‘So, can I go into your photo?’ I asked, much later. ‘What if I went in as your brother? I’d be able to see the woman in green’s face.’
I was getting carried away, and could hardly believe what I was suggesting. But Cillian shook his head before I’d barely finished my sentence.
‘You can’t,’ he said. ‘You have to care about someone in the photograph unconditionally, remember?’
‘Fair enough.’ I paused, before adding, ‘It’s a shame you can’t recall anything about that day.’
‘I know.’ He shook his head. ‘But I was a kid, seven at the most. And because I was never told about my brother, I lost any memories that might have been kept alive by talking about them. I mean, memories are often made up of things we’re told about events, as much as anything else.’
‘But I remember being seven,’ I said. ‘I remember living in our happy valley.’
I shook my head. ‘Adaminaby, New South Wales.’
‘Can’t say I’ve heard of it.’
‘It’s a small town north-west of Cooma, near The Snowy Mountains. Mum called it our happy valley, because of one of Dad’s favourite books. I have vivid memories of that place.’ I pushed back a surge of emotion, and raked around for more childhood memories, that I felt sure I could recall. ‘Mum baked a Bob the Builder cake for my sixth birthday,’ I said. ‘I bit a chunk from it before my party started. She was pretty miffed.’ I smiled thinking of Mum, looping her blonde bobbed hair behind her ears, and wagging her finger at me, trying to look cross.
Cillian narrowed his eyes. ‘Do you really remember that, Isaac? Or has your mum told you about the cake? And you may have seen photographs and videos of Adaminaby and you're recalling those?’
‘No, I remember it vividly.’ But I was no longer certain. ‘And I feel sure, at seven, you should remember something as traumatic as your brother being taken.’
‘Maybe I’ve blocked it out,’ he said, folding his arms across his wide body. ‘The brain is weird. It absorbs things it hears about moments in time, and sometimes makes new versions of what happened, on the strength of what it’s heard. The actual memory changes each time it’s recalled.’
I pushed my hair from my forehead and sighed. ‘But I’m sure I remember things about living here in Australia as a child - actual memories.’ Thoughts of Tilly with her short dark hair, glasses and buck teeth sprang to mind, and I smiled at the thought of her. ‘I could never forget my childhood friend Tilly,’ I said.
‘Are you absolutely sure?’
‘Well even if you can remember,’ he said, his tone irritated. ‘I can’t bring the day my brother was taken to mind. In fact, I don’t even remember living in England or Ireland as a kid.’
At that point I knew I’d pushed the big guy to his limits, and decided to head off and get some coffee. When I returned he’d zoned out, eyes closed, book open like a butterfly on his lap, the picture of him and his brother in his hand. I wondered if he was asleep, or was he perhaps in Phototime? He hadn’t explained how to get there, although I knew it had something to do with the strange looking liquid he’d brought along.
‘Cillian,’ I whispered, putting down two cups of steaming coffee. He let out a loud snore, his eyes remaining tightly shut. I was pretty sure that wasn’t part of the Phototime experience.
I pulled my photographs from my pocket, and stared at the one of me and my parents at The Blue Mountains when I was a child. I squeezed my eyes closed, imagining myself in the picture.
‘What are you trying to do, Isaac?’
I opened my eyes with a start to see Cillian staring at me, his eyes narrowed. ‘Did you not listen to me? You can’t go into a picture as yourself or a relative.’
I shuffled the pictures, picking out the one of my parents at Molly Malone’s.
‘So what about this one? Could I go into this one?’ I still couldn’t believe I was considering it.
‘What, here?’ His eyes flicked round the empty airport waiting room, and through the tall windows at the stationary planes.
‘It would help me to understand. Believe.’
He thought for a moment. ‘OK.’
‘OK?’ My heart raced. ‘OK?’ I was more than a little bit shocked he’d agreed so quickly.
‘Yes, OK.’ He shifted in his seat. ‘Do you love your parents unconditionally?’
‘Yes. Absolutely. I love them - miss them,’ I said, thinking of my mum lost somewhere, possibly alone. ‘I would do anything for them.’ I felt a burning behind my eyes. ‘If I could have them back, I would sacrifice everything.’ I hadn’t realised it was true, until I said it.
‘You’re a fine young man,’ Cillian said. ‘I knew that as soon as I set eyes on you.’
I looked again at the photo of my parents at Molly Malone’s, my dad wearing a green hat, drinking Guinness, my mum laughing. ‘I could become the man at the bar,’ I said, pointing at a dark haired man with his back to the camera.
‘Remember, you can only spend five minutes in the photograph, Isaac. After that it will go into a loop and begin again. When the time is up you need to imagine yourself jumping out of the picture.’
I nodded, wondering if I was being a gullible fool. ‘So what about my body? What happens to it when I’m there?’
‘It switches off.’
Part of me wanted to burst out laughing, while the other part hung on his words. ‘OK.’
‘It’s like being dead.’
‘Except you won’t be, of course.’
