Hundreds of cornflowers in that shade of blue that slides towards purple. It was thick with them. In a perfect square that lapped from a gentle hill into a valley. Some might have said that it was the most beautiful patch of land that they had ever seen.
“Who planted them?”
The photographer was only mildly interested in the answer. He was sure the name would mean nothing to him. It was, after all, the image that was striking. No story was needed. It may even clutter the simplicity of his picture.
“Mm.” The photographer clicked away, adjusting lenses, trying filters. Then he stopped for a moment and looked at his guide. “You mean you don’t know.”
“No. I mean no one.”
“No one planted them.”
“They just grew. No one planted them.”
“That’s not true. Someone must have. Nobody saw them, that’s all. They didn’t tell anybody.”
“You asked me, so I told you. No one did it.” The man turned and walked away. He’d shown the photographer the meadow, but if he was going to ask questions and then argue, there was no point in staying.
The photographer looked up from his bag. “Wait! Hold on a second! You said something before – what was it that you said?”
Another question. Another argument. The man kept walking.
” … something about … what I deserved … what did you mean by that?”
The photographer stood, watching the man walk away over the fields. Smalltown eccentrics and their nonsensical mutterings – unfortunately they were the ones who always knew about the best places. Obscure, unique, spectacular. That was how the photographer had made his name – capturing the beauty of nature in ways previously unseen. Scenes of out-of-the-way places, a fresh view of something familiar, rare natural phenomena. Those were his signature subjects. His work had been hung in galleries, sold to the most prestigious publications and had made his life away from the hidden ravines and extraordinary perfect blooms into one of glamour and grandeur. He could sneer at the fashion snappers and stalking paparazzi. His was a career with a respected body of work. Artistry and substance would be his legacy.
He strolled through the grass and searched for an angle that would draw the changing sunlight into his frame, lift the sea of blue to an image that was almost spiritual. That was his skill. And these days, his name alone could elevate an image as much as the lighting.
The golden hour behind him, he made his way back to his hotel room. He hated having to suffer this kind of accommodation but he needed a few more pictures to cement his place as an artistic master. So shabby wallpaper and lumpy mattresses were his cross to bear. For just a little longer, he would need those elusive images if he was to be what he deserved … an icon.
In the dining room, he picked at the salad that the chattering waitress had brought him. Tinned corn kernels, drooping iceberg lettuce – there was nothing on his plate that could satisfy his marinated tastebuds.
“So you saw it then?”
The waitress was back. The couple chomping on pork chops and overcooked vegetables at the table by the door had failed to hold her attention.
The photographer glanced up chewing, though his mouth was virtually empty. He gestured to his plate and then to his occupied mouth and nodded, forcing a polite smile. The waitress, however, was immune to subtlety and continued. “The Meadow. You saw it then?”
“Mm. Very nice,” he mumbled. He tried his original strategy again and pushed a forkful of corn into his mouth. “Good salad,” he lied.
“Amazing, isn’t it? … Just appeared, they say. From nowhere.” She shook her head, then smirked coyly. “Well, from the ground obviously. But no one planted them, you know. Just grass one day and next day – there they were! … Unbelievable. And they say …”
The photographer stood. “Mm, yes. Look, I’m sorry but I’ve just realised I’ve forgotten to make an important phone call. I’m going to have to leave the rest of this … unfortunately. Thank you.” And he strode back to his room.
These locals and their stories. It was the same everywhere. They all wanted to tell him every detail, every little thing. As if it was so important. So fascinating. Not one of them could ever see that it meant nothing. It was the colour, the light, the textures in the image. That was all. And when he had taken the pictures, even that was behind him. It was over. But they couldn’t see that – these people in these pokey little places with their hokey folklore and their simple smalltown lives. There were all so caught up in their sad little histories and their meaningless routines that they didn’t realise how insignificant it all was. He snorted with a breath of silent laughter. At least back in the city, there were a few that got it, that understood what was important and what was trivial and pathetic.
