Camera Obscura


Back cover blurb


Falling in love with a mysterious woman whose life he helped save takes photojournalist Bart Zacharin out of his depth. He knows there is nothing he can do about his obsession with Minnie Cuff but follow her, no matter how far, no matter how many lies she tells.

            She leads him from Australia to France, where violence and trickery overwhelm him. They escape pursuit in Malta, where Bart discovers what she is couriering, and for whom. Her fascination is her beauty: her mystery is more than Bart bargained for. Can Bart save her and persuade her to give up her life of crime? Is his love more powerful than the thrill of her work and the ruthless man she works for?

            Follow this couple on a breathless pursuit through Europe, on an adventure packed with art, photography, theft, murder and the most unusual romance in contemporary fiction.


First released by BeWrite Books in 2012,
Camera Obscura is now available from
Yellow Teapot Books.



There are no accidents without intentions

                                                        Alex Miller

He came back from down South a day early. A sense of futility made him look down into a cup going cold on the café table where he stopped, unsure whether to go home or head for the paper. His editor would laugh, or swear. ‘Bart, it’s just a story. It’s just grey space. No bloody drama!’ Gerry always said ‘no bloody drama’, glaring and foaming at the mouth. He wished he was just as excitable. That kind of volatility, that spontaneity, was what he lacked.

He allowed the garrulous girl behind the counter tell him what style of coffee he was about to drink. It was easier to let her make him a macchiato than enter into a debate, with a growing queue behind him. Perhaps all he had to do was let another day go by until he could no longer avoid calling in to the paper. Returning early did not fix inertia, necessarily, but there was no point in staying on, working with a rookie journalist who already knew all the moves. There had to be something else, something more meaningful. 

He had to get to the flat, and to Erin, but he could not face questions yet. Nothing to say, really. The reporter he travelled with had so skilfully arranged it all, with all the luck of the recently initiated, that it was a matter of pointing and shooting. And this was just as monotonous: returning to Fremantle did not lift his spirits in the least. He had done and seen it all before. There was nothing new to look at.

A small flash of reflected light caught his eye. A gold pendant hung just inside his line of sight. It had the shape of a clenched hand – the typical southern Mediterranean horned fist – and swung on a chain around a woman’s neck. She was attractive, in black, sitting about three metres away, taking in Fremantle calmly, unaware of him. He watched, caring little if she felt his gaze.

She moved slightly, settled hands on the table, head inclined at a pensive angle, then cupped chin in palm and closed her eyes, only to blink them open again, vivid and green. She glanced over the crowd, stared at passing traffic, and finally, looked intently at Bart.

Somewhere on the street, a small dog yapped. Piped music struggled above and below the urban cacophony of Fremantle. When a waiter stood between them, Bart was certain she would look elsewhere. Surely, she would blink again, or glance at some movement, or stare at someone else. The instant passed, the waiter shifted, and there her eyes still were, looking at him. Would she speak?

Could he speak? There was nothing to say. He had come back a day early. He was bored, his days full of the glory of nothing. Who cared? ‘Quite a crowd here now,’ he could have remarked across the few metres between them. Boring. ‘That’s an interesting pendant,’ he almost said.

A loud crash robbed him of speech before he could mouth the first word. A dusty explosion blew over people, tables and chairs. Waitresses backed away, and yelled varied cries of alarm. Trays fell. Café patrons jumped from seats, toppled chairs backwards, and tangled legs. Bart took in the panic, professionally calm at first, and cast a quick eye around. His left hand felt for the camera case that was still in the car.

There was glass, glass everywhere, needles and knives of it. Fragments and sharp remnants of wooden window frame suddenly turned lethal. People still backed away, crowded him and each other, their questions more intelligible now. They spilled onto the street. Confusion and noise sharpened everything, pushing chaos on its unnerving but slowing path. Bart was jostled, pushed and yelled at, his lap was full of debris and the table in front of him, which rocked after being jolted by a running waiter, was piled with glass, hard putty and old wood. Someone’s elbow struck him forcibly in the centre of his back and breath left him in an audible gasp, dulled by the tumult that surrounded him.

