Sarah had bought the dog a sturdy leather collar and lead. ‘He’s going to need a tag and chip, his shots. And what about his name?’
‘I told you,’ Jesse said. ‘It’s not my dog.’
‘He is now,’ she said. ‘What do you want to call him?’
Jesse shrugged. There wasn’t much point thinking up a name unless Sarah’s family would be willing to adopt a stray.
‘How about Anubis? We did Egyptian mythology last year in school.’
No way, thought Jesse. Even if he named the animal—temporarily, mind you—it would be Harry or Jinx. Simple, ordinary, doggy.
The dog tugged on the lead, anxious to keep moving. They’d walked down the hill from Sarah’s house and were now in another part of the city. The townhouses were neat, upmarket, with little front gardens, geranium-filled window boxes displayed like medals on a war hero’s chest, and brightly painted doors and window frames.
Sarah indicated a narrow lane almost hidden between two brick dwellings. ‘Come on, I want to show you something.’
She led him along the cobbled way towards a small stone chapel which had been converted into a residence and workshop. A stone bench curved round the base of a towering chestnut tree. Mounted on the scrolls of the wrought iron gate was an exquisitely hand-lettered sign: Sundials, it said. They stopped and leaned on the fence while Jesse studied the pieces, each bathed in the astringent green light. Once again he could smell the flush of lavender on Sarah’s skin.
‘Brilliant, aren’t they?’ Sarah asked.
‘They’re wonderful,’ Jesse said. ‘Who makes them?’
‘A friend of my mother’s. She’s not here at the moment, or we could say hello.’
Jesse pointed to a gilded greenslate sundial mounted on a plinth and set some distance from the others. ‘That’s the only one standing in the sun.’
‘Ursula’s partner wanted to remove the tree so visitors could appreciate the sundials better, but Ursula wouldn’t hear of it. Most of these are only display pieces, though I think one or two might be current orders.’
‘Sundials have to be calibrated for a specific site in order to be accurate.’
‘You do read a lot, don’t you?’
He appeared not to hear. ‘Isn’t she afraid someone might steal them?’
‘They’re far too heavy.’
‘Anyone could hop over this fence and vandalise them.’
‘More tempting stuff to go after, I suppose.’ She gave him a sideways glance. ‘Do you always expect the worst?’
‘It’s best to be prepared.’
Automatically he groped in his pocket for a cigarette, but came up only with an empty matchbox.
‘You smoke?’ Sarah asked, more observant than Jesse was used to—more, perhaps, than he cared for.
‘Sometimes. Did Ursula make the one in your garden?’
‘Yeah. My mother spent hours arguing with her about the design. She can be a right pain in the you-know-what sometimes—my mum, I mean.’
‘Your mother’s a very interesting woman.’
‘That’s what everyone says,’ Sarah said drily.
Jesse turned his gaze away from the sundials.
‘There are many different kinds of gifts,’ he said, then shook his head and ran his hand back and forth over the scrollwork on the gate. ‘Sorry, that was really dumb of me. I hate such platitudes.’ He continued to rub at the metal with a fingertip, his whole attention concentrated on erasing his words.
‘It’s OK. I genuinely admire her. Like her, too. It’s just that . . . ’
‘Yeah, I can imagine.’
Sarah studied his face for a moment without speaking. When he wasn’t frowning, his features had the soft look of an old pair of jeans, familiar and comfortable and worn. Like someone you might have known forever. Even his eyes, when they shed their brittle layer of mica, turned the colour of her favourite stonewashed denim. There was no stubble on his face, but she could tell that he’d soon be shaving.
He turned his head and met her eyes. Caught off guard, she flushed.
‘Look, I didn’t mean to compare you to your mother,’ Jesse said. ‘Or to pry.’
‘OK, maybe I am a bit curious,’ he conceded. ‘Do you blame me?’
