At first they walked back towards the Old Bridge in silence, which was exactly how Jesse wanted it. But the girl had the kind of energy that, like the river itself, would not easily be diverted.
‘My name’s Sarah.’
‘Jesse,’ he offered in exchange for the forthcoming meal.
‘Where did you spend the night?’
‘You look like you’ve slept under a bridge.’
He gave her a mocking half-smile and pointed towards the Old Bridge.
She was shocked but tried to conceal it. Studying her surreptitiously, he wondered exactly how old she was. With such an expressive face it was hard to tell. She wouldn’t make a good liar: that smile would give her away, those eyes. There was something about her . . .
Just before they passed under the bridge, Sarah stopped and gazed up at the stone parapets.
‘Not a good place to sleep,’ she said.
‘There’s worse,’ Jesse said.
‘I don’t like it.’
‘Why? It’s a handsome structure. Look at the curved coping stones above the spandrels and wing walls. And the projecting courses at road level. All good solid features typical of the period.’
Sarah was astonished. ‘You know a lot about it.’
‘Not really. Just from my reading.’
She indicated the stone dogs guarding both ends of the parapets with bared teeth. ‘They scare me.’
‘They’re only statues.’
‘Maybe . . . ’ She shook her head. ‘There are too many legends about this bridge. It’s supposed to be unlucky. That’s why a lot of people won’t use it. You wouldn’t get me to spend a night here, alone, for anything.’
Jesse teased her. ‘How do you know I was alone?’
She blushed easily. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean . . . I mean, I didn’t mean to . . . ’ A futile attempt to hold back a peal of amusement. ‘I’m getting myself all twisted up over nothing, aren’t I?’
He liked her willingness to laugh at herself. ‘I was alone.’
‘All the more reason to find someplace else to sleep.’
‘I can look after myself.’
Her eyes took him in from head to foot, not missing much. ‘Listen, it’s really not a good place to hang out—not alone, and especially not at night. There’ve been several murders underneath the bridge. Just last year someone found the body of a man who’d been beaten to death and left on the bank.’
‘All old buildings—or bridges—have their history.’
‘Not like this one,’ she persisted. ‘My mother says some places are imbued with spiritual energy.’
‘Ghosts?’ he scoffed.
‘No . . . no, nothing like that. More like a fingerprint, a kind of emotional charge because a person—or maybe an animal—burnt so strongly that everything, even stone, remembers.’
Her clear gaze unsettled him, as if she understood a secret about him. Her scent sprang out at him, clawing at the base of his throat. His grandmother had hung large bunches of lavender in the kitchen to dry, but he’d never met a girl who liked it, a girl like this, and that unsettled him even more. Go, he told himself. Just turn around and leave. There are worse things than hunger. His stomach growled in disagreement, loud enough for her to hear. He hitched his rucksack higher on his shoulder and rubbed his midriff; caught her grin. He could never resist the absurdity of a situation, even his own. His lips twitched, then turned up at the corners.
On the other side of the bridge the dog plunged into the river, paddled in exuberant circles for a few minutes, then bounded back to Jesse and shook itself vigorously.
‘Shit!’ Jesse exclaimed. ‘My clothes were disgusting enough already.’ He glared at the dog.
But Sarah was looking back at the bridge, unable to let it go. ‘It reeks of evil.’
‘That’s a bit strong, I should think.’
‘Don’t be so sure. One of my mum’s—’ She hesitated, then started again. ‘One of my mother’s acquaintances killed herself there not too long ago. She threw herself into the river and drowned.’ Jesse heard the faint emphasis on acquaintances. He wondered what she wasn’t telling him, but had no intention of trespassing on restricted territory. He had enough landmines of his own.
He smiled, making it easier for her. ‘I’m not going to throw myself off any bridge, haunted or not. Anyway, I’d never drown.’
‘I’m too good a swimmer.’
Sarah glanced at him. Jesse’s eyes danced, but his voice was quiet and assured. If anybody else had spoken like that, she’d have sniggered or told him off. This was different, somehow. She had a strong feeling that this lad didn’t brag, didn’t lie—that in fact he had no need to lie. But she knew the bridge. And her mother.
The house was an old and beautiful one, set back from a quiet road on the outskirts of the city. Perched on a hilly prospect with unencumbered views, it had been built perhaps two hundred years ago of local stone. Its exterior walls were a mottled but mellow ochre, like the best vanilla ice cream. A clever architect had brought light and river into what must have once been a dark, even cramped interior. Now it was spacious, sunny, and very untidy.
