One token knock, then Sarah marched into Jesse’s room carrying a mug of tea, a book, and an air of mischief.
‘Wake up, lazybones.’ She settled on the edge of the bed and held out the mug. ‘Come on, drink up.’
Jesse groaned artfully and burrowed further under the covers. Sarah was having none of that. She set the mug down on the bedside table, and with a giggle that hinted at practice, pounced on precisely the right spot to induce a muffled roar. Jesse thrust his head out from under his duvet, pulled her down onto the bed, and began to tickle her till she begged for a truce. They lay next to each other companionably while Sarah caught her breath.
‘Pass me the tea,’ Jesse said as he winched himself into a sitting position, resigned to foregoing his lie-in. It was still a lot better than waking up stiff and hungry on a piece of cardboard. A whole lot better. Had it really been less than a week since he’d slept under a bridge?
‘I’ve brought up Finn’s copy of Rilke.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘It’s in German, so I thought you could find that poem for me. Autumn Day, you said.’
Rather than take the book, Jesse quoted softly, ‘He who is alone now, will remain alone . . . will wander the streets restlessly . . . ’ His voice trailed off, and for a moment he was still, gazing into his mug. Then he looked up to find her eyes on him. ‘I’ll write out a translation for you, if you’re interested.’
While he drank, Sarah tilted her head and regarded him critically.
‘Don’t you want me to trim your hair?’ she asked. He raised an eyebrow so she added, ‘I’m good at it, honestly. Katy and I do each other’s all the time.’
Jesse squinted at her hair in return. Wild tendrils were already escaping from an elastic.
‘Is that supposed to be an argument for or against?’ he asked.
‘Why are you so anxious to hack at my head with a scissors anyway? A Delilah complex?’
‘You’re having lunch in the city with Finn. Have you forgotten?’
‘So?’ he asked, an expression of studied innocence on his face.
‘Well, your hair is just a little—’ She broke off with a glare when she realised that he was teasing her. ‘Right, go around looking like a savage for all I care.’
‘Shall I show you savage?’
At the ensuing sounds Nubi, who’d been ignoring the banter up till now, rose and shook himself, padded over to them. His kindly face looked so puzzled that both Jesse and Sarah began to laugh again.
‘Do you want to me to take him for a walk this afternoon?’ Sarah asked. ‘While you’re in the city buying out all the shops? I’ve got nothing to do till my evening dance class.’
‘What time is it now?’ Jesse asked.
‘Just gone ten.
‘I haven’t slept this long in ages.’ He thought back to his weekends at Mal’s house. On Saturdays he’d been expected to wash the car and sweep the path by noon. They had dozed while he fixed Sunday breakfast before church. Though to be fair, Angie had always cooked a bang-up Sunday dinner—a roast, and pudding too. She worked long hours, he remembered with a flicker of guilt. He was beginning to wonder why he’d resented her quite so much. And she’d taken his side against Mal sometimes—not often, but it mustn’t have been easy to do.
Go and feed Nubi,’ he said, ‘while I brush my teeth. Then fetch your infamous scissors. But I’m warning you, any blood drawn will be taken out in kind.’
‘Just wait and see. You won’t recognise yourself.’
‘That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.’
Grinning, Sarah took the mug from his hand. Their fingers brushed, and both of them suddenly fell silent.
Sarah could hear his breathing. She could feel the heat rising from his pores and smell his brackish night musk. They stared at each other. Jesse made a small sound at the back of his throat, a sound very much like soft rain.
Like Peter, Jesse had wonderful eyes.
Her family had spent most holidays in Norway, often at her grandmother’s country house. Sarah loved to walk along the beach above the rocky headland—once the sea took hold, it refused to let go. Its colours were subtle, and hoarded pirate treasure, and shifted endlessly, never once the same.
Jesse had the most beautiful eyes she’d ever seen.
‘I want to tell you about my brother,’ she said, trying not to think of the letter. ‘Peter.’
