by Chesney Parker
Larry Wingate groped feebly at the bedclothes. It had become very cold in his room, but he stubbornly refused to call the nurse to turn up the heat. She would almost certainly give him more of those infernal drugs and he was still reeling from the morning’s dosage. He hated the dizzy, listless feeling they inflicted upon him, but most of all he hated the delusions they created in his mind.
He looked with fondness at the old sepia photograph on the wall. It was an Australian bushland scene showing two timber-cutters toiling away with an enormous cross cut saw. Smoke drifted gently up from the chimney of a rough wooden cabin in the background. The two men had been engaged in their motionless exertion for nearly eighty years. That’s how long the photograph had been in the family.
The heavy-set man on the far side of the huge log was Larry’s grandfather. He had been looking directly at the camera when the photo was taken and the grim determination in his eyes had always been an inspiration to Larry. That look always seemed to challenge him to do better every time he looked at the scene. And he had done better; better than his grandfather could ever have hoped for. But, despite his successful business career, Larry was now bedridden and dying, and there was nothing he could do about it. He stared back at his grandfather’s defiant eyes and wished he could somehow continue to meet that challenge.
As he gazed at that timeworn photograph, he noticed the edges of the frame were beginning to shimmer, then the whole scene began to swim dizzily before his eyes. Once again he cursed the drugs that trickled through his veins. Yesterday it had been the old mirror on the dressing table that had been the focal point of his daily delusions. It had suddenly changed shape. Then it had started showing him reflections of things that were not in the room; things that were grotesque and unrecognisable monstrosities.
That experience had lasted nearly an hour and, although he hated the sight of those drug induced images, he could not tear his eyes away from the horror in the looking glass. Today he felt just as helpless as the images in the photo began to twist and change. He thumped his fists in futile frustration, but he could not bring himself to look away.
Then the shimmering stopped, except at the edges of the frame, and the picture became sharp and clear. The scene also took on a more natural colour and began to animate. Slowly at first, then more quickly, the steel saw began to grind backwards and forwards as it cut its way deeper and deeper into the massive log. Fascinated, Larry sat up and looked more closely at this strange apparition.
The scene was up to normal speed now, and he saw his grandfather’s muscular shoulders budge as he pushed and pulled the massive blade through the tough red-gum log. The detail was so clear now that he could actually see the sawdust spewing out on each side of the cut and the sweat dripping from his grandfather’s brow. He also became aware of the sound of cicadas singing in the trees and the heady smell of the eucalyptus fumes which emanated from the sun drenched forest.
Just then, the door to Larry’s room opened and in walked the nurse, followed by Larry’s daughter and her seven year old son. The sudden intrusion snapped Larry back to reality and his muscles jerked involuntarily, causing him to make a small grunting noise as he looked across at his visitors.
“My goodness! It’s cold in here,” said the nurse. “Why didn’t you call me?” She walked swiftly over to the heater and turned it up to maximum.
Young Timmy ran over and jumped up onto the bed. “When are you gonna get up Grandpa?”
“Hush Timmy,” said his mother. “Grandpa’s still very sick. And get off the bed; you’ll disturb him”
“No he won’t,” said Larry. “Come here, my lad. How about a kiss for your old Grandpa?” He reached out with unsteady hands to grab Timmy as he bounded up the bed.
“Ooo. You’re all scratchy,” said Timmy, rubbing his cheek.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Carpenter,” said the nurse. “I couldn’t get him to shave this morning.”
“Oh, Dad! You really should be more cooperative, you know. You mustn’t let yourself go like this. It’s not good for you. Here, I’ve brought you some fruit.” She emptied the contents of a plastic bag into a large wooden bowl beside the bed, then added, “You haven’t even touched what I brought you the other day. You really should take more care of yourself.”
“Yes, you’re quite right dear,” he said, but he was not looking at his daughter, he was smiling at his grandson.
Timmy jumped off the bed and ran to the dressing table. “Can I look through your telescope again Grandpa?”
“Of course you can. Give it here and I’ll adjust it for you.”
“No. I can do it,” said Timmy, restful of adult intrusion. It reminded Larry of how he had been in his youth; determined to succeed, no matter what the odds were.
As Timmy struggled with the delicate instrument, his mother said, “Now you be careful with that. It cost your Grandpa a lot of money.” But Larry was not concerned about that at all. He was more interested in the photograph on the wall, because, when he looked back at it now, he saw that all motion had stopped and the wood cutters were back in their original sepia pose. His delusions did not normally stop so suddenly. Maybe he was getting better, he thought. Then he felt the pain in his side and knew this was not so.
The conversation droned on for some time. It was always the same. He resented being treated like an invalid, even though he was one. While they talked, he watched Timmy playing with the telescope. Larry wished he could do something to help the boy along in life, but he knew he would not be around long enough to do any more than he had and that saddened him.
He felt that if there was one thing worth living for, it was Timmy. He adored that boy; partly because he saw so much of himself in the lad and partly because Timmy had such boundless energy. Some of it always rubbed off on Larry whenever the boy came to visit.
Pondering the problem of what to do for Timmy, he suddenly interrupted his daughter, “Janie. Do me a favour. Make sure Timmy gets Granddad’s old photo over there when I’m gone. It’s not in the will, but I’d like him to have it.”
“Oh really Dad! Don’t talk like that. The doctor says you’re going to be fine.” The smile on her face was forced, which did not surprise Larry. She knew the truth, just as well as he did.
When they had gone, Larry settled back against the pillows and picked up the book he had been trying to read for the last week. He found his place and started reading, then had to flick back a couple of pages to pick up the drift of the story again. After only a few paragraphs, however, his attention was caught by some movement on the other side of the room. The photograph was beginning it’s eerie animation again.
