‘Gee, a Hassie!’ He said it without thinking, drawn by the bulky black camera she was cradling in her hands.
‘I’m sorry?’ She looked up from the viewfinder but without moving the camera. She had, he realised, just composed a photograph and he was sorry now that he’d spoken: he hated being interupted when he was working. And she’d answered him while still raising her head so he wasn’t quite sure of her answer. There’d been a beep in his ear about an hour ago but he’d not bothered changing the battery just to wander round these gardens. Now he wished he had.
But she was looking straight at him so he said something vague just to keep the conversation going. ‘Your camera. It’s an oldie. You don’t see them much.’ Then he trailed off, running out of words and slightly disorientated, as he always was when his hearing aids failed. He didn’t want to put his foot in it: this was England and they were more reserved over here.
‘Really? I use it all the time.’ The woman in the headscarf, who looked very English, glanced down at her Hasselblad. ‘Except when it breaks.’
“Except when it makes?” Makes what? Even watching her mouth, which twitched rather sexily as she spoke, he wasn’t quite sure what she’d said. God-damned batteries…
‘Makes what?’ He stopped. ‘Sorry. I didn’t catch what you said, Ma’am.’
‘I said except when it breaks.’ She had turned to face him now and had spoken slightly more loudly, slightly more slowly and had exaggerated the movement of her mouth. Just slightly. She had, he knew, recognised his disability and compensated with politeness and tact and he wanted now to talk to her even more.
‘I thought they were indestructible?’
‘Nothing lasts for ever, young man.’ She smiled faintly. ‘And they don’t exactly break, but the shutter jams if you take the lens off at the wrong moment. There’s supposed to be a way of resetting it with a screwdriver, but I’ve never dared try. She looked over Zac’s shoulder to the borders of the lawn, but back to him before she spoke again. ‘And my husband would much rather I took it to the repair shop.’
‘Means you’re stuck though, till it’s fixed.’ He answered automatically, still dazzled by her smile. Thin curvy lips with a faint gloss, good teeth and a hint of crinkle round her eyes. She had once, he thought, been very beautiful.
‘I have two Hasselblads…two “Hassies” as you would say. I try not to jam them both at once.’
It was, he was sure, the first time she had ever abbreviated the camera’s name. ‘You’re a pro, then?’ Or maybe retired? He couldn’t decide her age, couldn’t shift his gaze from those deep, brown eyes, shadowed by wisps of fine blonde hair. Fifty-five at least and he thought how much he’d like to photograph her.
‘Sorry Ma’am. A professional. To have two Hassies.’
‘Please don’t call me Ma’am.’ She glanced again over his shoulder. ‘My name is Susan. And no, I’m not a professional photographer.’ Susan considered what she’d said, her eyes still on his. ‘I’m just a keen amateur who still loves her darkroom.’ She looked at his digital camera and teased him gently. ‘It’s too easy with a computer!’
Zac hefted the Nikon and thought of the late hours with files that wouldn’t read, CDs that wouldn’t burn, and internet connections that failed you half-way. ‘No way! It’s just a different bunch of trouble.’
‘But at least,’ she persisted, ‘you can tell whether you’ve exposed your picture correctly.’ Still she spoke slowly and clearly. ‘Whereas I must wait a full week to see whether I’ve caught the reflections on this lake.’
‘You need a filter, Ma’am.’ Zac corrected himself. ‘Susan. You need a UV filter for that.’
She lowered her eyes. ‘Yes, I know. And now I must pay for my quite inexcusable boast about owning two Hasselblads; I was offered such a filter when I bought this lens, but I turned it down. I didn’t think I’d ever use it. The act, I am sure you will agree, of a complete amateur.’
It was almost too easy. Zac unscrewed the glass ring from the end of his own lens, and offered it to her with what he hoped was a polite flourish. ‘Be my guest.’
She looked over his shoulder again before taking the filter, carefully and without touching his fingers. ‘But won’t it be the wrong size for my camera?’
‘Doesn’t matter. Just hold it over the end of the lens while you shoot.’
‘Are you sure? I don’t want to hold you up.’
‘No problem. I’m on vacation.’
She nodded her thanks and bent to mount the camera on its tripod. Zac moved sideways to catch her profile and brought up the Nikon automatically.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Just taking a shot of you.’
‘Please don’t. Not because I don’t want you to, but because it would be….inappropriate.’ She stood still, waiting for him to lower the camera.
‘What’s that? Why?’
Her shoulders sagged and she looked suddenly several years older. ‘I’m sure you don’t really need to ask that.’
