It is perfect and I must have it. I climb down the steps that lead to the beach and stop in the small cliff’s shadow. This will do.
The sun is dropping fast and as it approaches the horizon, it pulls the day’s colours behind it, like a child trailing a favourite blanket. The Indian Ocean is a mercury mirror and there are no waves. The palm trees crackle their mirth above me.
They stand ankle-deep in the water, facing each other, holding hands. He is taller. Her long hair is loose around her shoulders. Against the silver, they are shades. They could be anyone. That is their power.
They do not know that I am watching. They do not know that at this precise moment, in this light, in this particular place, they have transcended themselves and become Love.
He raises a hand, strokes her hair and leans in. I am ready. They kiss, I click and I know I have it.
The perfect crime. I have taken something they did not even know they possessed.
I back away and climb the steps, heading to my cottage on top of the cliff.
The flying termites the Kenyans call kumbe kumbe have invaded the house. I don’t mind. I like the susurration of their wings around me. It doesn’t last long though. Soon the wings fall off, littering the floor so that I can imagine fairies have passed through. Suddenly earth-bound, the plump termites crawl towards the walls, where the geckos are waiting.
I fire up the computer, slip in the camera card and there it is. I print the photograph. At the top of the page, I write, “The Kiss.”
I take my silver hole puncher and clunk it through the picture. I add the page to the album I am making, pushing the wire through the holes until it is securely in place. It is the tenth and last page because this year she will be ten. This is the fourth album I have made.
I go back to the beginning of the book to check that everything is as it should be. I have always been a perfectionist. It is my greatest professional virtue and my most grievous personal failing. The hours I have spent taking and editing pictures, organising my files, cleaning and maintaining my cameras and lenses were not mine alone. I stole them from my family, without asking permission. Because of this, and more, I now live alone on the Kenyan coast in this tiny house with its mosquito netting and slats in the exterior wall that allow free entry to the soughing of the palm trees, the crashing of the waves and the muddy-pawed monkeys that come to steal food out of the kitchen bin.
I leaf through the book. One picture for every year of her life. This album’s theme is Love. Sometimes I use pictures from my personal archives. I like to think of this as an act of contrition: paying back the time I stole by gifting her a piece of the world that pulled me away.
This book starts with a photo I took in 1989 at the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was young then but I felt old and cynical as I snapped the people sitting on top of the wall, singing, raising their fists and waving flags. I had already seen too much to really believe in their dreams. But their incredulity and hope set my lens on fire. They were destined for a place in history and you could see this realisation dawning on their flushed faces as the hours went by.
The picture I have included here shows two men – one with dark, collar-skirting hair and a beard and the other clean-shaven – sitting cross-legged on top of the wall, their arms around each other, their hands raised to the East German soldiers who stand before them on the ground, looking up. Part of the beauty of this photo lies in the fact that you cannot see the guards’ faces. Were they smiling too? Cheering or quietly crying? I cannot remember. The soldiers’ unseen faces elevate the picture to greatness. It has become part of the world’s collective memory and, in its own way I suppose, a cliché.
I met Margot in Berlin that November. It was not love at first sight because I did not photograph her and anything outside my lens was less than real to me at that time. I noticed her, of course, because she was very pretty and a journalist, which meant she was one of us, but that was it. It was her tenacity that brought us together again several months later in a wine bar hewed out of thick stone somewhere on the south bank of the Thames.
There, I finally saw her. The candlelight played across her face, by turns illuminating and concealing. I realised I wanted this beauty in my life.
“I have never met anyone who gives themselves so completely to their work,” she said, twirling her glass of wine so that it reflected the light like a blood-red sea. “I admire that.”
I thought I had fallen in love with her. Now I know that I had fallen in love with my own reflection in her eyes. She seemed to value the very thing that I thought made me great.
We did not settle together immediately. We both travelled constantly and sometimes, fortuitously, our paths crossed – Bosnia in 1993; South Africa and Rwanda in 1994; Chechnya in 1995. For years we fell into each other’s arms in strange-sounding places like desperate, star-crossed lovers. Neither of us was ready for calm, chaste kisses before lights-out.
Margot and I finally married in 2000, joking that at least we would remember the year. For a time, we were happy or at least not unhappy. We continued to travel but now we recovered in a low, leaky house ringed by jacaranda trees in Nairobi, where we moved six months after our wedding and where Penelope was born.
