by Annalisa Crawford
I watch him leave on the screen of my camera. Click, click, click.
With each snap, he’s further away; his despondent shuffle exaggerated, his spirit failing.
I want him to turn, to signal his remorse or anguish at leaving. Or simply to acknowledge I’m here with a comforting glance that says, it’s not about you.
But he doesn’t. He keeps his eyes on the pavement, his shoulders hunched. I imagine him carefully avoiding the cracks, the way we used to together. I wonder if he remembers our tiresome treks to the newsagent when I insisted on returning to an arbitrary point and retracing ourselves because I misstepped.
His hair wafts in the wind, and the low sun turns it a soft auburn. He doesn’t check for vehicles as he crosses the road—one car stops abruptly, beeping its annoyance. He waves a brief rebuff and wedges his hands deeper into his pockets.
If I observe though the camera, it’s not really happening. It’s fiction. I’m viewing a film; I’m staring at an IMAX screen, or at a crisp 1940s black-and-white matinee on BBC2, reassured the ending will be happy. I zoom in. Click.
He’s gone. Between that second and the next. Vanishing around the corner. The shape of him remains, the air shimmers like a tarmac mirage in a heatwave. I focus on the point he disappeared, as if the building might shift to the left and expose him. I imagine him leaning against the wall, his hands hiding his tear-stained face, reluctant to walk away just yet.
I hold my breath. In a moment, he’ll race back, sweep me up and twirl me around. One more goodbye. Just you wait. Any second now…any minute.
Upstairs, my mother is weeping. I pull away from my vantage point, turning my head to listen more closely, to discern whether I should go to her. But I don’t. Her tears alarm me. Mothers shouldn’t cry; they should be strong and bold, lionesses guarding their cubs from harm. I step towards the door, but turn back, discomfited, conflicted by my decision.
Honey and russet leaves fall like confetti. Click. The paperboy cycles past, a whir of legs and wheels. He spots me standing at the window like a ghost. He waves with a cheery grin. Click, click. A soot-black cat stands firmly in the middle of the road, playing chicken with a four-by-four, scuttling away at the last moment.
‘Come away,’ says Mum in a frail, croaky voice.
She’s behind me. Her eyes are raw and puffy, her skin clammy and pale. She’s wilting, barely able to lift her head. Her arms are criss-crossed around her waist; a shawl droops from her shoulders.
The light’s fading, the streetlights are coming on. It’s past dinner time. It’s been hours since he left.
He’s not my father. Harry, I mean. My real father left years ago—I barely remember him. Harry appeared when I was ten. Mum introduced him as her friend, a guy who occasionally stopped by with takeaways and Disney DVDs, who began to visit more frequently, bringing sweets and Lego models for us to build together; who was sometimes there at breakfast on a Sunday morning. And I liked him, loved him, in time. He watched my favourite films with me, stayed up late to help craft models of the D-Day landings for overdue History homework, celebrated my exam results, bought me my first legal pint.
When I think of getting married, somewhere in the future, it’s Harry I picture giving me away.
I did, I mean. Last week, last month.
‘He won’t come back, you know,’ she spits out, that day or another. Hours and minutes have drifted into a mess of resentment. Heartbreak turned to anger.
I stare back defiantly, raising the camera to eye level. Her movements are pixelated and stuttering. Click. She scowls, her brow furrows.
Her eyes darken. I scrutinise her through the distance I’ve created. She snatches for the camera, to steal it from me. I pull my hand away, hiding it behind my back, twisting and turning so she can’t reach it. I hold it high, as though it’s a game. I laugh, although I don’t mean to.
Click, click, click. I back away until I’m on the other side of the room. Her body sags, crumples beneath her, as she concedes defeat. Her energy depleted, her soul crushed. Like mine.
She stares, barely noticing me.
‘… I’m sorry.’
But she walks away.
The unfilled rooms are a harsh reminder. Only now do I see how much space Harry took up—out there, filling every room he stood in; and in here, memories detonating when I least want them to. I take refuge behind my lens. It filters the emotions, numbs me, protects me.
Mum’s fury has coasted into hopelessness, and melancholy; her pain catches me. I suffer every moment with her. Click. Zoomed in, I capture the inertia and distraction. When I scroll back through, tomorrow or next week, perhaps, I’ll see her desperation and grief.
She perches on the edge of the chair, unsure whether she’s staying or going. Or she halts half-way up the stairs as though she’s lost the volition to go any further. Or she leans against the kitchen sink, or the wall—unsettled, uncertain in her own home. I encounter her staring at a coffee stain on the carpet. Before, she’d have sought detergents to remove it. She’d have scrubbed until it was gone.
‘I’ve ruined everything, haven’t I?’ she says without looking at me, her voice dull and haunted.
‘It wasn’t your fault.’
Although, I have no idea if it was or wasn’t. The increasing antagonism and hostility were concealed from me, kept behind closed doors. Arguments were abruptly shut down when I walked into the room, with under-breath muttering and weighted glances. It hasn’t occurred to me to apportion blame.
