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The Secret Obsession - A Short Story

Updated: May 31

A while back I entered a short story competition, one with several rounds. NYC Midnight. We were given a prompt to write to, 2,500 words, and a short deadline. I realised I never shared it with you all! I got through round 1 with this story!


* * *


Shredded paperwork. Private bank balance. A locked room.


“It’s for her sake,” I muttered as I stashed the key in my trouser pocket, turning in the hallway to head down the stairs to join Elaine—my wife—for the evening.


A pang of guilt. I paused on the stairwell, staring absentmindedly.


What would Elaine think if she ever found out?


I shuddered. I hoped she never would.


Cameras cost a lot of money. So did the lenses, the printing equipment—all of it. And I couldn’t help but spiral deeper. It was addictive. To see something you liked, line it up for the shot, hear the satisfying click as your finger struck the button, and then see the printed image. There forever.


I sighed as I continued down the stairs, barely registering the worn carpet beneath my feet. Then again, I don’t think that’s what would bother her, just what I took the pictures of.


Pretty things. I just loved pretty things. Sounds hopeless, doesn’t it? A middle-aged fellow like me—nothing to look at myself—taking pictures of pretty things. Anyone who saw would think I was feminine, and I knew if that were the case, abuse would fly. That’s not how real men were supposed to be, apparently.


My father had said so.


I sniffed and pushed through the kitchen door, and Elaine—oh, my beautiful, bubbly Elaine, with her huggable curves and thick curly mousy hair—grinned at me, her cheeks scrunching up like a little chipmunk.


‘Perfect timing! I was just about to come knocking.’


Knocking, on my private door that I pretended was my office with confidential information for my job, just because I couldn’t face the truth—that I loved taking photos of pretty things.


‘Got lost in some paperwork,’ I replied lamely as I rolled up my sleeves and smiled at her. I had got lost in paperwork, of a sort. Printed art on paper.


My smile faded as I saw an uncertain look in Elaine’s eyes. I saw it more regularly now. How I wish I could make it so that she’d never worry. Worse, I knew the worry was all because of me.


‘You alright, darling?’ I asked, trying to steer the conversation. Make her happy. ‘How was your day? Shop going well?’


Elaine owned a bakery. In my opinion, the best in town. She’d worked there first, and the owner had loved Elaine so much that before she died, she’d passed it on to Elaine. It was such a nostalgic place for us—where we met. That was the day my photography obsession had begun. And it had been her influence.


A cupcake on a decorated China plate had landed with a soft tinkle on the table in front of me alongside my usual black coffee.


‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t order this,’ I had said nervously, looking up from my newspaper, pushing my glasses back up my nose, immediately locking eyes with the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I blushed and knew everything I said next would come through a veil of stammers.


Short, tight, light brown curls, round face, soft grey eyes with a twinkle, rosy cheeks, small dainty lips just like one of those painted dolls, and a cute dimple in her chin. Divine. A full-bodied woman, I immediately had the desire to wrap my arms around her and feel the worries melt away from my overworked soul.


The doll-like lips smiled.


‘I know. On the house. From me. I like your face.’


‘Like m-m-my face?’


I stalled. I was nothing interesting; me, with my gaunt face, flat mud-brown hair, and squinting eyes.


‘Yeah. Problem?’


‘N-n-n-no,’ I’d hurried, then looked back down at the cupcake. It was beautiful. Soft baby blue icing with small sprinkles of white and a delicate—presumably chocolate—white butterfly on top. I’d never seen icing like this here or in any bakery. I looked back up at her. I’d never seen her either.


‘Fresh batch this morning,’ she’d said, nodding down at it. ‘First one. Go on. Put some meat on your bones. And hopefully you’ll come back for more.’


I swallowed, daring myself to find out more. ‘I’ve never seen you here before …’


Her curls bounced as she nodded. ‘Started on the weekend. Just moved to town.’


I looked over at the treats’ cabinet. That was what had been different this morning. There was more colour, skill, beauty. I had been so engrained in my routine that I’d missed it all.


‘So many pretty things,’ I’d muttered, in awe.


‘Go on,’ she egged me on. ‘While I’m standing here. You’ll eat it, won’t you?’ Suddenly, a nervous doubt filled her expressive face.


‘Can I take a picture first? I’ve never seen such a pretty cake. I want to remember it forever.’


