The old house has been abandoned for a generation. Thatch clings to the rough rafters except what has fallen rotten into the kitchen. Two small windows squint like cracked spectacles at a startled horse and whins on a hill. Lumpy stones show traces of whitewash. A door, red paint peeling, hangs by one hinge. Su goes click, click, excited, picking her way amid sheep droppings. When she looks again through the viewfinder there is a talking donkey coming through the doorway, so of course she shoots it.
One day she went to Dublin for a dental appointment. She passed a gallery featuring photography. The pictures begged to be noticed. Not that she liked them—they were slick and shadowy but did not show reality as Su saw it.
‘I suppose they’re abstract?’ she said to the emaciated girl behind a computer.
‘Exactly. They’re the next big thing.’
‘I could take photos you wouldn’t believe.’
‘I’d love to see you try,’ the other said, without sarcasm.
Su had already missed her dental appointment. She visited several camera shops until she found a man she liked. All she wanted was a digital camera, fully automatic. Digital, the man agreed, was the future. ‘Just point and shoot.’
‘But will it, if I want it to, nail what is really there?’
The man could not guarantee this because, he said, ‘reality is a son of a bitch.’
‘You’re honest at least,’ she said and paid him.
Now she is back in the rattly car, driving leisurely until a tree in a field practically waves at her. She eases to a stop, closes the door quietly, the camera strapped around her thin neck. She creeps forward, scarcely breathing, because there are people up the tree. She guesses half a dozen, though others could be hidden amid June foliage. They smile at her, strike poses. She shoots them up and down. She waves back at them. What they’re doing up there is nobody’s business.
‘Lions and tigers,’ she says to Blue waiting panting in the car. He’s called Blue, she tells people, because of his colour. When they point out that he’s really white, Su smiles: ‘And what colour is the sky, really?’ Blue has a big dog’s head for thinking and talking back.
Su is nearly thirty now but looks as young as she feels. She is willowy, and toothy in front, with bronze hair so weightless it flies even when there is no breeze. She could pass for a tomboy. Her clothes seldom fit that odd classification some call style. ‘Jeans my arse,’ she will say if the subject comes up.
‘Shame on you,’ Anabella will say.
‘You have to think about it,’ Su will respond. You have to think about it is a mouthful, as time will tell. In the matter of dress she likes the word couture and says it with an exaggerated accent, her rubbery mouth uttering vowels the French would die for. She wears dresses down to her ankles. These hide the fact that she wears no knickers. Su seems eccentric but so, she would say, is everyone. ‘Eve wore no knickers,’ she would say, ‘Adam neither.’
‘So how did it go?’ Anabella asks.
‘Well. It went well. People everywhere I looked. They all want to be shot.’
‘Don’t I know.’ Anabella has never seen any of the people Su sees all the time.
Three years after her own parents left her orphaned, years spent in foster care and misery, Anabella’s parents adopted Su. Anabella was two years older than Su and has remained that way except in the psychological department where she is many years more mature. Su’s new parents soon died as unpredictably as her original parents had. ‘No good deed goes unpunished,’ Su, full of remorse, explains this tragedy. ‘It’s life, that’s all it is,’ Anabella counters. Thus, when Su is fourteen and Anabella sixteen, the latter effectively becomes the mother of the former. She cherishes Su and is cherished in return. They live in the deceased parents’ house. Anabella goes to work in a cloth shop. Social workers and others help out. Su goes to school year after year because she never seems to reach a stage where she is ready for the world.
‘I’m slow,’ she tells Anabella.
‘You’re deep, that’s all,’ Anabella explains.
When she had enough pictures taken—her portfolio, she called it—Su took them on a shiny CD to the Dublin gallery. The emaciated girl was no longer there—unless, Su surmised, she had been eating overtime—and her stouter replacement could not see the same images Su could see. ‘Is it a wall?’ the stout one asked, but didn’t notice the boy and girl sitting on the wall. She went from gallery to gallery, but no one could see a talking donkey in the doorway, nor the people in a tree, nor the tragic twosome in a lake.
