‘Where’s my mum?’ I said, once Cillian had closed the door. ‘She came to see you three weeks ago.’ I searched the room, praying she’d bob up from behind the two-seater sofa and yell, ‘Surprise!’ She didn’t.
Apart from the sofa and a dated 32” TV, there wasn’t room for much else. Pictures hung on the walls, outback scenes mostly, and a framed photograph of two lads paddling in shallow seawater.
I eyed the man in front of me, narrowing my eyes. ‘What the hell have you done with my mother?’
‘Well, aren’t you a complete arse?’ he said, with a half-smile. ‘And to think Kate spoke so highly of you.’
I clenched my fists - a pathetic gesture. This bloke was huge, and could easily punch my lights out.
‘For Christ’s sake, sit down, Isaac. You look like shit.’ He pointed to the sofa. ‘Take the weight of your sandals. I’ll get you a lager.’
‘I don’t want a lager. I want answers. Why did Suki send my mother to you?’ I sounded breathless, and my heartbeat was erratic. I felt like I'd run a marathon. ‘What have you done with her?’
‘Well, I’m having a lager, mate. You, on the other hand, can please your bloody self.’ He laughed as he headed towards the kitchen area, and opened the fridge.
‘OK. Yes. I’ll have a lager.’ I took off my cap and swiped the back of my forearm over my mouth. It tasted salty.
He grabbed two bottles, opened them with his teeth, and handed me one.
‘Thanks,’ I said, rolling the cold bottle between my hands before taking a swig.
‘Right, let’s start again, shall we?’ he said, sitting down on a battered wooden stool, and glaring until I sat too. ‘I’m Cillian.’
‘Yes, I know.’ I took another swig. ‘The thing is…’ My voice cracked, and my thoughts blurred, as though my mind was melting. ‘It’s just,’ I went on, ‘I have no idea what’s happened to her. She was expected back a week ago, and her phone is dead and…’ Tears stung my eyes.
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Cillian said, rubbing his hand over his mouth, his face serious. ‘I’m sure she’s OK, mate. She stayed here for ten days before taking off. She was fine when she left.’
‘But why did Suki send her to you in the first place?’ I felt tired, as if everything was too big to take in.
He shrugged, and took a slow sip of his drink, his eyes not leaving mine. ‘Let’s just say she felt for your mum, and thought I could help.’
‘Help her, how?’ My head swam, and my stomach churned. I probably had sunstroke, or been unwittingly bitten by an evil Aussie insect. ‘How?’ I repeated, remembering how bizarre Suki had seemed. Maybe she’d sent me and Mum into some sort of weird trap. Perhaps Cillian was the leader of a cult. ‘Answer me,’ I pleaded. ‘I need to know what’s happened to her.’
‘Patience,’ Cillian said, moving from the stool, and back to the kitchen.
I rubbed my face, feeling numb and unable to argue. My eyes locked on the darkness through the window. The sun had gone down, and the black sky and the sound of dingoes howling freaked me out. It hit me that I had nowhere to stay. Even if I could afford one of the hotels or campsites nearby, they would probably be full up with tourists. I was stuck in the outback with the strangest man I’d ever met, at the hottest time of year. I wished I was home. I missed Ricky. I missed everything – even Olivia. Well, maybe not Olivia.
I put my lager on the table in front of me, pulled myself up, and staggered towards the door, not sure where I was heading.
‘Where are you staying?’ Cillian said, returning from the kitchen with a bottle of water. I continued to stumble, grabbing the TV for support. I opened my mouth to speak, but words wouldn’t form.
‘The sofa’s small,’ he went on, handing me the chilled water, ‘but you’re welcome to it. I’ve got a spare mosquito net.’
Despite the urge to leave and carry on searching for Mum, my body had different ideas. I had no choice but to stay. Clutching the cold bottle, I flopped onto the sofa and closed my eyes.
I woke early, ears tingling at the sound of a desert wind moaning through the trees, almost drowning out the cockatoos and budgerigars, and those bloody dingoes still howling in the distance.
