The skatepark was crowded. Everybody was out, determined to snaffle a share of the few leftover evenings before the new term began. Jesse had brought Nubi, but the dog soon chased first one, then a second skater into a nosedive. And when the third skater, who narrowly missed losing a tooth, limped off spitting blood and threats, Jesse tied the dog to a post with some threats of his own. Nubi bellied down with his head on his paws, pretending remorse. Jesse snorted and issued a further string of warnings while Sarah watched with an appreciative grin.
In the large central freestyle area Jesse tested his skateboard with a number of simple manoeuvres. Despite its responsiveness, he wondered if smaller wheels would give him more pop—he’d been browsing through the skater magazines Finn had also bought. Jesse hoped the board would work him hard. When he skated, he didn’t have to think.
Although Sarah was wearing a scruffy pair of cut-offs and shapeless T-shirt, she attracted a lot of attention. As a dancer she was used to it, Jesse supposed, but he found himself becoming more and more irritated by the sort of looks she was getting. It wasn’t admiration of her skating tricks, for she could handle the board just enough to get up some speed, and not much more. She wasn’t beautiful; she wasn’t baring her tits—which were pretty small anyway—or half her arse; she wasn’t even wearing any makeup. But there was something they liked. Maybe the way she moved: the air shimmered around her, and tiny prisms dusted her skin with light.
Sarah would never go near the immense maw of the towering three-level halfpipe, far higher and steeper than the one in Hedgerider Park, nor the other features that made Jesse drool: a massive street course, elbowed vert walls, a clover bowl, even a full-radius concrete pipe five metres in diameter. Jesse didn’t know where to begin. In the end he approached the halfpipe, where some radical skating was going on.
Jesse leaned on his upended board and feasted. There seemed to be a friendly battle taking place between three skaters. He watched one lad in particular, soaking up every detail of his technique. He moved with a dancer’s grace and fluidity, and an exultant power which left Jesse slightly breathless. When the skater floated switch ollies over the top of the huge halfpipe, his body seemed to obey some higher law than gravity: a law which the skater himself had forged in defiance of his own physical limitations, in defiance of time and space itself. His face was incandescent with ecstasy.
Jesse looked over at Sarah, who was sitting cross-legged on a concrete bench. She waved at him, and he smiled somewhat distractedly in response before taking his turn at the halfpipe. And it was just as before. The instant he stepped on the board, he knew exactly what to do. He didn’t have to think about it; his body—or his skater’s soul—did it for him. Effortlessly he skated into that place where every basket drops through the hoop, where every note shatters crystal, where every wave lasts for ever; where a beacon lights the dark wood, and nothing can go wrong. He was boundless. He was kwakabazillion.
The blokes really seem to like your Sarah. Or is it Sarah who likes a rough sort of bloke?
Red’s remark, sudden and sardonic, propelled Jesse out of the zone and into realtime. Equilibrium torpedoed, he capsized with a sickening, bone-jarring crash into the halfpipe, bouncing and flailing as he rolled to the bottom. He was lucky that Sarah had insisted on borrowing a helmet for him. ‘I don’t need it,’ he’d said. Now he lay unmoving, winded, intent on placating the pain. After a few minutes he was able to wonder whether he’d broken anything. Nope, said Red. Now get up. One of the other lads in the halfpipe whipped to a halt right next to Jesse, helped him to his feet, removed his helmet, asked if he was OK. It was the stunning skater he’d been watching before. ‘Brilliant switch mctwist you had going there,’ said the lad, ‘what happened?’ Come on, Red prodded. Save your social niceties for tea at Windsor Castle. They’re over there by the bench.
‘Saw that,’ drawled Mick when Jesse stood before him. ‘You need some practice.’
‘What do you think you’re doing here?’ Jesse asked.
Mick’s mate narrowed his eyes, a little bloodshot, a little belligerent, but decidedly less so than Jesse’s tone. He and Mick had skateboards tucked under their arms. A couple of girls posed at their sides, no one whom Jesse recognised. They wore the usual uniform of tight tops and garish shorts—very short shorts, Jesse thought in disgust—and loads of war paint. Their eyes were bold and greedy, their lips crimson.
‘Public place, isn’t it?’ asked Mick’s friend.
‘Not when I’m here,’ said Jesse, staring straight at Mick.