A day came when the school authorities called Su into the office and told her they had taught her all they knew and it was time to spread her wings. She had taken every course twice and some more than that. The other scholars, all younger, loved her, though the boys tried to look under her long dresses to see Tipperary.
‘But I know next to nothing,’ she told the school principal.
‘You know more than you’ll ever need,’ he explained. ‘And anyway, most of what we teach here is overrated and will be of little use in real life.’
The principal’s revelation gave her confidence she could march through the contemporary world knowing enough. Yet no one offered her a job because employers failed to see her sagacity was equal to their needs.
‘You were cut out for photography,’ Anabella, indomitable and big-hearted, encouraged her. ‘Put an ad in the paper.’ Thus she was hired to shoot a wedding. The newlyweds complained that many of their relations were missing from the pictures. Su was not in a position to deny this. She did, however, notice a stranger in several photos, on the extreme right or left or ducking behind some in-law. She was relieved that no one else espied this man, but disappointed too—what she wanted was to be normal and her photos predictable.
‘Don’t you see him at all?’ she finally asked Anabella.
‘Not a bit of him.’ Anabella had, after twelve years of diligence, become assistant manager in the cloth shop. Romance had eluded her. She longed to be waylaid by a man, any man would do.
Su abandoned commerce and called her photos art. A professional photographer was expected to stick to the facts but an artist was better off crazy. ‘Talent is tricky enough,’ the generous Anabella said, ‘but genius is a crucifixion entirely.’ Art was necessary to keep the world from going insane, but one couldn’t force it on people, especially when they were getting married and already basket cases.
Through the winter and into the spring Su haunts her native town in search of surprises. Point and shoot and wait and see. Wet houses stand shoulder to shoulder and radiate when the sun comes out. Bank managers throw money out the windows of solid banks. Vegetable shops sell bicycles and the parish priest sells vegetables between headstones in the graveyard. Inquisitive townspeople peer from behind curtains and through brick walls. Little girls jump in puddles and splash. Little boys call Su nasty names until she snaps them and hands them over to the law. Toothless old men pull in their bellies and smile, in their wild imaginations they are still twenty-two. Puffs of green clouds grow agitated, butting heads across a yellow sky heading for foreign lands. It is an ideal time to be an arty photographer. The world is begging to be noticed before it dies. In such metaphysical matters you can’t fool Su.
‘When will we see?’ people ask her on the street.
‘Soon,’ she promises. Down side streets are a couple of struggling galleries whose proprietors have not yet rejected her. She handles the computer software with dexterity and turns out a new portfolio. Anticipation mounts. ‘Lions and tigers,’ Su goes and the blue dog goes bow-wow in this exceptional household. If art needs to be daft, the world has beaten a path to the right door, she tells the talkative dog. The entrepreneurial galleries, though, have overheads to worry about and reject her with sincere sighs.
Yet artists by definition are too thick to give up. The first million pictures might be failures, Su tells Anabella after a bout of bitter sobbing, and the million and first might be a Michelangelo. She takes to the streets again, follows the river on which the town was first built, a tired river now, shoots the shadows at noon and swans in the evening, then shoots the moon dodging chimneys, lolling in the water.
A man, she notices, is appearing regularly in the pictures. A stranger. He is down by the river in the small hours and frequenting High Street in the afternoon. Su, suspicious, dashes off in the noisy car to nail down this apparition. Even when he fails to appear in a photo, she suspects he is hiding in the bushes. He’s a surprisingly small man, not much bigger than a big dwarf, broad at the shoulders and carrying a large noble head with curly hair glistening. He has, if the photos are correct, a ruddy face and is formally dressed in black with pinstripes. In Su’s pictures he does not look at the camera, as if pretending to be in the scene by accident.
‘He could be dangerous and up to no good,’ Anabella warns.
‘Don’t I wish he was dangerous.’
She stalks the apparition, who seems to lead a frantic life. He spends hours in offices, in the library, in churches, never staying long and soon on the move. He talks to everyone, shaking hands, heartily looking up into faces, yet his feet restless in the black shiny shoes as if they were late for another engagement. Then a pat on the back or a tap on the arm before he gets into the purple foreign car and drives importantly to the next rendezvous. There is always someone at the other end waiting, shaking the hand, always in good cheer. There are frequent forays to a café for coffee or the pub for a pint. He might be a bureaucrat or a diplomat on a delicate mission. He lives alone in a rusty brick house outside town—Su shoots him coming and going without ever surprising a stranger at the window.
