Sunday, 1 January 2017

CHAPTER 30 PHOTOTIME by A.J. Brittany

Tilly
‘Marcus,’ Tilly said, opening her front door.
            He was smartly dressed, his thinning white hair combed back from his slim, lined face. ‘Sorry to trouble you, Tilly,’ he said, with a kindly smile. ‘I’ve brought some of your mum’s things.’ He held out a cardboard box. ‘Things I think you should have.’
            It had been six weeks since the funeral, and Tilly had kept herself busy in the shop. If she stopped for a moment, her mind flooded with thoughts of her mother - and thoughts of Isaac, and what might have been.    
‘You’d better come in,’ she said, stepping to one side. She hadn’t expected to see her step-father again. They hadn’t been close enough to keep their relationship going without her mother to link them.
            ‘Thanks.’ Marcus carried the box through to her lounge, and Tilly pushed aside a bouquet she was working on, and he slipped the box onto the table.
            ‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’ she asked, guiltily hoping he’d say no.
            He shook his head. ‘No thank you. I’ve got an appointment in half an hour.’
            Tilly opened the box, and ran her hand over the contents: her mother’s make-up, her expensive jewellery, some ornaments, and a bottle of the perfume she always wore. Tilly picked up the bottle and lifted it to her nose, tears not far away.
            ‘I’m sorry I didn’t bring them round sooner,’ Marcus said, pulling out a chair and sitting down uninvited. ‘I found it hard to sort through her things.’
            A lump rose in Tilly’s throat. ‘I understand.’
            ‘I have her clothes too…’
            ‘Give them to charity. Please.’ She couldn’t bear the thought of sorting through them.
            ‘Of course.’ He paused. ‘So will you go back to Australia, Tilly?’
            She shook her head, her eyes steady on the bottle of perfume. ‘Not after everything that’s happened.’
            She looked up, and his brown eyes locked on hers, as though he was trying to read her thoughts. But he must have known what they were. He knew what her father had done.
            Tilly pulled away from his gaze, put the perfume back in the box, and closed the lid. 
            ‘Do you have doubts?’ he said.
            She looked at him again. ‘Doubts?’
            ‘I know it’s difficult to have reservations about someone you love,’ he said, and she knew he was referring to her mum. ‘It goes against the grain to even wonder if they weren’t quite what they seemed.’
            ‘I don’t have doubts about my mother, Marcus, if that’s what you’re implying.’ More tears threatened. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude, but maybe you should go.’
            ‘Yesterday,’ Marcus went on, as though Tilly hadn’t spoken. ‘I had a visit from my younger brother, Duncan. It was the first time I’d seen him since we fell out many years ago.’
            The day Marcus and Duncan argued at the house.
            ‘Your mother told me he’d tried to seduce her, when we’d only been married a few months. I never forgave him, and Arabella insisted we never saw him again. I obliged.' He gave a sad smile. 'As you know, I would have done anything for your mother.’
            ‘Not seeing Duncan again, was the least you could do,’ Tilly said, sounding far to abrupt.
            ‘Perhaps.’ He paused. ‘But what if it wasn't true? I only had Arabella’s word, after all.’ He shifted on the chair. ‘I didn’t want to doubt her, and ruin what we had. I couldn’t risk that.’
            ‘What exactly are you trying to say, Marcus?’ Tilly felt a pang of annoyance. The last thing she needed was him turning on her mother.
            ‘When my brother came to see me the day we argued, he said he could prove he hadn’t tried to seduce Arabella, that she’d twisted everything. But I threw him out, without listening.’
            Tilly stared at him. ‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘Yesterday, I let him tell me his side of the story.’ He matched her gaze.
            ‘And did he prove his innocence?’  She sounded sarcastic now.
Marcus nodded. ‘My brother is gay, and although he only came out recently, there was no way he’d have been interested in Arabella. Why would he be? It doesn't make any sense.’
Tilly struggled with the enormity of his words. ‘But why didn’t he tell you before?’ She wasn't sure she wanted to know, but Marcus had reeled her in.
