The fountain was never turned off, and Laura had always meant to ask her father how they prevented the water from freezing. Tonight it flowed gold-shot red and green in keeping with the Christmas season, one colour from each of the dragon’s twin jaws, and Laura couldn’t help admiring the skill with which an illusion of flame was created. Shivering in the icy wind that even Fulgur engineers hadn’t succeeded in controlling, she stepped back to avoid a sudden gusting of spray and grumbled to Max, ‘Couldn’t we have talked somewhere warm?’
Instead of answering, Max swung his head like a hunter searching for signs of prey, except there wasn’t much predator in his running nose and thin, hunched shoulders and bright red cap, nor his coin-sized pupils. He turned to peer behind them, his eyes gleaming like a cat’s in the streetlight, and for the first time, from that angle, Laura saw a glimmer of the cognoscens deep within; the lustrous ore, not the counterfeit surety of an alloy.
‘Have you got any money for a taxi?’ Max asked. ‘I’m scared of snugs.’
‘If Zach’s in danger, I’m not going anywhere.’
Again the darting glances, one shoulder raised as if to fend off a blow. Laura grabbed his arm.
‘Will you tell me what’s going on before I leave you here to freeze your pygmy walnuts off!’
‘They’re big enough!’ he retorted heatedly.
Blokes! Never too young to bristle when you dissed their todgers. Useful, though, when you wanted to prick them into action. She crossed her arms. ‘I’m counting.’
‘Come on, then.’
In the bus shelter he leaned against the glass wall to catch his breath, little puffs of vapour fleeing from the sound of his panting. Ashamed of herself now, she patted him clumsily on the shoulder—a habit she was picking up from Josh. As long as she didn’t start scratching her balls when it seemed no one was looking.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ Max finally said. ‘Maybe we’d better talk to Dad.’
‘You still haven’t explained.’
‘It’s sort of muddled, but there’s someone in the building whose thoughts are dead kank. Like nothing I’ve ever come across.’
Her hand still ached. ‘A cat?’
‘Zach’s told you about the animal stuff?’ She nodded, leaving the details for another time, it was Zach who was important. But Max carried on without further prompting. ‘No, they’re OK. I hate what’s being done to them, and most of them don’t live very long, and I can only hear a couple of them anyway, but they don’t hide their thoughts, which aren’t simple at all. They don’t care very much what people think of them. People are the stupid ones, mostly.’
‘Then a simu?’
‘I’m not sure . . . maybe . . . ‘ He closed his eyes for a few seconds and appeared to be listening. The cold had rouged his cheeks like an old woman’s clownish makeup, highlighting rather than disguising the chalkiness of his skin. ‘ . . . maybe not a true cognoscens. Dad explained it to me, it’s a quantum thing. That’s why distance doesn’t matter. But I ought to be able to hear better. I can’t even tell if it’s a man or a woman. They’ve done something scary to him, to his mind. Or hers.’
‘What’s this got to do with Zach?’
He wiped his nose on his sleeve. ‘I told you, it’s not very clear, but I think she’s trying to warn me. They want me, or someone like me.’
‘And Zach?’ When tears filled his eyes, she finally realised what Max was too scared to say. ‘They’re going to make Zach tell them about you.’
She rummaged in her pocket for a tissue, then stamped her feet and clapped her hands together, which were beginning to numb. When she tried flexing her fingers, her glove chafed Jasmine’s scratches. Underfoot there was no snow or ice; she stepped outside the shelter and scrutinised the well-lit carpark to give Max a chance to wipe away his tears. For the first time she took in, really took in, how immaculate the tarmac was. Where were the mounds of dirty snow, the patches of ice, the grit for traction? This place: it was creepy the way you numbly accepted Fulgur’s latest surreal fantasia, as though toilets that played Oh Come, All Ye Faithful when you sat down, and Do You Hear What I Hear? when you flushed, were perfectly ordinary—rather quaint, actually, in comparison to the red-and-green-striped toilet paper embossed with metallic gold stars. But Zach, she reminded herself, wasn’t colour-blind. No one led Zach, with or without a blindfold. Not unless he chose to be led.
