Towards the end of the school holidays, Amanda takes the first photographs of herself. She does this because, after a few glasses of wine, she realises that it has been five years since she last had sex. Five years since a man kissed her with passion. It has been longer since she has felt love.
There is something about the number five, it seems more complete than four. Five years. She also noticed during the preceding winter, as she went to work wrapped in coat and scarf, that men no longer looked at her. Not that she’d ever been the type of woman that men openly admired. There had always been something hesitant about her; she held herself apart. But she wasn’t without a type of beauty, and there had been men who’d found her attractive – normally shy, quiet men; yet now even they no longer credit her a second look.
Amanda is forty-five years old; she lives alone. She has not gained weight; her hair is no greyer than it had been when she was forty. What has changed? Has she muted for so long the words that describe her, letting them fade like the memory of pain? Does this show? At night, she chokes on what she cannot say during the day. She wants to say, touch me, someone touch me. And sometimes when she comes home, she is shocked by the smell of her apartment. It’s her smell, she realises – which normally she doesn’t notice – and suddenly it fills her nostrils with its sour, caustic odour, and she is sickened by herself.
But one Saturday night, after drinking a bottle of wine and watching a DVD, she remembers a man called Ian with whom she had once been in love, in her early twenties. He had liked to take photographs of her while she was naked. She had found it thrilling; she had been so proud of her young body. She had photographed him too, but she had destroyed them long ago. She remembers one, in particular: the smooth arc of his penis, the narrow taper of his waist. She dreams of this image occasionally.
It is easier now, she thinks, with digital cameras. Once, to develop the photographs, she would have had to take them to a store, and some places refused to develop them – they put a note in the packet. But at those that did, the people behind the counter always smirked, and she understood immediately that they knew; they had looked at the photographs. She feels the bite of shame now, but back then all she could think of was Ian’s thin, waspish body, and her own, and their two bodies together. But with a digital camera, she thinks, I can try many different angles. I can download them onto my computer and see how they look straight away, and no one will ever know.
Amanda, forty-five, removes her clothes. She stops at her waist, she sees the way the line of her underwear hangs above her jeans: blue against white against skin. She takes photographs of herself from the front, from each side, from behind. Then she removes her jeans, and her underwear. She takes more photographs, and then downloads them onto her computer. She examines her body on the screen; it is like she is looking at a secret. Her breasts sag, each nipple spreading across the apogee of her flesh in elongated ovals. She sees the fat about her hips, her strong thighs and her precise calves. The lines of grey in her hair catch the light like chalk marks on a blackboard. Thin lines, white and fine as a spider’s web, the skin about her eyes. The photographs scare her and excite her; she remembers how it felt when Ian made love to her, how his penis felt inside her; she hasn’t thought about him for years, but unexpectedly it’s like it was only days ago that his hands were on her. She lies on her front, moves her hand down between her legs; and after she comes, she gets up and deletes the photographs from her computer.
Sam Tolhurst’s parents are divorced and Sam lives with his mother, seeing his father occasionally on weekends. Normally only Sam’s mother arranges a parent–teacher interview, but this time Sam’s father has organised one with Amanda as well, hours after Sam’s mother has come and gone, so as not to run into her.
Amanda waits in the corridor; Mr Tolhurst is due after the McPhersons. She sees him arrive. Instantly she knows it is him; he stops for a moment at the far end of the corridor, puts his hands into his pockets, takes them out. He is a small man, with an angular body. His shoulders are curved, as if twin points of weight were tied to the place where the scapula met the clavicle, pulling his shoulders down towards the earth. She watches him walk along the corridor, slowing at each door, looking quickly at the numbers. When he reaches her, she smiles at him warmly; his expression is sad, attenuated. Amanda knows that he lives in a small, rented apartment, and that Sam doesn’t like going over to stay. She feels an immediate empathy for him, and offers him her hand. His grip is loose and wet.
‘Come in, Mr Tolhurst,’ she says, motioning him inside. He sits awkwardly on the small plastic chair. Amanda sits next to him, pulling Sam’s file out of a pile. For some reason she is aware of his body. A slightly acidic smell emanates from his skin.
‘I’m glad to finally meet you,’ she says. ‘Sam’s a wonderful little boy, you should be very proud of him.’
‘Thank you,’ says Mr Tolhurst. ‘I am.’ A hopeful smile doesn’t quite take shape about his lips. ‘I don’t get to see him as much as I’d like. But his mother does a good job, I know.’
Again that shape about his lips, verging on a smile, and he looks away vaguely, at some of the children’s artwork.
‘I like those,’ he says.
The rest of the interview passes quickly. He is polite and interested in Sam’s work. He asks all the right questions. How can he help at home, what extra things does Sam need to practise. He promises he will do all he can. He is in no way bitter, like some of the divorced fathers she has met over the years, but there is an awful resignation in his voice. At the interview’s end, when he shakes her hand again, he maintains the connection for a moment too long, before quickly dropping her hand and turning away. She watches him shuffle away down the long beige corridor.