‘As I said, I wouldn’t listen,' he said. 'Although he’d been prepared to tell me he was gay at the time, long before he was ready for anyone to know.’
            'But why would Mum make it up?’ Tilly felt a surge of anger; a need to defend her mother, as she'd always done. ‘Maybe your brother’s lying.'
            ‘I’m sorry, Tilly.' His tone was heavy with resignation. 'Perhaps I should go.’ He made to stand up.
            ‘No, wait.' Tilly was shaking. 'Tell me why you think she lied.’
He sat back down, shaking his head. ‘My brother never said, but I believe I know the answer.’
            Tilly knew too. She’d made the pass at Duncan, and couldn’t bear the rejection.
            ‘I’ve chosen not to think about it,’ he said, as though reading her mind. ‘It will tarnish the years I spent with her, if I do.’
            ‘But…’
‘Dear girl,’ Marcus cut in, standing up. ‘I just want you to be sure of your facts. Hear your father’s side of things.' He rested a hand on her shoulder. 'I’m not saying I believe him, or that your mother was lying about what happened that day. I just feel you should be completely sure, before you make any more decisions.’
But Tilly already knew her decision. She needed to see Isaac.

Isaac
‘How was the course?’ I said to Ginny as we entered the Chinese restaurant and I was hit by a tempting waft of oriental cooking. 
            ‘Boring as hell.’ She leaned into me, linking her arm through my elbow. ‘I’m glad to be back, and I'm looking forward to getting to know you better, Isaac.’
            Over beansprouts and sweet and sour chicken, I told Ginny about Tilly. She was attentive; tilting her head, reassuring me that life goes on, flicking her blonde hair and flashing her piercing blue eyes. There was no doubting she was attractive, and any other time I’d have thought I’d died and gone to heaven. But in truth, I probably shouldn’t have been there, giving her the wrong idea. My head was full of Tilly.
 Between courses, she leaned over and stroked my face. And I’m not going to lie, I was pretty shocked when she pushed herself across the table, showing me her rather lovely cleavage, and kissed me.
It was as Ginny released me from that bewildering kiss, that I saw Tilly peering at me through the window, her hand bridging her eyes.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, flustered, excited, heart racing as I pushed back my chair and jumped up, banging the table with my knees so the cutlery bounced.
 ‘Tilly!’ I called, racing out of the restaurant. But she was gone. I headed down the road. She was nowhere in sight.
Maybe I’d imagined it, I told myself. A vision brought on because I couldn’t get her out of my head.
Back in the restaurant, Ginny seemed to understand how traumatic seeing, or thinking I’d seen, Tilly had been.
‘You need someone to take your mind off her,’ she said, with a seductive smile.
 ‘But what if Tilly’s in Brisbane? What if she saw you kiss me?’
‘Oh come on, Isaac,’ Ginny said, her tone becoming irritated. ‘From where I’m sitting, this woman has ignored you for almost two months. You have every right to see someone else.’ She leant forward, and placed her hand on mine. ‘Sleep with someone else.’
‘Well, yes, maybe, I don’t know. I mean…’
‘After all, you are quite the stud-muffin, Isaac.’
‘Well that’s very kind of you, Ginny,’ I said, burying myself in the desert menu. I’d never been called a stud-muffin before. ‘But…’
‘Waiter!’ she called, ‘another bottle of red over here, if you’d be so kind.’
Over banana fritters and ice cream, Ginny laid her beautifully tanned hand on mine once more, and said, ‘So can we talk about something other than Tilly? Please.’
‘Of course,’ I said, grabbing my glass and taking a swig of wine.
‘She’s your past, Isaac,’ she said, in a voice that seemed intent on making me horny. ‘The future is sitting right here, and wearing a low cut dress especially for you.’
 ‘It’s a very nice dress,’ I obliged.
Over coffee and mints, I somehow steered the conversation back to Tilly. Do you think she could be in Brisbane? If she’s not in Brisbane, should I see a doctor about my hallucinations?
