Close Encounters of a Photographer

Origin: Dublin, Ireland

Author: Emma Stone

Jun. 13 2011

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Filed Under: Self Discovery

“Did I mention that I was alone and it was night time? The street lamps were twinkling picturesquely off the waters of the channel and dancing back up to ripple in reflection off the shadowy underbelly of the crossing. I was engrossed...and didn’t even notice the figure standing in front of me until he spoke, ‘Give me all your cash or I’ll kill you!’”

It was autumn.  The nights were much longer and the breeze was much sharper; I was only nineteen years of age and I felt that my life was finally beginning.  I had grown up in a small, non-descript town on the Ards Peninsula of Northern Ireland.  But now I was in Dublin with its bustling streets. The city’s art and culture was singing to my finger tips, begging me to reach out and touch that glinting tip of potential.  My time here, attending college in the proud and noble establishment of Trinity’s halls, would be the best and worst times of life. It would hold the defining moments that will shape a young, idealistic girl into a worldly wise woman.

I had never taken much interest in boys and they had never taken much of an interest in me.  When you’re insecure about something, the longer that fear lingers, the worse it gets.  It builds up in your mind until something quite trivial feels insurmountable. 

Well that was how I felt when it came to men, but I actually met someone special during that period in my life—a nice, if slightly eccentric, man-shaped person. And like the dutiful girlfriend, I took an interest in his life and hobbies.  That was how I ended up standing on the board walk of the River Liffey, with a borrowed and very expensive camera, practicing photography at the famous Ha'penny Bridge.  Did I mention that I was alone and it was night time?  The street lamps were twinkling picturesquely off the waters of the channel and dancing back up to ripple in reflection off the shadowy underbelly of the crossing.

I was engrossed in my task and didn’t even notice the figure standing in front of me until he spoke, “Give me all your cash or I’ll kill you!”

The man, more appropriately described as a boy, was wearing the typical worn, dark tracksuit of the angry and dispossessed.  He had short, cropped hair, an eyebrow piercing and a face that had never quite lost its childish structure but anachronistically looked haggard. His pupils blew and his gait was trembling ever so slightly.  During this brief second of summation all I could think about was the blasted, loaned camera around my neck and foolishly, in that moment, I protected it above my life.

“No.  I mean, I can’t.  I don’t have any money,” I voiced with an air of bravado and confidence that I didn’t feel.

I pulled out my purse and opened the note compartment, casually pushing the notes aside to hide behind the wade of receipts.  He was explaining how he wasn’t a bad person but simply had no money and needed to live and something broke in me.

“You think you have it tough?  I have no money, in fact, I have minus money.  I’m twenty thousand in debit with student loans, no job and I am studying in a course that I can’t cope with...I have to borrow money off my mother who has none as a single parent, looking after my granny and working a job that she hates for minimum wage. But we fight.  We don’t threaten people in the streets.  We try and fail so many times but we keep going because we have to.” 

He looked abashed but determined, “You have money in the bank?”

“Enough for this week’s groceries, that’s about all.  If you take it, how am I supposed to live?  I’m in a worse position than you and you don’t care.  If I can’t pay the rent, I’ll be homeless. Do you think I’ll be walking around stealing from people on the street?”

He grabbed me around the waist, poking something that felt like a knife but could just as easily have been his finger into my side through his pocket. He slowly walked me to the nearest cash machine which was unfortunately quite far away. But all I was thinking about was that bloody camera.

By pure happenstance I am extremely calm in a crisis; afterwards I go to pieces but in that moment, I’m more alive and more ‘me’ than ever and so I started to talk, really talk to him, well ‘babble’ might be more accurate.  I’ve always had a thing for waifs and strays and an unparalleled need to understand and help so I asked him about jobs, what he wanted to do with his life, about his family and where he would sleep tonight.  He showed me his Saint Christopher medallion and repeated once again that he wasn’t a bad person.  This lead to earnest philosophical questions from him about religion and the meaning of life and I offered words of hope and redemption.

When we arrived at the buzzing Temple Bar area, he leaned in and gruffed out, “Don’t you dare scream or call to the cops or I’ll stick this knife in your heart.  I don’t want to, you’re a really nice person, but I will.”

“If you like me and think I’m a nice person then why would you do this to me?”  I tried to reason.

He simply repeated the same, sob story argument like a mantra or a broken record.  All around us were vivid neon signs, the blur of pub music, wafting out on the stale ale, scented breeze and hundreds of merry makers enjoying a night out on the town.  We passed several Garde (police) but incredulously, I realised that even if I did scream, there’d be at least a dozen other girls shrieking at the top of their lungs from tickling fingers, lewd jokes or hen party hi-jinxes and no one would notice, no one would see the lost girl in trouble amid the throng. No one would stop to help.  I’d never felt more alone and disgusted at humanity and its gaudy self-absorption.

When we got to the cash machine, I withdrew forty euros claiming it was all I had, neatly forgetting about the student loan burning a hole in the bank vault.  He accepted that before turning to me and saying, “You’re really easy to talk to.  Would you go out with me?”

I was dumbstruck and momentarily forgot the circumstances, letting him down gently.  It was when he pulled me down a deserted alley and tried to kiss me and touch me that things heated up.  I sagged against the wall and discreetly zipped the heavy weight of the camera into my back pack and tried to reason with him.  He was warning me not to push him, that I didn’t want him to break and stab me and in the end I was the one that broke (camera safely secured).

“What if I break, eh?  What if I break?  There is no way in hell that I am kissing you.  I’m not that sort of a girl and you’ll just have to accept that ‘cause I’m through playing by your rules.  So go ahead, do it!” 

It was probably incredibly stupid as opposed to brave.  Not a tactic I would recommend, but it worked!  He turned away and muttered, “I’m going for a slash.  Don’t move.”

I ignored him and walked, not ran, out of the alley and to populated areas, not daring to look behind me.  He didn’t follow.

Too many failures and hurts bombard us in our lives until we are buffeted and battered into something new, something less innocent and so much more cynical and isolated from the throng of humanity; a humanity that is still scratching in the dust, praying for answers and being constantly disillusioned and thrown backwards in their progress.  I talked.  I connected with another human being and I realised that whatever my plight, I’m not alone in it and I will never take my pains for granted again nor wallow in them because I made the conscious decision to fight and not to stalk the streets in anger and hatred.  He thought he’d picked the weak runt from the herd. But I was, and I am so much stronger than he will ever allow himself to be.

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