‘How make him?’ she asked, wheeling round. ‘What are they going to do to him?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Then use that braintapping trick of yours.’ ‘I’m not stupid! I’ve already tried that, but I can’t pick up anything. Zach has no information, none of the simus do. Maybe only a few people know, and they’re not good senders, or maybe they’ve figured out a way to keep anyone like me from hearing.’ He took a raw breath. ‘Laura, how can Dad work for them? For people like that?’
For people like Fabio, she thought, people who elicit foolish revelations with the ease of a hypnotist. People with slick talk and slick offices and even slicker gadgets; with silk shirts and slick, silken kisses. ‘Was Zach . . . I mean, the things he said, was he thinking them?’ She sped past Max’s silence. ‘You know what I mean, don’t you? That he doesn’t want to—’ He was shaking his head, but she couldn’t brake now. ‘Max, you’ve got to tell me.’
‘I can’t do that to Zach,’ he whispered, tearing his eyes from hers. ‘Please don’t make me.’
While Laura was debating with herself, mustering all the reasons, and their cousins and great-aunts, why Max ought to cooperate, and coming up with a very bare family tree, so moving on to how to tap her brother for syrup—just where to drill the right hole—and while Max himself had walked behind a parked car to pee—no tree trunks in sight—the sirens began. Laura was all for rushing back into the main building to search for Zach, but Max did his listening for a moment, then demurred. ‘He’s OK, he’s left.’
But Max was wrong, an hour later reminding her—almost apologetically—that he couldn’t tell much about location unless a person happened to be thinking about it. The party-goers were herded outside to a safe distance, most of them half drunk, and not a few high as noctilucent clouds over the poles, and glowing nearly as much in the dark. Some of the children were frightened, but others seemed to find it a good lark. On the way to search for their parents, Laura overheard one eight- or nine-year-old boy announcing loftily to the others, ‘It’s a game. Watch, there’ll be a Fulgur helicopter landing soon, with Father Christmas and a sack full of presents for us. My dad works in PR, he told me.’ Max rolled his eyes at Laura, then exclaimed and pointed to the left, hunching his shoulders again. Their mum’s face was incandescent with rage, grotesque under the circumstances.
Grotesque under any circumstances: a bomb could only rearrange her features to advantage, I’ll do it myself if she says one word, one fucking word about Zach.
Laura’s mum grabbed her arm and dug her fingers into the layers of fabric hard enough to leave a bruise needing cover-up for a week. ‘Where have you been, you stupid idiot.’ Hissed directly into Laura’s ear, her spite as obscene as some bloke’s slurping tongue. ‘Snogging that auger?’
Laura wrenched her arm free, her hand throbbing. Shoved her face into her mother’s. Raised her voice, raised it good and loud, then raised it even louder. ‘Go on. Wallop me if you must. Pull my hair. Pinch me. But don’t you ever call him that—not ever again, do you hear. He’s worth a hundred of you, you bitch.’
Her mum went white and raised a hand to strike, then caught the stares of those standing within earshot and fell back a step, hurriedly smoothing her hair with the raised hand. She smiled a shellacked smile which fooled no one, least of all herself. ‘Poor girl, she’s overwrought, it’s been too much for her,’ directed at a woman her own age who dropped her eyes and looked away.
And her dad?
Molly, that’s enough now.
scuttled away, that spider, but still shuddery behind the toilet smelly like wet knickers please mummy i’m sorry please
hauls her out by her hair, shakes her
shut up, don’t you dare cry, SHUT UP SHUT UP!
Molly, please, the child’s terrified.
I’ll show her terrified. Disgusting filthy girl.
Her dad dropped his eyes, watery from the cold, and looked away. The wind lifted his thinning hair. They’d been herded outside without a chance to collect their coats.
‘I’ve still got them,’ Laura said.
‘What are you talking about?’ her mum asked. ‘Got what?’
‘The pink knickers with the butterflies.’
Clearly at a loss, her mum shook her head. After an interval just long enough to raise Laura’s hopes, old sugar-coated hopes, her dad cracked a rigid smile. His memory for figures was phenomenal, and he could still recite whole swatches of school poetry. As a little girl she’d loved to listen to him reciting My Cat Jeoffrey, he always acted out the licking and claw sharpening and cameling his back, the cork catching and spraggling upon waggling. ‘You’re my kitten,’ he’d said, ‘just like Jeoffrey’: ‘For he can tread to all the measures upon the music. For he can swim for life.‘
A doorframe splintered for a pair of knickers: no special feat of memory for her dad.
