‘I know about Max.’
Laura’s father did nothing dramatic like jam on the brakes or swerve into a parked car. Perhaps he hadn’t heard, so she raised her voice to compete with the windscreen wipers. On the passenger side the black rubber of the blade was scritching wide bands of slurry across the glass, which she couldn’t remember ever happening before. Her dad undertook all minor repairs immediately, and even repainting a room or laying a new floor was arranged in short order. Her mum wouldn’t have tolerated it any other way.
At the next junction Litchfield slowed, then at the last moment continued straight on. Laura glanced at him. ‘You’ve missed the turning.’
‘There’s something I’ve got to take care of.’
‘Did you hear what I said about Max?’
‘How are you feeling? Need to lie down?’
‘I’m fine.’ She lowered the zip on her jacket and reached to adjust the heater.
Her dad threw her a quick look, concern on his tired face. ‘Sweating?’
‘I’m not feverish, if that’s what you mean. You’ve had the heater at full blast.’ Unlike your mouth, but she knew better than to say so. Instead, she studied his profile. Sometimes he could be persuaded by silence, the power of which her mum had never managed to grasp. It wouldn’t have occurred to Laura that both her parents liked it this way.
He was going bald, and on his thin face the pouches under his eyes sagged like a ripped hem. And those lines at the corners of his mouth, how deep they were becoming. A small scared voice piped up from under the covers, ‘Please don’t leave me alone with her, Daddy.’
It would be dark soon. She leaned her head against the cold window and closed her eyes. If her dad needed to run an errand, so what? She was in no hurry to get home.
The modest brick houses gave way to a superstore complex on the right and some monotonous prefab buildings—a car dealer, warehouses, a sports complex—scattered like a child’s building blocks among scrubby lots on the left, behind which ran the canal. Greyish sleet blurred the passing scene more thoroughly than tears, as though someone had wiped the world with one of those sponges which float like a dead animal in the scuzzy water at a petrol station; she’d always made Max clean the windows. She tried not to think about Zach, but within seconds, five, ten, he’s in the car with her and holding her and this time he’s not holding back and it’s nothing like Owen nothing like nothing like
She swallowed a cry. They were bumping over a small bridge. Quickly she rolled down the window.
‘Just a moment of nausea,’ she said, her face in the sidestream, her deep breathing a touch melodramatic. Don’t overdo it, she warned herself. The graupel stung like a cheap, gritty facial peel, not that it would cleanse anything; the worst pustules never rose to the surface.
‘You were whimpering.’ He steered towards the verge. ‘Maybe we’d best turn round.’
‘I’m OK, stop fussing.’
Rolling the window up again, she focused properly on their whereabouts. ‘What are we doing way out here anyway?’
‘You’ll see in a few minutes.’
Within those few minutes they were driving along a narrow lane, which quickly became a track through dense woodland, bare branches as well as needled limbs scraping the sides of the car as if in warning; fingers tattooing a message into the metallic skin that enclosed them. But the track itself was surprisingly free of ruts, smooth as hard-packed turf and gravelled in places, so that Laura speculated how often it was used, and by whom. Somebody was maintaining it, without trimming the overhanging conifers which concealed it even in winter.
Riding in a car in bad weather has the feel of stasis, the sort of timely lull which releases a flash flood of memory. Laura’s uncle died soon after her eleventh birthday when his car crashed through a low barrier and flipped into a river late at night; it had been raining, he’d been drinking, and though his window had shattered, he’d been pinned in the vehicle. Does your whole life really flash before your eyes when you drown, she wondered. Is there remorse in the last moments of life? Or only fear? She’d imagined the accident so often as to have become an eyewitness, his desperate struggle to escape, to hold his breath, to breathe, a spillway for her own throat-constricting nightmares.
At the end of the track there was a small turning circle. Her dad stopped the car and cut the engine, but only dimmed the headlights. Though the sleet was abating, Laura could see no path, no building, no reason whatsoever for the track to end so abruptly. The windscreen and windows gradually fogged as he sat with his hands on the steering wheel, staring ahead. There was an air of concentration about him, similar to his trancelike preoccupation when even her mum knew better than to interrupt: the solution to a thorny research problem might be lost forever, along with her chance for a Nobel Prize. And nothing like the fixed smile and rigid bearing which Max had dubbed their dad’s Charles d’Arc stance after one particularly vicious rave of her mum’s. Mummy Dear had overheard, though she was usually too possessed by her own rage to notice anything short of an approaching cyclone, and that only when it had already ripped off the roof. It had been the wooden cooking spoon and no TV for a week.
