Cillian disappeared into the kitchen, and returned with a bottle of amber coloured liquid. He swilled it round several times, so strange herbs bounced against the plastic, before pouring some into a smaller bottle, the kind you take on planes. He screwed on the lids; put the large bottle into a holdall, and the other into his waistcoat pocket. I opened my mouth to ask if it was the potion Suki had given him, but closed it again. I knew the answer.
‘Right,’ he said, snatching clothes from the clotheshorse and throwing them into his bag. ‘I’ll get my bike.’
‘Yes, bike.’ He grabbed a bunch of keys from a bowl, slung the holdall over his shoulder, and headed for the door. ‘Pack your bag, Isaac.’
‘I never unpacked it.’
‘No, well, just get it then.’ He looked briefly irritated. ‘I’ll take you to the airport to catch a flight to Sydney.’
‘Wait,’ I said, as he opened the door. ‘Sydney’s a big place, you said so yourself - where would I start searching for my mum?’’
He turned to look at me. ‘As I told you before, when your mum arrived, her dream was to see your dad again.’
‘Yes, I get that bit.’
‘And Suki thought Phototime would help her, and it did, for a while.’ He paused, jiggling his keys, clearly itching to leave. ‘But she became fixated on how your father died, said she wanted to talk to the tour company who took them into the mountains. Maybe that’s where your mum was heading.’
‘It’s as good a place as any to start,’ I said, hope rising.
‘And I’m coming with you to Sydney.’
‘You are?’ I realised I was pleased to have him on board.
He nodded. ‘I feel partly to blame for all this,’ he said, ‘especially as I think your mum…’ He clammed up, and headed through the door.
‘You think Mum what?’ I said, grabbing my holdall and following him.
‘Not important,’ he said, waving a dismissive hand. ‘Let’s just get this show on the road, mate, and find your mum together.’
Outside, I stared at the contraption in front of us, my bag heavy at my feet, my heart racing. ‘You want me to travel through the outback in – on – in - that?’
‘It’s a bike with a sidecar,’ Cillian said, taking off his hat and thrusting on a helmet and goggles, and throwing me a set.
‘Really?’ I said, catching them. ‘I would never have guessed if you hadn’t just told me.’
‘Get in, or wait around for a shuttle bus. No skin off my nose.’ He saddled the bike, and switched on the engine, which spluttered for a few moments and died.
‘And that’s supposed to get us to the airport?’ I could hear the scepticism in my voice.
He rolled his eyes.
The motorbike looked as if it would fall apart if I stepped into the khaki-green canoe-like section. I put on the helmet and sighed as he started the engine once more. This time it reminded me of a dying mule. Not that I’d heard many dying mules. Well I hadn’t heard any, in fact.
The bike dated back to World War II, and I was pretty sure it was a Russian Ural. I knew a bit about bikes as Ricky used to ride one. He thought it gave him an edge with women. It didn’t. This was long before he gave up his leathers, along with his pot smoking, pastries and beer, when he fell for Esme. ‘She wants me to look after myself for her,’ he’d told me once, in a swoony kind of voice, which didn’t suit him. ‘I’m working on giving up porn too.’
‘Get in, Isaac,’ Cillian said, attempting to rev the engine again.
‘Give me a sec.’ I threw my bag in next to his, and gingerly stepped into the dodgy looking contraption, which wobbled as though it might fall away from the bike halfway up the road. I wasn’t even reassured by Cillian’s sudden over-confident revving of the engine.
And we were away, passing camels, heading into the outback. Should have picked up some water.
‘Wow,’ I said after a while, grinning and rather enjoying the experience, albeit bumpy.
‘Put the goggles on, Isaac, the dust will kill your eyes,’ Cillian yelled as we roared from Yulara and into the arid red desert. ‘Especially the route we’ll be taking.’
‘Absolutely,’ I said, pulling them on and feeling a little like a fighter pilot. We’d been travelling through the desert for about five minutes, the sun hot on our necks, my rear-end killing me, when I noticed a huge feathered creature out of the corner of my eye.
‘Good God, is that a real emu?’ I said, as the thing turned. Even from a distance I could see his orange-brown eyes focusing on me.