It takes Amanda time to understand that she has decided to do something rather unethical. She does it one night after the children have gone home and she is alone in the school, except for the cleaner buffing the linoleum in the corridor. She takes Sam Tolhurst’s folder out of the filing cabinet and flicks through the papers until she finds his personal details. His mother’s address and phone number are listed, and so are his father’s. She realises that Mr Tolhurst lives near her; she actually passes his apartment on her way home. She writes down his address and phone number on a Post-it note, and slips it into her jeans. The note nestles against the fabric of her pocket. She feels safer knowing that it’s there, almost as if he had given it to her – Here, my phone number, maybe we could get together for a drink sometime…
Later, she sits on the bus. She stares out at the night, at the bodies of the people on the street, and her own reflection. The darkness is another world. It swallows everyone. Cars motion forward from out of the dark, obscenely lurid, until the lights pulling them through the night blur and the faces of the residents inside glisten like Barbie dolls. The bus nears his street; she feels the weight of the Post-it note in her pocket. She tries to see the numbers of the houses – she knows he lives in an apartment block. There is one approaching, on the left. That’s the one, she thinks, though she can’t see the number. She doesn’t get off – she doesn’t stand in the dark outside his apartment and try to work out which windows are his. Not this time. This time, it is enough to pass his building, and imagine him in there somewhere, perhaps nestled in his rooms, listening to music.
When she gets home she takes photographs of herself. She sticks the Post-it note with his address and phone number near the computer and looks from the pale yellow square to the images on her screen. She has become a stranger to herself, but there is, in this new shape, something undefinable. A yearning, or a hope, or a rippling space to fill.
For nothing much happens to Amanda anymore. All her days are the same; they can be interchanged one with another. She has allowed habit to develop, to make her feel safe in the city’s unhinged streets, and the only days that are different are the days when she takes photographs of herself. She does this once or twice a week now. At first, she isn’t sure why she does it. And then, one night, she realises that when she is looking at the photographs, she is pretending, through some curious self-deception, that she is a man looking at her naked body; that her arousal is his arousal.
This realisation comes to her on the night when, for the first time, she gets off the bus early and walks past Mr Tolhurst’s apartment. It is dark, and she stops opposite his block. She crosses the road, and goes to the letterboxes bricked into the wall lining the front garden. She pictures him at his letterbox, bending over to look for mail, which he never gets, except for bills and junk mail. She places her hand against the cold metal. It occurs to her that they are, after a fashion, touching.
She is in class when the idea suggests itself. The children are working and she is sitting at her desk, looking first at the children and then to the window. She is imagining things happening beyond the grass, dying in patches for want of rain, beyond the bushes and the high wire fence and the street. But none of them are happening to her. So when the idea surfaces in her mind, she feels a rush of excitement: she will do it tonight. Amanda spends the rest of the day thinking about positions and poses. Sometimes she does not think she will do it. Sometimes she is disgusted with herself. Her hands shake, and she can’t concentrate on what the children say when they bring their work to her, seeking approval.
On her way home, Amanda gets off the bus early and walks past his apartment, planning the best way to approach it when she returns later that night. She is aware of her naked body under her clothes. As she stands in the twilight, she longs to know the interior of his apartment, his life; the furniture in his room, the people he talks to, the television shows he considers important enough to record, whether there are books in his rooms, how he takes his tea.
She walks home quickly. Her hands keep slipping into her pockets. She brushes her fingers against her breasts. She pushes her hands back into her pockets. Inside her apartment she turns on the heater and makes herself wait until the rooms are warm. She charges her camera’s battery.
She has been imagining all kinds of elaborate poses, like those she has seen in fashion magazines, but in the end she decides to take only a few simple shots. She takes photographs of her body from front on. In some, she stands up straight; to make her breasts seem firmer. But she can’t hide the fact that they sag, and so she holds her breasts out with her hands, like she is offering them to the viewer. But these, she decides, are too lurid. Amanda then takes photographs from her right side and left side. She is unable to conceal the rash spreading across the underside of her left breast. She never shows her face. She drinks wine and spends hours deciding on the best three photographs. These she prints off. She puts them in an envelope, and seals it.
It’s late when she walks to his house. She passes an old man walking a dog, and a shiver ripples her skin. After arriving at the apartment building, she stands for a long time in the dark. She tries to consider logically the consequences of what she is about to do, but the light detachment of drunkeness prevents her. Besides, no one will ever know. She takes a breath, the air is cold and citric in her lungs; she thinks how lovely and clear the night is, and she feels a pulse of excitement run through her. She looks about; there is no one in sight. She hurries forward, drops the envelope into his letterbox, and continues down the road.
She is halfway home when a sudden anxiety bites at her. What if she dropped the envelope in the wrong letterbox? She is frozen by indecision, before she turns back. At his apartment block, she looks into the letterbox and there she sees her envelope, hidden in darkness. She lifts it out, letting the white edge rest on the lip of metal, so he will see it when he walks past.
Amanda wakes to the touch of soft, featherlike strokes against her skin; a moth, nesting in her sheets and disturbed by a chance movement of her body. She opens her eyes. Within her field of vision is an empty wine bottle on its side, resting on her bedside table. Next to it stands a glass. Her nightie is unbuttoned, and the smell of spilled wine driven sour by the heat is pungent. Through the window she can see a bird, rising on shifting currents of air. The bird climbs into the sky and falls, and then climbs once more.
Amanda dresses and goes outside. The city in the distance is as white as chalk; puddles pool up in the gutter like mottled bruises on a woman’s thigh; when did it rain? It is quite late in the day, and the sun is unbearable; she moves her shoulders to lift the wet shirt away from her back before returning inside. But she still feels uneasy, moving around the apartment, tidying. The empty wine bottles on the kitchen floor fill two plastic shopping bags. Dishes are washed and dried and put away, and then she stands at the sink, her head resting against the window. In the distance she can see the housing commission flats. She thinks about what she has done – it lies across her skin like physical violence. What can be made of such an impulsive act, these terrible cracks that knot her life? The thought comes from nowhere, that she has in some way deceived herself, and all of a sudden it is as if she cannot trust the shudder and heave of her own body.