A basic problem with early photography was its inability to hold the image of cats. Nicephore Niepce’s process of taking a metal plate coated with bitumen and bombarding it with light was quite the discovery, of course, and the further pioneering efforts by Daguerre and Talbot to develop this technique were of huge influence. For the first time in history there really was the sense that a moment in time could be frozen forever, that people and places and events could be preserved accurately. It gave us a glimpse of something godlike, something immortal. We drew a blank with cats, though.
Dogs were all right. There was something so essentially noble and straightforward about a dog, it would have been an offence to the sensibilities had dogs not been photographed. And, although it took a bit of fiddling with the lenses, by the late 1870s it had become increasingly easy to capture the likeness of horses as well. But no one had successfully managed to hold a cat upon film; there were various (unsubstantiated) reports from experimental ‘graphers that they had done it (and on the continent, always on the continent!) – only for a little while, and blurred maybe, not a good likeness, though quite definitely feline. But the image never held long enough for anyone to verify these claims, the cats faded away from the pictures within seconds.
Some said it was because the cat had no soul. Others, that it was simply too minor a lifeform, too low down upon the table of creation for the camera to recognise it. And some people – the ones who actually owned cats, who knew what they were about, knew their moods and their characters, said that the cats were doing it deliberately. Cats had no interest in their images being preserved on paper via a collusion of light and oil. What was in it for them?
For the sake of simplicity we had long claimed that the photography of cats was impossible, but that didn’t mean we thought it was actually, genuinely, impossible; no one believed that, I think, except perhaps Gerard Pomfrey, but his fustian ideas about the photosciences had long since been discredited. I was certain that the solution was out there, somewhere. It would be a long voyage of discovery for someone. That someone was not going to be me. I don’t like cats. I was not prepared to devote my hard-earned photoscopic skills on them.
I still don’t know why it was me that Simon Harries contacted. We had both studied at Oxford together, and I remember that back then his views on the inconstancy of calotypes from silver salt solutions were regarded as mildly controversial. But Harries was not the man for controversy, he had neither the charisma nor the gall to carry it off. I had had respect for Harries, I could see there was talent within him, and I think maybe I was the closest he had to a friend – but, still, we were not friends, not by any stretch of the definition, and I had neither heard from him nor of him since we’d graduated fifteen years before. I can hardly describe the surprise I felt when I received a telegram from him, let alone my surprise at the contents of that message.
He asked me to visit him at his house in South London that very evening – promptly, at half past eleven. He had something of vital importance to show me. There was no hint in his words that we had had no communication for so long, there was no greeting or attempt at reintroduction, it was as if we had been working side by side in the same laboratory every day. I was half inclined to ignore the thing, but for the urgency of the final sentence. He urged me to come alone, and to tell no one – and I confess, I was intrigued.
I had a light supper, and then caught a hansom cab to Streatham. I hadn’t been south of the Thames for a while, and I had forgotten just how much poverty there was to the place. I don’t know how man can live in such slum conditions. Still, I was surprised when the cab dropped me off , the driver himself looking eager to get back to the civilising areas of the city and only too relieved when I told him he had no reason to wait. I had thought that Harries must have found some decent lodgings here, however cheap; but this was not a house, this was a hovel, there wasn’t even a doorknocker, I had to beat on the door with my fists. Photography was a science studied by gentlemen; this was not a place where a gentleman could live; what had happened to Harries to bring him so low?
Harries opened the door and showed me in. I would not have recognised him. He had aged. His hair was grey. He had not shaven. His cravat was askew. “What is all this about, Harries?” I asked. I felt I had the right to be a little abrupt.
His eyes wouldn’t settle on me, they darted about nervously. “You came alone?”
“As you can see.”
“And you have spoken to no one?”
“You try my patience, man.”
“Forgive me,” he said, and he smiled, and he grasped my hands in his, and shook them briefly, and he began to giggle. “I see so few people nowadays. Oh! but I have done it. I have done it! It is the discovery of the age!”
He lived in one room, I could see, and that a small one; over the floor were papers; over the papers were sheets of acetate, broken or chipped lenses, dyes, gels, scraps of stale food. “I have ‘graphed a cat,” he whispered to me, eyes shining.
I felt no personal affection for Harries, but I was nonetheless sorry that a man of such potential had gone down such a scientific blind alley. He could see the disappointment on my face; I confess, I did not try to disguise it; he grabbed on to my arm, tight. He said, “I’ve done it, I tell you!”
“Then let me see,” I said.
And then he was smiling again, a crafty little smile, I did not like that smile much. “Oho, not yet! Not yet! Not until midnight! The cats only come out at the witching hour, you’ll see, you’ll see.” And he cleared the debris off the only chair, and invited me to sit down.
