After my breakup with Sally Stukel, I swore off love, laughter, hope, fruit and veg, basic hygiene. Pretty much in that order. What really threw me was the shock of it. I thought we were fine. Came home from work one day and found a note. “Dear Nick…” It was almost poetic. Nick, it turns out, rhymes with prick, dick, sick, thick and even, in a purple penultimate paragraph, hick. Upshot: she’d been unhappy and I’d been “smothering” her. Have to admit, my breath caught at that. Me “smothering” her?
I took unpaid leave from work to sink unencumbered into depression and despair, but found the “smothering” jibe continued to niggle. Perhaps, in the perverse way of things, particularly matters of the heart, it saved me. A grain in the perfect pearl of my misery. I asked around, people who knew me and Sally: had I “smothered” her? Dad, bless him, said absolutely not. He’d always thought Sally a bit crackers. My best friend Pete, although supportive, was diplomatic.
All did agree on one thing. I had to move on. And, eighteen months later, a little grudgingly, I started to. Back at work I was promoted to supervisor of frozen goods. I was soon able to repay Dad’s bridging loan. Around town I started saying yes to coffee, tennis, impromptu barbies. Life, if not quite wonderful, did go on.
But there remained a problem. So many things in Misty Falls reminded me of Sally. Even my Sunday lunches with Dad and my regular coffees with Pete. A lingering shadow or flicker. I wondered if I might need to leave Misty Falls to properly move on. Dad was torn but supportive. Pete insisted that moving on was a state of mind, not a geographical location. What decided me in the end was, well, Sally. I had no idea where she’d gone. The chances of bumping into her again would be slightly higher if I was to move. Staying put seemed the lesser of two evils.
* * *
One day, at the servo, standing in line to pay for my petrol, a lovely, lilting voice from behind said, “Excuse me, did you drop this?”
With a prickling nape, I turned and…wow. The most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. A smile to make Dalian clocks of us all. She had long blonde hair, sky-blue eyes, and a form willowy yet subtly curvaceous. She held out, in an inquisitive right hand, a Chokito bar.
Fraught, frozen moment! Too true, the damned thing was mine. I hadn’t yet quite restored fruit and veg to their rightful place. But did I want to own it? No I did not. Perhaps I had a nephew or was going to a party with a theme—no, too stupid by half.
But get this: She, upon seeing me, recoiled slightly with a shocked gasp. For a split second I wondered if she mocked me. But I was fairly certain, in those first stretched micro-seconds, that I had remained perfectly frozen. Supervisor, supervise thyself, ha!
She apologized for being forward, but wondered if I might be interested in meeting for coffee? I would, yes, indeed, why not? She rushed to explain that she was a photographer. I said, “And I’m a model—snap!” Her laugh was like a brook tinkling gaily down the spirals of the Milky Way.
That coffee—how long did it go on? Does it still, perhaps? She introduced herself as Amber Wells. Amber Wells, I mused... was the name familiar to me? Yes, it was. She was well known round these parts as a photographic artist. Well known in certain circles, she modestly amended. About a year ago she’d had a breakthrough success with her composition Old Woman with Stone. I think I’d seen it. Was it a very, very old woman in an abandoned rock quarry? Yes! And I’m not much into art, so it obviously had punch.
“So what are you doing here?” I asked. “Don’t you live in Merritown?” Merritown was about two hours away, similar to Misty Falls in a lot of ways, although the people there thought themselves a bit better, at least according to the locals here.
“Did,” Amber said, looking down at her latte, her long blonde hair forming almost a curtain before her. “I moved here a few weeks ago. Trying for a fresh start. Old Woman with Stone has become something of a millstone. I haven’t taken a single photograph since that shoot.”
Hard for me to understand, that. I could see how the following photographs might not seem as good. But not to take a single photo? Just push the damn button! But, as I said, I don’t know much about art, so I said nothing. And there was a lot more to her story.
Until Old Woman with Stone, Amber had worked closely with a colleague—more than a colleague: Bridget Sidebottom was Amber’s best friend and the one responsible, in eighth-grade summer camp, for introducing Amber to photography. An elective that caught fire, is how Amber described it. Bridget had taught Amber everything she knew, and it was much. Amber, in return, had used her status and popularity to protect the unfortunately dumpy, dowdy and downcast Bridget. The cruelty of kids never sleeps. By the end of camp, in the way of new-sprung adolescent passion, the two girls had, with candles and a drop or two of pricked blood, made a pact to devote their lives to photography.
For a decade or so, all went well. Then Amber turned to portraiture. Bridget thought it bourgeois and perfidious. Things got strained. Then Amber produced Old Woman with Stone. The old woman, as it happened, was Bridget’s great-grandmother, and Bridget was furious, accusing Amber of selling out her germline for a mess of pottage.
