The Best Photo I Never Took

That was the best photo I never took. Not the only contender, mind you. I regularly see good shots line up in front of me, falling into pleasing compositions, as the magazines say, waiting for me to record them. I carried a camera round with me to catch those moments. And this was one.

I was walking a few miles outside Town. Trying to lose weight, again. Before I gave up completely. Doctor Flynn had said that walking was the best thing; so walking it was. That's how things are at the start, good intentions and high motivation.

The day had that quiet feeling, like a Sunday afternoon, when everyone seems to be somewhere else. I don't think it was a Sunday but you know what I mean.

I was going at a fair old whack because of the weight business. Also because of that bloody dog that hangs around, the big tan fella. He had taken it into his head to follow me and I had taken it into my head to lose him. Needless to say four legs are better than two and I was having no luck.

Bloating a bit, I grabbed a stick and threw it over the hedge, hoping your man would run for it. Give me a chance to escape.

It wasn't much of a plan. When I looked back to see whether it had worked or not, the dog let me know it hadn’t. Instead of haring off into the field after the stick, he stared at me as if to say "Is that your best shot?"

We stared on at each other for a while. Me catching my breath, the dog waiting. Then, when he was ready, him not me mind, he turned and headed back into town, slow and kind of fed up looking. I can tell you for nothing that failing to impress a stray dog does nothing for the ego. I had got rid of him but when I started walking again I wished he was still there.

Anyway the dog has nothing to do with the photo other than he was there that day. A good half mile on, I heard the shouting. It took me a while to work it out. Whether it was laughing or screaming or whatever.

At first I thought there were women's voices. They sounded a little hysterical. Mixed in with the voices was some other sound, whining, like a chainsaw. Now I'm not much of a one for what they used to call video nasties but I know a fella who's mad for them and every now and again we watch the odd one.

I'm not saying exactly what I thought was going on over the other side of that hedgerow. Only that the words massacre, Texas and chainsaw might have been on my mind. A bloodbath. Just the thing for an afternoon stroll.

I came to a break in the ditch where there was a gatepost but no gate. A big sheet of corrugated tin lay across it, tied on. I leaned over the tin to have a look. My keenly trained country senses hadn't let me down. Except for the fact that there were no females, no chainsaws and not a whole lot of massacring, I was spot on. With that and being condescended to by a dog I was having a great day.

A group of boys, early and mid teens I'd say, about five of them, were horsing around by the side of the river. In the background was a farmer on one of those farty mini-tractor things. What struck me was how photogenic the scene looked.

These fresh clean boys were from everybody's lost summer. Beside them the light shooting off the fast flowing river gave a glow. Their health and life dancing around them. Only the helmeted farmer on his little machine further up the slope dated the shot. Conveniently he was moving away, hauling a tarpaulin, a cape for the tractor.

I reached into the pocket of my tracksuit and fished out the little camera. Then I paused. There was more to this scene, more to come. One of the boys, the oldest I'd guess, made a shape as if to dive into the swollen river. From the yelps around him it was clear this was quite a dare. We'd had massive amount of summer rain before this blast of sunshine and the river was showing the signs of it.

If I moved further along the road, onto the bridge itself I would have an even better shot. I slipped the camera back into my pocket and moved on. As I did I rattled the tin with my foot and caught a half glance of one of the boys looking over toward me.

I decided to have the camera ready by the time I got to the bridge. They would see me soon after I got there. Then any chance of a good shot would be gone. They say timing is everything.

I was right about the view. With the shifting light reflected off the river, the boys were in sharp silhouette. The tractor thing was off to the side, out of shot. Just as I got to the bridge the oldest boy made his leap. He crashed into the inflamed river, his jeans still on but shirt off. As soon as he hit the water he began to swim powerfully back to the bank. He seemed to be swimming in slow motion. The current must have been treacherous. His strokes seemed to do little other than inch him forward but he was a strong lad and he made it in the end.