‘Well that’s comforting, at least.’
He grinned. ‘You’ll be sort of comatose.’ He furrowed his forehead. ‘You still want to go?’
I nodded, hesitant.
‘OK.’ He took the plastic bottle I’d seen earlier from his waistcoat pocket. ‘Drink this,’ he said.
My eyes widened. ‘Who do you think I am, Alice in Wonderland?’
‘That’s ‘drink me’, isn’t it?’
I ignored his correction. ‘So, what is it, exactly?’ I said, taking it from him, and examining the amber nectar.
‘Suki made it. It’s a potion.’
‘Like a spell type potion?’ I thought of Adolf Green sitting in Suki’s tank at her mobile home, waiting to become a princess.
Cillian nodded. ‘Have you changed your mind? It’s OK if you have. No skin off my nose.’
I looked again at the photo of my parents, and back at Cillian. ‘What’s in the potion?’
He shrugged. ‘I have no idea, although there are no crocodile droppings, which is good because I’m allergic.’
He laughed. ‘I’m joking, Isaac.’
I unscrewed the lid. ‘But it’s safe?’
He nodded, and I took a sip before I could change my mind. It tasted floral, not unpleasant, and within seconds my body began to shut down, beginning at my big toe and working its way up. Fear shot through me. How much did I actually know about this man? What if my mum never visited Suki, and this was all a con, and I was about to be sold into white slavery. But it was too late, Cillian was a blur, and a strange sensation ran through my body, as if I was flying through time.
‘Get me a lager, love,’ the man whose eyes I can see through, says.
I’m at Molly Malone’s, standing at the bar, and I’m in the body of the dark haired man I’d seen in the photo. I sense how he’s feeling – horny for the main part – but, although I see what he sees, I think my own thoughts. I have no control over his movements; his ogling eyes, the things he says, or his twitching dick – which I’m not going to lie, is a weird sensation that I may never get over.
He reaches out his hand to take the bottle, and I recognise the American woman I’d seen before. I smile. Hey, it’s me, Isaac, remember? Sorry I lost your number. But she doesn’t see me. She just sees the man at the bar.
‘Cillian,’ I yell, into the weird, echoing silence. ‘I don’t like this much. Can you get me out of here, now, please?
The man turns and leans his back against the bar, swigging his drink, which I can’t taste, but oddly can smell. ‘Danny Boy’ is being sung by a three-piece folk group in the corner, and the gathered throng sing along. There’s happiness here.
The American woman drifts to the end of the bar to serve another punter, and a woman wearing far too much makeup approaches the man whose body I’ve invaded.
‘Hey, Hank,’ she says, stroking his face – my face.
Hank. I’m Hank? I’m inside Hank. I feel sick.
Hank caresses the woman’s back and the curve of her buttocks.
‘You coming over later?’ she says. ‘Hubby’s on nights.’
‘Too right,’ Hank says.
‘Sally,’ a man calls from the door.
‘Better go,’ the woman says.
Hank watches her leave, before scanning the crowd, his eyes stopping on a male figure sitting alone in the far corner with his head in his hands, an empty glass on the table in front of him. The man looks up and stares at the woman behind the bar, and I recognise him. He’s older than I remember, but he still has the handsome, square jawed look going on. He runs his hand over the greying stubble on his chin and pushes the shot-glass away from him, before rising. It’s Tilly’s dad.
As he heads for the door, I call out, ‘Hi, Mr Cooper. How are you? How’s Tilly?’ He doesn’t hear, and the man I’m occupying turns, focusing on my parents.
An elderly chap with a head of white hair is showing my dad the digital screen of a camera, and Dad is smiling as he knocks back his drink.
‘That’s a good one, George,’ Dad says.
My mum glances at the screen too, gripping my dad’s arm affectionately. ‘I’ll have to send that one to Isaac,’ she says. ‘He’ll laugh at you in that hat.’
Dad turns to face her. ‘We should go to England in the New Year,’ he says, and I note the hint of a slur in his voice. ‘It’s about time I got to know my son, the man.’
Mum smiles. ‘That would be fantastic,’ she says. ‘He’ll be over the moon.’
But Dad’s smile vanishes. He pulls off his hat, and sits down. ‘I’m a selfish bastard, Kate,’ he says, as Mum sits down beside him. ‘My whole life has been about what I wanted.’
‘That’s not true,’ she says.
He puts his arm around her shoulders and draws her close. ‘You know it is. I’ve never thought about what you want, what Isaac wanted. After our Blue Mountain trip, let’s slow right down. Visit Isaac, stay in England with him for a few months.’
‘I’d love that.’ Mum’s eyes are bright with hope.
As I listen, good memories flood in of the man who, when I was a child, made every day feel like an adventure. The man whose eyes lit up as he talked with such passion about countries he wanted to visit one day, places he’d been to - the well-read, intelligent man who loved nature, poetry, life. The man who was everything I wanted to be when I grew up, but knew, even at an early age, I never would be.
