Ever since I could hold my father’s old digital camera in both hands, I’d been fascinated by taking pictures. Capturing life in a single moment. That first camera barely worked - it was more than a few years old by the time he gave it to me after months of me disappearing with it into the garden for hours on end. I remember him saying ‘someone might as well use it’, and with that my life took a very straightforward path.
After finishing school, I set up my own photography business. I knew university would never be for me, as the idea of sitting in a lecture hall for four years bored me almost to tears. As soon as I could afford to, I paid a friend to set up a website for me - Luke Lane Photography - and I got to work as soon as I could, though the jobs were slow at first.
My first wedding, a job I had taken on with some reluctance but came with a modest paycheck, was for an old school friend. He’d met his soon-to-be-wife at college and after they both dropped out, moved back to our hometown in deep Sussex. The day had gone smoothly, and once I’d published a selection of the best shots to my website I started getting more and more requests coming through the ‘Make a Request’ form for ‘the guy who took those photos at George’s wedding’. Who knew my big break would have been a wedding for someone who used to eat insects for fun at school.
Eventually I’d set myself up with a regular gig, and most weekends I bundled my equipment into my aging Honda and drove - occasionally for a few hours at a time - to the next venue. There weren’t many professional photographers in the area, and my rates were reasonable enough that I enjoyed moderate success, particularly in the summer. However winter was usually a different story - not many people want to get married in the cold, so I was usually running lean in those months while I scraped enough together for rent. This year was shaping up to be particularly demanding - my car, which had run fine through the years despite the odds against it, had finally breathed its last on the side of the road last week. Replacing it - and it as my sole source of transportation it definitely needed replacing - had left a more-than-significant hole in my finances that I desperately needed to fill if I wanted to have somewhere to live.
It was then, as I was sitting hunched over the plastic-topped table I used as a desk scouring through my bank account desperately trying to find something, anything I could use to pay rent, that a job request came through. The night was late - really more like morning, that's how long I had been on my laptop at that point, when the email notification pinged up at the bottom corner of my screen. I let it disappear at first, doubtful that a job request sent in the dead of night could really be genuine, but curiosity got the better of me and after a few moments I clicked into my inbox to read it. The email subject was ‘Request for the services of Mr. Lane’. The formality of the title struck me as unusual compared to the emails I usually received - some of them were barely legible.
‘Dear Mr. Lane,’ the email began. ‘My name is D. Middleton, and I am inquiring in regards to your photography services for the wedding of my daughter and her husband.’ The rest of the email covered the details of the job - location, time, and so on - all in the same curiously formal tone. I skim read up to the end, where I noticed something that stood out - a confidentiality clause. For most jobs, it was standard practice not to post anything online before the lucky couple had signed off on the edits, but a full-on confidentiality agreement asking me not to tell anyone I’d even been at the wedding was almost unheard of, particularly as after which was a much, much higher amount of money than I usually asked for. Enough that my housing worries would be taken care of, at least until the spring came around. God, I hoped this wasn’t a joke.
Immediately I tapped out a response and sent it through, confirming the fee and request were correct, and waited in hope of a reply, my face so close to the screen at this point I would have smacked into it with a gentle push. I was rewarded a few minutes later with another email, reiterating D. Middleton was indeed very serious and asking if I could be available in two days. Usually a booking this close to the ceremony would set off alarm bells in my head - leaving the photographer this late was generally a sign that someone else had dropped out - but when the contents of your fridge consist of a few slices of vegan cheese and a suspect salad from the supermarket’s reduced section, alarm bells can be ignored to a certain extent. After sending over a request for the deposit and my bank details, I went to bed, though sleep eluded me and I stared at the ceiling for a few hours before I eventually drifted off.
A few days later, I pulled up to the farmhouse mid-morning. The sky was overcast and the chill of autumn had started to seep in. Stepping out of the car, it was deathly quiet and I couldn’t see any signs of life. Either this was objectively the worst wedding in the universe or I was the only one here. I pulled up the email on my phone - everything matched with the details I’d written down which eliminated the possibility I had misread the address or time.
I shrugged to myself, figuring I’d been given an earlier time to take some shots of the couple before the guests arrived, and went around to the boot of my car to fetch my equipment. As I began delicately placing the heavy bags down onto the graveled drive, the front door of the house opened, and out stepped a man, small in stature and clearly middle-aged, his hair peppered with grays. He was dressed in a navy three-piece suit, with a matching tie and floral waistcoat.