‘We were worried about you,’ her dad said, putting his arm round Molly’s shoulders.
There were in fact three helicopters, but the Fulgur dragon didn’t land until the bomb was disarmed and removed and the infiltrator, in shirt sleeves but fired by his slogans, whisked away. With the children clustering round Father Christmas, the cold and fear forgotten in their excitement, the guests were given the go-ahead by the police to return to the party. Those without the prospect of a gold-wrapped parcel embossed with the Fulgur logo made their way into the lobby with alacrity, rizzy nerves and speculation no longer heat enough, and most were scurrying, they hoped discreetly, to reach the bar ahead of the others. A TV crew had arrived, with reporters tapping the crowd for a pint or two of gossip. Laura hung back, snagging Max’s arm, and they were about to slip away to ring for a taxi when a second TV van pulled up, followed by several press cars in convoy which disgorged journalists. Max stared at them with a look she was coming to recognise, then began to move towards the building.
‘Where are you going?’ she asked.
‘Don’t you want to hear what he’s going to say?’
‘Who?’ Laura asked.
And all at once, Zach was everywhere. He spoke at public meetings, was interviewed on TV, gazed at Laura from websites and newspapers, began his own blog. Laura had difficulty understanding how a popular movement could combust almost overnight from the seemingly dry rags and odd scraps of society, but Fabio had made it clear enough that there was nothing spontaneous about his plans. And Zach was turning out to be a very charismatic public speaker, damn him. ‘Simus are not your enemy. Your enemies are pollution, and dwindling resources, and hunger, and disease. And fear—mostly fear. Don’t be afraid of us: we want what you want, a good life lived peacefully. Together we can work towards solving our devastating problems. Together we can remake our lives, and our planet. Together we can move out into new frontiers. I too have dreams . . . ‘
The Janu numbers were still small, but already raising alarm in some quarters. When Laura convinced Owen to attend an open debate at the university right after Christmas break, she was surprised to find that the lecture hall, while not overcrowded, was only half filled with students; there were young couples, several with pouched babies, there were pensioners and burly labourers and women with signature silk scarves, there were suits; oddly, however, there were no simus except the lad winging Zach, whom he introduced as a medical student. Zach’s other companion—chaperon?—was a thirty-something Fulgur psychologist from Ghana, slender and soft-spoken, adversary of the Big Mama school of therapy, and genuinely funny; she had the audience laughing and whistling and clapping when she told a story about a rooster, a prostitute, and a panel van full of stolen computers. Fabio was nowhere in sight.
Laura did her best, but Owen couldn’t reveal what he didn’t know, and it was tricky to get any information from her dad. Fabio’s too old for you, he’d said when she tried the gorgeous-hunk gambit. Fabio, it was obvious, wasn’t a corporate drone like her dad, and he seemed to have a conscience. But you could never tell with fanatics. Had he made use of what she’d told him? If the stuff she’d turned up on the net was accurate, his dead brother had been a simu. Everyone knew about Latinos and family. She’d expected Fabio to be here tonight. He ought to have been here tonight.
So far there was no sign that Max’s secret had become Fulgur property, or was about to. But how could she be sure? ‘Dad will kill me if he finds out I’ve told Zach,’ Max had said. ‘Don’t you dare let on.’ In public it would be impossible to talk to Zach, but maybe she could gauge whether anything remained of the old Zach; whether, beneath the glossy Corvus plumage, was parrot or hawk.
There were some critical questions from the audience though none of the rowdiness which had erupted at a few of the meetings. Nor were there any Purist hecklers with their soft fruit and hard curses; security was tight, but the guards had been instructed to let all weapons-cleared parties through. Zach’s own directive, it was widely reported: ‘We’ve got nothing to hide. Let anyone who has something to say, say it to our faces. We’re not afraid, and we won’t be driven off by gutter tactics.’ It appeared that his policy was working.
‘He’s certainly come a long way since quitting school,’ Owen whispered. ‘But I don’t trust him. Remember how he went mad at the factory?’
Laura never argued with Owen any longer about Zach, nor with any of her mates. It just made her look as if she still fancied him. It had been tricky enough getting Owen to accompany her tonight; he wasn’t precisely jealous, he maintained stubbornly. ‘Aren’t you curious?’ she’d asked. But her trump had been to imply that Owen was resentful of a former schoolmate’s success.
