A day later Jesse came into the sitting room to find Finn hanging up a set of photographs mounted behind glass.
‘They’re of Peter,’ Finn explained. ‘I thought it’s time to display some again.’
‘Sarah said you’d destroyed all the photos.’
‘Prints, but not the negatives. I may have been sectionable but not quite that out of my mind.’
In the photo Jesse found most riveting, a thin angular-looking boy with brilliant green eyes and red hair a fraction lighter than Meg’s was seated on the rim of the Andersen sundial, a large sketchbook across his lap. He was smiling directly into the camera. Even on paper his skin glowed, warm and golden. About sixteen, he looked utterly at ease with the world. He looked clever. He looked as though he laughed a lot but knew how to listen. He looked the sort of person you’d like for a friend. For a boyfriend; he was beautiful—as beautiful as Liam.
Finn interrupted Jesse’s reverie. ‘When I get back from overseas, we’re going to have to sit down and talk about some things.’
Finn gave him one of his Viking looks till Jesse felt himself begin to squirm. ‘Yeah well,’ he retorted, ‘I didn’t know they registered pupils anonymously.’ In response Finn merely raised an eyebrow and returned to his picture hooks.
That evening Finn left on his trip, and the next few days passed quietly. On Tuesday Jesse worked with Matthew on the longboat for the afternoon, and on Wednesday, having borrowed Finn’s card, made a quick trip to the library for some new reading matter (sneaking in a book about men who rape, and another about the treatment of sexual trauma). Otherwise, aside from short walks with Nubi, he kept close to the house. He couldn’t persuade Sarah to accompany him anywhere.
For hours at a time she would lie on Jesse’s floor with a book or Peter’s top. They played chess. Often Jesse would look up to find her eyes resting on him. When her hands clenched, he prised them open and rubbed her palms until the gouge marks faded. But she didn’t cry. Her bruises were slowly fading, and would leave no external traces of her ordeal.
There were nightmares. Ever since that first night, Jesse had gone unasked to her room and sat with her until she drifted into a fitful sleep. Sometimes he read aloud to her, his beloved Shakespeare; sometimes he made up extravagant adventures of heroines and dragons and bold quests; and sometimes he said nothing at all. Although he knew he could share the bed, he slept on the floor. Meg didn’t intervene, nor did she mention the purple shadows gathering under Sarah’s eyes. Only once did Sarah venture as far as the garden, and that for less than ten minutes. She spent a lot of time dusting and polishing and hoovering—even their weekly cleaner made a tart comment. And the water bill would be enormous, if Sarah continued to shower so long and so frequently.
On Friday Meg had a day off. Jesse and Sarah did the washing up together, while Meg went to check her email and make a phone call. Once they’d finished, Jesse headed for the garden to smoke, and Sarah trudged upstairs to get ready. Meg had been uncharacteristically adamant that Sarah accompany her on a visit to her mother, a longish trip by car. ‘Gran’s very upset that you haven’t been to see her in months.’ After a protracted and prickly argument Sarah had acquiesced, though not with good grace. Meg’s mother lived in the country, in a small cottage surrounded by geese and flowers. ‘My mother has a passion for sunflowers,’ she’d said to Jesse. ‘She talks to them all the time.’ She’d laughed when asked if they replied, but Jesse had not been joking. Perhaps Meg’s gifts ran in the family.
Meg and Sarah set out within twenty minutes and would not return till evening; they were taking Nubi with them for a good romp in the adjoining meadow. Jesse planned to check out some secondhand bookshops, walk along the river, work a few hours at the boathouse. And it was time for him to pay Mick a visit.
Sarah had given Jesse Mick’s address unwillingly, but she’d given it to him. ‘What can you possibly hope to accomplish?’ she’d asked. He’d shrugged without replying. Her eyes had studied him worriedly. ‘Maybe you should take Nubi with you,’ she’d finally said. ‘Mick’s vile, but Gavin’s dangerous. Psycho kind of dangerous. He might be there.’ It was the only conversation they’d had about Mick all week. Jesse had declined, the dog would only hinder him.
