Jesse set the top spinning before him in the air, sent it out to a place of hypercomplex snow, and willed its instantaneous return. As the thin coating of ice melted against his skin, he would have been hard-pressed to describe the sensation in his fingertips. It felt like salty blue, a trill of silvers, sharp pungent aquamarine. There were congenitally blind people, he recalled reading somewhere, who could distinguish colour by touch alone; and those who painted astonishingly realistic, even exotic landscapes.
‘That’s a cool trick,’ Sarah said, cross-legged on his bed. ‘Where did it go?’
Wonderingly Jesse turned to face her. ‘You saw it disappear?’
‘A trace—an afterglow of colour.’
The first flicker of excitement. ‘Which colour?’
Sarah considered. ‘I’m not sure.’ Shook her head. ‘No, it’s gone. A colour I’ve seen before, but which one? And where? I ought to remember. You know the feeling, something like déjà vu.’
Now a hot ember in his throat, smouldering with possibility. If Sarah could see colours beyond the ultraviolet cutoff . . .
He didn’t care what they’d told him. His memories were real. Nothing he’d gone through had convinced him otherwise. Finn wouldn’t lie to him, but there were others, maybe many others in the vicious stackup. If he’d learned anything, it was to look for reasons behind reasons behind reasons.
If Sarah could see . . .
Why should he be the only one? How stupid of him to think that he was unique, how egoistic. Mapping the mind had just begun, genuine understanding was far off. There were plenty of mysteries. Hardwiring was a code like any other. If the code could be modified, hacked . . .
If Sarah could be taught to see . . .
The worst was the loneliness.
Jesse scooped up his lighter and cigarettes, his hands trembling a little. ‘I need a smoke. Come out into the garden with me?’
‘I thought you were going to quit.’
‘I’m half undressed.’
She snorted but rose and slipped into her jeans. ‘If I get double pneumonia (and frostbite), you’ll do the explaining to my mother.’
He tossed her a hoodie from his wardrobe. ‘Here. Put it on. It’s coolish tonight.’
‘What about you?’
‘I seem to be growing less sensitive to the cold.’
‘Is that so? Or maybe you’ve tired of needing extra clothes—a bit like Finn, you know—and decided to redesign your internal thermostat. When everyone else is wearing boots and wool and anoraks, you’ll be sauntering down the road barefoot in a T-shirt and shorts, and sweating. And when the kids at school ask, I’m supposed to tell them you’re the very latest model.’
Jesse laughed. ‘They’ll lock me up, not let me near a catwalk.’
‘Not that kind of model, you eejit. The science fictiony sort.’
‘Last time I showered, it was all real skin—scarred, and ugly as hell, but skin.’ He held up a hand. ‘No circuits or plastic anywhere.’
‘I’ve already told you, it’s not ugly. But turn round and let me look. Maybe I haven’t noticed that one of those scars near your shoulder is comet-shaped.’
He stared at her, sudden disquiet crawling like genetically modified superlice along his scalp. He’d read Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
‘What?’ she asked.
‘Oh yeah? You’ve gone white as a—as a—’
‘As a sheet? a ghost?’
‘Please. Even literary dolts like me have some taste.’
‘Stop that. You read more than you let on. Obviously.’
‘Yeah, but it’s a little hard to keep up with you.’
‘So you mind that I’m not Baryshnikov?’
‘Only on Thursdays and alternate Saturdays.’ She thrust her arms and head into the hoodie, and at first her voice was muffled. ‘If we’re going, let’s get it over with. I’m dying for a warm bed and an even warmer—well, you know.’ Her face emerged from the neck opening with a grin. ‘There are a couple of innovative lifts and breathtaking holds that you could certainly teach Thomas. I don’t know about Baryshnikov.’
‘Thomas?’ Jesse asked, struggling to keep his voice even. He could feel the colour mounting in his damned telltale cheeks.
She laughed that rich delighted laugh of hers. ‘Don’t tell me your jealous of Thomas!’ She ran ahead of him across the room, out the door, and along the landing. Jesse followed more slowly, glad that she’d forgotten about Mitchell, and even gladder she’d probably not read Ghostwritten as well.
Jesse had his cigarette by the sundial, then let Sarah lead him to one of Nubi’s favourite spots for napping.
‘Let’s talk up here,’ she said, pulling down the rope ladder. Stapled into the old walnut tree, the treehouse was built more solidly than it looked.
‘What’s wrong with a nice comfortable bed?’