Zipping up her jacket, Laura decided to give her father till one hundred. Numbers, however, couldn’t pin her slippery thoughts in place. By fifty she was wondering yet again how he’d succeeded in covering up Max’s nature for so long—the why was obvious—and by ninety she was toying with extending her count, since she really wasn’t keen to face her mum, when her dad broke his silence. ‘Come on. I’ve warned them to expect us.’ Without further explanation, he opened his door and an icy wind blew into the car. He frowned and poked his head out like a dog sniffing the air, then retracted it to ask, ‘Smell anything?’
‘Wood burning, maybe. Is there a cottage round here?’
At once he shoved the door full back and sprang out. After a brief hesitation Laura joined him where the ground canted sharply into thick brake. She crossed her arms, shivering despite her warm jacket. The smell of smoke was unmistakable now, and beyond the carspawn of light she could see a faint glow in the distance—the rosy tint of a charming winter scene with bonfire and wooden sledges and apple-cheeked children, painted in oil, the kind reproduced on Christmas cards and calendars.
‘Something’s on fire,’ she said rather unnecessarily.
Her dad stared a moment longer through the trees, his lips thinning to extinction, then hurried back to the car. Laura followed him to the boot, from which he was already removing the survival blankets and emergency medical kit he always kept in readiness.
‘What’s going on?’ she asked.
‘Come on, you’ll have to help.’ He cleared his throat, and his voice strengthened. ‘I can’t abandon them.’
‘Who—’ Laura began.
He thrust the blankets at her. ‘Carry these. There’s a cottage up ahead—a safehouse.’
‘Quiet, just listen. There are some kids living here, one of them may be injured. You’re a good liar. I don’t know exactly what’s waiting for us, but follow my cues if anyone’s about, you may have to play up the sweet young girl. Loads of syrupy innocence. It’ll allay suspicion.’ He went to switch off the headlights, pluck his torch from the glove compartment, and activate central locking, then led her grimly towards the funeral pyre.
For that’s what it had become, this ‘safehouse’. She knew it as they trudged through the sodden snow, the sleety wind harrying them despite the treebreak. Knew it as the air grew thick and brack. Knew it as she watched her dad bow further, with each step he took, under the weight of dread. His spirit’s darkfall, and the trees creaking in the keening breath of the winter night. Grey ash drifting like flurries. The burnt smell of it.
Laura’s boots and the bottoms of her jeans were caked with wet snow, her toes numb, by the time they neared the site. Flickers of flame were still flaring up here and there on the wind, and smoke embalming the remains. They shouldn’t have come, she intoned under her breath, shouldn’t have come, though she’d probably get a new pair of boots out of it. It was better to think about boots than what it felt like to be trapped in a fire.
How did Max block out the pain?
Her dad wasn’t stopped by the sound of voices, an ugly laugh. Lowering his torch, he waded straight out of the woods and into their midst, while every cell in her body shrieked like a tripped smoke alarm. It was only the thought of what they’d do to her dad, to her, this rough-looking lot who were gathering round, that kept her from fleeing. There were too many of them, ten or eleven, brazening it out was their only chance. Openly hostile faces, and not a woman among them. And maybe a couple more out of sight. Beyond the ruins there was a flutter of movement through the haze of smoke.
‘Where the fuck have you come from?’ A meaty bloke in a sheepskin jacket, no cheap tatty-looking item either.
Several of the men were carrying rifles, but she had no idea what sort. Not that it made much difference, nobody was about to check their licences.
‘If you don’t mind, I prefer my daughter doesn’t hear such language.’ Her dad put his arm protectively—demonstratively—around her shoulders, then squeezed a warning. With the incessant ranting from her mum over the years, he’d had plenty of opportunity to perfect a tranquil bedside manner.
‘Answer the question, mate.’ This from a belly with thick lips and a broken nose that had been set by someone with training in political caricature. ‘You’re trespassing on private property.’
‘Daddy, I’m really really cold. Can we go home soon?’ Laura stamped her feet and shivered and even managed to chatter her teeth. She hadn’t used daddy since she’d been about six years old.
