By J. J. Irwin
7 January 2008
She is developing a photograph of him. She hadn't meant to, but there were a couple of snaps at the end of the last roll she'd forgotten about. Bills continue, so work continues. It makes the hurting stop, at least for a while: losing herself in light and shade and chemicals, coaxing images forward like ghosts on the paper.
The murals are restless today, their sighs and chuckles too much, and she is glad she never let him paint the darkroom walls. It's just her and the photographs down here.
The image rises slowly to the surface, a candid shot of Carlo in his studio, scruffy brush in hand. He's wearing his favourite shirt, one tatty old sleeve pushed up past his elbow, and he's laughing at what she'd just said. The canvas he was working on is visible in the corner. It's still in his studio upstairs. She can't yet bring herself to empty that room.
She slides the photo out of the fixer bath, rinses it, pegs it up to dry. Stares at it for a while. He had a smile like the wink of sunlight on water, there and gone, but this time—this last time—she caught it there on the paper. Wire wraps around her heart, digs in, cuts the flesh. He would have liked the photo, maybe.
He'd have liked a painting better.
Photography bored him, he said. It reproduced one moment in time, physical truths with no humanity. It lacked the magic he felt when he condensed a lifetime into a single vibrant image.
Painting was magic, she replied, but so was photography: the play of light and pattern and texture and absence, the alchemical transmutation of silver nitrate and sunshine.
It was an argument that went back and forth, endless, each side arguing more from habit than conviction. What it came down to—what it always came down to—was the truth you expected, the lie you'd accept. "Died instantly"; "wouldn't have felt a thing"—these were comfortable lies, familiar lies, as easy to accept as the casual truth of photographs.
She has to walk the gauntlet of murals to get to the kitchen, past six panels of him and her, six sets of Carlos and Alices locked in their own little worlds, their own moments of intimacy. While she makes a cup of tea, the kitchen Carlo pops a vivid Fauvist grape into his Alice's smiling mouth. When they see her watching, Carlo winks at her.
She stirs in sugar, avoids looking at the wall. Their laughter follows her out into the sunroom.
The murals are butterflies of time, pinned to the wall in a semblance of life. When Carlo died they became silent for a while, watchful, but in the month since they have gone back to each other, back to love and joy and the sunshine coming down on them in thick, buttery strokes. They're paintings; they don't have space for prolonged sorrow.
The mural in the sunroom is a bright, wind-smeared scene of them on a picnic blanket at the beach, looking out to the ocean beyond the windows. Carlo has his arms wrapped around her, his cheek resting on the top of her head. In the late morning light, the oils on the wall seem to dance in heat-haze shimmer. When she sits down in one of the wicker chairs, also watching the ocean, they turn to her. Carlo seems to be barely a metre away, and she raises her hand, presses it flat against the wall.
Mural-Carlo reaches out, lays a casual hand against hers from the other side, mirroring. She presses her palm hard against the wall, but all she can feel is the grit and grain of plaster, the feathered ridges of oil paint. They watch her for a long moment. Then his Alice squeezes his arm, and he turns back to her, and the ocean.
They'd had timber floors put in a year ago, after Carlo was finished painting the walls, and the voices of the murals would echo through the house. She used to love listening to them in the evening, to the moments Carlo had created from a hundred sketches, a thousand memories. Their joy, their love, filling the rooms of the house.
Now she hears his laughter and she cannot speak to him, sees his face and cannot touch him. His body, always entwined with hers, but never her.
She comes to a decision, down in the darkroom, looking at that last photo.
A few days after her phone call, men arrive at the house with rollers and brushes and buckets of glue, and begin to paper over the walls. She watches them work, her arms hugging tight across her chest, soft black cardigan like armour against the noise, the intrusion. The men are fast, efficient; they're finished by late afternoon.
The murals have held as still as photographs all day. When the last of the workmen leave, there are cries of shock, confusion. Fear. Soon the house is full of frantic calls. Begging. Sobs.
Then eventually, no sound at all.
She sits in the stairwell, listening. Sometimes she catches a muffled whisper, the low murmur of Alices and Carlos conferring with each other. She imagines them moving behind the creamy white wallpaper, pressing hands and fingers against the embossed columns of acanthus. Maybe they will return to their painted moments, as they did after Carlo's death. But right now they are silent, and she hugs her knees to her in the crisp white world, and for the first time since the crash feels the emptiness, his absence in the house.