Tuesday, 31 January 2017

WELCOME TO PHOTOTIME by A J Brittany

Isaac’s dad has died in The Blue Mountains, Australia, and his mum has disappeared.

He meets Cillian, a man in his fifties, who is on a quest to find his long lost brother.


Cillian teaches Isaac about Phototime – a way of visiting the five minutes after a photograph was taken – and the unlikely pair set out on a bitter-sweet, magical adventure across Australia...
***
Thank you for visiting.  I SO hope you enjoy Phototime. I've organised the blog so if you scroll down you can find chapter 1, and so on - OR you can click on individual chapters on the right-hand sidebar. 

If you read Phototime and would like to donate £2 to Cancer Research, you can reach my Just Giving page HERE.  I'm trying to raise money for my sister, and many others: friends, family and anyone who has suffered or is still suffering at the hands of the awful disease.


If you are not from the UK, and would still like to donate, but can't reach my Just Giving page, Maria has had a great idea HERE that you could make a donation to Cancer Research in your own country, and let me know by emailing me and I will add your donation to the running total.

Thank you 

Dedication

For my brave sister.



Phototime Copyright

Copyright: Amanda Brittany 2017

CHAPTER 1. PHOTOTIME BY A J BRITTANY

Isaac
I read on the internet that we never dream in colour. It’s not true. Most of us dream in colour. In fact, black and white dreams can be a sign of depression. Or so I read on the internet.
As a child living in Australia, I had a recurring dream where I stood on the edge of The Blue Mountains. The towering rocks, tinted with blues and lilacs, stretched under cloudless skies in front of me, and the sun burned hot on my back. I’d known, because you know these things in dreams, that every gorge, cave and crevice belonged to me.
I stopped having the dream when I came back to the UK when I was nine. I still dreamt, of course - still dreamt in colour - right up until my father died five weeks ago.
Now those mountains were back, drained of the blues and pinks and lilacs, as though Dracula had crept in and sucked the life out of them. I knew, because you know these things in dreams, that the gorges, caves and crevices were no longer mine.
I’m not saying I was depressed exactly, although losing your dad isn’t the best thing to happen when you’re twenty-three. A dad you loved, but never got to tell how much. A dad you looked up to, admired, but never had the balls to be anything like. A dad who you felt, beneath his smile, was disappointed in the boy you once was, and the man you’d become.
Perhaps I was depressed then.
 I certainly felt numb, zombiefied and confused.
‘Isaac.’ A sharp poke in my chest woke me from my black and white dream. Rain, heavy and incessant on the window, infiltrated my ears. I sat up to see Olivia, forty-five, and undeniably gorgeous. I hated her. Sick to the back teeth of her describing me as her sordid little secret, despite knowing that was exactly what I was.
Her blonde hair fell over her manufactured face, as she leant on the bed, one hand on the Egyptian cotton, the other pulling on her heels.  She smelt nice.
‘If you use my shampoo again,’ she said. ‘I’ll shave your curls off in your sleep.’
‘They’re not curls, they’re waves.’ I touched my hair, checking it was still there. I wouldn’t have put anything passed her.
She stood upright, gave me her usual I’m-the-boss-around-here
stare, grabbed her Prada bag, and headed for the door. ‘Don’t be late, and make sure you put the loo seat down and switch off all the lights. There’s a good boy.’
She always called me boy, due, I suspected, to the age gap. It gave her power over me, and I’d let it happen.
‘No lift today, then?’ I said, hoping to sound sarcastic, but it came out croaky. My throat was parched from drinking lager the night before. But I had an excuse for my brief spell of alcoholism.
My dad died.
Olivia glanced back over her slim, fit shoulders, and glared again. This time as though I was a toddler who’d missed the potty and messed on the floor. She didn’t like me anymore. Not even as a plaything. She’d given me until the end of the week to get out. I couldn’t have cared less.
            I’m not saying it wasn’t fun at first. I liked being the secret lover of a company director. Living in her luxury penthouse rent free, and revelling in the knowledge it cost her over two grand a week was great. I loved the classic elegance of the place, with its immaculate kitchen, the ‘his’ and ‘her’ sinks in the bathroom. I got off on the fact I could walk out of the front door onto Covent Garden’s Piazza with its café, shops, and restaurants, as though I was some sort of celebrity. I loved the views of the Opera House from the roof terrace, where I’d sit for hours hiding from Olivia, thinking my own thoughts.  
Olivia Noakes was one of the most powerful people at Noakes Information Technology, or N.I.T for short (they clearly hadn’t thought that through) where I’d worked since I graduated two years before. At first I got a buzz when other guys eyed her up. I would watch her flirting, stroking their faces with slender fingers, hugging them for a few seconds longer than absolutely necessary, and I would think, yes, but she’s sleeping with me.  That was before I found out she was sleeping with them too.
‘You look ridiculous,’ she said now, one hand on the door handle as she eyed my pyjamas. ‘You need a shave. Honestly, Isaac, you totally bore me.’
‘But my dad died.’ I sounded whiny, of which I wasn’t proud.
‘For God’s sake, get over it and move on. When my father died I didn’t give it a second thought.’
‘That’s because your dad…’
The door slammed behind her.
…left you a fortune, and you’re an absolute bitch.
I climbed off the bed. ‘Anyway, they’re vintage,’ I said, looking down at my PJs. ‘I like Thundercats.’
            Olivia told me on my first day at N.I.T. that I was cute, and good looking for a systems developer. I was flattered, I liked the way she touched my face, and said, ‘I love your green eyes. Your long lashes are very sexy.’
I didn’t twig she was seducing me.
Who’d have thought a company director of her calibre would look at me?
That was two years ago. I’m not sure I liked her even then.
Now, I showered and shaved, got dressed and hid my PJs in case Olivia, as she’d promised on more than one occasion, cut them up.
The shirt, the tie, the smart suit – it wasn’t really me. It never seemed to match my dark, wavy hair, which had had a warped mind of its own since childhood.
Outside, heavy rain slanted towards me, sharp and cold on my cheeks. It was days like this that a tiny part of me knew what had drawn my parents back to Australia four years ago.  
A black taxi approached. I hailed it and was at work in ten minutes.
I entered N.I.T, a tall building with floor-to-ceiling windows, and headed for the lift.  As the doors closed behind me, and I found myself alone, trapped inside the shiny walls with my conscience, thoughts of Mum drifted in.