“Finally,” Amber concluded, “I saw that if I didn’t get away, make a fresh start, I was finished as a person and, more importantly, as an artist.” She gave her clock-melting smile. “And meeting you seems to have proven my point.”
She explained her process. It comes upon her in a flash. Completely unpredictable and unwilled, a literal bright flash, followed by the subject and setting presenting to her inner-eye as a finished product. Giddy stuff for a work-a-day lad like myself.
“And...me?” I laughed. “Seriously?”
Yes, indeed, me, she was quite serious. It had hit her like a tungsten tell-all. Me, by the margin of the lake, in a sailor suit.
My breath caught. I couldn’t help a slight recoil and gasp.
She leaned forward worriedly. “The sailor suit will be subtle, Nick, I promise. It’s more the coloring.”
“No, no, the sailor suit sounds like fun, but...the lake...” It was something I didn’t think about too much. I just didn’t go there. The lake had been our favorite spot, Sally and me. Picnics, after-dinner walks, Frisbees. But the place itself was hardly essential for anything, so I just didn’t go there.
I, in my turn, told Amber my story, the struggle to move on, break with the past. In our different ways, we were similar in some ways.
“It’s your call, of course,” she said. “But couldn’t this be your definitive break with the past?”
Anyone who wants to argue with the lovely Amber Wells—good luck with that! Ha! Lake, shmake—where’s me hat!
I called Dad and told him I wouldn’t be able to make Sunday lunch. When I told him why, he laughed and said he hoped I enjoyed myself, I deserved it.
The following two weeks of planning, discussing, sketching, dressing up, dining, laughing, were some of the happiest days of my life. Amber’s new lease on artistic life was a magic I’d never experienced before. She and I seemed not so much moving forward as up and up and up…
* * *
On the big day, walking through the trees, out onto the gently sloping green sward athwart the lake, I’ll admit I was jumpy. But, pah, in the midday sun ghosts were silly things. The lake was just a body of glittering water. The dense clump of rustling reeds in its center might have thickened a little, but what of that? The only thing that gave me pause was the two ducks noodling about the base of the reeds. Sally had adored ducks. It’s always the little things, dammit.
“Come on,” I said determinedly, moving down the sward, giving my breastbone a mock macho thump, “let’s shave this cat!”
Amber set up her tripod on the sward and had me stand just before the gently lapping water. Goodness, there was a lot faffing around. Sailor’s cap at this angle, no, the other way, how about backwards, try taking it off. On it went till Amber looked up at the sky and announced the sun was perfect. Now or never. I kept knees and elbows locked in place. Amber bent over the tripod, adjusted the aperture. Wait…she needed to take one step back, and she did, and there it ended. The button un-pressed.
Turning with nothing more than a dreary, dismissive wave, she walked back up the sward. I went after her, calling, “Amber? Wait up a minute. What’s wrong? Amber?”
I caught her in the trees. Tearfully, tremblingly, she said, “Please, Nick, don’t. Don’t smother me. I need to be alone.”
You think that didn’t cut me to the quick? Smother her? She drifted and I stayed in those trees I don’t know how long. Didn’t want to take the chance of bumping into her on the street.
* * *
The irony of it ate at me like acid. If I tried to help Amber move forward I risked “smothering” her and sending us both hurtling back upon old hurts. If I did nothing we were both, voila, back to square one. Hopeless. But I had strong and genuine feelings, surely that counted for something?
At Sunday lunch with Dad, after apologizing for missing a few, he let me pour out my woe. It was like a jigsaw puzzle with a piece not so much missing as unfittable.
“Dammit!” I cried. “If she could just take one photo—doesn’t matter how dumb—I’m sure she could move on!”
Dad, moving a salt shaker around, said quietly, “Sounds like Bridget might be the key.”
True. Obvious, really. Perhaps I’d been a bit egotistical. Yes, I would pay her a visit.
“Don’t wear the sailor suit.”
* * *
Half way to Merritown, I got a text from Pete. “Your dad just rang. He sounded down. Is everything okay?”
“Hip’s playing up, I think,” I texted back. “You doing okay?”
“Still alive, last time I checked.”
Ha! Classic Pete!
Bridget Sidebottom ran a health and fitness center, The Merri Muscle, and quite an impressive establishment it looked. At the counter, I was, heart-in-mouth, straight to the point. Introduced myself as a good friend of Amber’s, wondered if we might talk.
Bridget, inscrutable, showed me to her office. I must say, Bridget was a far more attractive and impressive person that I’d expected. Sure, she was a large woman, but not one scintilla overweight. Solid and firm and fit and powerful is how I’d describe her—and almost overwhelmingly curvaceous, although maybe the lycra she favored had a lot to do with that. But her face…gosh, it was quite beautiful, and framed by long black hair that fairly shimmered with her stock-in-trade.
I tried to broaden the conversation, but Bridget was wary of talking of her past.