‘No. Sorry.’ Zac admired her figure once more, the way she stood, the way she held herself and then let go of the Nikon regretfully. ‘Make with that filter, then. The sun’s coming out.’
She nodded and turned back, flicking the hair away from her face again. More had slipped from her headscarf now and it fell onto her camera as she peered through the viewfinder. A red headscarf, with cream dots, and surrounded by fine blonde hair. Zac’s hand still twitched for the Nikon.
‘Damn.’ She straightened, undid the scarf completely and shook her head. He watched, entranced, as the finest, most delicate golden hair he’d ever seen fell around her shoulders in a perfect curtain. Sure, it was grey at the edges, but the colour was still there, the deep buttery sheen that you only saw once a year on a woman. Even in his line of work. And that wave, the way it fell around her ears….
She refolded the scarf, her eyes still on the lake. ‘It is rude, young man, to stare!’
Zac grinned. ‘Sorry. Your hair. It’s beautiful.’
Again that glance over his shoulder. ‘Thank you.’ She gathered her hair in one hand, twirled it into a bun and replaced the scarf round her head, knotting it under the chin with a single deft motion. ‘You’re still staring.’
‘You stand just great. Like a woman ought to. You should have been a model.’
She pulled out her exposure meter, pressed the button and glanced at the reading. ‘I was,’ she said quietly. Then, again, more loudly, ‘I was’.
‘And no, before you ask, not famous, or even very good at it.’
She pressed the button again, looked carefully up at the sky and shook her head. ‘I’m not sure I believe that reading.’
He looked at the meter in her hand. ‘That’s a “Lunasix”. They’re the best you can buy.’
A single wisp of hair had escaped already and it fluttered across her face as she spoke. ‘They were, but you can’t buy the batteries now. Apparently, mercury is not good for you anymore.’ She gestured in disgust. ‘They sold me these modern replacements, but with a different voltage or something, and I just don’t trust it.’
‘How about,’ Zac ventured, ‘I check the exposure for you?’ He waved the Nikon. ‘With my digital.’
‘At this rate, it’s going to be your photograph, not mine!’ She stopped herself, a faint flush to her cheeks. ‘How ungrateful of me. I do apologise. Yes, please, I would like your opinion of the exposure.’
Zac picked up the Nikon and pointed it at the waterlilies. ‘What film d’you have in there?’
‘At sixty four ASA, you’ve got a two-fiftieth of a second at F eight. But give it half a stop for that filter.’
‘Thank you, young man.’ Susan did some mental arithmetic and moved the aperture ring on her lens. ‘I can’t keep calling you that.What’s your name?’
‘Zac. Zac Zender.’ He held out his hand.
She shook it, gripping his fingers firmly for an instant.‘Short, I believe, for Zacharias?’
‘You got it.’ He looked with interest at the hand he’d just touched, long, slim fingers with immaculate nails. A model’s hands. And her nail varnish matched her scarf.
She held the filter in front of her lens and pressed the shutter three times, adjusting the dull chrome ring after each picture. ‘Well, Zac, with luck one of those exposures will be correct. If not, I’ll try again next year.’
‘I always visit the gardens this week. With my husband.’ Zac just stopped himself from looking round. ‘Although I’ve never photographed the flowers before.’
‘What do you usually shoot then?’
‘My goodness. You do ask a lot of questions.’ But she didn’t look cross and Zac waited, somehow confident of an answer. ‘I photograph people, just ordinary people enjoying themselves.’ She looked over his shoulder one more time. ‘And now, Zac, I must ask you to go. My husband is returning and he, like you, tends to be curious.’ She held out the filter. ‘Thank you.’
Susan shook her head. ‘I couldn’t possibly.’
‘Go on. I’d like you to. You’ll need it for sure now the sun’s out. And they’re real cheap.’
She smiled at him. ‘You did very well for an American. That’s the first time you’ve mentioned money. But no. It would also be inappropriate.’ She handed him the filter, inclined her head in mild apology, then looked back to her Hasselblad with an air of finality. ‘Goodbye, Zac.’
One Year Later
Zac clipped the lens cap on and shielded the Nikon against the first spots of water. Pro gear was pretty waterproof, but this baby was new and it seemed a shame to soak it so soon. Then the drizzle turned to proper English rain and he zipped the camera away, wondering once again what the hell he was doing there; he’d turned down an assignment in Florida for this cold, wet hillside. A paying assignment.
He looked at his watch again. Three thirty. In another hour the trickle of visitors would stop and another day at Barkwood Gardens would be over. Another week would, in fact, be nearly over. It was Thursday. He’d spent nearly four days in these God-damned gardens, wandering round in the rain, and he’d photographed every flower from every angle in every light. And for why?