 ‘There’s been a dreadful accident, darling,’ she’d said, crying down the phone just before Christmas. ‘Your father fell from a ridge in The Blue Mountains.’
There had been a painful pause where I’d felt sure she was going to add, ‘But he’s OK. He’s fine,’ but instead she said, ‘He’s gone, Isaac.’
I’d fought back tears, wrestled them into submission, as she continued in a whisper, as though if she spoke louder someone might hear and believe her words.
Pain of his loss caused bubbles of anger to rise inside me that day. My father had spent so many years taking risks. Said it made him feel alive. He’d insisted he couldn’t write his books if he didn’t rise to the challenges travel opened up, and my mother had followed him wherever his ideas had taken him. She’d given up so much, so my father could fulfil his dreams.
As my anger grew, I’d wondered if he’d died going that bit too far for the sake of his stupid, bloody writing. Maybe if he’d taken a step back, I could have got to know him better.
Up until the age of nine, when my parents travelled I’d stay at home with a nanny, and later my gran. I would think about them constantly while they were away, hoping they’d come back soon, safe and unhurt.  Eventually, they would turn up, tired and thin, Dad buzzing from their adventures; brandishing gifts from parts of the globe I’d never even heard of, but Mum always had sad eyes. 
‘It’s so good to be home,’ she would say, hugging me close, and going on about how much she’d missed me. Even as a child I knew Mum didn’t want to travel as much as they did, but Dad would already be planning their next adventure.
Now, stuck in the elevating lift, I sucked in a sigh. I didn’t like travelling or writing. In fact, Dad and I had so little in common. Ironic, I’d always thought, as we looked so alike. I was his younger mirror image, trapped in the cold glass going nowhere, while he’d lived life to the full.
I’d always been a bit of a homebody, but it was only when we came back to the UK, after living in Australia, when I was nine that my identity fully took hold. I slipped into the British way of life, and wanted nothing more than my computer, and the comfort and security of home. Travelling, to me, seemed like a nightmare, ignited, a psychologist might deduce, by the constant worry I’d felt as a child when my parents were away.
I shuddered, recalling how my skin prickled that day my mum uttered the dreaded words that my dad had died; and how, as I’d stood with the phone pinned to my ear, how I knew she was stifling tears. It was bitterly and bizarrely ironic: My dad had tried so hard to feel alive, it had, as I’d feared it would one day, killed him.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t come over for the funeral, Mum,’ I’d said, biting back tears, hiding my emotions - tucking them away in pockets inside my head.  I was scared that if I let those tears go, I wouldn’t be able to stop them.  ‘I’ve got chickenpox.’
It was true. I had contracted chickenpox, and knew I wouldn’t be allowed to fly. But the truth was, it was a way out, an excuse to stay in England and pretend my father was still alive, and my mum was doing just fine, living life to the full on the other side of the world.
Mum had sucked in a breath. ‘That’s OK, darling,’ she said, still in a whisper. ‘Please don’t worry, just get well.’
I spoke to her again after the funeral. ‘Friends are rallying round,’ she’d said, as if to reassure me. ‘My neighbours, Gus and June, are being so good. I’m absolutely fine.’
I’d chosen not to read between her lines. I’d chosen to believe her words. I’d chosen not to pick up on her sadness. 
The last time I spoke to her was at the end of December. She’d called to wish me Happy New Year, and to tell me she was going to send me my dad’s ring. 
‘I wish I’d taken more in the day your dad died,’ she’d said, her voice faraway, as though her thoughts were on that mountain ridge where he’d fallen.  ‘If I hadn’t let him head off with that ridiculous tour guide.’ She’d broken off, and a silence hung between us for some time.
 ‘I wish I’d been at the funeral,’ I said, guilt manifesting.
I never said goodbye, Dad.
‘You mustn’t feel bad,’ Mum said. ‘Your father would have understood.’
I’d swallowed hard. Would he?
‘Please come over soon, though,’ she said after another silence. ‘I miss you.’
‘I will. Let me see if I can get some time off work. I love you, Mum.’
‘I love you too, darling.’
That was the last time I spoke to her. I should have packed my bags as soon as I got off the phone. Found some balls and jumped on the first plane to Brisbane to make sure she was OK, because she hadn’t sounded OK. But I didn’t, because, not only did I hate travelling, I was too afraid of who would greet me at the other end. Too afraid I would discover that I hadn’t only lost my dad that day on The Blue Mountains, I’d lost my mum too.
Now, the lift continued upwards, and my conscience, like a separate entity, screamed, ‘You should have called her, Isaac.’
I was relieved when the lift doors slid open.  
Olivia was in her office with Ian, the marketing manager, their heads touching as they studied a spreadsheet on her computer screen. He was her latest conquest. She hadn’t pretended otherwise.  And none of it mattered now. It was over. My only consolation prize was I’d managed to save fifteen grand while living with her. I liked to think that meant I was using her as much as she was using me, and pushed away thoughts that I was practically a male prostitute.
I headed for my desk. Well I say desk, it was more a space on a long table I shared with twenty other employees.
‘You OK, Isaac, my man?’ It was my best friend, Ricky. We’d started at N.I.T. the same day; both fresh out of The University of Hertfordshire. He made me laugh. He stood by me. He was part good guy, part stupid, part pastry devourer. He smiled up at me, a page of binary codes on his computer screen in front of him, a sausage roll in his hand, flaky pastry in his beard.
His desk was chaotic. Post-its dating back months framed his computer screen. There were fur-lined mugs, a toy Minion, a Bobblehead Darth Vader, a photo of his mother’s spaniel, Tilly, and, taking pride of place next to his keyboard, a picture of Esme. The woman he’d loved and lost. And I thanked the gods daily for the lost part.
‘I’m fine,’ I said, taking off my damp jacket and hanging it on the back of my swivel chair. I wasn’t. My head was full of my parents, and I had a thumping headache. I rubbed my temples.
‘You sure, matey? You haven’t been yourself since…’
‘Honestly, Ricky, I’m fine.’  His persistence, however well meaning, was making me uneasy, stirring more emotions. I needed him to stop. ‘What about you? Everything OK with you?’
‘Indeed they are,’ he said, leaning back in his chair and grinning. ‘I’m going out with a woman called Dallas tonight. She’s a drag queen.’
I widened my eyes. ‘What?’
‘Before you say it,’ he said, waving his sausage roll in my general direction. ‘I know Dallas is a weird name.’
‘That wasn’t what I was going to say.’ I tried to hold in a laugh. ‘Ricky, you do know that drag queens are men who dress as women, don’t you?’
