider.

My final exam was on the Wednesday afternoon and it seemed improbable that I’d need to do any crucial revision on the Saturday. I was fairly sure that Dad would be relaxed about it.

“Yeah OK,” I said. “Am I doing it on my own?”

“Brad was going to do it with me,” Jen explained. “Do you mind if he helps? I think it’ll need the two of you; it’s quite a big on – over two hundred people.”

My heart sank.

“Is that OK?” she pressed. “I’ll make sure he knows that you’re in charge and he’s got to do what you tell him. And if there’s any nonsense, you phone me straight away.”

I hesitated again. But the money would be good and surely, even I could put up with Brad for just one afternoon.

“OK,” I said, “I’ll do it.”

“Thanks so much, you’re a lifesaver!” Jen replied.

I ended the call and walked home slowly, regretting my decision more and more with every step I took.

“You’re too highly strung,” Brad sniggered as I drove the two of us up to the hotel that Saturday. He was enjoying winding me up. “You need to relax more!”

We’d been on the road less than ten minutes and already it wasn’t going well. Of course, he hadn’t been ready when I called to pick him up and my attempts to quickly run through the outline of the wedding ceremony and reception were entirely pointless – they’d simply gone in one ear and out the other. I was tempted to lock him in the car all afternoon – it would be far easier.

“Does this thing go any faster?” he asked, looking around the pokey Nissan Micra with distain.

“It’s my Mum’s,” I explained. “It’s just a little run-around for shopping – she didn’t want a bigger engine.

“Anyway, where do you need to be when the registers are being signed?” I asked, hoping he’d at least taken that in.

“At the top of the stairs?” he hazarded.

I rolled my eyes.

“No, that’s when they’re ready to come out in procession. When I’m covering the certificate signing, you need to take photos of the string quartet,” I sighed.

“I’m teasing you,” he nudged me. “I knew that – just lighten up. Relax! Everyone’s gonna be having fun and we need to have fun too!”

I felt sick to the pit of my stomach.

“Told you!” Brad taunted. “We got everything we wanted – and we got out twenty minutes early!”

I wasn’t quite sure why he was in such a celebratory mood. To be honest, I’d lost track of him almost as soon as we’d arrived at the hotel and although he’d insisted that he’d taken a multitude of fantastic pictures, it wouldn’t have surprised me if the newlyweds ended up with an album full of lens caps.

But if they did, that wasn’t my problem – I was happy enough with my photos – and they were the important ones.

“Yeah, well done,” I said, humouring him grudgingly.

We drove out of the hotel gates and headed for home. Brad was texting on his phone.

“What are you doing when your Mum’s in Kenya?” I asked to break the silence.

“I’m going away with my Dad,” he replied. “Barbados,” he added.

I could forgive him for sounding a little smug.

“Very nice,” I said. “A whole week?”

“Nearly two,” he replied. “Lots of chilling on the beach, bit of snorkelling.”

“And your half-brothers – will they be there too?”

Brad nodded.

“Should be good fun,” he said.

I drove on in silence, secretly very jealous. My holiday wouldn’t come until September when I was spending a week visiting my older sister in France.

I pulled up outside Brad’s house.

“Well, thanks for giving me a ride back,” he said.

I handed over the camera bag and showed him where all the memory cards were.

“Good luck for your last exam,” he added. “We’ll have to celebrate when you’re done.”

“Celebrate?” I asked in astonishment.

He smiled and leaned forwards into his rucksack, which was still on the passenger seat.

“Look what I found,” he smiled cheekily.

He slid a bottle from inside the bag; I recognised it instantly – it ataşehir escort was a magnum of champagne from the reception.

“Should you have that?” I asked sternly.

Brad shrugged. “They won’t miss it.”

“But what would’ve happened if you’d got caught?” I stammered. “Your mum might not be able to work there again. They certainly wouldn’t let you back.”

He turned and tapped the side of his nose.

“So the secret is not to get caught!”

I couldn’t help but give a grudging smile as I drove away.