She asks people, who all agree his name is Raphael Bang.
At last he walks towards her from the far end of town, a little man getting bigger, now looking straight into the lens. She can see the large face smiling, bushy eyebrows arriving ahead of the rest of him. Then comes the black moustache with wings ready to fly. It is a kind face and Su goes click, click. At a hundred yards he looks thirty, at twenty paces he looks forty, close up he must be all of sixty. He is wearing a red tie. Su learned at school that red does to a photo what mustard does to a stale sausage sandwich.
‘We meet again,’ he says. ‘I seem to be keeping you busy.’ He is so cheerful, not a lugubrious bone in his slightly listing body. The accent sounds foreign, Su thinks, probably from over the water.
‘And vice versa,’ she says, without knowing what she means. ‘I hope you don’t mind?’ She fiddles with the camera. ‘Look,’ she shows him when nothing spooky appears on the little screen.
‘I look like Charlie Chaplin.’ Only an aficionado would know that the shillelagh he twirls so handily was a sine qua non the great comedian would not have been caught dead without.
‘That was not my intention.’ Su has never heard of Charlie Chaplin.
‘We’re only an experiment,’ he says. ‘That’s what I have figured out so far. The creator practised on earth before going on to do his major work elsewhere. Next time we’ll do coffee,’ the restless feet are already pointing him in a different direction. ‘Snap me as I go,’ he says, and she does, as he makes a game little leap in the air and throws a leg sideways just like the legendary clown.
‘God is only practising,’ she tells Anabella in the evening. ‘We’re a work in progress to see how we work out. Then on to the next round. On the moon or out there. His complexion is sallow,’ she downloads a close-up on the computer. ‘What do you make of him?’
‘Don’t trust him.’ Life has taught Anabella a hard lesson or two. ‘Don’t forget the man who sold his soul to the devil.’
‘A man. It happens all the time.’
There are no flies on Su. It would be dead easy for Satan to sell Anabella a bill of goods. Despite the wise head on her shoulders, the heart insists on being heard. They have slept in the same family bed for nearly twenty years. ‘Not that we’re lesbians or anything,’ Anabella pronounced firmly when the subject came up.
‘But sometimes we pine.’
‘Everyone is lonely.’
A devil with a cure for loneliness, the girls agree, could have all the souls he wanted.
Now it’s brilliant July. Summer must be captured because it’s fleeting and then slow to return. Su goes after flowers. Bumble bees loiter relaxed with full bellies, pose for the camera. Birds ditto. And always when her mind strays, strangers. They look coy, tickling the real world.
‘Fabulous,’ Anabella says, her favourite word, though she does not see the strangers. ‘That must surely be art.’
‘Art is useless,’ Su can see the photography is going nowhere. ‘All people want is a washer and dryer and a car that won’t rattle.’
Every day now Raphael Bang makes an appearance, hurrying, chatting, taking over the town. At the end of the day he’s in most of her photos, including marching into the sunset doing his sideways hop like Charlie Chaplin.
‘I hope you don’t mind,’ he approaches Su sitting on a bench in the square.
‘What is there to mind?’
‘Have you thought of shooting the hurling at all?’
She is not a bit surprised on Sunday afternoon when the little referee blowing the whistle to start the hurling match is Raphael Bang. She uses the zoom lens to maximum advantage as the hurlers reach and run and use occasional fisticuffs for the purpose of winning. Most of all she zooms in on Bang, tooting his whistle, making little dashes on his short legs to keep up with play, maintaining law and order in this unruly environment.
He makes a point of meeting her every day, always with new suggestions: the opera, a funeral, a wedding.
‘I tried an old wedding. It didn’t work.’
‘Pray why?’ He shows preference for an old-fashioned idiom that suggests he might be living in the wrong century.