She’d laughed and sat in the chair opposite me, propped her elbows on the table, locked her hands together, and rested her dimpled chin on them, asking me questions as I pulled out the camera I used for work. She asked who I was, what I did, was I a professional photographer. ‘Bert Smith,’ I’d said. ‘Real estate agent in training,’ I’d said. ‘No,’ I’d said. ‘I’m not good enough.’


I took the picture, trying to subtly get her in it too. The prettiest things I’d seen, both in one picture. My heart soared as I thought about processing the image later.


‘Now, there’s a smile,’ she hummed, and I looked up to see her shining eyes, shining at me!


I’d eaten it, as promised, getting icing all over my face, her smile and hearty laugh bringing colour to my life.


That day changed my world.


I went back every day after, as usual, for my morning black coffee. Though from then on, I ordered cakes too. Somehow, she seemed to remember all my orders.


It happened outside of the bakery too. A new, brighter life. I looked up as I walked, I slowed down, I saw colour—the sky, people laughing, the river, flowers. Flowers. Oh, so pretty.


I took another picture.


And then came more. Everything I found pretty, I took a picture. I was amazed at how in just one small click, I could lock something so pleasing—so ephemeral—into an eternity on the paper, and I got through my grey days at work boring over paperwork with the anticipation of getting home and processing whatever photo I had taken that day.


My favourite was always that first photo—the pretty blue cake and its pretty baker.


My life had a purpose.


I changed. In my heart, my soul, my clothes, my confidence. I talked more, smiled more, got promoted. It was all thanks to Elaine. And I told her, often.


Oh, I loved sweet pretty things, and she was the sweetest, prettiest of them all.


And yet, more and more she worried. I saw the lines on her face etching deeper, and the doubt in her eyes.


Am I cheating? Am I lying?


Darling, I promise I am not! But my secret was too much to burden Elaine with. My sweet Elaine. I loved her too much to risk losing her over this.


A husband wasn’t supposed to be this way, so my father had said.


Cakes, flowers, chocolates, dresses, shoes, faces … I took pictures of them all. But then, people would think me odd. This man—and not a beautiful man at that—who took pictures of pretty things would be a laughingstock, my father had said.


But I saw how my actions were making her worry. Like now, as I cooked dinner with her, my sleeves rolled up, Elaine at my side, I saw the set of her jaw, knowing she was wondering what I had been doing in my office.


Where normally we would talk about our days and laugh as we cooked together, today was silent, solemn. I nibbled my lip as I cut the carrot with too much focus needed for cutting vegetables.


‘Is it another woman?’


Her soft voice cut through the quiet of the kitchen, and the soft monotonous thudding of my knife on the wooden chopping board stopped. In the silence, I could hear the ringing of tinnitus I only ever heard at work.


She’d asked me this before. I’d told her no. How could I ever?


I said it again now, rushing to her side and holding her close. No!


Elaine sniffed and looked up at me, half smiling, trying to believe me, but I saw tears in her face.


‘Then what is it?’ A tear. My heart cracked. ‘Gambling? Drugs? I hear things at the bakery, women telling each other about the things their husbands are doing. I’ve always felt happy that I married someone who isn’t like that. But the secrets. I can’t bear them anymore. You lock yourself in your office so much. Why?’ Her grey eyes implored me. ‘Do you not love me anymore? Is it because I got fat?’


Another sniffle, and my heart cracked more.


She’d never been skinny. Always soft. But that had been one of the things I had liked about her. Lots of her to hug. And then, when Elaine gave birth to our daughter, she never lost the pregnancy weight, but how could I dislike that? She’d created our daughter—such a pretty, clever daughter.


I told Elaine this, but for once, I think she doubted me.


Another crack on my heart.


She was trying not to cry now, turning back to cooking, trying to hide from me.


‘No, really,’ I turned to grab her again. Tried to talk. But the stammering returned. Like always when I was nervous.


No, not like this. I can’t lose her like this. If she withdrew from me, lost confidence. I thought of my sweet bubbly confident Elaine. I didn’t want her to change just because of me.


Elaine’s watery eyes looked up into mine again. Her voice was high pitched from the strain of not crying when she answered. ‘Then what is it, Bert? I’ve tried ignoring it, but now I need to know.’


‘But, you’ll h-h-hate me if I showed you.’ I sniffed.


Her face fell.


Oh no. I’ve made it worse.


She was imagining things—terrible things. I knew it. After all these years, I could read Elaine’s thoughts so well.


‘It’s not that!’ I hurried.


‘Then what is it?’


I paused. Risk people gossiping about us for my not being a real husband—thinking I was feminine, a bad breadwinner—or risk losing my wife altogether.


I steeled myself.