‘So are you actually over this Tilly woman?’ Ginny finally snapped, and popped a mint into her mouth. She sloshed the remainder of the wine into her glass and narrowed her eyes. I was glad the knives had been cleared away.
‘I’m not sure I am,’ I confessed. ‘I think I still love her.’ In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best thing to say.
Ginny sucked in a breath then spat the tiny mint at my forehead, where it stuck for several seconds before splashing into my coffee. 
‘Ouch,’ I said, rubbing the spot where it hit. ‘There was no need for that! ’ I called after her, as she exited the restaurant - people staring. ‘And it was extremely childish,’ I whispered, before asking the waiter for the bill.
#
‘Did you catch up with Tilly?’ Mum called, when I popped to her house later that evening. I needed company, and my flatmate tended to keep himself to himself.
            Mum told me how Tilly had arrived on her doorstep, saying she’d hoped, if nothing else, she could renew our friendship.
Mum had apparently invited her in, and filled her in on my lack-of-life since I’d returned from New York. She told her where I was working, and Cillian had chipped in, telling her that, if she wanted to catch me, I was at the Ming Wah in Brisbane.
I hadn’t told them about Ginny.
            Later I rang Tilly, but once again her phone went to voicemail. ‘Call me,’ was all I said. There was so much more to say, but I didn’t know where to begin. 
            The following day, after work, I headed out of the office, and onto the streets of Brisbane, chatting to the colleagues I’d become friendly with. It was raining, heavy and incessant, shrivelling my hair.
‘Isaac!’
I turned. It was Tilly, looking pretty (and more than a bit damp) in a pink tunic over leggings.
‘Isaac?’ said one of my colleagues, gesturing for me to catch up. We'd arranged to have a drink.
‘Go on without me, mate,’ I said. 
Tilly ran towards me, a raindrop falling from the end of my nose.
‘We must stop meeting in the rain, my hair can’t take it,’ I said. I was trying to be casual and breezy, but my heart was hammering against my ribs.  
‘Oh I don’t know, I rather like your curls,’ she said, eyeing them.
‘You’d be the first person ever.’
 She smiled, and lifted her face to the sky, letting the rain wet her face before looking back at me.
I smiled back. In fact, I couldn't stop smiling. ‘So what are you doing in Brisbane?’
‘I wanted to see you,' she said, not quite meeting my eyes. 'I saw you in the restaurant. She looks nice.’
‘We’re just friends.’ I was pretty sure we weren’t.
‘You have every right to be seeing someone else, Isaac.’
‘But I’m not.’
Her cheeks pinked. ‘Well, I’m glad.’ She finally looked at me properly, her eyes shining with tears. ‘Because the thing is, Isaac, I’ve missed you, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to realise it, but I can’t live without you.’ The words rushing out made my heart thud. ‘You’re more important than anything that’s happened in the past.’
Without a word I took her in my arms and kissed her wet cheeks, her hair, her lips, as people rushed by, looking for shelter, seeming oblivious to us standing in the middle of the pavement, drenched.
‘I’ve missed you so much,’ I said into her hair, which still smelt of flowers and rain and sunshine.
Eventually we released each other, and I shrugged off my jacket and covered our heads with it – though it was probably too late.
‘Aw, how sweet.’  It was Ginny, coming through the doors of the office building behind us. ‘This must be the lovely Tilly I’ve heard SO much about.’  As she passed, she jumped in a puddle, splashing my trousers with water.
‘Sorry about that,’ I muttered, as she carried on down the street without looking back.
‘She’s not happy, is she?’ Tilly said. ‘Didn’t she get the memo that said you’re just friends?’
‘Apparently not. I think she probably hates me, and I can’t really blame her.
She smiled as we ran for cover. 
‘So,’ she said as we hugged under the shelter of the office building. ‘There’s another reason I’m here.’ Her expression grew serious. ‘The thing is, I’ve been thinking about Phototime. And although I’m still not sure I believe…’
 ‘It’s not an easy thing to believe,’ I cut in, my pulse accelerating. It sounded like she’d given it some thought.
