We followed Gus to his house, and Mum linked her arm though Cillian’s and squeezed. It was at that moment I realised how close they’d become. How fond she was of him, and him of her. I felt sure it was purely platonic. Good friends supporting each other, and I wondered if she’d be OK now, if I went to New York to see Tilly.
‘We’re here,’ Gus called into the house, and June appeared, drying her hands on a tea-towel.
‘Come in, you guys,’ she beckoned, her cheeks rosy red, her smile wide. ‘I’ve made a lemon drizzle cake.’
Mum headed towards June and hugged her, as Cillian and I tried to look nonchalant, whilst desperately seeking Stephen.
I wondered what he might look like. Would he resemble Cillian? Or be more like his mother - small and slim?
Suddenly he appeared, looking just as he had the last time I saw him. I held in a gasp, thinking of the coincidences Phototime could cause – this had to be one of them.
Mr Cooper, I wanted to say. Tilly’s dad.
‘It’s Mr Cooper,’ Mum muttered, as though echoing my thoughts.
‘Stephen?’ Cillian said, rubbing his mouth and shuffling from foot to
foot, clearly oblivious that Mum and I knew him.
‘For God’s sake, come here, little brother,’ said Stephen, rushing towards Cillian. It was weird seeing the rugged cop in tears.
Gertie’s eyes were wet too, a hand pressed to her lips.
The brothers hugged for what seemed like a lifetime, patting each other’s backs, sobbing like babies – Cillian, in particular, cried super-loud. It was a moment where a hundred photos should have been snapped and stored in the best album ever made. But I was pretty sure they would never forget that moment, with or without a photo, because it was a miracle, and miracles, I decided at that second, are bloody awesome things.
Later, we sat in the conservatory, Cillian, Stephen and me; the sun going down as it always did – like an orange ball dropped from an unblemished sky. He explained how he’d been on an undercover job, and wasn’t allowed to call. But said if he’d had any idea how important the message from June had been, that Cillian was the reason, he would have called. I could see the frustration in his eyes, that another four weeks had been wasted that he could have spent with his brother.
‘Mum came to Inala hoping to find you, when I was seven,’ he said. ‘And as soon as I was old enough I joined the police force, believing it would give me an edge – more hope of finding you.’ He shook his head. ‘It didn’t, but I never stopped looking.’
Cillian’s eyes locked onto his brother’s face. ‘Tell me more about your life,’ he said.
Stephen sighed. ‘Well, I fell in love with Isobel when I was pretty young. We got married and had a beautiful daughter, Carrie. I didn’t deserve either. And as though I had a death wish, I messed up -- had an affair with Arabella. My wife kicked me out of our home in Inala, and I don’t blame her. I moved in with Arabella who was pregnant with my second daughter - the only good thing to come out of the years that followed.’ He sighed again.
I knew he was talking about Tilly, but kept quiet. I would tell Cillian about the connection when the time was right.
‘Fifteen years ago, I got promoted. And although I didn’t want to move out of Inala – even ten minutes away in Springfield Lakes seemed too far away from the hope of ever finding you – Arabella insisted, and I knew I had to do right by my daughter.’ He gave a painful laugh. ‘Arabella wasn’t best pleased when my mother, Gus and June moved here too. She’d hated my family for making so much of Isobel and Carrie. Jeez, I’ve made a right mess of my life so far.’
Cillian placed his hand over his brother’s. ‘Things will to be different now,’ he said.
We talked for hours, and eventually, a slightly intoxicated Cillian tried to explain Phototime to his brother.
Stephen, pretty drunk too, laughed so hard that tears rolled down his chiselled face. ‘Please don’t tell me I’ve searched all my life for you, Gary – sorry, Cillian - and it turns out you’re a bloody loon short of a tune.’ Stephen grabbed his bottle of lager, put it to his lips and gulped.
Cillian laughed too, seeming not to care that his brother was ridiculing the very thing he’d clung to for the past year. ‘Believe what you like,’ he said, throwing his hand in the air dismissively. ‘It’s true. Isaac’s been there, haven’t you, Isaac?’ He looked my way, and I nodded.