His mouth dropped open, revealing part munched-up pastry.  It wasn’t a pretty sight. ‘I did not know that,’ he said.
‘Good God, what planet do you actually live on?’
‘He looked like a she.’
‘They often do.’
‘Need to cancel that date then,’ he said, putting down his sausage roll to pick up his mobile. ‘I was looking forward to it too. She’s such a nice lady – man – lady.’ He began tapping his fingers on the keyboard. ‘Even promised to talk me through my Esme trauma.’
‘Your Esme trauma?’
 ‘Yes, Isaac, my Esme trauma.’  Suddenly his eyes were on Olivia in her office.  ‘Have you seen the way her top hugs her tits this morning?’ he whispered, putting down his phone. ‘They’re fantastic, for her age.’
‘That’s because they’re forty years younger than she is.’
‘What?’
‘They’re fake, Ricky,’ I muttered. ‘Nice, but fake.’
‘I did not know that,’ he said, taking off his glasses, and rubbing his bloodshot eyes.
He didn’t know much about anything except IT. And he certainly didn’t know about Olivia and me. But then nobody did. Mainly because she didn’t want anyone to know, and, if I was honest, neither did I. Being with Olivia didn’t feature in my top ten all time proudest moments.
 Thankfully Ricky wasn’t one to question why he’d never been invited back to my apartment. In fact, he’d never asked where I lived – which backed up my theory that he was clever in the Information Technology sense of the word, but dim.  Whenever we met up it would be at his place or a bar or a restaurant, and Ricky was fine with that.
‘Olivia’s a panther,’ he said. 
‘Cougar; and I’m not interested.’ I opened up my emails.
Ricky popped his glasses back on, screwed up his face, and ogled Olivia for a few moments. ‘Shame she’s not as nice as her tits.’
‘Well she’s certainly as fake.’
 He nodded. ‘A bit of a bitch.’
‘Indeed. And maybe keep your voice down a bit, mate – you don’t want to be done for sexual harassment.’  Although the truth was, Olivia was the biggest sexual harasser I’d ever met.
 ‘You’d have to be quite something to catch her eye. She’d never look at the likes of you and me, aye, Isaac, my man?’ He picked up his sausage roll again and took another bite, flakes of pastry landing on his keyboard.
I continued to stare into her office. She was laughing now. That flirty laugh that made her face light up. She flicked her hair and brushed her hand down Ian’s arm. I turned to Ricky, wanting to tell him I was capable of landing her, but I knew he would never believe me. He’d seen my failed attempts at Uni. How my bedpost remained practically notch free, as I fumbled through my late teens.
‘I’d rather lick a gerbil,’ I said instead.
#
Later, at Olivia’s place, I put on my Thundercats PJs, grabbed a lager from the fridge, and ordered a pizza with extra mushrooms. Olivia wouldn’t be back tonight, and I was glad. I dragged my fingers through my hair and flopped onto the sofa. 
Since Mum’s call at New Year, I’d dialled her number several times, but something always stopped me connecting the call. I was a coward.
            I picked up the jiffy bag that had arrived the day before. The postmark was 31st December. It had taken over three weeks to arrive. Inside I’d found a ring and a note that read,
For you, Isaac. Dad would have wanted you to have it.
Love Mum x
Now, I tipped the ring from the bag, and studied the emerald embedded in gold. It had belonged to my father, and his father before him. I held it in the palm of my hand, the stone glinting in the light of the side-lamp. I slipped it onto my finger. It was a perfect fit. We were so alike, and yet so different.
I gulped the lager, the amber liquid soothing as I swallowed.  And,
needing to take my mind off my parents before I cried like a baby, I picked up the remote control and aimed it at the 52-inch TV on the wall.
 I flicked through the channels, landing on The Eagles in concert, ‘Life in the fast lane’.  I listened until the song came to a close, and the crowd cheered, before flicking onwards to find a show about finding long lost family. Jeez, far too much crying and hugging.
I settled on a programme about Aborigines and their beliefs, and closed my eyes, letting the calm voices and haunting tribal music wash over me. I drifted into a half-sleep, where all I was aware of was the sound of my own breathing.
An advert boomed from the screen, making me jump.
I shot to a sitting position, making an odd sound like a startled donkey, aware my tongue was stuck to roof of my mouth.
‘Call your mum,’ my conscience cried out, like a phantom inside my head.
But I’d let over three weeks go by. I hadn’t helped her with her grief.  I hadn’t told her how desperately sad I was. How, in the lonely hours of every morning, a lump lodged in my throat, threatening to choke me if I refused to cry.
I looked at the time on my mobile phone. It was nine o’clock, and I worked out it would be six in the morning in Brisbane.  Mum had always been an early riser, so I dialled, the whole number this time, and waited for the ring tone.
I wasn’t sure what I would say, and as it rang and rang, I bit at my thumbnail, fighting back tears.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said before it was answered. ‘I’m so sorry for not calling sooner. Sorry for not coming over when you needed me. I love you. I loved Dad. I’m a total dick.’
‘Hello.’  It was a male voice.
I cleared my throat. ‘Is Kate there?’ 
‘Who is this?’
‘It’s her son. Isaac.’
‘Isaac. Wow, I’ve heard a lot about you, mate.’ His Australian accent was strong, his tone friendly.
‘Is she there, please?’  I struggled to stop my voice from cracking.
‘No, no, she isn’t.’ He paused. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t know where she is.’
My body stiffened.
‘She headed off about three weeks ago. But we haven’t heard anything from her since. Not a dickey-bird.’
‘Who is this?’  I cut in, suddenly overwhelmed - too far away.
‘Just a neighbour, Gus Livingstone’s the name. I’ve been feeding your mum’s kitties. The cheeky blighters wake me and the missus up at the crack of dawn for their food.’
I was irritated by the trivia. ‘Did she say where she was going?’
‘She was heading Ayers Rock way, the Northern Territory. Took off just after New Year’s. I’ve no idea why.  But she seemed excited, you know, happier suddenly. Like she’d been before your dad died. I’m sorry about that too, mate. Patrick was a great bloke – a real fun guy.’
‘And she never came back?’
‘Well that’s the odd thing. We’d reckoned she would be back about a week ago, as she said she’d only be gone a couple of weeks.’
‘Did she take her mobile?’
‘Yeah, she had her phone alright, but it’s dead now, no signal. Doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m sorry.’
My heart thumped. ‘Have you called the police?’
‘Yeah, I did, but they can’t do much if she headed off on her own accord. Plus she’d told work she wouldn’t be available, took clothes, and you know how your parents travelled a lot, and...’
‘I’m coming over,’ I cut in, brushing away a tear with the back of my hand. I knew Mum wouldn’t just disappear without a way of contacting her. ‘I’m on my way.’ 
‘Good on ya, Isaac. I’ll be here waiting for you.’