‘My Lane I presume?’ he came towards me, hand outstretched.
‘That’s me,’ I responded, shaking his hand. It was curiously cold. ‘Are you Mr. Middleton?’ He smiled, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
‘Please, call me David. Thanks so much for coming on short notice. Care to come inside?’ He gestured towards the open door to the house, and shouldering my camera bags, I made for the entrance.
‘Are you expecting the guests a bit later?’ I asked over my shoulder, as I gingerly navigated the narrow doorway, ducking my head to avoid the low frame. David followed, and shut the door behind us. The corridor was cramped so he was forced to awkwardly side-shuffle past the bulky bags to get through.
‘Ah no other guests today, today is family only,’ he smiled again, tight-lipped, and gestured to me to follow him down the hall and through a door. We emerged into the kitchen, which was bare and sterile, cold light filtering through the windows. The only furniture was a hard worn wooden table, at which a woman sat, also dressed for a wedding in clothing that was as stark and drab as the room around her. David crossed over to the table and gave her shoulder a brief squeeze as he took the chair next to her, so I could only assume she was his wife, and indicated I should sit down in the empty chair opposite them. She didn’t look at me as I sat, content to remain gazing at the table as though I wasn’t there. There was a moment of tense silence, and David cleared his throat.
‘So, Mr Lane,’ he began haltingly, as though he wasn’t sure how to begin. ‘How much do you know about the Victorians?’ An odd question for a wedding photographer. I struggled to recall from the depths of my memory History lessons of pictures of scowling men in top hats and steam engines.
‘Er, only what I remember from school, so not much,’ I answered, confused where this could be going. ‘Is that related to today?’ David nodded sadly, no longer quite meeting my eye.
‘There’s something we need to confess, Mr Lane. I wasn’t sure how to put this into writing, but the photos we need you to take today are.. somewhat unusual.’
‘I’ve done themed weddings before, if that’s what you mean.’ I was starting to feel out of my depth here - something was definitely wrong here. David shook his head, reaching a hand to take a hold of his wife’s. She continued to stare into nothing, not reacting to his touch.
‘It’s a bit more than just a ‘theme’, I’m afraid,’ he smiled at me apologetically. ‘How do I put this? In the Victorian era, many families struggled to make ends meet and luxuries were often out of their reach except for special occasions. Family photographs were certainly one of those luxuries.’ He glanced over my shoulder and I turned my head to see a closed door behind me. I couldn’t place it but there was something emanating from behind the door, a cold feeling that made me shiver.
‘If this is to do with the rates..’
‘Oh no, you’ll be paid what we promised,’ David held up his hand reassuringly. ‘It’s not that we can’t afford to pay you, but please let me continue.’ I was very lost at this point. Was this whole job some kind of prank?
‘When a family at that time wanted a portrait, it was a special moment, one that often they could only afford once in a generation. As such they were usually reserved for the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one, occasionally both. Something to keep them close after they passed,’ he said.
‘I’m not sure I follow you..’ I was feeling more and more uneasy with each passing moment. Would the money really be worth whatever this was? ‘As I said in my message, today is my daughter and her husband’s wedding day. Or, more accurately, it was supposed to be their wedding day,’ David looked at me meaningfully.. ‘They..’ he paused here, his eyes starting to tear, and his next words came out in a choke. ‘They died last week in a car accident.’
‘They.. died?’ I was certain I had misheard him. ‘But I’m here to.. take photos of their wedding?’ David nodded silently.
‘They’re in the next room,’ Mrs Middleton spoke for the first time. Her voice was tiny, quiet and hoarse, like she’d been crying for hours. ‘They died and they’re behind that door, waiting for us.’ She pried her hand from her husband’s, and for the first time her eyes met mine. ‘What David is asking for.. what we’re asking for.. is one last memory with them before we say goodbye.’ With that, what they were asking me to do finally clicked in my mind. I stood up immediately, knocking over my chair with a bang that echoed around the room.
‘You can’t be serious. You’re both insane.’
They said nothing, simply stared up at me. I made to pick up my bags, intent on getting out of there as quickly as possible, but David rose and grabbed my arm before I could move away.
‘Please! We’re not going to hurt you, I promise,’ he pleaded with me. ‘We’re just parents wanting this final moment with our daughter while we still can. I know it’s an unorthodox request but I promise we’ll pay you everything we agreed.’ He let go of my arm, looking at me like I was a cornered animal ready to bolt.