‘There were more people in the pictures than were at the wedding. They didn’t add up.’ But she pursues his suggestions, feeling giddy. Discreetly, she enquires about him. He is an entrepreneur, people say. Or a wheeler-dealer. Beyond that, Su bumps into the usual wall: what is the truth really?
‘I don’t like it,’ Anabella intones when Raphael Bang suggests coffee to Su, after appearing as a statue when Su thought she was shooting a dead member of the Old IRA. Anabella sleeps on her back and snores. But she has cherished me, Su reflects, since I was an orphan and miserable, and compassion is rare.
‘Breakfast, perhaps?’ Bang suggests on the phone. They order pancakes. Raphael, polite, talks to her about trivia. It is nothing but joy. ‘Did you ever hear of Plato, then?’
‘Never did,’ Su spreads strawberries over the pancakes with her index finger.
‘He was a goalkeeper for some team. It may have been Chelsea or Shamrock Rovers. I suppose you were never in New York?’
‘That’s a lovely dress so early in the morning.’
‘Guess which of us is not wearing underwear?’
‘I don’t know. You maybe?’
‘How did you know?’ Even as she cackles with delight, Su knows that if she were smarter Bang would be talking about weighty issues like life and death and taxes. She admires his tact and wonders could such admiration be love.
Weeks pass. Raphael Bang is totally proper, always solicitous. He inspires trust. ‘I have a secret,’ Su eventually says. ‘Look.’ She shows him one of the pictures from the camera’s memory. ‘What do you think?’
He looks at it, head sideways, one eyebrow up. ‘A blackbird?’ he says as if he suspects a catch.
‘Is that all you see?’ She waits while he searches. ‘It doesn’t matter. Look at this one.’
‘It’s the dead IRA man.’
He can’t see himself in her photos. She can’t, therefore, tell him about the strangers. This is a setback. Like Anabella, the mysterious Mr Bang was somewhere else the day they handed out imaginations.
‘In the chain of being I’m somewhere between perfection and a mouse,’ he explains. He picks up the shillelagh and gives it a flourish. When he says complicated things like that, Su feels privileged to be in his company.
‘An exhibition,’ he says, another day. ‘It’s time.’
‘People are blind,’ constant rejection has corroded Su’s optimism. ‘They couldn’t see a fart if you flew it in front of their faces.’
‘We’ll see,’ he twirls the stick, sending excitement all through town. He becomes more busy, more ubiquitous, shaking hands with all sorts from the high to the mighty to bartenders and cattle dealers. He throws the shillelagh ahead of him onto the passenger seat and does an illegal turn with screeching tires. Later he drives right up to Su’s house demanding her CDs.
‘The audacity,’ Anabella scolds when he’s gone.
‘He’s somewhere between God and a mouse,’ Su explains.
Within days posters appear in shop windows, on bulletin boards in supermarkets, on lampposts. Su’s First Annual Exhibition, to be held in the museum, will be formally opened in early August by a luminary from Dublin. The pictures on the posters, taken from Su’s CD, depict prominent local buildings: the church, the library, semi-detached houses in new suburbs. ‘And not a soul to be seen in any of them,’ she complains to Raphael Bang. ‘We’re sunk.’
‘Incorrigible lass,’ the mouth grins just south of his thick moustache and he takes Su’s hand there in the town square.
‘I saw that,’ Anabella is speechless in the evening.
‘You were spying,’ Su is chirpy, happy.
Bang darts around town making arrangements. A mighty banner stretches across the façade of the museum. The key word is Su, and beside it her picture, smiling like a celebrity. ‘And me little more than a moron,’ she says to Bang, and takes his hand on the museum steps while reporters search for an angle.
‘A star is born,’ Bang corrects her with panache. This is the culmination, Su thinks, though she’s not sure what the word means.
‘You could at least wear underwear,’ Anabella admonishes before the big evening. ‘You’ll be in the public eye.’
‘It will be our secret,’ she hugs dear Anabella, bulging in all the wrong places and hips that need to approach the average door at an angle.
‘No one will bother to show up,’ Anabella then says with satisfaction.