I withdraw when I see her tears, too real, too inflamed. I don’t want real. I want a moment of illusion. I want the pasted-on smiles of my childhood. I zoom out until she’s invisible and insignificant within the frame—her minute torso screwed into a ball, long limbs wrapped awkwardly around it.
I can’t do anything to help—I don’t know where to begin. Instead I compile photos, I collate the narrative—the story of the void left behind.
Hours and days melt together. Harry doesn’t return, he doesn’t phone. A friend of his collects his clothes and belongings, shoving them into the back of his Transit, and I recall he hadn’t taken a thing with him, that day. I’d hoped it meant he’d come home. Click. Harry’s friend looks abashed when I sit on the stairs to watch him battle with the front door and two guitar cases. Perhaps I should help. I sit on the stairs, and Mum sits in the living room.
I lose myself in a fervour of assignments. Head down, coffee cold, half-eaten toast at the corner of my desk. It’s not the same without Harry there, cheerleading from the side lines, bringing chocolate or doughnuts, studying my work as though it’s worthy of such profound consideration. I hold my camera at arm’s length, facing me—click—and set it down without checking the photo I’ve taken. I don’t need to. I know I look wretched.
I turn the music as loud as I dare and lie down on my bedroom floor.
From the kitchen, or the living room, or the garden when the weather breaks into a brief Indian Summer and the sun shines through, Mum dances to her own tormented soundtrack. I peer down as she hangs out the washing. Click. I’m hypnotised by the monotony of her task. For a moment, she stares at the blouse in her hand, as though she’s forgotten how to hang it, or why she’s doing it.
She’s getting thinner. I cook so she doesn’t have to and force her to sit at the table with me. Click, click. She doesn’t ask me to stop anymore; she doesn’t notice. She fills her fork and eats mechanically until the effort has exhausted her enough to give up.
I add filters to make her vintage, then sepia. Layering effects to detach her from herself. I add colour, vivid Warhol highlights; I turn her into an etching. A temporary measure. When I look at her in front of me, she’s just as diminished.
She goes to bed at seven and rises for work at seven the following morning—I don’t see her much. The more she sleeps, the less I do, roaming the house and staring at the TV long after I’ve lost interest in it. Click. A barren room, rejected and remote. I make snacks that I leave on the side and forget about. I’d never noticed how much Harry held us together, held Mum together. She’d had a hard time when my father left, too, apparently—a spell in hospital while I stayed with my aunt. I don’t remember it, but it’s not a secret.
Harry knew. And he still left. He must have had a good reason, I decide, though I don’t—can’t—reconcile that.
I hold my phone to the window and gaze at the frostbitten morning. A neighbour shuffles to her back gate to retrieve her dustbin—click. The black cat stalks across the rickety fences that divide the gardens—click, click. The last of the leaves die and descend, leaving snarled, knotted branches reaching for the clouds.
I chronicle the sudden snow that blankets the street and makes pavements treacherous; and the ensuing rapid thaw that leaves icy puddles for unsuspecting drivers. Click, click. I wrap a blanket around myself and curl up in the armchair.
Mum dawdles in the kitchen, on Saturday, slow and sluggish, even after all these weeks. She stares out of the window while waiting for her toast and catches sight of a robin landing on the roof of the shed. She leans against the sink to follow its skip and flutter towards the feeder hanging on next door’s tree, fascinated and heartened.
The toaster pops, and Mum grabs her breakfast, buttering it and eating it where she stands. She turns the radio up a little louder and sings along with a couple of lines—silently, just her lips moving between chews. The sun shines, lighting up her face. She looks pretty when she smiles, lost in a memory. I’m motionless in the doorway, not wanting to interrupt.
But I can’t help myself—click. I turn and hurry away before she has time to admonish me.
In the living room, I sit on the floor beside the radiator and scroll through my photos, all of them, from the beginning—the day I told Harry I wanted to learn photography and go to college, and he bought me a camera. I upload them to my laptop, and he stares right at me; his scruffy grin, his blue eyes dancing as he poses for the shot.
I turn Harry and my mother watercolour and line-drawn and retro. Each filter pushes him away, removing him from the family. The further I distort him, the more my anger dissipates. It’s just us now, on my screen, in real life. I blur his features until there’s nothing left.
Mum appears, looking past me and peering at the screen—the fully-focused, heightened version of her. She squeezes my shoulder, and her hand remains for a moment, warm and reassuring.
Later, we watch TV together, huddled beneath a fluffy throw in front of a chick-flick, pretending not to cry at the saccharine resolution. I hold my camera up—click—for a tear-stained selfie.
‘Oh no, don’t do that,’ she says. ‘Delete it. Delete them all.’
But I won’t, because she’s smiling. She’s still pale and burdened, but her vitality is returning. One day, I’ll show her how strong she is.
Annalisa Crawford writes dark contemporary stories with a hint of paranormal. She is the author of four short story collections and novellas, and placed 2nd in the inaugural Retreat West Novel Prize 2019.
Discover more: http://www.annalisacrawford.com/.