‘Ruddy priceless,’ Stephen said, wiping laughter tears from his cheeks.
‘It’s all true, Mr Cooper, I have been there,’ I said, as if I was talking about visiting the supermarket. ‘I’m hoping to go into a photo of Emma Stone any time soon, possibly a still from La La Land.’
His eyes widened, but he continued to laugh. ‘You two crack me up. You’re like a double act: Cannon and Ball, Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise.’ He drew a breath, ‘So, there were these two crackpots sitting in a conservatory ...’
‘It’s true,’ I repeated, becoming irritated. ‘Ask my mum if you don’t believe us.’
His face became serious as he glanced out at Gus, June, Gertie and Mum, sitting around the dining table, chatting and laughing. ‘You’re not joking are you?’ he said, narrowing his eyes as he looked back at Cillian. ‘You really believe in this … Phototime.’ He looked down, peeling the label from his lager bottle, quiet for a moment, as though he was absorbing our words.
Cillian stood up and headed for the kitchen to collect another lager from the fridge.
Stephen’s eyes met mine. ‘So, how are you getting on with Tilly?’ he said with genuine interest. ‘Did you catch up with her?’
I nodded, intending to pick my words carefully, but the drink had destroyed my inhabitations and I blurted, ‘I really like her, Mr Cooper.’
‘Call me Stephen, for Christ’s sake. You’re not a kid anymore.’
‘Stephen.’ I took a swig of beer. ‘She’s in New York. We keep in touch. Talk all the time.’
He sighed. ‘Ah, she’s gone back, has she? I had hoped she might stay in Australia a bit longer. Give me chance to set things right. Although I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to.’
‘It’s never too late,’ I said, but part of me wondered if it was.
He shrugged. ‘I’ve the feeling that ships sailed.’ I noticed his eyes shimmered with tears in the light. ‘I was a useless father. Always lost in my work or searching for Gary. Arabella hated me.’
I wanted to say that loving Carrie’s mum couldn’t have helped, but kept quiet.
He put down his bottle. ‘Did she say why she went back? I haven’t seen Carrie since I got back.’
I took a deep breath. ‘Arabella died, Mr Cooper - Stephen.’
His eyes widened, and he covered his mouth. ‘Oh God,’ he said through his fingers. ‘I didn’t know.’ He was silent for a moment. ‘How?’
I didn’t want to tell him, knowing it would make things worse, but his eyes searched my face.
‘It was a brain haemorrhage, apparently,’ I said, and took a gulp of lager.
His face contorted, as though I’d shot him. ‘Shit,’ he said, dragging his fingers through his hair. ‘Tilly’s going to think it’s my fault.’
I avoided his eyes.
‘There’s something else, isn’t there?’ he said. ‘Tell me, Isaac.’
‘Isaac, I’m going to find out one way or another.’
‘They say it was linked to an old injury. I’m so sorry.’
‘Jeez, she must think I’m the devil,’ he said, and after a silence added,
‘I didn’t hurt her mother that day. She fell.’ He grabbed my wrist, his gaze intent. ‘She has to believe me.’ He released my arm, and after a moment, said, ‘How will I ever convince her now that Arabella sold me out?’
Cillian appeared, and at that moment I knew what we had to do. I’d seen the photograph of Tilly and Carrie in Stephen Cooper’s house, taken moments before Arabella’s injury. I had to go into the photograph and find out what really happened that day, for his sake – and for Tilly’s.
It was Stephen’s only hope of reuniting with his daughter.
The clocks struck midnight simultaneously.
‘No,’ said Cillian for what felt like the hundredth time. He was sprawled on the sofa watching a late night horror film, seeming worn out after the emotional roller-coaster of a day. We’d been back about an hour and Mum had already gone to bed, but I hadn’t let up, begging him over and over. I’d explained how Tilly was Stephen’s daughter, and all it entailed, and begged him to help me.
‘Please, Cillian, I have to do it.’
He paused the TV screen with the remote control and glared at me. ‘Enough, already,’ he said. ‘None of us are going into Phototime ever again.’
‘Oh come on, Cillian, please. It’ll be the last time, I promise.’
‘How many times do I have to say it, to get through to you, son?’