Jesse had been on street for a few months, yet thought he could still imagine other people’s lives—ordinary people, who lived in flats and houses, who got up in the morning and bathed and ate breakfast and kicked the dog (or the youngest family member) and left for work or school. But entering Sarah’s home, he needed a passport and phrase book.
At the front door he noticed three motorcycle helmets hanging up along with the macs and jackets.
‘My dad’s,’ she said.
Jesse was astounded by the quantity of possessions these people could accumulate: magazines and newspapers, sandals, pillows, vases filled with wilted flowers, CDs, a heap of socks, African baskets, photos, a trumpet lying on a piano, plants, a chess set, statues in stone and wood—and books, lots and lots of books. And this only from a glimpse through the doorway as they headed towards the kitchen.
Sarah passed Jesse a plate heaped with scrambled eggs and grated cheese, grilled tomatoes, buttery toast. The dog had already wolfed down a helping of stale cornflakes with milk.
‘He’d probably sit up and recite all of the Elder Edda—in the original—for a soup bone,’ Jesse said.
‘My mum and I are vegetarians,’ Sarah said without a hint of apology. ‘No bones, no bacon or sausage, only some steaks for my dad in the deep freeze. Finn would kill me if I used his imported beef for a dog.’
‘No. An old family name.’
‘You call your father by his first name?’
‘Yeah, why not?’ She looked at him in surprise, then asked, ‘What’s the Elder Edda?’
‘A collection of early ballad-like poems. An important source of the Norse myths, written in Old Icelandic.’
‘Yeah. You know, stories of the Viking gods. Odin. Thor. The Valkyries. Loki the Trickster’s one of my favourites.’
She stared at him for a moment with a frown, as if she’d never heard of the Vikings, before going to the refrigerator for another packet of cheese.
‘Your dog won’t mind some cheddar, I reckon.’
Sarah persisted in calling the dog his. Jesse hadn’t bothered to correct her again. A meal was worth more than a pronoun. If he played his declensions right, he might get to shower as well.
While Sarah cut some cheese Jesse concentrated on the tastes exploding on his tongue. Hunger sharpened the senses—everyone knew that. Only the truly hungry saw the ghosts it raised: a grandmother cooking on an old range, a little girl setting a basket of warm feathery eggs on the table, the sad tired eyes of the constable. Sarah noticed how Jesse’s eyes caught the light as he raised them from his plate. They winked like mirrors, or deep blue pools, full of hidden and subtle layers of colour.
‘Would you like some coffee?’ Sarah asked.
Sarah liked that he was polite, that he ate slowly and thoughtfully even though he was clearly ravenous.
Sarah sat across from him while the dog lay at their feet, licking up crumbs. The coffee was hot and strong and utterly delicious. Sarah took hers black, but Jesse added sugar, lots of sugar, and a dollop of cream from the jug she’d set before him. Though they’d stopped talking, the silence was not strained or uncomfortable.
When he’d finished the eggs, Sarah rose and prepared a second batch without asking, and two more slices of toast. He ate everything. Sarah offered him more coffee, but he refused. He could feel some pressure against the sides of his skull, a mild fogginess. Though coffee could sometimes relieve his headaches, more often it triggered a debilitating migraine. He’d been lucky in recent months. Perhaps he was only overtired. But what would he do if he had a full-fledged attack?
Sarah poured herself another mug. Her fingers were not particularly long or fine—nails short and blunt—but her hands carved a line of melody through the air. Reminded of a CD Liam used to play, Jesse hummed a few bars of Stravinsky’s Firebird. Sarah finished the phrase for him.
‘I’ve danced to that,’ she said.
‘So you do dance,’ he said. ‘I wondered.’
She swirled the coffee in her mug, a private smile on her face.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘You’re not at all what I expected.’
Jesse noticed the faint sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose, the flecks of green in her eyes. He looked away when she became aware of his scrutiny. The kitchen was warm, and despite the coffee Jesse was beginning to feel drowsy.
‘Do you want to lie down?’ Sarah asked. ‘I don’t mind.’
Jesse played with his fork, considering. ‘You shouldn’t be so trusting. It’s dangerous.’
She laughed, deep and throaty. ‘There’s a spare bedroom upstairs which has a bath en suite. You’re welcome to use it. I’ll make up the bed for you.’
‘I can do that myself. You don’t have to wait on me.’
‘It’s OK this time. You’re tired.’
She narrowed her eyes, measuring him.
‘There’s probably some old stuff of my—’ She broke off and took a breath. ‘Some old stuff we’ve still got that will fit you. We can put your clothes in the washing machine.’
‘Won’t he object?’
Her laugh again. ‘He wouldn’t even notice. Anyway, he’s on the top of some mountain in the Andes on another of his expeditions.’