Let the haters come.


Anything but lose my wife.


‘Come to my office,’ I said quietly, and I led the way, every soft thud of my footsteps on the worn carpets weighing my anxious heart more.


What if she hates it? Finds out how much money I spent on it all? What if she throws me out?


I took the key from my pocket, and it rattled in the lock as my shaking hands tried to push it open. I looked into Elaine’s face before I swung open the door, and she was just as pale, just as nervous.


What does she think I have in here? I wondered. What sorts of things did she hear at the bakery to be this worried?


I swallowed and pushed open the door, offering her, like always, to step through before me.


I didn’t want to look. Her intake of breath from inside the room set my heart roaring, and my throat seized.


‘Bert,’ she whispered. There was a long pause.


Hanging my head, daring not to look at the photographs framed on my walls, the rows of cameras on my sideboards—the things that brought me so much joy—I followed Elaine into the room. My room.


‘It’s …’


Shameful? I finished for her in my head. Disgusting? A man like me thinking he could have such a hobby when he should be providing for his family, like a real man?


‘... beautiful,’ Elaine finished, and she turned to me.


Her eyes were shining again, this time not with tears.


I looked at her, confused, but also feeling somewhat like a lost puppy who’d found a ray of hope.


‘You don’t think it’s shameful?’


I winced at how much like a wounded little boy I sounded.


Elaine’s curls bounced as she shook her head, smiling. A little burst of relieved laughter left her small, doll-like lips.


‘I thought it was worse!’


‘Worse?’ I despaired. ‘But I thought if you saw this … it’s not exactly what a husband’s meant to do, right?’


‘It’s art, Bert. What’s wrong with it?’


‘There’s nothing wrong?’


‘No!’


‘But what about those?’


I gestured to the line-up of cameras and lenses. Elaine followed my gesture.


‘What about them?’


‘How much they costed. Aren’t you worried about me wasting our money?’


She looked at me hesitantly.


‘Isn’t that what wives always moan about their husbands for?’ I asked, voice small. I’d overheard wives talking at the bakery too.


‘If you use it to make all these,’ Elaine waved her arm around the room, ‘how is it wasteful?’


I gaped.


She smiled and wrapped her soft arms around me. ‘Don’t worry about it, love. The bakery’s books can handle some cameras.’


‘They c-c-can?’


She pulled away a little, still holding her hands on my arms, and nodded up at me. The glints of the tears were still left in her eyes, but she was smiling.


‘I had been so worried. Thought it was cheating, or drugs. Lots of that at the moment.’ I nodded mutely, still in disbelief. ‘But why are you hiding them? They should be displayed!’


I muttered something about thinking people would hate it, and that my father had said I needed to finally grow up and be a real man for her the day we married. She seemed as dazed as I was.


‘Well, you know what I always thought of him, the old-fashioned coot he was!’


Then Elaine let go of me and moved away. I watched as she walked around the room, eyeing each of the displayed images.


I chewed on my nails, and she said nothing, focusing on a piece ahead of her. The blue cupcake and my sweet, beautiful Elaine. Eighteen years ago.


My favourite.


‘Can I put this one on the wall in the bakery?’ she asked softly.


I thought I misheard her. Elaine turned to look at me.


‘Really? Y-y-you’d want that? It’s good enough? Really?’


She smiled and nodded and punched me lightly on the arm as I joined her, gazing around my office at each photograph as if they were completely new. ‘I never knew you got me in it, you sly dog!’


Elaine was grinning, and she turned to look back at it. ‘No greys there!’ she said in awe. ‘Skinnier there too. Prettier.’


‘No such thing,’ I said. ‘You’re pretty always.’



 

It's interesting to write in a genre that's not your 'usual'. A challenge I'd recommend to all writers to help them become more adaptable, grow their writing skills. And the different things you can bring back to your usual genre once you've got it ...


This one, when I thought about why he chose to hide the hobby, why he found it so shameful. The story was written in the past, when men were expected to act like men with certain jobs seen as acceptable and any little action against that was seen as feminism and negative, when the gays were being tormented. An awful time that I'll never be able to understand.


But I do understand the unrealistic expectations of parents. Of the disappointment and sometimes abusive nature they can have towards you if you don't do the career they expect of you. Having to stick to certain roles and being treated badly if you don't do it, so much so that you hide your true self and get more and more scared to reveal it.


It must have been so much worse back then, but I know people still struggle with it to this day.


I wish everyone can have the courage to take steps towards their own life, a life authentic to them. Without needing to hide it.

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