There is just a dribble at first, because in this town it’s not fashionable to be on time. Some people they know, some they don’t—the town is big enough for that to happen. Some arrive walking, others in posh cars, many of them from afar. This kind of phenomenon happens only once in a lifetime: not upsetting expectations because there were none; upsetting instead the incredible apple cart. The guests talk quietly, the way sophisticated people do. Su, instructed by Raphael, mingles, carrying in her hand a narrow wine glass with nothing in it. The pictures are a wonder: big monochrome prints in black frames; others in living colour lit from behind; slides clicking in a streamlined machine and bouncing off the wall. Raphael, meanwhile, is himself mingling like a maniac, suave and enigmatic.
‘Why would this fellow waste his time on someone like you?’ Anabella, on her third glass of wine, picks the inopportune moment because the question is driving her bonkers.
‘Isn’t that what a mystery is?’ Su says. ‘When you don’t know what’s going on, and it makes no sense?’ More and more she has the impression, since Raphael Bang appeared in her life, that her sagacity is gradually surpassing the sagacity of Anabella, dear Anabella, whose main asset is loyalty, a tawdry and thankless virtue on a glitzy evening of champagne and beautiful people. ‘Why are you not happier, Anabella, and this my ship coming in?’
Bang meanwhile is beaming looking after everything, turned out in black with a red bow tie, hugging strangers, nodding instructions to caterers carrying trays. He is at home in this elegant milieu, doing what he was born to do. Now the people are pouring in. The buzz is louder, excitement rising, friends meeting old arty friends, glasses tinkling. Su would love to grab her digital camera and see what she could see through the exceptional viewfinder, but Bang has absolutely outlawed the idea.
There are further surprises.
‘Look,’ the people are saying when one moves closer to hear them. ‘Look at that donkey in the doorway.’
‘And over here, look at those people up a tree.’
‘Oh la la, a dog flying and fishes riding bicycles, these photos are unbelievable, yet there they are, and that old fellow peeing down a chimney.’
‘They can see everything,’ Su is ecstatic. She runs off and hugs Raphael Bang.
‘Who are those people anyway?’ The guests are agog, shaking Su’s hand.
‘They’re strangers,’ Su says, ‘and that’s the truth.’
‘They’re absolutely awesome.’ And they hug her, because artistic people are huggers, gregarious and gracious, there would be no wars if it were left to them to run everything, no death or taxes either. They reach with thin bangled wrists for another glass of white wine from the tray. There are snacks on pine tables. The town should do more of this, everyone agrees. Kind words are said about Bang. ‘Who knew he could pull off such a stunt?’ They listen respectfully to the luminary from Dublin but they are eager to get back to the photos and the snacks. No one notices that not everyone sees the same strangers in the photos, or in which picture is the dog, the donkey, the ambitious cow jumping over the moon. Art, the luminary is saying, depends on what you see.
Anabella sits on a plastic chair. She’s sure the devil is in the neighbourhood looking for bargains. Mr Bang approaches her, the perfect gentleman, and whispers something amid the noise. Anabella’s knurled face turns dark. She points a finger and he looks but only the two know what this is about. Su is sad that Anabella can’t find it in her heart to leap up and do an old slow dance with Raphael Bang.
But the townspeople are telling her of the wild things in the photos that they never saw in real life: not just the church but the bishop up a yew tree; not just the IRA statue but pigeons dropping droppings; not just pigeons but curlews and clucking hens. Out-of-towners wonder out loud how this ordinary town could have been transmogrified into such an exotic caricature of itself. Discerning buyers grab up favourite photos in a flurry of spending while Mr Bang stuffs the cheques into a deep trouser pocket. Elegant gents shower Su with compliments.
‘In the chain of being I’m somewhere between the cat and mouse,’ Su explains.
‘It’s a conspiracy,’ Anabella can no longer contain herself. ‘He’s paying you all off. He’s paying you to believe it.’
‘Sometimes life boils over,’ Raphael Bang, always ubiquitous, is on the scene making everything reasonable. ‘The status quo sails quietly on for ages, and then for no reason at all erupts like a volcano before returning to normal again. That’s what Su’s pictures are about.’ He puts his short arm around her shoulder and the local media push and shove to take pictures. The guests are charmed even as they wonder what Mr Bang means, that thing about the volcano.
