Cain possessed one grainy photograph. An image like no other, it enthralled his eye. A laminate mystery. Everyday it forced its way into his mind. Not obnoxiously; deviously, at the most inappropriate of times. He’d be as he was today, applying himself to his ordinary business, only for his thoughts to drift to that little rectangle of colour under a slight veneer.
Its details played on his mind. Thoughts, notions and queries sprung from every conceivable point on his mental compass. Bringing him closer and closer to a climax of pure curiosity. Who had operated the camera? Was it on a timed delay? Or was it too old for such technology? Had it been analogue, self-contained film? Or the digital capturing of light into bits? Why this location? Why this hour of day? Was it one of a set? Did it fit into a panorama? Inquiries surfaced like rising suns on the dawning days of his imagination. Inquiries that were by no means chronological or ordinal. Thoughts whizzing in from every conceivable angle, even when words may only suggest otherwise.
Despite its puzzle, he enjoyed the perpetual interruption to his thoughts. He always maintained that there was something reassuring in that photograph. A warm undercurrent that brought him calm and perspective in the face of other troubles.
For the circumstances that surrounded it, and all the questions it conjured, he would smile to himself and marvel that more questions were left un-thought and unanswered. ‘What wonders would other minds conjure from his little image?’ he regularly thought. Yet he was not inclined to share his mystery, his pocket puzzle. And if there was some technical detail, tedious or otherwise, that he’d neglected, he would be the one to uncover it! That was his joy. That was the sugar syrup he poured over the starchy tasks of his days.
‘A photograph could only ever show what it meant to show,’ he thought. And for all his other speculations, that reassured him. ‘Yes, one day I’ll know what this is. Where it’s from. Maybe, it’ll even be something I remember, something from my past, a place I’ve forgotten in my muddling age,’ Cain thought with cautious curiosity. He shook his head, and rubbed his eyes, as if to work the dust and cobwebs loose from the sitting parliament of his conscious. His face turned briefly blank. ‘Perhaps it’s better this way? Better that I have no memory, no knowledge? The mystery is exciting. Fun!’ he thought, unsettled by the possibility, and the lint loosed by the mental movement.
Ripening in the midday heat Cain tended the Senior’s Village communal garden, his mind wandering. His hands red with bulging tomatoes and workboots garnishing in basil, mint and rosemary. His mind red with exertions and garnished by migratory curiosity.
“You’re still thinking about that damn photo aren’t you?” asked Albert.
Albert held an intimate knowledge of his aging friend. His mind a colour coded filing cabinet, each drawer labelled with the meaning to a facial expression or shoulder shrug. He was a comprehensive man, either that, or a boring man.
“Albert, why’d you even ask?” laughed Cain. “You already know the answer!”
“In the vague hope you’d given up trying to figure it out,” said Albert. “Just let it be, chalk it up to senility and leave it be!”
“A bureaucrat telling me to leave unfinished business unfinished?” joked Cain.
“You still are then?” said Albert, feigning interest.
“Of course,” smiled Cain. “Why not? What if it means something?”
“Means something? What could a photo mean? It’s a photo, just look at it. Frame it! Who cares! It’s a photo!” snapped Albert.
“I’d rather enjoy the mystery, how many people do you know have a mystery in their pocket?” smirked Cain.
“Fine, forget it!” said Albert.
Cain glanced at his friend, pulling weeds with vigour. ‘Albert’s never enjoyed abstract figuring out, he’d rather rigour out a set of numbers,’ he thought. ‘He acts peeved, but he’s not built for this kind of mystery. He’d much rather have the answers, too much ambiguity and he’ll break out in spots,’ Cain jived. Absent-mindedly stepping out the herb and vegetable bed there came a rip, leather caught in the surrounding thicket.
“Shit!” yelled Cain.
“What’ve you done now?” asked Albert, not halting his hostilities with the weeds.
“That’s me for today,” said Cain, wiping sweat from his brow.
Cain laid the freshly sunned tomatoes on the counter top, stopping to affectionately squeeze Violet on the arm as she read from her choice of magazine. In the distant past a beauty, but nicotine and ultra-violet had played their part in extracting the vitality from Violet’s cheeks.
“More tomatoes?” she noticed. Violet smelt like a chalk board, and when she spoke had the screeching voice to match nails across it.
“Mhm,” mumbled Cain, fumbling with the loose threads no longer tethering his boot’s upper and sole.
Violet leant from her seat to survey his haul, and in leaning, noticed the tear along the seams of his boot.
“What’s that garden been getting you to do?” asked Violet, a devious sparkle in her eye. “Getting a bit clingy is it?”
“You could say that!” replied Cain. “No, it’s entirely my fault, not paying enough attention.”
“Fancy that,” smirked Violet. “That photo’s starting to piss me off. I found that dirty picture of yours in your trouser pockets last week!” she scolded.
“Woops! Sorry,” he said. “I like having it with me.”
“What are you? A child with a security blanket?” snapped Violet. “Throw it away or frame it, don’t leave it in your pockets, it’s filthy and it’s making your clothes filthy!”