After Meg and Sarah had gone, Jesse went upstairs to make his bed and collect his rucksack, along with a few things he’d need—swimming trunks and a towel, a couple of books, his water bottle. And his knife, which he’d refused to leave with Ayen despite her desire to have it tested.
Jesse bent to shake out his duvet. This time a heavyset man with dark curly hair is standing in the corner of the room, a small plastic tub and syringe in his hand. He approaches the lad lying facedown on the bed, arms wrapped protectively over his head, who begins to shudder as the man slides a hand between the emaciated buttocks.
Help me. Please help me.
‘How?’ Jesse cried. ‘Tell me how I can help you.’
At his plea the figures disappeared. It took a few minutes for Jesse’s breathing to return to normal.
Back in the kitchen he set about packing himself a picnic lunch. He filled his water bottle and added two cans of coke from the fridge. He made a stack of cheese-and-mustard sandwiches, then rummaged in the cupboards for a packet of crisps and some biscuits. Finn enjoyed having someone around who shared his love of eating and was always bringing home ‘just a little something I discovered’ to urge on Jesse. ‘You’re going to make him fat,’ Sarah had protested the last time Finn unloaded the car. ‘And what’s wrong with fat?’ Finn had teased, digging his fingers into the surplus at his waist and brandishing it with a grin.
Jesse drank a glass of milk while he considered what else to take: the roll of heavy-duty duct tape Finn kept in a drawer, also a length of rope. A blindfold? No, let Mick see and sweat. Absentmindedly Jesse ate one, then another of the biscuits from the open packet. He poured a second glass of milk. He wasn’t keen to confront Mick, because he knew what the only feasible deterrent would have to be.
The scene at Siggy’s kept intruding, and Mick’s music. How could someone who plays like that be a rapist? Jesse couldn’t get his mind around it, no matter how hard he tried. Perhaps he was being naïve, but he felt something like despair that art and inequity could coexist. It was like discovering that Hitler had secretly written The Tin Drum or Jack the Ripper, the symphonies of Brahms.
He rinsed out his glass under the tap, then with a last biscuit in hand, stepped out into the garden. The sun was already wicked. Jesse brought a hand up to shade his eyes and watched a butterfly alight on a buddleia shrub with pale lilac blossoms, similar to the one in his family’s garden. He remembered his surprise at how vigorously it regenerated from the hard pruning his grandmother would give it in spring. ‘The earth thrives on strong measures,’ his grandmother had told him only a few weeks before her death. ‘When I was a little girl, farmers used to burn their fields after the harvest. Fire renews the land.’ He could recall her exact words . . . her exact words. For a while he thought about what Ayen had said about memory.
Then his mind returned to the problem of Mick and Gavin. If there were only another way. He hadn’t fought in a long time; he’d always tried to avoid overt confrontations. Even the hot shame of humiliation was better than losing control. It wasn’t a beating he was afraid of, like other kids who cowered and sucked up and handed over their sweets, their money, their music, their self-respect. And he’d closed his ears to the taunts long ago. (Or had he? a small voice whispered.) Let them think he was scared to death, pissing his pants. Once in the school canteen he’d been cornered by a bunch of kids who’d taken turns spitting into a glass, then added a splash of orange squash and ordered him to drink it down. He hadn’t argued, just done as they’d told him. Afterwards he’d stood as still as stone, eyes downcast. He hadn’t dared to look them in the eye, terrified he’d explode. The story had circulated for weeks, while within the safety of his imagination he’d gleefully pictured them as blackened skeletons. Even now, years later, he sometimes revisited that very satisfying scenario—one of the few images of a fire’s aftermath he could tolerate. And the best part of his draconian pleasure was the secret knowledge, lovingly hoarded, that he could easily have done just that to them.