Jesse sat up straighter, and the blue top rolled out from the bedclothes onto the floor. Sarah bent and picked it up, then examined it with a look of disbelief on her face.
‘This is Peter’s,’ she said. ‘He never went anywhere without it.’
‘Your mother gave it to me.’
‘She gave you Peter’s top?’
‘What’s the matter? Why has nobody mentioned your brother?’
‘You’ve had a haircut,’ Tondi said.
She was wearing a thin floral skirt, cut asymmetrically, and a chaste white T-shirt. Jesse could tell that she’d put on a bra. Her streaked hair was caught up in a clip, and if she wore any makeup it was skilfully applied. She looked clean and wholesome, like a film stereotype.
‘Sarah’s not here,’ Jesse said.
‘I didn’t come to see Sarah,’ she said with a smile. ‘Aren’t you going to ask me in?’
Without waiting for an answer, she propped her umbrella against the wall and brushed past him into the house. Jesse followed her into the sitting room, where she stood looking at the framed black-and-white photographs: sensual and somewhat disturbing abstracts grouped along an entire wall. They were extraordinarily beautiful—museum quality, Jesse thought.
‘I’ve always wondered what these are supposed to be,’ Tondi said.
Jesse shrugged, unwilling to engage in conversation with her. She made him uncomfortable. He moved over to the coffee table and began straightening the magazines and newspapers that were scattered higgledy-piggledy across its surface. Finn’s presence hadn’t improved the state of the house—it was rather worse, in fact. He’d brought not just the latest photo journals, but a whole stack of political and economic reviews with him from the airport—in several languages, Jesse noted—along with boxes of Swiss chocolates that were still pyramided on the seat of an armchair.
‘Got a diet coke?’ Tondi asked.
‘I don’t know,’ said Jesse. ‘It’s not my house.’
‘But you’re staying here, aren’t you?’
Jesse was tempted to tell her to clear off, but he didn’t know just what her relationship to Sarah was. He didn’t like Tondi or the company she kept, nor did he trust her, but if these were Sarah’s friends . . . He supposed it would do no harm to fetch her a drink.
‘Yeah, I’m staying for a while.’
‘Are you a relative? You know, a cousin or something?’
‘A friend of the family then?’
‘Something to do with her work? Sarah’s mum, I mean.’
‘A ghost?’ She crinkled her eyes and smiled.
Jesse laughed. OK, he was being a bit of a dickhead. She did have a nice smile, actually.
‘I’ll go and see if there’s any coke in the fridge.’
She followed him into the kitchen, which he’d just finished tidying. The room looked cheerful despite the persistent drizzle. There was a large bunch of early sunflowers in a jug on the table, to which a few drops of moisture still clung. Meg must have cut them before leaving for work. Jesse smiled to himself. The house might be messy and disorganised, but never tawdry. Only the weekly cleaner seemed to touch the hoover. ‘I prefer my spade,’ Meg had said unabashedly. It occurred to him that he would enjoy helping her in the garden. Though he’d resented any of the garden work assigned by his foster families, he remembered helping his grandmother weed the vegetables. He liked the feel of the crumbly black earth between his fingers, the hot sun on his neck.
‘Where’s your dog?’ Tondi asked as she sipped her lemonade. There had been no coke.
‘Sarah’s taken him for a run. And I’m going out soon,’ he said.
‘Any place special?’
‘Not really. Why?’
‘I thought we might go round while Sarah’s with Mick.’ She looked at him coyly over the rim of her glass as she took another sip, then licked her lips. ‘Show you where everybody hangs out.’ She kept her eyes on his face as she finished the lemonade.
Jesse’s heart fisted against his breastbone. Sarah and Mick? Sarah hadn’t said anything. But then she wouldn’t, would she? No wonder she was so keen to get him, Jesse, out of the way. To his chagrin he could feel a wave of heat suffusing his skin.
‘Didn’t Sarah tell you?’ Tondi asked him, her blue eyes wide and innocent.
