I haven’t seen this photo for…God, it must be forty-eight years. It’s black and white, and that’s me standing off to the left, young and gangly and gormless. My hair was sandy-coloured in those days and fell across my face, but lads had longer hair then, what with the Beatles and all. There are five of us in the photo. I skim the faces until I get to Cathy’s, the only one I really care about. She’s in the centre. She has long, straight hair and her eyes are brown with green in them, if I remember right. I never thought I’d forget the colour of her eyes, but time is relentless and memory is unforgiving. She had this smooth, porcelain-white skin. In the photo she’s smiling inwardly, as though telling herself a subtle, complex joke the likes of me could never possibly understand. She holds a Gauloises close to her lips and looks out through curling, gray, unfiltered smoke. She’s sultry, is Cathy. Even now she’s like a magnet that draws me, and back then I could sometimes feel the energy, the electricity of her body, pulling me toward her, toward her scent and skin and mouth. I wanted to run my hands through her thick, brown hair, under her clothes, over her pale breasts and hips, to unhook the impediments, to force her down, to breathe her breath in, to spread her out and to ravish her. We all did, all of us lads.
We were all at art school together. There were quite a few of us first-years from Yorkshire that term and we hung around each other, at the beginning at least. But over time things dissipated until there was a small, core group – us three lads and a Yorkshire lass named June. I was called Twist, because my name was Oliver. And there was Lav, short for lavender, as he had some heart condition and his fingernails were purple. He wore glasses and you’d rarely see him without a tweed jacket and a tie, regardless of the weather. The other guy was John. John was quiet and introspective and elegant, and we assumed Cathy would go for him as he seemed the most likely candidate, but nothing ever happened. John would have said. He’d have been keen to talk about the meaning of such an encounter, the cosmic side, rather than simply enjoying it. June introduced Cathy to the group. They were roommates. Cathy was from London. She called us the Y Boys.
It’s interesting how your mind swings to the past when you find you have only a short time to live…or maybe it’s more an age thing. There’s a point when you realise you have more past to look back at than future to look forward to, and you have to decide which path is less painful. It’s always a gamble, mind you. Pancreatic cancer, they said. I guess I’ll be lucky if I get a couple of more months in. I don’t even know what the pancreas does, except kill you when cancer gets to it. I was going to look it up on the computer, but then thought screw it. At this point it really doesn’t matter. I’ve had some severe, shooting abdominal pain of late, which is why I saw the doctor in the first place. He said I was jaundiced as well, and asked if I’d lost weight or appetite or was I depressed. “I’m an artist,” I said, “I’m always depressed.” He smiled dutifully, as he always does when I make a joke, and in his flat, careful voice said they’d have to do some tests. He’s impossible to read, is Dr. Cooper, but I knew it wasn’t good. Mortality has its own dutiful smile and you recognise it immediately.
I’m fascinated by this photo. I pick it up and put it down and pick it up again. It’s dawn now, but I want daylight so I can look at it properly, starkly, without the distortion of electric bulbs or the softness of dawn’s residue. Cathy’s husband sent it to me. It arrived in yesterday’s post, but I hadn’t opened it until now. It’s all advertising and crap, the post these days, and I didn’t know what it was. It just looked like more rubbish and I almost tossed it out. Luckily, I didn’t.
I’d found out her address and had gone to see her, just about a week ago, right after I heard about the cancer, looked her up on the internet and drove to Brighton without warning, totally on the spur of the moment, before I had time to think about it. She beat me to it, though, as it turned out, and died herself, just three months back. I had no idea what I was going to say, but I’d hoped that having nothing to lose, or gain, for that matter, would open me up and allow a certain freedom. I suppose it was stupid to just show up like that, but what was it going to do, kill me?
When her husband, Charles, opened the door, I didn’t recognise him. I remembered him though. I mean I remembered there was someone called Charles who’d drive up from London in his racing-green ’66 MGB Roadster with the top down, and they’d disappear for the weekend. Petulant Charles, trendy Charles with his long, golden, wavy hair, and the white Afghan coat he wore a year or so before they really caught on, an actor. Fucking wanker, I used to think. But he was the one driving off with Cathy, the one having the last laugh, although he was barely aware I existed, so I doubt I was too high up on his priority list of people to have last laughs at. Anyway, when I saw him, portly and bald and mottled, I felt quite good. It’s true I’m dying, but other than that I’m in pretty good shape – although, on second thoughts, he may have gotten the last laugh on that score as well.