‘Expedition?’ This was getting more interesting.
‘Don’t be so nosy,’ Sarah said, but with a grin. She relented. ‘He’s a photographer. Does a lot of nature assignments. You know, like National Geographic. Unless you’re a new kind of moss or mollusc or mineral, you’re just another teenage body. You could be wearing a dinner jacket over a thong, with feather boa to match, and he wouldn’t turn a hair. He lives in jeans and T-shirts, which he orders in bulk from the internet. Except when he’s in his biker’s mode, when he dons black leather and chains.’
‘Now you’re trying to wind me up,’ he protested.
‘Well . . . only a bit. If you get to meet Finn, you’ll see what I mean.’
‘Is he gone for long?’
‘Depends. Why? Are you planning to rob us or just move in?’
Jesse shook his head in irritation. ‘You really need to be more careful.’
‘You don’t know my mother,’ was all Sarah would say.
After showing him the bathroom, Sarah handed Jesse a comb and hairbrush as well as a wrapped toothbrush, then carried off his dirty clothes and sleeping bag without a sign of disgust, for which he was grateful. Now he lay down with a sigh of pure bliss, skin tingling from the long hot shower and scented by the lavender skin cream which Sarah had offered him. ‘I make it myself.’ His hair had lightened at least two shades. The old T-shirt and boxers fitted well enough, though they were a size smaller than he normally wore. He had lost weight in recent months. The dog was curled up on the brightly patterned bedside mat. Though Jesse always read himself to sleep no matter where he kipped, his eyes were too heavy for print. He was asleep within minutes.
Despite his exhaustion, he sleeps fitfully. Darkness eddies uncertainly around him. Voices whisper. Faces appear and disappear. Figures cry out in agony, and flail their arms, and sink beneath the waves. A red sun blisters the sea, blinding Jesse, burning him. Wait, he calls. Hold on, I’m coming. But the water rejects him, tosses him roughly from image to image, until sleep finally ebbs and leaves him stranded on a strange shingle.
In the curtained light, red starbursts snagged the edge of his vision like thorns, and he closed his eyes again with a groan. His stomach heaved in protest. Lines of fire zigzagged under his lids. His fingertips felt numb, and he worked his hands under the duvet, bunched and tangled around his body. After a few minutes, the nausea subsided enough for him to stand. He needed to pee.
The house was quiet. The dog followed Jesse along the landing, which was decorated with a series of luminous black-and-white photographs of seashells so real that Jesse felt he could reach out and pick them up in his hands. He stopped to examine them. If this were her father’s work, he was good—much better than good. Jesse whistled softly under his breath. Sarah was lucky.
Jesse found a note on the kitchen table: Gone out. Help yourself to what you need. Don’t wake my mum. S. He opened the refrigerator. He was not used to so much food at once; he’d eaten too many eggs. He drank half a glass of milk, hoping it would settle his stomach. The clock ticking on the wall told him that he’d not slept long. The dog looked up at him expectantly and Jesse poured it some milk. The dog’s eager tongue slapped against Jesse’s ears. He shivered a little. His gut ached, and there was a heaviness behind his temples, a stiffness in his neck that warned him of worse to come.
He needed to pack his things and go.
‘Are you a friend of Sarah’s?’
Jesse whirled at the voice. A woman stood in the doorway, regarding him with curiosity but without alarm. He could see the resemblance to Sarah straightaway—not in the colouring, for her mother had deep red hair and the most amazing eyes he had ever seen, the smoky amber of the animal kingdom. Her face was very pale, and at first he thought she must be ill. Then he realised that her skin crackled with energy, as if an electric current were racing under its translucent surface. The line of her eyebrows, the shape of her nose, the curve of her lips, her cheekbones: all had been replicated in Sarah.
‘I’m Jesse Wright,’ he said, feeling rather awkward. ‘Sarah invited me for a meal.’
She glanced down at the dog, who retreated behind Jesse, uttering an odd little yip. Nearly as gracefully as her daughter, she bent and stroked its head, then went to take some things from the cupboard.
‘There’s a herbal tea I use that should settle your stomach,’ she said, filling the kettle.
‘How did you know—’ Jesse began.
‘About the nausea?’ She smiled. ‘Sit down. I’ll massage your neck and shoulders while you drink. It’ll help. Perhaps we can forestall the migraine.’
He intended to refuse—politely—but found himself taking the chair she indicated.
‘Not my shoulders and back. Please don’t touch them,’ he said. ‘Just the top of my neck, the base of my skull.’
She agreed without questioning him.
