On Parliament Hill (2021)

Her voice had carried him back. There was no definable accent to speak of, no specific twang or rise and fall, no mannerisms to mark it out as distinctive or exceptional. Neither was it the words she uttered; they were merely window-dressing. What he continues to hear, what provokes memory, are elements beyond the vocal: confidence, honesty, inquisitiveness. Perhaps openness most of all. It is the sound of an adventurer, of someone who, knowing themselves precisely and certain of the ground upon which they stand, are comfortable seeking out new people and new experiences. For some it might have been construed a compulsion, a mission, an addiction.

He had been regarded as a new person once before; being a subject of interest was a novelty bestowed on him unexpectedly – and in Cath’s case almost literally ‘out-of-the-blue’. And when endowed with such an attribute how could he have done anything other than explore it, to test and tease at it to see where it might lead? It had been Cath’s voice which turned him into an explorer too.

But that was then. Fourteen years ago. Yet this is now, and he is so much older – and so unprepared… 

No, perhaps not unprepared. Anaesthetised, perhaps, having spent much of the intervening period between then and now putting up barriers, building walls, establishing defences in such a way as to prevent his citadel ever being breached again. Even so – and after all that time and effort – here is a second voice of undefinable and undeniable quality suddenly confronting him. 

Inevitably, anaesthetic wears off.

Harry has stood alongside him as an occasional confessor, watching this new assailant gathering strength, deciphering and unpicking Neil’s life; and in attempting to help, Harry has divulged whys and wherefores, though perhaps too often Neil has chosen not to listen. That is also a replay of the past. “It’s because you’re nearly thirty-six” he recalls Harry saying not that long ago, “because on one level your life is fundamentally unsatisfying; because there is a gap in it – in your life, in you – which has grown gradually like a cancer. And even if you choose not to recognise all of that, choose not to see it, that doesn’t mean those things are not there, things that need to be addressed, sorted out, lanced like a boil.” And though his friend may not have spoken those exact words, he had given him clue enough. Yet still Neil had chosen to stand, hands thrust in his pockets, looking out from his castle, pretending he was safe, secure.

Until now.

*

“Do you often take photographs like that?”

The voice came suddenly from above and behind him, a rich and strangely sonorous music intruding on the moment. He steadied himself, held his breath, then pressed the shutter release. The reassuring ‘click’ of capture. Lowering the camera from his eye, he rolled to his right and onto his side; looked up.

Silhouetted against the sun, he could make out nothing of her, only the indistinct shape of a figure, its perspective distorted by his viewing angle and the blurred halo of sunlight that enveloped her. He tried to corral the image for sometime later. From her outline he could tell she was looking down at him, waiting for a response. He was thrown, unnerved a little; all he had was her sound and for an instant he tried to place it, analyse it, then gave up.

“Sometimes,” he offered, then rolled back onto his front and stared out over London wondering – without the camera to his eye this time – if he had managed to frame the trees in the foreground as he had hoped, left them sufficiently out-of-focus to create the depth he was looking for. And also wondering who the girl was that belonged to the voice, and why she was suddenly there talking to him.

“Does it work?”

Now the voice was closer, the distance between them halved; he sensed she had crouched down a little, trying to imagine what he had seen or had been trying to photograph.

“Often enough.”

She laughed.

“You sound confident,” she said, her tone light and playful, “like you know what you’re doing.”

He shifted onto his side again. She was looking not at him but at the skyline, North London spread beneath their Parliament Hill vantage point, here and there the sun glinting off random windows, the towers of the city seemingly within touching distance. He registered a white t-shirt, denim shorts.

“Can I see?”

She looked back at him – or rather at his camera – her question suggesting there was a truth he had locked within it, one to which she wanted access. He wondered if she was asking if she could take the camera from him, try it out, peer through the viewfinder to see if she could divine what he had seen; but if that had been the case she would have been holding out her hand too, backing up her request with a gesture. And then he realised her eyes were more focussed and had settled on the three-by-two display on the camera’s back where an image would appear for two seconds after the shot, simultaneously stored in all its pixelated glory on the sim card to await later analysis.