Monday, 30 January 2017

CHAPTER 2. PHOTOTIME BY A.J. BRITTANY

Isaac
I’m not going to lie, I got a huge buzz walking out on Olivia before she threw me out. I even sprayed my chest with her expensive perfume, for reasons I can’t quite explain.
Leaving a note telling her she could stick her job and her apartment, was up there in my best moments of all time – almost on a scale with being photographed with Stan Lee at Comic Con. 
But now, as the tube train swayed and rocked on its way to Heathrow, I looked down at my worldly belongings at my feet, and sighed. Everything I owned had fitted into a holdall and a carrier bag, and the realisation of how little I had to show for my life so far made me feel pretty naff.
But as the train squealed to a stop at Heathrow, I felt a strange determination. I would prove I was a good man and supportive son. I’d be there for Mum. I’d managed to get a cancellation on a British Airways flight, and I’d soon be on my way to Brisbane, even if it made me sick with nerves.
The thing was, I hadn’t travelled since I was nine, when I sulked for the first half of the twenty-four hour journey from Australia to England; projectile vomited over a very nice Singaporean lady, several carry-on bags, and my mother’s shoes when we stopped over at Singapore Airport, and slept for most of the final leg of the journey, for which, I’m sure, my parents were grateful.
Once on the plane I tried hard to calm my nerves, but when, thirty minutes into the journey, the seatbelt sign went on, I began to panic.
 ‘Is everything OK?’ I asked one of the cabin crew who was dashing, wide-eyed, down the aisle of the plane.
‘Nothing to worry about, sir,’ he said. ‘Just some turbulence ahead.’
 I tugged at the belt round my middle, which I hadn’t taken off since we’d taken off. I was probably going to die.
I pulled Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations from my carrier bag, to try and take my mind off things. I hadn’t seen the book for years, and only came across it when I was searching for stuff that actually belonged to me in Olivia’s apartment. I pressed it to my nose. It reminded me of Dad.
I opened it at chapter one. If I was going to meet my demise, I should at least do him the courtesy of finishing the book he gave me many years ago, or, at the very least, start it.
I’d never been much of a fiction reader, another thing I felt sure disappointed my father. He’d sworn by fiction, said it opened the mind, and I knew he was saddened that I’d only read three fiction books by the time I was eighteen: David Nicholls’s Starter for Ten and two Mr Men books. The ironic thing was, I’d loved listening to my father read to me as a child. His Irish accent felt warm and comforting to my ears: Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, it didn’t matter so long as I was snuggled up to my dad, his voice making me feel safe and secure. 
 ‘Joy Forever,’ said a woman in her thirties, who was sitting next to me.
I looked up from my book.
‘Gorgeous,’ she continued, sniffing the air around me, as she unscrewed a small, plastic bottle of red wine, and I realised she could smell Olivia’s perfume.
I leaned away from her, but she continued to breathe me in, like a sniffer dog detecting drugs.
‘It’s my favourite,’ she said. ‘Jean Patou. And before you say anything.’ She raised her ring-cluttered hand. ‘There’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, with a young man wearing women’s perfume.’ She paused. ‘Or underwear for that matter. It’s rather enlightening, actually.’ She returned to her wine.
‘I’m wearing ‘Superman’ boxers, if you must know.’
She touched my arm and smiled. ‘Thanks for sharing that, sweetie. And there’s me thinking this journey would be boring.’
I looked away. Olivia had had the last laugh.
The plane shuddered as it waded through clouds. The crew were seated now, buckled in, and my heart pounded in my ears. I was in an aisle seat, near an exit at the back of the plane, which I’d read on the internet was where you have a forty percent more chance of survival following a crash. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d booked my seat six months in advance.
I calculated that I’d be first to the door, once I’d grabbed my life jacket, unless the big man with the bald head behind me got up quickly and blocked my way.
The woman beside me looked at me again, and took a gulp of wine from the bottle.
‘It’s just turbulence,’ she said, ‘nothing to worry about.’
 A few more bumps and thuds, and I hoped we were through the worst of it.
‘There,’ she said, finishing her bottle. ‘As I said; nothing to worry about. So tell me again about your boxer shorts.’
The crew began milling about once more, their eyes resumed to normal size, and the seatbelt sign went off. I was relieved, but then a sudden sadness swallowed me.
 Dad had been in an accident. Had he been scared? Had he known he was going to die? Had Mum seen it happen?  All questions I’d never asked. Questions I hadn’t wanted to know the answer to, but did now.
Trancelike, for twenty whole minutes, I followed the little yellow plane on the screen on the back of the chair in front of me, marking out our flight path, trying to stop stupid tears from filling my eyes.
I watched a film. I slept, dreaming in black and white. I ate. I read a chapter of Great Expectations. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
The stopover was in Singapore Airport. I didn’t throw up, of which I was oddly proud. The stay was brief - just enough time for a burger, fries and a strawberry milkshake.
Back on the plane, Qantas this time, I fastened my seatbelt and tried not to listen to the safety talk. I no longer cared where my nearest exits were, because my dad hadn’t had an escape route, so I didn’t want one either.
I slipped into the same monotonous, mind numbing routine as I had on the first leg of the journey: I watched a film, slept, dreaming in black and white, ate, read a chapter of Great Expectations. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
I was about half way through the book - quite a milestone for me, considering old Charlie Dicken’s long-winded descriptive text and his ability to fill the pages with more than a few coincidences - when I found a photograph inside the pages. I took it out and turned it over. Dad had written on the back. 
Kate, Patrick and Isaac at the Blue Mountains: one of the happiest days of our life. 
I felt suddenly overwhelmed. I’m tired, I told myself. That was all. I’m not a baby. 
I studied the picture. I was about five years old, and we were standing on a cliff edge looking at a mountain range, the towering rocks tinted with blues and lilacs, stretching under clear skies. It was the scene from my recurring dream in full and magnificent colour.
I imagined stepping into the photograph and holding my parents close and never letting go.
I closed my eyes, as memories of them flooded my thoughts, bouncing around my head, settling on the day I’d sulked on our way to England, fourteen years ago.
‘It’s OK, Isaac,’ Mum had said, as I’d waved goodbye to my best friend through the rear window of the taxi, my final vision of Tilly a blur through my tears. ‘You can write to her, darling.’
Dad had ruffled my hair. ‘Maybe one day you will see her again, mate,’ he’d said. ‘Who knows what the future will hold?’ 
We returned to England that year because Gran’s world was ‘falling apart’ as Dad put it. ‘She’s only got us now,’ he’d told me.
The truth was, she’d had a rough few years prior to our return. She’d suffered a heart attack, had a hip replacement, and was now a late onset diabetic - to name but a few of her many ailments. According to Dad, they needed a forklift truck to bring her file to reception when she went to the hospital. 
But Gran had never been the kind of woman who’d let a ‘tiny bit of illness’ stop her living her life the way she wanted to live it. Before we came back, she’d still enjoyed bingo on Wednesdays, and a buy-one-get-one-free cod and chips every Friday at the Fox and Starling with Grandpa, was the highlight of her week. But then fate took her legs from under her.