Mick glanced uncertainly at the girls, then at his companion, then more defiantly at Jesse. He had backup; and he had a reputation to maintain. He was careful not to look at Sarah.
Only then did Jesse remember Sarah’s presence. She was watching Mick’s friend, a faint beading of sweat above her upper lip. It needed someone who knew her very well to detect the intensity behind her staged calm, as if she were about to make her debut before a gathering of the world’s most exacting dance critics. Jesse could tell that her pulse must be racing. He turned back to Mick.
‘Introduce your friend,’ Jesse said.
‘My name’s Gavin.’ A wink at Sarah.
Jesse handed Sarah his skateboard, positioned his helmet on the bench, and wheeled to face the bastards. Careful, said Red. Show them who’s boss but don’t lose it.
‘I thought I warned you to keep away from Sarah,’ Jesse said.
‘What the fuck—’ Gavin began, but Jesse gave him no chance to finish.
‘I don’t say things twice.’
Mick transferred his board from one arm to another, shifting his weight. He didn’t seem to know quite what to do with his eyes.
‘Had a spliff too many?’ Gavin asked.
Gavin moved closer. ‘That’s it.’ He jerked his head at Sarah. ‘Pretty lady, take your bloke home and get him to sleep it off. Before I do some serious damage.’
Mick muttered something under his breath.
‘I didn’t hear you,’ Jesse said. ‘Speak up.’
A punch or two if absolutely necessary, Red interjected. And I’ve got a nice line in Muay Thai kicks. But none of your fiery stuff with an audience.
But Jesse was no longer listening. No longer able to listen. The red glow in his head swallowed all caution; it emanated from deep within the reactor core where he safeguarded the flames. And, gluttonous, it was intensifying, spreading, feeding, degree by degree superheating—and breaking free of containment.
‘Look, Gavin, let’s forget this guy and do some skating,’ Mick said.
Will you back off before you do something really stupid?
‘Jesse,’ Sarah said.
‘Shut the fuck up.’ And it wasn’t clear to whom Jesse was speaking.
Gavin shook his head, almost regretfully. ‘Oh man,’ he said. ‘You are one stupid fuckarse. Someone who doesn’t know the right place for his tongue.’ He smirked at Sarah. ‘Like a nice wet fanny.’
‘Keep your tongue in your mouth before I burn it away.’
‘It’s got to be a death wish, whoring after trouble like this.’
Mick’s eyes flicked nervously from Jesse to Gavin and back to Jesse. He licked his lips and, hugging his board to his chest, took a step backwards.
‘Jesse, please let’s go,’ Sarah said. ‘The park is big enough for all of us.’
‘The world is not big enough for these fucked-up pricks,’ Jesse said. He could feel Red reaching for him, but he snatched up his rage like a blazing firebrand and thrust it with a low snarl at Gavin.
Who hissed and tossed his skateboard to one of the girls. She caught it with a broad smile. Gavin danced forward, his face assuming an in-yer-face ugliness that meant business. He was older and taller than Jesse, well muscled, practised, smug.
Sarah had risen to her feet, pale now.
‘It’ll be a pleasure—a real pleasure—to incinerate rubbish like you,’ Jesse said.
‘You—you pervy piece of—’ Gavin’s shoulders bunched, and he raised his arms, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. Malice rolled off him like sweat. He was poised to tear Jesse apart—it was only a second now before he moved—but it was Mick who stopped him with a restraining hand.
‘Wait. This isn’t a good time. Too many people around.’
Angrily Gavin shook off Mick’s grip.
Mick tried once more. ‘Listen to me, Gavin. This guy’s got a thing with fire.’
Gavin’s face was flushed. A fleck of spit adhered to the corner of his mouth, and his eyes were narrowed and hard as marbles. He swung his head round and glared at Mick. Gavin’s throat was swollen with venom—a toad’s, pulsing, obscene. Anyone would do. Mick. A policeman. God, if he could be had.
‘Come on, then, if you’re coming.’ Jesse’s voice was amused now. ‘Or can’t you get it up when your boyfriend’s not licking your arse?’
Jesse was standing with his arms folded, pelvis arrogantly tilted. A mocking smile touched his lips. Not a centimetre, not a quarter-centimetre did he back away. He looked for all the world like a supremely confident gunslinger; all that was missing were the spurs and ten-gallon hat. And the gun.
