It’s difficult to say when it started. Perhaps between the third and fourth coffee during that Friday morning. It could’ve been as I rasped the broom around ceiling corners where cobwebs swirled and bent in draughts. I may have felt it lying bare-backed on floorboards trying to cool down. I started counting the seconds between. Lightly touched the tip of each finger in time with whispering numbers. It was four. Sometimes it seemed longer and I became nervous as if waiting for a heartbeat that wouldn’t come. I went out into the heat, blistering like I’d brushed a hot surface. Around me, the streets remained still except for the twitching in my corner vision every four seconds.
“I had these…I don’t know how to describe it. Ticks I suppose. Like a nerve jumping,” I said to Lindy. She looked up from dinner. She asked what I meant. I shrugged. Her gaze stayed on me briefly. She turned pasta through her fork. Lindy said it was probably nothing.
“Could we take down some of those photographs?” she said. Lindy looked past me towards where they hung. “It’s not that I don’t like them. It’d be nice to have a few different pictures. Paintings even.”
I left the meal half-finished. I might return to it later when the food was cold and clammy. For months every meal was like that anyway. I stood from the table.
“You know how important those pictures are to me. They reveal more of me than if you put up my x-rays.”
Down our hallway, the pictures hung in a straight line even though some tilted at times. I often tucked a finger to a corner, straightening them. Lately, they seemed to become uneven every couple of days, perhaps shifted by the moon’s gravity the way tides are. In the narrow space, I passed the pictures in close up. Windows blown out in a shop front. Ambulances queued outside a mosque. Burnt tarpaulin in a market after a fire. It was sanitized now, no smells, no screams, no heat or panic.
“I stood there,” I sometimes said to Lindy, nodding towards one of the pictures. “Off to the side. You can’t see the spot. But that’s where I took it from. I used to worry people would hate me for photographing them at a time like that but I realized during all the destruction they didn’t even notice me.”
How often had I walked past those pictures? Sometimes oblivious, biting out the corners of marmalade on toast on my way to morning television. At other times passing slowly, reliving tornados of billowing smoke from one, shrieking heat from another. There were places where I was cut by fragments of stones from the dull thump of a falling mortar, left deafened in a doorway, head bowed down and camera tucked into the hollow of my stomach to protect it. People ran past, hysterical, reaching back to each other while I pushed my spine into the wall, sighting them in through a lens, taking photo after photo, cutting off legs, heads, arms, front half of faces until I could only hope there was one image in there good enough. I never checked the pictures until I was back in my room. Never looked at them until my hands stopped shaking. When I returned home from Afghanistan Lindy brought me back to life with curries. Thai Green, Penang, Madras and Moroccan. Spice odors stood in rooms like apparitions. Brine ran off my skin leaving trails as if the pigment had washed away. At night I perspired chilli and cumin.
I arrived at the last picture on our wall. It was the only one peaceful. Men sat around sipping coffee, heads back, laughing.
“That one,” Lindy said from behind me. I hadn’t noticed her trail me but now we stood shoulder to shoulder. “I want to change that one.” She pointed to the picture hanging next to the men drinking coffee. I stepped back to examine it, even though I’d gazed at it hundreds of times. I went to ask her why, even had the first syllable out so that she looked sideways at me, waiting for me to finish. But I knew she’d say it was too upsetting, none of them fitted with creating a happy home but that one especially. I said let’s take it down. Before she had a chance to respond I lifted the photograph off, wire twanging behind it.
“Not yet! It can stay for now!” Lindy said. Her arm jerked out, hand gripping above my elbow, fingers not quite joining all the way around. I pulled away, telling her it was fine. Swung towards the door to a cupboard under the stairs, yanking it open and sliding the picture into space.
“What will you replace it with?” I said sarcastically. “A print of a bowl of fruit? Watercolor of a cat chasing a ball of wool? A crucifix?”
Lindy went to touch me again but her arm fell away. She often retreated from my voice like that.
After returning I was lost. Sometimes I saw an image from Afghanistan in a newspaper that made me want to go back so I could photograph it, except better. Otherwise, I mooched around, taking aimless walks down streets. Everything reminded me of Afghanistan. Heavy traffic, exhaust fumes sputtering, storms ghosting in, the still air before their arrival amplifying every sound until the thunder moved through me like blood clots. In my front yard I lay on the dirt after walking. Crew cut grass sawed into my ear, that slight seismic movement regularly twitching in my eye.
More photographs were taken down. My past removed, picture frame by picture frame. They formed a rickety pile, rattling if the cupboard door was closed too hard. Slowly other pictures replaced them. Lindy came home from artists markets, shopping bags clattering slightly as she hauled them up onto the kitchen bench. A black and white of the Eifel Tower, picture of orange skies over a city, a restored wedding day photograph of Lindy’s parents and two lost looking water buffalo standing in a rice paddy in Thailand.
It’d been hot. Told Lindy tap water was like warm packet soup. The doctor took my blood pressure and said I’d better give up everything except breathing. He shrugged when I asked about the eye movements. He asked if I noticed them now. I shook my head.
One night Lindy came home as I lay shirtless on the couch. She rubbed my back damp from perspiration, her hands pushing rolls of skin towards my neck until she said my skin was coming off in tiny scrolls like unbaked loaves. She said her hands were tired and I listened to her flex them. Then she leaned over me, her voice heated and whispery next to my face. Her breath touched my skin, reminding me of the tickle of that pen nib when I wrote her telephone number inside my arm years ago. Lindy asked if there was anything wrong. She realized it was going to take a while to adjust to life back here. That it couldn’t be easy to come home and do everyday things again, like lighting barbecues and raking leaves.