When the noise subsided, his head turned in jerking angles as he brushed glass, slivers of paint and dust from his lap and shoulders, trying to avoid scratching his hands. Where was she – where was the woman in the black top? People continued to mill in panic around him. He saw the bright red flash of blood out of the corner of one eye and turned towards it. There she was: head covered in blood and the black of her sweater bearing the unmistakeable stickiness of fluid pumping from her neck.

‘Good God!’ He moved to her as if, simply because of his brief scrutiny of her, the fleeting glance they exchanged, she somehow belonged to him, and was his to protect. She lay like an abandoned puppet, with twisted limbs and a blank face.

‘Wha-whass going on?’ Her mumble was just audible as Bart reached her side. A host of waiters, customers and panicky bystanders crowded round. Questions, aimed at no one and everyone, floated around his head.

‘What happened?’

‘Are you all right?’

‘Has something blown up?’

‘Where’s my bag?’

Voices rose and fell around him. The woman said nothing intelligible. Her eyes closed, fluttering.

‘It’s okay.’ He tried to find something comforting to say, then turned. He addressed no one in particular, but by raising his voice, they might hear. ‘Someone – call an ambulance! An ambulance – is there a doctor about?’ His own voice sounded strange.

‘What happened?’ Hers was slightly stronger than before.

Bart knelt, and gingerly picked a large bloody triangle of dirty glass from her shoulder. His stomach turned, but he took a wad of table napkins from a hand that waved near his shoulder. He placed a fistful firmly where the rush of blood was worst. ‘I don’t know.’ His voice was hoarse. ‘That window – it just smashed. I can’t …’

A moan left her lips. ‘Mustn’t lose it.’ The words sounded perfectly clear, but they made no sense. ‘Mustn’t lose it.’


‘Where’s … where’s … laptop?’ Her eyes went blank again and closed. Her lips stopped moving.

‘Oh, no.’ Bart squeezed her shoulder.

Her head slumped as she lay awkwardly against the wall, under the front window.

‘Please, don’t. Hey, hey – wake up.’ If only he knew her name. ‘Does anyone know her?’  His voice was ineffectual and weak, as though some of the dust and grit settled in his throat.

Noise receded, and Bart had an odd presentiment. Nothing in his life would be the same again. Something had changed: something subtle, simple, that he could not define. He felt an annoying numbness: the possibility of a sudden scrolling of events in his life, as if it was he lying there, inert, nearing the end of his life, breathing shallowly, with a rope of sticky blood pumping sluggishly out of his neck. As if it was his limbs that were twisted, his mind emptying of the present and filling dangerously with the stuff of unconsciousness.

It would all be so banal if all of a sudden, as if occupying a corner on a flickering screen, his father would appear. He tried to dismiss the inexplicable thought, since he was not even sure he could visualise the man who disappeared from his life when he was a child of six.

But there he was, solidifying in the middle of Bart’s mind as he looked around for help with both hands firmly on the woman’s neck. Noise and confusion engulfed him, and there was this quiet assault of irrelevant recall.  Then he was gone, and Bart glanced at the knees and legs behind him, and looked back at the woman’s limp limbs that had lost all movement, wanting to shake away all thought of himself, of inconsequent memories. He had to give her all his attention, all his thought, as she lay inert on the café floor. But as long as the noise continued, so did the images. There was the grizzled roundness of his father’s chin: the back of a blue shirt. Now, his own back ached, crouched in an uncomfortable position; and his knees were going numb. But his hands worked, stemming blood from the woman’s neck.

She stirred. The ghost of a smile touched her lips. Her eyelids fluttered but remained shut. Bart felt something on his shoulder, a hand, and then words in his ear. He resisted. It was vital to focus on holding the wad of paper napkins hard against her neck: to concentrate on small movements, on signs she was still alive. It was vital to listen for her breath. Another prod, another touch and he looked intently around him. Everything was sticky with blood.