‘No one calls me names. Get it, cunt, no one.’
That was the trigger. Gavin lunged for Jesse. It wasn’t clear whether he was planning to pummel Jesse’s face or grab him by the throat, but in any case Gavin didn’t stand a chance. And Mick knew it. He turned away at the precise moment when Gavin screamed and fell back, waving his hands frantically in the air. His palms were raw and blistered. He clamped his hands between his thighs, moaned low in his throat, screwed up his face in agony.
Jesse hadn’t even blinked. He waited with a look of good-humoured tolerance on his face, as if watchin’ the antics of a coupla little kids who’d nicked their pa’s pouch of baccy and were smokin’ behind the cowshed.
‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’ Gavin screeched.
The girl holding Gavin’s skateboard parted her lips and eyed Jesse speculatively, but made no move to help her date—if that’s what he was. The other girl looked from Jesse to Gavin to Mick, a frown on her face. She seemed to be having a hard time grasping what was going on. Mick had retreated another couple of steps. He had no intention of tangling with Jesse.
Gavin was gradually gaining control of himself. Still clenching his hands between his thighs he looked up at Jesse with a mixture of fear and real hatred.
‘I’ll get you for this, you smegsucker,’ he said.
‘For what?’ asked Jesse innocently. He was beginning to enjoy himself.
Gavin held out his hands.
‘You’d better pray that they heal, pray real good.’
‘You seem to be a bit muddled,’ Jesse said with a smile. His gesture included the rest of them. ‘Did anyone see me touch him just now?’ His smile widened. ‘Maybe it’s one of those new viruses.’ He looked directly at Gavin’s girl. ‘I’d be very careful if I were you.’
Gavin jerked forward as if to have another go at Jesse despite his injured hands, then thought better of it. He stood there panting, his arms hanging loose from his shoulders, his face still white with pain; with rage. Jesse knew that he was going to have to watch his back, Gavin wouldn’t be as easy to despatch as Mick. But he couldn’t help being rather pleased with himself.
For the first time one of the girls spoke, the one holding Gavin’s skateboard. ‘What did he mean about your boyfriend, Gav?’
‘Ask Mick, why don’t you?’ Jesse said.
He moved to Sarah’s side and rested a hand on her shoulder. She stiffened under his touch. There was an odd expression on her face. He delved into the back pocket of his jeans for his cigarettes, shook one out with a flick of his wrist, and brought it up to his lips in a smooth one-handed movement, then pocketed the packet again. After lighting up with the handsome Zippo Finn had given him, he blew a perfect smoke ring. Then he cast an insolent glance at Mick.
‘As for you, you don’t learn very quick, do you? Maybe you need another dancing lesson.’
Enough. No matter how much Sarah would love to see those two bastards cut up and ground into mince, fried, smothered in ketchup, consumed, there was something unsettling about the way Jesse was behaving. What had got into him? She’d never seen him take pleasure in humiliating someone quite like this before. At first she’d thought his bravado was an act. Those mannerisms—those lines—exaggerated to the point of self-parody. But even Jesse wasn’t that good. He was liking it. Liking it a whole lot. And what did that make him but another one of them?
Sarah slid from under Jesse’s grip with a twitch of her shoulder and regarded the two girls who were slowly edging into the background. The one with the blond quills looked as dumb as cheese. But both of them should have known better. Yeah right. Had she? Maybe if another girl had warned her . . . a dram of an idea, first a single drop, then a trickle, then a noisy splash . . . yes! Her mouth turned up at the corner in a way that Katy would have known all too well. Payback, Sarah thought. With a sense of elation—was she really going to do this?—she straightened her shoulders, ignored her pounding heart, and framed the words carefully in her mind. It probably wouldn’t do any good, but it would feel great trying.
She addressed the girls. ‘Listen to me. You really need to keep away from these losers. Have you got any idea what they do? They’re rapists. Believe me. I know, because they raped me a few weeks ago. That’s why my friend here is so upset.’ An even better idea erupted in her head, gushing a fountain of lovely prickly champagne. She added, her eyes raking Mick, ‘And I intend to make sure that every girl in school knows about it.’
The rush was better than she could have ever imagined.
