‘I’ve brought you something,’ Jesse said.
Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew a miniature snowdome no bigger than an egg. Unlike the usual plastic souvenirs, the dome was surprisingly heavy. He shook it, and the delicate ballerina inside was surrounded by white snowflakes swirling in a slow dance, snow that glittered with a silvery metallic sheen. Sarah gazed at it in astonishment.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she said. ‘Where did you find it?’
‘A second-hand shop near Siggy’s place. It’s quite old, I think. French, probably. The base is made of porcelain, and you can see the irregularities in the glass.’
‘She’s so lifelike,’ Sarah said. The flakes were still drifting downwards.
‘Hand-painted,’ Jesse said with a touch of pride. The globe had been a find, spied by accident in a jumble of paperweights and tarnished brass ornaments when he’d gone into the shop for a look at some old books, none of which proved anywhere near as interesting.
Sarah held the dome up to the light, gave it another shake, and watched the snow eddy around the dancer, whose arabesque was rendered with exquisite precision. Even her tiny tutu was pleated and marked out in silver and blue.
‘She looks as if she were about to meet her Snow Prince.’ Sarah smiled at Jesse. ‘Thank you. It’s the best gift I’ve had in ages.’
Jesse flushed with pleasure.
Thursday evening Thomas came by and within a short time succeeded in persuading Sarah to go out—something no one else had managed, Jesse acknowledged with mixed feelings, since her rape. There was a vernissage in the art gallery where Thomas had a part-time summer job.
‘Brilliant paintings,’ Thomas said. Then a broad grin, ‘And great food.’
People were spilling out onto the pavement like plump and glistening larvae by the time the three of them arrived at the gallery. At first Sarah shrank back, but Thomas hooked his arm in hers and steered her towards a smaller exhibition room at the rear, while Jesse stopped to snare some vol-au-vent cases stuffed with prawns, then a fistful of miniature meatballs.
The artist, who had the odd name of Feston Blackbrush, painted colourful tongue-in-cheek portraits, bizarre still lifes, and phantasmagorical landscapes which showed a strong liking for Hieronymus Bosch. It was difficult to move freely, and Jesse soon found himself tided in front of a large triptych occupying nearly an entire wall of the gallery—a modern take on The Garden of Delights. One fornicating couple, Jesse swore, were none other than Mal and Angie, or their doppelgänger.
Unable to find Sarah in any of the exhibition rooms, Jesse was heading through the doorway into a back corridor when he came face to face with Tondi, dressed in more skin than cloth. Inadvertently his eyes went to her midriff, where now a small red stone glittered in her belly-button.
‘Like it?’ she asked.
Jesse tore his eyes away. He felt his cheeks redden.
‘No problem,’ she said, stepping closer. ‘I thought you protested a little too much last time.’
‘What are you doing here?’ he asked belligerently.
‘Same as you, I imagine. Looking at the paintings.’ She laughed. ‘Actually, the gallery belongs to my parents.’
Jesse was not quite sure how it happened, but all at once his back was up against the doorjamb, and her hands were hooked into the waistband of his jeans, one above each hipbone. Her fingers were cool against his skin. And despite his revulsion, he felt his body responding. As did Tondi.
‘Get off,’ he said. ‘I told you before. I’m not interested.’
‘But he is,’ she taunted with a smirk towards his zip. ‘Poor lad. He’ll just have to wait for another time.’
Then with a provocative movement she slid past him and was gone. Jesse closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the wooden vertical of the doorframe. He was shaking with anger, most of it directed at himself.
Jesse still hadn’t moved when a grey-haired woman with ring-encrusted fingers came up and touched his shoulder. When Jesse lifted his head, she gazed at him fixedly for some minutes before nodding. She reached into her satchel, removed a deck of large cards, and handed him one.
‘The death card from my husband’s set,’ she said.
Jesse remembered that Blackbrush had painted a set of tarot cards which no one in his right mind would ever dare to use. Several of the bizarre illustrations were displayed as prints, and the Tower, in fact, had been reproduced on the poster advertising the exhibit. Jesse would have liked to get a look at the entire deck.
‘Well now, Miranda, up to your old tricks?’ asked an amused voice from behind the woman.
