Nuala O'Connor_In Which I learn (1)

In Which I Learn Something from Something, At Last

I was the one who took the photograph of the princess with her toes in the mouth of a man who was not her husband. I didn’t mean to take it. I was sent to pap them and I did not want to be there, not one bit. It had been a long day and a hard one.

I leaned against the fence of the property, camera balanced on the rail because I was tired, and the sticky-dust feeling of tragedy coated my skin and was under my nails and on my tongue. I’d spent the afternoon hovering by the pond below Crickle Falls Resort, based on reports of a drowning. Sure enough, two tiny bodies were pulled from the water late in the afternoon. Two little girls – sisters – who had strayed from their holiday cabin and ended up in the pond who-knows-how, their deaths the work of a few idle moments. And they were just about the most beautiful kids I’d ever seen – their Mom was Chinese, the Dad Norwegian, I heard later. They looked like they were sleeping, lying there on the mudbank, cuddled together. I took not one single shot. I turned away and came home, and when I called him, Jerry was mad at me. Then he said there were rumours that the princess was here, of all places.

I said, “Count me right out, Jerry.”

And he said, “Lisa, take this, it could be big. Besides, you owe me.”

I cursed him and kissed my own two girls fiercely, before driving out to the perimeter of the house the princess was allegedly renting. The sun was about to slip behind the mountain and the air was warm and crickety, and I remembered that the princess had two little girls too, and I chewed over this fact and wondered if they used doilies and teapots at home, and where they were right now, and who was looking out for them, and I reckoned they were safe in some castle in England or someplace. I wondered, too, about the kind of mother who goes to a foreign country, for leisure, without her children, but with a man who is not their father, and I knew that that would never be me, even if I wanted such a thing. I thought about the Mom and Dad of the drowned girls and shook my head and tried to fathom their sorrow, the true morass of it, but failed. And then I saw the princess, golden and smiling by the pool in a white swimsuit. She lay back on a lounger and the man was stretched out below her and he lifted one of her feet and put it right into his mouth.

Click click click.

The world felt like a very sad and stupid place that day. Later, at home, when I looked at the princess on my screen, it occurred to me that her life might actually be happy, in spite of everything, and she was likely relieved to be on vacation and out of the way of reality. And I thought, This photograph could get this woman into a heap of trouble. I waited a bit and considered going to bed and I thought of the princess’s far-away girls, and the two dead girls, and my own precious girls. And though now I really wish that I hadn’t, I pressed send.

Nuala O’Connor lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. In 2019 she won the James Joyce Quarterly competition to write the missing story from Dubliners, ‘Ulysses’. Her fourth novel, Becoming Belle, was recently published to critical acclaim in in the US, Ireland, and the UK. Her forthcoming novel is about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce. Nuala is editor at flash e-zine Splonk.

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