He was nice enough, I suppose, and invited me in and we had tea and cake and a few shots of single malt Scotch. He said he sort of remembered me, but it was a long time ago. “You know what memory’s like,” he said, laughing, almost apologetically. “I think you were the one she said was a bastard, but she was fine with the other two…or maybe it was the other way around.” While we were talking I noticed another black and white picture on the mantel, similar to this one. The same group, at least, but in a different setting, a pub, and all us lads sitting around Cathy. Poor June was off on her own, a couple of seats over. Cathy was turned, looking at me. Charles said it was her favourite photograph “from that time of her life.” Implying, of course, there were other times of her life of which I was not a part, and never could be.
He said she’d framed it and put it on the mantel a couple of months before she died. The original had creased and cracked and was stained. Apparently, she’d taken it to one of those restoration studios and they’d doctored it up and made a new negative. Charles said he didn’t know where the original was or the new negative but thought there was another, different photo somewhere and if he came across it he’d send it to me. I didn’t tell him why I’d come, particularly as I wasn’t entirely sure myself. He didn’t ask and he probably knew better than I, anyway, or else he didn’t care. It was decent of him to send the photograph though.
I pick it up and put it down and pick it up again. I’ve a feeling I snapped it. I’d bought this Leicaflex SL, with the pie-shaped exposure counter. I was very into including myself in photos at the time, and I’d switch on the timer and find myself a spot, always with other people, mind, and just wait for the shutter to click. I got a childish kick out of it, and then, of course, there was the pleasure of developing and printing the film and the gradual image forming on the paper, like something fading in reverse, like magic. There’s something lovely about the blacks and greys and whites of black and white, the variations and subtle depths, the placement of shadow and light, and how strangely we’re defined without the distraction of color, how recognisable and different, and how a more visceral sort of honesty or corruption is revealed. Maybe I’ll get the Leicaflex out and take a picture of Charles before I croak and really get a good look at him, once and for all. Cathy’s certainly stood the test of time, though, still sultry, her honesty apparent, the secrets of her mystery concealed.
Looking at the picture on the mantel, I asked Charles if she’d pursued art after college and he said no, that she’d taught here and there and sometimes thought she would but never really did. He said she’d done the odd bit of sketching now and again. Living the dream, as they say, is a tough and lonely world. You spend a lot of time with your own thoughts and images, often long before you get them into external form. It requires patience and energy and commitment. I’d like to call it sacred, too, but I’d sound like a knob, and, really, it only applies to a few of the great ones, at least in my opinion. Anyway, I was sorry to hear she hadn’t gone after it more. Objectively, I’d always thought she was terrifically talented, much more so than me. I’ve made a living at it and my paintings sell for varying degrees of thousands, when they sell at all, but I never married, never had children, always lived in my own cushioned world. Not cushy, mind you, but cushioned. I’ve never let myself get fat around the edges, never let myself give into too easily to my weaknesses, lived my own life, as they say. People say it must be grand to have that kind of freedom, that kind of control. They call it freedom and control, but it’s really just another sort of cage, as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the photo on the mantel and Cathy’s face turned to mine and I wonder what I’d have sacrificed to have kissed her once or felt her closeness, physical and emotional, as Charles must have done many times. It’s always the risk, isn’t it, the letting go, that’s the problem? Secret desire is simply that, a secret, and what use is it? I mean, who cares, or even knows to care? Perhaps she and I are positive and negative sides of, if not the same desire, then the same impulse of desire, and whereas I felt no fear about creating art, and desired to create art, she felt no fear about loving someone she desired. I wonder in the end whose life is emptier, and I suspect it must be mine. You hope to live your life without regrets and I have, more or less, until now. It’s a hell of a time to start, what with the Reaper in sight and all.
The Reaper. Those are the words Charles used. Not about me. I didn’t tell him my situation. He was talking about Cathy. It could have sounded daft coming from someone else, but Charles has a RADA-trained voice and did a couple of seasons at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s quite lovely, his voice, resonant and pure. I could imagine him playing Hamlet and catching every beat, subtly and without apparent force, hitting all the right syllables, accents, assonance, resonance, pulsing life into the words.
He told me they’d met at an actors’ party after a performance of The Merchant of Venice. She’d gone with a friend of hers who knew the guy playing Salerio or Solanio – he couldn’t remember. He was Bassanio. Anyway, they were playing this game where the actors stood in a circle and they blindfolded a girl, spun her around a few times, and whoever she walked to she had to kiss. She kissed Charles, of course, and that was it. No turning back. Totally fucking random.