Miranda swivelled to look. Neither she nor Jesse had noticed Blackbrush’s approach. He was leaning against the wall, arms crossed.
‘Feston, I warned you not to exhibit them.’
‘You and your superstitions,’ Blackbrush scoffed.
Jesse glanced down at the card in his hand. A sunrise, red as blood. A river in the background, spanned by an ancient stone bridge. A naked figure carrying a banner and riding away from the viewer towards the river, not on a white horse but a gleaming silver motorcycle. Under his wheels the torso of a disembowelled and decapitated boy; the head had rolled into the lush green verge. A handless clock twisted and distorted and almost liquid like one of Dali’s hung from a nearby fence post.
Then Jesse had a closer look, disbelief rising like a chill mist off the lake at winter dawn, clinging and tenebrous, so that he shivered. The banner wasn’t made of cloth but a flapping computer screen, filled solely with an image of the earth, resplendent in blue and green, floating like a gem in darkness. Not the modern world. Pangaea.
On the motorcyclist’s back, an intricate pattern of scars or tattoos.
And as Jesse watched, the motorcyclist slowly turned his head to stare back over his shoulder, looked straight into Jesse’s eyes, and winked. His face bore an uncanny resemblance to Jesse’s own. And the severed head on the ground wore the identical face.
With an exclamation Jesse dropped the card onto the flagged floor, where it ignited at their feet. Miranda crouched, and eyes bright, watched the card burn swiftly to a small trace of fine grey ash. Blackbrush, however, was gazing over their heads, his eyes unfocused like a man sleepwalking.
‘Transformation,’ Miranda said as she rose. ‘The death card never means physical death.’ Quickly she sorted through the deck in her hand. ‘Here, look but don’t touch.’ She chuckled. ‘I prefer to keep it intact.’
The Hanged Man. With another version of the same face.
Miranda tucked the card away and took Blackbrush’s arm. ‘Come, love, your public is waiting.’ Slipping the tarot pack into her bag, she led the dazed painter back towards the interior of the gallery. Just beyond the doorway she stopped and turned to Jesse. ‘I’ll see to it that my husband doesn’t remember,’ she promised, ‘but I will. I’ve always hoped that it would happen in my lifetime.’ And then they were swallowed up by the crowd.
When Jesse went to check, it was as he remembered. The Hanged Man on the print displayed above the reception desk was black-haired and bearded, with entirely different features. And blue-skinned.
‘Do you always work in the garden at midnight?’ Meg asked.
Jesse got up from his knees. The ground was damp but the air was clear and fresh; still, a stillness which he could lose himself in. Not that he needed any more losing, he thought bitterly. Even the night’s velvety hours, and the rhythmic snick-snick of the blades, did little to quieten his clanging thoughts. Once Sarah slept it was always worse—the tortured lad, the knife, Ayen’s computer, his memories. Again and again his memories, playing and replaying them, looking for a gap or flaw or something . . . looking for an explanation. And now a tarot deck, and a mad painter, and his even madder wife.
He laid the grass clippers on the concrete rim of the pool. The water was black, and the bronze face of the sundial gleamed dully in the light from the stars and moon.
‘I couldn’t sleep,’ Jesse said. ‘Have you just got back from the hospital?’
He noticed that she was holding a mug. Hot chocolate, from the smell.
She saw the direction of his look. ‘There’s more in the saucepan, if you’d like some.’
‘Later maybe. I’ll just finish trimming the pool.’
Meg’s laugh, soft and musical, draped him tenderly, the way a man might cover his wife of fifty years who no longer remembered his name. Meg sat down on the edge of the pool, dangled her hand in the water, and swirled it through her fingers. Jesse caught a cloying scent, nicotiania perhaps. Poisonous but fragrant—seductive: ‘Some things are best left be. Never put it in your mouth,’ his grandmother had instructed him.
‘One of my patients died today.’
Jesse waited for Meg to continue.
‘Anorexia,’ she said, answering his unspoken question. ‘She was just seventeen.’
Translucent as alabaster, Meg’s skin seemed to reveal veins of sorrow beneath its surface. Jesse watched her until she beckoned with her dripping hand to the place next to her. He took a seat and tried to fix his eyes on the sundial, but found it impossible to keep them from wandering to her face. The stars echoed like distant wind chimes in the dark pool.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘Her father abused her for years.’