It is all hours before the party is over. The wine drinkers are most reluctant to go home. Others double back for a further peek at Su’s photos. ‘Extraordinary,’ they say one last time. Raphael steers stragglers towards the door. He offers Anabella a ride home and she defies probability by accepting it.
‘Someone put them up to it,’ she says again to Su in the haunted hours before they sleep.
‘Did you not even see the donkey?’ drowsy Su asks.
‘Donkeys don’t talk.’
The next day returns the town to normal. The big banner still stretches in front of the museum, sagging now because it has no more surprises to offer. Locals discuss the intense and scarcely believable night. In another day or two the town is divided into those who were there and those who were not. The former have no way of explaining to the latter what a mighty experience they missed. You had to be there, they all agree. Some coax others in to see the photos. But it is no longer the same. There are just houses or trees or flowers, grand in their own way but no longer—people can’t find the word—alive and a little crazy. The frenzy that took over the town that night is gone. The mystery has returned wherever it came from. Some who were there sigh with exasperation. These privileged ones compare notes, refer to favourite photographs, chuckle at remembered oddities. Gradually they realise that others do not remember the same details. They put this down to the unreliability of memory—and there was so much going on, they’re so happy they were not among those who missed it.
A few days pass like this before anyone notices that Raphael Bang is missing. He is usually most visible in the evenings but no one has seen him. The guards are notified. They prise open the back door. Word spreads.
Next morning, while others search his usual haunts, Su searches the town with her camera. He had a way of appearing just before she clicked. Or he would be, for all practical purposes, invisible, only to appear when she downloaded him to her computer. He’d be terribly dignified and important, she was confident, keeping the status quo in order, or he’d be grinning from behind a rose bush or doing his Charlie Chaplin thing. She shoots until the camera runs out of memory. Raphael fails to make an appearance.
‘How could he and he dead?’ Anabella’s tone implies that Raphael Bang’s death is the logical conclusion of everything that has gone before.
Everyone has a different version of what occurred. He was found under a holly tree out the road. He was found face down where the river is shallow. He was sitting on a bench just keeled over. No, there was no gun—why would there be a gun? No, we didn’t see any body.
The guards are cagey. But inquisitive, too. They come to question Su. When did she last see him alive? What was his state of mind?
‘I’m deep but I’m slow,’ Su explains, ‘but one thing I can say for sure is that his state of mind was first class.’
‘Was there a special relationship between you and Mr Bang?’
‘There certainly was.’
‘Was it intimate?’
‘Oh, intimate? Oh, it was.’
‘Stop torturing the girl,’ Anabella comes to the rescue. ‘She didn’t do it.’
‘Do what?’ the guard asks.
‘Do what?’ Su asks.
She searches the town for new pictures to take, drives out into the country. She focuses on unlikely places, up trees, down wells. She is no longer looking for Raphael Bang. She is looking, rather, for the others, the quiet population that became her friends, including donkeys and dirty old men and handsome youths.
They no longer appear, as before, out of nowhere. There is only the photo of a well or a bungalow. Su is puzzled. At the exhibition everyone saw them. Unless someone put them up to it.
They lie side by side in bed. Anabella is snoring.
It wasn’t Anabella, Su says to herself. How could it be? It was life’s way of boiling over. She sees Raphael Bang clear as daylight, shaking hands with some, kissing painted women back near their ears. She sees his shiny shoes impatient to be moving on, rushing to some appointment and the tires screeching. She knows he is stirring up the town, giving it ideas, fine-tuning it for the volcano.
She puts out a hand and touches Anabella. ‘They saw. No one put them up to it.’
‘No. No one put them up to it,’ kind Anabella agrees, turns over.
They were his people, Su thinks. He created them, looked after them. When he gave them assignments they were happy to oblige. His people included pigs and goats, who never get chosen for anything, but scarce people as well, the unpopular and odd. She wonders where they all went. She nudges Anabella again.
‘Are you awake?’
‘I am now.’
‘They couldn’t just disappear.’
‘Don’t I know.’