‘For godsake, he’s just the latest flavour of the month. It’s not even a proper political party, wait and see, the whole thing will peter out in a few weeks.’
‘Even with Fulgur backing?’
‘Dad says it’s minuscule, the amount of money they’re putting in. It’s just a look-good PR move because of the simu programme. Anyway, Fulgur’s got a strict policy of non-partisan political support. They contribute across the board to every party except the Purists. Not to the illegal ones, naturally. So even this new movement would have been bound to get some donations eventually.’ He nodded earnestly, a loyal dragonling-in-training. ‘There aren’t even any tax breaks. It’s all strictly regulated, all publicly declared, all impartial, all transparent.’
Yeah, and I’m the reincarnation of Helen of Troy.
At school the kids were a bit weird about Zach. On the one hand they acted as though he was the latest pop star, the girls especially bragging about the time he . . . On the other, feelings about the simus were heated, with a lot of mistrust and scepticism. And Tim and Derek and their mates were becoming vitriolic (another Zach word)—and daily more upfront about it. This week there’d been two incidents where a teacher was forced to intervene, the second involving detention. If I.S. knew who was responsible for the club bombing, they weren’t letting on, though several people, including two or three Fulgur employees, had been ‘helping the police with their enquiries’ since the day after the blast. Disgruntled finance types, her dad claimed, one a risk-management intern with Purist connections: ‘Whatever your sentiments on overpaid peacocks, Fabio, admittedly, is beginning to earn those gaudy silk shirts of his, that petrol-guzzling silver Masserati he drives’ (the first Laura had heard of it). So, altogether, it was best that Zach hadn’t moved back into his flat yet. That’s exactly what she’d said to Josh: ‘It’s best.’
Laura bit her lip and leaned forward on the edge of her seat to catch Zach’s latest reply. He was speaking into a mike, but a few rows ahead of her two men were conversing in a choppy undertone, and throughout the room there were other little pools and jets of whispering. Surreptitiously she rubbed her abdomen to ease the heaviness in her gut, that dull ache which usually denoted the onset of her period in a day or two, three at most. Though it wasn’t like her to get a headache, it must be the heat or Owen’s latest swank, pricey, practically carnivorous cologne. Worse than girls, the way lads deluded themselves. At least she could look forward to a period of respite, he wasn’t the sort to get off on a touch of blood. And he charted her ‘tides’ better than she herself—talk about euphemisms! Zach would never flinch from straight talk.
‘Yes, I’ll admit there are some bitter simus,’ Zach was saying. ‘I’m not going to lie to you.’
Not a Purist, but a middle-aged woman with a face like a sponge. Scared, probably, that some simu would grab her on the way home. Hoping, probably.
And stubborn. She began to ply Zach with increasingly vituperative questions, her voice mounting along with her colour. A blood-soaked sponge.
Like a strong wind on the open ocean, the confrontation was whipping interest into whitecaps. The audience shifted in their seats, whispers became louder whispers, then a buzz as sibilant as radio static on the high sea in the days before solar satellites and modern maritime communications. You heard it in the old films. Not only was it becoming difficult to make out Zach’s responses, but a photographer moved to block Laura’s view, his flash strobing against her temples. With her hands on the armrests to take her weight, Laura strained upwards till she was nearly standing. Owen plucked her back down.
‘I thought you didn’t want him to notice you.’
But Zach didn’t let himself become agitated, or provoked. Even Owen later conceded how well Zach handled the woman. He lowered his voice as hers rose and at one point simply paused, his gaze passing tranquilly over the room. Laura shivered: the effect was masterly. Fabio had been right. She doubted there was a woman present who wasn’t aroused by those eyes, including the sponge. Porifera: one of the most primitive animals in the sea, and bottom-dwelling.
‘Let’s go,’ Laura whispered to Owen at the next opportunity, any huskiness concealed by careful modulation. ‘I’ve seen enough.’
At the door she couldn’t resist a backwards glance. Zach had become thin to the point of gauntness, and she guessed he wasn’t getting much sleep. The cigarette burn, though no longer livid, smouldered like a live ember in her own memory. Before she could look away their eyes met and held, she stumbled slightly, the moment stretching blood crashing in her ears. Then Owen took her arm. She left with the certainty that Zach had known all along of her presence.
