My heart is thudding, fast and loud, the beats spreading across my chest and sending echoes into the knots of my brain. Any other time, I’d be worried. But right now I know this is normal and that, in exactly five seconds, I’m going to need all the blood flow I can get. Five long seconds…four…then three. The red light flicks to amber and I empty my mind. From now on I will decide by instinct and act on reflex. And rely on luck.
I don’t flex my muscles, I don’t check my stance, I don’t take a last, deep breath. I’ve done all that. I simply look ahead and deny myself thought.
But three seconds take forever and an image creeps back, inevitable and irritating like a fly on a sunlit window sill. Nothing important, just the smile of the waitress at breakfast. A cheerful smile, uncomplicated and unworried. I wish briefly that I were her and then bat the thought away as the light flicks green, slipping instantly into a different world, a streamlined tunnel of blur with frames so fast they spin your head. Thought is impossible now and I don’t try: I let training take over and search only for rhythm.
In the first draft, Neil was a ski-racer who’d crashed and this opening was a flashback to just before his accident. But, being hugely driven and single-minded, he came out a bit…up himself in the rest of the book. I didn’t really like him by the end and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have either. He wasn’t someone you wanted to spend time with so, in the end, he had to go. In the second draft he became a much more humble character, who has to fight for everything, and that made a better story. Not to worry; the original Neil will make a great baddie somewhere else.
‘Once you’ve started, there’s no going back.’
She looked at me then, her hand on the light switch. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t suppose there is.’ And she plunged us both into blackness.
I stood still, on familiar ground while she, I guessed, was faintly surprised at how dark completely dark could be. ‘You ok?’
‘Yes. Thank you. Shall I start?’
I grinned, relieved that I could still understand her without seeing her lips. ‘Sure.’
I heard the scrape as she levered the end off the film can and a clink as it hit the ground.
‘This is very strange. Not to be able to see at all.’
‘Yes. You ok with it?’
‘Of course. Now I can put the pliers down?’
‘Yes, and pick up the developing spool from the edge of the sink. Move your hand slowly or you’ll knock it over.’
‘Thank you. I have it.’
‘Push one end of the emulsion into the clip in the middle of the spool and then wind it all on. More difficult than it sounds. Try to do it quickly in case there are any light-leaks in here.’
‘What do you do if you see a streak of light?
‘Close your eyes.’
And I swear I felt her smile.
That final line is something my father, John Dixon, once said to me in a darkroom and so it was very hard not to use it in the book…