A little before twelve, he fetched for me a ‘graph. He’d taken a picture of the room. He had taken it from the chair, I think, from the exact place I was sitting. The books were in slightly different positions, maybe, I saw a pile of photoscientific treatises that had since then toppled over. “There’s nothing here,” I said – “Not yet, not yet,” he insisted, “I tell you, midnight!” And I looked hard at the picture, and so did he, and that’s how we spent the next few minutes. I felt ridiculous.
The clock struck. Loud, too loud. “Sorry, sorry,” said Harries, “I make sure I can never sleep through it. But look, look, on the ‘graph!” And I was looking at the ‘graph, and of course, I expected to see nothing, and there would be an end to this. I even opened my mouth to say so; I shut it again.
For wasn’t there something swimming into focus? Wasn’t there a blur, and the blur was taking on a more rigid outline, and then a solid shape. “My God,” I said, and I apologise, but I was that surprised. Because there, looking out of the picture, indubitably, was a cat. Looking out at me. It looked as shocked as I was. Its eyes were wide in the flash light, its ears were pricked, its fur was standing on edge.
“But it must be a trick,” I said. “Simon? Is this not some small child you have dressed up as a cat, or…?”
“I have the proof!” he laughed. “Ha ha, I have proof!” And at that he threw aside a few more papers, and lifted from the floor the cat itself. He picked it up by the tail. Its face was set in the exact same expression I saw in the ‘graph, its fur still set fast and rigid.
“Dead,” I said, uselessly.
“Dead, yes, ha ha, it always kills ‘em, don’t know why!” said Harries. “Normally they just die, ha ha, and there’s nothing to show for it. But this time I set the exposure right! I got the picture! The cat didn’t die in vain!”
“And how long have you been doing this?” I asked.
He waved his hand as if it were a matter of utter irrelevance; and, I suppose, to him it was. “There are lots of cats on the streets, sniffing around the waste is a good place to find ‘em. Sometimes they claw and bite,” and I could see now, yes, there were marks all over his arms, little scars on his cheeks, “but I’m bigger than ‘em, ha ha, they’re no match for me! I take ‘em here, and I ‘graph ‘em, and I get rid of ‘em, and their bodies end up so frozen hard they sink straight to the bottom of the river! But I kept this one, he’s my little pet, my little boy. I’m proud of him. He’s made me a success, yes, he has, he’s made me all proper and worthwhile.” And he actually stroked at the dead cat’s stiffened fur.
“And what do you want of me?” I asked. And I felt a chill, as if I thought he might want to take a photograph of me, he would rob the life from me and set me down on film – but that was silly, no harm had ever come to a human being from being ‘graphed, I was not an animal.
“You have a Reputation,” said Harries, and he said it like that, with a capital R. “You are a good man. People will listen to you. I charge you to bring my discovery to the world.”
“No,” I said. I didn’t even know I was going to refuse him until I spoke, but the refusal came out immediately, as if all my instincts were revolting against him, as if my intellect knew I wanted no part of this before my mouth did.
“Why not?” he said, and for a second he scrunched his hands into fists and something dark passed over his face – then he relaxed, his face slumped back into the same failed despondency I had known from Oxford.”Why not?” he said again, meek and defeated.
“I am a man of science,” I said, “and I duly believe that the purpose of science is to better mankind. And I can see no betterment that comes from the photography of cats, not whether they are alive or dead.”
I did not want to leave on such a terse note, and so endeavoured to make some light talk with Harries about his health and the weather, but neither of our hearts were in it, and I soon gave up and took a cab home.
Three weeks later Simon Harries was dead. The police came to my house and asked whether I could help them with their enquiries, and at first I thought they meant I was implicated, and I was fully prepared to get quite angry about the matter. But they assured me that wasn’t the case, and made apologies, and spoke to me with such due deference that I fetched my coat and my hat and agreed to go with them.
They took me to Harries’ lodgings. In the middle of the room, spread over his papers, was a body, I presumed Harries’, covered with a sheet. I recoiled at that, but not at the sight of death, just at the insensitive way in which I’d been allowed to see it.
“Sorry, sir,” said the constable on duty. “We’ve tried to move it, but it weighs a ton, and that’s a fact.” He showed me a box. He told me it had been left for me, and indeed, it had my name and address written upon the side.
“Would you like me to open this?” I asked, and the policeman said it would be a blessing for ‘em if I didn’t mind.
I could not imagine why Harries would leave me anything. Inside the box I found his camera, and a dozen or so photographs. The camera was old and outmoded, I dare say he’d never had the funds to purchase a better one; I had no need of it, I had several cameras of my own at home. The photographs were an odd mix; some of them, I assume, had been taken by Harries; some of them, like the portrait of Queen Victoria, no doubt rescued from a newspaper, definitely weren’t.
At the bottom of the box I found an envelope. I opened it.
“Can’t Stop Them Now,” was all it said.