Everyone was stunned into immobility, but Sarah didn’t wait to gloat. A performer knows instinctively how to time the perfect exit. She tossed Jesse’s skateboard at his feet, picked up her own, and strode off in the direction of the bus stop. Go to the police, Jesse had urged. How wrong he’d been. This was much, much better. She grinned, then laughed aloud, then did a quick jazzy run of ball changes and flick kicks in sheer exuberance. Mick was just about pissing himself. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? There wouldn’t be a girl at school who’d go near him, not if handled right. A hint here, a whisper there. Nothing that sounded like he might have dropped her. Like jealousy. Jesse wasn’t the only one who could fan a few flames. It would spread like wildfire. Mick had been just a little too cocksure that she would keep quiet, that she wouldn’t dare, that she would be crushed/demeaned/terrified/ashamed/intimidated/dirtied—and she had been, hadn’t she? All of them.
What was it her mum always said? Victims often participate in their own victimisation.
‘Sarah, what’s going on? Why did you run off?’
Jesse caught her by the wrist and spun her round. They were near the clover bowl. She snatched her arm from his grasp, dropped her skateboard, and stood facing him while she brushed back her hair. Abruptly she tugged off the thick elastic.
The smug look was gone from his face. His forehead was creased, and a familiar shadow darkened his eyes: the wariness of a dog which didn’t know if it were about to get a bone or a blow. He touched her hesitantly on the arm. When she swayed back, she might as well have struck him across the face. He looked down at his feet.
‘It’s bad enough that you haven’t trusted me. That you’ve kept all sorts of important stuff from me. But you’d better understand one thing from the get-go,’ she said. ‘You don’t own me. I’m not a bone to be snarled over by a pack of dogs.’
‘You know I don’t think that.’
‘Do I? It looked a lot like ownership back there.’ She pitched her voice in a fair imitation of his cool menace: ‘Keep away from Sarah. She’s off-bounds. She’s mine.’
His lips tightened. ‘I was just trying to protect you from—’
‘Protect me?’ Her voice rose. ‘Protect me? Did I ask you for help? Did I look so desperate that I needed some wannabe cowboy to come riding over—on a skateboard—to rescue poor helpless little Sarah?’ She stopped to take a breath. To stoke up enough heat to go on, because a nasty little voice at the back of her head was beginning to make itself heard. She knew that voice. She ignored it. ‘You’re just like one of them, aren’t you. One of the boys. Just a bit smoother, a bit more exotic with your bag of fancy tricks. Bloody great magic tricks to be sure. But no different from any other bloke I’ve ever met when you come right down to it. Always looking for yes, and taking damned good care that no one else gets a piece of your yes. Jesus, it’s all about sex and ego, isn’t it. And mostly sex.’ She threw a contemptuous glance at the relevant part of his anatomy, making sure he saw it. ‘I ought to feel sorry for you. Must be real hard to think straight when you’re walking round in that state all the time.’
Jesse tried to smile. A brave attempt, which died almost as soon as it had begun. He laid his skateboard and helmet at Sarah’s feet, pivoted, and walked away. After a few paces he stopped and looked over his shoulder. ‘I was very proud of you back there,’ he said quietly. ‘Take care of Nubi, will you?’ He broke into a lope before she had a chance to reply.
She watched him go with a tight feeling in her chest.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’ Thomas asked, concern on his clever ugly face. He’d just finished work, an off-the-books cleaning job with long hours and low wages that he barely managed in between stints at the gallery, but he needed the money for next year. His family wasn’t well-off, and there were four other kids in the family. He’d come round as soon as he heard the tears in her voice.
How easy it would be, Sarah thought, if only you could fall in love with your best friend. She remembered the years of bullying Thomas had put up with till he’d learned a trick or two. Then he’d started to dance and it got better, especially when he found out he could soon outjump and outrun and outkick just about any of them. When they found out he could. Now he volunteered in the school’s buddy system, teaching younger kids how to get help.
‘Jesse hasn’t come back yet. Hasn’t rung.’ Sarah said. ‘We had a row.’
She prodded the candle with a finger while Thomas watched her, his pizza growing cold. Some of the wax spilled through the indentation in the softened rim and ran into the glass candleholder. She scooped it up and kneaded it in her fingers, rolled it as it hardened into a tight little ball.
‘I said some vile things to him this evening. I feel awful.’