The challenge was on now for the others. One side of me was thinking that maybe I should call out to them to be careful. I was the adult after all. Another side reminded me that these country boys knew a lot more about this place than me. Anyway they seemed to be under the loose supervision of the farmer further up the field. I should concentrate on taking my picture.

At the precise moment that I put the viewfinder to my eye, one of the boys, the wet older one, turned to look straight at me. I dropped the camera from my eye at moment I should have pressed the shutter release. I nodded in what I hoped was a comfortable friendly fashion.

Another splash distracted me. The challenge had been met. I looked to see the boy in the river flail awhile in mock panic, then clamber out. When I looked back the older boy was still looking right at me. I tightened up.

The boy said something to one of the others, who turned my way. If they were already suspicious of me, then bringing out the camera again wouldn't help. But taking out the camera was the only way to take the picture.

What could happen? I could take the picture. I could not take the picture. Just walk away. I could take my time, frame a series of photographs properly and ignore whatever the boys had to say. I could call down there and say to them "look I just want to take a few shots, if that's ok..." Or I could grow wings, fly to the moon and take some pictures there.

My stomach churned at my stupid inhibitions. I knew that on other occasions I wouldn't have seized up like this. It was too late now. Every action was magnified. I had the sensation of being watched by a thousand judging eyes. Some actual eyes were watching me. The next teenager had emerged from another dive and was looking at me. I knew that I had stood too long. My actions were open to every sort of implication. I wanted to walk away.

My grip on the camera tightened. I would lift it. Frame one shot. Then walk away. I switched on the camera, whose auto sleep function had kicked in. The motor whirred. Prickles of sweat broke out on my palms and at the base of my spine where they grew cold in spite of the warm day. I knew I was hot and red.

I cursed the autofocus. Wished I could override the indecisive whirring. Somebody jumped in the river. Maybe two. All I could see were the boys who had stopped just looking. They were now shouting, gesticulating. I couldn't exactly hear the words they were saying but I had no trouble working out what they meant. I was some kind of pervy old man to them, staring and blushing.

Dropping the camera from my eye, I turned toward Town. I was a combination of anger, frustration and embarrassment. I had turned something good into nothing. Turned that nothing into something pathetic. The boys were still jeering behind me, I could hear. My resentment toward them grew but even then I couldn't convince myself that they were the problem. I was the problem. So hung up and uptight that I couldn't even take a bloody photograph. I looked down at the counter on the camera. It was true. In the fuss I hadn't taken a single frame.

What was wrong with me? Why was I so hamstrung by a set of rules that no one else seemed to know existed? Was there something in my make-up programmed toward self distract? I had the ability to see what to do, to spot the way forward. But also a short circuit that would find the most efficient way of making sure I didn't do whatever it took.

As soon as I reached the signpost at the edge of Town I met my old friend the dog. He was lying under the sign itself and stood up when he saw me. He bent his head and picked up something. It was the stick I had thrown into the field. I nearly cried.

The next morning I saw where my photo should have been. The one I never took. I'd driven the car to The Newsbox since I'd had enough of walking for a while. I picked up the Examiner without looking at it and a dairy milk for later.

Back in the car I saw, on the cover, a picture of a young boy, under a single word: Tragedy.

It was a picture taken at his Confirmation, with the grey stone of the church in the background. The caption said it was a recent photo but I knew when there might have been a more recent one. There might have been one taken only seconds before he drowned.

Or there might not have been any need for a photo if the boys he had been horsing around with had been paying attention when he plucked up the courage to dive. Instead they had been jeering some fat old man on the bridge above them while the river clawed and sucked the boy under in a cold running embrace.

The story spoke of a distraught father, of a double tragedy, a curse even, in that the mother had died years before. The father had been injured when his mini tractor overturned in his rush to the river to help his son.

As I read on I realised I was on my third square of chocolate. Might as well finish the whole bar.

This story was long-listed for the Colm Toibin award at the Wexford Literary Festival.

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