Every photographer hates to think about ‘the one the got away’, the best picture you’ll ever capture in your life that you’ve missed, the spectacular image that has gone for good. A bit like the musician who can never recapture the sound that he once played on the keyboard, never to be recalled, they call it the Lost Chord.
My disastrous failure was the fantastic once-in-a-lifetime view of a huge rainbow over the River Thames I’d seen when driving over Putney Bridge, and by the time I’d found somewhere to park and go back, it had gone.
Then there was also the wonderful snow scene when I was walking on the Yorkshire Dales, but I’d left my camera at the hotel, and by the time I’d run back to get it, the light had gone, and next day the magical white snow was rainy black mush.
Taking photos is my passion as well as my career, and every so often I join with friends to mount an exhibition of our best shots. For a while now I’d been looking for a memorable shot to complete the collection I was planning to mount the following week. I was after the ‘jewel in the crown’, but so far without success.
You see, when a passionate photographer takes a picture he or she grabs hold of a little bit of life, and saves it for ever.
But I want to tell you about the one that didn’t get away. About the best photo I ever took in my life.
I’d been driving through Bracklesham Bay, where I was born and brought up, and that was where I saw those two magical faces, smiling at each other. An old lady and a tiny girl of about five, sharing a moment of joy as they sat together on the bench in the main road in front of the supermarket.
The crazy thing was, that they both had the same face! One elderly and wrinkled, the other pure and smooth, but essentially exactly the same. Same expression, same warmth in the eyes, the same sheer and absolute beauty. A beauty that had nothing to do with sex appeal, a beauty that transcended anything earthly like that.
My guess was that they were grandmother and granddaughter, and those identical faces, that essential beautiful continuity of life, almost moved me to tears.
And somehow, seeing them had stirred a memory from my past, but I couldn’t place it. Something from my childhood, that I couldn’t quite recapture.
The traffic was stationary, so I opened the passenger side window, pick up my camera from the seat, and took the shot, all in one smooth, sweet-as-perfection moment. I fired a couple more, but the camera wouldn’t work. For some reason the battery was completely drained, which was odd because it had been fully charged a moment before.
The hooting of the car behind alerted me to the fact that I was holding up the traffic, and when I drove off and tried to look back, the pair had gone.
“Oi! Get a move on, mate!” yelled the driver who overtook me just then, glaring through the window. He instantly looked away when he saw my face. It’s a reaction I’m well used to by now. A look, a scowl of shock, then instantly turning away. Having a large livid red birthmark all over the right side of my face and horrid shrivelled skin around one eye, used to be a source of shame, but now I’m used to people’s shocked, embarrassed reactions.
I’ve grown up knowing the full gamut of sheer cruelty that children are capable of. ‘Strawberry face’, ‘Splurt’ or ‘Blotch’ were quaint descriptions of my disfigurement by my classmates, and if I’d taken the nicknames to heart I might have been one of life’s casualties. But my mother had told me to just accept it, take no notice, laugh it off, and so I had, with the result that because I refused to make it an issue, no one else did. As a result I’ve always had plenty of friends, a good career, and it hasn’t held me back in life at all.
Except of course in the most important area of anyone’s existence. As you can imagine, I’ve never had any luck with girls. I’ll never forget Felicity Purbright, the most beautiful girl in my class when I was thirteen, who all of us boys were in love with. One day I met her outside the classroom and she laughingly told me that: “No girl will ever look at you, Billy Doyle, you’re a one-man freak show! You’ll end up as a lonely old man!”
I never forgot her words.
However, Felicity had been wrong. One little girl had looked at me. And, after I had pulled in at the side of the road, changed the power pack in the camera and studied the picture I’d just taken, I realised that the little girl I’d just photographed had been the image of my childhood girlfriend, little Alice.
Perhaps because I’m one of life’s victims, I’ve always had an empathy with animals, particularly animals that are suffering. Once, when I was walking to school, I saw a bird with a broken wing in the hedge, and knelt down to pick it up. A little girl of my own age, Alice, joined me, and together, we walked into town and took it to a vet’s. All the way there, little Alice had never stopped chattering, and I fell in love with her. The receptionist had been kind, and taken the bird. I met up with Alice a couple of times later, but then her family moved away and I never saw her again.
Until now. The little girl in the photo was the image of Alice, as I had known her twenty years ago. Had she grown up and had a child of her own, I wondered?
