The sun was hot on Jesse’s shoulders as he walked along the river. It had the same decisive quality as Finn’s arm—it knew its worth, it knew what it had to offer. Jesse quickened his step. He was already hungry, but the lightness was a gift. Thin-beaten as gold leaf, his bones stretched and pulled his flesh into new, daring dimensions. For the first time in months he was not thinking about his next meal, not looking over his shoulder for shadows.
The tiny boatyard was crammed between a much larger operation on one side and a riverside pub on the other. At the entrance Jesse stopped and drank from his water bottle, then combed back his hair with his fingertips, tugged his T-shirt into shape, and wiped his hands on his jeans. This must be the place Sarah meant.
A lone man was at work on an ancient narrowboat, scraping down its hull, while a Siberian husky with startling blue eyes lay nearby in the shade of a beach umbrella. Thin to the point of emaciation and completely bald, the man laboured at his task with a concentration that lit the air around him with a frail glow which brightened when his attention sharpened and then faded again soon afterwards, though never entirely disappearing. He wore only a pair of stained green trousers and sturdy trekking sandals, and his sweat-streaked torso was covered by a mass of tattoos. Jesse watched him for a time, and if the man were aware of the scrutiny, he gave no sign. Jesse couldn’t take his eyes from the images on the man’s skin, for they were composed of words—lines and lines of words—rather than pictures; a kind of living book or journal, which from his vantage point Jesse was unable to read. The man had only one arm.
At last Jesse roused himself to approach. The man left off scraping and observed him without a single word. The dog rose from its belly but showed no other signs of alarm.
Working on the boat was the sort of thing Jesse liked to do—strenuous enough to release tension, yet with an ebb and flow that left his mind free to drift.
Up close, Jesse could see that the man was at most in his early twenties. It had been his air of utter self-containment that had made him appear older—and something in his face, a fine silvering of pain like the patina of weathered teak or poplar.
Jesse recognised only one quotation on the man’s skin—biblical; most of the other tattoos were unfamiliar poems, perhaps composed by the man himself. Jesse tried to read one spectacular text done in reds and oranges and purples, and arranged in a spiral around the man’s navel, but it was difficult to make out all the words without craning, and he didn’t like to appear too nosy. Though the man must surely be used to it by now.
The man waited until Jesse stood right before him. He was neither friendly nor unfriendly, simply patient. Observant. Jesse came to a halt and cleared his throat, uncertain whether to offer his hand or his purpose.
‘I’ve written them myself,’ the man said. ‘Best to get that out of the way, I find.’
‘I expect that’s what most people ask.’
‘Not at all. The few who inquire want to know why I’ve chosen words rather than pictures.’
The man mopped his forehead with a paisley zandana from his pocket.
‘Are you Matthew?’ Jesse asked.
‘You must be the lad Finn sent. Come inside,’ he said. ‘I’ll make us a cup of tea.’
Inside proved to be the cool interior of a rather large shed.
Matthew set a kettle of water to boil over an electric ring. ‘All the amenities,’ he said, pointing to a small refrigerator. Jesse’s eyes lit up at the sight of the chocolate gateau Matthew produced. He cut off a thick slice and handed it to Jesse on a plate, then extended a jug of assorted cutlery.
‘Go ahead,’ Matthew said. ‘Milk?’
Jesse nodded. He was becoming used to Matthew’s clipped accents, rather abrupt manner.
There were two folding chairs and a small but handsome wooden table. Jesse took one of the seats and began to eat. Matthew filled a bowl with milk for his dog while the tea steeped.
‘Aren’t you having any?’ asked Jesse when he’d finished most of his slice.
Matthew didn’t answer, just passed him a mug of strong milky tea and another piece of cake. Then he sipped his own tea, taking it black, and regarded Jesse over the rim of his mug.
‘I’m dying, you know. That’s why I’m so thin.’
Jesse choked on his tea.
‘No point in pretending,’ Matthew added.
‘AIDS?’ Jesse finally asked when he realised that his was the next move.
Matthew shook his head. ‘Cancer.’
A short silence.
‘Is this your own boatyard? Finn didn’t say.’
