Man with a Camera, short fiction by David McVey

David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.

It looked like morning but it felt like night.

Jamesie liked the sharp, brittle quality of the light in May when the sun, newly sprung from the south-eastern horizon, was masked by a thin veil of early cloud. The shadows were deep and long and cold as he picked his way through the still morning-quiet streets of Drumgreen. 

In the distance he could see the giant insect-legs of the cranes in the Clydebank shipyards. Drumgreen itself, wedged between Glasgow and Clydebank, had only the one major employer. The Spartaclyde Works had once made machine tools. Now it was parts for tanks and aeroplanes.

A few other people were about, mostly heading, like him, for the dayshift at Spartaclyde. Jamesie slipped down Kilpatrick Wynd, a shortcut to the main gate of the works. At this time of day the wynd was a place of deep shadow and lingering night-chills. It was hemmed in by the walls of tenement back courts and, at one point, the rear entrance to St Andrew’s Parish Church. When he came within twenty yards or so of the church, he stopped.

Ahead, on the main road, a man was standing facing the building, a tall thin man with small round glasses, wearing a heavy brown overcoat. He also wore a hat that was slightly darker than the overcoat. He was fumbling with some sort of equipment and hadn’t seen Jamesie yet.

Jamesie edged closer to the man and saw that he was manipulating a camera placed on a long, thin-legged tripod.

Jamesie moved again. The stranger caught sight of him, paused for a moment, and then picked up the equipment and began to move away, unhurriedly. He eventually disappeared in the direction of Main Street.

*****

Annie lived opposite Drumgreen Town Hall. Nobody used it much now, apart from the Home Guard. A late Victorian structure, its walls were now decorated with memorials to the dead of the Great War. It had a certain grandeur in certain lights. Annie remembered vast communion services in older, Godlier days, when St Andrews wasn’t big enough to house the worshippers, and instead the Town Hall thronged with them. She remembered suffragettes holding meetings there, peace campaigners gathering in the early days of the Great War and General Strikers in 1926. Now its outline was muffled by banks of sandbags and its blinded windows never gleamed with light. But there was something else this morning. The streets should be quiet, now that the Spartaclyde nightshift had gone home and the dayshift was at work, but there was a man out there, a tall, thin man in brown, wrestling with a camera on a tripod, He was taking pictures of the Town Hall.

Why would anyone do that? It wasn’t that grand.

A spy? Surely the Germans wouldn’t be interested in Drumgreen Town Hall? Of course, they had bombed the town now and again, and a couple of months before, had tried to flatten Clydebank. But the Town Hall? It couldn’t be of any value to them.

Perhaps she should speak to the police or have a word with Sam McConnell; he had been an ironmonger in the town, now retired, but was the officer – ‘Captain McConnell’ – in charge of the Drumgreen Home Guard platoon, on the strength of his service with the Argylls in the Great War. But he would be sceptical, she knew. Some of the more hysterical Drumgreen folk had had spies on the brain ever since war broke out. Suspicious figures reported to the authorities had turned out to be ARP wardens or firewatchers while suspicious gatherings were usually Drumgreen’s Baptists meeting for prayer or young men preparing to play football. Was it worth risking McConnell’s rebuke?

She’d have to think about it.

*****

They were after Clydebank again, jettisoning death over the shipyards and the factories and the homes of the people who worked there. Great roarings in the sky and the thunderclap of bombs and anti-aircraft fire; bright orange flowerings when a bomb hit its target; the flash of shells being fired; the eerie, incremental probing of searchlights; the cries of the wounded and the sirens and the blink of torches and headlights as people sought to rescue those trapped in wrecked buildings.

Drumgreen was not the primary target, but as Clydebank’s neighbour there was little doubt that it would be hit. Bombloads would fall off-target and fleeing aircraft would drop their loads in panic and doubtlessly some death would fall on the town. The folk of Drumgreen sat in their cellars and shelters and waited and prayed and hoped that the stray bombs would not find them.

*****

There was a dank smell in the air, the sourness of water-dampened cinders. Great columns of fumes and dust drifted over to Drumgreen from Clydebank on a faint westerly, but the clear May sun was partly obscured by nearer veils of black, velvety smoke.

Jamesie knew that the Spartaclyde works had not been hit. The word had gone round after the all-clear when many Drumgreen folk had emerged and looked across at the fire and the fury raging in Clydebank. He left home after a sleepless night. He didn’t think he’d be much good at work today. Perhaps as he leaned over his machine he’d drift off to sleep. Many others would be in the same state.

He turned as usual into Kilpatrick Wynd and then stopped, unsure how to react.

There was dust and debris everywhere. A dirty lacework of smoke and steam drifted down the shadowed way and there were long deep runnels of filthy water. He sensed the reek of burning and a sweeter smell of death.

‘Cannae come this way, son,’ said a voice that emerged from the mist and steam, ‘St Andrew’s has been hit and this wall is about tae go.’

‘Thanks pal,’ said Jamesie, and retraced his steps to the main road, with several glances over his shoulder to the smoke-veiled ghost of the stricken church. He remembered the man with the camera.