I have marked her birth in this new book too. I always do. The third picture was taken in Nairobi, just hours after she was born. I was riding home from the hospital on my motorbike, grinning like I’d won the Pulitzer. As I drove up the rutted track leading from Lower Kabete to Spring Valley road, I saw something that made me screech to a shaky halt in a haze of red dust.
A little boy – he must’ve been about eight – was carrying his sister on his back down the track. He stepped slowly, with the same delicate toe-first steps that I had seen Russian soldiers use as they walked down a mined street in Grozny. The boy was smiling, one of those big toothy grins that are like dollar signs to charities. The little girl was wearing a yellow dress with white lace ruffles around the short sleeves and across the waist – a special frock bought for a birthday party long ago and far away. Her right hand clutched the front of her brother’s frayed football shirt while the left was buried in his thick hair. I pulled my camera from my shoulder bag. I pointed to it, then to them, and mimed taking a picture. The boy smiled even wider and prepared to put his sister down. I shook my head. “Please, just walk, as you were doing. Just walk.” I clicked and knew I had something special.
That picture has since been used in newspapers all over the world to illustrate any number of stories about children in Africa, mostly tragic tales of deprivation or pleas for cash. And yes, the boy’s trainers were pitted with holes and three sizes too big. The girl’s dress was dirty and she wore no shoes. But it amuses me that a picture I took because I was full of new-father euphoria, and because these kids seemed to mirror my joy, has become something so totally other. I called the picture “Joy”.
When I began this project, I decided to focus on the natural world but this year I decided Penelope might be old enough for more abstract concepts. I am only guessing though because I have not seen her, or heard from her, since I walked out six years ago. I have no real idea what a 10-year-old can deal with. Each book I send marks another year of not knowing. But I must not indulge in self-pity. This is what I wanted. I thought I was trapped. I thought I needed to roam. Margot said a child would reshape my world. I suppose I hoped so too. But in the end, Penelope was not enough and so I took off. Now I must live with too little.
Yesterday, I got up at dawn and went outside with two cameras – my Nikon DSLR and my Canon. Day dawns on the Indian Ocean as if every sunrise fancies itself as the opening scene in the book of Genesis. This is why I still live in this dilapidated cottage, despite the risk of break-ins, the leaks and the cold that sends me to bed for hours when the rainy season sends damp seeping into every crevice.
Yesterday morning, the molten sun gilded the undersides of the clouds while the upper reaches of the sky blushed a delicate rose and the sea below churned pink-orange. Even the palm trees seemed awed into stillness. I put my Nikon on the ground at the edge of the rocky cliff that curves out over the sand. I stepped back, lay on the cool sandy earth and lined up the shot so that the camera was in focus and the sky a blurred fantasia of colour behind. Margot will recognise this place but I doubt Penelope will. We only brought her here once, when she was two or maybe nearer three. But perhaps this picture will stir a faint memory, like a whisper felt rather than heard, or a current of air that could be an unseen hand coming to rest on your head. I have called the picture “Missing”.
I have checked everything now and, of course, the album is perfect. The cover is made of soft, off-white cardboard, with a square cut out in the middle. Inlaid within the square are pieces of brown cloth stacked upon each other and topped with a spiral of beaded wire.
I write the address carefully. Penelope Henry, 54 Francis Avenue. I have to look up the postcode. I can never keep it in my head even though they have been living at the same address in London for years. After I walked out, Margot decided to leave Kenya. I don’t know what she is doing now. I don’t know if she gave Penelope the albums, or if my daughter liked them. I cannot call because Margot will not give me a number.
She gave me the address because I promised never to visit. I promised to leave them alone. That is, after all, what I said I wanted.
The next day, I do what I always do in early December. I flag down a tuk-tuk and go to the post office in Diani and send off the book. Then, I go home and drink more gin than usual and walk on the beach as the sun sets on the edge of this world that I built for myself and that I now realise is too empty, even for me.
The doorbell rings at number 54, Francis Avenue. She is sitting in the front room, eyes closed, listening, perhaps, to the television that pours out its recycled news all day until she switches it off before heading up to bed. The bell rings again. She opens her eyes. She knows that sound. If she waits, and breathes deeply like the doctor told her, it will come to her. Wait, wait, I’m coming, she thinks, trying not to panic. She remembers: it’s the doorbell.
