Her eyes stinging from staring at the screen, Laura blinked back tears. She would never understand this stupid useless stuff no matter how many hours she sat here. What did anyone do with stochastics? She tossed down her pencil, slid open her bottom desk drawer, and removed the book she was reading. No one, not even brainy Olivia, bothered with poetry. Except, it seemed, for Zach. Laura had been surprised to find out how much she liked the poems. This woman’s desperation could make you gasp as though you’d fallen into an icy sea and were struggling to keep your head above water, struggling to swim for shore, unable to see its outline for the frost smoke. Up close, Zach’s hair had smelled faintly of burnt matches as he’d handed her the book. She wondered where he’d been.
Her door opened. Quickly she thrust the book under her scratch sheets, but it was only Max.
‘When are you going to learn to knock?’ she asked. ‘I might have been in my underwear. Or naked.’
Max shut the door behind him. One eye was dark and puffy, his bottom lip split. Skin scraped from his cheek and jaw.
‘Max! Have you been fighting?’
‘Ssh. Mum will hear.’
‘You’re going to need a mask to hide those bruises. Better yet, a hangman’s hood.’
‘Yeah, I know.’ He sighed. ‘I was hoping you’d think of a good story.’
‘Here.’ He took something from his pocket and gave it to her.
Laura unfolded the small white envelope, small and white and blank. She looked up at her brother.
‘Who’s it from?’
Laura hoped that Max couldn’t hear her sudden inrush of breath.
‘You’ve seen him? He’s OK?’
‘Better than me.’
He blinked rapidly, and Laura was touched by his vulnerability. Still a little boy, though she’d never say so. But then he straightened his shoulders in a manner copied from a zillion films. The sensitive yet brave hero facing adversity. Soon he’d not allow himself even a single sniff in her presence. She curbed her impulse to put an arm round him.
‘Where did you see him? What did he say?’ she asked.
‘At the pitch. All he said was to give the envelope to you. He left pretty fast, but not fast enough.’
‘What did they do to him?’ She couldn’t keep the fear from her voice.
‘Not to him. To me.’
‘Yeah, well.’ Then he grinned. ‘Broke Tommy Atwell’s nose, I think.’
‘Double shit. More trouble.’
‘Na. They won’t cozz.’
‘They didn’t see him pass me the note. In a fair dust-up you don’t grass on your mates.’
‘Then why the fight?’
Max dropped his eyes.
‘Stupid auger, he should’ve known better than to come near me when anybody else was around.’
‘Don’t call him that!’
‘It was dumb of him. Real dumb.’ But he didn’t repeat the word.
Laura regarded her brother for a moment. ‘I get it. They said stuff about me.’
‘Is it true?’ Max burst out. ‘That you—that you have sex with him?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘But you’ve been thinking . . . I mean . . . ‘
‘Little brother, you’ve got no idea what I’m thinking!’
‘I only meant, you went to his place.’
‘With some schoolwork. He’d been absent a lot. Then I saw he was ill, needed help.’
‘That was just a lie for Mum and Dad. And the plods.’
‘Not exactly.’ Laura smoothed her fingers over the envelope. She could almost feel his voice whispering to her from the paper. If only her skin could hear a little better . . .
‘You like him?’ Max asked.
Max would get punished no matter what story they fixed between them. Because of her.
‘Yeah, I like him. Not the way you mean, but I like him.’
‘They said he sleeps with everyone. Even’—a whisper now— ‘even boys.’
‘Max, he’s just somebody from school, but he’s nice. Don’t believe all the rubbish you hear.’
‘But what if—’
Their mother’s voice went off suddenly like a smoke alarm, only louder. ‘Max, are you upstairs? Come down here immediately! You’ve left your dirty boots in the middle of the hall again. And your holdall. Max!’
Laura tapped her brother on the hand. ‘You’d better go.’
‘What should I tell her? You know how she gets about fighting. Like their sort.’
‘The best lies are close to the truth. Twins, hard to tell apart.’
‘Max! Do you hear me?’ More strident now.
Max went to the door and opened it a crack. ‘Coming, Mum. Just need the loo.’ He looked back at Laura.