Sarah had a mischievous glint in her eyes, the same look he’d seen on a small girl who’d found a stash of chocolate and a single disintegrating cigarette hidden under his mattress. On Emmy. He didn’t notice that he was biting his lip till he tasted a trace of blood.
‘I’ll offer you a trade,’ Sarah said. ‘One fact about yourself for one about my mum.’
‘It wouldn’t be a fair exchange,’ he said curtly. ‘There’s nothing worth learning about me.’
He walked away, leaving Sarah to stare after him. His shoulders were hunched as if against a chill wind.
Sarah led them through a cemetery where she stopped to point out a row of small graves whose headstones all bore inscriptions dating from as far back as the 1890s. Though not quite overgrown, the plots were no longer carefully tended, and the sweet smell of the honeysuckle which clambered rampantly through a nearby lilac added to the slight air of neglect.
‘I don’t know why,’ she said, ‘but I always like to take this detour. You’d think the sight of these tiny graves would be sad, but it’s not. In a strange way they’re like children I’ve met. Sometimes they even seem to be whispering to me. Comforting me when things go wrong, or I’m just lonely and depressed.’ She pointed to a crooked headstone at the end of the row. ‘Amelia Holland. She was four and a half when she died. I feel as if I know her best. She’d have become a teacher, I think.’ She looked up to see that Jesse’s face was set in stone. ‘Sorry, it’s silly, I suppose.’
Jesse shook his head but said nothing. Then he moved away towards the honeysuckle. Head bent, he plucked a handful of blossoms from the vine and crushed them between his fingers, releasing their scent. Without understanding what was the matter, Sarah could tell that she’d made a misstep, that she was encroaching on hallowed ground in some way.
She tried to make amends. ‘It’s just that it’s very peaceful here. Sometimes I bring a book and read.’
Jesse flicked the crushed petals away and brushed his hand off on his jeans.
‘It’s getting late,’ he said. ‘Let’s go see this park you say is so amazing.’
Jesse lifted an eyebrow.
‘That’s its name.’ She looked down at the dog, who was lying in a patch of sunlight. ‘Come on, Anubis.’ She grinned. ‘Nubi.’
As they walked along, Jesse stole an occasional sidelong glance at Sarah, but either she was unaware of his curiosity, or most likely indifferent to it. A girl like this, he reminded himself, would have no reason to lack self-confidence: intelligent, a privileged only child, plenty of money, decent (OK, fascinating) family, scores of friends, boyfriend too probably, herself nice enough to look at it though nothing special really—way too thin, too angular, ropy with muscle, even if she did have nice eyes, and that long gleaming hair, and he liked the way her mouth crept slowly upwards in amusement as though she’d found a hoard of beautiful polished stones like the ones he kept in a soft leather pouch and Emmy’s eyes shine, her mouth spreads in a wide astonished smile when he gives them to her for her birthday, ‘jewels,’ she breathes, ‘my own jewels . . . ’
Nubi made a choking sound in his throat. Jesse started, he must have tugged too hard on the lead. He slackened his grip, then slowed to catch his breath while he tried to work out why he was still here. His headache was all but gone; his stomach was full; and the sky had cleared. There was no reason to remain, and a lot of reasons to move on. From the outset he’d established an ironclad rule never to stay more than one night in the same place.
Sarah looked at him in concern. ‘Should we get a coke or something?’
He shook his head and strode ahead. It was better to keep going. Sarah called out to turn left, and they rounded the corner into a world he knew all too well.
A knot of lads—hardly older than kids—were crowded round an object on the pavement. Jesse stopped short. At first he thought they had an animal, a dog or a cat, or even a large sack of spoils, which they were prodding and kicking and sniggering over. Then he heard the sobs and the pleading, and his headache exploded behind his temples, along with his memories. The boy was doing exactly the wrong thing by begging. They would finish him off if he didn’t shut up fast. Maggots fed on soft flesh.
