By the time they’d reached the cottage, Laura understood about rigor mortis. Zach put both feet on the ground while she eased herself off the motorbike. Not quite suppressing a groan, she stretched, removed her helmet, and took a few stiff, painful steps through the deep snow. Then she noticed that Zach had folded his arms across the handlebars to rest his head, his shoulders sagging with weariness. It had been a long ride, and as they’d ploughed through—sometimes crept through—the blizzard she could feel Zach growing tense, then tenser still. The woodland lane worst of all, there’d been nothing much to do except hang on and will him strength. Will him her trust. Her grandfather, never at a loss for words, never silenced by a strong headwind, never one to miss an opportunity however mundane, would have exhorted her to pray.
She touched Zach’s shoulder but he didn’t stir.
‘Come on, let’s go inside.’
He wasn’t good with the cold, he’d told her, and it was obvious that he was thoroughly chilled. She raised his head and helped him to remove his helmet. His face was ashen, his pupils dilated, lips cyanic. Had he remembered his serum? Her face close to his, she breathed on his eyes, his cheeks, his lips. His lips, and despite the freezing wind and falling snow, she felt a belly-deep tongue of heat, sudden and sharp, then warmth seeping towards longing to take him in her arms. Perhaps he felt it too, for he drew away and came off the bike like the peel of an apple under a blunt paring knife.
‘Should I wheel it into the shed?’ she asked.
‘I can do it.’
Zach insisted on carrying the saddlebags and his backpack, but left her to lock the shed while he trudged round the cottage to the front door. Once inside, Laura snapped on a torch from several kept on a row of pegs. Zach slumped against the wall and closed his eyes, as if the torch were drawing its energy directly from him.
‘Put this on,’ she said, handing him one of the thick handknit jumpers which were as old as Zach himself.
After a moment, he straightened and removed his jacket, then stared at his boots till Laura bit back an exasperated snick of her tongue and bent to tug them off. He leaned a hand on her shoulder, then gave her a smile so rare, so different to his usual wry assortment of smiles, so naked that her throat clogged, and for the first time she realised what it must cost him to have to stand on his own, always on his own. Don’t apologise, she wanted to tell him. But she didn’t speak, and he removed his hand; by himself, his snowlogged boots.
Her own ankle was still tender, though bearable. Together they made their way to the kitchen, where Laura propelled Zach into a chair and soon had a lantern glowing snugly. It was a few hours till sunrise.
‘It’s very tidy,’ Zach said.
‘My mum comes up regularly. Dirt is an enemy worse than menopause, I reckon. But at least she keeps the pantry well stocked.’
Still shivering, Zach sat quietly while Laura also slipped on one of the woollen jumpers and went back outside in wellies for extra wood to fire up the range. But there was a small bottled-gas cooker as well, and before long they were drinking tea.
‘Maybe I’ll leave the generator for tomorrow,’ Laura said. ‘The range ought to give us enough heat for sleeping, though it takes a couple of hours. And there’s a wood-burning stove in my parents’ bedroom. I’ll put you in there.’
‘How many bedrooms are there?’
‘Four, but they’re tiny.’
He snorted. ‘This place is a palace.’
‘Rubbish. You should see Owen’s summerhouse. Pool, sauna, and jacuzzi. Boathouse.’
His lips thinned, and he looked away. Hurriedly Laura rose and began unpacking their saddlebags.
‘I’ll make us something to eat.’
Zach shook his head. ‘I’m OK. You go ahead, though.’ When she frowned, he added, ‘Please. Just show me where I can sleep. But not in your parents’ bed.’
‘You’ve got your serum?’
‘I’ll fetch a torch for you.’
‘Stay put. I don’t need much light. At most a candle.’
Laura’s hand hovered over the loaf of dark dense bread Zach had brought, handwrapped in white paper rather than plastic. He ate such odd things, she wondered whether it had something to do with his metabolism. Max consumed huge quantities, but nothing out of the ordinary. As far as she knew . . .
‘Where do you find this sort of bread?’ she asked. ‘I’ve never seen it in the shops.’
‘Don’t worry, it won’t poison you. Or blow up in your hands.’
‘You think that’s funny?’
The wrapper had unfurled. Zach seemed intent on counting the number of sunflower and sesame seeds on its crust, other kernels that she couldn’t identify.
‘Sorry,’ he said at last. ‘Stella bakes it for me.’
‘Uses cockroach meal, I expect.’
The range was beginning to radiate some warmth. The hot tea too had helped, Zach’s face was already regaining some colour.
You hear them creaking like gates to an abandoned property. No trespassing, you tell yourself. But it’s too late, their rough-barked limbs are reaching for you, you try to back away but your skin is snagged your hair your breath your
wake up, you tell yourself, you’re dreaming, there’s always that moment when you know it’s only a dream but you can’t you can’t they’re coming for him no
‘Laura, wake up.’
She opened her eyes but yew is tenacious. Needles clung to her eyelids, her lips. Like a thick layer of leaf mould, darkness weighted her chest so that it was difficult to breathe. She turned her head first to one side, then the other. The needles, dislodged, slowly drifted back through the gates, which were shutting behind her. Zach, she saw, was bending over her.
‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘Just a nightmare.’
She waited till her heartbeat calmed. ‘Was I screaming?’
‘Crying out a bit.’ He set his candle on the bedside cabinet and sat down on the edge of her bed. ‘The explosion?’
In the flickering light she saw the hedges again. She licked her lips, then pushed back the duvet and began to swing her legs to the floor.
‘I need a drink,’ she said.
‘Stay here, I’ll fetch a glass of water.’
‘No!’ She stopped, shocked by her own vehemence, then added in a near whisper, ‘Please don’t . . . I mean, don’t . . . ‘
‘Get under the covers, it’s cold. I’ll be right back.’
‘Take the torch. It’s here somewhere.’
‘I don’t need it.’ He retrieved it from the floor. ‘Shall I switch it on for you?’
When she shook her head, he placed it next to the candle and tucked the duvet round her shoulders, his eyes glistening like midnight rain on cobblestones. Barefoot, he slipped from the room, then began a running commentary which she could hear the entire time he was gone. ‘I’m in the passage, there’s a cold draught, I should have put on some socks, going into the kitchen, I’ve found a glass, filling it now at the tap . . . ‘
‘I haven’t dreamed about the maze in years,’ she said after she’d drunk most of the water, her hand quite steady.
Zach watched her for a moment, and she could tell that he too was thinking about the jazz club. That he too might not be able to sleep.
‘Do you have nightmares?’ she asked.
‘Are you asking about me? Or all augers?’
‘Stop calling yourself that!’
The candle flickered as his right arm swept out sideways, a gesture that reminded her of a picnicker fending off a wasp. He turned and stared at the flame, the planes of his face cut from granite.
‘You know that Max has nightmares,’ he said.
‘Have you slept at all? You were so tired.’
‘A few more hours wouldn’t hurt.’ He tucked his hands under his arms. ‘I’ll go back to bed now, if you’re OK.’ He continued to stare at the candle. ‘Unless you’re still nervous. I can stay.’
The silence was as long and taut as the moment just before the starting gun, when you were poised to shatter the water.
‘Zach, I’m not—’
‘Do you really think I need to force myself on a girl? Or want to?’
Laura nearly made a false start, but checked herself. The penalty was disqualification. She shifted towards the wall, then lifted the upper corner of the duvet. ‘If you stop jumping to conclusions, I’d like you to stay. I want both of us to sleep without nightmares. There are enough of those lurking underwater.’
‘Never mind. Just blow out the candle and come to bed.’
When Laura woke, her first thought was of snow. The light was so milky that she couldn’t tell if her eyes were clouded by sleep or the snowstorm. She raised herself off her pillow to look out the window and only then remembered that Zach was next to her. Only then saw him gazing at her, his eyes warm and newlaid.
‘Morning,’ she said. Cleared her throat. ‘Morning,’ which came out stronger.
He was looking at her with a small child’s look—direct, without artifice, and utterly disconcerting, as if he knew more about you than you yourself. Yet at the same time as unlike a child as she could imagine.
‘Are you sorry?’ Zach asked softly.
‘About being here.’ His long fingers moved over the duvet. ‘About running off with me.’
‘I haven’t run off with you.’ She leaned closer. ‘But if you keep looking at me like that, I might.’
He closed his eyes, but she could still see them.
‘I’m not sorry,’ she said.
She bent forward. Though her lips barely skimmed his eyelids, she could feel them tremble.
When he looked at her again, pressure bloomed in her chest as though she’d been caught in an undertow, unable to surface for air. She struggled to breathe evenly, for her diaphragm had tightened in foreboding; muscle memory.
‘You’re very aroused,’ she said.
‘Zach, I’m not ready to . . . It’s not like . . . I need to . . . ‘ How could she tell him what she herself only half understood? How could she tell him about Owen?
‘Don’t worry. It doesn’t matter.’
He started to roll away, but she stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. She ran a fingertip lightly across his tattoo, then his lips.
‘Don’t,’ he said.
In response she slid back the duvet, lowered the waistband of his boxers, and kissed the bony prow of his hip.
‘Careful,’ he muttered, ‘I can’t—’
She heard his sharp intake of breath as her tongue touched the corona. He thrust his hands into her hair but otherwise lay quite still until he cried her name, once, hoarsely.
Afterwards they curled together, limbs entwined. Just before Zach drifted off to sleep, he whispered, ‘You needn’t have swallowed.’
‘Now some of your cells will become part of mine. Do you think that makes me a little bit cognoscens?’
Several hours later, Zach rose and went to the window.
‘Still snowing,’ he said, ‘though not so heavily.’
‘Are you hungry? Shall I start some breakfast?’
‘Lunch, more like. Soon.’
‘I’d best ring my parents. And get the generator going, so I can charge my mobie.’ She grinned. ‘Even if I keep it switched off. I’ll have to think of an excuse, though, my mum keeps spare chargers here.’
He came back to her side, sat down on the bed.
‘We’ve got a lot to discuss,’ he said.
