An excerpt from The War in the Portrait

01/24/2021

30th April 2015


So many of the same pictures were hung about the walls, burning in their individual spotlights, that I found myself moving about the space adrift on waves of memory from that day back in November.

The centuries-old London brickwork, chips and scars lit amber from the floor up, leaned out over me as I floated over the polished wooden floorboards being scuffed by a hundred pairs of shoes. The gallery was a world away from the lonely room Harry and I had sat together in that day, though - like then - he was the reason I was here. I wandered through his photographs, from one to another, lost and alone.

"Andrea?"

I turned and saw a heavy-set, expensively suited man walking towards me.

"Andrea King?" he said when he reached me, wearing a well-practised smile. I nodded cautiously, still trying to place him. "So nice to finally meet you in person. Iain Doherty, Harry's agent."

"Yes," I said, taking his offered hand and relaxing a little. "Great to finally meet you too."

"What the devil are you doing without a drink?" He spoke with the clipped English of the past. "Come, let's remedy that, first things first."

With him leading me by the elbow, we moved through the huddles of people and found an empty, high-stooled table in an arched alcove in one of the walls. He waved emphatically at a nervous young waitress who was working her way around the room, gripping a tray of champagne glasses with both hands as if holding on for dear life, and immediately relieved her of two drinks.

"Cheers!" he smiled, turning his back on the girl and handing me a glass. "So, how goes the film?"

"It still needs a lot of work, that's for sure," I said, sipping the champagne. "But it's getting there. It's taking a little longer than I expected gathering and editing in all the images and archival footage."

"Yes, and no doubt hindered by my own absentmindedness. I do apologise for not getting you the files sooner. It completely slipped my mind, what with organising all this," he said, gesturing vaguely around the room.

"It was no problem, actually. I had plenty to work on in the interim."

"Yes, of course, of course. I really am looking forward to seeing it, and Harry has asked me to pass on to you his support as well."

"He's not here?" I said, taken aback.

"Alas, no. His health has taken a turn for the worst of late," Iain said, swirling his drink in his glass and staring solemnly into the motion. "One only hopes that he'll be able to see your film when it's all done, although it doesn't seem likely."

"Oh my God. I'm... sorry."

"No, don't be," he said quickly, looking very concerned. "I believe I should be the one apologising; I thought he'd told you."

"No," I said. "He didn't mention it."

"Ah, I see. Well, it's true, I'm afraid. But not public knowledge at the moment, so I'd appreciate it if you kept that to yourself. Especially tonight."

"Yeah, sure thing," I said, unsure of my emotions. "How... how long has he got?"

"The doctors gave him six to twelve months," he said. Then, shaking his head, added: "And that was over six months ago."

I tried to remember when Iain had first emailed me on Harry's behalf to agree to the interview, rewinding the reel of weeks in my mind. It was five - maybe five and a half - months ago, and certainly no more than six, I was sure.

"Cancer, of course," Iain was saying. "Pancreatic. Terrible business. But he's certainly left his mark, which is more than most us, I daresay."

"Yeah, yeah..." I said absently, half in the past.

"Oh shit!" Iain blurted, his head tilted and his attention no longer on me. A change had come over him, robbing him of his composure and leaving him flustered and naked. "It's Prince bloody Andrew... You must excuse me, Andrea. If I can be of any other assistance with the film, do ask." In a single motion, he drained his glass and stood up unnaturally straight then strode off through the spots of crowd.

Alone once more, I sat while longer replaying everything Harry had said during our interview that day, but with him cast in a new light. Of all the time we spent together, it was the moment apart that I kept coming back to. I got up and wandered out, leaving the buzz of people and stepping into the silky grey air of the city. I pulled my coat tight around me, both to keep out the cold and to hide myself away with my thoughts, then flagged down a cab and went back to my apartment.

Coat still on, I sat at my desk, opened my laptop and skipped through the recordings I'd made that day until I reached that moment when I'd left him alone with the cameras running, when I'd first betrayed him; the moment I'd been too ashamed to watch up until then. I replayed the section of footage.

As I'd walked out of the room, he'd turned his head to watch me go, then tilted it towards the door, as if he'd been listening hard to me moving through his home. When he must have been sure that I would be gone for a while, his eyes had slowly closed, and his head had fallen backwards onto his chair. He seemed almost out of breath, taking deep, frantic gulps that shook his body. The whole impression was of someone who had been caught in a current for hours and had just managed to claw himself, exhausted, back onto the beach. He wiped away what must have been more tears, though his head was tilted so far back that I couldn't see them, then his hands felt their way down his neck and over his chest to settle on his stomach. Without looking down, he lifted his t-shirt and touched a colostomy bag that was attached there, letting out a barely audible whimper as he did so.

Though the audio recording didn't pick whatever it was up, something startled him, and he sat up straight, looking about the room. As if afraid to touch it any further, he carefully lowered his t-shirt back over the bag attached to his stomach, then hastily gathered all the photographs scattered over the table up into a vague pile, got up and carried them away somewhere off camera. When he reappeared in shot, he had in his hand a single framed picture, which he placed down and turned so that it would be facing me when I returned to my seat.

As he waited, it was as if he couldn't suppress something trying to rise within him: his legs both bounced to uneven rhythms, his fingers flexed and unflexed over and over again in uncontrollable contractions, and his eyes were pressed shut so hard that he looked like a scared child trying to forget the darkness. And he stayed this way until the audio levels jumped a little at the sound of my distant toilet flush and he forced himself into composure.

By the time I'd come back into the room, he was a picture of calm.

Whenever I think of Harry now, it is those near-silent, unguarded few minutes, stolen without his permission or knowledge, that return with him. A memory that I didn't see with my own eyes, and yet which drowns all the others. A memory of a man haunted by ghosts of truth, utterly alone with voices calling him from the long-buried past, who had wanted me to help him unburden himself of everything he could bring himself to share.

And I feel guilty.