Her fingers were cool and competent, kneading the knots of tension while he sipped the tea. It had been so long since someone had touched him except in anger—that he had allowed someone touch him. Liam had been the last. Jesse closed his eyes, listening to the tune she hummed under her breath. The room was warm, warm as the musky tea, warm as the song, warm as sleep. Water lapped at his temples, pushed at the locks of his mind. Behind him lay the past. Far behind. He drifted, warm and relaxed.
Jesse lay in bed. He threw off the covers and padded barefoot to the window, twitched back the curtain. He must have slept a few hours this time, for the sky had hazed over once more, but he could tell that it was around noon. He opened the window and breathed deeply. His headache was gone, and the air was muggy, saturated with the mingled scent of noonday heat and incipient rain, honeysuckle and late roses and lavender and blackcurrant, so potent that he could feel the gravel underfoot on the path through his grandmother’s garden, taste the jam she’d be making.
He tried to remember how he’d got back to the bedroom. He had a clear picture of Sarah’s mother in the kitchen, brewing him a mug of pungent herbal tea, then massaging his neck and temples, but after that—nothing. Surely she couldn’t have carried him upstairs, even if he’d drifted off to sleep. He was wearing jeans: had he dreamt it after all, and somehow dressed himself without being aware of it? Some form of sleepwalking, perhaps.
‘You’re awake,’ a voice called up from below.
Trowel in hand, Sarah’s mother stood by a tangled flowerbed. Her hair was tied back from her face, but like her daughter’s, it was fast escaping. The dog was sprawled thoroughly at home under a large walnut tree, which sported a handsome if somewhat lopsided treehouse, complete with shingled roof and a shuttered window.
‘What time is it?’ Jesse asked, more for something to say than because he wanted to know.
‘Just before one,’ she said. ‘Come down to the kitchen for lunch. I was about to stop now anyway. It’s beginning to rain.’
Frenzied barking, a streak of fur followed by a canine missile.
‘Come back here!’ Jesse shouted.
Meg laughed. ‘He’ll never get our neighbour’s wily tom. That animal has at least ninety-nine lives.’
‘How did I get upstairs?’ Jesse asked her over a grilled cheese-and-tomato sandwich and fresh lemonade.
‘You don’t remember?’ she asked. ‘It can take some people like that.’
‘What takes some people like that?’
‘The tea, the massage.’
‘Rubbish.’ Jesse narrowed his eyes. ‘Unless you drugged the tea . . . ?’
She laughed, her voice light and frothy like the heads of elderflowers growing wild along the lanes of his childhood.
‘Of course not. It’s just a little technique I use for headaches. It works too, doesn’t it? I led you upstairs, helped you into bed. You’ll probably remember after a while.’ She looked at him, her eyes thoughtful. ‘But you’re particularly receptive. A sensitive, I should think.’
He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
Her mouth crimped slightly at one corner. Jesse had the feeling that she understood him very well indeed and was amused by his prevarication. Abruptly he changed the subject. ‘Where’s Sarah?’
‘Gone to do some errands. She’ll be back soon.’
‘I’ll wait to say goodbye.’
‘Where will you go?’
Again he shrugged. ‘I’m following the river.’
‘For the summer?’
‘More or less.’
‘If you want to take a break—’ She hesitated and bit her lip. It was the first time he’d seen her at a loss, and suddenly he anticipated her next words.
‘No!’ he snapped. ‘I don’t need a job.’ Stupid, he thought. These people would pay well. A day or two couldn’t hurt, could it? A few pounds put aside, a couple of new books, maybe even a second-hand jumper and a warm anorak for the winter . . . Sarah’s face flashed across his mind. He pushed back his chair and stood, upsetting his glass of lemonade.
‘Sorry,’ he said as he hurried to the sink.
‘Not a job,’ Sarah’s mother said. ‘A refuge.’
He stared at her, cloth in hand. He could hear the loud ticking of the ceramic clock on the wall.
She quoted quietly:
‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.’
‘You’ve been going through my things!’ Jesse said.
Her smile was patient. ‘I wouldn’t do that. None of us would. The Tempest is one of my favourite plays. I acted in it at university.’
‘Sorry,’ he muttered again, not entirely reassured. The very play that he was reading now, and some of his own favourite lines. Experience had taught him to mistrust coincidence.
She rose and began to clear the table.
‘Thanks for lunch,’ he said, moving to help her.
‘Leave it,’ she said. ‘You and Sarah can do supper, if you’re still here.’
She stopped, the jug in her hand.
‘Think about it, Jesse. A few days of rest. I think you need it.’
Her words splashing over the rocky bed of his mind, Jesse dug his hands into his pockets and walked out into the garden. Sarah’s mother watched him go, a troubled expression on her face.