‘Shall we tell Isaac we’re coming?’ Mum continues.
My father shakes his head. ‘Let’s surprise him. God, I can’t wait to see his face when we turn up. And when I do, I’m going to tell him I’m sorry.’
You have nothing to be sorry for, Dad.
My heart feels as though it’s being sliced in two. They were coming to
see me – not just for one of their flying visits – and Dad went and bloody well died.
Hank knocks back the rest of his larger, and continues to scan the room. It feels like a camcorder swinging away from the scene of the action.
No, no, no – go back. I want to see them. Go over to them. Talk to them. Please.
He doesn’t, and Phototime suddenly feels like a waste of time. What is it all about anyway? What’s the point, if I can’t speak to my parents? If I can't be near them, or hug them – tell them how I feel.
Hank turns back to the bar, and focuses far too long on the American woman’s breasts. ‘Get me another lager,’ he says. ‘There’s a good girl.’
‘Coming up,’ she say, and smiles as she hands him a bottle. She has a lovely smile.
‘So, when are you going to say yes to coming out with me, Tilly?’
Tilly? Tilly? Oh God, is that why she seemed familiar? I study her face. It can’t be. My Tilly had short hair and her front teeth stuck out and she was on the podgy side. But as Hank drinks her in, I know it’s her – there is no doubt the woman in front of me was once my best friend.
He puts his hand on hers. ‘Come out with me tomorrow,’ he says.
‘I don’t know.’ She pulls her hand away. ‘I’m not sure we’re right for each other.’
‘You’re not,’ I yell. ‘This man’s a fool, Tilly. He’s sleeping with a married woman.’
‘You could do a lot worse, than me,’ he says.
‘No, Tilly, you couldn’t. You seriously couldn’t.’
‘I’ll wear you down, eventually,’ Hank goes on, reaching across the bar and yanking her towards him.
I feel a sudden dragging sensation, as though a hand is pulling me out of the picture. My five minutes are up, but I need to stay. I need to talk to Tilly.
‘Get me a lager, love.’
I’m standing at the bar in Molly Malone’s, exactly where I started. It feels even more real, like I’m deeper in the picture.
A sharp pain in my ankle - I opened my eyes with a start.
A young voice, ‘Is he dead?’ It was a boy of about seven standing over me, staring as he chomped on some cheesy puffs, his blond hair gelled to look like Bart Simpson’s. He chewed slowly, a look of morbid curiosity on his freckled face.
‘No, I’m not bloody dead,’ I said. I was back in the airport; my legs sprawled in front of me. I’d slipped down in the chair and dribbled on my chin. I shuffled up, straightened my back, and wiped my face with the back of my hand.
‘Shame,’ the boy said with a cheesy-puff smile. ‘I’ve never seen a dead man before.’ He walked away, talking about dead things he’d found in his garden.
‘Did you kick me, Cillian?’ I said, bending to rub my ankle.
‘Yep, you were in Phototime thirty seconds too long, Isaac,’ he said. ‘It’s dangerous to stay in too long. But at least you made it back.’
‘Was there a possibility I wouldn’t?’
He shrugged, and after a long ponderous sigh he said, ‘I have no idea.’
I widened my eyes. ‘You have no idea, and you didn’t think to tell me that?’
I thought about what had just happened. ‘There must be a scientific explanation,’ I said. ‘I read on the internet that we only use ten percent of our brain – maybe it has something to do with that.’
‘That’s a myth, son.’
‘The ten per cent of the brain theory.’
‘But there must be an explanation.’
He shrugged. ‘I barely know anything about Phototime, if I’m honest.’
‘Didn’t Suki tell you anything?’
‘She told me about the side-effects.’
He nodded. ‘Headaches, nausea, increased urine flow, memory loss, a rash on your private parts, hairy feet, hairy palms, hairy bum, sleep disorders. Shall I go on?’
‘Good God,’ I said, looking at my palms, and making a mental note to check my other bits later. ‘Why didn’t you tell me any of this before I went in?’
‘Because you probably won’t suffer any of those things.’
‘Well I didn’t, and neither did your mum. And anyway, coincidences are the main side-effect.’
He nodded. ‘Apparently, when you go into the picture there's an increased likelihood of seeing someone you saw there, in the present moment.’
I tried to get my head around it. ‘So if I went into a picture with Emma Stone in it, I’d stand more chance of seeing her in real life?’ I sounded way too excited.
‘Something like that,’ he said with a shrug. ‘It can trigger all sorts of bizarre coincidences. Not that I’ve experienced any. Otherwise, I'd have met my brother by now.’
‘But you’re saying there’s more chance of seeing your brother now?’
‘And more chance I’ll see my mum,’ I said, feeling guilty I'd thought of Emma Stone first.
Cillian nodded. ‘Or anyone else from the photo.’ He began telling me how he wasn’t an expert, but my mind was elsewhere.
I was suddenly thinking about Tilly.