He showered and made some calls to his agent, to his gallery manager, to the service that tended to his plants when he was away on assignment. Then he lay down, thankful that the next time he left this room would be the last time he would close that rattling door behind him. He rolled onto his side and reached out to the table beside the bed for his watch so that he could check the time. As he looked at the face of the watch, and slid it back onto the table, he had the feeling that something was missing. Watch, keys…sunglasses! His sunglasses weren’t there. He always left them with his keys but they weren’t on the table. He sat up and scanned the room, then paced around searching for the designer glasses. Nowhere. He thought back – he had worn them on the way to the shoot but couldn’t remember if he had them on the way back. He always took them off once he got down to shooting but they weren’t in his pockets and he had even checked the top of his head in case he had fallen foul of that geriatric condition that seemed to plague some of the doddering old fools that he’d had to tolerate in his travels.
After he had searched the car, he could only come to one conclusion. So he started the car and set off along the rough roads to the meadow. They weren’t cheap sunglasses and he wasn’t going to leave them for some hick farmer to wear while he bounced along on his rusty tractor! And they were bound to be sitting on one of the fenceposts near the road like a prize for those bumpkins who rose at the crack of dawn.
It was dark. The unlit country roads plunged him into a black pit with only the car’s headlights to navigate him through. For the first five minutes or so, it had been quiet – an eerie vacuum – but then the photographer began to think that he could hear something. And the more he drove, the louder it became. At first it was a hum, but as the volume increased, it lost any smoothness or harmony. The wail cracked with discordant threads and rough tones. Then he could hear broken yelping sounds, perhaps shouting.
He stopped the car. The sound spread over the darkness.
The photographer locked the door and thought about heading back to the motel. Then he shook himself – he wasn’t going to sacrifice his sunglasses only to be told that ‘Farmer Joe’s balemaker screams like a banshee’ by some smirking local.
He started the car again and drove the last mile to the meadow. By the time he stopped the car, the sound was sickening. It was as if a crowd of people were dying right beside him. An agonising death. There were voices full of torment and pain, wails of desperation pleading through the night.
He paused again. Perhaps he’d fallen asleep and this was some sort of dream. He shook himself and widened his eyes to burst through the nightmare and find himself in the cheerless hotel room. But he was in his car. He was awake. Out in the black of the countryside. Touching a clammy steering wheel. He looked at his hands. They were damp with sweat. He wiped them on his trousers, then reached one hand to the door handle. He wasn’t sure why. He just watched his hand open the door, saw his legs swing around and plant themselves on the ground. And he was outside, walking towards the meadow. Towards the awful clamour of voices.
As he got closer, he could make out some isolated words, the tones of individual voices – a woman was droning on about a building, about some kind of historical significance; a man’s voice pleaded as he listed the features and habits of a son who’d disappeared. Some were thick with sorrow – stories of loss, intimate revelations – but others were describing inanimate things, though still with a kind of passion.
The photographer’s feet took him through the grass and as he moved towards the square of flowers that had taken his attention only hours before, he didn’t hear a crack under his feet. A crack of glass. Or plastic. He kept moving towards the mist of blue lifted by the moonlight and by the cacophony of voices that seemed to be emanating from it.
He didn’t want to go near but he couldn’t stop himself. He began to fight the trancelike walk, battled to stop the steady plodding of his feet but that only drove his pace to accelerate. He was powerless.
His feet had brought him to the edge of the flowers and, without pausing, he went in. Where he was surrounded on all sides by the wailing. The chattering. The incessant talking, shouting, mumbling, blethering. Sounds. Noises. He could see nothing. He could only hear.
The voices en masse were sickening. The roar of never-ending words, sliced through with different pitches, different tones and rhythms grating and battering with nauseating persistence. And he was surrounded. His feet had stopped and now they wouldn’t move, no matter how frantically he urged them. He could feel sweat streaming from his scalp, his fists clenching, his mouth dry but filled with the bitter taste of terror he remembered from his childhood nightmares. But he could feel nothing in his feet. They had planted themselves just as sturdily as the roots of the invisible blooms that must have been surrounding him. As he was assaulted by the horrendous caterwauling of human voices. He felt as if he would vomit. He had the strange thought that if only his skin would peel off, then he would have some relief. He wanted to burst open, bloat and split and dissolve. But he was trapped. Blind and powerless.