Tondi was cleverer than she looked. She was enjoying his discomfiture. Suddenly he wanted to be rid of her, rid of them all. He felt as though he’d tread in something disgusting. Early on, there’d been mornings when the reek had awakened him, as if the drunks had deliberately chosen to spew up at his feet, to take special delight in debasing anyone at their mercy. A kid, a nothing.
Jesse reached for his cigarettes lying on the worktop. He shook one out and lit it without offering the packet to Tondi. After inhaling a few times to dispel the memory of that sour smell, he stared at her coldly. Then he remembered the no-smoking rule, took one last drag, and pinched the tip out with spit-moistened fingers. He smiled his practised quarter-smile, the one with flared nostrils.
‘Sorry, Tondi, not interested.’
She raised her chin. ‘No problem. It was Kevin’s idea anyway. He’ll be waiting for me.’
‘You’re a bad liar.’
Her eyes snapped with fury. She wasn’t accustomed to out-and-out scorn—or honesty. Jesse smiled an openly mocking smile now, knowing how it would inflame her. She was spoilt and transparent, easy to manipulate. He had a lot more practice at dealing with humiliation.
‘If you’re hoping to make it with Sarah, be careful. Mick doesn’t like poaching,’ she said with an attempt at bravado.
‘Mick doesn’t own Sarah. Nor does he scare me. Go back to your toys.’
‘Fuck off. We were just doing Sarah a favour by inviting you.’
‘I’m nobody’s favour, especially not yours. Now get out and don’t come panting round me again. I’ve got better things to do with my time.’
She went white with rage. Jesse walked out of the kitchen, not bothering to shut the door behind him.
‘Are you absolutely certain you don’t want another steak?’ Finn asked.
Jesse blushed and dropped the piece of roll with which he’d been mopping up the juices on his plate. He was still not used to having enough to eat. It wasn’t as if he’d ever starved, not like the kids you saw on TV with swollen bellies and stick limbs and eyes that had given up. In his foster homes they’d always fed him, though it had sometimes felt like hunger. The last few months had been hard—the scrounging, the hunger pangs and stomach cramps, the unremitting dreams of food, the dread—but he’d always managed to find something to eat. A few times somebody had shared a tin of soup or a loaf of stale bread with him, but he’d been unwilling to stick around long enough to form the kind of partnership, friendship even, that sometimes developed on the street. He knew favours had to be paid for. He wasn’t sure he could return to that life.
Finn signalled to the waiter. Over Jesse’s protests he ordered a second steak and the cheese board, from which he helped himself to generous wedges of some very ripe-looking specimens. The red wine was nearly finished, but he shook his head reluctantly when asked about another bottle. It was a working day.
‘Don’t tell Meg about the cheese,’ he said with a grin. ‘She’s a real tyrant sometimes when it come to my diet.’
‘Is anything wrong?’ Jesse asked.
‘With my health, you mean? Not a thing. These doctors are all mad about cholesterol.’
‘But Meg’s a psychiatrist.’
‘A doctor’s a doctor. I keep telling her that it’s a load of rubbish. My ancestors have eaten cheese and butter and cream and plenty of animal fat for generations, and not one of them died before ninety.’
‘Well, there was my great-aunt Gerd, who didn’t make it past seventy-three. But I think being eaten by a lion while on safari in Africa doesn’t quite count as diet-related.’
‘You’re dubbing me,’ protested Jesse.
‘Not at all. Like I’ve said, I come from a long line of Norse adventurers. Now eat up while I tell you what I’ve got planned for the rest of the afternoon.’
Jesse applied himself to his steak, which the waiter had just served with a straight face and a little flourish. His eyes twinkled, though.
After a few minutes of silence, Finn emptied the wine bottle into his glass, drank, and hid his belch somewhere between a cough and a snort, followed by a sheepish grin. ‘Too long in the wilderness.’ The chunk of baguette remaining on his plate slowly crumbled under his fingertips.
