Every night Jesse lies down to sleep with fire. This time, screams and a dark chord burning. This time, the beam falls before his hair ignites.
Jesse woke with a start, his heart thudding. It took him a moment to remember where he was. Something in his rucksack was digging into his cheek. Wincing, he shifted on the piece of cardboard that was his mattress. The solid blocks of stone at his back, rough and lichen-crusted, made good sentries but poor bedfellows. His neck was sore and kinked, his muscles cramped, and he had pins-and-needles in the arm he’d been lying on. He needed to pee.
The dream again.
Fingering the handle of his knife, he looked about him. Just after dawn, and the air smelled fresh and clean, with a dampness that hinted at rain. His sleeping bag felt clammy, and the grass along the riverbank glistened with dew. Water lapped close by, a sound from his past, and he could hear the noisy riverbirds scolding his sluggishness.
There was no help for it. Wait too long and somebody would appear. Shaking off the last whorls of sleep, he unzipped his sleeping bag and crept out. He stretched, then made a few circles with his head, grimacing as the vertebrae in his neck rasped like the sound of Mal crushing eggshells in his fist—one of his least offensive habits. A couple of knee-bends till Jesse’s bladder protested. He glanced round once more, for he didn’t like to leave his things unattended for even a moment—on the street, a moment’s inattention could mean the difference between a meal and hunger, between safety and a vicious beating/mutilation/rape, between survival and annihilation.
He grabbed his rucksack, thrust his knife inside, and sidled barefoot down the grassy riverbank until he came to an overgrown bush. After relieving himself, he knelt at the river’s edge and rinsed his hands, then splashed cold water into his face. Not exactly clean, but it helped remove the film of sleep and dross from the morning. Distastefully, he ran his wet fingers through his hair. He needed a good wash—failing a long hot punishing shower then at least a swim in the river. Later maybe—first he would have to eat. He kneaded the skin above his waistband; he’d lost weight again, he supposed. Hunger never quite retracted its claws: on the rare occasions when he had a full belly, there was always the next meal to worry about.
It would be another long day.
From his rucksack he removed his battered water bottle and trainers. After slaking his thirst he capped the bottle and considered his next move. He always tried to find a new kip each night, and if he got lucky he might be able to locate an abandoned warehouse or garage or even an allotment shed. The docklands looked promising, although there would probably be others with the same idea. Still, it was a largish place. He kept away from the squats. He wanted nothing to do with anyone else.
Jesse rummaged for the currant bun he’d kept back last night, then shook out his sleeping bag, formed it into a compact roll, and stored it in his rucksack, followed by the bun and his water bottle. After slipping into his trainers he wedged the cardboard between one of the bridge’s massive stone abutments and a clump of wild briars, just in case he was obliged to return tonight.
It was still barely light, and except for a boat in the distance—a barge, from the long squat shape—and the birds and jazzing whirlybird insects and occasional frog, Jesse had the river to himself. He made his way along the bank in the direction of the city centre. There was a thin opaque haze over the water which the sun would soon burn away. Though overcast now, with a likelihood of rain, Jesse could tell that it would be hot later on, hot and humid. Good swimming weather. Usually the river was well trafficked, but he had yet to see anyone else swim. Of course, he always chose a secluded spot.
When hunger gnawed at him, he stopped by a sandy patch of ground, half-hidden by large boulders and a willow, to eat his rather flattened bun. He stared at his breakfast for a few seconds, then returned it to his rucksack. He’d wait. Impossible to predict how long it would be before he could earn some money. Pity that he hadn’t saved that bit of sausage instead of feeding it to yesterday’s stray, who probably needed it less than him.
Jesse fumbled in his pocket for the cigarette he’d picked up. Bent but only a trifle dirty at the tip—perfectly smokeable. He straightened, then lit it with one of his last matches. Back propped against the rock, he inhaled deeply and watched the river.
The cigarette did little to dull his hunger. Inadvertently, he found himself picturing bacon crisping in a cast-iron frying pan, a loaf of his grandmother’s bread, a bowl of rich yellow butter. Saliva spurted into his mouth. He forced the memory into retreat—not that road.
Cigarette finished, Jesse licked his fingertips, pinched it out with his usual meticulousness, and dropped the butt back into his pocket. Then he took out his well-thumbed copy of The Tempest. With a few pounds, he’d be able to buy some second-hand paperbacks. Unlike most other kids on the street, he wouldn’t nick anything, not even an apple from the market. He only wished he had a place to store the books. If he kept going at this rate, by winter it would be a real problem to carry them around. Of course, by winter there would be other problems—problems a little more pressing than his luggage. He smiled to himself. Nothing was worse than taking yourself too seriously.
The dog kept its distance at first. The two-leg was mumbling under his breath, twisting a length of hair around his finger and tugging on it. He smelled worn and musty, like a discarded shoe. The dog edged closer. It sniffed at a crushed tin, scratched itself. Loud staccato cough: the dog slunk back. The street had taught it caution, even patience.