‘Just a moment, sweetheart. These people may need our help.’ Her dad hefted his bag. ‘I’m a doctor. I saw the fire from the road, though it took me a while to find the lane. Is anyone injured? And have you rung emergency services?’
‘A doctor, eh? What are you doing round here at your girl’s suppertime?’
Not dim, then, the sheepskin. Laura smiled winningly at him. ‘My big sister Grace has just had her baby. Such a sweet little boy, you can’t imagine, so tiny, and those fingers. Mummy’s staying over but Daddy has to operate tomorrow.’
‘I tried to take a shortcut after the Arpingdale campgrounds,’ her dad said, ‘but my nav system seems to be acting up. Sometimes I think we’d do better without all these devices.’
A third man edged closer, his eyes glassy and his words just short of slurred. ‘A medical man like you must like his tech.’ Laura couldn’t tell if all of them had been drinking, or only this bloke. The smell of smoke, bitter as slag, infiltrated everything. If she scooped up a handful of snow, it would probably taste like ash.
‘I’ve no problem with technology to treat disease or save lives,’ her dad said, ‘but not when it’s used to create inhuman monsters.’
A sucking sound like a plug pulled from the bathwater, then a tinnitus of sparks as something in the ruins collapsed. None of the men turned to look. There were a few whispers. Laura glanced round the circle of faces and saw that one or two of them were smiling at her now, and one nodding like a fucking marionette with a string loose. She would have liked to cut it through.
‘Baby OK?’ Sheepskin asked.
‘Completely normal, thank god. Nothing like that in our family. But thanks for asking. So nobody’s injured?’
‘Nah. It’s Siler’s old place.’ Sheepskin nodded towards a man standing near the old well, a lit cigarette cupped in his hands. ‘We neighbours got together and torched it. Roof half gone already, windows too, but you know how it is. Vermin were taking hold.’
She could feel her dad’s fingers digging into her shoulder and clutched the blankets tighter, but his face remained impassive. She didn’t know how long his self-control could last. Seldom as he spoke about his patients, there are deaths impossible to entomb in silence—like the girl who’d been locked since infancy in a cellar, abused, incontinent, and emaciated, with only rudimentary speech, whom he’d tried to help with the latest neurolinguistic techniques. He liked kids. He was patient with kids. His favourite university patients were kids.
‘Daddy, can we go now? My feet are freezing, and I’m hungry.’
‘Here, lassie, I reckon you could do with some chocolate.’ An older man handed her a whole bar, which she accepted with a show of enthusiasm. ‘Save it for the car, you aren’t wanting to take off your gloves in the cold.’
‘We’ll be off, then,’ her dad said. ‘Since there’s nothing for me to do.’
There was a scattershot of goodbyes. As they turned to leave, Laura threw one last look towards the ruin. Only a single wall was left standing, rough-cut stone with fireplace and chimney where one day bats might safely roost. It wouldn’t be long before brambles began to reclaim the blackened ground; spiders, insects, all manner of wildlife. Blinking back tears, she almost missed the flash of light from the trees on the margin of the clearing. This time he was holding the crystal aloft, a glittering arc of rainbow colours sweeping across the snow. Wildly she glanced round to see if anyone else had noticed, but once again, whatever this man—this apparition—wanted, he wanted only from her. Who are you? she thought. But nothing in her imagination could have prepared her for the sudden vista which opened before her—an obsidian sea of silence flowing into flowstone sound, and beyond sound, and beyond. She stumbled and would have fallen if her dad hadn’t caught her arm. We have been called many names, in untold languages, but I have always liked the sound of fylgja.
Her dad picked up the survival blankets, shook off the snow, and bundled them under an arm. In silence they walked through the wood, following the path they themselves had trampled. When they reached the car, her dad stowed away his kit while Laura plucked the chocolate bar from her pocket, gripped it tightly in her fist as if to crush it, then raised her arm and lobbed it savagely across the track into the opposite bank. She hugged herself in an attempt to subdue—conceal—her shivering. The simus were right, men are predators. Sick, vile, brutish predators.