‘Not even for your brother? Your niece?’
‘Quit making me feel guilty, Isaac.’ He pressed play on the remote control, eyes flicking back to a black and white version of Frankenstein.
‘But this could make a huge difference to Stephen and Tilly’s life. Please Cillian.’ I’d resorted to pressing my palms together, as though praying.
Cillian dropped his head into his hands and rubbed his face. ‘No, no, no, no. And that’s an end to it, Isaac. Nothing you can say will change my mind.’
We arrived on Stephen’s doorstep the following day, the potion tucked in Cillian’s waistcoat pocket.
‘Cillian, Isaac,’ Stephen said, opening up, and looking pretty hungover. ‘Come in. To what do I owe this honour?’
‘We thought we’d come round to see you, that’s all,’ I said, and he seemed quite happy to accept that.
Once he’d disappeared into the kitchen to make some coffee, I picked up the photo of him, with Tilly and Carrie, taken on Arabella’s birthday.
‘Shouldn’t we tell Stephen what we’re about to do?’ whispered Cillian, one eye on the kitchen door. ‘Or perhaps we should borrow the picture. Do it privately.’
‘He would notice if we took it,’ I said. ‘We need to go in without his knowledge.’ I checked Stephen wasn’t listening. ‘You heard him laugh about Phototime. If we tell him what we’re doing, he might kick us out. We can’t risk that.’ I lowered my voice. ‘Give me the potion, then go into the kitchen and keep him busy for five minutes.’
I shrugged. ‘Lasagne.’
‘Yes, or cakes.’
‘Just talk to him about recipes or something,’ I whispered. ‘You know loads about recipes. Apart from anything else, it will be a great bonding exercise.’
Cillian rolled his eyes, and handed me the potion.
‘Great!’ I unscrewed it. ‘I’ll become Arabella, in the background.’
‘No wait,’ Cillian said, a note of concern in his voice. ‘What if her injury affects you?
‘Can it do that?’
‘I don’t know. But…’
‘I’ll become Stephen instead then.’
‘OK, fine,’ said Cillian, and I noted the reserve in his voice as I knocked back the potion in one.
The sky is black - though the garden is flooded with light. The evening is still warm, but the party has long been over.
There’s a camera on a table pointing my way. It must have been set on a timer to take the photograph of Stephen and his daughters.
I look down at Tilly through her father’s eyes. Nine-years-old, but the look on her face is one of hatred, and it burns through me. She turns and runs.
‘Tilly, darling,’ Stephen calls after her, but he doesn’t move.
A hand on his arm. ‘Don’t worry, Dad.’ It’s Carrie, full of reassuring smiles. ‘She’ll come round eventually, realise it’s not your fault.’
Stephen’s pain manifests in a guilty sadness. His thoughts dart to and fro. I should try harder. I should fight for her. ‘I’m not sure she ever will,’ he says, sounding resigned. ‘Arabella’s done a great job of turning her against me, Carrie.’ He puts an arm around her shoulder and gives her a hug. ‘It’s my own fault. I’m not here enough to make things right.’ He paused. ‘How’s your mum?’ he says, and it’s obvious from his racing heart that he’s still in love with Isobel.
Carrie shrugs. ‘OK, I guess. Isn’t best pleased I’m here, if I’m honest. But she knew how much Tilly wanted me to come.’
‘I’m amazed Arabella agreed,’ he said. ‘Speak of the devil,’ he added, seeing Arabella heading their way, a black and white cat trotting after her.
She’s clearly drunk, swaying on high heels, but immaculately made-up, wearing a bright pink sarong over a skimpy bikini. Her redundant sunglasses are perched on top of her head, and her red hair, pulled high in a ponytail, swings from side to side.
‘I should go,’ Carrie says with a sudden urgency, taking her car keys from her pocket, and kissing her father’s cheek.
‘Of course,’ Stephen says, and Carrie heads towards the gate.
‘Bye, Till’,’ Carrie calls towards the treehouse where Tilly is now sitting. ‘See you soon, sweetie.’