Grandpa, who hadn’t had a day’s illness in his life – apart from the time he swallowed a wasp and Gran sent us a photo of his swollen tongue – was trampled to death by a runaway horse that had freed itself from a cart in the touristy area of Dublin. 
After that, Gran couldn’t cope. The thought of having no-one to share her buy-one-get-one-free cod and chips with was too painful.  And then, to make things a million times worse, a few weeks after his death she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Looking back now, with my reasonably grownup head on, I could see why she needed us. But at that age of nine, I couldn’t understand why my parents thought it was OK for me to lose Tilly. Or why we had to leave our bungalow in the sun to buy a boring house in suburban England, where, according to Tilly, who knew practically everything, it rained every day.
I’d never really known my gran and grandpa at that time, having moved to Australia when I was four. I just didn’t get the necessity to move.
 ‘You’ll love Hitchin, darling,’ Mum had said on the plane, putting her arm around my shoulders. ‘It has a lovely church,’ she continued, as though that was important to a child. ‘And it’s not far from London by train. Imagine that, Isaac. We can visit the museums, The Millennium Dome and The London Eye. Remember we saw them on the television? I’m sure you’ll love The London Eye.’
I’d leaned back in my chair, pulled on my headphones and pressed play on my dad’s Walkman. He’d lent it to me to try and cheer me up, even made a tape of all my favourite songs. And as Five’s ‘Keep On Movin’’ blared into my ears, blocking out my mother still trying to convince me I’d love the Hertfordshire market town we were destined for, I closed my eyes and prayed that one day we would go back to Australia.
 My dad had been quiet on the journey home, lost in his own thoughts or the pages of his books. He knocked back vodka after vodka, to the sound of my mum saying, ‘Haven’t you had enough, Patrick?’
I hadn’t realised then, he was blurring the edges of his disappointment.
It had been as the plane circled London, getting ready to land, that my mum told me again how my dad had secured a job as a teacher in a primary school that I’d also be attending, and that she would be working at The Lister Hospital in Stevenage, looking after sick people. ‘It will be like when we first lived at Adaminaby. Remember that, Isaac? We were so happy there.’
We’d lived in Adaminaby when we first moved to Australia, before Dad’s writing took off - before they began travelling all the time. Mum had loved it there. Lake Eucumbene reminded her of Cumbria, where she’d lived as a child.
‘Your dad won’t have time to write as much as before,’ Mum had continued. ‘So we won’t be travelling. Not while your gran is ill, anyway.’
‘You won’t?’ I said, looking up at her, a spark of happiness running through me.
 She shook her head. ‘Life will be very different here,’ she said, turning to look out of the window beside her. ‘No more nannies for you, Isaac.’
Despite still hating the thought of living in England, and missing Tilly terribly, my happiness increased. It was as though my mum’s words had injected a ray of hope.
 I’ll have normal parents. A mum and dad who would be there for me every single day.
 ‘Let’s hope your gran makes a good recovery,’ my dad had said, cutting into my happy thoughts as he stirred from sleeping. He pulled himself up straight, rubbing his eyes. ‘I can’t imagine a life stuck in the same place all the time, can you, Kate?’
I hated it when balloons burst. It made me hurt inside.
I looked again at Mum; her eyes were firmly on the window as she sighed. 
Once in England, Gran, a tiny Irish woman who spoke as she found and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of her (or so she said), was brought over from Dublin and plonked in our annex, which, I realised later, was a converted double garage. She was happy living in her box, as Dad liked to call it with a teasing tone. He even made a wooden sign for the door which said ‘Gran’s Box’, which she found hilarious and I’d found stupid. 
I liked Gran, and couldn’t have been happier when she told me, ‘They’ve got all the fecking cancer, Isaac. I’m going to be OK.’
It took longer for her to get over Grandpa’s death though, but she did –
Eventually – or so she said.  ‘Life goes on,’ she told me once. ‘It has to. You can visit those moments you shared with those you’ve lost, but you can’t stay there forever. It wouldn’t be healthy. ‘The best advice I can give you is to laugh. Always look on the bright side of life, and it will get you through’ 
I grew to like Hitchin. There were worse places to live in the world, I told myself as I scrambled through my teens, making friends, breaking friends, making mistakes I would learn from, making mistakes I’d make again and again.
Mum and Dad continued to travel, despite Mum’s words on the plane that day, and Dad’s portfolio of adventures increased.
 But there was one thing I never fully understood, and that was why Tilly never wrote to me. I’d sent her my address as promised. I’d waited and waited, but never heard from her again.
Now I slipped the photograph of The Blue Mountains back between the pages of Great Expectations, wondering if Dad had put it there hoping I’d find it when I was at university. I never had. I’d never opened the book.
Three hours later, to my relief, the plane landed safely. Passport control seemed to take forever, and even my bones ached by the time I grabbed my holdall from baggage retrieval. I picked up some Aussie dollars and a hire a car, and was finally on my way to my parent’s house. 
It was Australian summer, and the temperature was in the high thirties. I was jet-lagged, my vision blurring as I drove.
Mum and Dad’s bungalow was in Springfield Lakes in Queensland, a few streets away from where I’d lived between the ages of eight and nine, before we returned to England. 
I’d met Tilly in Springfield. She’d lived a few doors up from me with her parents. Being tall, podgy and pretty tough, she’d protected me from any bully who half dared tease me about my English accent or my hair.
Springfield had been different from the four years we’d lived in Adaminaby. Dad had chosen Adaminaby when we moved to Australia, because he’d read Patrick White’s Happy Valley, many years before, and had always had a fascination for the place. But then so many places had fascinated Dad.
            Mum had called it our happy valley, despite Dad explaining that the title of the book didn’t really reflected the lives of the characters.
I remember how my young mind was spellbound by Adaminaby’s history. And it certainly stimulated Dad’s writing. He would disappear for hours, after working in the local school all day, lost in his words.
A sound of a car horn brought me out of my reverie, and I realised I’d drifted into another lane. I lowered the window, turned on the radio – loud, and put my foot down. I was almost there.
Mum had sent me a photograph of their bungalow some time ago. It was much like the one I’d lived in as a child. And I recognised the area as soon as I pulled into their road of modern properties on a hill rising above the lake. 
Once outside their house, I turned off the engine. I now knew what a zombie felt like, and made a mental note to have more respect for them when I next watched a zombie movie, or played an Xbox game.
I got out of the car. A ginger cat was sprawled on the doorstep, one eye on a kookaburra on a roof of a house opposite, far too high for him to reach. The sun had increased in intensity since I left the airport, and a long forgotten warmth from my childhood filled my senses.  I sucked in the peace and quiet, and stretched my arms above my head, making a noise like a wounded animal. My bones hurt inside, and I didn’t smell too great either.
A man peered out from the window of the bungalow to left of my parents’ house, scratching his head.  Within moments he’d opened his front door.
            ‘G’day!’ he called, raising his hand. He was in his fifties, his lined, round face, tanned and smiling. ‘Can I help?’          