Dark, but never dark enough. Waiting. Endless sleepless hours waiting. Finally the soft click of the latch, the spill of pallid light and the sourish smell of him, the door sighing shut, the bolt snibbing into place. His footsteps, barefoot, onetwo threefour . . . at seven he always reaches the bed. Laura, he says, pretty little Laura kitten. No more waiting. He’s waiting, she knows what to do. The magic ice cream cone which grows bigger with every lick.
‘You’re cold, we need to get you back home and into bed.’ Her dad peeled off a glove and laid a hand on her forehead. ‘A bit feverish.’
Sidestepping out of reach, Laura was about to blurt out a reflexive denial when she realised that bed, and sleep, would in fact be welcome. For a moment she ached to crawl into Zach’s arms, to lie in the sweet simple reservoir of his warmth. But it would have to be a hot bath and flannel pyjamas, as after a bruising swim, and the sanctuary of bittersweet daydreams.
Why had she been so stupid? Why hadn’t she remembered that even kittens have claws and teeth?
Once inside the car, her dad gripped the steering wheel without speaking. Laura waited, tears close again. Illness and fatigue make you trembly, shock, there was no reason to think she was going mad: seeing things that weren’t there. Or things that were always there, imperceptible to a mind saned rather than sainted. Joan of Arc heard voices accompanied by a blaze of light. Poets have heard hierarchies of terrible angels. She and Max were siblings, weren’t they? Is that why her dad wouldn’t talk about Max?
The mind builds the walls of its own, perhaps its only, safehouse.
‘How naïve of me, how misguided to think I could keep them safe. How arrogant. I should have let Fulgur have them.’ He turned to look at her, his eyes raw with the pain of it. ‘At least they’d still be alive.’
Kids shouldn’t have to give that sort of forgiveness to a parent. ‘Who? You haven’t explained.’
He switched on the engine, the headlights and wipers, jammed the car into reverse, gunned backwards, but when the wheels began to spin, he stopped and took an audible breath, collected himself.
‘Simu twins, a bit younger than Max. Eliot and Nicola. And their foster mother.’
‘You were hiding them?’
‘Something like that.’ ‘Why? It’s a pretty serious crime. I mean, I can understand about Max, he’s your own son, but . . . ‘
‘They were very gifted kids. Wonderful, trusting kids.’ He removed his knitted cap and passed a hand through his hair, then stared at the damp wool till Laura was obliged to prompt him.
‘Max told you about the scare he had at the Christmas party, didn’t he? It’s only confirmed what I’ve suspected for a long time. Fulgur is keen to get its hands on a telepath. And Eliot and Nicola were telepaths, fearsome telepaths, so fearsome that it scared me sometimes.’
After a short silence Laura asked, ‘What does Fulgur want with telepaths?’
‘Has Zach said anything at all about his project?’
She shook her head.
‘The wars over oil reserves are nothing compared to what we’re likely to see in the near future. The mind—the cognoscens mind, especially—is our most valuable natural resource. Fulgur has just been quicker to recognise it.’ He regarded his hat as if it had mistaken him for a hat rack, then tossed it onto the dashboard. ‘I’m not surprised Zach has been scrupulous about not involving you. But if you care for him the way I think you do, it’s far too late. You’re already involved.’
Later that evening Max came into Laura’s room while she was sitting cross-legged on her bed, Fabio’s origami crow before her on the duvet. She’d succeeded in straightening it enough to roost without toppling, but it was lopsided and badly creased. She liked running a finger gently over the paper wings, and made it into a game: how much pressure could it withstand before falling on its side?
Max thrust a packet of her favourite toffee at her—his favourite too, yet unopened.
‘Thanks,’ she said, touched by this sign of affection. ‘Want one?’
‘They’re for you, otherwise Zach will bite my head off.’
‘What’s Zach got to do with it?’
‘They’re from him.’
‘You’ve seen him?’
With a sheepish grin Max shook his head, then looked at his feet.
She was silent for a moment, gnawing her underlip. It wasn’t pretty, being jealous of your little brother.
‘He talks to you?’ she asked.
‘I’ve taught him a few tricks.’
‘Tricks, you call them? I’d love to see the website you got them magic tricks from!’
‘Look, it’s just a way to signal when he wants me to pay attention.’ His cheeks pinked. ‘I’m supposed to tell you he’s thinking about you.’
‘What’s he done? Forgotten to pay his phone bill?’
‘Mum.’ Max rolled his eyes, that stupid mannerism he’d picked up from Owen’s brother George. ‘There’ve been a lot of calls. She’s even taken your mobile so you won’t be disturbed.’