What did it mean when a strange man, not a local, appeared from nowhere and photographed a local building – and then just a few days later, Hitler’s airmen bombed it? Coincidence, perhaps, but who was the man? If there was an innocent reason for him taking pictures of a doomed building, what was it?

He would have to go to see Sam – ‘Captain’ Sam – McConnell.

*****

It had been an incendiary, the ARP Warden told Annie. It had landed gently on the roof of the Town Hall and the beams below had finally caught fire, burning and roaring and spilling into the main body of the building. There could be no waiting now. She remembered the man, the man with the camera. He had photographed the Town Hall, then just a week later it had been destroyed. Someone had to be told.

Annie heard that Sam was probably at St Andrew’s Church, which had also been hit. She walked over there right away and sure enough, she quickly saw Sam, standing apart a bit from the melee of fire engines and trailing hoses and bustling policemen, Home Guards and ARP men. He was talking to Jamesie McLennan.

*****

Sam had been strange that day, the day after the raid. Obviously, he and his men had had a lot to deal with. But it was more than that. Jamesie and Annie had said things that had really affected him. He’d told them there was nothing he could say at the moment, but he would be in touch.

Some days later, on a balmy evening, Sam sent round a boy scout with a message for Jamesie, telling him to come to a meeting. He should go to Drumgreen JFC Social Club. The Town Hall was no more, and the obvious replacement meeting venue, St Andrews Church, was also in ruins. Jamesie told Rena, his wife, that he had to go out, but wouldn’t be long. He wondered if there would be many people at this meeting. Had other folk seen the mysterious German spy – if that was what he was?

There was a small function room at the Social Club, used by the football club’s committee for meetings and by the likes of the local Labour Party and the Trades Council. Harry the barman directed Jamesie to that. He knocked on the door and heard Sam’s voice shout ‘Come!’ He went in and saw Sam – big, broad, moustachioed and in his civvies – sitting at the near end of the table next to Annie Semple, a bright, cheerful woman in late middle age. No one else was in the room.

‘Sit down, Jamesie,’ said Sam, adopting the bluff, welcoming but formal manner that had helped him to sell so many saws and axes and sets of cutlery. ‘Now, I’ve already said to Annie that it’s unusual for me to do this. I’m telling you things you don’t need to know. I just rather think that if you do know, it may stop rumours spreading.’

‘Aye, that’s fine, Sam, but what is it all about? You’re being that mysterious…’

Then there was another knock at the door. Sam indicated that Jamesie should stop speaking, and went over himself to open the door. When he did so, he gave a grunt of welcome and widened the door to admit the visitor.

It was the man with a camera, the thin, drab, secretive man, in the overcoat he still wore even in warm May weather, and the hat. He was smoking a short thin cigar.

‘Now,’ said Sam, ‘Annie and Jamesie, I can’t tell you this man’s name…’

‘There’s no need for that,’ said the man in a piping little voice and a southern English accent. ‘My name is Arnold Pilthorpe. I work for the Government.’

‘You took photies of St Andrews! And the Town Hall!’ said Jamesie, ‘And then they got bombed, both of them.’

‘Aye, and ye were right sleekit about doing it as well,’ Annie weighed in, ‘First thing in the morning when nearly naebody was about.’

Pilthorpe turned to Sam and simply asked, ‘Sleekit?’ Sam explained.

‘I do work for the Government, though,’ said Pilthorpe exhaling clouds of cigar smoke as he did so. ‘My job is to take photographs of important, beautiful, historic buildings that might be lost through enemy action. That’s all. We were losing so many splendid buildings, especially in London, that the authorities decided to make a record of those at risk. Just in time, in these two cases.’

He reached inside his overcoat (which until now he hadn’t even unbuttoned) and pulled out a paper bag. He ballooned it open and Jamesie could see that it held dusty white peppermints. He put one in his mouth and returned the bag to his overcoat pocket, before continuing; ‘The light is better at that time in the morning. One gets better pictures. Also, a colleague of mine was attacked in Birmingham; he had been seen photographing a Georgian building just days before it was bombed. It has always been felt that some observers might make a link between picture-taking and subsequent bombing. The earlier I photograph, the fewer people I see. The fewer I worry. That is why I was – what was the word? – sleekit?’

‘You see?’ smiled Sam, looking at Jamesie and Annie.

Jamesie stared at the man and then at the table. Their buildings had been bombed and now they were being asked to feel good because at least there were photographs.

‘I’ve got work tomorrow,’ he said, ‘I need to get hame.’

‘And I’ve to make my man’s piece for tomorrow,’ said Annie.

Everyone stood up at once, as if they’d been rehearsing.

‘You’ll keep this to yourselves then?’ said Sam.

‘Remember, my life may depend on it,’ said the man with the camera.

‘Why should I want to tell anyone?’ Jamesie snapped, and left the room.

‘He’s awfy tired,’ said Annie on her way out, ‘works long shifts.’ Then she left too.

Sam went over to the door and closed it. ‘Do you think they’ll keep it to themselves?’

‘Oh,’ said the man, ‘I do hope so. Be rather awkward if they don’t.’

Sam shivered. He had a parade tonight, but next day he’d be in Clydebank helping with the continuing clear-up and salvage work.

They went out together into sharp evening air soured by burning.

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