“Do you mean that feeling I sometimes have every four seconds? Maybe it’s the clicking of the photographs I haven’t taken.
Lindy was silent. She moved on the cushions.
“Give it time,” she finally said, so quietly the words were fading before I understood them.
That afternoon I pulled on a t-shirt and we drove up mountains to escape the heat. Cool shade fell across us like rain. We found an enclosure and lay on the grass. Lindy sprawled with her head in my lap. I told her we should move up there. It might be the last frontier of our city that wasn’t ruined. Always stepping over syringes in our local park. Graffiti swirling and cramped over walls. Glass in bus shelters kicked out, glittering over pavements. Let’s get out of the rut we live in I told her. Lindy smiled up at me before pushing herself up. She looked out at plains stretching until they ended in heat haze and glare.
“You just need time to relax again,” she said quietly.
During nights in Afghanistan Lindy and I spoke on Zoom. I balanced the laptop on tops of legs. Sometimes I adjusted my position, pins and needles numbing muscles like chilled rain soaking into skin. When I moved, lamps at the back of her room tilted and swayed like boat lights on a heaving sea. Lindy asked when I was coming home, her voice gentle as if afraid of my answer. Did I still want to start a family with her? She said I’d be a great dad. Told me I’d never forget the smell of a newborn, breastmilk and swaddling. Come home to our bed, our table and our walks she begged.
When I returned I left the camera behind when attending weddings. I didn’t take pictures of beaches or puppies. I instead took photographs of people arguing in a shop, screaming at children or unhappy on their way to work. I’d become attracted to anger and misery, as if I’d picked it up in Afghanistan like illness. Once I went to a boxing match, paying too much to sit in the front row to be brought a cardboard plate of mixed sandwiches. I photographed the cut face of one of the men in close up, capturing him reeling against ropes and his face cowering behind gloves. When I came home I was proud of the images, calling Lindy in when they flicked up on a computer screen.
“He’s bleeding,” she said. “Such a disgusting sport. People lose memories and end up with Parkinson’s disease because of being hit like that. Why’d you take those pictures? They’re repulsive.”
I’d watched Lindy’s neck as she spoke. Her neck was what first attracted me to her. People tell you it’s eyes you first notice or perhaps the mouth. Or it could be the sound of a voice or a person’s choice of words. For me it was her neck. I could see the slight tendons running down like strings in a harp. I never told Lindy I loved her but whenever I wanted her to know, I kissed her there, gently amongst the warm crevasses or on the down faintly over skin that I only noticed when the sun angled past her a particular way.
I bubble-wrapped the old camera. Drew the wrap around as lovingly as dressing a baby. Lindy cried softly from the bedroom. Her sobs pushed wetly into the pillowslip. It was better this way. Better that I stayed strong against her crying for twenty minutes now, rather than for an hour on the way to the airport plus during the farewell outside Customs. I nearly broke down when I went in to kiss her goodbye, her arms so powerfully around my neck I thought she might cut blood flow off in my arteries. But I knew it was what I had to do. Nothing had changed, yet everything had. I shuddered awake in darkness nightly, ran to the television when a few seconds of Kabul footage screened and hated the blandness of the suburb where I lived. The part of me who held down a steady job, washed the car and planted a vegetable patch was as dead as my mother and father. I’d given up trying to understand the movements in my eyes. During my last visit the doctor suggested it could be early stages of PTSD and did I want to see someone. I shook my head, surprised he hadn’t prescribed antibiotics and sent me away.
Slowly Lindy’s arms weakened and she left me, shoulders first, the cleft down her chest next and her hands last.
“You have to be embedded,” they announced at a briefing in Kabul. I sat with other journalists who looked as bored as me. “You can only be given a media permit that way. We’ll have you chaperoned around. Keep you away from danger.” I barely listened, able to recite their instructions from last time. “You’ll still be able to take pictures. We have school kids you can photograph. There’s also a bridge almost finished construction. You can photograph women going to university for the first time. No one has ever done wedding photography until they’ve photographed nuptials here. We’ll have you back in your motel with the palm trees outside bouncing around in the wind like belly dancers in seven courses for fifty dollars Turkish restaurant. You’ll be in your room in time to lie in warm waters and bath salts. There are even a few mysterious oils they pour in that leave your skin as young as a twelve-year-olds. Can arrange to have a bottle of port smuggled into your room too. Just don’t tell anyone. A lot of money will have to change hands if you’re caught with alcohol. Although we understand you need it in your line of work. Oh and one other thing. Don’t take any pictures that aren’t authorized. We don’t want any images that harm morale. Or jeopardize security.”
I shrugged in agreement and sat through more briefings where we were told victory was near and help yourself to coffee.
I didn’t lie in baths to recover from a day in the desert. Changed my shirt and scrubbed dust out of folds behind ears with motel oatmeal soap. Then I went out into the evening coming in as abruptly as darkness thirty seconds into one of those sand storms blowing in from the Arabian Desert. Was always trying to photograph that time when daylight bleeds into dusk, when the light is like smoke haze, where cold travels through bones like borer trails in tree trunks. But I never captured it. Every day I closed eyes and recalled it perfectly but never once did I photograph that time of day the way I wanted.
Peter Farrar recently left the corporate world in Australia along with the long hours, endless to-do lists and fall on the couch exhausted Friday nights. He’d like to be a writer but at his age can’t remember where he left the pen.