‘Don’t say too much, that’s when they get suspicious,’ she said. ‘Try something about their insulting her.’
‘Max! I’m warning you. Get down here right now or you’ll regret it. Do you want to be grounded like your sister?’
‘Don’t worry, even she wouldn’t ground you for defending her,’ Laura said. ‘Just make sure to report at least one juicy swear word. Cunt will do.’
‘I’m not having her ring round to everyone’s mum!’
‘For godsake. How could any brother of mine be such a bad liar? Then say it was some simu kid from school. That she’ll believe, but won’t be able to do a thing. Especially if you say you can’t tell them apart anyway.’
‘You got it.’ She blew him a kiss. ‘And Max—’
After Max left, she stood up and went to bolt her door. Though it wouldn’t keep her mum out for long, at least no one could sally in unannounced. The shouting from downstairs barely registered, much like the noise from the high-speed rail line which ran behind the flats where Olivia’s dad lived. You got used to it.
Back at her desk, she picked up the envelope and held it for a few moments between her fingers, then laid it down again. One part of her wanted to tear it open straightaway; another part wanted to enjoy the anticipation—or possibly, postpone the disappointment. He was mad to write to her. Mad to try to contact her at all. Why did madness seem like the true matrix of sanity?
Finally she carried the envelope to the window. Leaning against the casement, she carefully prised open the flap. A crow was hopping among her dad’s dahlias, his glossy black plumage contrasting sharply with the ostentatious sprawl of colour in the flowerbed. She’d always hated those flowers—vulgar tarts slathered with lippy, top-heavy and lolling suggestively. She preferred the crows, though her father called them nasty pests and fought an endless, futile battle against them. He’d even offered Max a pellet gun alongside a premium, but her brother had been horrified. There wasn’t a bird with a broken wing or an orphaned litter of hedgehogs which Max didn’t try to rescue. If she didn’t know better, she’d have thought somebody had scrambled his genetic code.
She watched the alert movements of the crow until he cocked his head in her direction. A keen eye whose scrutiny was unmistakable—and familiar. She giggled, then rapped a knuckle against the pane. As he rose into the air, she was startled by the black rainbow of his flight—Zach’s hair shimmered in the sunlight with the same iridescence.
Inside the envelope was a thin sheet of white paper which she’d have to destroy no matter what he’d written; no texting and no messaging and no emailing, they’d agreed. She drew it out with fingers just short of trembling. She missed the easygoing times with Livs when they’d been able to say anything and everything to each other. Now even opening a note—or your mouth—seemed to require as much discipline as winning an Olympic gold medal. Towards which, despite her mother, she was most definitely not about to swim.
Unfolded, the sheet revealed an exquisite, handcut paper snowflake, as delicately wrought as silver filigree. Utterly anonymous, devastatingly personal. Laura held it up against the light. She could see those long fingers snipping with a scissors, that crow hair swinging forward as he bent over the table.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered, and he might have smiled in response. But the rest—the kiss, the embrace, the future—took place in her own imagination.
Owen was waiting for her at the pool on Saturday.
‘You must be starving after all that swimming. Let’s get a burger,’ he said. He made no mention of her weeks of punishment, nor of Zach. Laura should have been grateful; instead, she felt irritated and resentful. That damned niceness again.
‘Only if we go someplace new.’
‘Where?’ he asked, amenable.
‘Follow me. We’ll walk.’
She’d seen what she thought might be a ginkgo tree near the canal. Its leaves would already be yellowing this late in October, but she’d collect a few anyway and slip them into an envelope.
Owen was fit, but she was fitter. She set a punishing pace, then increased it in deliberate increments, remembering how she’d had to stride to keep up with Zach. By the time they reached the old cannery, Owen was panting slightly, with a thin film of sweat above his upper lip and on his forehead. Though the nights had turned cool, the midday sun could still insist on homage like an ageing rock star. Owen stopped to catch his breath.
‘Hold on a sec, I don’t think we ought to be heading this way,’ he said, trying to disguise his physical discomfort by turning aside and pointing towards the canal. ‘Not a good area to hang around. And no place where there’s anything decent to eat, unless you fancy weird spices or rancid grease. Or cockroaches.’
