There was movement in the trees and in the fields, and they were open and full of light. And from the swaying curtains the room looked as though it was breathing. The house was small enough for the both of them and meant they could be hidden from the other gazing eyes, pressing up against windows and storefronts and glancing from the other side of the street. This was an entire world unwatched and removed, an enclosed sphere where he could sit by the riverbank that ran through the woods with a fishing rod in the water and forget everything. The water would flow through gently and sometimes he would splash his feet like a child, and if there were any fish he would have scared them away. For the most part this was joy to him and to her, too, as she walked through the tall grass with a wicker basket on her arm and collected fruits and berries from the swaying trees.
They rarely spoke. On the long days he would sit in the dining room with the book laid out on the table. A sprawling history of a lifetime’s work; this is how they would remember him when they finally discovered where he had gone all those years ago now. Every face he had ever made and all that had been made of him, held together in these flimsy pages that stacked upon one another like grains of sand, sinking by the beach. All those days of shoots and the brushes against his face that made him feel like someone else, entirely removed from himself, they had brought him here to this moment where he could stand by the shore and look back on it with a vacant smile. Photographs are meant to hold memories but they don’t, you don’t remember any of it when you hold it in your hand or frame it on your wall. These are the artefacts of a life in ruin but nobody would see it that way when he’s standing there in clothes thrown upon him and a vague expression that tells you something distantly related to yourself. There was a lot of noise back then and now the quiet days stretched out almost uncomfortably, sometimes serenely.
In the morning he looks in the mirror over the bathroom sink, pulls at his face. It isn’t the same but that was always going to be the case, isn’t the same but also isn’t too bad. People still spoke to him on the rare days he went into the village centre to buy potatoes or cheese or wine and he felt their eyes rest on him, maybe for just a little too long, and so he knew he was okay. Older now, of course, than he was at the height of his career when the cameras lined the pavements and they printed the letters of his name. This was natural and sometimes when he walked by the river at that time just after dawn he would look up and feel content. It was a career worth having because it landed him this life in the deep Scandinavian woods, away from the tyres and diners. And no one knew they were here, not a soul. But sometimes he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was not where he belonged, that he needed to go back – somehow, because it wouldn’t have been easy now as an old man. He dreamed in the depths of a dreary night that he lived in a hall of mirrors, and his eyes rolled out from his face.
On Thursday it rained and the storm outside grew stronger, fell against the walls of the house as he watched from the window. This dampened the plans of his day. Agnes was walking back and forth in the living room, and sometimes she would sit in an armchair and pick up the newspaper, read a few lines and put it back down. Other times she would knit in silence until it was time for lunch. He had things to do in the garden that would now be left unattended and that saddened him. From the bedroom he could hear his wife’s footsteps as she moved in circles, walking aimlessly just to keep herself busy. There was little else to do in the house and if it wasn’t for his bad knee maybe he would’ve joined her, and they could talk about the noises that flittered in and out and then fall into silence – but no, all he could do was sit and wait. And then he saw the book underneath the dressing table, only looked through it yesterday but now he felt it again – just briefly to look upon those old times with a dim smile.
He sat by the river, waiting for a bite and looking up at the high line of the trees. The heat had been and gone and now the temperature was right, and in the winter he caught almost nothing. But when he held one in his hand and felt its strange and unfamiliar warmth the time collapsed upon him. The day was over in no time. Sometimes he wondered how it would feel to take one from the water for good but that thought soon passed, gone now, and he would return them gently so that they could continue on in their unknown cycles. These were the eyes that glazed in the air but didn’t look at him, and if by some rare chance they caught his gaze it was a look of vacancy, and no words were conveyed from it. One day he caught the same fish three times over within a single hour, and he pitied the poor thing. With no memory there was no life inside, and no time to be inscribed with the event. And no way to remember the taste of the stifling air, which was likely a good thing. When he threw it back he knew that it was time to stop and went inside.
He held a letter in his hands, addressed to him. It was handwritten in black ink and when he read it the words resonated with him, distantly familiar as if he knew the voice but could not name it. Inside was a note.
The days are sometimes short and sometimes long. I have heard of some work that I know you would be perfect for. Would bring stability back to this life you have longed for. I know it would be hard to leave it all but it’s only temporary. They love you out here more than you could know. Think of it as a return from retirement, and all your old friends smiling and laughing and cheering as they think to themselves, ‘The old man’s still got it!’ If I don’t hear back from you I will presume the answer is yes. And then I’ll send some of the equipment over.