Only now he suspected his fear of using his gifts had compromised him in ways that he was just beginning to understand. Only now, his fear was even greater, for his gifts might be all that had ever been.
After locking the back door and latching the kitchen window, Jesse slipped his knife from its leather sheath and tested its edge. With a steel that he found in one of the drawers he honed the blade till sharp and deadly, all fifteen centimetres of it. Then he ran his thumb along the worn leather handle capped in brass, stopping for a moment at the triangular nick. Nobody had been able to tell him how it had been made.
Jesse stared at the knife for a long time. The memories were as real as the knife itself, they had to be.
It was his grandfather’s hunting knife. Jesse kept it hidden in the hollow of an old ash tree, wrapped in a piece of oilskin—one of the many secrets he shared with his grandmother, who had given it to him on his seventh birthday. ‘A boy needs a knife,’ she said with the usual gleam in her eye. ‘Your grandfather wanted you to have it. But don’t show it to your mother, not just yet.’
Jesse dropped the knife with an oath. Looking down, he saw that he’d opened the fleshy ball of his hand. Blood was welling from the cut. He swallowed the bitter contents of his stomach, glad to have to deal with something as mundane as a cut.
Jesse stanched the bleeding with wadded kitchen paper. Clenching his fingers tightly around the compress, he searched in the drawers until he found the roll of plasters Meg kept for minor accidents. While he bandaged his hand, he tried not to let his mind wander. He was afraid of where it might go. Mick, concentrate on Mick, he told himself sternly. Deal with him first.
He picked up his knife, sheathed it, and carried it up to his room, where he stowed it safely under his mattress. ‘Learn to use it well and wisely,’ his grandmother had said.
Mick opened the door himself. He gaped at Jesse, then recovered his sang-froid. His smile was wide and nasty and provocative, the kind a black widow might give to her mate before springing. If uneasy or alarmed, he hid it well.
‘How unexpected,’ Mick said.
‘Are your parents home?’ Jesse asked.
‘They’re working.’ Mick narrowed his eyes. ‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Are you alone?’
‘Actually, I’m just going out. So you’d better tell me what you want.’
In answer Jesse shouldered past Mick into the entrance hall, taking in its elegance at a glance. Sarah’s cluttered home might be messier, and a lot of the furniture mismatched and worn, but at least it didn’t look like a place where an admission ticket was required.
Mick was too surprised by Jesse’s move to block his entry. Now he reached out to grasp Jesse by the arm, then drew back at the last moment. Although Jesse spoke quietly enough, there was a new fierceness in him that made Mick hesitate. Jesse reminded him of an antique watch wound to the very limit—another twist and the spring would snap.
Jesse strode through the nearest doorway into a large and sophisticated drawing room, his old rucksack hanging from one strap. Mick could see contempt in the set of Jesse’s shoulders, the line of his back under the faded T-shirt. Mick sprang forward to cut him off.
‘Hold on. Where the fuck do you think you’re going?’
Jesse turned and looked out through the open French doors into the landscaped garden. For a long time he said nothing. In profile his face was haughty—withdrawn. At last Mick was emboldened by the lack of response. He sucked in a lungful of air, drew himself up, jutted his chin. His nostrils flared. No peacock could have strutted more valiantly. Even the colours of his silky patterned shirt seemed to brighten like plumage.
‘I asked you a question,’ Mick said.
Jesse inclined his head as if hearing a voice inside it. His eyes fastened on Mick, whose heart began to race. He attempted to outstare Jesse but dropped his gaze after a few seconds. A cold blue flame was burning in Jesse’s eyes. Mick took a step backwards. His eyes darted round the room.
‘Close the French doors,’ Jesse said.
As if mesmerised Mick did as instructed.
‘Where’s Gavin?’ Jesse asked.
‘Give him a message from me.’
Mick nodded slowly. His face was flushed, and he was having trouble controlling his breathing.