She heaves herself out of the chair, pats her hair because that is something she can do without remembering and goes to the door. The postman hands her a package. After she closes the door, she stands looking at the parcel for a few minutes. How exciting. Who might send her a package? She has no idea and this makes her feel anxious again so she goes back to her armchair and sits down.
“That’s better, isn’t it?” she says aloud.
She pulls the top off the bulky envelope. It is thick with bubble-wrap.
“I used to pop this with my children. It makes a delightful sound,” she says aloud. She looks up but this time there is no one to answer. It is not really surprising because often there is no one but sometimes there are ladies and she can talk to them and they make her tea. There are more than two of them, she thinks, and one or other of them comes every afternoon. If only she could remember their names. Or why they come. Still, it is very pleasant to have people to talk to.
She pulls a book out of the envelope. It is cream-and-brown and soft to the touch. She opens it. How lovely. It is an album of photos. She flicks through them but it is the last one that really catches her eye. A couple kissing on a beach. It looks like a black-and-white photo but when she peers closer, she realises the tones are more silver. She stares at the man and woman. Do I know them? She tries very hard but she cannot remember. The picture only shows their silhouettes. Then she realises that it is not so much their identities that are teasing her but the whole image. At the top of the page, someone has written “The Kiss.” I know that, she thinks. I remember.
“Michael used to kiss me like that,” she says out loud. “You see he was quite a bit taller than me, as it should be really.” She giggles.
“He would bend his head, just like that, and put his hands on my waist – I had such a trim waist then. I was quite vain about it, really.” Another laugh. “I would tilt my head upwards and our lips would meet. Michael was a very good kisser. Very gentle.”
She lets the book drop into her lap. She can feel his lips on hers again, her eyes are closed and the air is warm. Maybe they were on a beach too but which beach? She must ask the ladies when they come. They often help her sort out these muddles.
Suddenly, she remembers that Michael is gone but she cannot recall where. She sniffs and realises she is crying. If she is sad it must mean that he has been gone for a long time. She has learned to trust her tears and her smiles. Her emotions are better at guiding her than her brain. The doctor said something like that yesterday.
“Now, what did he say, exactly?” she asks the television. She picks up the notebook on the table by the chair. Yes, she wrote it down.
Dr. Dreyfus: “You need to focus more on your feelings now. They will become more and more important as the dementia affects your ability to remember.”
Dorothy pulls a tissue from her sleeve, unfolds it and blows her nose. She looks at the big white clock that the ladies put on the wall over the television. It is 11 o’clock. At this time, she has tea. She goes to the kitchen. Someone has put stickers on her cupboards, telling her where the cups are, and the tea, and the sugar. What a very good idea. It must’ve been the ladies.
Dorothy realises the book is still in her hands. She wonders what to do with it.
“I’ll put it in the cupboard under the stairs. That’s where you put things that have no other place, things you don’t know what to do with but don’t want to throw away,” she says.
She opens the cupboard under the stairs. She flicks the light switch and frowns. There are two other albums, like this one, in a neat pile on a stool.
“Oh dear, that can’t be right,” she says. “These must belong to someone. Such pretty books and such pretty pictures. They must have an owner, surely? I must ask the ladies.”
She starts to feel a little angry on behalf of the neglected books but she knows that is bad for her so she does some breathing and then she puts the new book on top of the others. There is a pile of letters on the floor beside the stool but she decides not to look at them now. She is already feeling anxious and she knows this is not good. She can’t remember who told her but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen and isn’t important.
Before she closes the cupboard, she remembers to switch off the light but only because there is a note hanging from the handle of the door.
“It looks very like my handwriting,” she says. “But I suppose most handwriting is much of a muchness, really.”
Then she goes back to the front room. She has forgotten about the tea.
Clár Ní Chonghaile has been a journalist for more than 20 years, working mainly in Europe and Africa. But she always wanted to write books and eventually, she did. In 2016, she published her first novel, Fractured, with Legend Press. Her second novel, Rain Falls on Everyone, was published in July. Clár grew up in An Spidéal, County Galway but left after college to join Reuters in London. She has lived in the Ivory Coast, Senegal, France, and Kenya but has ended up, somewhat unexpectedly, living in St Albans, UK, with her equally surprised husband and two daughters.