‘Okay, okay – we’ve got her now.’ Paramedics moved in, squatted close and excluded him. Their broad blue and orange backs filled the scene, and formed a human barrier no one could cross. ‘Keep clear,’ someone said. ‘Stay clear. Clear a space – we’ve got her now.’

He gave a statement to someone in blue or black, or perhaps grey, who made him stammer his words and feel blank and numb.

‘Do you know her?’


‘Did she say anything?’


‘Was she sitting with anyone?’


After leaving his contact details he made his way to a public restroom to wash bloody hands and wrists. His mind was still empty. Someone gave him a slim case, which he looked at blankly. ‘This isn’t …’ Then he remembered what she said. This was the injured woman’s laptop computer.

‘Thank you.’ He would have to get it to her. At some point, he would have to find out where they took her.

Every time he walked into Minnie Cuff’s ward at Fremantle hospital, Bart Zacharin would relive the incident at the café. The traffic noise, the crash: what he knew now was the decrepit fanlight of a café window finally loosening itself of several decades’ worth of   neglect and accumulated grime and dust. Shattering into a thousand pieces, it spread and fell on tables, floor, and the neck and shoulders of the woman with the gold charm.

It was not an explosion – nothing had blown up. He read it on the paper, and listened to brief radio reports. Not for the first time, he was bemused by the difference between feelings that accompanied witnessing an incident – his job ensured he had been at enough incidents and accidents – and those roused by reports in the newspapers. This one needed no fancy journalese: it was a simple matter of an old building crumbling gradually to pieces on top of the customers inside and pedestrians around it. He matched the newspaper piece to his own memory of the afternoon: and even remembered the background yapping of a small dog he never saw. As expected, a taunt from his editor was waiting.

‘Chrissakes, Bart! Why on earth didn’t you take a quick on-the-spot shot? It would have given us a front page! What were you thinking?’

‘Wasn’t thinking at all, Gerry. Sorry.’

‘Yeah, Well …’

Recollection of the whole incident was detailed, minute: annoying at a time of his life he often remarked his memory was shot. He recalled useless things: addresses of old school-friends, titles of books printed sideways on bruised spines, in the order they were stacked on his shelf. Inconsequential details stayed in his head, and vital facts rolled away, like so many childhood marbles.

But this was different. The accident was a mental jolt marked by physical disturbance. He tried to remember when he had last experienced a similar shake-up. A road accident perhaps, a couple of years back, when a small truck rear-ended his Toyota, but it was nothing like the café incident. Nothing like the shock he got when glass and pieces of window frame came crashing down onto tables, floor and people. Nothing like the sense he had that seeing this woman lying there, sticky with her own blood, would somehow change the order and sameness of his days.

Every time he sat by her hospital bed, he remembered blood pump erratically out of her neck, and how she had breathed and mumbled. How her eyelids fluttered and how he thought she would die right where she lay.

Heavy dressing marked the spot where he had applied pressure with both hands, cramming absorbent masses of crushed paper napkins. Even when she was better, sitting up and talking, Bart would look at the tiny pulse in the hollow of her neck and see again the irregular rush of thick bright blood.

He knew now her name was Minnie, and that she was from Manchester, England: a tourist in Western Australia for a couple of weeks. He knew she was out of danger and would recover with nothing but a scar to show anything had ever happened to her in that Fremantle café. What he could not guess was how reticent she would prove to be, how elusive, and how determined to give away as little about herself as possible.

‘You know, Bart?’ She always jumped straight in, without a greeting.

He walked up to her bed on the third day. ‘What?’

‘I’ve just realised my pendant’s gone.’

The instant she said the words he remembered a sharp glint against a black sweater: a gold hand clenched in a superstitious gesture: more than a fist – a fist with horns. ‘I remember it around your neck.’ He half wondered whether she would notice this admission of scrutiny. ‘Just before chaos took over. It must have been swept away in the debris. There was a big mess.’

‘I’ve lost it then.’ Her lips formed a resigned line. ‘What a shame.’

Bart smiled. ‘It didn’t bring you much luck.’