Then he heard a voice, a woman, telling him about her dog, her beloved pet, and the torment of the onslaught seemed to lessen slightly. He blocked out the other voices as best he could and concentrated on that one voice. And as he listened, he began to sense something familiar. The dog’s name – he had heard of it before. He had heard fragments of this story sometime long ago. It was on a shoot – somewhere in Canada, could it have been? – and the woman at the inn where he had stayed had said something about her dog. But he hadn’t realised that the dog had died. That it had been her only companion. Not then. He hadn’t heard about the way that she had found its poor cold body by the spent embers of the fire.
When the woman’s tale was finished, her voice disappeared. But then the discord rose again, its volume overwhelming. The photographer’s breath came in shallow useless gasps. He tried to slow it, to find a fragment of the calm that he must have felt not long before in his motel room. The noise was shaking him. Every part of him. He held his breath and listened through the clamour for a single voice to ease the infiltration of the hordes.
“She used to work for the sawmill, when my father died. She was there ‘till she was sixty-two – doing their paperwork, filing and the like.”
A voice that rattled with age was telling some story about a mother.
“She couldn’t find the bathroom yesterday. Sometimes she doesn’t even know who I am.”
The photographer remembered a series of shots from an ageing sawmill. Timber with such texture that people had said they feared they would get splinters from the photographs . An old local had given him the obligatory tour of the building.
Now the photographer heard, for the first time, the domestic concerns of his ageing guide – a man with a dying mother who lived in a cabin beside a caravan park. A man who took pride in his cooking and who had learned to read the newspaper so he could entertain his mother while he fed her. There was a strange optimism in the man’s voice – as if this were not a tale of poverty and illness. It was a tone that the photographer couldn’t understand, and there was a quality that he didn’t hear in conversations with his peers. It was as if the man thought he was telling a fairy tale, a story with ups and down but with an underlying happiness. When his voice eventually faded, the photographer took a deep breath. But the tumult was upon him again before he could feel the fresh air reach his lungs. Shrieks and moans, droning pitched in such a way that his bones began to ache. He tried again to move his feet but now he felt as if he had no feet. No legs. He tried to reach through the dark night for the flowers that he thought covered the ground but there was nothing but a thick soupy warmth all around him. And once he had felt it lick at his fingertips, it seemed to envelop him – muffling his face, holding his skin so that he was wedged into the pocket of space that he occupied. ‘A voice!’ he thought, ‘I have to find a voice!’
He focussed on a piping tone through the commotion and began to hear some isolated words.
“…built it … angels … is there?”
The photographer strained and concentrated only on that voice, listening so that he could understand what was being said.
“… and Mum said that wasn’t true, but I said it was, and Beverley wouldn’t believe me but she doesn’t know anything anyway so I told Mrs Bleaker that there were angels and she looked a bit funny but she didn’t say ‘no’ and she started talking about homework so I don’t think she really knew …”
The child went on and on with meandering theories and events and tales of unheralded bravery and the photographer felt as if he was standing again in the snowy woodland waiting for that fox to make an appearance in such a way that it could leave an appealing arrangement of footprints in the white powder. Then, he had allowed the child’s voice to drone across the background of his thoughts but now he listened to the adventures on the hill that really was a mountain and the story of the sister’s snot and a list of chocolate treats in order of well-considered preference.
Finally, after what seemed like days, the voice stopped, subtracting itself from the racket that immediately returned. But the numbness of the remembered winter landscape didn’t disappear. The photographer couldn’t feel his body, his arms or his face. And the noise surrounded him with strident persistence, hardly diminished by the loss of three vanquished voices.
This was worse than suffocation because there seemed to be no end. Because the photographer was more than frozen, beyond numb and just one last gasp from breathless. He hardly existed and yet his senses felt every grating sound as it were a substance, a rough clammy substance that was the ultimate in torture. He was lost, infinitely stuck. He tried to find his eyes so that he could see … but there was nothing. Nothing but darkness with a faint blueish haze.
He wasn’t in a meadow.
He wasn’t in a field.
He was in nowhere.
Dark blue nowhere buried by the voices of his past.
The next morning, Bella checked the room where ‘that photographer’ had been staying and reported back to the front desk.
“He’s gone. Left some stuff behind, though.”
“Mm,” said Randall. “Saw his car’d gone. Got his credit card details, though.” And then he looked up, “You know, I could track down his address and send that stuff back to him, but I don’t think I will. Jumped-up smug bastard, he was. I was just trying to help him out and he wouldn’t listen to a word I said.”
* * *