Sunday, 29 January 2017

CHAPTER 3 PHOTOTIME By A.J. BRITTANY

Isaac
The man’s cropped dark hair was flecked with grey, and he was wearing a short-sleeved checked shirt that gaped around his stomach, and squeezed his upper arms. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his bright green shorts and rocked back on his flip-flops.
‘I’m looking for Kate O’Donnell. I’m her son,’ I called.
            ‘Thought as much.’ He skipped down the path and drew me into a bear-hug. He must have felt me tense, as he released me and stepped backwards.
‘Gus Livingstone’s the name,’ he said, just as he had on the phone. He stuck out his hand for me to shake. ‘Good to meet you, Isaac. You must be knackered.’
            ‘Yep, pretty much,’ I said, taking his hand which was rough and large. My legs wobbled. I was close to dropping.
            ‘Let me get the key and let you in, mate,’ he said, letting go of me. ‘You look like you could sleep for a week.’
I followed him, and stood in the porch of his house. The shrieks of laughter and incessant chatter coming from inside was too much for my tired brain.
            A woman, about five years younger than Gus, popped her head round the door and smiled. Her brown hair was dragged on top of her head and fastened with a slide, and she was wearing blue, knee-length shorts, and a baggy, faded T-shirt that hung loosely over her round belly, the words I’m not pregnant, I’m fat printed across the front in bright letters.
‘Hi there,’ she said, blowing her fringe from her forehead. She was clearly overheating, despite the air conditioning.
            ‘Hi.’ I raised my hand.
‘Crikey, I know exactly who you are,’ she said, looking me up and down with warm, brown eyes. ‘It’s Isaac isn’t it? You look just like your father.’
‘People often say that.’ I returned her smile, but ached inside, desperate to be alone. The mere mention of Dad made me feel as if I’d been pushed into a black hole.
‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ she said, making me feel even worse.
‘It’s OK,’ I said, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t OK at all.
She sucked in a sigh. ‘I’m Gus’s wife, June, by the way. Very pleased to meet you. Why not come in for a bit?’ She gestured for me to enter the lounge, and I edged in, feeling I had no choice. The room was chaotic, children dashing around the furniture almost knocking over the ornaments and photos that cluttered the units. June didn’t seem to mind.
The lounge opened up onto a dining area with a huge farmhouse table full of cakes and jugs of drink; and a kitchen, where children’s paintings covered every cupboard front. An elderly woman with white hair, wearing a pastel blue dress, sat in the conservatory. There was a bag of wool by her side, with knitting needles, and what looked like a half-made scarf, resting on top. I couldn’t help but wonder when it would ever be worn in Queensland.  She was talking to a man with dark hair, sitting by her side, his back to me. A young woman looked out at the garden, a baby girl on her hip in a pink and white checked dress and matching socks, chubby legs jiggling.  Several men about my age were chatting in the adjoining kitchen, swigging lager, and a row of women sat on the sofa. Scurrying about the floor was a yapping snack-sized puppy, tail wagging. The room was homely, friendly.  But I wasn’t in the mood.
‘Would you like a drink, Isaac?’ asked June. ‘I reckon you must be parched. It’s baking out there today. Well every day this time of year.’
I was dry, but the thought of staying longer to quench my thirst wasn’t an option. I wanted to get out of there. ‘I’m fine, thank you,’ I said, pinning myself to the wall near the door.
            A little girl with a mass of blonde curls ran over and grabbed June’s leg. She stared up at me.
            ‘Hi,’ she said. ‘What’s your name?’
            ‘Isaac.’ I looked from the little girl back to June.
            ‘She’s one of the tribe,’ June said, ruffling her curls. ‘We’ve got four kids; Kirstie, Jack, Laura and Paul, three kids-in-law and seven grand-kids, would you believe? And then there’s Stephen. He’s got the two daughters and a grandbaby.’ She pointed to the woman with the little girl on her hip. ‘Not that we ever see his youngest girl, which is a great shame.’ She sighed. ‘Bet you can imagine what a nightmare buying Christmas presents is, aye, Isaac?’ She rested her hand on my wrist and winked. ‘To tell the truth, we sometimes buy gift vouchers these days, particularly for the grown-ups. It’s much easier.’
            ‘I’m Ellie,’ said the child, which was a relief as I wasn’t taking in June’s family tree or her Christmas present issues.
            ‘Yes, this is our lovely Ellie,’ June said, putting her arm around the child. ‘She’s Laura and David’s youngest.’
Too many names. Please stop talking.
‘It’s Granny Gertie’s birthday today,’ Ellie said with a smile. ‘She’s very old, and has to use a stick to help her walk and to poke people.’ She paused, glancing at the table. ‘We’ve got heaps of cake.’
            ‘Wonderful,’ I said, straining to feel any emotion whatsoever, ‘sounds absolutely delightful.’
            ‘You want some cake, Isaac?’ said June, tilting her head. ‘We’ve got plenty.’
            ‘No,’ I said far too bluntly. ‘I’m fine. Thank you.’ 
            Gus appeared jiggling the keys. Thank God. ‘Right, let’s go.’
            ‘Bye, tall man,’ Ellie said, waving.
            ‘Bye, little girl.’
            ‘Ellie,’ she said, giggling. ‘I’m Ellie.’
            ‘Of course you are. Bye, Ellie.’