‘You’ve seen a lot of it?’
Jesse jammed his hands into his armpits to keep them from trembling. ‘What is it about fathers?’ he asked savagely. ‘Why do they have kids only to hate them so much?’
‘The simple answer is that they do what’s been done to them.’
‘And the complicated answer?’
‘Did your father hurt you that much?’ she asked softly.
‘He raped me when I was—’ Jesse clamped his mouth shut, shocked at the words that had come barrelling shrieking exploding like a bullet from the cylinder of his throat. What the fuck was the matter with him?
She laid a hand on his arm, but said nothing—a very gentle, compelling nothing.
Jesse felt the prickle of tears and averted his face, blinking rapidly.
‘You have to let him die,’ Meg said.
‘If you mean my father, he died a long time ago. In the fire.’
‘No, Jesse, he didn’t. Not for you.’
Words, he thought, could burn as much as flames.
Meg finished her drink while Jesse picked off the blades of grass clinging to his jeans, one by one. Nubi, who had been roaming the garden, came and settled at Jesse’s feet, a stick in his jaws. Jesse reached down to fondle the silly creature. Nubi was always chomping on something . . . anything. But his body was warm against Jesse’s legs, his tongue forgiving. And there had been many nights when his doggy breath had tickled Jesse’s neck as a nightmare was beginning.
‘It’s getting late,’ Meg said. ‘We can talk tomorrow.’
‘There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.’
‘How did you get Peter’s top? Sarah told me he never went anywhere without it.’
Meg was silent, considering.
‘I shouldn’t have asked,’ Jesse said. ‘It’s none of my business.’
‘No, I’m glad you have. I’ve come close to telling you several times. The top is very much your business.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Do you remember when I washed your clothes that first day you arrived?’
‘I found the top in the pocket of your jeans.’
‘Jesse, the top has been in my family for ages. But after Peter left, none of us had seen it again till the moment I checked your pocket for dirty tissues and loose change.’
He rose, picked up the clippers, and began to hack fiercely at the grass. Meg watched him for a few minutes before speaking. She knew Jesse would recognise the quotation.
> ‘What seest thou else
> In the dark backward and abysm of time?’
The clippers dropped from Jesse’s hand. He leaned back on his heels, hugged his knees, and let his head fall forward until the vulnerable curve of his neck was visible. He rocked back and forth a bit, allowing Meg’s words to bathe him in a cooling waterfall. She continued murmuring some of her favourite lines, sometimes repeating them once, or more than once, a mother soothing a feverish child until he was able to look up at her.
A midwife lays the newborn Meg at her mother’s breast. She runs through a garden filled with sunflowers, stubby little toes dirty and scratched. A tall red-haired man chases her, laughing and sweating in the hot sun. In the bitter cold she stands without hat or coat in front of a tombstone, her hair covered in a cowl of snow. She lies face down on a bank high above a fjord. A young, bearded Finn comes up and drops to her side, lifts her hair and kisses the nape of her neck. The rain lashes her face as she holds tight to his waist. The motorbike skids and they are thrown into a ditch. Her face distorts as she pushes once more, giving birth. She cries and cries and cries. Holding her newborn granddaughter in her arms, she smiles at Sarah. A young lad, his wrists bandaged, sobs while a grey-haired Meg takes his hand. Finn, white-bearded now, tenderly tucks a blanket around her shrunken frame. She smiles at him, but there is a frightened blankness in her eyes. A simple coffin slides into the heart of fire.
‘No,’ Jesse groaned. ‘Please, no more.’ He shut his eyes.
‘I can’t take this much longer.’
Meg moved swiftly to his side. Her fingers stroked his frail neck, his shoulders. If she felt any scars she gave no sign.
‘Listen to me, Jesse. It’s going to be OK. You’re going to be OK. You’re not alone now.’
Jesse opened his eyes reluctantly, afraid of what he would find. Of how much truth—or code—he could tolerate. But time had closed its gates once more, the tunnel collapsing upon itself like a wavefunction in a nonlocal universe.
For one terrifying moment Meg looked into the inexorable corridor of his eyes and saw the whole within the hole: not black at all, but fiery. Then the star imploded. Jesse blinked, and the light was gone.