A small movement caught the corner of Jesse’s eye. He whipped his head round. Not again, he thought, shutting his book. So many of his mistakes came back to haunt him. The dog moved closer, licked at Jesse’s hand.
‘What do you want? I’ve got nothing to feed you.’
The dog stared up at him with large, sentimental eyes. A big skinny creature, black fur dirty and matted, but otherwise in pretty good shape. Jesse wondered how it managed so well on the street.
‘I bet you could teach me a thing or two,’ he said.
Jesse stood, jingling the coins in his pocket. They hadn’t earned any interest overnight—just enough for a hot drink and a hamburger. No doubt a sell-by loaf and some milk would be smarter, but at the burger places they usually didn’t notice how long you used the lavatory. He could at least brush his teeth, maybe wash his neck and hair. Stripping would be risky, unless he could bolt the door. Few people had seen him without pants, no one without his T-shirt. He didn’t do naked.
Jesse glanced at the sky. The cloud cover resembled an old greying sheet, thin cheap cotton to begin with, the kind they gave you in those rundown places where, for a few quid, you could get a bed for the night—he’d slept a couple of times in one or another of them when he had some money and was desperate for a real mattress and real roof and real shower—the kind of linen that didn’t even remember white, that you could put your foot through, and did. Only here it was the sun that was breaking through the crumpled and dingy fabric.
The rain would hold off for a few hours. Ample time to eat and find shelter. It was bad enough being dirty and bedraggled, but a wet T-shirt was uncomfortable, and wet jeans, a torment. He had only one change of clothes, none too clean. Filthy, actually. He knew there were certain things he could do—or allow to be done to him—that would get him a night or two in someone’s flat, bathroom and washing machine privileges included. He’d go back to Mal before it came to that.
Jesse packed up his meagre possessions. He’d follow the river south for a while, then thread west to the nearest McDonald’s. Though he ignored it, the dog trotted along beside him. After a few steps, Jesse paused to glower.
‘Go away,’ he said. ‘Leave me alone. I can’t take on a dog.’
The dog stopped, cocked his head, whined a little.
‘I mean it. Get lost,’ Jesse said. He stamped his foot and lunged towards the dog, who retreated fearfully.
Jesse resumed his walk, a bit faster now. The breeze off the river ruffled his hair, the freshness of the air more country than city. He waited several minutes before glancing behind him. The dog stood there, irresolute. Jesse could tell that it wanted to follow, but didn’t quite dare. Jesse didn’t like the way this made him feel—as if he could take the animal’s trust and squeeze it between his fingers like a lump of wet clay.
He almost stumbled over the bird. It lay askew near a tree stump, but as soon as Jesse approached began to scrabble with its legs, bent wing dragging and sound one flapping. A kestrel, Jesse saw straight off—an adult male with dove-grey tail. It flopped about, trying to escape when he knelt at its side. The dog came over to investigate, thrusting its muzzle at the bird, who reacted by raking the dog with its sharp talons. The dog yowled more in surprise than real injury and skittered away.
‘Leave it be,’ Jesse snapped at the dog.
The dog understood when it was time to ignore a boy, when to obey. It kept its distance.
Jesse looked round. There was no one in sight. With enormous care—he knew just how sharp those talons could be, how strong the beak—he reached for the bird, making a good if quiet imitation of a kestrel’s cry: ‘kee kee kee.’ It no longer struggled to get away, watched instead with an alert tilt of its head, its eyes clear and focused. It was not ready to relinquish its hunter’s fierce proud spirit. But before long another animal would maul it, or a passing kid drown it—or worse.
‘Come, Windhover,’ Jesse said. ‘You can trust me. Let’s see if we can help you fly.’
Head tilted and ears cocked, the dog waited with frank curiosity to see if a meal or a miracle would be forthcoming.
Jesse grasped the kestrel in both hands, firmly pinioning its wings. He rose, brought the bird to chest level, and closed his eyes. The bird’s heart fluttered beneath his fingers, and Jesse waited until the warmth of his palms, the timbre of his thoughts calmed the frightened creature. There is no healing through subjugation. Then Jesse moves like a line of melody through its body, lingering longest over the broken bones in its wing. Cells resonate as note calls out to note. The air is still: the stir of wind has died away, leaving only the scent of pine in its wake.
The dog raised its head and sniffed. It could identify the peppery richness of new-mown grass, the hot iron bite of fresh pitch, the oily slick of riverbird, the fruity tang of another dog’s urine—all the manifold but familiar odours of river and city. And then this new thing: the boy, suddenly different. The dog would have liked to bark but contented itself with a low rumble in its throat, hardly a growl. Jesse opened his eyes for a moment and flicked a look of reproach at the dog, who hung its head.