            ‘Cheerio then,’ said June. ‘Don’t be too long, Gus, we’ll be doing photo time soon.’
            ‘Bloody photos,’ said Gus, once we were out of June’s earshot. ‘We have to take pictures of every occasion under the sun. We’ve got enough to fill a million albums already.  And it’s worse since we’ve gone digital; photos of me appearing on bloody Facebook. There was one of me on there last week where I looked like chipmunk. I’d just scoffed some nuts and the camera flashed.’  He gave me a sideways look and smiled. ‘Although I’m glad the picture didn’t show what happened next. I choked on the damn things. Went as red as a beetroot, and then all hell broke out. June had to give me the hemlock manoeuvre.’
            ‘Heimlich, I think.’
            ‘That’s what I said, wasn’t it?’
He pushed open the front door of my parents’ house. ‘Now get some shut eye, mate,’ he said, turning to leave. ‘I’m right next door when you’re ready for a chinwag. The family will be gone soon. Love them to visit. Love them to trundle off home where they belong.’ He laughed, and as I watched him skip down the path, his rotund belly bouncing, I opened my mouth to call him back - I needed to question him about my dad’s accident, Mum’s disappearance - but I didn’t have the energy to string a sentence.
Instead, with my holdall and carrier bag in my hand, I stepped into the darkness of the house where my parents had lived for the last four years without me. I stood, not opening the blinds, the darkness comforting.
There was a smell of cats; not unpleasant but rather too fishy, and the familiar sound of out-of-sync ticking clocks filled my ears. Mum had collected them through the years, and it felt as though I’d finally come home.
The ginger cat from earlier followed me in and began purring and winding itself round my legs, which were overheating in jeans. I closed the door and crouched in the darkness, tickling the cat’s ears, the softness of his fur reassuring.
‘Hello, Yeats,’ I said, recalling Mum telling me the ginger one was named after William Yeats. Or was that the black one, who had yet to show his face?
I stood up and switched on the light. The room was how I’d expected it would be. Heavy, dark wooden furniture decked with ornaments my parents had collected on their travels: a heavy Buddha, a replica of the Sphinx, Chinese etchings, all nestled in the dust. There were framed photos too - many of me, from baby to graduation.  Clocks were on every surface and mounted on walls, jostling for space with arty prints and photographs of places they’d visited.
The clock Gran had bought my mum in Sligo - a cheap thing, nothing like the antiques Mum loved so much - took centre stage on a bookshelf that stretched the length of one wall. So many books; my dad must have read a library in his lifetime.
I walked over and crouched in front of the books my dad had written. There were nine or ten factual books with glossy photographs, all about his travels and adventures, and another dozen of his bestselling fiction books, where he’d used the locations he’d travelled to as his settings.
My mind drifted to the day he’d given me Great Expectations. It was my first day at university, and we all sat in the crowded university café.
 ‘It’s a good novel,’ he’d said, pushing it across the table, trying a last-ditch attempt to get me to read something other than IT books.
‘Thanks’ I’d said, and he’d smiled, and despite my teenage angst that had divided us over the last few years, I was pleased he’d cared enough to bring the book.
‘Lose yourself in the story,’ he said. ‘Don’t look for reasons to dispel its credibility. There are no boundaries in fiction.’
To be honest, I didn’t have a clue what he was on about.  And it was moments later that Gran grabbed my hand.
‘You’ll sow your wild oats here, Isaac,’ she said, her voice rising above the hum of chatter, her eyes trawling the room for potential girlfriends. It wasn’t the best moment of my life, I can tell you. In fact, I felt the blood rush to my cheeks.
 ‘And don’t forget to wear a condom,’ she’d continued. ‘You can catch some nasty things these days.’
 ‘Oh God.’ I looked down at a scattering of sugar on the table, arms folded across my Black Sabbath T-shirt.
 ‘Shhh, Mam,’ Dad said.
‘But why, Patrick?’ She pursed her lips.
‘Because you’re embarrassing the poor boy, that’s why.’
‘Don’t be so silly. Wearing a condom is nothing to be ashamed of.’  She was still talking far too loud, and several people at the next table were laughing.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my gran, always had – my memories were speckled with good times I’d spent with her. The problem was, at eighteen I cared more about what strangers thought.
I picked up the book, and noticing Gran eyeing the Eccles cake in front of her, and knowing she would need to put her teeth in to eat it, I rose, kissed them all stiffly and suggested they leave - immediately.
What was worse than that day was the fact I never did sow those wild oats, and only found use for one condom in all my time at Uni – and that was for a water-filled condom throwing contest.
Three months later Gran passed away. A massive heart attack, Mum said.  They found her in the annex, which I found deeply ironic. The thought that she was going to be moved from one box to another haunted me for ages, as did the fact that the last time I saw her I was embarrassed by her.
‘She knew you loved her,’ Mum reassured me at her funeral, taking my hand, seeming to know my inner thoughts. 
