At Siggy’s Jesse stopped just inside the doorway. The music surrounded him like a conversation of gossipy magpies, village women at the borehole drawing water for the day’s washing. Notes spilled from the tenor sax in a voluble chatter—an old woman’s toothless cackle, a high-pitched giggle, a knowing snicker, a whisper, a raucous joke, a hacking smoker’s cough, a complaint, a sob. He could hardly believe that only one instrument produced such a gush of voices, and though Daniel deserved his fate—well he did, didn’t he?—Jesse lingered, not keen to relate even a chlorinated version of the story. It was easy to think Mick would be far better off without his brother, but Jesse knew that families swam in cloudy waters; how well he knew it. Wading ashore together, his father had always insisted they stand knee-deep in the lake and wait patiently to scoop a drink till the silt they’d churned up settled, now settled too something in Jesse’s gut. Mick was a musician, very possibly a brilliant musician—not a judgement Jesse trusted himself to make with any real assurance—and though Mick’s pain would run rough and hard and swift, turbulent as any stormy river of sound, it would channel nevertheless into his music, feeding it, enriching it, and ultimately transforming it. And maybe, just maybe, with the sonorous and subterranean complexity of water, renew his belief in himself.
Why did that not seem like much consolation?
Or even likely when Jesse recalled Sarah’s night-smudged face.
‘Jesse.’ Siggy clapped him on the shoulder, then pulled him into a crushing embrace. ‘Welcome.’ From Siggy it was not intrusive, nor unwelcome. ‘You by yourself?’
‘Yeah.’ Jesse nodded in Mick’s direction. ‘I wanted to hear him play.’
‘Watch out for that one. He’s goin’ saxin’ with the gods.’
‘Good, isn’t he?’
‘That good.’ Siggy kissed his fingertips in a universal chef’s gesture, then rubbed his belly. ‘Ambrosia. Almost as good as my latest chocolate mousse.’
Jesse grinned. ‘Then I’ll have to try some. Is a table free?’
‘Is the air? Come on, I’ll put you in front.’ Siggy pointed to a square table for four not more than a few metres from Mick. A small tent of cardboard marked the table as reserved.
Jesse shook his head. ‘If you don’t mind, I’d rather sit against the wall. When Mick finishes playing, I’d like to talk to him quietly.’
‘Know him then?’
Siggy stared at Jesse for a moment, combing his fingers through his beard and working his lips as if he were tasting a heavy red wine from an unknown vineyard. A little sour.
‘You’re lookin’ lots better, not so hungry, if you get my meanin’. Storm’s retreatin’, sea runnin’ smooth. Good fishin’. That Finn knows what he’s doin’. Like my pappy, he’s hauled plenty of nets. You be careful now. Don’t you go capsizin’ the boat.’
Siggy led Jesse to a window overlooking the courtyard. Almost an alcove, and the evening sun glazing the small table with a lustrous weld, intersected by long slanting bars of shadow from the mullion and transoms. A cobalt-blue vase held a delicate white flower, waxy like a lily though scentless. Distracted by his own feelings of disquiet—a warning from someone he respected—Jesse failed to appreciate the Vermeer-like quality of the setting. He pulled out a chair and sat down.
Siggy often spent free afternoons with his girls in museums, here in the city, further afield whenever possible. There was something timeless about the boy staring at his hands in front of him on the table, his long blond hair flowing to simple yellow from lemon and egg yolk and silvery quince, as if his image had been projected onto a canvas by a camera obscura from the past: the pearly tones to his skin, to his fingernails, to the lilac shadows under his eyes . . . Siggy shivered, the islands ran strong in his blood. He regarded Jesse closely, with the same sombre attention he’d give to a child whose belly was swollen by malnutrition. In the end he did what he knew best how to do.
‘I’ll send over a plate of food,’ he said.
Jesse shook his head. ‘Just something to drink, maybe a bit of chocolate mousse. If that’s OK.’
‘It’s not OK. Here, you eat.’
‘I’m not very hungry,’ Jesse said apologetically.
‘Finn won’t mind.’
‘Won’t mind what?’
‘You’re smart enough to figure it out.’
Jesse looked down again at his hands.
‘Like payin’ your own way, do you?’ Siggy asked shrewdly, but with a note of approval in his voice.
‘Listen, I love feedin’ people, ’specially those who appreciate it. How about we call it my invitation this time?’ When he saw Jesse was about to refuse, he added, ‘You fixin’ to insult me? Don’t tell me you’re a racist.’
Jesse grinned. ‘OK.’ A meal would be great, especially one of Siggy’s.
‘Mick expectin’ you?’
Jesse glanced over at Mick, who was playing an intricate blues piece now, but whose attention seemed to be straying in their direction.
‘I’ll send him over when he’s done his set.’
Siggy hesitated. ‘Thank me later. Mick’s a damn fine musician, but my gut tells me something’s wrong. And a cook’s gut is never wrong. Not if he wants to stay in business.’