Jesse looked round. The workshop was scrupulously clean and tidy, with smaller hand tools hanging from pegs along one wall; ropes, cable, and chains from hooks; and the worktables bare except for one or two current projects. The smell of wood and sawdust and varnish were as familiar to him as his own sweat. A few large power tools stood on stands, and different planks of wood were sorted in specially constructed vertical storage racks. There were shelves for paints and varnishes, bins and cabinets for everything else. At the far end a dinghy shell was under construction. Sink and wood-burning stove. A narrow cleated gangplank led to a storage loft, and a trolley loaded with crates waited to be wheeled up. Jesse could easily imagine working in such a snug place.
‘And the narrowboat?’ Jesse asked. ‘It’s very beautiful.’
‘Yes, she is, isn’t she? I’ve had her since I was nineteen. It’s now or never.’
‘To restore her?’
‘And if I’m really lucky, to take her out and live on her for as long as I’m able. And if I can get away with it, to die on her.’ Matthew spoke in a matter-of-fact tone of voice.
‘You seem so—’ Jesse searched for the right word to express his twist of feelings—dismay, pity, bewilderment, awe, fear. He tasted a cold clear mouthful of lakewater, a draught so icy that it burnt like knowledge.
‘I savour my life,’ Matthew said.
‘You’re not afraid or angry?’
‘Sometimes. I wouldn’t be human if I weren’t.’ He indicated his missing arm. ‘This helped prepare me.’
‘No, an accident when I was a kid. You learn a lot about yourself then.’
Jesse rubbed a hand over the back of his neck.
‘Have you ever worked with wood?’ Matthew asked. Then he grimaced, and a film of sweat sprang up on his forehead, his scalp. ‘Sorry. Wait a moment, will you?’ He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, breathing deeply, his ribs ridging like rocky shoals above the rise and fall of his thin chest. His face had paled. Jesse could hear the air being drawn through his nostrils, the harsh struggle with pain.
After a while some colour returned to Matthew‘s face. He waited still longer before opening his eyes, then rose and fetched a bottle of tablets from a shelf above the sink, which he handed to Jesse.
‘Since you’re here, you might as well open it for me,’ Matthew said.
‘More or less. I’m not quite ready to capitulate just yet.’ A grin. ‘To morphine.’
Jesse stared at Matthew for a moment, not stirring. What harm could it do, he asked himself. He was good with pain. Then he shivered. No. Don’t get involved. It’s too risky. Stick to animals. He felt the first flicker of panic in his gut. No. I can’t. If it goes wrong . . . Matthew raised his eyebrows. ‘If you have a problem with opening the bottle . . . ’
‘It’s not that.’ Jesse licked his lips. ‘I wonder—I mean, there’s something I could try. Only if you’re willing. It’s been a long time, and I’m not really sure . . . OK, it might help.’
‘I’m going to need an interpreter here.’
Jesse laughed mirthlessly. ‘Never mind. It wasn’t a good idea anyway.’
Matthew pulled out his chair and sat down again.
‘What?’ he asked.
Jesse’s eyes fell upon the line tattooed across Matthew’s left breast. He winced, thinking of Finn. There were only a few words, an extract, but enough for him to have identified the source.
Matthew saw the direction of Jesse’s gaze. ‘And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing . . . ’
‘You’re religious?’ Jesse asked.
Matthew shrugged. ‘In my own way.’
‘Then why the quotation? First Corinthians, isn’t it?’
‘You know the passage?’
‘I read,’ Jesse said. ‘All sorts of stuff, including the Bible.’
‘What else have we got in this life?’
‘The Bible, you mean? Religion?’
‘No,’ Matthew spoke so quietly that Jesse had to strain to hear him. ‘Love.’
Jesse’s fist tightened on the bottle in his hand. He could hear his grandmother chuckling softly. Her hands are busy with her knitting, the fine creamy mohair falling from her fingers like knotted dreams. Jesse set the bottle on the table in front of him.
‘I might be able to help you with the pain,’ Jesse said.
Matthew studied Jesse’s face.
‘How?’ he asked. ‘Acupressure, reflexology, something like that? It won’t do any good. I’ve tried them all.’
Jesse shook his head. ‘I can’t explain it. You’ll have to trust me.’
The refrigerator hummed a quickening bass note. As Jesse laid his hands on Matthew’s shoulders, he could smell the sharp resinous odour of new-sawn wood.