‘Come on, we can sit down for a bit on that wall,’ she said, sweetly solicitous.
He gave her a look that reminded her of one of Max’s strays. The ever-present threat of humiliation seemed to sharpen their wits. She took his hand, abashed. It wasn’t his fault, was it?
He followed her with obvious reluctance. The cannery fronted the canal and was infamous for its contingent of streeters whose numbers only declined—temporarily—after periodic police raids. When she’d been driven away from Zach’s flat that night, she’d seen the glow of paraffin lamps and cooking fires through its smeared and partly boarded-up windows.
‘Fulgur’s thinking of knocking it down and building a new production unit on this site,’ Owen said. ‘It’s prime property.’
Owen’s dad was much further up in the corporate hierarchy than Laura’s—so much further, in fact, that family assets included an indoor swimming pool, a full-time housekeeper, and a custom-built Jaguar. Another reason Laura’s mum fawned over Owen. And to his credit, Laura had to admit that he didn’t fit the stereotype of spoilt rich kid. Six siblings might have had something to do with it, plus a mum who was known for her down-to-earth style, which included Household Responsibilities for the kids—and her husband, Laura suspected.
She studied the brick wall of the cannery, which was covered by graffiti. Most of it the usual stuff, lots of tags and dubs and lav epithets, but there was one painting that she wanted to get a closer look at. ‘Be right back,’ she told Owen, and sprang down from the wall. ‘Wait here,’ she added at his protest. ‘There’s nobody around. You can come to the rescue when the kankers show up.’ She saw that he intended to join her. ‘I mean it,’ she said rather sharply. ‘I want to go by myself.’
A nice dilemma for him, she thought, irritated once more. Her mum was right, he was perfect boyfriend material. If only perfect weren’t a synonym for boring.
It took her a while to navigate the rubbish-strewn ground. Up close, the creature was even more disturbing: an enormous black figure, half man and half crow, with glittering eyes, talons like scimitars, and a wild disarray of long hair. His torso and part of his limbs were human, his face nearly so. Laura stared at his features for a long time, then walked a few metres to the left, stopped, and regarded him again. After retracing her steps, she repeated the manoeuvre to the right. No matter where she stood, the crowman seemed to be looking straight at her, something she remembered from certain museum portraits. Almost as if he had a desperate message to impart.
Her stomach growled, a reminder that Owen was waiting for her. She turned, waved, and began to pick her way back across the overgrown tract. After a few steps she cast one last glance over her shoulder at the painting. It was then that she heard a sound from inside the building—moaning, or perhaps low sobbing. She stopped and listened. There. Ignoring Owen’s surprised shout, she went in search of a door.
Once her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she was able to see quite well. She had to skirt rubble, puddles of water, and the odd piece of broken equipment, but there was no sign of habitation till she reached a small series of interconnected rooms which, to judge from the overturned filing cabinets, a single shattered monitor, and decaying furniture, must have formed an office block. Several stained mattresses were piled in a corner of the second room, along with newish-looking bin liners, cardboard boxes, and a paraffin cooker. Two battered enamel pans rested near the cooker, some candles and a tablespoon on an upturned metal drawer. The bin liners looked full, but Laura didn’t stop to check their contents. Not that she believed they’d contain body parts . . . not really. But the whimpering was nearby now, and her courage beginning to wane. She’d noted the empty bottles, the smell. Only the momentum of her search—or perhaps the memory of the crowman—kept her going.
In the third office she found the child.
Her—no, his—wrists and ankles were bound with rope. He lay in a foetal position on a piece of cardboard, his long hair covering most of his face. As soon as he saw her, he ceased moaning and watched with over-bright eyes. He was nearly naked. He was shivering. He was filthy. He stank. And he was an auger.
With a hiss his eyes darted behind her—warning or fear. She spun round.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Owen said. ‘This place is dangerous.’
Then he too caught sight of the child.
‘Shit,’ he said. ‘What’s that?’
That began to shudder at the sound of Owen’s voice.