‘Why not?’ Owen asked. There it was again—that slight whine, as though his grandma had gone home without slipping him the usual fiver wrapped round a matchbox car. It seemed preposterous that he and Zach were the same age.
Laura jammed her cap on her head. ‘Homework.’ She turned and walked briskly towards the exit.
‘It’s him, isn’t it? I knew we shouldn’t have come.’
Laura rounded on Owen, then took a deep breath. She was really beginning to dislike the smell of men’s perfume, and Owen’s wasn’t improved by an overlay of the eau-de-disinfectant they must be using to swab the floors in the university corridors. She spent a long moment trying to remember if Zach had ever worn cologne or aftershave, which kept her from spitting out a sharp denial. It was becoming harder of late to tolerate what she knew, abstractly, were only mild irritants; but that didn’t prevent them from irritating her in a visceral way, the sometimes chalk-on-chalkboard, sometimes tap-drip irritation of her dad slurping soup at dinner while her mum needled him. Forget miscegenation: there ought to be a compatibility code. Her dad worked the human genome like onliners, their latest game; he could probably draw the sequencing maps in his sleep. Too abrasive or judgmental? No problem, modify a gene or two. Too irritable? Synthesise another few. Still too incompatible? Develop a fucking serum for it. The harpy in her whispered, go ahead, it’s only Owen, do it, pierce that rubbery niceness, you know you want to, for once be a real cunt.
The Mother-in-law’s Dream moved closer. Her innards sloshed in brackish protest, her mouth puckered, filling with pooling spit. She swallowed and took another, deeper breath. ‘It’s my period, Owen, that’s all. It’s come on suddenly, and I feel ghastly.’
You can’t legislate feelings, she thought glumly as she huddled in the corner of the taxi. You can only medicate them. A pity her mum didn’t believe in pills.
Laura kept Zach’s flat dusted and aired, but when she unlocked the front door, it smelled musty. She switched on the lights, then, with a groan, off again. They’d all tiptoed round her mum’s migraines often enough to write a treatise about hypersensitivity to light (and noise), and Laura endured her own headaches during her nightmarish bouts of insomnia, but this felt more like hot curling tongs applied by a sadistic hairdresser to the strands of her optic nerve. Once the pain settled back into a mere throb, she hung up her jacket and made her way to the living room where she threw open a window and leaned out to drench her face in the cold night air. She was beginning to feel feverish, achy, which couldn’t have anything to do with her period. (Owen was so gullible, she didn’t know how long she’d be able to stand it before lashing out at him.) While climbing the stairs, she’d stopped twice to catch her breath, whereas normally she bounded up as though chased by a pack of braying hounds. And stumbled over the damned boots those kids were always leaving in the dim corridor. (Josh had looked very pleased with himself recently. Next chance, she’d make him tell her what he’d done.) Come to think it, why hadn’t their stupid dog barked at her? He never passed up an opportunity to practise for his film debut as Attila the Slavering Hund. Wearily she leaned against the window frame, brushing damp hair off her forehead, too drained to speculate, and wondering whether she could get away with curling up for an hour before going home. And even that decision seemed to require too much effort.
‘What are you doing here?’
Laura whipped round, her hair catching on the window latch so that her cry was mangled. Zach reached her before she could see him clearly.
‘Why haven’t you switched on the light?’ she asked.
‘Why haven’t you?’
They stared at each other in silence, and his wonderful clean smell—it came back to her in a rush—filled her nostrils. You don’t remember smells, she realised, but when you smell them again, they release memories—feelings—sharp and fresh as a lemon under the swift stroke of a knife; inescapable. In the dim light reflected from the snowy banks of the canal, Zach’s scar gleamed like a small oyster. Her hand reached for it of its own volition; he submitted, silent and remote, to her touch, but then his sternness dissolved into a raw quiver under her fingertips. A mollusc breathes; does it also cry out when you break open its shell?
‘Laura,’ harsh, choked with words he couldn’t say.
‘I’ll go now.’
‘Are you sleeping with him?’
A lie would be so easy. Why not this one?