Ten minutes, twenty, an hour; or no time at all. As always, the whentide ebbs till the creature begins to struggle. Then it was done—bones healed, and the kestrel released to flight. Jesse smiled as it met the air with vigorous wingstrokes, skimming the water until it reached the middle of the river. There it hovered into the rising wind, then banked and flew in a steep climb. The higher it flew, the bigger it seemed to grow—the stronger its wings. Jesse followed its path with a hand shading his eyes, for the clouds had parted and he was staring almost directly into the sun, which tipped the kestrel with redgold. A single wild cry split the air: no elegy’s minor key. Engulfed in flame, the bird passed from sight.
Jesse watched for a while longer. The kingfishers were chasing each other over the river. Their small, brilliantly-coloured bodies darted and flashed, embroidering the rippling length of greygreen silk. There was a moment in their flight, just before they dived, when they paused, suspended—the wave at cresting, the pendulum at the top of its arc—and then with a shiver, as if time itself had hesitated, resumed their plunge.
Eventually hunger intruded. Jesse sighed, flipped his hair out of his eyes, and forced himself to turn away. The river would wait. He shouldered his rucksack and continued in the direction of the city centre. Tired and dispirited, he trudged along the narrow footpath. The kestrel had drained whatever energy his short, troubled night and inadequate supper had provided. His usual craving for chocolate nagged at him. After McDonald’s, he decided, he’d spend the morning in the library, then try to find some work, maybe in one of the posh residential neighbourhoods—mowing, weeding, painting, window cleaning, anything.
The dog had waited before following the boy. Gradually it crept closer, but not too close. When the boy stopped to lean on the back of a concrete bench, the dog stopped as well, watching wistfully.
Jesse took a deep breath, lifted his head, and saw the dog.
‘You again,’ Jesse said.
The dog’s persistence irritated him. What would he do with a dog? Most days he didn’t even know where he’d find his own next meal. A dog would make him stand out, far too noticeable. And shackled: he didn’t want any creature’s loyalty or devotion. He picked up a stone from the ground.
‘I’m warning you,’ he called. ‘Go away.’
The stupid dog came a few steps nearer.
‘I don’t want to hurt you. But I will if you don’t leave me alone.’
The dog moved forward another inch.
‘That’s it,’ Jesse said.
The rock landed on the dog’s flank. The dog yelped and jumped back, then slunk away. At the same time a voice shrieked in rage. Before Jesse could turn to see who had shouted, something—someone—rushed at him and knocked him flat. He covered his head with his arms as fists pounded at his shoulders, pulled his hair, pinched his upper arms. After a bit he realised that not much damage was actually being done. He sat up, pushed his assailant away. Right. A girl.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Jesse asked her.
She sprang to her feet and picked up another rock.
‘I’ll throw it at you. See how you like that,’ she spat.
Jesse couldn’t help laughing. Her brown eyes blazed at him, fierce with indignation. She was about his own age, with a long mane of chestnut hair escaping from a thick elastic. A fraction shorter than him, and very wiry. He had the impression that she was a ballet dancer—something about the way she stood, moved. She was dressed in shiny blue Lycra shorts and crop top, white trainers—typical classy jogging gear—and her face was flushed and filmed with sweat.
‘Go on, then, throw it,’ Jesse said from the ground. ‘Hit a man when he’s down.’
‘Some man,’ she said with a snort. She dropped the rock.
The dog in its perversity, in its doggy cunning, came prancing up. Tail wagging, it began jumping up on Jesse to lick his hands and face.
‘Your dog is more faithful than you deserve,’ she said.
‘It’s not my dog.’
‘He doesn’t seem to know that,’ she said.
‘It keeps following me,’ Jesse said.
‘I see. So that’s a good reason to throw rocks at him, is it?’
‘Not rocks. One rock.’
‘As if that makes any difference,’ she retorted.
‘I daresay it does, to the dog,’ Jesse said calmly.
The girl regarded him with a puzzled look on her face.
‘Who are you?’ she asked.
Jesse stood. He brushed himself off, picked up his rucksack.
‘Ring the RSPCA, will you.’
‘You haven’t answered my question.’
‘Nor do I intend to,’ Jesse answered. ‘What business is it of yours?’
‘You’re not from here,’ said the girl. She took a step closer, her head tilted at a graceful angle. Again he was reminded of a dancer.
‘So? That’s no crime.’
This had gone on long enough. Jesse turned to leave. She laid her hand on his arm. Flinching, he jerked from her grasp and walked away.
‘Wait,’ she called.
He was determined not to stop. The girl ran round in front of him, blocking his path. He would have brushed past her but something in the set of her shoulders, her mouth made him hesitate.
‘Please wait,’ she said again.
They looked at each other for a while in silence.
‘Are you hungry?’ she finally asked.
And if she noticed the sweat that sprang up on his forehead when she handed him the muesli bar from her bum bag, she was considerate enough not to say.