I’ve poured myself another Dewar’s. Yes, it’s early but I don’t intend to work today, and I’ve had several already. I’ve kept up my daily work regimen, kept to the same routine, since Dr. Cooper told me the news, and figure I will as long as I can. But today’s different. This photo’s screwed around with me a bit, it and the visit, and the photo on the mantel and meeting Charles. It’s funny after all these years the antagonism I still feel toward him, the sense I want to get back at him because he’s always had the upper hand. It’s funny, too, how I’ve held on to my feelings for Cathy and how immediately they’ve ignited after so long a time. I feel this tremendous sense of sudden loss, and heart-aching loneliness. What a fucking drag, and how completely unexpected…
Maybe it’s the taste of the Dewar’s, combined with all these feelings, but I suddenly remember clearly the night in the pub, the night the photo on the mantel was taken. It was a Sunday, and I was drinking Dewar’s that night as well.
It had rained like hell the entire weekend and Cathy had taken the train to London. I’d arranged to meet June at their flat, and then she and I were meeting the lads at the pub. When I got to her place the rain was sleeting down, and Charles’ MG was parked out front. I hadn’t expected that. I could hear the rain pelting the canvas top like a drum roll. I looked through the car window, not expecting to find them there, but there they were and they were kissing, his back to me, and Cathy saw me, and she sort of pushed herself away from him. She looked at me for what seemed a long time then moved forward and rested her face on his shoulder, all the time looking at me. I can’t tell you how I felt. I’d never seen them together like that before. I mean I wasn’t stupid, but I’d never seen it, never seen them touch or kiss or even share a joke together. He always arrived and then they were gone, or else she took the train to London. You can fool yourself with ignorance, that’s the great thing. You can know something and not know it. You can make believe there’s nothing happening, even when you know it is. You can convince yourself that someone you want isn’t intimate with someone else, isn’t having sex with him, for example, even when all the evidence tells you otherwise. But seeing them, like that, for the first time, that familiarity, that knowledge of each other, I felt the bottom drop out of me, I felt paralysed and numb, unable to breathe, and totally stupid and naive. And then, of course, for her to have caught me gawking through the window at them, I was absolutely mortified as well.
So, I just walked away, went to the door and rang the bell. June let me in. She wasn’t ready yet. She was wearing a new skirt and top and looked really nice, her blonde hair short, her eyes dark with makeup. Very Mary Quant. She let me into the front room and said she’d be out soon. I stood there, it couldn’t have been more than a minute or two, and suddenly Cathy sort of burst in. She was wearing a shiny, black PVC coat I’d seen before, but the rain made it glisten, like something cast from the sea. She looked lovely, and her hair was wet and framed her face differently, softening her features, enhancing her strength and vulnerability.
“What do you think?” she asked me.
She seemed angry, but in an odd way, and I thought she might cry, or might have been crying. I almost said, “Think about what?” but sensed there was a glibness to it that wasn’t appropriate, and instead asked, “Where’s Charles?”
“What’s Charles got to do with anything?”
“You tell me.”
“We had a fight.”
“That was quick.”
“I told him to leave,” she said.
We went quiet then and then June walked in and said she was ready. Cathy asked us where we were going and I said the pub and she said she’d join us there later and June said fab. On the way, she asked me what was going on between Cathy and me and I said, “Nowt,” and she said there was a definite, weird vibe when she walked into the room, and I said, “Well, you know Cathy.”
Once we got to the pub, it took me ages to get comfortable, and I kept thinking I’d leave soon, as I didn’t want be there when Cathy arrived. But then we started buying each other rounds, and time and anxiety sort of rolled away from me. I was drinking pints of bitter at first then switched to Dewar’s White Label. “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees was playing when she walked in, which wasn’t a surprise, because Lav had a thing about that song and played it repeatedly on the jukebox. She came over and sat down next to me and said she was sorry. I asked her for what, and she said for seeing her and Charles together like that in the car. I said it was none of my business and if I’d known they were in the car I wouldn’t have looked in, anyway. Lav and John were playing darts and June was at the bar smoking a cigarette, getting a round in, and when she looked over and saw Cathy she shouted, “What do you want?” “G and T,” Cathy shouted back.
She turned and looked at me again.
“You’re always very quiet around me.”
