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The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes is told in three distinct voices. We meet each of them in the first 3 chapters. Here's chapter 1. In it we meet what I guess we could call our protagonist if he could be described with such a word. Dan Griffiths is an everyman and a nobody. A 50-something magazine cover designer. The only thing remarkable about his life is what isn't in his life - his daughter, who went missing without a trace one summer's day ten years ago. But like the thousands of other missing persons she's long since been forgotten by everyone except him. He voweed to himself that he wouldn't get locked in the cycle of endlessly pretending she was still there, trapped in a single moment of grief. But the numb nothing his life has become, reduce to Friday nights at the pub with an old college friend and a once a year ritual phone call with his editor, suggests that in this, as in every other aspect of his life, he has failed.
It’s nearly midnight, and I’ve watched Agnieszka die 103 times since I woke.
In that time, the clip has had 274,392 views.
I click the play arrow for the 104th time.
Running on the treadmill like millions of other middle class woman in their twenties. She looks fantastic in her lycra – she has the time and money to do this on a regular basis. Stop here and you’d never have noticed the silver and greens on her feet.
The camera wobbles. Has her friend turned to check out someone on the pec deck? Another tiny wobble, enough to remind you how casual the whole scene is, that she has no idea what she’s about to film – although there’s been speculation about that, of course, just like everything else.
Here it is. Three seconds of footage, the seconds before she stumbles. She turns, and over her shoulder she says something to her friend. It indecipherable. Not one of the people at the gym that day can remember her speaking at all. The best Polish and English lipreaders are clueless.
Everyone in the chatrooms devoted to her has their own theory. She’s calling out to a child she gave away as a teenager in Gdansk; she realises she’s lost her footing and lets out an expletive; she’s begging her friend for help; she’s fluffing up the camera for posterity. The truth is she says something different to everyone who watches the clip. It’s as though, in those final seconds, she’s stepped out of her own body and time and speaks straight to you, the viewer.
See you, Dad! I’m sure that’s what she says. Every time I watch I’m even more certain. I pause the clip. Play. Pause. Play. Pause. I see her mouth form the shapes.
The gate closes. Her hair moves first, and then her head turns; she looks at me over the burgundy uniform; “See you, Dad!” she shouts. “Take care, love!” I shout back from the kitchen window but she’s already turned away, heading for school.
See you, Dad!
Was that the last thing she ever said? Why say it that morning? Was she worried? Did she know something I didn’t? No matter how many times I go through it, I just don’t know.
“Take care, love,” I whisper at the screen.
Ten seconds and it’s over. Nothing left of Agnieszka but her silver and green Mercury 500 trainers, logos filling the camera like startled eyebrows. The image of the year; of the decade, probably. The picture on every student’s wall, on T-shirts and placards and newspaper spreads. And the reason my boss will call me tonight – the front cover for Epoch magazine’s Review of the Year.
Give me a different angle on it, Sarah will say. Make it fresh. Sure. Three weeks to find a completely new take on the most reproduced, rehashed, reformatted image of the century.
There’s the phone. The ringtone’s the riff from Smells Like Teen Spirit. Emma had Nevermind in her CD player when she left. I let the second bar finish and press accept.
“Hi!” I get ready for the inevitable banter about calling the wrong side of midnight, and click the mouse out of habit.
It’s not Sarah’s voice. It takes a few seconds to place and by the time I do the line’s dead. The phone’s still against my ear and I hear every word in real time, as though the line’s on a delay.
“Dad? Can you hear me? I’m safe but I don’t know where I am. Dad, I can’t explain it but it feels like I’m fading. Like now; I’m shouting but it feels like nothing’s coming out. And sometimes when I look down at my feet I think I can see through them. Does that make any sense? Dad, you have to come and find me. Please.” The line clicks dead.
Find me. Please. The words synch perfectly with Agnieszka’s lips.
“I’m coming, love.”
But she’s already turned away.
She trips, tangles, and the film ends.