Photograph by Chloe Dewe Matthews, Story by Martyn Bedford
The procedure is the same as always. I am escorted to the Interaction Room and made to sit at the desk, facing the glass screen that divides both desk and room. My escorts retreat but do not leave. After the customary wait, my Interactor lets himself into the other half of the room, briefcase in hand. He sits opposite me, shaved head gleaming beneath the spotlights that enclose us in white haze. His suit shimmers like a seal’s pelt. The screen holograms my reflection over his face, as if we are one entity. This thought hasn’t struck me before but I daren’t let it distract me: it might be months until my next Interaction – assuming this one ends in failure, as the others have done. I shut that thought down, too.
No courtesies, no preamble; he simply opens his briefcase and produces the block of paper and the pen and sets them down on his side of the desk. I glance at the paper then immediately look away. He reaches into the briefcase once more for the Interaction Prompt. A photograph, this time. Not a tennis ball or a brick, not a live beetle or a pumpkin seed. Not a recording of someone yawning. I know better than to raise my hopes: the more stimulating prompts can be the toughest. The Interactor slides the photo into the tray beneath the dividing screen. I remove it.
‘Please study the Prompt,’ he says, on cue.
The Question will follow shortly, so I try to absorb as much detail as possible. A colour photo of a room. Bare, windowless – a basement? – with pale green walls and floor. Dark-green door in the far corner; doorless rectangular opening, right foreground. In the ceiling, a neon strip-light. Metallic cabling and heating or ventilation ducts. To one side of a partial dividing wall, wooden benches and orange plastic chairs are stacked. At the base of this wall stands a blue plastic bucket, white handle. Spartan, institutional, anaemic. A storage area in a school? Hospital? Community centre? School, I decide.
‘Here is the question,’ the Interactor says, bringing Prompt Orientation to a close. His tone, as ever, is neutral, his face as expressionless as his voice.
I tell myself to remain calm but, all the same, my head fills with white noise and my mouth tastes of coins. Even though I’m expecting him to speak, it startles me.
‘Could you tell me about the people in this picture?’
First thought: there are no people. First thoughts aren’t to be trusted, though. Or second, third and fourth thoughts for that matter. If you’ve only produced unacceptable answers it’s hard to keep faith in your ability to respond correctly.
He wants people. I must find them for him.
‘There’s a painter,’ I say. ‘Decorator. He’s not here but his paint is. On the walls, the ceiling. Two painters. Father and son. Or brothers. Or they could be women. Once this room echoed with the sounds of them working, talking, laughing – the music on their radio.’
As I speak, I take care not to look at the Interactor. Or at the block of paper.
‘A plasterer. A floor-layer.’ Is that a job? ‘Someone has done the wiring, the electrics – installed those those those tubes, heating ducts or whatever they are. A heating engineer.’ I’m gabbling but can’t stop for fear of drying up. ‘Builders. The men, the workers, who built this room, the building.’ Who are they though, these builders? ‘A bricklayer, carpenter, the guy who pours the cement, the foreman . . . the architect.’ I name him. ‘Stephen. Thirty-seven years old. Died in a car crash before the building – the school – was completed. He had two young daughters who would one day attend the school their father had designed – walk along the corridors, sit in the classrooms, constructed to his specifications.’
The thread dissolves in my mind as the words are uttered.
No way of knowing how any of this is being received. The Interactor’s inscrutability is so total that, if I suddenly slapped the screen, I doubt he would flinch.
Focus. The photograph. The people.
‘Children,’ I say. Of course. ‘The pupils who use those benches and chairs at school assemblies. Each chair, each bench, bears a trace of every child who has ever sat on them. Their life stories. Like like like whispers from the ghosts of the living.’
I clutch at names, faces. But the children disintegrate, too.
How much time is left? As always, there’s no timer. I talk until he stops me or until I run out of words.
The blue bucket. Right there in the foreground, dead centre.
‘A janitor. Bob – no, Vaclav. Been in this country two years – sends half his wages back to his wife and kids in Slovakia. Used to be a teacher back in in in Bratislava. That’s his bucket. He’s out of shot – behind the camera – holding a mop, waiting for the photographer to finish so he can get on with swabbing the floor.’
The photographer. Jesus Christ the photographer. I scrap Vaclav, switch to the guy – the woman, the young woman – who took this picture, who composed it. The centrepiece of her prize-winning exhibition: Green Room With Blue Bucket.
‘She never photographs people, only empty rooms, because . . .’
Why? Why does she photograph empty rooms? I have no idea. I slump in my seat.
‘Your time is up,’ the Interactor declares. ‘Please return the Prompt.’
I place the picture in the tray and he restores it to the briefcase.
'What about my Interaction Reward?’
But he’s already gathering them up: the pen, the paper. He stows them away and, in the same motion, rises to his feet and turns to leave.
I stand, lurch towards him. The escorts reach me as I swing a fist at the screen and, by the time they have me under restraint, the Interactor has gone. In the glass, only my reflection remains.
Martyn Bedford is the award-winning author of five novels for adults – including Acts of Revision, The Houdini Girl and The Island of Lost Souls – and three for young adults, as well as numerous short stories. His debut YA novel, Flip, won four regional prizes and was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award. Between them his novels have been translated into fifteen languages. Martyn’s solo collection of short fiction for adults, Letters Home, was published in 2017 by Comma Press. A former journalist, Martyn is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Leeds Trinity University. He lives in West Yorkshire. To find out more, visit his website at www.martynbedford.com
Chloe Dewe Matthews is a photographic artist based in St Leonards-on-Sea. Her work is internationally recognised, exhibiting at Tate Modern, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Museum Folkwang and Fotomuseum Antwerp, as well as being published widely in newspapers and magazines such as the Guardian, Sunday Times, Financial Times, Harpers and Le Monde. Public and private collections have acquired Chloe’s work and her awards include the British Journal of Photography International Photography Award, the Julia Margaret Cameron New Talent Award and the Royal Photographic Society Vic Odden Award and her nominations include the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, the Prix Pictet and Paul Huf Award. Find her here @chloedewemathews