Through the mosquito net Cillian had thrown over me, I noticed a gecko climbing up the wall, and there were bugs and little spiders on the ceiling.
I shot up, and removed the net, and tried to comb my matted hair with my fingers.
Cillian came out of the kitchen, a spatula in his hand. He was naked, apart from a stripy butcher’s apron, covering his tackle. His hair hung loose and damp past his shoulders, as though he’d just showered. He looked friendlier than the ogre I’d created in my tired mind the night before. ‘Fancy some grub?’
My nose twitched. ‘Bacon?’
‘Why not?’ I said, stretching and yawning. ‘Thanks.’
He disappeared into the kitchen again, and I got up.
‘Have a shower if you like,’ he called over the sound of sizzling bacon and the rumbling of a kettle boiling. ‘It’s like standing under someone spitting on your head, but it does the job.’
‘Sounds amazing,’ I said, and realised I was smiling.
Later, showered and dressed, I demolished a club-sized bacon sandwich, oozing with brown sauce, and after about a gallon of water, I began to feel better.
‘Sorry,’ I said, leaning back on the sofa feeling stuffed, my fingers locked behind my head. ‘I was an idiot last night, wasn’t I?’
‘Well, I’m not going to lie.’ Cillian smiled, looking even more approachable. ‘You’re worried about your mum, it was understandable. I might let you off, this time.’
‘So, how did you know who I was?’
‘When I arrived, you said my name.’
‘Your mum showed me a photo, told me about you.’
I cringed. ‘Did she tell you I was a complete bastard?’
‘What? No.’ He stared. ‘Why would she say that?’
I shrugged. ‘Oh I don’t know, maybe because I wasn’t there for her when my dad died.’ I pulled away from his gaze, and looked through the window. ‘I never…’ The words were lodged somewhere inside me. I couldn’t get them out.
‘She loves you, Isaac. She made that clear.’
Tears blurred my vision.
‘In fact, she told me how strong you were.’
‘I’m not strong,’ I said in a whisper, flicking tears away with my fingers. ‘I’m an idiot.’
‘But you’re here.’
'That's true,’ I said, a burst of determination pushing through the self-pity. ‘And I will find her, Cillian. Do you have any idea where she was heading?’
He nodded. ‘Sydney,’ he said.
‘Then that’s where I need to be, right now.’ I rose.
‘Sit down, Isaac, please. You can’t just take off. Sydney’s a big place. It won’t be easy.’ He glanced towards the picture of the two young lads on the wall. ‘Nothing is ever that easy.’
‘Is that you?’ I asked, lowering myself back onto the sofa.
‘Sure is,’ he said. ‘Me and my little brother in Sligo, many moons ago.’
‘Sligo,’ I said. ‘I used to holiday there as a teenager. It’s a great picture.’
‘Yeah, I had an old polaroid enlarged a while back.’ His voice had changed in tone, softer now, as if the picture stirred memories
‘Do you still see your brother?’
He shook his head. ‘He disappeared,’ he turned to me, and I saw the pain in his eyes, ‘moments after that photo was taken, in actual fact. It was my fault. I let him out of my sight.’
‘Oh God, I’m so sorry,’ I said, escaping his eyes and looking back at the picture, taking in the sun low in a blue sky, the boys grinning from the photo, wearing knee-length shorts, and knitted jumpers with Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men, on the front. The older child was about seven, and his arm was looped around the younger one’s shoulders, protectively.
‘I’m the tall one,’ Cillian said, as though reading my thoughts. ‘I should have looked after my brother that day. He was only about four, just a baby. It’s the only photograph I have of us together - of him.’
I could tell he still felt the sorrow of that day, which must have been over forty years ago.
He sucked in a breath. ‘Anyway,’ he said, rubbing his hands together, as though he wanted to move on. ‘Enough about that. It was all a long time ago. In fact I can’t even remember that day.’
I should have let the conversation go at that moment, but so many questions bounced around my head.
‘Don’t you remember anything?’
‘Nope,’ he said. He coughed, clearly attempting to disguise the emotion in his voice, which was at odds with his apron-over-naked-body look. He snatched a pair of knee-length shorts and a black T-shirt from a clotheshorse, and put them on, discarding the apron.