There were about six or seven of them, and Jesse spotted the ringleader straightaway: a tall lad with a shaved head, smooth sallow face, and very white teeth. He was standing at the kerb with his arms crossed, enjoying his handiwork without getting his own hands dirty. His eyes glittered with intelligence, and Jesse had the feeling the guy was so stoked on his own power that he had no need of other stimulants. In different circumstances, he’d easily have been headed for a career in politics.
It was a party. Music was blaring from a ghetto blaster, and several of the kids had tins of lager in one hand, though they were certainly underage. Nobody would dare to challenge them. Jesse could smell that particular kind of hot sour sweat which a gang exudes when pumped on drink and adrenaline and bloodlust—on sheer strength of numbers—as well as the stink of urine. The poor bugger had pissed himself. He didn’t stand a chance.
Sarah came up behind Jesse and exclaimed when she saw what was taking place. She gripped him by the arm, and this time he merely winced when she dug her fingers into his flesh. The dog retreated the full length of its lead, sensing trouble. Jesse grabbed her arm and dragged her backwards while she tried to fight him off.
‘Let go of me,’ she said. ‘We’ve got to do something.’
Jesse looked round. Far down the street an elderly man was scurrying out of sight into a doorway. A couple of girls were giggling at the next crossing, and casting curious glances at Sarah and him to see if the show was about to get really interesting. Anyone else who might have been prepared to help had disappeared or was keeping a low profile. Even the traffic seemed to have taken an alternate route. Jesse grasped Sarah’s arm tighter and slowly hauled her back around the corner before the fuckheads had a chance to notice them. For the moment their attention was still focused on their prey. All except the tall bloke, who had seen them right enough. He’d narrowed his eyes and was cupping his chin with his hand and tapping one long forefinger against his lips, as if weighing the pros and cons of the latest tax proposal.
‘Keep quiet,’ Jesse hissed at Sarah. She was a city brat. Didn’t she have any more sense than this? She must know when to cut and run.
Her face was blotched with rage, and she was shaking so hard that she could barely spit out a coherent sentence.
‘Bastard. Get off. Take your fucking hands off. Right now. Now.’
She tried to pull away, kicked him, and swung her other arm for his head. She was strong, but he held on. The dog whined and ran round them, tangling his lead about their legs.
Jesse waited until her first fury had passed. ‘It’s got nothing to do with us.’
‘I’m not getting involved in someone else’s fight.’
‘What’s the matter with you? You can’t just walk away. There are six or eight of them. They’re going to put him in hospital.’
‘No, they’re more likely to kill him.’
‘And that’s it? You don’t care?’
‘Not if I can help it,’ Sarah said.
‘You can’t do anything. We can’t. Now let’s get out of here before they invite us to join their little party.’
He flinched at the contempt in her eyes but held his ground. Her eyes filled with tears.
‘Have you got a mobile?’ he asked with a sigh.
‘At home. Forgot to charge it.’
He shrugged. ‘Let’s go.’
‘I’m going back there.’
‘Then you’re on your own.’
He released her arm. They stared at each other in silence. Jesse could still hear music and laughter coming from around the corner, but his head was throbbing, and it took all his concentration to deal with Sarah. The sun was hot, and the smell of sweltering tarmac and exhaust was making him nauseous and a touch dizzy. Jesse remembered what Sarah’s mum had said to him—had offered him. It had sounded so tempting. A chance to rest. To read. To sleep. To figure out where to go, what to do. But it would never work. These people were fools. They seemed to think you could change the world. And what did they want with him anyway? The whole set-up stank worse than a backed-up public convenience. Maybe he was a new kind of school project: get to know the disadvantaged in the summer holidays. Stuff that. He didn’t need their philanthropy. Which amounted to what? A few meals, some old clothes they’d have sent to Oxfam before the month was out.
He didn’t owe them anything. If Sarah insisted on acting heroic, on getting hurt, he’d find his way back up the hill on his own, he supposed. Stupidly, he’d left his stuff at their house. But he could be there and gone in an hour. Or less.
His headache was making it difficult for him to think.