‘You mean you’re actually going to talk to me?’
He bent to kiss her, and despite the hours of sleep since he’d cleaned his teeth, his mouth tasted wonderful. Then he began to unbutton her pyjama top.
‘I thought you wanted to talk,’ she said.
‘Earlier, you spoke to me,’ He gave her a quirky smile. ‘Now it’s your turn to listen.’
But after a while he leaned back to look at her. ‘What am I doing wrong?’
‘It’s not you.’ She turned her head away, so that he couldn’t see her face.
Still staring at the wall, she whispered, ‘Maybe if you were a bit rougher.’
Like some species of jellyfish, her fantasy migrates to the surface mostly at night, or sometimes when Owen is working away at her. Its tentacles, though nearly invisible, have a long reach and deliver a painful sting. She glimpsed them now.
Zach put a hand on her chin and gently turned her face towards him. She spoke into the underwatery shadows between them.
‘You said it yourself once.’
‘Do you mean hurt you?’
‘Something like that.’
‘No. No way.’
They ate their meal in silence. As Laura rose from the table to clear her plate, Zach reached for her arm.
‘Wait,’ he said. ‘Please sit down.’
She sat, but at the edge of her chair. ‘If it’s about sex, I guess we’ve made a mistake.’
‘Is that what you really think?’
She didn’t answer.
‘Laura,’ he said softly, ‘it wasn’t a mistake for me.’
‘I’ll never do what you don’t want, or aren’t ready for, no matter what I’d like. But it works both ways. You’ve got to understand that there are some things I won’t do.’
She left the dishes on the table, threw on a jacket, and went out to the shed to deal with the generator.
Zach was chopping wood. Laura had told him not to bother, there was plenty of fuel, but he’d listened politely and headed for the woodpile. She’d made her phone call, listened politely both to her dad and her mum, and after ringing off decided to stop pretending to read and go outside to listen politely to the voice of an axe.
After half an hour of wielding a snow shovel and stamping her feet, she’d had enough. How much would he need to chop for a bonfire big enough to reduce his thoughts to ash? She waited for the right opportunity—no sense adding a gashed foot to their problems—then let loose with a well-packed snowball. The ensuing fight was the best she’d had in years.
‘You play dirty,’ she complained when they’d gone back inside to warm up.
‘Boarding school teaches you that.’
‘You went to a boarding school?’
‘I’ll fetch my dictionary after tea,’ she said.
‘Come on, dry your hair.’ He tossed her the towel. ‘That’s what the Foundation pretended to be. Still does, I suppose. It wasn’t residential care, because most of us weren’t orphans. It wasn’t a secure unit, because we weren’t mentally ill. And it wasn’t a young offender institution, because we hadn’t committed any crimes. Except the crime of being simus, of course.’
‘How old were you when you went?’
His hesitation lasted no more than a second or two. ‘My turn to cook.’ He headed for the kitchen while Laura yearned for another snowball.
‘What did your parents have to say?’ Zach asked.
‘The police want you for questioning.’
‘Not according to my dad.’
Zach grinned over his soup spoon. ‘So you do know what the word means.’
‘I’m not a complete idiot.’
Zach put his spoon down. ‘You’re not an idiot at all.’
‘Tell that to my mum.’
Suddenly she was staring into her bowl and blinking back tears. In a moment Zach was at her side.
‘Listen to me, Laura.’ He crouched and tucked a loose strand of her hair behind an ear, then continued to stroke a few imaginary ones into place. ‘The bomb blast was a shock for both of us, and now that I’ve had time to think, I realise all I’ve succeeded in doing is make you an accessory.’
‘First of all, you didn’t make me. And second, how can I be an accessory if you haven’t done anything criminal?’
‘It’s not that simple.’
‘Oh yeah? Then explain it to me. For godsake, explain something to me.’
He was quiet for a long time, though he didn’t remove his hand. Didn’t seem to notice that his other hand was also speaking. Pleading.
‘I never meant for anyone to die.’
‘You’re not telling me you did have something to do with the bombings after all, are you?’
‘Of course not.’
He rose to his feet and strode the length of the kitchen, where he snatched up a wooden spoon, whipped round, and smashed it against the edge of the worktop.
‘I can’t live like this any more!’ he cried. ‘I want a life, not one journey after another into nightmare. They have no idea what it’s like. What it does to your mind, your dreams.’ With his foot he kicked the splintered pieces of wood aside. ‘And wouldn’t care if they did.’
Laura had no inkling what Zach meant, but his torment splintered more than wood. Swiftly she went to him. At first his body was remote and wooden, a stranger’s, then they were embracing fiercely. There was no gentleness in him now. Together they slammed against the kitchen door, her back catching the handle. She gasped at the pain. His jeans could barely contain him. Yes, she thought. Cunt. ‘Tell me I’m a filthy cunt.’
‘God no!’ He released her, pushed her from him so that she nearly fell. He stepped back, still breathing hard, his face shaved of all expression.
He tore open the door, spun out of the cottage, and was away.
Without a jacket he wouldn’t be gone long, Laura told herself. And told herself, as darkness fell and it continued to snow.