The final week of June rolled around. My parents were away celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary – touring France. They’d invited me to join them, but I’d seized the opportunity to have the house to myself. Back at the start of the year, I’d planned for Peter and me to spend the time together, alone – but of course, that hadn’t happened. Peter was away at his maths competition in Sofia and my bed was as cold as it had ever been.

For the first morning, I’d moped around aimlessly, hoping in vain for a text message from Bulgaria. But by the afternoon, I’d had enough of cooping myself up at home and decided to go up to Brad’s house for a swim.

It was just after three as I trudged up the hill to the nicest part of town. With both Jen and her son away, I’d promised to keep their plants watered and I was allowed to use the swimming pool in their back garden as a ‘thank you’.

I opened the side gate and locked it securely behind me – not that I was expecting anyone to sneak round and join me. The terrace at the back of the house was in full sunlight – it was a baking hot day. I removed the pool cover and slipped off my t-shirt and shorts. My bikini was underneath – a new, bright green one that I’d bought for Peter – not that he’d see me wear it now.

I dived in and swam a few lengths. The water was the perfect temperature. It felt strangely liberating, as I submerged myself, as if I was washing away all the cares and stresses of the past few months. I hauled myself up on the side and looked out over the garden, feeling the warmth of the summer sun as it caressed my face.

Suddenly, behind me, I heard the creak of the back door opening.

I spun round – it was Brad. My jaw dropped open in astonishment. What was he doing here?

He raised his hand in a wave of greeting.

“You’re alright,” he called.

I shook my head. Wasn’t he supposed to be in Barbados? I was sure I hadn’t got the dates wrong.

I swam across to the other side of the pool and watched as he made his way down the steps to the terrace. Whatever else I thought about him, I had to admit he was good looking. Tall, with his blond curly hair perfectly framing his face – I hadn’t seen him shirtless for well over a year, if not longer. He’d bulked up a fair bit and his muscular chest sported a light dusting of hair. I felt my heart beat just a little bit faster.

I pinched myself, trying to make my idle thoughts behave.

“I thought you were going away,” I squeaked.

He waved his hand dismissively.

“There was a screw up with the booking,” he replied. “Do you mind if I join you?”

He didn’t wait for an answer – just dived in beside me.

We kinda ignored each other for the first few minutes and just swam up and down. I was expecting him to be a jerk and try to drown me or something, but without an audience there wasn’t any point.

Eventually I got tired and hauled myself out of the pool to dry off. I lay out on one of the loungers, secretly watching as he powered up and down the pool, enjoying the spectacle of a man exerting himself. Eventually he joined me, lying out on the other lounger, letting me sneakily admire his pecs and his abs – and the tantalising bulge in his swimming shorts.

“How’s your mum doing?” I asked as I pulled on my t-shirt. “Did she get to Kenya OK?”

He nodded.

“They were out yesterday on safari, so she sent a few photos – they’re on my phone, I’ll show you if you like.”

“Yeah that would be cool,” I replied.

“Do you wanna come in for a drink?” he asked, gesturing towards the house.

“Thanks,” I said, “a glass of water would be good.”

I pulled my shorts over my swimming costume and we climbed the steps to the house.

We sat down at the kitchen table and Brad bought over a couple of glasses of water. He slid his phone across the table to me. His mum had sent a few photos of elephants and a beautiful shot of a cheetah with two cubs.

“So go on,” I said, after I’d put down the phone. “What happened with the booking – for your holiday?”

I was expecting him to kick back and dismiss me again with a witty remark and a wave of the hand.

But he didn’t.

He hunched forwards a little and broke eye contact.

He took a deep breath.

“It’s a long story,” he said. There was a sad, almost weary tone to his voice. Was that a little sigh?

I was a little surprised, but nodded supportively, encouraging him to go on.

“It’s my step-mum,” he began. “I’ve never got on with her really, she never liked me being around – right from the start.

“I mean when my parents first split up, I’d see Dad almost every weekend. They were really good – Mum in particular – they never fought over me.

“And then Paulette came along. And I went to Dad’s less and less. Soon it was once a fortnight, then they got married, and it was every three weeks at best.

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