‘Stephen,’ Arabella says, as Carrie disappears from view. ‘You do know that if you stopped clinging to the ridiculous notion that you’re going to find Gary one day, or get back with that fat, ugly wife of yours, you might actually have time for me and Tilly.’
She drags hard on her cigarette, and blows smoke out of the side of her full, red lips.
Stephen’s body stiffens. I know the words he wants to say to her. Profanities lined up inside his head. He glances up at Tilly, and bites down painfully on his lip, controlling his anger.
Arabella turns and struts back into the house with only a slight wobble, the cat on her heels, wine splashing from her glass.
I feel Stephen’s desperation to follow.
I start to panic. What if he did hurt her? What if I’m about to witness what he did, and feel everything he feels; be part of him when he attacks her?
Should I leave his body? Leave Phototime? But if I do, I’ll never know the truth. And neither will Tilly. I stay for her sake.
Stephen’s thoughts dart about my head. She needs to hear a few home truths. She’s evil. I know I’m a crap Dad, but I love that kid.
His eyes fill with tears as he runs across the lawn and follows Arabella through the patio doors.
‘Tilly hates you,’ Arabella spits from across the room as Stephen enters. She’s leaning against a high mantelpiece, sipping from a long, thin glass full of something bubbly.
‘There’s nothing like a mother’s poison to turn a child against her father,’ he says, sounding calm, but I know he’s far from it. I feel his burning anger.
Arabella smiles. ‘And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.’
‘You’ve done all this on purpose,’ he says.
She puts down the glass and claps slowly. ‘Of course, I have. I wanted to punish you, wanted you to suffer like I have.’
‘I’ve suffered all my life, Arabella.’
‘Oh boo-hoo, for you and your lost little brother.’ She rubbed her eyes, pretending to cry. ‘Let’s face it, Stephen, if you’d been any kind of brother, if you’d protected Gary like you were supposed to, he’d still be here now.’
He shakes his head. ‘Bitch,’ he says, barely audible.
‘Do you think I care what you think of me?’ She steps forward.
‘Arabella please, you could make this right between me and Tilly.’ His anger turns to desperation.
‘Not a chance in hell,’ she says. ‘And you know what, I’m about to make it a whole lot worse.’
‘What are you talking about?’
She screams, a piercing sound that cuts through me. ‘Keep away from me, Stephen. Get off! You’re scaring me!’
‘What are you doing, Arabella?’ He looks around as if someone else must have entered the room. I’m nowhere near you. Stop, please, Tilly will here.’
She laughs quietly. ‘I know.’ She screams again. ‘Leave me alone!’ She drags her hand along the mantelpiece and ornaments crash to the ground.
‘Arabella! Stop!’ Stephen cries, as she comes towards him, her face red with rage.
‘Help! Don’t hurt me!’ she cries.
Stephen stares at her, heart pounding. I want him to move, to escape. But he’s frozen, watching as she catches the toe of her shoe on the edge of the rug and trips. She falls to the ground, her head catching the corner of the table with a sickening crack.
Stephen steps forward. ‘Oh God,’ he says, looking at her sprawled on the floor. The cat sniffs Arabella's face, and Stephen bends and gently pushes its furry body to one side. As he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his mobile to call an ambulance, Arabella’s eyelids flicker.
‘What will your daughter think of you now?’ she says, before passing out.
It took almost an hour for Stephen to believe I’d been in the photograph. The fact I could recall every moment, down to the way he’d felt seeing Arabella on the floor, knowing she’d done it deliberately, and that I knew he hadn’t laid a finger on her, finally convinced him.
He cried as he gave me a copy of the photograph, and I knew I had to convince Tilly about Phototime. Convince her to go into the picture and see the truth for herself.
I had to go to New York.
The following day, I approached Mum about the trip. She and Cillian were cooking a Mexican dish, laughing in the kitchen as they prepared tacos and fajitas, the smell of sizzling spices filling the room.
‘I need to go to New York, to see Tilly,’ I said to her. ‘I’ll try and get time off work, but even if I can’t, I need to go anyway. It’s important.’
She turned and stared at me for a few moments. ‘
Will you be OK?’ I asked.
She came over and drew me into a hug. ‘Go,’ she said. ‘I’ll be absolutely fine.’