‘I did,’ I said, eyes stinging with tears. ‘I really did.’
 Two months later Mum and Dad returned to Australia.  I didn’t join them.
‘Come with us,’ Mum said, clasping her palms together as though in prayer. ‘You loved it there as a child. You may even see Tilly again, as we’re buying a place in Springfield Lakes. Remember how much you loved it there?’
But I stayed in the UK. England was my home. And the truth was, I knew if I’d joined them, they would keep taking off on their adventures, which I really didn’t want to be a part of, leaving me alone.  I decided I’d rather be alone in England, than anywhere else in the world.
Now, the cat jumped onto the back of the sofa, stretching before testing out his claws on the beige fabric. By the looks of the snags and tags, he’d done it many times before. Mum had never been house proud. 'A home is for living in,’ she would say, and then laugh. ‘At least that’s my excuse.’
On the quarry-tiled floor was a box of photographs, and a couple of pictures were scattered about, as though someone had been looking at them. I wanted to wade through the box, but my brain was shutting down by the second. And despite it only being five in the afternoon, I could barely stand for tiredness. I flopped on the sofa and the cat curled by my side. Seconds later I was out, dreaming in black and white.
#
 ‘Olivia?’ I said. It was Yeats nibbling my nose. In fairness to Olivia, fishy breath was never one of her many faults.
            Time had evaporated. It was morning, and the sun streamed through open blinds.
As I began to get my bearings I heard a winding sound, and smelt cat food. I opened my eyes and shot upright.
‘I hope I didn’t startle you, mate.’ Gus put down a clock and stepped towards the Grandfather clock in the corner. ‘It’s just the kitties needed feeding, and you left the door unlocked. I reckon you must have slept for well over fourteen hours.’  He opened the Grandfather clock, and fiddled with the pendulum.
I stretched and yawned. ‘What’s the time?’
‘About seven.’
My throat felt dry, and I rubbed my throbbing head. The room felt cooler now, and I realised the air conditioning was on. Electric payments must be coming out of Mum’s account for there to be light and air-con, which I hoped was a good sign.
‘You must be hungry,’ Gus went on. ‘There’s nothing here, but I can rustle you up an egg sandwich if you fancy it.’
 ‘Sounds good. Cheers.’ I stood, and staggered to where the smell of cat food hung in the air and found the black cat, eating delicately.
Gus followed. ‘This is Byron.’ The cat flashed green eyes at me, stiffened, and shot through the cat flap. ‘He’s not as friendly as Yeats.’
I opened a couple of cupboards before finding a glass.
‘Listen, why not come round to mine, son?’ Gus said. ‘I’ve got some bottled water in the fridge. You must be as dry as dead dingo’s donga.’
I put down the glass, and rubbed my forehead again. ‘Have you got any painkillers?’
He nodded. ‘Too right, I have. Why not have a shower first though. You smell like a dead dingo.’
‘Enough with the dead dingos,’ I said.
Gus roared with laughter, and I knew there was a smile inside me somewhere. It didn’t reach my face.
 An hour later, I was sitting in Gus’s kitchen-diner, showered, fed and watered, my jeans now ripped to the knee. It was quiet compared to the day before. All his family had dispersed to wherever they’d come from. I must admit I was relieved.
I eyed the kids’ drawings stuck to the fridge and cupboards. On the far wall a huge, framed family photograph hung, and a candle burned on the windowsill.
I turned Dad’s ring round on my finger. ‘You said on the phone my mum went to Ayers Rock.’
Gus nodded. ‘She just upped and left, saying she needed to see someone, and that she’d be back in two weeks. When she didn’t return, I spoke to the hospital where she works sometimes. Apparently, your mum had said she hoped to be back in two weeks. Although there’d been nothing set in stone. That’s why the cops didn’t seem worried.’
My mum was a supply nurse. Because of Dad’s travelling whims, she’d agreed a long time ago that full time work was out of the question.
Gus patted my hand, looking awkward, as though he didn’t know what to say.
 ‘But why would she go to Ayers Rock?’ I said. ‘Why would she want to travel into the Outback to see a huge sandstone rock? Nobody much lives there, do they? Isn’t it more of a tourist area?’
 Gus shrugged. ‘They’ve got campsites, hotels and lodges up there. As I said, she needed to see someone.’
‘So what did the police say?’
‘They weren’t too helpful, to be honest. They saw no reason to worry. They asked stupid questions, like ‘was she depressed?’’
‘She was though, wasn’t she?  My dad had just died.’
‘Yes, but she didn’t appear depressed when she left. In fact, she seemed happy. Full of hope.’
‘I don’t understand.’ My headache was getting worse. ‘That can’t be right.’
‘The cops asked if it was out of character for her to head off, and I couldn’t say no because her and your dad often travelled, always taking off.’
 ‘But, Gus,’ I said, ‘if she’s OK, why hasn’t she come back, or contacted us, if only to check on the cats, or let the hospital know?  At the very least she would have charged her mobile, surely.’
He nodded. ‘I know. And I told the cops that.’
Annoyingly, tears filled my eyes. I rose and headed for the door. ‘I haven’t got a clue where to begin searching for her.’
 ‘Why not talk to the hospital, mate?  Doreen Chambers is her colleague there,’ Gus said, sounding defeated. ‘She might just remember something I haven’t.’