‘True,’ she went on, her eyebrows drawing together. ‘But if it’s still possible for me to go into that photo of me, Carrie, and my father, I want to give it a try.’
#
That evening, Tilly and I sat on the sofa in my apartment. She stared at the photograph, while I fiddled with the potion Cillian had given me.
            ‘Are you sure?’ I whispered.
She turned wide, watery eyes on me. ‘No,’ she said, biting her lip. ‘I’m not sure at all.’
            ‘Then don’t do it,’ I said. ‘Let’s just forget about it. Go out for a pizza, or watch a movie.’
            She gave me a smile. ‘But I have to, don’t you see?’ she said. ‘I’ve hated my father all these years, because of what Mum told me, not because of what I knew for myself. In fact, I don’t even know who he really was - is.’ There was a pause before she continued. ‘He was hardly ever around, you know that, Isaac.’ Looking back at the photo, she reached for the potion. ‘It is safe, isn’t it?’
            ‘There can be side-effects,’ I cautioned, deciding it was best to be honest.
            Her face was pale. ‘Anything serious?’
            ‘Not if you’re happy with hair on your bum,’ I said, quickly wishing I hadn’t. I shook my head. ‘It’ll be fine. As long as you come out of the picture after five minutes, you’ll be OK.’
She took the lid off the bottle, and sniffed. ‘It doesn’t smell of anything,’ she said, swirling the liquid around so it caught the light. ‘What is it, exactly?’
‘Probably best not to ask,’ I said, to hide that I didn’t know.
She studied it for a long moment, then squared her shoulders. ‘Count to five with me,’ she said, a challenge in her eyes. ‘And God help you if nothing happens.’
We counted down, and she closed her eyes and swiftly drank the potion.
That’s when it hit me. How could I be so stupid?  
‘Oh God,’ I muttered.
‘What is it?’ said Tilly, her eyes suddenly heavy. ‘What’s wrong?’  But even as she spoke her gaze zoned out, and she flopped against the back of the sofa.
I’d remembered too late that everyone in the photo was a member of her family. There was no way it could work.
Except …
Motionless on the sofa, eyelids flickering, it was obvious Tilly was there.
She was in Phototime.
Five long minutes later – I’d kept my eyes on her the whole time, wondering if I should check her pulse - she opened her eyes.
            ‘Are you OK?’ I asked, holding her hand. ‘What happened?’
            She pulled herself up, tears coursing down her face.
‘I can’t believe it,’ she cried, touching her lips with trembling fingers. ‘How she could pretend that he hurt her?’ As she wept, I drew her into my arms. ‘All this time, I thought my dad was the worst person in the world,’ she said, through a hiccup. ‘But he loved me so much, Isaac.’
I nodded. ‘I know,’ I murmured. ‘He still does.’
She lifted her tear-stained face to mine. ‘You panicked as I went into the photo,’ she said. ‘Why?’
‘I wasn’t sure I’d explained it to you properly, that’s all,’ I lied. 
‘Well it worked, so you must have,’ she said, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her top.
‘I’m glad,’ I said. ‘All I wanted was for you to know the truth.’
There was no point telling her that someone in that photograph wasn’t related to her. What good would it do, to know Carrie might not be her half-sister, or that perhaps Stephen wasn’t her father, after all.
I consoled myself that either Suki had got the rules wrong, or Cillian had been mistaken. All that mattered was Tilly knew how much her father loved her, and that he hadn’t hurt her mother, or caused her death.
It was enough.
‘I can’t believe how good it feels to finally know the truth.’ She nuzzled into my arms again, and I held her tightly. ‘I can see what Marcus meant about my mother,’ she said, and told me about her step-father’s visit, and his revelation about his brother. ‘I suppose I didn’t see it, because I didn’t want to believe my mother was capable of lying,’ she said. ‘Marcus has chosen to deny it to himself, but I can’t be like him.’ She paused, resting her head against my chest, and I wanted us to stay like that forever.

Finally, she pulled away. ‘I need to tell him I’m sorry,’ she said, looking stricken. ‘Isaac, you have to take me to my father.’

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