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Olvar Wood Writers Retreat


Images of Nothing Now

Andrea Macleod

He saw a woman he thought he loved once, choke on her own words. Well he sort of saw it. He watched it really through a lens. She didn’t die, thankfully. Not that he did anything, initially. He tells himself that’s what he does. He’s never bought into the idea that he’s filtering the world or stepping back. He’s heard it plenty of times but he’s not buying it. It’s an addiction is what he says when he’s been drinking too much. It’s a compulsion. It’s mandatory to record what happens in the damn world. Someone has to. So, he stopped when she didn’t get up of the floor. He stopped and he rang for help. He was there when it counted. He waits a second, his memory searching. He is sure he was there when it counted.

It’s what he has done since he can remember. Take photos. Did his brother the fireman play with fire trucks when he was a kid, of course he damn well did. His brother had been a fireman since he could push a tonka truck in the sand pit and when he first lit their father’s shed on fire and stood there with the hose dousing it, the smoke in his hair and the soot on his skin, all he did was make it all the more real.

In his dark moments he says to himself, just like his brother, it is what he was designed to do. It was never about not being involved. He has no choice. The same way a lawyer affords a position of innocence to his client. It’s a position. It’s just a position from which he can understand the world. He has excused himself so many times. It’s who I am. So, when it happened, when she dissolved and choked on her words before his own eyes, he watched her through the lens of his Nikon, cough and splutter on sounds and fall crying into a heap on the floor. He recalls she wore a shirt so pale and thin he could see the ridges of her spine through it. It was a stunning image. It’s the only one he has left. It was so beautiful.

Today he’s not sure that he even heard the sounds really. He knows that in that moment, when she fell, she cast a shadow of herself onto the floor that was broken into pieces by the way the light spilled through the cracked window. He’d been watching the sunlight pierce the glass the whole time she had been talking. It was his all time favourite image of her. It happened years ago. He thinks now he has perhaps imagined the coughing and spluttering. He has just attached them to the image. He thinks that is most likely what she would have done. She was a little dramatic. He suddenly realises he doesn’t remember why she fell. He recalls there was an argument. There must have been. It was the end. He never saw her again.

She was saying. He stops himself. He thinks she was saying, she was saying why are you so distant? She kept saying it first softly. It was the yelling it that made the words catch in her throat. He remembers now he was too busy taking the photo, catching the light, to actually listen. She says later, when she is hauling her things down the stairs and throwing them abruptly into her car. You were always too busy with light and shadows and things that didn’t matter until after. She said you were busy with fluff. No, not fluff but air and never anything now.


Outside the café, wind pushed the driving rain into the glass and black ink ran down from the handwritten posters taped to the window. The weather bureau had said a few showers clearing but from where he sat, on the sofa near the window, he could only see grey clouds billowing. He watched the woman come in out of the rain and water fall from her beige coat to the old timber floor below. It pooled ever so briefly before slipping into the cracks in the wood. She took a seat at a table set for two that was at the very back of the café.  A candle flickered in the centre, between the glass salt and pepper shakers and the light splintered through them to the table top. As she dropped her coat to the ground something made him take a good look. Her body was small, neatly tucked into her clothing so that her arms seemed ever so thin within the tight grey shirt she was wearing. Her legs, hidden inside black woolen trousers that were flecked heavily with grey, were crossed neatly so that he could see her simple black boots. The scarf she wore tightly at her neck was red. Then there was her face, slightly sullied by the rain that had moistened her makeup, her jaw broad, her cheek bones protruding and her green eyes. When she wasn’t looking he took a photo of her on his phone. He felt somewhere that she was someone.

After time, and his second coffee, he noticed the woman in the corner of the café had not ordered a thing but was engrossed in a book.  He watched carefully, the way she ran her finger along the words, cruising with the lines, at times mumbling the words, perhaps or thoughts about the words. He couldn’t be sure. The woman was most likely in her 40s. Her blonde hair, slightly still damp, fell in thick strings to her shoulders, her small hands seemed to shudder and shuffle the book she was holding. At some point between his coffees, she had put glasses on and loosened the scarf a little so that he could see the top of her neck.  He finds himself sliding into a memory of the first time he kissed Elizabeth’s neck.  There was a smell of salt and sweat and a soft kiss after a long run on the beach, the dusky winter sky dimming on the horizon and the mist sifting off the waves that rolled rhythmically into the long shadows on the beach. He finds himself running the tip of his finger over his lips.

He took another picture, this time centering the woman’s neck.

When they first met he agreed not to take photographs without her consent. He had a reputation. He’d been in the business for years. He’d won awards. He agreed to show her every image. She’d heard things, she said. Things about another woman whose pictures ended up in a gallery and a man who nearly died; collapsed when he saw an image taken of him straddling his best friend’s wife in New York’s central park on a sunny Summer day. The image was on a billboard. The man fell in front of clients. He didn’t open his eyes for weeks.  