‘Yeah, right. That’s her story. And stop rolling your eyes, it makes you look like a Moss family clone.’ Angrily Laura tore open the packet and shook out several toffees onto the duvet. ‘Go on. He won’t mind.’
‘Just don’t forget to brush your milk teeth.’ It wasn’t like him not to retort, he hated any suggestion of childishness. Something was bothering him. Ashamed of having flared up, Laura patted the bed and slid towards the wall so that he could sit down. He picked up the paper bird and prodded its crooked beak, his own tentative smile the response.
‘You ought to think of becoming a vet when you grow up,’ she said.
Max unwrapped one of the chocolate-covered sort and popped it into his mouth. Laura didn’t need any special gift to know that it was his way of evading the topic; the future. She reached out and touched two fingers to his bony wrist, just over the vulnerable nexus of veins.
He swallowed. ‘Zach says he might be getting a bigger flat one day.’
Balancing the bird on the palm of his hand, Max kept his eyes on it as though it might spread its fragile wings and take flight. ‘Do you think . . . maybe I could . . . I mean, I’d keep out of the way and everything.’
‘Max, I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about.’
For a while he continued to stare at the bird. When he finally looked up, he still didn’t quite meet her eye, and his cheeks were even rosier. ‘Zach said that in a year or two, Dad might let me move in. In a lot of places the code’s not strictly enforced, and anyway, sometimes there’s special permission.’
‘Simus ought to stick together, eh?’ Laura snatched the bird back from his hand, tossed it onto her bedside cabinet, and sprang to her feet. She strode across the room and yanked at the curtains, though in fact they were already drawn. ‘Mum will fight like hell to keep you.’ She took a deep breath, another, breathing in remembered warmth. ‘Not that it’ll do any good, but I’ll take your side. Zach would look after you.’ There’s no finer man. Her back to Max, she continued to clutch the edges of the fabric while blinking hard. It would take someone like Zach to keep Max safe.
‘You mean you wouldn’t mind?’ She could hear the relief in his voice.
‘It’s got nothing to do with me, does it?’
‘Zach said you’d have to agree.’
Slowly she turned to face her brother, her heart beating too fast. It was obviously going to take some time before she was fit again. ‘Whatever for?’
‘If you guys are going to share a flat . . . ‘ His voice trailed off, something in her face puzzling, or unsettling. ‘I thought you wanted to live with him. If you don’t, you’ve got to tell him, Laura. It’s not fair.’
She came over and knelt at the side of the bed, a sensation like the fizz and tickle of a sparkling wine rizzling from her nostrils into her forehead into the very top of her head.
‘He said we’re going to share a flat?’
‘Don’t you want to? I thought—’
She pinched him. Hard.
‘What was that for?’ he whinged, rubbing his arm.
‘Listen, little brother, stay out of my head, you hear?’
‘I’m not like—’ He hesitated, perturbed, then blurted out, ‘There’s something wrong, they’re gone, and Dad won’t answer my questions.’
He chucked another toffee into his mouth.
Muffled, ‘OK, OK.’ He gulped the toffee. ‘I’m not the only one, you know. There’s a set of twins who are really good, much better than me.’
Without warning the door opened, and their mum pitched herself into their midst. ‘What’s going on in here? Laura is supposed to be sleeping!’ Her eyes fell on the open packet of sweets. ‘And where did you get that junk?’
Laura rose to her feet, then to her full height. She crossed her arms. ‘From Zach.’ Delicious to see vexation flare in her mother’s eyes, as delicious as the toffees themselves. ‘A goodbye present.’ Smack me, Laura thought. Go on, smack me.
Once her grades had begun to improve, Laura had raised her hand in a lesson and rattled off the causes of the Sino-American War. There had been no mistaking the triggerflash of anger that Mr Fuckwit Chester was quick to shutter. A moment of grim illumination: never before had she realised that, far from disliking stupid pupils, teachers relish them, relish and cultivate them. From then on she’d begun to study in earnest, setting herself a punishing schedule.
Her mum took a deep breath. ‘Just don’t forget to brush your teeth,’ she said, her mouth working as though a toffee were gummed to her own molars. ‘Max, precisely, but I mean precisely, ten more minutes.’