‘You’re not going back, you know,’ Finn said at last.
‘Back?’ asked Jesse. ‘Back where?’ He had a pretty good idea what Finn meant, however.
‘Back to the street. It’s no solution.’
Jesse put down his fork and knife, took a long drink of his coke; with a forefinger began to connect the dots of condensation on his glass till he caught sight of Finn’s pursed lips and tapping fingers. There were few pictures concealed from Finn’s eye.
‘If I found a full-time job, I could afford a room somewhere.’
‘Just how old are you, Jesse? Last time I asked, you hedged.’
‘You belong in school.’
‘I’d have to register with the authorities. I’m never going to let social services get hold of me again. Never.’
‘It might not be that bad, if someone like Meg were involved. You’re entitled to support and an education, you know.’
‘The public library will do fine for an education. They can keep their money.’
‘Easy to say when you’re sixteen. Not so easy when you’re thirty and still sweeping someone’s yard for a fiver.’
‘Better that than their mind-fucks and lockups.’
‘Come off it, you’re way too smart to spout that rubbish. The very worst would be shared accommodation, but there are other options. And not all social workers are incompetent. Or sadists. We’re not talking concentration camp here.’
Jesse snorted. ‘You’ve got no bloody idea.’
An expression that Jesse had not seen before crossed Finn’s face. Jesse felt ashamed of himself. He had no right to talk to Finn like that. What did he really know about Finn’s life? He’d lost a son, hadn’t he? Jesse had no patent on suffering.
‘Look, I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve had my fill of fostering. There are some really screwed-up people in on the game.’
‘No, don’t apologise. You’re right. I was being officious, condescending. I can’t possibly know what you’ve gone through. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson.’ A pause. ‘With Peter, Sarah’s brother.’
Jesse picked at his leftover chips, now cold and unappealing, before blurting out, ‘What happened to him?’
Finn raised his wineglass and tilted it against the light, studying it for so long that Jesse thought he wouldn’t answer. But the answer, when it came, came all at once, like a bottle shaken, then uncorked.
‘Peter was one of those bright and charismatic kids who seemed destined to sail through life without a squall—good at school, even better at sport, popular, nice-looking, girls, a talented artist. I was away a lot, took it all for granted.’ A few drops of wine dripped onto the tablecloth, and Finn set the glass down. ‘Expected too much from him, too, I suppose.’
It seemed impossible for Finn to have been a bad father. What could have gone wrong?
Finn blinked a few times and continued, ‘I’m not sure exactly when it began to fall apart. He started staying out later and later, missing school, becoming surly and uncommunicative, sleeping for hours at a time during the day. Often not coming home at all. We kept hoping we could cope on our own. It got worse, then much worse. Meg and I—well, no marriage is that impregnable. In the end we knew we needed help. We tried to insist on counselling. There were huge bloodcurdling fights. He broke things. Stole things. One half-term when he’d just turned seventeen he left. We never saw him again.’ Finn took a long draught of his wine.
Jesse spoke softly. ‘How did he die?’
‘I don’t know if you want to hear this. You’ve got more in common with us than you realise.’
‘I want to hear.’
‘Peter was found burnt to death in a squat, along with several bodies. We don’t know exactly what happened, but they were able to identify him through DNA sequencing, though not all of the others.’ Finn was quiet for a moment, his pain louder than words. ‘So tell me, is that what you want? From day to day not knowing where you’ll sleep, what you’ll eat, whether you’ll be beaten or raped or worse by morning?’
The minutes passed as they stared at each other. Jesse dropped his eyes first.
‘No,’ Jesse muttered. ‘No, that’s not what I want.’
‘What happened?’ Jesse asked, crouching down to look at Nubi’s leg.
Nubi was lying on a blanket in the kitchen, his rear left leg splinted and bandaged, his pelvis taped. The vet had administered a painkiller and sedative, so Nubi soon dropped his head back onto his paws. Jesse stroked his bony head, then behind his ears, and murmured ‘good boy’ over and over again.