Zach tugged savagely at the strand of her hair still tangled round the latch, and she suppressed the cry of pain that was hers that was his that was irrevocably theirs. He’s the only person I’ve never lied to, she thought as he grabbed an entire fistful of hair and jerked her head sideways. She lost her balance and fell against him. He shook her. She flopped about as though broken. At last he let her go and flung himself at the open window, gripping the ledge in both hands and breathing in great noisy gulps.
Laura sank to the floor and hugged herself, her eyes smarting and the shivering beginning again. She was so thirsty, and everything ached, her skin, her teeth. Her clothes. Would he ring for a taxi if she asked? She closed her eyes and tried to summon the energy to speak. A glass of water shimmered in the heat behind her lids. Just one cool sip . . .
‘It’s because of what I am, isn’t it?’
She looked up at him, his face retreating into the rectangle of night sky. In her ears his voice sounded magnified, distorted the way all sound used to be distorted during childhood fevers.
‘I’m sorry. I know I’m being stupid again, but I seem to remember you—’
He didn’t let her finish. ‘No way you’d let a dirty auger’s cock defile you.’ The window slammed shut with the finality of a sarcophagus lid. The light he switched on crashed against her face.
She closed her eyes again, and would have blocked her ears with her hands if it didn’t look like a child’s petulant gesture. Her eardrums ached from the pressure of his scorn, and though she had no reason to expect anything different from him, the thin membrane that was her sole bulwark against swimming in polluted water, and more swimming, and more, into an interminable future, was bulging heartwards and would soon burst.
‘Please,’ she whispered.
At once he was at her side. ‘Oh god, have I hurt you?’
She tried to focus on his face. His hand on her brow and then, miraculously, his lips. Tears now, and shivering.
‘You’re so hot,’ he said.
‘Please, can you ring for a cab?’
‘To ferry us where? Back to before we made our first mistakes?’ A hollow laugh. ‘Even Randall doesn’t earn enough to finance that.’ He wiped her cheeks with his hand, her skin flaying, her nerves raw with him. ‘And we were barely afloat at the best of times.’
‘Did you hear me when those bastards . . . when the police were . . . ‘
He misunderstood. ‘Don’t. There was nothing you could have done. They weren’t listening to anything except their own sick words.’
‘I didn’t . . . I mean . . . ‘
The room was beginning to silt around them, and she would have liked to watch the wash of colour, if it weren’t so hard to concentrate. Wordlessly she abandoned the struggle for coherence and subsided into the warm lagoon of his arms.
From then on she alternately sweated and shivered, sometimes gulping from the glass Zach held to her lips, sometimes shrinking from the gentlest touch or thinnest cotton sheet, sometimes listening to his eloquent fingers; mostly adrift on febrile swells turgid with jellyfish and breaching seals and bladder-wrack. After her recovery she would try to stitch together some of her dreams, but they remained as crazy patchworked as her memory itself. Why had her father been telling Zach about a cat carrier when they didn’t own a cat? And had Max really come in holding a swan under his arm? Which, when she blinked, became a two-headed baby dragon?
Zach looked up from chopping vegetables when she appeared in the kitchen doorway. His hair was fastened in a neat ponytail, his habit when cooking.
‘How long have I been ill?’ she asked.
He set his knife aside and pulled out a chair. ‘Sit down. You’re very pale.’
The short walk from the bedroom had tired her and she was glad to comply.
‘How long?’ she insisted.
‘And you’ve been here the entire time?’
‘How boring for you.’
Zach snatched up his knife and resumed chopping, while Laura wondered whether she was the leek, the carrot, or the potatoes. Or maybe the parsley, which he soon reduced to a fine mince.
‘I’m sorry. That was uncalled for,’ she said.
He shrugged and turned to sweep the vegetable dice into a saucepan on the cooker. The steam which was released when he lifted the lid brought water to her mouth. Chicken broth—homemade, she guessed.
‘That smells good,’ she said by way of further apology. And then heard her stomach growl.
‘Twenty minutes, then we can eat,’ he said with a hint of a smile. ‘Do you want me to help you wash?’
She realised how clean she smelled. After five days . . .
‘Did you . . . I mean . . . I must have needed to pee, to . . . and bathing . . . ‘
‘Thanks,’ she muttered, ducking her head.
‘It’s OK. I’ll be a dab hand at potty training when the time comes, after all this practice.’