As soon as she’d gone, Max and Laura exchanged looks, then dissolved into laughter. Laura settled back onto the bed.
‘In the 9½ minutes remaining, you’re going to tell me precisely how long you’ve known about the twins.’ One last bubble of laughter from Max—’9¼’— while she sobered, trying to figure out how, or even whether, to tell him about the fire.
‘I’ve always known. Sometimes they forget to block. They’re megastrong senders, and anyway they talk a lot to each other. OK, not talk—you know what I mean.’
‘Why haven’t you told me?’
He shrugged, then discovered a loose thread on the duvet to claim his attention. An uncomfortable suspicion crossed Laura’s mind.
‘What about Zach?’
Max looked away.
‘You’ve told Zach but not me!’
‘He made me promise to tell you. He said it was for me to do, not him.’
‘He got that right at least.’
‘Don’t be racked at him. Please. He’s so scared sometimes.’
‘Then he’d better stop with all that political stuff before someone—’
‘Don’t say it!’
In Max’s eyes she saw a curtain part to reveal the dark mid-winter night of his own fear. Pinpricks of light like stars glittered there, where the darkest matter conversed with fearsome uncertainties, implicate order concealed even from a cognoscens. What must it be like to have a billion billion voices yowling to lynch your soul?
‘Is it ever quiet inside your head?’ she asked softly.
Max sat up straight, his brow furrowing like a much older lad’s. ‘Close your eyes.’
‘Just do it.’
She closed them, it was easier than arguing. She tried to blank off her mind, but he spoke straightaway.
‘Now think of Zach. Think of him walking along the canal. He’s wearing a thick sheepskin coat, collar turned up against the wind, and a woollen cap jammed far down on his head. His hair’s tucked up under the cap so no one can see it. He doesn’t want to be recognised. Though he’s got gloves on, his hands are deep inside his pockets. He’s cold. He’s walking slowly. His toes are numb, the soles of his feet. His eyes are watering from the cold, his nose running. He’s tired but doesn’t want to go back to an empty flat. Doesn’t want to eat something, alone. Doesn’t want to sit at his desk, alone. Doesn’t want to sleep in the bed alone where you—’
‘Stop it!’ She tore open her eyes. Viciously, ‘At least you’ll never be lonely when you’ve got all those companions in your head.’
Max stared at her for a moment, blinking as though her words were specks of grit kicked up by a dust devil into his eyes, now reddening slightly. Wind-blown sand can strip paint, carve rock, and like words, flay your skin raw. ‘You know Aladdin’s genie?’ Max said. ‘I’m just like him, except my oil lamp is made of bone. And there’s no one to let me out.’ He groped for the sweet packet but picked it up by the wrong end, so that the toffees tumbled out and scattered higgledy-piggledy like cobble across the floor.
As Laura bent down to help Max collect the toffees, they cracked heads. ‘Oof,’ she said, rubbing the sore spot, then as he followed suit, began to laugh. ‘Maybe you can release the genie that way.’
Relieved to see him smile, albeit tremulously, she knelt to collect the last toffees. Go home, Zach, she whispered to herself. Please. The wind slicked its wintry tongue along the canal’s bare skin, raising gooseflesh. A torn plastic bag, a sudden slither of ratblack, a patch of ice. In the distance the lonely chatter of an engine. Tomorrow Zach will have to face the prep team for a briefing; a new run is being planned. Tomorrow Zach will be warned by Slade that even an MVP cannot continue to flout the miscegenation code without ministerial dispensation; not that Slade minds personally, of course not, but despite its influence Fulgur can only do so much, and Mr Randall himself has given the magistrate a guarantee after the last little incident. Tomorrow they will hang a plastic bag filled with human shit from the handlebars of Zach’s motorbike.
Chilled, Laura slid her hands inside the sleeves of Zach’s jumper to his elbows, the fine hairs thrumming under the friction of her palms. His skin had a timbre all its own, a timbre which neither cold nor distance could deaden.
‘We’ve all got our voices, Max.’
With a guilty look Max spit out the ribbing of his crewneck.
‘You aren’t even listening to me,’ Laura said. Then it struck her what Max had been humming under his breath. ‘He’s played that to you?’ It’s ours, it’s private, how dare he.
‘Zach thinks a lot in music. Sometimes I can’t help overhearing.’