‘It was my fault,’ Sarah said. ‘I hadn’t bothered with the lead, and he tore across the street just as a car was coming. We were lucky that the driver saw him and braked so fast.’ She took an uneven breath, and Jesse could tell that she was still shaken by the accident. ‘I never realised an animal could scream like that, Jesse. I was so scared.’
There was no point in accusing her of carelessness. She felt guilty enough as it was. Who was he to cast stones anyway? He remembered how he’d tried to drive Nubi off that first morning.
‘Look, it’s going to be OK, isn’t it?’ he said, looking up from Nubi’s side. ‘It’s only a broken leg.’
Sarah shook her head. ‘The vet said it’s a nasty break, and she’s not sure if it’ll heal properly. The bone’s in several pieces.’ Her voice roughened on the last words, and she paused for a short while before continuing. ‘She wants to see Nubi tomorrow, after I talk with my parents. They have to agree. Surgery’s needed to put in a metal plate and screws, and it’s going to be expensive.’
Jesse tightened his lips. More debts.
‘Which bone is it?’ he asked.
‘The thigh bone,’ she said. ‘The vet showed me the x-rays.’
‘The distal femur.’
‘Yeah, that’s what she called it.’
‘Any other injuries?’
‘No. In that way we’re lucky. No ruptures, no internal bleeding, no head trauma to speak of. Just a lot of bruising, some superficial cuts.’
Jesse ran his hand lightly over Nubi’s fur while he considered. He didn’t like the tranquillisers, which often had an unpredictable effect on him. But it couldn’t be helped. Since he’d have to wait until they were alone, with no chance of interference, some of the drugs might have worn off by then, or at least diminished in potency. And this time he’d make sure he had something sweet on hand.
Jesse rose. ‘When’s your dance class?’
‘Maybe I’d best skip it.’
‘Go. I’ll stay with Nubi.’
Sarah bit a fingernail. ‘Are you really OK with that?’
‘Yeah. But will you do me a favour? Buy some chocolate on the way back?’ He grinned. ‘Lots of chocolate.’
‘There’s plenty left from Finn’s trip.’ Some of the tension left her face. ‘He won‘t mind.’
‘The ordinary stuff will do. Please.’
Sarah stopped biting her fingernails, a smile flirting with her lips. She was standing like a stork, one leg tucked up behind the other. Jesse didn’t understand how she could remain so utterly still without losing her balance. He thought it must have something to do with inner calm, though she was anything but tranquil at the moment. A dancer’s trick, then. He had a momentary urge to touch her, not roughly, just enough to see how well she could maintain the position. He must have made a small movement with his hand, because her eyes flitted towards it, then away again. She turned her head but not before he saw her smile widen, and a flash of pleasure—triumph?—ignite behind her eyes.
He remembered Mick.
‘Where did you go with Mick?’ he slashed, his voice like a jagged bottle. And then drawing blood. ‘Too busy to look after Nubi?’
‘Mick. You do remember Mick, don’t you?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Her raised leg thumped to the floor.
‘You met Mick this afternoon, didn’t you?’
‘What is this with you about Mick? I told you that I’m not going out with him any longer, didn’t I? Not that it’s any of your business.’
‘Yeah, you told me all right.’
‘And just what is that supposed to mean?’
‘I don’t like being lied to.’
‘I don’t think I heard you right. Try saying that again.’
Jesse felt a flimmer of doubt but it was too late to retract his words.
‘You don’t need to lie to me.’
The contempt on her face hurt, impossible to pretend it didn’t. His suspicion that he might have made a mistake deepened. Tondi had her own agenda, plus a good measure of cunning.
‘Sarah—’ he said, but she didn’t give him a chance to finish. Without a word, she turned on her heel and stomped from the room. He was left with Nubi and the feeling that he needed a very long tiring swim—or a couple of aspirins. Neither of which he’d be able to get if he wanted to help Nubi.