by Paul Raworth Bennett
Thinking briefly that he was dreaming – that he wasn’t really in that packed theatre after all – Remy leaned forward in his seat, grasped the sides of his walker, and wobbled to his feet. Softly taking her husband’s forearm, Anaïs began to rise as well.
“I’m okay. Really, I’ll be fine,” he gently admonished her.
Anaïs fully understood the gravity of the triumphant moment – how important it was that Remy prevail over his painful, failing legs. For once he didn’t really need them, or anything, or anyone, anymore. And although he looked a little awkward in the old brown suit she’d convinced him to wear, during forty-six years of loving Remy, at no other point had she admired or adored him more greatly.
His veined, knobby hands gripping the walker, Remy shuffled twenty feet towards the small staircase leading up to the stage. Eleven hundred pairs of eyes followed him and from somewhere far above, a lone cough pierced the silence.
Reaching the base of the stairs, Remy pushed the walker aside, gripped the two polished rails, and slowly ascended. He wobbled on the top step as the emcee rushed over with his hand outstretched.
“Not to worry, young fella! I’ve got this!” The old man regained his balance.
Remy’s reflection in her watery eyes, Anäis chuckled. She wasn’t surprised by his pluck; he’d spent a lifetime conquering staircases far more challenging than this – staircases that would lead him into danger, steepen or lengthen without warning, or even dissolve beneath his feet.
An usher lifted the walker to the stage, and Remy took a full minute to shuffle forty feet towards a spot beside the lectern. Turning to the right, he gazed across a sea of smiles while the emcee stepped up to the mic, arranged his notes, cleared his throat, and began.
“Dr. Remy Odyssus, it is the National Press Photographer’s Association’s honor to recognize you for your numerous, unprecedented, exemplary accomplishments as a war-zone photojournalist embedded with our nation’s military during highly dangerous operations. Your unforgettable images have created widespread public awareness of the devastation of war and of the tremendous courage and resilience of people who have lost literally everything.
Furthermore, we would like to commend you not just for your own astonishing portfolio, but also for your tireless three-decade mentorship of countless aspiring photojournalists. Many of them have gone on to enjoy award-winning careers of their own, and some have even flown in from around the globe to join us this evening.
Finally, we would like to acknowledge your sixteen years in senior leadership roles with the National Press Photographer’s Association, most recently during the past two years as Chair of our Education and Professional Development committee. You’ve done as much as anyone throughout our 96-year history to further the professional development of our thirty-three-hundred members, and for that, thousands will ever be grateful.
Therefore, it is with great pleasure that we award you the Robert Capa Prize for a lifetime of photojournalistic excellence.”
Then the young man turned towards the old one, presenting him with a glass and brass-framed certificate. Its several pounds of heft were nothing compared to the heavy mental shackles against which Remy had struggled for almost his entire life.
He briefly wondered whether starting his photojournalism career in his forties really qualified him for any kind of lifetime achievement award – but then Remy reminded himself how his life had really only begun, after several self-destructive decades, when he finally allowed himself to follow his heart into photojournalism.
“Dr. Odyssus, while you’re up on the stage, would you kindly pose for a few media photos? It should only take a few seconds.”
“Okay” whispered Remy, who normally shunned the limelight. Standing woodenly, clutching his certificate in one hand and gripping his walker with the other, he smiled awkwardly at the wall of clicks and flashes.
And through his aging body rolled a warm, oceanic swell of feelings he’d rarely savored as an adult – pride, success, accomplishment, worthiness – while he fumbled for his linen pocket square, fishing it out just in time to prevent only some of the large briny trickles rolling down his cheeks from splashing onto the lacquered wooden floor.
“Is this really happening?” Remy questioned himself, “or is this a dream?” Despite being published and honored and featured and feted more times than he could remember, he still battled the evil twins of self-doubt and self-loathing.
Regaining his composure, he relaxed and smiled again. After a few more dabs of his square, he refocused on the countless smiles while Anäis cried into her hands.
But then Remy startled. Hector, his childhood dark angel, was sitting front-row-centre, his eyes boring darkness and fear into two holes in Remy’s chest while his sinister face, reminiscent of Guy Fawkes, slowly turned from left to right. A suffocating feeling enveloped the old man, who felt like a bird whose wings are being clipped for the thousandth time.
The audience leapt to its feet, filling the room with deafening applause – but Remy could only hear Hector’s taunt: “You know something, Remy? You’re right – you ARE dreaming, and none of this is actually happening,” hissed the voice. “You don’t deserve this. You’re a failure, a fraud, and in a moment you’re going to wake up and face another miserable day.”
His knees buckling, Remy was overcome by a wave of nausea and the searing sensation, felt countless times before, of a knife being slowly twisted into his heart.
“Go back to hell! You evil, rotten bastard! ” he blurted, “You have no power over me!!”
Hundreds of hands leapt upon hundreds of mouths. The emcee rushed a chair towards the shaking old man, who was gripping his walker with an almost destructive force.
“Dr. Odyssus? Would you like to sit down? Please!”
“No, thank you young man, I’ll be just fine. I’m so sorry, I just… I just… Please forgive me, everyone.”
The audience was aghast at this flash of anger. They’d never seen him act like this before! Was he paranoid, deluded, hallucinatory, losing his mind? But then, out of enormous respect and realizing erratic behavior as a hallmark of artistic genius, the crowd conceded Remy his outburst and the atmosphere quickly lightened again.
And although also startled, Anaïs was proud of her husband’s outburst, having witnessed first-hand how Hector’s psychic seed had continuously threatened their marriage by dooming the man she treasured to self-denial and self-destruction. He may have just loudly berated his dark angel – but he’d spent most of his life berating himself.
Remy forced his eyes to again look directly at Hector – but Hector had fled. Strength flooded back into the old man’s body, chasing away the shivers and the pain. He steadied himself and stood up straight, and Anaïs’ eyes watered anew.
Then he dried his cheeks one last time and, smiling shyly, acknowledged once more the clicks, flashes, and a thunderous crescendo of applause.
But it was anyone’s guess where and when Hector might next appear.