‘Talk, I said,’ but the look she gave him sufficed to half arouse him. He watched her buttocks move under her jeans as she climbed the ladder ahead of him. If anything, darkness increased the enticement; his excitement. He wondered if Sarah’s body would ever become so familiar to him that he no longer imagined her unclothed. Sometimes he felt ashamed of his fantasies, as if Sarah—and the real thing—were not quite good enough. But not ashamed enough to wish for indifference. Did the years do that to everyone? All those middle-aged couples rescued from silence by TV . . . Yet Finn and Meg still seemed to take genuine physical delight in each other. Finn would probably answer him honestly, but it was something Jesse wasn’t sure he could ask Sarah’s dad.
‘Talk before play,’ Sarah said, though she immediately belied her words by unzipping his jeans. Then some time later, with a wicked grin, ‘Better now?’
Indifference? Jesse thought as she drew him down next to her on the cushions. She lit a thick round candle, a cloying vanilla scent.
‘Right. Now tell me about this fire. You might as well. I’ve left the condoms in your room,’ Sarah said.
‘What do you think about when we’re making love?’ he blurted out, surprising himself.
She didn’t hesitate, almost as if she’d been expecting this question, or another just as silly and endearing. ‘All kinds of stuff. And sometimes nothing at all, if it’s really good . . . really intense.’ She took his left hand and raised it to her lips. She continued to kiss his fingers, one at a time. Jesse closed his eyes, wanting and not wanting to abandon himself to the sensation. She was playing with him, teasing him, yet he didn’t mind. He felt safer than he’d ever felt in someone else’s hands. Earthed. Even the smell of the candle no longer seemed so pervasive.
‘You spend too much time inside your own head,’ Sarah said, ‘worrying about what you’re doing wrong.’
Once again he was startled by her perspicuity. ‘How did you know—?’
‘If it’s bondage, there are a few things we can try.’
‘Jesus. Is that what you think of me?’
‘Or anal sex. I don’t think I’d mind, if we took it slow. I’ve checked the internet. There are some pretty good teen sites. Information, not porn. And thank god none of the usual coyness or finger-wagging. Bloody hypocrites.’ She was quiet while she toyed with the candle. Finally she asked, ‘There’ve been boys, haven’t there?’
Jesse looked away.
‘You don’t have to be ashamed,’ she said.
Again he didn’t answer.
‘I know I can’t be everything to you, not to someone like you. If you want this to work, you’ve got to talk to me.’
‘Don’t do this, Sarah. Don’t prostitute yourself.’
‘Now you really are making me feel creepy—dirty. It’s never occurred to you that I might like to fool around? Try some things too? A little freaky might be fun.’
‘That’s not what it sounds like.’
‘Then listen better.’ Sarah pushed the candle aside, rose onto her knees, and put her hands on Jesse’s shoulders. ‘Look at me.’
He looked. He couldn’t not look.
‘I trust you,’ she said. ‘Good sex is always about trust.’
‘And how did you get to be so experienced?’
She dropped her hands. ‘Do you mean that the way I think you do?’
‘Fuck no. Why are we always doing this?’
‘Misunderstanding each other.’ Careering wildly from warm tropic seas to arctic in an instant.
‘You’ve just given me the perfect cue, you know. This is when I’m supposed to tell you—again—to talk to me.’
For a long drawn-out moment it seemed she wouldn’t answer. The waves had withdrawn, the tide far out. She looked at him strangely, thoughts indrawn, something like fear contesting with defiance contesting with shame on her face. He could hear her windy breathing in the snug enclosed space of the treehouse, her old hideaway. She shivered—the cracks in the walls were caulked, but not the joists of memory.
‘Peter wrote us a letter when he left. It came by post ten days after he disappeared. I happened to be the first one home that afternoon. I burnt the letter straightaway without reading it, without even opening it.’
‘Why?’ he asked softly.
Her voice creaked like sun-cracked oars in rusted oarlocks. ‘I hated him for what he’d done to us. You can’t imagine what those last months were like. I didn’t want him to come back. I never dreamt that . . . you know.’ She was close to tears, could hardly speak. ‘Do you hate me?’
He leaned forward and wrapped his arms around her. ‘Hate you, Seesaw?’ he whispered into her fragrant hair. The candle hissed, flared—a sudden waxy brightening, golden light, fire always intoxicating fire to guide the skiff.
A few minutes later he began to tell her about Liam, then Daisy.