She sneaked a look at him, still ashamed of her crappy remark. He was lifting his checked apron to wipe his face—it looked like a bistro tablecloth, only bigger—when their eyes met. One corner of his mouth tweaked, and then they were grinning at each other.
‘And my pyjamas?’ she asked, fingering the familiar blue fleece, her warmest. ‘How did you get them?’
‘Your mother brought them.’
‘My mum came here?’
‘Your dad too, several times. You needed a doctor.’
‘You won’t catch what I had, will you?’ She’d never seen him ill, except for that business with his serum, but it had scared her. Still scared her. ‘Dad once told me simus have a different immune system. I mean, I didn’t understand it then, but that must explain why Max has been ill so often. Seriously ill.’
‘Don’t worry, your dad identified the pathogen, then gave me an antiviral cocktail strong enough to pickle my’—a laddish glint—‘my gonads. Has he ever expressed an interest in Farinelli?’
‘An eighteenth-century Italian soprano. Pop stars have been around a lot longer than people think.’ Again that glint. ‘Back then castrati were reckoned to make the best lovers. Society women used to shower them with love letters, faint at their concerts.’
‘Fancy yourself a superstar now, do you? Only fainting anyone’s going to do at those meetings of yours will be from the heat.’ She pushed her hair off her brow. ‘It’s hot enough in here to melt an iceberg.’
He came and laid a hand on her forehead. ‘You know I like it warm, but I think you’ve still got some fever. Go back to bed, I’ll bring your soup to you.’
She shook her head. ‘I’m OK. It’s the stupid flu, that’s all.’
‘Actually, turns out it’s a rare zoonotic virus with a long incubation period. And it’s odd that you caught it, your dad says, he’ll talk to you about it himself. So far it’s only been found in Amazonian bats. Have you been to the zoo recently? Attacked by a wild animal?’
‘Aside from my mum, you mean?’
His face expressionless, Zach carefully set soup spoons and two plain white bowls on the small table, added a pepper mill and basket of rolls, filled the water jug from a bottle in the fridge. How could pouring a glass of water manage to chide her so thoroughly?
‘She’s not always the ogre you make out.’
‘Oh yeah? You didn’t have to grow up with her.’
‘She cares about you.’
‘Some caring. All she can—’ Laura stopped. Zach had tucked his hands under his arms and was staring blindly at the pepper mill. Softly she asked, ‘Do you know where your parents are?’
‘Zach?’ Careful, they were still only treading water, not yet daring a stroke. ‘Are they dead?’
He looked up, his voice brittle despite a carefree flick of the wrist. ‘Forget it.’
‘So you know?’
‘Know . . . don’t know . . . none of it matters. It’s a long time ago.’ He went to the hob to stir the soup.
It will always matter. And it will always matter that he won’t talk about it. She watched him lifting the spoon to his lips for a taste. She watched him scoop coarse salt from the cellar with his fingers and fling it carelessly into the soup, then a second lot. A third.
‘Zach,’ she said, as he delved once again into the salt. ‘Whatever happened, it’s not your fault.’
He swung round, spraying a spoonful of hot broth across the floor. A few drops landed on the table, on her face.
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ he said.
For a moment she hears herself telling him, sees him holding her, feels him sponging off the dirty, sweaty traces with those beautiful fingers. He would never fingerprint a child with four-letter words, with fingers inked in secrets. Laura repeated Zach’s words to herself, pondering: ‘when the time comes . . . ‘
‘What you said before, does that mean you can have children?’ she asked. ‘I mean, someone told me that simus are . . . I don’t know, sterile or have a low sperm count, or something.’
‘Why do you want to know? You’re obviously not trying out for the team.’
Laura folded her arms on the table and lowered her head, suddenly fighting back tears. It was time to ring her dad. At least he’d answer some of her questions, Max maybe a few more. As to the rest . . . Janey always said that if you weren’t prepared to lose sometimes, you’d best stick to a bikini and sand in your crotch and a slobbering dog trying to wolf your cheese baps. And blokes like Tim and Damien, an Owen if you were lucky. Her hand crept to her neckline where Zach’s chain lay like a golden rune against her skin. In rough seas it’s much harder to hoist anchor; she fingered the links without hauling up the seal. Years from now would another wear it, its secrets undecipherable?