Her green eyes widened. ‘Of course it did – I could have been killed. Or permanently… you know, disabled – or I could have lost my laptop! What are you talking about – of course I was lucky!’

‘You’re superstitious then?’ His eyes searched her face, liking the way her serious expression livened her eyes, animated her features and rendered her more pretty. Scrutiny seemed to trouble her, so he looked away, out of the window to where a fountain played in a courtyard. Through windows on the other side, he could see identical wards to this one, people and nursing staff moving about. It was starting to rain.

‘You’re not superstitious?’ His insistence was unusual. Turning towards her, he allowed himself to fall into his sideways slouch.

Minnie did not answer. An orderly with a tray entered the room. The bland smell of steaming hospital vegetables rose from the plate when Minnie uncovered it. From the corridor came the clatter of crockery and the jangle of cutlery against metal.

‘Have I ever thanked you properly?’ The question took Bart unawares. ‘I mean ...’ She tilted her head and frowned at the flat-looking food. ‘I sometimes think, after you go away, that there’s really no need for you to come so often – goodness knows how far you have to travel. I don’t even know where you live.’ She forked a sprig of broccoli.

‘It’s fine – you don’t have to thank me.’ But he was glad she did. The way she spoke was facile, as if rehearsed, yet it was endearing. Her tone discounted the meaning of words as if intentionally. All effort he made to prompt anything from her was met with a silent smile or an inconsequent sentence; one that sounded as if she had thought it over before. She never asked whether he was hurt in the accident.

Massed curls framed her pretty face and long neck. She was lovely. He now knew   her un-made-up face so well he could imagine precise expressions hours after he left. There was a small crease, a dimple, in one cheek, a tiny mole at the angle of her jawbone, on the left. The way she tilted her head, and how her wavy hair would swing if she shook her head were branded in his mind. What was happening? His annoying forgetfulness was gone. He was seized, since the accident, with clarity and exact recall of things he had not given thought to for years. He started to appreciate the immediacy of things, the value of spontaneity.

‘And you’re sure there’s no one to call – to tell you’re all right?’ This was curiosity, not solicitousness. He was intrigued by the fact she seemed alone in the world. He placed a business card on her bed stand, watching her face. She did not look at it, and he was not surprised. It was silly to suppose she would have reason to stay in touch. He had not saved her life, and could not mean anything to her at all. She would forget him the minute she left Western Australia, off to whoever waited for her in England. She did say more than once, though, that there was no one.

All alone, he thought again. But, after all, he wondered who there was to call if he had been injured. Guilt seeped onto his chest, as if his shirt were suddenly dampened. Of course there was: his mother, and Anthony Fiorelli, and Hal, and Erin. There was Erin, but he preferred not to think of her at the moment. All thought of Erin was excised whenever he stepped into the hospital.

‘Auntie Virginia, in London… um, would be needlessly alarmed and wouldn’t have a clue what to do.’ She had said it before, in exactly the same words and tone. ‘We only exchange cards at Christmas. I think I have a cousin in New Zealand, but I wouldn’t know where to start to look! Orago… Otago?’

He started to say she was as alone as he was, but it would have been a ridiculous statement. He was anything but alone. At that moment, standing beside a hospital bed in the gathering gloom, he wanted more than anything to be alone as she was. Minutes ago, he wanted immediacy and spontaneity. Here, with this woman, he struggled for words, and grasped at mental straws for things to say. Self-consciousness robbed him of casual friendliness.

She started on her meal, and despite hesitant picking, seemed to enjoy it. The room felt suddenly small and dark, taking on an intimate feeling from which he felt excluded. It was the end of visiting time. It was palpable, felt in the air: she wanted him to go, although she had not raised eyes from plate.

‘Do you want a light on? Before I go, I mean?’

Minnie nodded, and he hit a switch. The feeling of intimacy was dispelled.

‘Goodbye, then. Sleep well.’ He paused near the door. When her reply did not come, he walked quickly away, so absentmindedly that he bumped shoulders with a man going the other way. ‘I’m sorry.’

Piercing eyes registered tacit irritation.