As I pulled back onto the main road, I had the irresistible urge to turn down the side turning, that led to the place where Alice and I had found the injured bird all those years ago.
Then, just around the bend, I saw the crashed cars.
Judging by the black smoke going up to the sky it had been a recent collision. I parked, then jumped out to see if I could help.
One of the wrecked cars was empty, but in the other I could see the lady driver slumped behind the airbag, and there was movement in the back seats. I could see that even more smoke was pouring out of the car’s bonnet, so there was no time to lose.
I fetched the hammer I had in my boot, and ran across to the crashed car.
“Hey, you idiot, don’t go near, it could burst into flames, the emergency services will be here any moment!” a woman onlooker called out as I passed her.
Smashing the window and opening the door and releasing the seatbelt was easy. I slid my hands under the unconscious woman’s knees and behind her back and eased her out, aware of the screams of the child in the back, whom I ran back to fetch after I had laid the lady on the pavement. I rescued the little girl just as flames licked out from under the bonnet, smoke shooting up to the sky and a few seconds after we were yards away, the car erupted into a fireball. I remembered seeing a wheelchair on the seat beside the screaming child, and had noticed that her poor little arms were just tiny stumps.
An hour later I was still at the hospital, where they had been taken.
“Do you know her?” asked the nurse as I looked down at the woman I had rescued. She was on a hospital trolley and to my amazement I could see that she bore a startling resemblance to my childhood friend, Alice, the child in the photograph.
“I think I used to know her, a long time ago,” I told her. “But I’m sure she wouldn’t remember me.”
“You risked your life to save her. And her disabled daughter wouldn’t have had a hope of getting out in time if you hadn’t been so brave. I know she’ll want to thank you when she wakes up, and I’d be glad to pass on your number.” She moved closer to me. “The police say she isn’t married or with a partner, she’s on her own.”
“Believe me, no woman wants to have anything to do with me,” I reassured the nurse, pointing to my horrific face. “Nice girls sometimes feel sorry for me, they go out with me out of pity, but I don’t want that. And this lady will feel grateful to me, obliged to be nice, and there’s really no need, I wouldn’t want to put her in such a difficult position. I was just glad I was in the right place at the right time. Just tell her I rushed away as soon as the ambulance came.”
She nodded sadly.
Back in the car I looked at the photo again, marvelling at the strangeness of it all.
That was when I noticed that the supermarket in the background was named Sainsbury’s, whereas it had been taken over by Lidl twenty years ago. I suddenly remembered that in one of Alice’s long chattering talks she had told me about her lovely Grandma, who had always been a big part of her life. . .
As I started up the engine, I pondered on what a crazy morning it had been.
I knew I had made the right decision, not to have left my contact details with anyone at the hospital.
Events today would just have to go down as one of the weird unexplainable occasions in my life, and I would always be glad that I had managed to save those lives this morning, and that was more than a result as far as I was concerned. After all, how many people can say they’ve saved someone’s life?
The text come onto my phone just as I was nearing home. I parked by the roadside to read it.
Billy, the nurse recognised you as the photographer who was at the opening of the new ward last year, and I got your number through the newspaper you work for. I don’t know what happened exactly this morning, but after the crash while I was unconscious I dreamed about my dead Granny and about you, and how I never forgot our times together as children and wished we could have stayed friends. You need to know that Ellie, my daughter, is mentally and physically handicapped, and she will always be dependent on me, and she will always come first in my life. But if you’d like to see me again, I really really want to see you, and, believe me, it’s not just because I’m grateful for what you did today. I never forgot you, and over the years I’ve often thought about you and longed to meet you again, because I never forgot your kindness. And I guess that must be why I dreamed about you when I was close to death. I understand that most men wouldn’t want to be involved with a divorced woman with a dependant disabled child, but I’m hoping you’re not one of those men. Billy, please phone me. Please.
It was the last ‘please’ that got me. I found myself crying uncontrollably. And as I looked out of the window I saw the most glorious rainbow forming above the cornfield, there were some spectacular colourful birds in the trees and I could see that it was easily the most wonderful shot I would ever catch in my life.
In fact it was the perfect shot to be the absolute jewel in the crown for my forthcoming exhibition.
But I didn’t even bother to pick up the camera.
Because I’d already captured the most important image that I would ever take in my life. . .
(Image by Stefan Keller, from Pixabay )