His interest in photography is boosted by his sister’s evident talent, and his curiosity for her work. Now he notices far more the light variations during the day, the subtle changes of hue and shifting skies’ s reflections that are so typical of northern climates. Jane is amused by his renewed passion. He is also taking a close interest in portraits. She, without consulting him, started taking nude pictures of Sarah a year ago, and her visits are a chance for them to continue with this project. They then disappear in Sarah’s room, and even sometime the study, after kicking Julian out and locking the door. In summer they have been seen taking shots out there, in the beautiful garden, away from preying eyes. He’s not upset by it, intrigued perhaps, and, more than ever, curious. The pictures are all black and white, and do more than justice to his wife’s beautiful body. At the beginning he was startled by the erotic style of Jane’s work, but what did he expect: two gorgeous women accomplice in making art? He was wondering if Sarah, in turn, was taking pictures of Jane, but he never asked. Since he was not briefed, nor invited to participate, he chose to remain quiet on the subject, and just enjoy what he is invited to look at.
The incident of the screen shots on Chi no longer worries Julian. He has made up his mind that it was merely an accident of simulation, or perhaps even editing. After Jane’s visit he feels rejuvenated, and full of new ideas. It has given a boost to his libido too, not that he’s ever short of that, but somehow the presence of both Sarah and Jane in his house inspires him. Sarah finds it hilarious, and teases him about it. One night, before Jane left, he woke up from some dream, and notices that Sarah is no longer in bed. It did not bother him but, feeling thirsty, he walks downstairs to the kitchen for a drink of water. Sarah is nowhere to be seen, not in the back-room, nor in the lounge, nor the bathrooms. The only place where she could be, Julian concludes, is in Jane’s room. Indeed he could hear, walking past Jane’s door, a low sound of giggles. He smiles and goes back to bed, falling back into sleep immediately.
He finds a new inspiration for the novel too, writing for long hours non-stop, to the extent of neglecting his weekly visits to the gym, as he realises quickly by checking his weight. He knows that his wife won’t let him put on weight and get fat: she would immediately impose the kind of spartan regime she can very well design for her “boy”. So he reorganises his time, making space for gym and running, and still making the best of day light hours for his writing. He’s almost forgotten about the phone call, and the message on his page.
Then, one day, as he checks his wall, he incidentally clicks on the link that did not work, on the message “she” had left. And this time it works. It takes him straight to “her” Page.
He hesitates, as if on the edge of a deep fault, unable to see how far he would fall. Then he plunges…
At first he is lost. His own page is minimalist. “Her” wall appears to be densely packed, with an impressive list of “friends” and pictures. He looks at her profile picture. The red hair, the young face, the green eyes, the full lips, a simple flowered blouse… a beautiful young woman, a little old-fashion. Something stirs at the deep end of his memories… That picture looks strangely familiar, but still he cannot recall who she is. He decides to read her profile. “She” has listed as much as she could, her schools, where she lived, where she worked.
She was born two years before him, near the town where he spent most of his childhood. She’s also attended the same high school. He pauses. Suddenly her name comes to him: Melissa. Something attracts him on Melissa’s page. One of her pictures is that of an adolescent, fresh-faced, athletic, standing in front of what looks like a school entrance with other youngsters. Julian looks at the picture, heart beating, suddenly transported in time. It was his school, and that young man is him, probably shortly before he left for the army – all those years back. He realises suddenly that Sarah is standing behind him: “An old flame has caught up with you?” she asks tenderly, with a touch of concern in her voice.
There is something else on Melissa’s page, a link to a location with a photograph: a place called Chi.
Julian pauses again, his mind a whirlpool of conflicting feelings and memories. Then, as he sits still, his mind suddenly sees her, the girl at the school gate, waiting for him, tall and smiling. A wave of memories submerges him: the old town, the medieval streets, the library where he worked and studied, the provincial railway station, the ugly buildings from the post-war period, the school, the calm waters of the canal… and Melissa: his forgotten friend, his adolescence sweetheart. What happened to her? And why all that secrecy? Why could not she just approach him, write to him, say who she was? Reading his mind Sarah says: “Maybe she has a grudge?”
Nostalgia has overcome Julian, and thousands of pictures are flashing past his eyes: the small shops, the cathedral, Mel at the swimming pool, her breasts, him boxing to pulp that big thug, who had insulted her, their walks along the river, his mother asking him: who is that tall girl she saw with him at the market… A sudden dread seizes him: where is Melissa now? And this page, what is the meaning of it? He takes a closer look: the friends listed on her page are all of her, his, generation, and there is something else: when he tries to follow the links they all lead to the same message: he is not allowed to see their profiles. “She’s protecting their privacy” Sarah says calmly.
Something else attracts Julian’s attention: there are notes, scores of them, some by Melissa.
For a second he hesitates, then starts reading.
The early notes sweep through three years of her life: the years they have been “together”, his school years, before the war and the world took him away. Melissa has written at first a sort of journal, recounting their first meeting, their first kiss, her hopes, their walks, the many kisses that had followed, the tender touches, her wondering why he seems to be so gentle, almost shy, with her, and such a tiger with the others, whoever they are. She guesses at his internal violence, the turmoil in his young mind. She, who is ready to give him everything, admits to her puzzlement, at times her irritation. And yet she is writing about the delight of those days, their intimacy, his way of ignoring the jealous looks, the sly comments of the other girls. His way also to fight for her, suddenly changed, his fists tight, his jaws hardened, the pitiless concentration of a street fighter. She has made it her mission to win him over, and to give him happiness – for ever, her virgin lover. The last sad note is of a walk they take along the river, when he speaks to her of the war, and of a man’s duty. She was puzzled, and worried. Then the tone of the notes change. Melissa is alone, he is gone, silent, with hardly a good bye.
At first she is expecting him to write, perhaps even to visit. She tries to talk to some of his friends, those who, she thought, would be willing to share their knowledge of where he might be. No-one she spoke to knew. In desperation she decides to contact his parents. His mother only says that her son has gone to fight. Neither she nor Julian’s dad would give away anything else. Mel is desperate.
There is only one country he could have gone to, and this is beyond Mel’s reach, a hellhole of murder, torture and destruction, closed to anyone not directly involved with the fighting. At night she cries, remembering the days, with him, with him alive, their love. Then the notes stop being a journal. It is as if someone else has taken over, and is reporting, factually, without any feeling.
The first note is a newspaper extract.
Julian turns pale as a wraith. Sarah, suddenly aware of a deadly silence, looks up: her husband is crying. Silent, cold tears, tears of despair. She looks at the screen.
The note states that the body of Ms Melissa xxx, daughter of Mr and Mrs xxx of a local village, aged nineteen, has been found at dawn, in a small lane near a night club where she was seen dancing with several men two hours earlier. She was strangled by unknown assailants and her wrists cut.
There is a date: Melissa was murdered twenty years earlier.