He hesitated, waiting to see what Sarah would do. When she didn’t move, he unwound the lead from their legs and handed it to her. She took it without a word. He could feel her eyes on his back as he bent to stroke the dog’s head. The creature was trembling.
They heard a high thin scream from around the corner, which was suddenly cut off. A burst of loud laughter.
With a wordless oath Sarah flung the lead at Jesse and ran.
‘Sarah!’ he called after her.
Instead of stopping or looking back she began to run in earnest. Her thick plait swung along behind her, stray tendrils already making their escape. She ran the way an animal runs—fluid, graceful, all its essence distilled in movement. The lasso of her flight dropped over Jesse’s shoulders. Tethered, he scooped up Nubi’s lead and ran after her.
To his surprise, Jesse found that he couldn’t overtake her. She was fast. The sun was still high in the sky, and it beat down upon his head and shoulders. He squinted in the glare from the pavement. Sarah wavered and gradually dwindled before his eyes. He pushed himself harder, faster. Light flashed at him from the metal and glass of the cars, sometimes blinding him. He began to pant. Finally he eased to a walk, then stopped and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Sarah was no longer in sight. He’d lost her. His breathing slowly returned to normal, though his head pounded. He licked his lips. He could use a cigarette; even better, a cold drink. He fumbled in his pocket. Nothing but a few coins. Again he licked his lips, swallowed. What would happen if he knocked at one of these classy doors and asked for a glass of water? He smiled to himself, imagining the response. Then again, maybe he’d actually get his drink. His clothes were clean and respectable. He had a dog on a very handsome leather lead.
Where was Sarah? The city grumbled and shifted around him. He thought of it as a great lumbering beast long inured to the specks of dirt and itching fleas clinging to its hide, probably not even aware of their existence. Jesse looked at the people walking by, seeing them for the first time. The streets weren’t overcrowded on this hot summer afternoon, but they weren’t empty either. It was unlike him not to have noticed, even more unlike him to outrun his common sense. The street had no tolerance for the weak. And now he had no idea where he was.
Tongue hanging, Nubi—damn it, now he had started using that name—waited for Jesse to decide what to do. If only his head would stop pounding . . .
Jesse stumbled over to the kerb, sat down between two parked cars, and folded his arms across his knees, pillowing his head and closing his eyes. Sweat was still running down his face and chest and armpits, soaking his T-shirt. He could feel Nubi’s breath on his neck, then the silly dog’s tongue. Only a minute or two, Jesse told himself. He didn’t care if anyone gawked, at this point didn’t even much care if a driver backed into him. Sarah had duped him. There must be a lesson in this somewhere—a lesson he thought he’d learned years ago. For the first time since Liam he’d let someone invite him home, and he’d been hungry enough—naive enough—to go. What had she expected? A noble savage? Gratitude? Now she had run off and left him stranded without his gear, without money, without even a piece of loo paper to wipe his arse. He ought to be angry or disgruntled or something. All he felt was tired.
‘Hey mate, y’OK?’
The speaker was dangling his car keys in his hand. Jesse must have drifted off for a moment, because he hadn’t noticed the man’s approach. Jesse shaded his eyes, nodded, and cleared his throat. He rose and dusted off his jeans—no, Sarah’s jumble, he reminded himself—then regarded the man coolly.
‘Fine. Just worn out from our jog.’ He indicated Nubi with his head.
‘Yeah, too hot for a run.’ The man looked him up and down. ‘Need a lift somewhere?’
Warning bells jangled in Jesse’s head.
‘Thanks, but we’re OK.’
‘Are you sure? You look like you could use a cold beer, maybe a fag.’
‘I said we’re fine.’
‘Look, no offence. Just trying to help.’ But he took a step closer.
The man retreated behind the protection of his car, throwing back over his shoulder, ‘Call off your dog, for god’s sake. It was a friendly offer. I don’t want any trouble.’ He jumped into his car and started the engine. Gears clashed as he pulled out of the parking space and drove away.