‘That emu is stuffed,’ Cillian said with a laugh. ‘Monty Python.’
‘Parrot.’ What is it with Monty-bloody-Python?
‘No it’s definitely an emu.’
‘Cill! Cill! Cill!’ I cried, my heart pounding in my chest as it got closer.
‘I draw the line at killing an emu.’
‘No, Cillian, it’s chasing us.’
The emu gathered speed, 25 miles-per-hour or more, tailing the bike. Cillian speeded up, sand spraying everywhere.
‘I hate big birds,’ I yelled. ‘Especially emus.’
‘Me too. I blame Rod Hull.’
‘Never mind.’ He swerved, heading for a tree, and the emu veered away and slowed.
‘Thank God for that,’ I said. As I turned to face forwards, the tree fast approaching.
‘Ahh!’ A huntsman spider dropped onto my cheek and clung on for dear life as we sped onwards. ‘Ah! Ah! Ah!’ I yelped. My hands had lost their ability to know what to do and were flapping in front of my eyes as if made of jelly. I could see the thing out of the corner of my eye. It looked like a giant growth. ‘Cillian! STOP!’
He screeched to a halt.
I’m proud to say I’ve never crapped in public, not since I was a baby. But at that moment, I came pretty damn close.
‘Get it off me,’ I cried, knowing my face must be contorted out of all recognition.
‘It’s a spider, Isaac.’
‘Give that man a coconut.’
‘But it’s the size of half my head,’ I said, speaking out of the side of my mouth like a bad ventriloquist, scared the spider might crawl inside if I opened it too wide. ‘It’s clinging on, Cillian, do something. Please.’
Cillian got off the bike, laughing.
‘This isn’t funny,’ I said, still in ventriloquist mode. ‘Get it off me.’
‘The huntsman won’t hurt you. It’s those redbacks you have to watch out for, little blighters. Or the Sydney funnel web, now those can kill you. Its fangs are pretty much the size of some snakes.’
I felt sick. ‘But the huntsman still bites.’ I remembered this piece of information from my childhood, when my dad found one in our garage. He told me to stand back as they often jump. ‘Get it off me,’ I repeated.
‘They’re timid, Isaac. He’s more scared of you.’
‘I doubt that very much.’
Cillian got a stick and flicked it from my cheek. I hadn’t been so scared since I watched Scream when I was twelve from behind the sofa. How ridiculous that, at twenty-three, I was such a wuss. I straightened up and tried to calm down, as the spider scuttled off towards the tree, and hid behind the bark. ‘See, he’s more scared of you,’ repeated Cillian, returning to his bike.
We arrived at the airport just after 11a.m.
‘Well, that went well,’ Cillian said of the journey, as a friend took his bike, to lock up in his barn until his return. I felt sure I was about to collapse.
We managed to get tickets on Jetstar Airways, which would take us directly to Sydney, but there was a five hour wait for the plane.
I went to the loo, where I caught a glimpse of my helmet-head hair in the mirror. I combed it with my fingers, which did little to improve the look.
We grabbed some water and sandwiches, and sat some distance from the hustle and bustle of other travellers. I stared at Cillian who was reading, wondering why he’d dropped everything to help me. He was clearly a good bloke.
I thought about Phototime. I didn’t believe in magic or the supernatural. It was trickery, illusions, nothing more. Yes, I’d glimpsed things out of the corner of my eye, believing they might be ghosts. Especially after Gran died, when I wondered if she’d popped back through a hole in the lustre to make sure I was using condoms – which, now I thought about it, was a little unsettling. I remembered too, after our first cat, Banjo died when I was seven, sensing her jump onto my bed and curl by my side.
But I’d also seen Derren Brown convince the world that anything is possible, only to debunk it all as illusion. And yes, I loved Marvel, DC, Captain America, The Hulk, but none of it was real. It was fantasy, nothing more. So why was I taking Cillian seriously? Was it that Phototime sounded too ridiculous not to be true?
‘When you entered the picture of you and your brother,’ I began, and Cillian looked up from his book, and planted his finger on the page. ‘Could you see the woman in green?’