“When I opened The Merry Muscle,” she said, “I was determined it would be a clean break with the past.”
“It’s certainly worked,” I said sincerely. “This place is fantastic.” And the place was fantastic, but I suspect my comment was more personally directed.
She was sad to hear that Amber was in the doldrums. “She’s not taking any fun photos?”
I ignored the possible barb. “No, none. She’s blocked. In a way, unlike you, I don’t think she’s moved on from here. Ironic.”
“It’s not a matter of moving on, Nick. You have to draw a line. It’s a matter of will.”
“You wouldn’t consider coming to Misty Falls, maybe talk with Amber?”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
After a pause, I said, “There’s something I didn’t tell you.”
“I… I love Amber more than life itself.”
The stolid silence stretched, threatening to do my head in before, finally, flatly, she said, “Okay.”
* * *
A few days later, driving to Dad’s for lunch, I got a call from Amber and pulled over, just missing a pole.
She was very excited. “It’s happened! Oh, God, Nick, it’s happened!”
“Hey, Amber, that’s great, but what—?”
“Can’t talk. Just wanted you to know. Sorry for being a cow lately. I’m at the lake. About to take the best damn photograph ever shot!”
“Oh, Amber, that’s great! Of who?” I tried not to sound hurt—I mean, it was fantastic to hear Amber back to her old self, and if she had found a better model, so be it. It was her I loved, not her art. And, remember, in her moment of triumph she still chose to call me—so, ego, take a powder!
“I’m sworn to secrecy,” she said. “She wants total anonymity. But she’s amazing, everything’s amazing, this isn’t just for me, Nick, it’s for us. I… I love you.”
Wow. Breath, you fickle thing, behave, don’t betray me now. “I’m so happy, Amber—so Bridget's been in touch?” Even as I said it, I almost bit the hand that held the phone.
“Bridget? So you knew…?”
“Stupid morose cow. Ever since I got here, she’s been texting me about ten times a day—wanting to drag me back under, no doubt. But no more—today I’m drawing a line.”
“Ha, well, great, ah, Amber? There’s something…”
“I’ll call you when I’m finished,” she said, and hung up.
Sitting there, on the side of the road, the sun shining down, I wondered if it might be alright. I’d just text Bridget that—
My phone pinged. A text from Bridget. “Checked into the Misty Motel this morning. Bit of a dump, but no worries. Talk soon. Wish me luck!”
With shaky thumbs, I texted back, “Change of plans. I’ll come over. We can talk.”
How long should I wait for an answer? A minute? An eternity? Either way, no reply.
As I fish-tailed a U-turn and headed back at break-neck, Pete texted: “Just spoke with your Dad. Apparently he’s had a visit from Sally. Is everything okay?”
What? What?! I stepped on the gas.
At the park, I zipped through the trees, trying to keep my mind blank but attentive. Times like this, I concentrate on my breathing. In…out. It was hard, though, to stop thoughts like, horrible, horrible, bubbling up.
Bursting out upon the sward, I saw an amazing sight. At the margin of lake, busy at her tripod, Amber was lining up an extraordinary shot. A little wooden bark floated just before the dense thicket of rustling reeds. In it stood a woman, tall and erect, dressed in an outfit for the ages. Sort of a cross between a wedding dress and a collapsing cathedral. Heavy cream and dark-cream material, hanging in loops and layers, further bulked by outpouches and pockets, lacy frills at neck and wrist, and the whole replete with spangles and buckles and whatnots. And the topper, a gauzy blue-grey veil covering her face, perfectly still and opaque in the gentle breeze. Amber wasn’t wrong about it being a shot and a half. Move over old woman with stone.
I approached cautiously, to within a few meters, silent but furiously thinking, Take the shot, Amber! Take it! Take it!
“Hey, Amber!” a mean, sarcastic voice cried from behind. “Remember me?” It was Bridget, upon the crescent of the sward.
Amber turned—did she see me?—and stared at Bridget in mute astonishment.
“Remember this?” Bridget called, her voice cutting and nasty. “Front bottom, back bottom, it’s all bottom to Bridget Sidebottom!”
“Amber!” I said, and then again, louder, trying to snap her out of it.
Finally she fixed her gaze on me with a sudden look of irritation. “Nick, what are doing here? This is my art—you need to give me space—”
“Amber, please, just take the shot. It’s all set up. This is the one.”
She looked back at the lady on the lake, who had started to slowly raise one arm. “Yes,” murmured Amber, returning to the camera, “that might work.”
“Take the shot, Amber,” I breathed.
Bridget had started down the sward, gathering pace and proportion, black hair lifting, swaying.
Take the shot, Amber, please. What was she waiting for?
The lady moved a hand to her veil. I could hear Bridget approaching, powerful lycra-clad thighs swishing in the chafeless air.
“Amber, for the love of God, take the shot!”
The lady lifted her veil. My breath caught.