There was a handsome brick fireplace in the room, with a carved wooden surround painted a glossy white. Although it was summer, a few birch logs lay artfully arranged on a grate. Jesse turned and faced the mantelpiece. Everything looked so new and flawless that he wondered if the fireplace were ever used—if in fact anyone in this family used the drawing room at all. There was not a speck of dust, not a fingerprint, not a smudge on the gleaming grand piano, nor on any of the highly polished surfaces of the furniture. But a real fireplace had to have real logs in such a setting.
Jesse stared at the collection of porcelain and the antique clock on the mantelpiece. He was very still, almost in a trance. Mick was fascinated by the dreamy expression on Jesse’s face, the hint of a smile. A line of melody formed in Mick’s mind, so exquisite that he closed his eyes to hear it better, to commit it to memory. For a moment he was convinced someone must be playing in the room. A tenor saxophone playing solo. Then a trumpet added its husky voice, followed by a piano. Unnerved, he looked towards the Steinway, which only his father touched, and then back at Jesse. His skin was glowing with an impossible incandescence, an almost unearthly light. Mick had never seen anything like it, and he drew closer, in the way of a moth. He wanted nothing more than to touch it, caress it, be absorbed into it . . .
‘Your music is no excuse,’ Jesse said.
Without another word, Jesse indicated the logs with a nod of his head. They burst into flame.
The silence in the room obliterated the crackle of the fire, the sound of Mick’s loud breathing. The scent of sage and wild garlic lingered in the air.
It was Jesse who spoke first.
‘Tell Gavin that if he ever touches Sarah again, nobody will recognise his remains.’ His voice was low and soft and very dangerous. ‘And as for you—’
Jesse broke off abruptly. He took in Mick’s state of arousal in an instant. How stupid of me, he thought. Of course. Despite his cold rage Jesse could not help feeling a certain pity for Mick. They stared at each other until Mick spun round and gripped the back of the nearest armchair for support. There was nothing to say.
Into the lull swept a tall man with silvergrey hair, a tailored suit like silken armour, and the air of someone who would always win at Russian roulette. The family resemblance was very strong.
‘Father—’ Mick said.
His father paid no attention. His face was nearly expressionless—carefully expressionless, Jesse realised. The man would have clearly preferred to curl his lip.
‘I see that you have lost no time in finding someone else to play your little games,’ he said. Then he noticed the fireplace. ‘For god’s sake, can’t you keep your mess to your own rooms? I believe we spared no expense to that purpose. Daniel, at least, was always tidy.’
No word of greeting, either to his son or Jesse. No questions, no polite comments about the weather or the latest film or lunch, no explanation for his arrival in the middle of the day.
Spots of red burnt in Mick’s cheeks.
‘I’ll put it out,’ he said to his father.
‘See that you do. And clean the fireplace before your mother gets home.’
Mick’s father bestowed a single cool nod on Jesse, and then he was gone.
The silence which followed became stinging and frigid, dense as a blizzard. Jesse walked over to the French doors, opened them to the sun, and drew in a few deep breaths. He’d despised all his foster homes, but the passions there had always been hot and overt, as easy to see as a bad case of acne. It shocked him to find he might actually prefer a slap or a kick or a curse to this glacial arrogance. He searched through his rucksack till he located his cigarettes. He looked back at Mick, who hadn’t moved from his place by the armchair. His head was bent, his hands were digging into the upholstery with the tenacity—and the bloodlessness—of a man hanging by his fingertips from a shelf of broken ice.
‘Do you want a cigarette?’ Jesse asked.
Mick lifted his head. The red splotches had faded from his cheeks, leaving them white with shame.
‘I got your message. Now get out,’ he said.
