It never felt dirty, not at the time. Oh, sure, there were cobwebs and flaking paint; dust, rust and oil. But even in the filthiest old derelict warehouse Sheena’s overwhelming mood was one of excitement, rediscovery.
You couldn’t let a new house get that grubby, not unless you were some kind of reality-TV level slob, but the old buildings – the ancient, forgotten places – they just sort of mulched down into a kind of urban leaf-litter, formed from decaying concrete and smelling like old blood, piss and sour wine.
The smell of dead spaces.
Standing on Tom’s cupped hands, her short, dark hair dangling over one eye, Sheena scrambled up to the broken window-ledge, hoisted one knee until her scuffed Converse found a break in the mortar, then rolled her hips up and over the edge.
She lay there for a moment then reached down to haul up the backpack, stowing it carefully beside her. Finally, she caught Tom’s outstretched hand as he ran into the base of the wall – his trainer soles grinding hard enough into the prefab concrete to let him surge upwards one step, two – and dragged him onto the ledge.
The climb down inside was shorter, and relatively easy. As their eyes adjusted to the dimness, the pair could just make out the dimensions of what Tom had assured her was probably an old factory. What had been made there, he didn’t know; but the empty, cavernous space bore tantalizing traces of whatever vast pieces of equipment it had been built to house – here a repeating pattern of bolt holes, marching across the floor like the prints of football boots; there the silhouette of a bracket, long since removed, marked only by the absence of layer upon layer of paint.
“We’ll never get any decent shots in this light.” Tom’s voice rang hollowly from the bare walls. “I’ll get the flash units sorted out. You set up the tripod.”
Sheena grinned in the dark. In the few years she’d known him, Tom had always struck her as a romantic, the typical flaky artist. Definitely the least bossy of her mates, always easy-going, even a bit scatter-brained sometimes. Then she’d seen him work, and realised he saved his passion and focus for his art. Whatever subject he fixed on became the only thing in his world. Communication was a distraction. When he was working, he ordered; he commanded. Sheena wasn’t sure if he even realised he was doing it, and helping him out was a small price to pay for the chance to follow him into these wonderful, fresh, lost playgrounds.
And the pictures he brought back were stunning. He’d got them into an old cinema a few weeks before it was demolished to make way for the new multi-plex, and they’d immortalised the curving rows of purple velour seats, dust motes spiraling in the still air.
He’d found an abandoned asylum deep in the New Forest, and she’d marveled as he took shot after shot of the chilling, secret detritus of tragic humanity, finding beauty in every one.
For her, the thrill was always in going; being somewhere nobody had been in years, and feeling the echoes of their thoughts tremble in the architecture. But Tom seemed to be immune to the places themselves. He planned meticulously beforehand, and afterwards reveled in the pictures he had created, but during a shoot he seemed to lock out everything except the visual. That intense focus, that drive, seemed to insulate him from whatever vibes a location gave out.
Or maybe, she thought, he just decided to own whatever fell in front of his lens.
They worked through the afternoon, lighting and documenting corner after corner, wall after wall, with Tom snapping directions (“There. Bring it closer. Bounce it off the ceiling.”) and the camera’s mechanism clicking softly.
The last room they went into showed signs of other explorers. A smashed and boarded-over door made Tom frown. He’d told Sheena the very first time she’d tagged along that his art wasn’t about breaking in, that disturbing the spaces like that ruined their purity, or some such artsy bollocks. She hadn’t understood then, but now she waited quietly, watching as he took in the damage, and the decades-old repair.
He sighed a little as he turned and glanced at the massive swathes of spray paint defacing the wall opposite. Tags, graffiti; the spoor of kids marking territory they neither claimed nor had any intention of possessing. Just initials, scrawled as big as a lanky teenager could reach, claiming I AM HERE like a scream in the forest.
Tom shook his head. “Too human.” He drew a deep breath, and began to scout out the corners away from the tags, searching for a useable angle.
Sheena stared at the painted wall. Somebody had come here, just like them. Exploring. Seeking out a space to be themselves, even if no-one would ever know it but them.
