Paris in December was fucking freezing but still beautiful. There was no snow, but a blanket of frost covered everything, making our stroll along the Champs Elysses treacherous. The lift to the top of the Eiffel tower was frozen on the ground floor, the handrail of the iron staircase so cold our gloves stuck to it. We tried climbing, but on the third tier my vertigo got the better of me, so we made our way back down.
She looked stunning in that setting, like she belonged there. She was wearing a long, grey, belted mackintosh and red high heels that matched her lipstick. A black snood framed her face. She looked ‘local’, but not like the petite and cute, dark-skinned locals. Her look was sophisticated Paris, elegant, and long-limbed, like a well bred racehorse. She took a packet of fags from her pocket, slipped a JPS Black between her lips and dipped her head to her lighter. On looking up she blew a vapour trail of nicotine and carcinogens over her shoulder, but even this seemed stylish with the river and embankment as a backdrop and the frosted sunlight for soft focus. I raised my camera to my eye. Click.
In a bedsit in West Sussex I sit with a shoebox of memories on my lap and that photograph in my hand. She still looks beautiful and elegant, but now I feel I can detect a hint of hardness in those dark brown eyes, a moue of disdain in those parted lips and the tilt of her slender neck. Yes, she had been fucking him then.
She’s sitting on the top bar of a wooden fence, ponies chewing grass in the field behind her. All but the closest ponies are blurred, the furthest ones impossibly distorted, bleeding into the background greenery. The camera angle is low, the aperture adjusted for the backlighting and shadows. The sun forms a corona around her head, accentuating the red highlights in her hair. She wears a plain white t-shirt, stretched tight across her chest, the dark buds of her aureole just visible through the taut cloth and the light bra beneath.
She is looking directly into the lens, her smile wide and unguarded, wrinkling her eyes into crows’ feet at the sides of her dark glasses and crinkling the freckles on the bridge of her tanned nose.
This was the moment I knew I loved her, captured forever by the camera’s click. How many are lucky enough to capture that exact moment? But then who needs a photograph for memories that clear?
I put the picture back in the box, burying it quickly before the impulse to rip it to shreds can reach my fingertips. The smile had been real then, I’m sure, her feelings as powerful as mine, though ultimately less enduring.
Her cheeks are pale, half covered by the surgical dressing stretched tight across her nose. Her eyes are almost lost in the dark flesh surrounding them, glittering from swollen lids stained purple, black and brown. She is laughing through her pain, partly with relief that the surgery is over and partly at me, because seeing her face this way has left me speechless and in tears. She looks broken, and all I want to do is fix her, make it better. Two days previously I had taken the ‘before’; this would be the first in a series of ‘afters’. The camera was shaking in my hand. With hindsight, one could imagine it an omen.
Her new nose, when the bruising had gone, was all she had wished for; pert and upturned and flawlessly sculpted. The freckles came back whenever the sun came out, but kissing it was never the same. The bump she had hated was a contour my lips had relished; part of the topography of her, a landmark on my lover’s map.
Others tell me that was the beginning of the end, the point at which she ‘changed’. For me, it’s more a question of which came first. The seed was sown long before the surgeon’s knife fell, his blade just providing the furrow in which it could take root. She had thought she wanted a new profile, but once that was realised she realised she wanted a new life.
She wasn’t fucking him then, but it wouldn’t be long.
She’s standing by a waterfall in Scotland, framed on one side by the water cascading to the stream below and on the other by the branches of a hawthorn, the leaves casting green shadows on her red cagoule. We had bought, without thinking, a matching pair and then laughed at what a sad and obvious ‘couple’ we were. Years later we wore them on a boat on the Norfolk Broads, but the joke had ceased to be funny by then. Below the cagoule she’s wearing skinny jeans and light trainers, both soaked from an unexpected downpour. Moments after I have taken the photo her feet fly from under her and she lands, howling with laughter and shock, in the mud. I help her up and her backside is caked, so we walk back down the hill to a place where the water pools and she stands stiffly while I scrape the worst of it off with my bare hands and a piece of bark. We kiss, passionately, our matching red cagoules squeaking against each other as cold water swirls around our ankles. We head back into the woods but can find no patch of ground large, dry or level enough to accommodate us lying down. Instead I bring her standing to a hurried and explosive orgasm with my hand inside her jeans, then she kneels and uses her mouth and hands on me to the same effect.
When we get back to the B&B our clothes are dry but our feet are blistered by wet socks and trainers. We run a hot bath and make love properly, flooding the lino which we mop with the clothes we have just taken off.
Later, in bed, while kissing, I gently bite the bump in her nose, never dreaming for a moment that one day she will steal it away.
As well as the box, I have our wedding album. Bound white leather and gold leaf. I leave that unopened, afraid now of what I might see in her eyes in those shots where her veil is lifted. She swears she wasn’t, but having heard so many lies now I find that impossible to believe. That, more than anything, is the thing I just can’t understand; how the words ‘I do’ can be uttered when their meaning has ceased to have meaning and they’re nothing more than words.
I put her and the waterfall back in the box and replace the lid, knowing now I have to consign everything to the flames. At the time it seemed perfectly natural – someone had to take them after all – but the realisation that I’m not in any of the photographs I love the most seems suddenly too ironic to ignore, the pain of that irony only matched by the mocking ghost of him I see in every one.