Deborah sighs to herself. A contented sigh. One infused and informed by the views, the scenery, the majesty of nature surrounding her. Trees soaring into the clouds, as sturdy as they are fragile, certainly aesthetically at least; flowers in bloom, of all colours, of all creeds; sporadic bursts of water falling, streaming and weaving in and out and through the tangled complexity of the earth’s geological being in this tiny corner of the world.
She loves it all. Every piece of it. Every pollen-screeching, cloud-reaching, brook-babbling inch of it. Of all the places she has been in her 78 years on this planet, and of all the places she’s yet to get to, The Hermitage in Perthshire sits undoubtedly near the top of the list. A foliage-strewn gemstone nestled demurely within the heart of Scotland’s ‘Big Tree Country’, an area full to the brim with beauty spots. But none of them do, or could, compare to The Hermitage. At least in Deborah’s mind, that is.
Today, one particular fraction of this particular gemstone interests her more than any other, however. The Black Linn Falls – the gorgeous, gushing masterpiece and collision of the elements, sitting across from the viewing platform of Ossian’s Hall. She lowers herself down onto a generously flat rock slightly to the side of the aforementioned ‘Hall’. Even such a gentle lowering of her body, she thinks, even in an atmosphere of calm such as this, with the sun peering in and the birds gently humming to themselves, even then she thinks, I can feel every movement in my bones. Every small movement ripping and scraping at my joints, burning its way through the tissue. But little does she linger on the thought, instead rummaging through her canvas bag by her side. She allows herself a little smile as she hears the unrelenting power of the waterfall rush through the otherwise quiet forest. From her bag her fingers pull a sketching pad and a pencil. Slowly but surely, almost to the point of instalments, she raises her right leg and folds it across her left thigh. An act she’ll no doubt pay for in a haze of arthritic flame sooner rather than later, she thinks, but an act necessary all the same. This is her sketching position and she’ll be damned if she is going to let a little thing like age get in the way of it.
She sits, her pencil pressed anticipatingly against the blank page, and gazes in awe towards the Black Linn Falls. Fairly small, yes, she thinks, but majestic all the same. A bit like myself, she snorts. Oh Deborah you bloody comedian, you. She sits poised, taking in the full majesty of the scene. In it she sees beauty, she sees power, she sees resilience. And she sees memories. Slowly, calmly, she begins to draw.
She sees a girl. A young girl. A girl not yet on the cusp on her teenage years. She stands on a boat. A bright red plastic raincoat, soaked to the point of uselessness, clings to each bump and crevice of her small frame. She holds on tightly to her Father’s hand, shivering slightly under the strain of the plummeting cold infecting her body. Her Father stares up. As does her Mother slightly to the left of the two of them, standing next to her Canadian Aunt and Uncle – their unofficial tour guides (and hotel proprietors) for the family’s first trip across the Atlantic Ocean. They all gaze in wonder at the rampaging fury of the Niagara Falls waterfall thundering down into the depths from above them. Droplets of water, of possibly rain, who knows, bouncing at her and all those on the boat from all directions. Up, down, left, right. The all-consuming force of the falls threatens to engulf the girl’s entire frame of existence in that one moment. She sees the girl wrestling with a cacophony of emotions; awe, fear, happiness. Each as strong-willed and as prominent as the others. She sees the girl staring up at her Father, laughing as a particularly strong surge of water drenches him completely, forcing him to squeal in a very un-Father-like way. Unaware that this is one of the last times she’ll see him alive. Her Father. Her Dad. Daddy. Killed in a car crash on a country road only a few days after the family returned to Scotland from that holiday. She hears the Father’s words to the girl; ‘Well, Deborah, at least you saw Niagara Falls completely soaking your silly old Dad, that was surely worth the trip alone’. She sees the two of them laugh, the Father reaching into hug the girl, jokingly wrapping her tight against his soaking wet jacket. She sees the girl push him away, half-annoyed, half-amused.
Deborah thrusts her pencil down the page, a strength coursing through her veins as she sketches the lines of the water. The ebb and flow of the waves. The power found in the beauty of the image.