‘Nothing at all?’ I persisted.
‘Nope.’ He tied his hair into a ponytail, and grabbed his waistcoat. ‘I’ve tried to remember, but come up with nothing again and again. And I’ve tried to find out what happened, even been to Sligo, spoken to local people, police. Even Phototime didn’t work.’
His eyes widened. ‘Ah, yes, well, I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that. I was hoping we’d find your mum without going down that route.’
‘Why? What is it? What’s Phototime?’
A silence hung in the air.
He lowered himself onto the sofa. ‘But then maybe it’s important you do know.’ He bit his lip. ‘The thing is, Isaac, Suki sent your mum here so she could go into Phototime.’
‘But what is it?’
My mind boggled. ‘Magic?’ I wondered if I’d misjudged him after all. Maybe he was crazy.
He nodded. ‘It’s probably best you don’t tell anyone. I mean, if the potion got into the wrong hands…’
‘Potion?’ Why was I even considering the possibility of magic? ‘What exactly is Phototime?’ I repeated, unsure whether I wanted to know.
‘It’s the ability to travel into photographs.’
‘What?’ Was I still asleep? Dreaming? Had the head melted my brain? 'I saved Suki’s life once,’ he said. ‘And afterwards we got talking and I told her about my brother. She said I could find him with Phototime.'
I let out a laugh. ‘Christ, you can’t be serious,’ I said. ‘Please say you’re not serious.’
‘Do I look like I’m joking?’ He didn’t.
I covered my face with my hands, wondering if a shuttle bus could take me to the airport immediately. This was ridiculous. Cillian was obviously as crazy as Suki.
‘Isaac,’ he said, pulling my hands from my face. ‘I can transport into photographs.' His voice was earnest. 'I can be there, be a part of the events that took place just after the camera flashed.’ He paused, but kept his eyes on mine. ‘Do you believe me?’
But there was something about the way he sounded, the fact he so believed what he was saying, that stirred something in me. Could it be true?
My mind turned his words over, the implications sinking in. Cillian studied my face. ‘Your mum went into Phototime, Isaac. Many times, because she desperately wanted to see your dad again.’
The thought of Mum so distressed made me realise I had to at least consider Phototime.
‘So, can anyone travel into photographs? Can I?’
He now had my full attention.
'But there are things you need to know.’
‘One, you have to care about a person in the picture unconditionally. Two, you cannot go into the body of a relative or yourself, and three you can’t change events while you're there.’
This is crazy.
‘And four, you can only see things through the eyes of the person you’ve entered in the picture.’
‘Right, so instead of jumping into photos, why not play a family DVD? It’s the same thing, surely.’
‘It’s nothing like a DVD.’ He looked horrified. ‘When you're in the photo, you're with the person you love. It’s three-dimensional. You can smell things, feel things; you're there with the person, at that moment.’ His voice was passionate.
‘Like a virtual ride?’
‘Nothing like a virtual ride.’
‘Like a demon?’
‘Nothing like a demon.’
‘So you’ve been in the photo of you and your brother?’ I said, looking once more at the picture of the two boys.
‘Many, many times over the past year.’
‘But how?' My head was spinning. 'You said you can’t enter a picture as yourself, or a family member.’
He rose, picked up a magnifying glass, and beckoned me to the photo. I got up and stood beside him, and he placed his finger on someone in the distance – a tiny figure of a woman in green.
‘I became her.’
‘So, what, you just dived into the picture?’ I tried to imagine it, but couldn't.
‘Not physically. Mentally.’
‘Obviously.’ I couldn't hide my sceptical tone, but either Cillian didn't notice or was too involved now to care.
‘When I’m there, my body drops into an unconscious state, and my brain’s transported to the moment the picture was taken.’ He shrugged. ‘Believe what you like, but I've relived that woman’s actions and words over and over,’ he said. ‘I heard what she said to my brother. I felt her anxiety as she took him. I couldn’t do anything about it, but I know…’ His voice slowed.
‘I know that she took him, Isaac. I was there when she took my little brother away.’