He’d stood in the rain on Monday and laughed at himself, but the joke had worn thin now. A whole week wasted, over a woman. And not even a hot chick. A woman at least twice his age who he’d met for ten minutes a year ago. A married woman.
A married woman who’d bounced round his head for a year and who had now cost him a plane ticket from the States and a lost assignment on the beach. He thought again about that beach and the models in their swimsuits. Models his own age.
Zac turned up his collar against the rain and scanned the visitors once more, hoping for a middle-aged, blonde haired woman with a headscarf. He was sure, somehow, that she’d be wearing the headscarf; she had retied it so easily that day as if it was something she did often. Zac narrowed his eyes as yet another couple appeared around the corner. Then the woman looked up revealing short, dark hair and he lost interest.
She came this week, every year. She’d said so. He couldn’t have missed her. A striking woman in her fifties, carrying a big black camera, and trailing a husband. At least he hoped the husband would be trailing. If they appeared hand in hand, he’d be stuck. But they hadn’t seemed like a hand in hand couple last year.
He stepped back from the path as a tour group approached, a forest of umbrellas trailing behind the guide, their owners pointing tiny cameras at the flowers. They trickled along, chatting happily about their own gardens and speculating on the weather. A dozen pairs of hands, and one lady on her own at the back without an umbrella, head down against the rain and carrying a small digital camera.
A lady in a headscarf. A red headscarf, with cream polka dots.
It wasn’t difficult to get ahead; the group moved slowly and the guide stopped every minute to point out yet another flower. Four hundred yards on, he settled the Nikon on a branch, racked out the zoom and focussed. The red blur reformed and the cream dots sharpened, along with wisps of fine blonde hair. Zac looked steadily through the lens until she looked up, lowered the camera and grinned.
Susan had left her Hasselblad behind this year.
And, apparently, her husband.
He stepped forward into her path, hoping it looked natural. ‘Excuse me, Ma’am!’
But she stumbled and he caught her arm and helped her and when she did look up at him it was with surprise and confusion. Then her face slid slowly into something which could have been recognition, while Zac stared back, speechless.
Her eyes, brown and luminous, were still the same. But only her eyes. He looked into them now while her reply, slow and slurred from twisted lips, burnt itself on his brain. ‘My fault. I’m sorry.’
‘Turn left,’ the guide intoned in the background, ‘for the azalea walk.’
Zac stepped back out of the way. Susan looked at him uncertainly and then walked on, stumbling over another loose stone and fingering the half-tied knot on her headscarf. Her hair was not tidy and he wondered bitterly whether she still tied the scarf herself or whether someone did it for her now.
The Susan he knew was gone. She’d got old and ill like everyone did and this was all that was left. One day he’d be the same. The style, the poise, the eighteen carat elegance that he’d loved had dripped away with her stroke and he’d come thousands of miles for a shadow. Shit. He felt angry at her husband who wasn’t, for whatever reason, looking after her now when she really needed it. The guy had apparently been jealous enough before she got ill. Now where was he? He stared after her and winced as she stumbled again. She needed, he thought, an arm to hold.
But not his problem. Time to cut his losses. There was nothing to stay for. Zac turned to the exit. He’d drive back to the hotel and change his flight. With luck he’d be home tomorrow and he’d phone his agent from the airport and see what work there was. With luck, something on the beach.
He smiled at the girl in the gift shop, bought a postcard for his mother and walked out to the car. The rain had eased, but it was still British rain and he’d had enough now. He thought of the sun back home and dumped his bag on the seat beside him. The zip was undone and stuff spilled out. Phone, wallet, packet of batteries for his hearing aids.
Zac picked up the packet and remembered. A year ago, he barged into her life, a loud-mouthed American with a flat hearing aid. She’d answered his questions, realised his deafness and adjusted so he could hear. There’d been no embarassment. She hadn’t commented once. She’d just talked to him.
And now he’d ignored her just because she had a problem. What a jerk! He couldn’t believe himself. Quick as he could, he changed the batteries, grabbed the camera and ran back to the gardens. Could he find her again? Would they let him back in?
The girl in the shop remembered his smile, let him through without his ticket, even told him the route the tour group would take and within minutes he found himself back on the path, tagging Susan at the back of the group, willing her to slow down and still wondering quite why.
Was it just just guilt? She wasn’t beautiful any more but she was still the same person. Her mouth might be lopsided, but she could still speak. They could still have a conversation. She could still tease him.
And some people recovered completely from a stroke. Didn’t they? Zac wasn’t sure and tried to keep his distance while he decided what to say to her. But they moved so slowly. He photographed every second flower and still he fell over them round the corners.