It was an unhelpful note, one of vagueness and imprecision, and unworthy of an Oxford graduate. And I understood why Simon Harries had managed no better than a lower second.
The constable said, “Begging your pardon, would you look at the body, sir? It’s got us properly stumped, and you’re a man of science and all.” I pointed out that my science was photography not medicine, but accepted after further pleading that I was still the best qualified scientist there, and permitted them to present me the corpse.
The sheet was removed. In death Harries looked larger, swollen somehow, as if he’d been the victim of drowning – though his body, naturally enough, was perfectly dry. That he was peculiarly bloated was not the most disturbing thing about him – it was more that his mouth was open, wide open, opened wider than I thought a mouth could stretch.
“For heaven’s sake,” I said, “give the man some dignity. At least shut the mouth!” And the constable said to me his men had tried to do just that, but the mouth wouldn’t shut; “The jaws have got stuck somehow, sir.” So I had a go. I put on my gloves, and reached out to Harries’ face. I saw as I neared it there were fresh scratches upon his cheeks. I pulled on the chin, but it was indeed stiff. For a moment I thought his body had frozen hard like the carcass of the cat he had shown me – but no, I pulled harder, and I could feel some give – I admit, I was none too gentle about it, and at last the hinges of the jaws gave way to my bidding and the mouth snapped tight shut.
“Thanking you, sir,” said the constable.
“That’s all I can do, I’m afraid,” I said. “This death goes beyond the knowledge afforded me by photoscopic theory. I’d say he didn’t die easily, though. Poor devil.”
Back home I perused the contents of the box once more.
There was nothing new to be gleaned from the enigmatic letter, so I destroyed it. I checked the camera; it had no film. I left it in the kitchen. It was junk, but I thought I might cannibalise it for parts.
I took the photographs up to my study. I sat in my favourite chair, drank a brandy.
Yes, some of them had clearly been taken by Harries. Two of them were of his own lodgings for a start, and I assumed they were failures from his cat experiments. But others seemed to be not of his hand at all, the style was wrong, the composition. There were pictures of empty anonymous streets. There were pictures of famous London landmarks, the one of St Paul’s Cathedral at dusk was especially striking. There was a man and a woman outside a church, all dressed up in their best – was it their wedding day? Or was it nothing of the sort? They looked uncomfortable, was that at the prospect of spending the rest of their lives together, or that someone was aiming a camera at them and stealing the moment and freezing it for his own ends and committing it to film and making it possible that strangers like me could finger at it and paw at it and stare at it without shame? There was Queen Victoria. She didn’t seem amused.
I could see nothing to connect the pictures whatsoever. I tried to puzzle it over, but not too seriously; it wasn’t my mystery, after all, I didn’t have to care. I felt drowsy. I raised a glass to Harries, and toasted him. I meant it respectfully enough, but quite see it may have come out wrong.
And when I woke up, the fire was nearly out, and there was a crick in my neck, and I’d dropped the photographs all over the floor. I looked at the time – and it was on the verge of midnight – and then, soon enough, the grandfather clock downstairs began to chime. But that wasn’t what had stirred me, that started after I had woken, and it was as if there was a little alarm inside my head and it had gone off, it had made sure I was able to see all the fun…
The top photograph was of Harries’ room. And I stared at it. I didn’t want to stare at it. I didn’t want to see a dead cat shimmer into view. But I couldn’t take my eyes off it – and yes – soon enough – there it was, the outline, then filling in with more clarity, more depth – there was the cat, sure enough, its ‘graph taken at the very point of death. The previous cat had looked merely surprised. This one was angry.
And it wasn’t alone.
Because the picture continued to blur, now all around the fringes of it, I could see the blurring ripple beneath my fingers and I all but dropped the photograph, it buzzed to the touch. And there was a sound to it now, a whispering? A hissing. And more cats began to appear.
How many cats had Harries squeezed into his studio? What had he done?
There were a dozen – then there were more – then the picture was full of them, a hundred cats, a hundred and one, who could say? – big cats, kittens too, and all spilling out over each other, jostling for space, cramming themselves into every last crevice of space the picture could afford, blotting out the background of the room until all that could be seen was wall to wall cat.
And even though the picture was full, I could see that the ‘graph was blurring still, and the hissing was louder now, it was a seething – and there were still more cats being born, but there was no space for them, they were crushing the other cats now, they were bending themselves out of shape too, they were distorting, they were making themselves anew.
And still, still, the cats wouldn’t stop. And there was no light to the picture now, it was all just a mass of black, and the black was crying out, I knew that black wasn’t a void, it was anything but, it was the weight of all the cats in the world stuffed into an area no more than a few inches square, and still, still the cats wouldn’t stop.
And the other pictures.