The jewellery shop window was a field of glitter, a spread of stars of light. Bart squinted to make out individual pieces, then looked up and caught sight of his reflection in the glass at the back of the shop. He frowned: two horizontal lines appeared on his forehead, in the shadow of untidy brown hair, deep and crooked. He peered at himself, fascinated by how he seemed totally unchanged after the events of the past week; still a few inches too short, still tending to lean to one side, still prone to inertia.

Under the glass counter, several trays of rings set with coloured stones filled one section, and watches the one adjacent. An arrangement of seashells and dried algae was scattered with dozens of pairs of pearl earrings. He could not see what he wanted.

‘We have charms in a range of sizes and weights.’ A tall and leggy stick insect of an assistant, whose bony knuckles were incongruous among black velvet trays, brought out a large one, full of a neat array of charms. ‘These are eighteen-carat, made in Italy. I think it’s what you want.’

Bart felt foolish holding his own fist in the gesture he had seen Italians make at the Fremantle docks. He wondered about the exact significance of the clenched hand with index and little fingers extended, although he knew it was a common lucky charm.

‘This one?’

‘That one.’ Bart pointed at a gold charm about the size of the one Minnie lost in the accident.

Contro il malocchio.’ The voice was as thin as the stick insect’s fingers. It was Italian, and Bart recognised it. ‘It is against the evil eye.’ The man thought he was superstitious.

‘It’s a gift.’ As if it mattered what this man thought of him.

‘You’re not superstitious, then.’

Bart looked up, away and back again. He was not superstitious. He was nothing at all. Anything he could not weigh, measure, touch, taste or count meant little to him. His mother often said he was hard and practical, materialistic and soulless. His face looked hard. He was hard. Erin once called him unfeeling and cold. But he was not that. He was merely sceptical, realistic, preferring to question things, to weigh them and compare them. Belief was pointless, superstition more so, since they had little to do with knowledge, or anything that was verifiable or disprovable.

‘Religious people scoff at superstition.’ The salesman was bent on extracting some sort of declaration from him.

Bart grunted and shook his head. It was a similar curiosity he had levelled at Minnie, he guessed, but his inquisitiveness was prompted by a sense they had something in common. It was nothing as slick as what this man was after. He was not about to confide in this thin Heep, but he was the furthest from being religious than anyone he knew, especially his mother. Perhaps it was her extreme piety that turned him into what he was: Iris’s clammy insistent Catholic fervour. Perhaps it was why he believed in nothing.

The charm was ridiculously expensive. He held out his credit card and signed the slip, while consciously wresting his eyes from the mirror. Was his face really hard? There were two deep lines around his mouth; his nose was long and straight. Close-set eyes were what probably made him look stern, or his eyebrows, which almost met in the middle. But he knew for a fact, because Erin had said so, that his eyes, his soft brown eyes, as she described them, were clear and revealing. They were droopy, inquisitive eyes that belied the strong set of his chin and stern expression, softening his gaze even when he was angry.

‘You have sorrowful eyes, Bart.’ Erin had said it in her matter of fact way. ‘Like a small puppy. No woman can resist your eyes, can she?’

Was it true? With the small grey velvet pouch wrapped and tucked into his pocket, he left the shop, wondering whether he had a real reason to do what he was doing; whether it was a betrayal, something to conceal, something to keep from Erin. Of course it was. Buying a charm for another woman was not something he could tell her. He could speak about this new feeling he had, that came about even before Minnie lay on the café floor losing consciousness, to no one. No one at all. He had to sort it out himself, and looking in mirrors was not the way. He had looked in his own eyes in the shop, and he saw something there. It did not have a name yet. But he saw it.

The change of mood he looked forward to at the hospital was cut, by a nurse’s abrupt sentence. Minnie Cuff had been discharged. She was no longer at the hospital, and the forwarding address she left was in Melbourne.

Bart stood at the desk. He made an effort to avoid the nurse’s eyes, and shoved hands deep into the pockets of his jeans. ‘Melbourne.’