“You’re more outgoing with the others.”
“Yes. I watch you sometimes…And sometimes you watch me, I think.”
“I don’t,” I said, a little too emphatically.
She lit a Gauloises and ran her tongue over her upper lip and brought her face closer to mine. “I’d offer,” she said softly, “but I know you don’t care for French cigarettes.” Then she paused. “I like Charles. He’s funny and he makes me laugh. But there may be something missing there. What do you think?”
“What did you mean back at the flat?”
“You asked me what I think.”
“What do you think I meant?”
I shrugged again.
June came by with a tray of drinks, including pints for Lav and John, and set it down on the table.
“You two having fun?”
“A blast,” said Cathy.
“Twist looks miserable.”
“He’s moody tonight.”
“I like him moody.”
Lav and John finished their game and came over and sat with us. They crowded in beside Cathy before June had a chance to sit, so she had to move to the next table, on her own. Lav was animated because he’d beaten John at darts for the first time, and asked me to take a picture “for the record books,” as he put it. He was a bit drunk and high on victory and told Cathy he’d like to kiss her. She slowly moved her face to his, her lips parted, her eyes half-closed, and Lav turned his face away at the last moment and went red. We all laughed at him, except Cathy, and she gave him an affectionate sort of peck on the check. I put the camera on the bar, tilted it slightly down, cranked the timer to the right and went back to my chair. Cathy turned to me and said, “You’re not very bright, really, are you?” I heard Lav and John snicker. And then the shutter snapped.
What she said really pissed me off, and because I was looking at the camera and not at her, I couldn’t tell if she was serious or not. But she sounded serious. My anger was immediate and I downed my Scotch, got my camera, ordered another Dewar’s while at the bar, and then sat down at the table with June. She really did look good and we ended up getting drunk and spending the night together. I’m not sure when Cathy left. I looked over at some point and she was gone. Lav and John were arguing about something. June and I went out for a few months afterwards, and Cathy got a place at the Slade School and transferred, because it was in London. We didn’t speak much after than night, and then she was gone.
I’m a little drunk. I doubt Dr. Cooper would approve. Charles and I exchanged Skype information last week, so I’m giving him a try. Neither of us has been sleeping much, we found out, and it seems as good a time as any to thank him for the photograph. I pour another Dewar’s as first light pours in through the windows of my studio. I love that sort of timing, when things match up perfectly, Scotch and light in perfect harmony. And now Charles, his face on the screen, looking even more mottled than before. Like me, he’s been drinking.
“It’s early, isn’t it?” he asks.
“It’s late for me,” I say. “Thanks for the photograph.”
“Cheers,” says Charles, lifting a glass. I lift mine in return and we drink together.
“I found the negative for the other, the one on the mantel, by the way. I’ll send it on,” he says, his voice even fuller, richer now with drink and sleeplessness.
“Why was that one her favourite?” I ask.
“Did I say it was? It could have been her least favourite. I’m not sure. But, either way, I know it was important to her.” Charles looks at me from the screen, an incandescent ghost. He seems suddenly sad. “Sarah, our daughter, was here last night, stopped by to see how I was doing. She looks so much like her, like she used to look when we knew her first, all those years ago…We had a terrible fight, Cathy and me, I mean…not long before she died. I still feel guilty about it. Anyway, she told me, shouted at me, that she’d never loved me really. She picked that photo up off the mantel, and said she’d loved, really, really loved, one of you Y Boys, as she called you, but nothing ever came of it. It was the drugs, of course. They made her a bit crazy toward the end, especially if she was drinking as well, which she wasn’t supposed to do. If the whole thing hadn’t been so stupid, I’d have laughed.”
“Did she say which?”
“Yes,” Charles says, “she pointed him out but I can’t remember now. You know what memory’s like.”
I pour another drink. Charles stares at me, then blinks. His expression changes slowly, as some apparent synaptic impulse transfers in his brain. He looks at me unyielding and seems, just for a moment, to be smiling inwardly – telling himself a subtle, complex joke, the likes of me could never possibly understand.
Tony Motzenbacker, originally from England, now lives in Los Angeles. His short stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Chariton Review and Delmarva Review. His play Ray-Ka-Pay was produced in Los Angeles and received playwriting awards from LA Weekly and Drama-Logue, as well as a cash award from the Skirball Cultural Center. Written with Ron Fanning, their screenplay Nuclear Sirloin was a finalist at the 2014 Austin Film Festival.