She wondered how old the kid was now. Was he middle-aged, with kids of his own? Did he even remember coming here and leaving his mark? Or were she and Tom truly the only people alive who knew this secret?
She walked slowly to the wall. Was she imagining the scuff marks in the dust underneath?
She stood, an arm’s length from the wall, and raised her hand.
He would have had a backpack, too. There were at least four colours of paint here.
She mimed clutching a chunky spray can, and crooked her finger.
psssshhhhh . . .
Sheena started as the camera clicked, closer than she’d thought possible.
“Tom! Umm, I was just-”
“Stop what?” she asked.
He paused. “Carry on . . . being here. Please.”
Sheena froze, grinned awkwardly. “I can’t. I didn’t mean to-”
“There. Turn a little. Arm up.” The instructions were softly given, but she felt the edge of command. Tom was working. She could help him make something beautiful. She turned to face the wall.
She couldn’t tell, but guessed he was close behind her now. That would frame the wall with her hair, and maybe a shoulder.
Slightly off to one side. He’d crouched, so perhaps her arm would be in this one.
“Move your head. Turn it.”
“Lift your hair. It’s in the way.”
“Lose the shirt.”
For a second, she didn’t breathe. From anyone else, a line like that would have been met with a vicious sneer and both middle fingers. Tom was waiting, poised, camera up. Not leering, not fearful. Just intently waiting for her to do what he needed.
The thought came to her, loud enough to echo round her mind, that this could change everything between them, that their days of being just friends might end right here.
And the quiet echo came: So what? . . . So what? . . . So what?
Before she had time to talk herself out of it, Sheena popped open her top button and stripped her shirt over her head. She flung it out of the circle of light, and turned back to the wall.
“Touch the wall. Fingertips.”
She took a deep breath, then turned, head held high, fists clenched at her sides and small, firm breasts thrust out defiantly. For the first time ever, Sheena stared straight into the lens of Tom’s camera.
Tom didn’t move. He hardly seemed to breathe. After a few pounding heartbeats, Sheena thought she heard him whisper a single word:
She wanted to leap for joy.
“Lean back against the wall.”
“Turn your head again.”
“The trousers. Get rid of them. Shoes too.”
This time there was no hesitation. She stripped, stumbling as the waistband caught round her ankles, whipping off the skimpy little black panties with their skull-and-crossbones print, and throwing them after her shirt.
Tom was backing away, crouching and tilting the camera. She began moving on her own, not waiting for directions. Her arm went up, hips askew, then a little shuffle of her feet on the dusty floor.
CLICK, CLICK, CLICK
Hands on her hips, she slowly turned around, eyeing the camera over one shoulder.
CLICK, CLICK, CLICK
She knelt, knees spread wide, back towards him.
She lay down in the perfectly preserved grime and mulch of this dead, forgotten place, and rolled over, lying right beneath the vibrant scrawls of paint that still looked as lively and as fresh as the day they were spat out by an angry young man.
She looked half-dead, half-alive, and wholly forgotten. Wholly human.
Sheena waited. There was no further sound from Tom’s side of the room. Warily, she lifted her head.
Tom was standing, camera hanging limply round his neck, with both hands pressed lightly to his mouth. His eyes still held that perfect focus, but now a slight frown hinted that he wasn’t certain how to feel about this; that he knew what he wanted, but wasn’t sure that he should.
Sheena raised herself up on one elbow as he walked towards her, and arched an eyebrow. “So. Did you get what you wanted?”
Tom raked his fingers through his hair, and smiled. “I think so, yes.”
Sheena allowed herself a small, proud smile. Well, if nothing else, she had helped. She wondered what the pictures would look like.
“But,” Tom added, “I have very recently decided that there might, um, possibly be other things that I want, now.”
She grinned. “Such as . . . ?”
“Such as should probably – definitely – be discussed over coffee.”
“Sounds good to me. But, Tom?”
“Help me find my shoes? I think one went over there . . . ”