But his voice shook, and after a moment he came over and accepted a cigarette from the packet Jesse proffered. Jesse flicked open his lighter but Mick turned away to the mantelpiece. The large, stylish box of matches slipped through his fingers the first time he picked it up. Mick retrieved the matchbox and tried to open it, but his hands were trembling. It took him three or four attempts before the lid slid back. Again he must have lost his grip, for this time all the matches tumbled out onto the floor—a painful game of jackstraws. Jesse had to restrain himself from going to help. By watching, he knew, he was making it worse. He lit his own cigarette and inhaled deeply, but still could not take his eyes off Mick, who seemed bent on debasing himself even further.
Jesse reminded himself why he was here.
Mick finally managed to collect all the matches and replace them in the box. The first match he struck broke in two; the second as well; the third lit but went out immediately. His fingers shook so badly that Jesse couldn’t imagine how Mick would be able to grasp a fourth. Nor was he able to. His face collapsed, deflating like a balloon. He seemed close to tears. With an oath that was half sob, and a wild gesture of capitulation, he threw the box into the fire and ran from the room.
But not before shooting Jesse a look of hatred, neat as raw spirits. Jesse had made a deadly enemy.
To witness someone’s humiliation—and not just once, but three times—was as bad as inflicting it yourself. Jesse sighed. He would have to see this through, though he’d lost his taste for the job. Sarah, he thought, you were right. I should have handled it differently.
Jesse hefted his rucksack, took a last draw on his cigarette, and tossed it into the fireplace. He climbed the stairs two at a time, anxious to have the encounter over with.
He found Mick in his sitting room, slumped on a black leather sofa, a saxophone cradled across his lap. The door was open. Jesse dropped his rucksack on the threshold and stepped into the room. He didn’t bother to knock; they were beyond good manners.
Mick looked up. ‘What are you still doing here?’
‘Teaching you a lesson.’
‘Get the fuck out of my house before I call my father.’
‘I don’t have the impression he would be terribly interested.’
It was almost too easy. Mick’s fingers tightened on his sax, and his eyes hardened. ‘Keep your bloody mouth shut.’
‘Call Daddy, then, and see if he’ll help.’
Mick laid the sax on the sofa. ‘I said to shut it.’
‘And just who is going to make me?’ Into his voice Jesse summoned all the contempt—all the fury and hatred and revulsion—he felt for the Mick who had raped Sarah. ‘You?’
Mick rose, thrusting aside the coffee table.
‘You don’t get it, do you? Sarah liked it just fine.’ An obscene grin. ‘And she’ll be back for more.’
‘What’s the matter? Can’t get it up on your own? Maybe you need to see where we did her.’
Like most people when faced with the incomprehensible, Mick had blocked out what he’d seen happen in the fireplace; or had explained it to himself as some sort of trick. But this time he’d remember.
Jesse only needed to use a little of the coldest fire. He told himself it was better—faster—this way.
A fox cub with a broken back had screamed with exactly that same high, piercing, primitive cry when Jesse’s grandmother had tried to pick it up from the wet ground. It had snapped at her, but feebly. Its eyes were already glazing over, and its beautiful redgold fur was dark with rain, not blood. Jesse had felt tears well in his eyes as he’d stared into its delicate face, wild and distant and twilit, yet somehow as human as an infant’s. He’d been glad that Emmy had not been there to see his grandmother twist its fragile neck.
Mick dropped to his knees, hands clutched to his groin. He was gasping in agony, tears running down his cheeks. Jesse gave him a few minutes for the pain to recede. Jesse had been careful; there’d be reddening, a few blisters, maybe some dysfunction for a while, but no permanent damage, no scarring—not this time.
Once Mick was able to straighten up and listen, Jesse addressed him. ‘If you ever come near Sarah again—and that means even within speaking distance—I’ll finish the job. Nothing would give me greater pleasure. If you see her in school or on the street or at the pool, you had better run the other way. Fast. And that goes for any other girl you care to molest. I’ll be watching you very, very closely.’
Jesse spoke quietly, without flourish, almost in a monotone in fact. It was time to leave. He was weary of Mick, and weary of his own involvement. He glanced towards the window. The sky had darkened; there was an expectation of rain in the air.