As I reached the curve in the road, I saw that the red car was still there, so I decided to pull in and see what all the fuss was about. I’d been past earlier that day, on my way down to Tom’s with the new rope that he needed, and the car had been parked there then. But that was a good few hours ago; what could possibly be keeping someone up here all that time?
Tourists seem to be able to entertain themselves for hours with the most trivial things, but this spot is really quite remote and I’d never seen anyone even stop here, let alone park up and stay. I saw, when I got out of the van, that the owner of the car was up the path a little way, where he’d unrolled a yellow tartan blanket and was sitting cross-legged on a rain-proof jacket he’d laid over the top of it. In front of him, an open tin-foil packet, half-full of triangle-cut sandwiches; beyond that, a large black metal tripod supporting an old-fashioned camera, pointed down the hill. As I approached, he shifted forward from the rock on which he’d been leaning and peered intently down to the bottom of the winding road I’d just climbed.
“Good afternoon,” I said. After the slightest nodded acknowledgement, I continued. “You’ll be a photographer, then?” The stranger replied with another nod and a brief flash of irritation crossed his face as he took a sandwich from his packet and munched on it disinterestedly. Then he spoke.
“Yes, I’m up here for a couple of weeks. I’m trying to get a good set of pictures to take back home with me.” The munching continued.
“Oh, yes, what’re they for, then?” I asked. “Mind if I sit for a while?”
“Please do,” the stranger indicated a corner of the blanket. “I take them for myself, really. I’ve always just taken pictures for myself, I’m not interested in what other people think. Maybe, if anyone were ever interested, I’d sell a few. They never are though, so I’d rather just enjoy taking them and having them as reminders that I’ve been here.”
I puzzled over his remarks for a moment. “That’s a shame, you obviously take a lot of time and effort over them. Forgive me for asking, but I saw that you’ve been here for a while. What are you waiting for?”
He turned to look down the hill and indicated with his drooping sandwich. “See the valley down there? The corner of the lake and the boat houses?”
I followed his direction and saw Tom’s place, surrounded in the distance by reeds on the shore of the lake. “Yes, that’s my friend’s place,” I acknowledged. “Why, is that what you’re taking a picture of?”
“Yes,” nodded the stranger. “It’s not quite right though. Hasn’t been since I got here first thing. Do you see how the house is in shadow? The way that the sky is shining through the gap between those mountains?”
I looked toward the gap he was describing and nodded, noticing for the first time the way that the sky was so much brighter over there, contrasting strongly with the scudding, overcast sky above our heads.
“That’s a problem and I can’t take my picture until something happens. It was almost right about half an hour ago, but the slopes on either side of the road here were in bright sunshine. That was even worse than now.” He took another bite of his sandwich, paused for a moment to swallow, before continuing, “I’ve been studying the sky since first thing, and I reckon that it’ll be just about right soon.”
“Are you local then?” I asked. “It seems as though you know these hills pretty well.”
“No, not really. I was here a couple of years ago over the Easter weekend, but that was further north and the weather was completely different then. It always is, earlier in the year. I got a lot of shots that trip, but this is my first day, so who knows this time.” His eyes were scanning the sky as he spoke with a slightly bored inflection to his voice. Despite his apathy, I was surprised by his apparent local knowledge and willingness to talk, so I pressed further.
“I can’t say that I’d really noticed. It always seems to be either about to rain, or raining.” The stranger took my attempt at humour seriously, and turned to look at me as he replied.
“That’s because it is. If it weren’t perpetually about to rain, I wouldn’t drive all the way up here. Look at the way the shadows of the clouds are moving across these slopes. Don’t you think that’s great? We don’t get that down south.” He frowned and seemed to be irritated at something. “At least, we get something like it, but no-one ever sees it unless they’re high up, in a tall office building or block of flats. Those places are getting impossible. Take the Canada Tower in London, for example. Secured and watched as if the Queen herself lived there.”
“Well, I expect they’re worried about getting blown up or something. It’s only going to be a matter of time before someone attacks one of those places. Too visible, you see. All those people in there earning all that money. Wouldn’t mind a bit myself.” I pondered for a moment. “Still, they’re guarded that well, aren’t they?”
“Too right they are,” the stranger replied.” I remember when I was a kid, and we used to go out to play when we were visiting family in East London. There was a big residential tower block there and it was wide open; you could’ve just stepped into the lift and gone right up to the roof then. If you’d had the guts. I never did, of course. But not any more. I was in west London a few weeks ago, and they’ve even got security guards in little windowed booths now. For a block of council flats!” He shook his head in disbelief.
“Give me a wide open landscape any time,” I sighed. “Can’t be doing with big dirty cities. I went down to London once, years ago, and I always said that it’d have to be something pretty bloody important to get me back.”
The stranger stared down the valley once more, his face gradually being illuminated by a clearing in the clouds. He sighed. “Yes, you’re not wrong there. What I wouldn’t give for a bit of countryside, some peace and quiet. The kind of place where I could have a view like this, instead of a pokey flat miles from anything green.”
The stranger suddenly put his sandwiches to one side and stood. Holding a small leather-cased box to his face, he pointed a white half-domed disc towards the clearing in the sky. Consulting a read-out on the back of the camera, he twisted a worn dial, pushed a silvery button on the end of a wiggly attachment, then began unscrewing the camera from its mount.
“Any good?” I asked. “You’d better be quick and take your photos now: if I know the weather in this valley, you won’t have long until it changes again.”
“I have,” the stranger replied, and continued packing his equipment away into an efficiently organized bag.
I was astounded. “Is that it? You’re not going to take any more, after coming all that way and waiting all morning?” The stranger stopped what he was doing and turned to look at me disbelievingly.
“I always know when I’ve got the shot I came for, and that was it. I’m off home. Good talking to you.” And with that, he slung his bag over his shoulder and strode back towards his car.