‘Mm.’ She sized him up, trying to decide whether he was a relative, an abandoned lover, a do-gooder, or casual acquaintance. ‘You didn’t know she was about to leave?’ 

‘I couldn’t make it yesterday …’ What was the point in telling this stranger anything? He swung his arms loosely, and knew it presented a picture of confusion, so tucked hands back in pockets. His left hand encountered the small package he brought. Although the nurse could not possibly know what was there, embarrassment flooded over him. Her kind of scrutiny was intolerable, so he turned suddenly back to the Fremantle streets, and headed towards the crowded market.

It was stifling and noisy. Bart was dizzy, struck lethargic by a fool’s errand, which he tried to drown with two very cold beers in quick succession, and stood at the corner pub like another of its hopeless regulars. Live music was deafening, but distracted him for a few minutes from dejection. Hemmed in on all sides by the milling crowd of tourists and shoppers, he needed a task to occupy him: something that would rid him of the feeling of being watched, a new sensation that made him look to left and right. He shook his head at the stupidity of caring about a young Englishwoman he would probably never see again. But someone stared, looked away and stared again. A burly man with a shaved head and dark glasses seemed interested in his every move. Bart shook his head. Disappointment that she had left was hard to shake off. He started to imagine things, and could not finish his third beer.

He took up, and abandoned almost immediately, a vague determination to look for something to buy, something like a decent mirror for the flat. Perhaps it was an effort to counter his earlier purchase. His head swam with the heat and proximity of a dozen bodies; all intent on pressing as closely to his own as they could. It was stupid, stupid standing there bristling with the futility of missing Minnie.

It was as futile as he had felt as a youngster, when he missed a father he hardly remembered. He would conjure visions of Minnie, he knew, just as he used to create scenes in which his father figured. They were creatively imagined visions that had ultimately turned him towards the visual arts and photography.

‘This is my confession,’ one of his childhood visions would say, not in a ghoulish monotone, but in a normally modulated conversational tone, which Bart could not possibly remember his father using. ‘I left because domesticity is ugly. Its intimacy is sticky: its details commonplace. I left because there was nowhere to go but out and up, like from an underwater cave.’ Absurd, and revealing, this ascribing of his own feelings to a father who could not have cared less about explanations. He shook his shoulders like a wet dog, but the feeling persisted.

All Bart could see was the back of his father’s hands, blue plump veins: long fingers with well-kept nails. Again absurd: he could not remember his hands. What had he done with those hands? He was a court registrar. The most he could have done was write entries into a register. Enter details into a ledger; writing lawyers’ names in columns, followed by the plaintiffs’, the defendants’. How could he know? He did not know. He could have remembered those hands performing ordinary tasks such as picking up a newspaper, curling around a cup of tea. They were hands that patted and smoothed the outside of a black leather briefcase, whose battered elegance was understated. Was his father such a man?  His mother had said so, at every possible opportunity.

As a child, there were reasons for his father’s absence that tumbled from his mother’s mouth whenever people mentioned him. He remembered her explain the void left by the absence, and rationalise the emptiness in their home with crazy inventions.

‘Charles is in China.’ He heard her say it, his child’s eyes wide with amazement, from time to time.

Charles was seeking his fortune: like Dick Whittington. Like Marco Polo. No one ever saw or heard from him after that last morning. Bart’s mother had no idea where he was. China was a total fiction. Where had she got China? It was ridiculous. Sometimes her lies shocked him. Her strict Catholic beliefs were of a highly personalised nature. They allowed her to lie. They allowed her to curse. But she never swayed from her peculiar interpretation of what it meant to be Catholic. A Catholic with a pursed mouth; a sour set of lines, engraved on either side with a permanent frown of disapproval that marked the oval face from the very moment that Charles – my Charles,  she called him disappeared off the face of the earth.

Before that, to her account, it was perfect: another lie. Bart reasoned it was far from perfect. If it were perfect, why had his father vanished from their lives? Why were only two places laid at table, and his father included in Prayers for the Dead at Mass, and at each bedtime? They prayed for his soul as if he were dead, and spoke about him being in China when it was necessary to lie.


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