“Oh, come now Violet dear, you’re being melodramatic.” replied Cain, absently thumbing his gaping boot wider and wider.
“Stop that,” said Violet, grapping Cain’s offending hand and pecking it lightly. “If you head to the cobbler now they might be able to save that boot. Over on Woodrose and Granger St. He used to do my shoes.”
“Will do,” replied Cain, absently thumbing through his pocket for his keys and wallet, and only settling, reassuringly, on the photo.
Cain stepped from the heat into the dark box labelled “Dabney’s – Key Cutter and Cobbler”. A box holding for dear life onto the corner of Woodrose and Granger Streets, little more in size than a coffin. Dark and cold as the depth of six foot, lined with keys, watches, leather and heels of all descriptions. A rotund man crammed in a not so distant corner looked, and smelt, like a walrus taken from the nearest zoo and rolled in a fine dust of baker’s cinnamon. His hidden hands filled at some rotisseriing oddity. Cain knocked for attention, and service for his broken commodity. The cobbler turned, his walrus body revealing a face like a slapped arse.
“Excuse me… uh… sir? Could you take a look at these boots?” asked Cain.
“Names Virgil, Virgil Dabney,” replied the cobbler, gesturing to Cain for the busted boot. “Aye, lemme see ’em.”
“Thank you, uh, Virgil,” said Cain.
“Aye, shouldn’t take long,” mumbled Virgil, setting his tools in motion.
“My wife… Violet… um, Violet Schuler tells me that you used to do her shoes?” Cain put forward politely.
“Vi? Really?” said Virgil, speaking into the needle working its way through the leather. “That’s a mighty long time ago, how’s she?”
“She’s well, thanks.” said Cain, as Virgil turned holding the mended boot.
“That’ll be $60,” calculated Virgil. “But for you, $50.”
“Thank you,” said Cain, emptying his pockets of possessions onto the countertop, searching for his wallet. Noticing the interesting square of colour Virgil shifted the photograph idly for a better view.
“Where’d you get this,” he asked, concern emanating from his voice box and onto his eyebrows.
“Uh, that… that’s a long story, and I’m not even sure where it begins,” discarded Cain, as he fumbled for his cash.
“Yes. Yes it is,” replied Virgil. “Because you shouldn’t have it.”
“What?” Cain brushed off, cash in hand. “What do you mean?”
“Mate, that’s my back…” said Virgil, picking up and probing the photo with a careful gaze. “Yeah, that’s some skin, used to be on my back.”
Cain could not muster a fluster, the revelation had blustered him blank, his face transmuted to stupefied flesh, sagging at the hinges.
“But… but…” he protested weakly.
“Yeah, I’d recognise that anywhere, that’s a melanoma I had removed twelve years ago,” said Virgil. “Was well fucking painful! Was a special case, Doc said it was the biggest he’d ever seen! I dunno how you got your hands on it?”
Cain creaked out the coffin of a corner-store and into the offensive heat, piercing right through his bald scalp and blistering his very being. His mind felt like a kitchen with each and every appliance turned full throttle, all whizzing, buzzing, whirring and heating simultaneously. His toes itched and he wanted to run, but his body croaked and sank in the sun, as if to melt into the pavement in the hopes of evaporating and reappearing somewhere very far away. Preferably somewhere where mysteries were forbidden.
‘There’s no way…it… it… can’t be true,’ he bargained. ‘No, there’s no way he’s telling the truth. I mean, how did I get a picture of someone else’s medical records anyway?’ But Cain had seen the proof, Virgil’s raw fleshy back, with large surgical scar, that matched the photograph. That disgusting hairy back was no landscape, it was a disgusting hairy back and that is what the sweaty image clasped in his hand still framed, and would always frame.
‘God damn it,’ Cain thought. ‘What do I do with this now? What do I say to Violet? She’ll know some thing’s up! She’ll laugh and tease, but I know she’ll mean no harm.’ Cain sighed a deep sigh, ‘Fucking Albert though, he’ll have a field day, he’ll laugh and laugh and laugh. One of us will be in the grave before I live this down, and knowing his bloody diet, it’ll be a while yet!’ Cain drew in that hairy back masquerading as an unknown landscape, foreign and, at least previously, enchanting. Now only sickening, a mystery ripened passed fruition, ripened to full term decay. ‘What do I do with this fucking thing now? Throw it out? They’ll know, they’ll ask! “What happened to your treasured picture Cain? What happened to your pocket mystery Cain? Getting even more senile are you Cain? Is your mystery now a mystery Cain?” Cain mimed their mockery. He surveyed the street for a bin. ‘Maybe it’d be best to just throw it away? Maybe I don’t need it any more. I guess it’s shattered, broken, all the fun sucked out of it by that leathery walrus-hide bastard!’ Feeling his world replaced by a wind tunnel set to full blast, blowing the enjoyment and fun from his very core, Cain hovered by the trash, immobile. Eyes trapped in gluey hesitancy and his hovering hand’s grip firm. Ever so curiously firm about the picture he swiftly squashed into the lint lined pit of his pocket.