Creative Nonfiction: Quester
By Ian C Smith
Russian attacks near a Ukraine power plant remind me of a photo-essay assignment long ago I used as cover for a personal quest. 1986. Chernobyl fallout, a drifting foul disease falling on Sweden one day, Italy another. As if this world isn’t screwed enough, I think in Amsterdam to aim my viewfinder at light on water and vibrant colours of the Zeitgeist. Now it’s contaminated by random weather patterns. No sign of cloud nine yet, just suspect cloud, and this itch to trace my lost mother.
A boyhood memory: her voice, Dutch-accented, raised in defiance of my father. Then nothing. My ironic inner voice, common sense-accented, says, You’ll never find her. Forget it. I crave what most take for granted, the right to love a parent. Overcast, so no contrails, sometimes shot spoilers, I blend with amateur camera jockeys at De Wallen. Seeing prostitutes lounging behind windows nudges both pornographic stirring, desire deflated by cliché, and my father’s toxic righteousness.
My hotel room cheap to stretch a meagre allowance, living out of my bags, I hear glass smash in the night. I’d prefer to stay in Rembrandt Square. Beyond the window I can’t open, a dead bird lies on the sill soaked in muted street light. I’d try an oblique shot but for the weather smeared glass. Travelling here I scanned the flat horizon in vain for windmills through the train window thinking of Don Quixote. Wearily sexy, jammed, smeared, revealing nothing, Dutch windows disappoint at potential opportune times.
The next day, rain again after broken sleep, I feel ashen. A bizarre dream involving Australian voices, in reality overheard on the train, panged me, away from home a long time, my heart stabbed by familiar nasal vowels. I sip bitter coffee from a tiny glass cup, its aroma better than taste, when a phalanx of straight-backed cyclists hum by, steering through the city centre, knees rising, falling, in calm precision, spokes glittering in a lone shaft of sunlight as I grope for my Minolta.
Mingling with tourists, a rainbow blessing our cobbled square, I watch an old raggedy-sleeved woman feeding pigeons, muse, insanely, whether she could be her, prematurely aged. A young man smoking a fat rollie, wearing tight leather pants, a collation of studs in one ear, peddles clockwork birds. His gaudy toys flutter erratically, making me duck. Someone laughs. Tight pants grins at my embarrassment, then poses for me, working the crowd. Mutual benefits.
Later, raindrops fragmenting my melancholy reflection in a canal like an Old Master’s self-portrait, I remember reading about the Zuyder Zee, a thirty-kilometre dyke revetting the sea that eroded their precious land for centuries. Incredible people, the Dutch. Some of them. A story from childhood she might have told me, a faint memory: an heroic boy plugged a hole in a dyke with his finger to save his people, never quitting. Oh, to be her hero.
The way the old woman feeding the pigeons had sat, knees splayed, revealed large knickers. Her colour was grey, all over, clothes, skin, neck folds, except for an incongruous touch. Sliding in and out of one raggedy sleeve glittered a dozen jingling bangles. I wondered where she slept, what sort of life she endured. I felt certain she had no-one. She was alone. When I photographed her she flashed a gap-toothed smile lit by her heartbeat. I remember another who wore bangles, her laughter an echo.
Ian C Smith's work has been widely published. He writes in the Gippsland Lakes region of Victoria, and on Flinders island, Tasmania.