They were the eyes that belonged to the voice. Probably brown – but vaguely grey in the strong shadow that shrouded her face – they too seemed confident and assured, though of what he was unable to decide. They moved from the camera to his own. He held them for a split second, then glanced at the Canon himself.

“There’s no point. You can’t see anything worthwhile on this. And especially not in this light. The photo needs to be seen on a bigger screen, where the definition’s good.”

“Then why is it there, if there’s no point in it?”

It was his turn to laugh. He sat up and faced her, cradling the camera in his lap.

“Because it does more than just show you the picture you’ve just taken. Some people actually use it as a viewfinder – though I’ve never been able to. For me there’s no substitute for getting your eye up close; that’s how you feel you are a photographer. But the screen’s also where you can see all the settings for the shot; the speed and aperture for example, or the burst rate if you’re taking something that’s moving like a car or a runner. It’s a bit like a menu on a computer I suppose. In a way these things are computers.”

“Show me,” she said as she turned her crouch into something else, kneeling alongside him, her legs tucked under her.

As he lifted the camera and tilted its back toward her, he tried to take her in, to open his internal shutter to add more elements to the composite image he was trying to build. Her hair was light brown, cut slightly shorter than was the modern norm; it was shaped to suit her slightly elongated face and complimented her eyes and the shape of her cheeks. Her lips were a little thin but not unappealing, and as she waited he saw concentration generate the smallest furrow of a frown on her forehead.

“Look” he said, pressing the menu button and bringing the screen to life.

*

“Between Kentish Town and Chalk Farm,” he answered. “I often come up here onto the Heath to take pictures. The number twenty-four stops not far from my road so getting here takes no time at all.”

As they walked down Parliament Hill itself, past solid three- and four-storey middle-class London semis, heading for a café she knew near the Royal Free, she had asked him where he lived. It was a question that perfectly fitted the sequence their meeting had initiated.

Having shown her a little of the subtleties and intricacies of his camera, they had chatted for a while about inconsequential things. He found himself fascinated by the tone of her voice, its rhythm, the way she spoke. It had lured him in, ensnared him almost, well before he had appreciated just how pretty she was. Or perhaps her voice had somehow enhanced her beauty. Yet although they talked, she disclosed little, their conversation driven by her delving. 

“Do you take photographs of people?” she had asked while they were still on the hill, just as he began to worry their exchange was drying up.

“Yes,” he said, laughing again, “of course.”

“Then you may take my picture,” she said as if she were granting him permission, and graciously reclined on the grass, “and as a fee I will let you buy me a coffee – if that is an acceptable arrangement.”

He had taken four when she suddenly laughed and started to adopt exaggerated poses, changing them rapidly, forcing him to shoot quickly. In less than a minute she had been on her feet.

“I think that’s enough, don’t you? Can you afford more than one coffee?”

It was a laugh that married her voice.

“I know some people might think it’s a bit of a hike, but do you sometimes walk up here when the weather’s fine? I mean it sounds as if your place is not that far from Gospel Oak and you can get into the park from there.” This as they neared the bottom of the hill, following on from the disclosure of his domicile.

“Yes, sometimes I do, why?”

That she lived in Gospel Oak was the first question she answered. That her name was Cath was the second.

“It’s Catherine, of course” – they were sitting in a small café within sight of the terminal stop of the twenty-four bus – “but I’ve always felt that was a little too cumbersome. Too many syllables. My family still use it, much to my annoyance, and I can’t escape that at the moment; but I’ve always seen myself as a Cath. I tried Katy, even Cat for a while, but Cath is what I’ve settled on.” She paused. “What do you think?”

“Me?”

“Am I a Catherine or a Cath? Or a Cat, a Katy, a Cathy?”

He laughed.

“I don’t know.”

“But you must have a view. Don’t they say that we weigh other people up in something ridiculous like the first eleven seconds of meeting? And you’ve had at least half an hour! I’d say your opinion is valid – and I won’t charge you for giving it to me!”

He had only one answer available to him.

from “On Parliament Hill

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