Jesse scratched Nubi behind his ear.
‘You might just earn your keep,’ he said. ‘Any suggestions what we should do now?’
A cigarette was OK, but Jesse didn’t touch anything, not anything else.
‘Does your dog bite?’ a voice behind Jesse asked.
Jesse spun round, then grinned. A girl of about four or five was watching him from her doorstep, with what looked like a dead badger—but probably wasn’t—clutched limply in her hand. Behind her the bright blue door stood half open to reveal a black-and-white checked floor and pale yellow wallpaper.
‘Only if you bite first,’ he said.
Her eyes opened wide, in the solemn unblinking manner of a small child.
‘Penny,’ called a sharp voice from inside the entrance hall. ‘What do you think you’re doing? How many times have I got to tell you not to open the front door?’
A young woman appeared on the threshold. Her cheeks coloured when she saw Jesse.
‘Oh sorry,’ she said in a milder tone. ‘I didn’t know anyone was there.’ Then she remembered caution. ‘Penny, you know you’re not supposed to talk to strangers.’ But she smiled at Jesse over her daughter’s head.
‘It’s OK. You’re right to teach her to be careful,’ Jesse said.
‘The dog was growling,’ Penny told her mother.
‘At you?’ her mum asked, glancing anxiously at Nubi.
‘No, nothing like that,’ Jesse reassured her. ‘Someone tried to—’ He looked down at Penny. ‘Someone tried to hurt him.’
‘Some people.’ Penny’s mother grimaced. She turned to go, taking her daughter by the hand. ‘Well, bye now.’
‘You wouldn’t happen to have some water for my dog, would you?’ Jesse asked on impulse. ‘We’ve been running, and he’s very hot.’
‘Of course,” she said. ‘I’ll be right back.’ But she closed the door while she fetched a bowl.
‘I’ve brought you a coke,’ she said when she returned without her daughter. ‘Your face is bright red. You look as if you need it.’
Jesse stammered his thanks, surprised by the kindness. First Sarah and her mum, now this woman. Maybe, just maybe, Sarah only needed to run off her temper.
‘Do you know Hedgerider Park?’ he asked, holding the ice-cold can to his forehead.
‘It’s about ten, fifteen minutes from here.’
She gave him directions, while he popped the ring-pull and finished the coke in a few gulps. He couldn’t believe how good it tasted.
Sarah was standing at the bay window of an art gallery opposite the park, examining some turbulent cityscapes on display. She looked up with a casual flick of her plait, but Jesse could tell that she’d been watching for him.
‘How was I supposed to know you’d come here?’ he asked.
She dropped her gaze and muttered, ‘Sorry.’ After a short pause she raised her head again and smiled, a little abashed. ‘I’m not just saying that. I shouldn’t have run off and left you. No matter what the reason. It’s my wretched temper. Finn’s always warning me about it.’
Jesse wasn’t accustomed to people who apologised and meant it (or who apologised at all). He wondered if she expected some sort of apology in return. She wouldn’t get one, not when he had nothing to be sorry for. He’d stopped telling people what they wanted to hear a long time ago. But he couldn’t help returning the smile before mopping his face with his forearm, then his T-shirt, briefly revealing ribs and belly-button, a hint of golden down.
‘About that boy—’ he began.
Lifting her eyes, Sarah said with a return to her old tone, ‘You were dead wrong, you know.’
‘And you probably stick your nose in whenever some geeky little kid’s being bullied at school!’
‘What else? Bullying’s foul.’
Jesse suppressed a sigh. ‘Can we get some water to drink?’
She nodded and reached out to touch his arm, but he swayed back out of reach. Sarah bit her lip.
‘There’s a good café nearby,’ she said. ‘I go there sometimes with a friend. Her parents own this gallery.’
Jesse’s face reddened. ‘I haven’t got any money.’
‘I don’t want your charity!’
She turned on her heels, and without waiting to see if he followed, swiftly walked away. Her head was held high, the line of her back a reprimand.