It was warm in the restaurant, and the rich food was making Jesse sleepy. He tried to concentrate on the music, but found his mind slipping its mooring, drifting into shallow cuts and overflow weirs and disused arms, until it reached a winding hole, where it would turn back to the flow of notes, now smooth, now trickling, now fast and steep, then float away again like a butty loosed from its tow. At one point he wondered whether Matthew would let him go back to work on the narrowboat, take him out on it someday; whether in fact Matthew would ever have anything to do with him again . . . a puppy? . . . no, he thought disconsolately, impossible—an impertinence, tantamount to telling Matthew a life is insignificant . . . replaceable . . .
‘What the fuck do you want?’
Jesse looked up, then caught his breath. Mick was standing with his body angled away from the table, a large glass of coke in his hand. For a moment it seemed as though Daniel had come back for retribution. Jesse gestured towards the other chair. Mick tightened his lips, shook his head, stared at a hairline crack in the wall.
‘Just tell me what you want.’
‘I can’t tell you like this. Sit down.’ Jesse pushed his plate to one side. He owed Mick a certain amount of consideration, even if real sympathy were out of the question. ‘Please.’
For the first time Mick directed his gaze towards Jesse’s face. Their eyes met, then Mick’s slid towards the window, returned, glanced away, returned again.
‘Your music is beautiful,’ Jesse said quietly.
Mick flinched and averted his face, as if Jesse had spat at him. But he set his coke on the table, and after a hesitation, pulled out the chair and sat down. He traced a fingertip along the sweating sides of his glass.
‘I wasn’t just saying that about your playing, trying to soften you up or ingratiate myself or something. I meant it,’ Jesse said.
Mick nodded and took a long swallow of his coke. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘OK, thanks. Now what do you want?’
‘Why did you do it?’ The question seemed to ask itself, as though the room had tilted, opening a fissure from another universe through which the words dropped, carrion croak, inky black crows swooping to peck hungrily at eyes, heart, entrails.
Mick made a soft hissing sound behind his teeth. But when he picked up his glass to drink again, his hand shook slightly. His skin was sallow, green-tinged from the fading light, or perhaps fatigue; his eyes red-rimmed, faintly bloodshot. It must take an enormous expenditure of energy, Jesse thought, to play with that outpouring of almost hallucinatory power.
The silence stretched between them, taut as a bowstring drawn to the hunt, and quivering. Jesse eased his gaze towards the bench where Mick’s saxophone was lying on its side like a magnificent golden swan, wounded in mid-song—in flight.
‘I’m not going to talk about it,’ Mick said. ‘If that’s why you’re here, you’re wasting your time.’
Jesse winched his eyes back to Mick’s, reluctantly. He saw the animosity in them, the fear as well. And frozen deep within the stark blue permafrost, the secrets—the ones Mick kept from himself. Jesse inhaled sharply. He’d never realised that Mick’s eyes were almost identical in colour to his own.
Siggy brought over a plate of seafood in a creamy, pale green sauce and a basket of fresh bread, still steaming, both of which he laid before Mick, and a bowl—practically a glass chalice—of chocolate mousse for Jesse’s dessert. Though no longer hungry, Jesse couldn’t help himself: a huge grin of delight spread across his face.
‘Go on, try it,’ Siggy said.
Jesse did, Mick watching him with a faint sneer till Siggy rounded on him. ‘You got a problem with someone likin’ my food?’
Mick dropped his gaze, and Jesse and Siggy exchanged glances. They both recognised that Mick was a beaten soul, and therefore a dangerous—an unpredictable—one.
‘It’s sublime,’ said Jesse. ‘A taste to die for.’
‘Listen here, nobody’s doin’ no dyin’ at my place.’
‘Go back to your saucepans. I’m sure you’ve got heaps to do. I’m OK,’ Jesse said.
Siggy laughed boisterously. He didn’t seem to mind at all that Jesse knew what he was up to. He collected Jesse’s empty plate and headed back to the kitchen, dancing his way past customers trying to catch his attention. The restaurant was beginning to fill up, and the murmur of voices had risen to a level of buoyancy which would float most wrecks. Jesse welcomed the anonymity: it would take a piercing voice, or a flash of gold, to be detected among all the decaying rigging, creaking hulls, flotsam, shrieking vultures, scavenge.
Jesse spooned up nearly half his dessert while arguing with himself about what he was going to say to Mick, if indeed he should be saying anything at all—no way he’d speak to that cold bastard of a father. Jesse had spent so many years in self-imposed silence that reticence seemed the natural way of things—not a choice, but an instinctive survival mechanism, like flight-or-fight, like eating. But there were packets of gluey oversweet chocolate pudding from the supermarket—and there was this. He ate another spoonful, letting the flavours—for chocolate, like all sensation, was never simple, but plural and complex and bursting with eloquence—carry him beyond mere sustenance.
He put his spoon down.
‘I need to talk with you about your brother,’ Jesse said.
Mick continued to chew on a piece of lobster, head bent over his plate. Jesse wondered whether Mick had heard him. He was about to repeat himself when Mick swallowed, dipped a finger into his sauce, raised his head, and stared at Jesse. Mick’s eyes were hard and impenetrable, like mirrored lenses. Slowly, very slowly he licked his finger clean. His mouth stretched into a smile.
‘Tastes just like her cunt,’ he said.
Implacable fingers tightened the silence between them like a gut string on a cello, tightened till about to snap.
‘Daniel is dead,’ Jesse said. ‘I killed him.’