She sees a young woman. A woman barely out of her twenties. She sees her smiling, her cheeks red with the tinge of a cold air chill. Yet smiling all the same. Her hair done up in a bun, a winter coat wrapped around her. Below her, some fifty or so yards below her, the twisting, shifting wonder of the Gullfoss waterfall, in the Southwestern region of Iceland, rages. The vibration of the falls, the seeming purity of the region’s water injects her body with a sense of cleanliness. Her head is clear, her eyelids without strain. Her future somehow laid out before her, free of trepidation, bereft of anxiety. Directly below her, only a matter of inches below her in fact, kneels her husband-to-be. A label, or accolade shall we say, earned only a moment before. His out-stretched hand gently places a ring upon her finger. She sees a camera hanging from the woman’s neck, the woman’s idol, her vocation, her life’s purpose. Replaced suddenly, even if only momentarily, by the glistening silver around her ring finger. She sees the single tear falling down the woman’s face. Whether through the force of emotion or the force of cold, she knows, and more importantly cares, not. The woman smiles, hugging her newly crowned fiancée. Both of their cameras collide as they embrace. She sees the two of them laugh. Kiss. She sees this moment and chooses to linger on it. To ignore the future horribly strewn out before them. Choosing to ignore his assignment to Vietnam, choosing to ignore his claims that it was an opportunity that no war photographer could turn down. Choosing to dismiss his assurances that the war would surely be done with in a matter of months once the Yanks finally decided to end the thing and blow the shit out of the country. She chooses not to see his untimely death, caught up in a bombing raid in some unnamed jungle in the middle of that godforsaken conflict. She even chooses not to see his postcard which arrived only a few days after she was informed of his death. The postcard which spoke of his wonder at seeing Vietnam’s Ban Gioc waterfall, how she would adore it and how he would take her there ‘just as soon as this damn thing was over with, Debs!’. She chooses not to see that. She chooses only to see that moment, in Iceland. That moment of clarity, of hope, of happiness. Their moment.
Deborah pauses briefly. She licks the tip of her right index finger lightly and smudges out a part of her sketch, noticing a subtle but nevertheless an important change in the flow of the waterfall itself.
Again, she sees a woman. This time an older, but not old, woman. A woman in her early fifties. She sees her standing on a viewing platform, staring out at the other-worldly, transcendent sight of the Iguaza Falls – the gargantuan 275-fall waterfall system, the world’s largest, that straddles the border between Argentina and Brazil. She sees the woman’s mouth hang open in wonder. She sees her eyes lit up in awe. She sees the woman’s second husband, his arm gently holding on to her. She sees the woman feel his touch, feel his safety. She sees her fail to respond, alone with her thoughts. She sees no camera slung around the woman’s neck, a faded image, a faded prop from an era and a time now gone. She sees the woman staring at each and every one of the falls. The relentlessly, renewing strength of nature in its rawest form. She sees the woman think of renewal, think of hope. The chance to hope again, the possibility of feeling again. She sees the woman inspired and delighted by the falls but never quite reaching the levels of delight, the levels of contentedness, the depth of feeling felt by the younger woman in Iceland. Her joy never quite as unshackled as that of the girl cowering beneath the majesty of Niagara. She sees the woman hold onto her husband’s hand and smile. A forced smile, one where her eyes barely seem to register. His Debbie. Always. But never his Debs. She sees the woman and sees her anguish. She sees in the woman’s eyes the loved ones she has lost. She sees the family she never had, seeing instead the unbridled commitment to an occupation that took her first husband’s life and burned her out long before her prime. She sees her seemingly endless struggle to attempt to find that feeling of purity that once existed – that now never does. She sees her second marriage failing, quietly and indifferently, shortly after this moment. Another victim of her failure to strive for and ultimately find that fabled and mythical happiness once more. She sees the woman. She sees the life she has lived. She sees the life she has yet to live. And she hears the roar of the waterfall. The unremitting, unforgiving, constantly renewing roar. Engulfing her, infusing her, driving her.
Deborah continues to sketch the waterfall before her as the sun continues to creep gradually over the expanse of the forest. The pencil shaping her own image on the page. Using all she can see, all she has seen and all she will see to concoct her own formation. Her own sketch. As she sketches her eyes are filled with peace. A happiness both pure and content as she stares out at her own little waterfall in her own small corner of the world. And, for this briefest of moments, hers and hers alone. The frantic rush of the ever-renewing falls gently caressing her earlobes, signifying a peace. Hope. She sketches the image for all those she’s loved, for all who have loved her and for the memories they’ve left her along the way. But more importantly she sketches the image for herself. Just her. Only her. Herself, alone.