Photograph by Alexander Parkyn-Smith, Story by Oz Hardwick
It was one of those March days that thinks it’s February, or even December: too tired to carry the weight of those extra hours, it had buried its head under a worn duvet of snow, settled itself back into fitful sleep. The rendezvous was for a Sunday morning, and as I walked across the car park – empty but for an unremarkable blue car outside the grey workman’s hut – I thought back to earlier in the week, and to the client who had led me here.
Forget the movies: the life of the Private Investigator has more lost dogs than diamonds, more strip mall cafes than speakeasies or casinos. But when I arrived at the office around noon on Monday, there was a vision straight out of a dime store thriller. Hair the colour of a single malt, and a floral dress that bloomed in all the right places. She looked out of place against the grey filing cabinets, the grey desk, and the grey Chicago light.
I shook her warm hand for a little longer than I needed to, but she smiled and gave me a steady once-over with her leaf-green eyes. She said her friends called her Vera, and I’d already decided I was her friend.
“It’s not so much a loss,” she said, “more of a misplacement. A matter of valuables being trusted to the wrong hands.”
“And what would be the nature of these valuables?” I asked.
“The nature …,” she began, but although I’m sure she said more, I can’t remember another word. But I remember every detail of those full lips as they formed the words, and of those eyes – green as the Chicago River on St Patrick’s day – that reached inside me like a pickpocket at a Bears game. It was only when she left, as I watched her shadow sashay down the hall through my frosted glass window, that I noticed her perfume, like cherry blossom, reminding me of when I was a young boy, running through Jackson Park, and –
The phone rang. It was about a dog.
I snapped back to the present. Although there were no windows, someone must have seen me coming, as the door swung inwards even as I reached for the handle. Inside it was dark as a loan shark’s pocket, and even when my eyes adjusted to the dull bulb that hung indecisively from the ceiling, I couldn’t make out the features of the man who lowered himself into a seat on the far side of an empty table, inviting me with a shrug and a grunt to sit.
I hesitated. The only empty chair – the only other furniture in the hut – looked like it would buckle under the weight of a rat, but I didn’t want to cause a scene, so made my best show of looking relaxed as I settled onto what felt like a bird’s nest, only less secure.
“Mr …?” I began.
“Winter,” he replied after a pause that was just too long, in a tone that suited his name to a T. I hoped he didn’t notice me shiver, but even in the near darkness, there was something about the angle of his bald head, the way his hands rested palm down on the table before him, that told me that there was nothing he didn’t notice.
“I’ve come about something that belongs to a mutual friend of ours. A lady by the name of Vera. Something valuable, the precise nature of which …”
“Nature,” he echoed, with all the warmth of a frozen fire hydrant. “Nature,” he said again, tapping his fingers on a small case that had appeared in front of him. I rocked slightly on my flimsy nest: where had it come from? Sure, he could have had it on his lap the whole time, but that was some sleight of hand.
“This, I believe, is what you are looking for.” He tapped the case again, with a dry rattle as clipped as branches against the porch window on the coldest night of the year. “It’s what, I believe, everyone is looking for.”
In the silence between us, I could hear his breath, deep and steady. I could hear both our wristwatches syncopating like lopsided jazz against the bare walls. I could hear the tick and crack of the wood beneath me as I tried – and failed – to match Winter’s stillness.
He sighed and, without a word, pushed the case towards me. I was about to pick it up when, with all the slow inevitability of a felled tree, Winter toppled backwards, chair and all. I jumped to my feet, but –
There was no crash as the big man fell, only a hush like the wingbeat of a heron out on the lake. I stepped round the table, but there was no sign of him. I pulled out my Zippo, and by its sudden flare I still saw nothing. I bent low and checked the floor for trapdoors or even loose boards, but there was just a flat, green floor. Winter had gone and left no trace.
When I lifted it up, the case was lighter than I’d expected – almost weightless – and surprisingly warm to the touch. For some reason, I expected it to be locked, but even as I felt for the catch it sprang open, and light flooded the room. I staggered backwards and dropped into the chair. Only what had felt like brittle sticks just minutes before was cushioned in thick, glowing leaves. Startled, I gripped the case and lunged for the door.
Outside, the day was wide awake and dazzling, and what had been grey – the hut, the sky, the whole damn world, it seemed – was ablaze with colour so bright it was like I’d never seen it before. And there she stood, leaf eyed, her gold hair rippling over floral silk like liquid sun. Primavera.
“Priceless,” I said, handing her the case.
“Nature,” she said, and the air was alive with cherry blossom.
Oz Hardwick is a York-based writer, photographer and musician, who has been published extensively worldwide, and has read everywhere from Glastonbury Festival to New York, via countless back rooms of pubs. His most recent poetry collection is Learning to have Lost(IPSI, 2018). A keen collaborator with other artists, Oz has had work performed by classical musicians in UK concert halls, by flamenco musicians in Italian villas, and with experimental sound and film artists in an Australian cinema. By day he is Professor of English and Programme Leader for Creative Writing at Leeds Trinity University. In his spare time, Oz is a respected music journalist.
Alexander Parkyn-Smith is a photographer & visual anthropologist. He has a BA Anthropology, University of Durham, MA Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths College, and is submitting for a PhD in Social Anthropology at Durham University in 2018. His interests lie in understanding human environmental relations, focussing on how time, especially the imagination of the future, can play a pivotal role in the social, political and economic contexts of the present. You can find him on instagram @alexparkynsmithphoto