‘Look, we all do it sometimes,’ Thomas said.
‘Tommy, I opened my mouth and these stupid hateful hideous words just poured out. It was like there were two people inside me—the real Sarah and the other one, the one that wanted to see how far I could go, how much I could punish him.’
‘For being strong and male and so sure of himself.’
‘Jesse? Sure of himself? Are we talking about the same person?’
‘OK. Sometimes sure of himself. And sometimes so fragile that I’m afraid he’ll dissolve like rice paper if I so much as touch my lips to his skin. That’s why it’s so terrible what I did. Punish him, test him, call it what you want. All for being the kind of person he is. For being what he is. For being Jesse.’ Her voice dropped to a whisper. ‘For making me terrified of losing him.’
Jesse thumbed a lift with a farm lorry as far as the junction to Matthew’s lane. He desperately needed to talk with Matt. As he plodded through the wood, he could feel signs of the Red’s presence, although it didn’t address him directly. He felt sick about Sarah. Again and again he asked himself how to build a bulwark against this insidious cohabitation, which he could no longer pretend was disinterested.
Maybe there really was a puckish force operating in the universe, Jesse reflected. Magnificent treacherous Loki, who with a snigger of mischief snatched up the dice and replaced them with a thirteen-sided pair. Or else a truly malign god, who offered him Sarah and her family with one hand, and Red with the other. Neither prospect consoled Jesse unduly.
A sudden stir in the undergrowth. Daisy appeared, blood beading from a fresh scratch on her muzzle, a tangle of twigs and dried leaves draped over one ear. She came to a halt in front of Jesse, fixing her eyes on him. Her hackles rose, and she bared her teeth, then began to growl. ‘Daisy, it’s me,’ he said, but she didn’t seem to recognise him. ‘Come on, girl, take it easy, you know me, Matt’s friend.’ Slowly he retreated a few steps, she looked ready to tear out his throat. ‘Daisy?’ Snarls, meaty and guttural, pursued him. Nasty useless brutes, he heard Red say. Then frantic barking sawed through Jesse’s head. ‘Stop!’ he cried but the agony continued—loud, rabid, frenzied—until he raised his arms and cried out once more. There was a short whine followed by the relief of silence.
Jesse had crossed the cattlegrid and was laying his hands on the gate latch when he looked behind him up the private lane towards Matthew’s cottage. He jerked back as if the metal had branded his skin. How had he got here? He had no recollection of . . . of what? He’d been heading towards the cottage. And why did he seem to remember Daisy?
You don’t want to bother with that stuff, said Red. It’s a waste of time.
What the fuck are you talking about?
No call for profanities. I’ve only got our best interests at heart.
Is that so? Then what just happened to my memory?
Jesse noticed an unpleasant mustard-coloured hue to Red’s silence.
‘You’d better tell me what you’re up to!’ Jesse shouted.
Calm down. All that petty muddle, life’s fitful fever. Fine for your Shakespeare but a little irrelevant for us, wouldn’t you say?
Feelings aren’t irrelevant. Sarah’s not irrelevant.
We’ll get to her another time.
Angry now, Jesse jammed a clenched fist against his teeth. A sweet odour beset him, a metallic taste. Slowly he held out his hand, then the other. He stared at them for a long while. They were scratched and streaked, and his fingernails caked with a reddish-brown, sticky substance. He raised his hands to his nose and sniffed, first in puzzlement, then in growing dread.
‘What have I done?’ he whispered.
There was no answer from his companion.
He sprinted back along the track until he came upon Daisy. For a moment he thought she was merely dozing in the bracken and called out to her, but then he noticed the odd angle of her head and the blood seeping from her mouth and nose. And the flies. He dropped to his knees and laid his ear against her chest. Nothing. He waited, though for what he couldn’t have said. Or maybe it would simply take too much energy to lift his head. The only thing he heard was the thick sap of the trees, suppurating—even his thoughts moved like silent wraiths through a blank and suffocating cloud of ash.
Twilight returned along with the sensation of itchy wetness on his cheeks. He raised his face from the large patch his tears had dampened on Daisy’s beautiful creamy fur. Sarah, he thought, help me. How do I tell Matthew? Her fingers brushed the nape of his neck, her lips. He dragged himself to his feet, lifted the heavy dog in his arms, and began the long trudge to the cottage.