‘You’re not eating,’ said Sarah’s mother.
The three of them were sitting in the kitchen at a battered wooden table, probably a family heirloom. A jug with sweet peas scented the room.
‘Jesse?’ Sarah’s mother prompted.
‘I’m not very hungry, Mrs—’ He broke off, realising that he didn’t know their surname.
‘Andersen. But please call me Meg.’
He glanced at Sarah. ‘We had a late meal.’
‘That reminds me,’ Meg said. ‘Thomas rang. You forgot your mobile again.’
‘Oh shit. I was supposed to meet him in the afternoon,’ Sarah said. ‘He was going make his famous coconut ice cream cake.’
‘He was very nice about it, considering he’d gone to all that trouble,’ Meg said.
Sarah flushed. ‘I got the message.’
Hurriedly she finished the food on her plate and reached for seconds. For such a slender girl, she ate a lot. Nor did she pretend about it. She chewed with gusto—like most things she did, Jesse suspected. Was Thomas the boyfriend?
‘At least try some,’ Sarah said, her mouth around a large forkful of salad.
Jesse took a bite of his quiche. The pastry was rich and flaky—obviously homemade. Sarah’s mum was a good cook. He wished he had more appetite, but his headache, which had toyed with him off and on all day, was now scratching impatiently at the door. It was one of the reasons he had, in the end, gone back home with Sarah. He simply couldn’t face another night on the street.
‘Aren’t you on duty tonight?’ Sarah asked her mother.
‘Not till tomorrow.’
Sarah saw the question in Jesse’s eyes. She was about to explain when her mum’s slight frown checked her. The not yet was as clear as if Meg had spoken the words aloud.
‘I’ll ring Thomas, then how about some TV?’ Sarah asked.
‘Or sleep.’ Meg’s eyes rested on Jesse, who found it very difficult to interpret her thoughts—not that she hid them from view, for her gaze was direct and candid. No, it was far more like watching a school of fish whose iridescent scales flashed just below the surface, yet which slipped away as soon as you tried to lower the net.
Meg pushed back her chair and crossed to the electric kettle, filled it at the tap, and switched it on. ‘I’ll make you some tea,’ she said to him.
‘Yuk,’ said Sarah. ‘Not that dreadful stuff.’
But Jesse would be glad to drink it, anything at this point to avoid a migraine; nightmares. Then a bath and bed: he shivered with pleasure at the thought of an entire night in comfort and safety. To sleep as long as he liked . . .
As Meg handed him the mug of herbal tea, she let her hand rest on his shoulder for a moment. Unprepared, he camouflaged his reaction with a neck roll, almost smoothly enough to fool her that his muscles were stiff. A small crease puckered her brow.
Sarah’s voice cut across the open waters between them like the fierce carved prow of a longboat. ‘Are you’re OK? You’re very pale.’
Tomorrow. He would leave first thing tomorrow. He could feel the weight of Meg’s solicitude bearing down on him like a second ship.
Why were they bothering with him, a complete stranger? Nobody just took some kid in off the street. He liked them, but well-meaning people were often the most dangerous sort. With the nasty ones you knew where you stood, had no compunction about dealing with them. But those fools who imagined they knew what was best for everybody else, who were only doing it for your own good—if he heard that phrase one more time—they were the ones to watch out for. You wanted a little relief, you wanted to trust them, and then wham! rammed by a bloody frigate. And the self-righteous never forgave.
‘What’s the matter?’ Sarah persisted.
‘Drink your tea, Jesse,’ Meg said. ‘I’ve added some honey for energy. Then get a good night’s sleep. There’ll be time enough to talk tomorrow.’
At least she hadn’t said that things would look different in the morning, Jesse thought. And then he understood that Meg had reproved Sarah, however mildly.
Sarah rose, collected the plates, and scraped the remains of Jesse’s quiche into Nubi’s dish. The dog didn’t need any prompting when it came to food, and he’d licked the basin clean and bumped it noisily across the floor with his muzzle, trying to get the very last smear, before they had a chance to wonder whether he’d eat French cuisine. They all laughed, even Jesse, and the slight tension in the room dissipated.
Sarah brought out a chocolate mousse and arched an eyebrow. Jesse shook his head, then ducked it with a rueful grin. Headache or no headache he could never resist chocolate.
‘Do you have something to sleep in?’ Meg asked him when he’d finished. ‘If we get rain, the temperature will probably drop.’
‘I raided those trunks in the attic,’ Sarah said. ‘I thought it would be OK under the circumstances. But I forgot pyjamas.’
Sarah was studying her spoon from all angles, as if a secret password were etched somewhere on its surface. She avoided looking at her mother. There was a short silence.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Jesse said. ‘I can manage without.’