‘No,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘And by God, I’ve tried. But because I am the woman in green when I enter the picture, and can only see through her eyes, I can’t see her. All I can see is my little brother, as she snatches glances his way. I feel his small hand in hers. But mostly she looks down at the sand beneath her feet, or at the sea lapping nearby. I’ve tried looking into the sea for her reflection, and into my brother’s eyes, but I always come up with nothing. I’ve even studied her bare feet, and the sand oozing between her toes as she walks my brother away. I’ve observed her slim hands, wondering if one day I’ll spot a tattoo, a mole, a scar, or even a ring, but nothing.’
‘So you don’t even know what colour her hair is?’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t even know what she sounds like. She speaks so quietly, bending down and saying into my brother’s ear words I can only just make out, “Your mammy needs you.”’
‘Mammy? Do you think she’s Irish?’
‘Do you know who took the picture of you and your brother?’
He nodded. ‘An old man with a dog.’
‘Well that’s good isn’t it? Couldn’t you find out who he was?’
He shook his head. ‘When I’m in the picture, through the eyes of the woman I see the man with the dog in the distance, his back to me as he puts the camera on the rocks. He ruffles mine and my brother’s hair, before handing my brother the photo and heading on his way. My brother puts the photograph in his pocket, but I must have got it back from him at some point before she took him.’ He paused, pulling the old Polaroid photo from his wallet. ‘The odd thing is the woman in green and my brother walk for some distance along the beach, his hand in hers, nobody in sight. It’s only when the five minutes is up, I hear footsteps behind us.’
‘Five minutes is up?’
‘Five minutes is all we ever get in Phototime, Isaac,’ he said. ‘It’s magic. I defy anyone to explain magic.’
I tried to get my head around what he was saying. ‘What about your mother? Did she ever talk about that day?’
He shook his head, pulling another photograph from his pocket and handing it to me. It was a black and white study of a young woman cradling a baby wrapped in a blanket. She was wearing a floral dress and cardigan, flat shoes, her light hair plaited. Her face was pale, but she had an innocent beauty, like someone from another era.
‘I’m the baby,’ he said, straightening his shoulders.
‘Cute.’ I smiled.
He took the picture back, and studied it. ‘Yeah, I am pretty cute, aren’t I?’ He bit down on his lower lip and sighed. ‘I keep it with me always.’
‘Your mum looks nice,’ I said.
‘She was.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Best Mum anyone could wish for.’
‘She died when I was nineteen.’
‘Crap, Cillian. You’ve had some pretty tough breaks.’
‘It was a long time ago. Although I still struggle to understand why she didn’t tell me I had a brother until just before she died.’
‘She kept it from you that long?’
He nodded. ‘Can you imagine keeping a secret like that? I like to think she didn’t want me to feel the same pain she’d felt for all those years.’ He paused for a moment. ‘She was holding the picture of us boys when I found her.’
‘The day after I discovered the photograph, she took her own life.’
‘Christ, Cillian, I’m so sorry.’ This man’s life was like an A-Z of tragedy. I almost wanted to hug him. ‘Do you have any idea why she…?’
He shrugged. ‘I’ve no doubt it was because I found the photograph of me and my brother. It was lodged under loose floorboards. I found it when I was taking up a worn carpet in my bedroom. When I showed her the picture, she broke down, said it was of me and my brother. She never did say where it was taken, but I’ve always believed it was Sligo where she told me she grew up. ‘I’ve convinced myself my brother’s name’s Gary.’ He shrugged. ‘I heard the name being called when I was in Phototime.’
‘You must have been upset when you realised your mother hadn’t told you about him.’
His eyes shimmered with tears. ‘I was distraught, and demanded to know why she would keep something like that from me, but she simply said, Someone cruel and heartless stole him.
After losing my mum, the hardest part was the knowledge that I had a brother out there somewhere, but I had no idea how to find him. Mum had no family, and she never told me who my father was.’ He sucked in a deep breath. ‘I had such high hopes when Suki told me about Phototime. But all I discovered was the awful truth that my brother’s disappearance was my fault.’
‘No, no, you can’t blame yourself, Cillian. None of it was your fault,’ I said, resting my hand on his, and it was at that moment I knew I believed him.
Phototime was real.