There were cats piled up as high as St Paul’s Cathedral, they were choking up the River Thames. There were cats in the wedding dress, there were cats perched on top of the bridegroom’s hat, and pouring out from under his hat, and pouring out from under him. There was Queen Victoria, regal, unsmiling, and the cats were prodding at her face, they were prodding at her cheeks, they were forcing a smile out of her whether she liked it or not.
And I knew they were here. That the world was full of ghosts, stuffed together tight, and that we couldn’t see. But the camera could see. The camera could see the cats, at least. At least it could only see the cats.
I wanted to throw the photographs from me, get them away as far as I could. But I couldn’t move. And I felt something so heavy on my chest – and I knew they were there, all of them, all the cats who had ever died, all of them were sitting on me and crawling over me and trying to find somewhere warm to shelter away from the cold of extinction. I thought I couldn’t breathe. I thought I couldn’t breathe. Then, then I forced myself to my feet. And, of course, there was nothing pinning me down, of course there was no weight to shift – and, of course, nothing kicked and wailed and howled as it scattered to the floor.
I lit a candle. I went downstairs.
I had to get to the camera. To destroy it? I don’t know. To take pictures, lots of pictures, to fill the world with cats, say to everybody, look! look! this is where the dead go!
Film that doesn’t show us what is really there, that gives us stories and fantasies instead, what use could that ever be?
And as I went down the stairs I imagined the cats beneath my feet would trip me up, and I held on to the banister rail so tightly. And I imagined my stepping on their tails, my treading down on their backs, the crunch of their bones breaking underfoot, the howls, the mews, the pitiful mews.
I entered the kitchen.
The camera was where I’d left it, on the table.
Wrapped around it – licking it, even? – was a cat. The fattest cat I had ever seen. Greasy too, its fur looked slick and oily and wet.
It bared its teeth at me.
“Get away!” I cried. “Get out of here!”
It wouldn’t take its eyes off me. It wouldn’t move from the camera.
“Didn’t you hear what I said? What do you want? Tell me what you want!” I was ready to bargain with a cat. And I threw the candle at it.
I didn’t aim at the cat directly. I think it knew that. I think that’s why it didn’t even flinch. The candlestick passed harmlessly overhead.
“Get out!” I said, and I mimed throwing something else, although I had nothing left to throw, and of course the cat could see that. But it yawned, it stretched. It gave me a look that I can only describe as reproachful. And then, slowly, in its own time, it slinked away from the camera. It dropped off the table, and for all its bulk landed lightly on its feet.
“You get away!” I said. But it was ignoring me now. I backed away from it as it trotted towards me, out of the door, out of the room.
I looked for it in the corridor, but it was dark now without the candle. I couldn’t see it.
I went to the camera.
I was going to destroy it. But now I picked it up, I felt the urge to take photographs with it. What else is a camera for? No, I was going to destroy it. I was going to smash it down upon the table, now, hard, the glass would shatter, and all the ghosts would be locked away forever somewhere we couldn’t see.
And I saw there was film in it. There hadn’t been film earlier. I had checked. Who had put the film in?
I took out the film, and had it developed.
I haven’t destroyed the camera.
I’ve told Cook to keep it in the kitchen. And if the cats get in, and sometimes they do, she is to remove them from the house. But she must be gentle with them. She must give them milk first, and treat them with respect.
I haven’t used the camera, either. Though one night I woke up, and I was downstairs, in the kitchen, and I was holding the camera with both hands. And I had never walked in my sleep before. I woke up in time, I went back upstairs, I locked my bedroom door. I keep the door locked every night now.
Maybe I’ll destroy the camera anyway. One day. We’ll see. I just don’t think that would make the cats very happy.
There are African tribes I’ve heard of, savages really, who don’t like the white man taking photographs of them. They fear that it takes their souls. But I worry that the reverse may be true. What if the camera brings a dead soul back? What if every picture confers a little immortality, and the world simply cannot support the weight of all those never-to-be-forgotten memories?
I destroyed the photograph that I had found in the camera. No one else need ever see that. For my part, though, it might as well still exist. For my part, I might as well have framed it, and hung it over my bed. It’s not as if I’ll ever forget what was in that photograph, not one single detail of it.
The picture was of Simon Harries. And I now know how he died. And I now know why his mouth was open so unnaturally wide, because there was something forcing the bulk of its entire body in. It knew what it was doing, too – the photograph had caught a little jaunty wave of the tail. And I don’t think it was the first that had crawled inside Harries’ mouth, I think that Harries’ bloated body was full of them.
And I remember how I had forced his jaws shut, and the resistance I felt, and I think I must have had that ghost body bitten clean through.
I’ll destroy the camera one day. I will. But for now, I treat all cats well, and I sleep with the door locked, and my mouth taped up.
No one can take photographs of babies either. Babies have no souls. But no one wants a picture of a baby.