‘No, it’s fine,’ Meg said. ‘Would you mind fetching a pair, Sarah? There should be some in the smaller trunk, underneath the underwear and T-shirts. I’ll bring Jesse an extra blanket in the meantime.’
Sarah nodded, and Jesse could see the relief on her face.
A door slammed from the front of the house. Nubi rose from his place at Jesse’s feet and stretched. He padded towards the kitchen door, cocking his head curiously.
‘I’m back,’ a man’s voice bellowed.
‘Dad!’ Sarah whooped, evidently forgetting to use his first name in her enthusiasm.
Even Meg, normally soft spoken, couldn’t repress her delight. ‘Finn!’ she exclaimed.
The next few minutes passed in a jumble of hugs and kisses and parcels and cases and exclamations and cameras and questions and snatches of sentences. Jesse had risen with the others and stood a little apart, watching the effervescence with unexpected pleasure. He couldn’t help being caught up in their excitement. When things had quieted down, Sarah’s father turned to Jesse.
‘And this is—’ he began.
‘Jesse.’ Meg said, her smile drawing him into their circle. ‘A new friend. He’ll be staying the night.’
Sarah’s dad nodded as if this were the most natural thing in the world and extended his hand. Jesse wasn’t used to such courtesy and took a second to hold out his own. Finn noticed his hesitation.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. I travel so much that I’ve grown accustomed to greeting people this way.’ His handshake was firm and welcoming. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘My pleasure, sir,’ Jesse said, touched by the man’s attempt to put him at ease. A handshake was surely normal in the kind of society the Andersens frequented.
Sarah gawped. ‘Sir?’
Her father laughed. ‘Now where did you find him, Sarah? I haven’t been called sir by anyone not hoping for a tip since my military days.’
‘I didn’t know you’d served in the army,’ Sarah said.
‘I didn’t,’ Finn said.
They all laughed. Finn’s face was deeply tanned, his tonsure shaggy, his beard a rich redgold. When he laughed, everything about him laughed—his bright blue eyes, his gap teeth, his belly. He was a large—a very large—man who didn’t seem to mind the roll of fat that drooped over his jeans. Jesse wondered whose clothes they’d lent him. Obviously not Finn’s.
‘You’re thinner,’ Sarah said, jabbing her finger at her father’s stomach.
‘Yeah, short rations and lots of hiking will do that to you.’ He glanced at the kitchen table. ‘Quiche. Quiche. And chocolate mousse. Thank god I’m home before I starved to death.’
He went to the sink to wash his hands, then cut himself a thick wedge and took a bite. He closed his eyes dramatically, smacked his lips, sighed.
‘If they had tasted that at Sparta, they wouldn’t have bothered with Helen.’ He grinned wickedly at his wife. ‘Well, not till they’d eaten their fill.’
Jesse exchanged glances with Sarah. She wasn’t even remotely bothered. Was this the way it could be? People spending years—a lifetime—together?
‘Finn, cut it out. You’re too old for jokes like that,’ Sarah said. ‘You’re embarrassing Jesse.’
‘Oh ho, my girl, you’re never too old for foreplay,’ Finn said.
Now it was Sarah’s turn to blush. To cover up her discomfiture, she began loading the dishwasher, but not before shooting a look at Jesse which clearly said: parents!
‘It’s fine,’ Jesse said, a bit shyly.
Finn licked his fingers. ‘Good,’ he said to Jesse. ‘I’m glad to find there’s someone your age who doesn’t think an untimely frost lies upon everyone over thirty.’
‘Shakespeare’s Capulet,’ Jesse said with a grin.
‘An educated man!’
Finn spoke with a trace of accent which Jesse tried and failed to place—not precisely American, certainly not Australian, but what?
‘So, Jesse,’ Finn said, going to the fridge and peering in, ‘is this your dog or have my wife and daughter been busy with a new project?’
Jesse sat down at his place. He shrugged in resignation. ‘Mine. Sort of.’
Meg rummaged in a cupboard and brought out a bottle of wine. She added wineglasses to the clutter on the table, a corkscrew. Finn picked up the bottle and scrutinised the label, then tugged his beard.
‘A good red,’ he said. ‘Another gift from a patient?’
‘Patient?’ Jesse asked.
‘Hasn’t Sarah told you?’ Finn asked. ‘Meg’s nearly finished her training at the local loony bin.’
‘All right, all right. Specialist registrar at our psychiatric hospital.’
‘A psychiatrist?’ asked Jesse, appalled.
‘Yes, for kids and teens,’ Finn said. ‘Bloody tough work, too. With Sarah growing up and my being away so much, Meg decided she’d stayed home long enough. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s what she loves.’
Finn decanted the wine and poured them all a glass. ‘A toast,’ he said, holding his up to the light. ‘To home and family and friends.’
‘I don’t drink,’ Jesse said.