He cursed quietly and tossed the book aside, vowing to speak with the nurse about the drugs she kept feeding him. Dying was one thing, but insanity was quite another. A man should be allowed a certain amount of dignity at a time like this. Death, itself, did not actually frighten him. He had come to terms with that, long ago.
The shimmering effect around the frame of the photo was much more pronounced this time, but the view inside the frame was just as clear as before. And now a new element entered; the whole vista began to shift, as if it was being taken by a video camera that was panning slowly to the right.
Larry’s Grandfather and his partner at the log moved slowly out of view, while the old cabin, which had always just peeped into the picture from the right, now came into full view, complete with a large pile of wood against the side wall and two dogs chewing on bones outside the back door. At this point, the panning stopped and Larry watched in fascination as a woman came out of the back door carrying a large kettle. As she walked towards the stream, a short distance down the slope, he realised that it was his grandmother. He recognised her from the old photographs his father had shown him many years earlier. Larry never knew her, for she had died before he was born, but he remembered that his grandfather often referred to her with great love and affection.
She continued walking, but before she reached the stream, the shimmering around the frame of the photograph began to fade and as the last of it disappeared, the scene suddenly snapped back to its original inanimate version. Apparently the drugs were wearing off and his delusory state was dissipating. He sank back on the pillows, feeling very tired, but he was also somewhat disappointed that the show had ended. Soon after that he was asleep.
The next day, when the nurse came to give him his medication, he surprised her by his lack of resistance. In fact, he was almost eager to receive the injection, which was quite a contrast to his usual performance. He also happily agreed to shave. She probably thought these were symptoms of an improvement in his condition, which was correct, in a way, but she had no idea of the reason for his turn around. The source of Larry’s change of heart, of course, was his eagerness to return to his delusion of the day before. It no longer scared or irritated him.
He realised it was probably just wishful thinking to expect the exact same delusion to occur two days running, for that had never happened in the past, but the chance of seeing more of his grandparents was more than enough to keep his optimism high.
It was not until after lunch that he began to feel the familiar dizziness which normally preceded his delusions. By this time, however, he was feeling quite gloomy, having convinced himself that he was being stupidly naive to expect that he could simply pick up the previous day’s performance, as if it really was a movie or a video. But now that ‘the time’ had arrived, he sat up and stared intently at the photograph, willing the phenomenon to occur again with all his ailing strength.
And suddenly, there it was again. First the frame, and then the whole picture, began to shimmer like the horizon does on a hot summer’s day in the outback. Larry was delighted. He tried to sit up higher in bed, but the pain in his side increased and he slumped back against the pillow, cursing his wretched condition. Like the previous day, the action began in slow motion, then he saw the view slowly pan to the right, stopping at the cabin. This time, however, there were no dogs at the back door, and his grandmother was nowhere to be seen. He was disappointed. Somehow he really did expect it to be like a video recording that he could just rewind and start again from the beginning, but it was not the case. In fact, the whole feeling of the scene was different. He even noticed there were clouds in the sky this time and the sound of cicadas was absent.
Then the scene began to pan to the right again and when the edge of the frame reached a point 90 degrees from the original direction of view (the wood cutters and their log), the setting changed completely. Gone were the tall trees, the grass and the creek. Instead, there was the internal view of a darkened room. Despite the pain, Larry sat up higher to look at this odd development. The view kept panning slowly for a while until about a third of the picture contained this new element, then it stopped. The join between the two scenes was quite abrupt, as if two the pictures had been sliced neatly down the middle and stuck together, edge to edge.
Just then, Larry’s grandfather came striding into view from the left side of the frame. He looked across in Larry’s direction, then stepped inside the cabin. A short time later, he emerged through the back door with his wife, then the two of them walked down the slope, stopping just before the grass turned into wallpaper. Then they turned towards Larry and beckoned to him. Larry rubbed his eyes, for suddenly he recognised the darkened room that now occupied the right hand side of the photograph. It was his room. He looked at the room, then back at the picture. He could see the dressing table, the old leather chair and the faded wallpaper, just as they were in reality. The foot of his bed was even in the picture; just the corner of it, poking in from the side of the frame.
He was staggered. How could this be? He fell back against the pillows, breathing heavily. The pain in his side began to increase and his head began to spin, but his eyes were still glued to the photograph where he could see his grandparents waving at him. Their gestures were now more urgent. They were commanding him to join them.
Slowly, with one shaking hand, he pulled the covers away from his body, then he forced his legs out and onto the floor. With painful effort, he slid to the edge of the bed and dropped down onto his hands and knees. The pain in his side was excruciating and his breath was racing with noisy gasps in and out of his diseased lungs. But despite all of this, he still managed to crawl slowly across the room towards the dressing table. When he reached the wall, he looked up at the photograph and saw that he was now included
in the scene; he could see himself crouching on the floor next to the dresser. But he also saw his grandparents reaching out towards him, their hands just on the other side of the dividing line between the two separate scenes. With one final effort, Larry reached out towards them, looking at the photo, rather than the wall in front of him. Just before his body collapsed, he felt a warm firm grip which took hold of him and pulled him through.
Two weeks after the funeral, when Larry’s daughter was cleaning out her father’s room, she took the old photograph off the wall, then suddenly remembered his last request. When she got back home, she hung the picture in Timmy’s room. She was about to leave, when she stepped forward and looked at it more closely. The faded figure on the far side of the log seemed somehow different.
“That’s funny,” she said. “I never realised how much Dad resembled his grandfather.”
As she left, Timmy came bounding into the room and immediately looked up at the old sepia photograph. The grandfather who now stared back at him was no longer broad shouldered and grim; he was somewhat slimmer and there was just the trace of a smile on his lips. But the eyes were just as challenging as before.