She studied him for a moment. ‘Now?’ she asked softly. At first it seemed he wouldn’t answer. Laura waited, her skin tingling as though warming from a near frozen state. Waited, because silence spoke in her loudest voice.
‘Remember that silly rhyme I used to chant when I was little?’ Max said at last. ‘You know, before going to sleep?’
‘How could I forget? Bad man, don’t talk. Bad man, don’t stalk. Got my hawk. Got my hawk. You didn’t even know what it meant.’
‘I never told you what it meant.’
She eyed him but a quick glance at her clock warned her that their mum was likely to appear at any moment. ‘So?’
‘So that’s what Zach does. Plays the clarinet in his head.’
Sarcastically, ‘To keep away the bad man?’
‘Even smart people can be superstitious.’ Max reached for his neckline again, then thought better of it. ‘Laura, you don’t understand how terrified he is that he’s going to lose you.’
This time it was their dad at the door. A feeble grin to accompany a feeble joke. ‘OK you two, bedtime. Doctor’s orders.’ He waved a hand at the toffee packet. ‘And don’t forget to brush your teeth.’
Her dad would have to do the telling.
At first Laura’s mum remained solicitous, almost affectionate. There were special dishes, and special privileges—a TV brought into the bedroom, household chores suspended temporarily—and not a single overt reproach about Zach, though after a few days had passed, she began to wonder, with quite a girlish laugh, whether Owen was afraid of catching something.
‘They’ve got enough kids as it is,’ Laura snapped. ‘Why don’t you ask if you can adopt him?’
Her mum’s brow knit and her lips stitched in a way that meant duck, but then she gathered her unravelling temper together—Laura could see the muscles under her mum’s skin stretching into a forbearing smile, as though a Fulgur evaluation team had just come into the room.
In the weeks that followed, winter became oppressive, a race you knew was forfeit the instant you hit the water, a race that by everyone’s reckoning, yours included, you ought to win. There’s no explaining it. You’re fit again. You’re back in school. You’re seeing Zach but still you swim through February as though the pool contained slushy, greying, slightly grainy snow, not water.
It happens to everyone, Janey claims. The better part of a race is in the mind.
Zach remained in his flat where Laura stayed the night at least once, sometimes twice a week. Her mum accepted this arrangement with distaste but no real opposition, evidently fearful of what Laura might do if permission were refused. As usual, her dad said little, but Laura noticed a certain gleam in his eyes when her mum asked about Laura’s plans for the evening, a gleam which he hid by clearing the plates or examining the new Mancala board he’d bought; he had a large vintage collection, corresponded with aficionados worldwide, and had even written a book about regional varieties of the game, whose mathematical complexities he claimed rivalled any of the more popular mindsports.
At the end of the month Laura worked up her courage to attend one of Zach’s meetings on her own, which was held after hours in a public library. The small room was crowded, mostly with couples who could afford babysitters for the evening and a meal afterwards in a restaurant with starched white tablecloths, serried ranks of cutlery, and a sommelier. Zach was far too coolheaded, too circumspect, to glare at her but it took every bit of her self-control not to get up and leave.
‘Not tonight,’ he said when she caught up with him by the water cooler. Slowly he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand while he glanced at his companions, one the medical student who had been at the first meeting she’d attended, the other the sort of twenty-something professional woman who made Laura feel scruffy and tongue-tied. Though discreet about their relationship, Zach had become more willing to hazard, occasionally, going out together in public—a visit to an art exhibit he was keen to show her, an hour at a café. ‘Notoriety has its perks,’ he’d said wryly. All the more shocking, then, when the woman gave him a foxy smile and dragged the student out of earshot.
‘There’s some stuff I need to discuss with them,’ Zach said.
‘With them? Or with her?’
‘I don’t want you coming to these meetings.’
Two spots of colour flamed in Laura’s cheeks. ‘It’s you who doesn’t want to sleep with me, not the other way round.’
‘I’ll ring you tomorrow.’
And Laura was left staring after them in a rage. Did he think that she wanted to go to art galleries when all her mates were at concerts and clubs or just watching TV with a couple of packets of crisps, some beer, and a good long uncomplicated snog?
‘Think I don’t know you’re scared?’ she hissed. ‘Bloody terrified that it won’t be fairytale perfect?’
She whipped out her mobile and rang Owen.