Didn’t know what to think, read the note over and over again in his head to try and understand it. They knew him well, they understood. No company name or address attached, meaning the answer was yes from the very beginning. In a few days a package would arrive, he knew this. Someone was forcing him back into the glare of the world and there was nothing he could do about it. Not that he would’ve said no, or yes, or have asked them the questions that flickered in his mind. There was nothing for him to do other than wait, place the note to one side and wait to see what would happen next. No one had called him William for a long time. His name was Bill. This is what everyone called him, Agnes and his old friends from before, and this was how he was known. But his mother had christened him William. It was a name that fell from him, had never stuck. This note seemed to summon someone he couldn’t quite believe he was.
He asked his wife at the dinner table whether she thought it would be possible for him to return to work. And when she asked him what he meant he shrugged and said nothing.
In the days that passed his thoughts were unstable and difficult to hold down. He had lost his ability to focus long ago but now drifted from scene to scene with weary eyes, carried by an impulse as the time passed him by. Thoughts melted away as soon as they came, pushed down by a feeling of dread that took hold of him, couldn’t be shaken until something else pursued his attention. In the evening when he was alone he would reach under the sofa for the book. It drowned him and for a moment he was happy.
Walking in the garden one day and Agnes upstairs, holding a mirror to her face without a thought. The trees were moving and there was something lying still in the grass. The sunlight poured down on his face and against the dark object. As he walked towards it he could feel his heart leaping out of his chest, pushing up against his throat in a kind of suspicious anxiety. And his hands were shaking in the unseasonal heat. Something in the back of his mind told him it was the body of a small rabbit, collapsed in a heap, killed in the night, silent now as it lay amongst the open field. But as he came nearer he saw it was mechanical. An old film camera. No trace of origin or owner, may have fallen from the sky. As he held it in his hands the heat from the metal warmed his skin, filled his head with scattered thoughts that were nameless now, impossible to contact with words. There was no note this time, nothing written, but there didn’t need to be because he knew what he had to do already. The object communicated more to him now than any script ever could. But it was the memories that were harder to contain, spilling out as he closed his eyes and tried to hold them back at the gates, holding on to this physical thing that had been there all the time. And it was his camera. Even though the photographs were taken by somebody else they were always of him, and so he and the camera were together tied in a fraternal bond, it belonged to him and it loved him now and always did.
He went upstairs to her with the camera in his hand.
‘I want to take your photograph,’ he said.
She was standing with her back to him, the mirror still in her hand. And then she turned it to look at him in the glass. All she said was ‘why?’
‘It’s old. An old camera. I’ve had it with me for a while now, only I forgot about it. And I want to take your photograph with it.’
And now she turned to face him, half-smiling, somewhat serious. The sunlight falling from the windows and lighting up the room, the two of them facing each other. There was something that excited her about the idea of having her photograph taken. No, she wasn’t like him, she never had been. Not in the magazines and all those screens. But to have your image captured just like when you were twenty-four years old on the distant shores of a Caribbean island and all your friends would tell you how beautiful you are, and all the men would glance and smile and you would smile too because that’s what life is, am I wrong? Collections of moments like these. She could feel her heart rising and her head filling with a feeling she couldn’t name, almost felt like she could fall if she took a step too far. And now she was really smiling. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Okay okay okay.’
He moved until his back was against the wall, trying to frame her properly. No, this was joy, not the time before. This was what it felt like to be joyful. Holding on as it passes by without us, moves through us. Holding up the camera until the shot is how you want it to be and then saying ‘click’ with your mouth because there’s no film in the camera.
‘Click,’ he said, and then ‘sorry. There’s no film. It’s….’ And then he said nothing.
She nodded understandingly, standing by the window and holding out her hands. ‘Let me take one of you.’
Placing the camera in her hands, watching her eyes shift across his face and seeing in the world outside how the clouds obscured the sun. And the two of them standing there like brothers. The feeling rose up in him just like it used to, just how it did on those cold and rainy days spent sitting in empty cars and waiting for the day to start, uttering these words slow and steady to people he barely knew. But it lit up a fire within him and now he stood an old man in rags, just like his father and his father’s father before him. And she lifted up the camera with her frail arms that were once so full of life said ‘click’ in a voice that wasn’t hers. ‘That was a good one,’ she said, ‘that time it was a good one.’
‘Thank you… thank you….’
A moment of silence crept in between them, held them there, looking at the floor or the paling wallpaper. ‘Would you like me to take another?’ one of them said.
‘Yes,’ replied the other, ‘I think that would be nice.’
And so the dance between them continued, one holding the camera, saying ‘click,’ the other standing limply but with the distant voice of someone calling in their ear, someone calling their name.
‘I cannot wait,’ one of them said, ‘I cannot wait to see them….’
In the night they slept through the foggy visions of those days, and the sound of the clock in the other room.