Susan, it seemed, was amused by this. He saw her glance back, meet his eye for a second, and then walk, it seemed, even more slowly, opening the gap between herself and her companions. She lingered now at every new plant, fiddling ineffectually with her baby camera until finally, as he turned past a huge red azalea, he found her alone. Zac watched her fingers tremble as she pressed the shutter, peering with exasperation at the tiny screen.
‘Good afternoon.’ Her voice was the same, low, even, with that break that he’d dreamt about all winter. But she spoke slowly now, and with obvious effort.
‘How are you doing?’ Great line, Zac, she’s had a stroke.
‘I am well, thank you.’ She stopped, considering. ‘But a lot has happened to me recently.’
Zac nodded slowly, thinking that her teeth were still perfect, and wondered what to say next. ‘You’ve gone digital?’ He pointed to her camera.
She lifted the tiny Canon sorrowfully. ‘I had to. My hands are so weak.’
He took a deep breath. ‘When….were you ill?’
Her face seemed almost to clear at the question. ‘I had my stroke five months ago. The week after my husband died.’ Then she looked away, as if uncertain of him, and took another photograph of the azalea. The act seemed to re-assure her and when she looked back it was with more confidence. She studied his face, fingered the knot on her headscarf again and glanced up at the sky. ‘Well, young man, it has finally stopped raining. May I ask a favour of you?’
‘I would very much like to see the lake, but the tour doesn’t go there.’ She glanced in the direction of her dissapeared party without, it seemed, much regret and looked back at Zac. ‘But I’m not sure I could find it on my own.’
After a week, Zac could have found the lake blindfold. ‘Sure thing! Turn left here, if you’re cool with steps, and I’ll walk you.’
‘I can manage some steps.’
They set off, side by side, Zac thinking somehow that there was no need to speak. Try as he might he could feel no regret at the death of her husband and she seemed happy to be with him. That was enough, just then.
‘I can walk faster than this.’
‘Sorry. You set the pace!’
She did and, suddenly scorning his navigation, cut the corner off with a steep little track where the rhododendron branches hung low. Zac stooped to follow, admiring her spirit.
But she paused above the lake, looking down at the steps that lead to the water’s edge. ‘They do look,’ she admitted, ‘a little intimidating.’
‘How about the seat?’ He pointed to a nearby bench.
‘Yes. Thank you, young man.’ Susan nodded and smiled.
They walked along and he sat down first, deliberately.
‘Is it dry?’
‘You mean “not really”.’ But she sat down anyway, closer than he’d hoped, and looked out across the water. ‘That is nice. Thank you.’
‘My pleasure. Do you,’ he asked carefully, ‘still have your Hasselblads?’
She nodded. ‘They bring back memories.’
‘But you don’t use them?’
‘No. Not at the moment. I suppose I may try again if my hands become stronger.’ She flexed her wrists sadly. ‘And in the meantime, the lens on this toy is surprisingly good.’
‘An incentive,’ Zac said, ‘that’s what you need.’ He reached into his pocket and handed her a parcel, silver paper with ribbon to match her scarf. ‘And I just happen to have one with me!’
She handled it carefully, turning it over in her hands, feeling its weight. Then she found the end of the ribbon and gripped it with her fingertips while she pulled. The paper came apart and she plucked at the tissue beneath, her hands trembling. ‘It’s glass. Have you bought me a mirror?’
‘No.’ He grinned.
She teased the paper away, found the dull chrome ring and pulled it out.‘A filter.’ She peered more closely. ‘A UV filter.Will it fit my Hasselblad?’
‘Yup. It’s Zeiss. Made for the job.’
She turned it over in her hands, held it up to the water and looked through. ‘That’s lovely. Thank you.’
It happened in an instant. The clouds rolled away from the sun, sending a bright shaft of light across the water. Susan trembled at the glare, and the filter fell from her fingers, rolled down the bank and disappeared into the lake.
She looked, for the first time since he had met her, completely forlorn.
‘Oh. How clumsy of me. I’m so sorry.’
It didn’t matter to Zac. Suddenly none of it mattered and he grabbed her hand. ‘Susan. May I buy you supper tonight?’
‘Where did you buy it?’ She stared out over the water. ‘The filter?’
‘In the States. A gizmo camera shop.’ He kept hold of her hand.
‘Such a shame.’ She shook her head sadly.
‘Susan? Tonight? Have supper with me?’
She turned to look directly at him. ‘How do you know my name?’
Zac stared back. ‘You told me, last year.’
‘Last year?’ Susan shook her head slowly. ‘You must be mistaken, young man. We have never met before. I’m sure of that. I would have remembered you.’