So she said straight up she wanted to know what he did with them, especially when they were pictures of her naked. He had a thing about her neck. He’d make her lie down, stretch out, her head just hitting the edge of the bed or the lounge or whatever thing she was lying on and he would run his fingers along the outside of her neck, kiss it softly, take a picture and sometimes if he was quick enough he imagined his breath was caught in the image, dusted on her lips in the way they fell just open or the watery glaze on her green eyes.
Once in Geneva they took a swim in the lake at dawn. He remembers being tangled up in her, his arms wrapped around her, his legs supporting them , his tongue pressed deep into her mouth, when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a swan had stopped right by them. It seemed to sit and look into them forever, until sunlight started streaming across the surface of the lake. Then it just turned upside down. He wondered had it grown bored. He’d had a strange compulsion to slide under the surface to discover what was more meaningful and so he did, he watched its bill drill the sandy bottom and then a worm sieved into his mouth. When it turned up again, the swan glided swiftly by, focused on the distance, its long neck glistening and the water clinging like tiny crystal baubles.

It pains him to think now of the love they made on the gritty beach and he shifts on the couch as though he can still somehow feel the stones against his skin.

She’d left him. They had ten years. She deleted the files on his laptop that contained photos of her and she took his phone. She said she refused to believe he had nothing to do with the image of her that her cousin found on the internet. He tried to pull it all back in and denied any involvement. When that didn’t work he told her he’d entered the image in a photography contest and the organizers must have taken liberties with the image. She believed him to begin with. Then she didn’t. He was at the front door bringing her take-out noodles and a bunch of irises when she stormed past, knocked the flowers down the front stairs and turned the noodles all over him.
He found sauce on his neck the following morning. He thought it was a freckle to begin with, until he scraped it and it smudged. He tasted the smudge and it slipped into his mouth, like her all over again.


He doesn’t realise she is speaking to him at first. He is watching the images disappear from the posters in the window until almost nothing remains.

“Do you know how many photos you have taken of me?” she says.

He turns his head. The woman is looking at him. “I beg your pardon.”

“How many images have you taken of me?”

“I don’t know what you are asking?”

“On your phone you take photos of people without asking. How many are there of me?”

He has a choice. To invite her to view the single picture taken minutes before and tell her there is only one, to lie a little and say that he couldn’t resist taking her because of the way the light from the lamp beside her fell on to her face. Instead he looks blankly into the distance.

“You should ask,” she says urgently knowing he is dismissing her. Her fingers shudder. “What you do, it is still so rude.”

He pauses, he opens the file on his iphone and displays the single image. He’s too busy finding the image to realise what she has really said. Instead he remembers when he used to ask, if he could take the picture, the picture in his mind that would always be spoilt once he asked; once he said to the subject ‘May I take your picture?’ Always, the essence of what he saw in his eye, or mind’s eye vaporized, stilled by just words ….. So he stopped asking.

“It’s just one,” he says turning the phone so she can see the last one taken.


“Yes. Just now.”

“Well you should ask.”

The words make another image, one he had forgotten.


The woman takes a call on a small phone, a phone that sits neatly in the palm of her hand. She bows her head and talks down into her lap. A thin man with a heavy grey beard and small round glasses has moved into the couch beside her table and chews noisily on his toast. She looks up as he dusts crumbs from his beard and begins to cut up his bacon into small pieces. He is caught in her gaze as she runs her fingers and thumb around her throat, as though something is caught in it. She ends the call.

“You were in the paper once,” the woman says eventually, taking her glasses from her face and putting them on the table beside the open book she has been reading.

“I have been in the paper often,” he says not smugly but matter-of-factly.

“Yes but you were in the paper for taking photos of people without permission.”

She shifts her weight in the chair, picks up her coffee and took a sip, wipes her lip with the napkin and turns over the page in her book.

“Yes I was,” he says. “Once.”

“You mean more than once. You mean once as in once upon a time I was in the paper but I don’t get caught any more, that’s what you mean. Don’t you?”

He says nothing more but smiles at her. She is someone but he doesn’t know who.

She returns to reading the book. He begins to thumb through the folders in his phone but only the ones with names.


He orders a coffee to go. He waits on the outside of the café and lights a cigarette. He smokes half of it and stubs the remainder out in the bin by the bus stop. He lights another while he waits for the coffee. He thanks the brunette with the red stockings and little black skirt for bringing the coffee out to him.

“She knows you,” the brunette says as she turns.

“I beg your pardon.”

“She says she knows you. That’s why she baited you.”

He turns to look through the glass into the corner where the woman is sitting. Her hair has dried and curled at the ends now. Only the darkness under her eyes gives away the possibility of earlier tears. Another might ask had she simply had a bad night’s sleep.

“I don’t know her,” he remarks, drawing another breath through the smoldering cigarette.  “I don’t know her”

“Okay,” says the brunette closing the door.

It’s early when he climbs into bed. He’s been unsettled all day. He lies on his back and holds his phone up to access the images. He lied to her. He took two photos. The woman when she sat down, the water pooling at her feet, her hair lank and dripping. The other he took just after she loosened her scarf. Her neck is the only part of her he can see in the image; the only part that is not her face, the only slice of skin that tells him anything about her. He tightens the image until he can see her neck completely and now he sees properly what he knew was there, what had worried him all day. It was a mark just larger than his own thumb nail, something he knew because he had sized it up once and yet it was discreet enough not to be noticed always.  It was a symbol. A Chinese symbol and he had to look it up to find out what it meant at the time because she wouldn’t tell him. It meant now. That was what started the fight. It was a symbol against him.


He looks at her face now, thin and pale. She has changed, he thinks. She has changed a lot.

About the Author

Andrea Macleod's 'Images of Nothing Now' was one of three joint winners of the 2011 Perilous Adventures Short Story Competition.


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