‘Unorthodox? Try illegal,’ I responded. ‘I should call the police.’ I dug into my pocket, pulling out my phone.
‘Wait! Please,’ said David. ‘I.. I own the funeral home their.. bodies.. were delivered to.’ He said the word ‘bodies’ like it caused him physical pain. ‘I’m responsible for them until the funeral. I promise you,’ he looked at my pleadingly. ‘We wouldn’t have done this if it wasn’t the only way.’
‘The only way?! You stole your daughter’s corpse and you’ve what, posed it as though it’s her wedding day? I’m leaving.’ At this point Mrs Middleton broke into tears, putting her hands to her face and her shoulders rocked up and down as her husband returned to his seat, putting his arm around her. I turned away from the couple, scooping up my bags and heading towards the door back out into the hallway.
‘Please, stop for a moment,’ I heard David’s desperate voice behind me. ‘We’ll pay you double the agreed fee for this.’ At this, and against my better judgment, I paused. Every voice in my mind told me to go, to run before this entire situation took a turn for the worse, but double an already-outrageous sum of money would set me up for months and months. The concept of no more weddings, at least for a while, was hardly stirring motivation but I’d be lying if I said at that moment the image of my rundown, leaking flat didn’t come into mind. I could afford a new suite of equipment, a real darkroom, the kick to my career I desperately needed.. I’ve never been an overly ambitious person, but selfish would be an appropriate term.
David, seeing my hesitation, rose for a second time and came over to me. ‘Double, I promise. I’ll even pay you right now if you like,’ he nodded at me, keen to reassure that he was completely sincere. ‘Before you make a decision, please, just come see them. Joyce did an outstanding job, I promise. They look like they’re sleeping, that’s it,’ his voice was gentle, as though he was talking to a crying child.
I didn’t move, torn between the two sides of my moral compass - I should leave, leave right now, report them both and never look back. How did I even know any of this story was even true? On the other hand though.. I desperately needed that money and if I did quick work, I could be out of there in less than half an hour. It’s not like there would be many poses they could do as corpses, and if they really looked like they were sleeping, maybe I could pretend, for a little while at least. I could still feel that emanating presence coming from the door though, like someone was waiting just behind it.
David,, as though my silence was taken as agreement, left me and crossed to the door leaving the chair I’d toppled where it lay. His wife, whom I assumed was the Joyce he referred to, had stopped crying by now, raising her head out of her hands to look at me again with those eyes - eyes I realised now were those of a mother in mourning. ‘Please,’ she mouthed at me wordlessly. I slowly, reluctantly, placed my bags back onto the floor.
David pushed open the door with one hand, with the other waving me over. ‘Just a look, and if you still say ‘no’ then we’ll forget this ever happened, and I’ll give you the money we agreed. I’m a man of my word.’ Slowly, I moved towards him, feeling like I was trapped in a dream, my legs moving almost of their own accord, and when I finally reached the doorway after what felt like hours, I looked inside the room.
I took the job in the end. Of course I did. Later that night, sitting at home over my laptop with a strong drink, I edited the photos exactly as I would have done for any other wedding. Usually I’d take a few days for this, pouring over the details to make sure they were just so, but I wanted today to be over as soon as possible.
With the final files sent, I pushed the laptop away, and took a long draught from my glass. The liquid trickled down my throat, warm and gentle with the promise of memories dulled. My last look at Joyce’s face in the rearview mirror as I drove away afterwards. She was smiling, the first time she’d done so all day., and in a way it chilled me more than anything else I’d seen in that morning..
I checked my phone again, something I’d been doing obsessively since I reached home. The money was all there, just as they promised, but today had been enough for me. Making plans could wait until the morning, and with this thought, I drained my glass and lurched from the room.
As I moved out of the kitchen towards my bedroom something made me pause, and I turned back, grabbing my laptop and taking it with me. Once I was firmly ensconced in the blankets, I opened it again, not quite sure what I was expecting, and went to my inbox. At the top, an unread email. Like the Middleton’s, it had been sent late, far later than any normal person would be researching wedding photographers. I opened it, and read the first line.
Dear Mr Lane, I was recommended to you by a close friend of mine, Mr. David Middleton..
Ever since I could hold my father’s old digital camera in both hands, I’d been fascinated by taking pictures. Capturing life in a single moment - or if not life, death.