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Oliver replaced the mask above Anna’s sewing table and retreated a few steps to check that it hung straight, eased it into place, then bent and blew off the dust which had settled on her sewing machine since morning. Dust, he’d read, was mainly composed of dead skin sloughed from the living; he seemed to do a lot of shedding, just not the right sort. Tomorrow, he promised himself, tomorrow he’d carry the sewing machine out to Mirjam’s car. He could sew on a button, mend a seam by hand, but Anna’s machine was a temperamental dinosaur inherited from her mother, and if Guri ever showed the slightest inclination to take up anything which didn’t involve pixels as a hobby, his aunt would gladly return it. You’ve got to start letting go, she’d told Oliver last week. And the week before. Tomorrow she’d bring Guri a brilliant gift that he, Oliver, would never have thought of, one of Andrei’s luscious chocolate cakes, and enough energy to subdue an entire planet of rampaging rodents. She’d run her dad’s restaurant very capably since his stroke, even adding a second star to its Michelin status, but her turnover in husbands threatened to rival her turnover in employees. Her latest divorce would soon be finalised. She had always been the beautiful sister.
He heard a cry from Guri’s room. It had been several months since the last nightmare, and Oliver had been hoping they were gone for good. He swung round to face the mask. Leave him alone, he muttered. A week after the funeral, he’d buried it under the wedding gown, which had only made things worse; then encased it in bubble wrap, crated it and tried the storage cellar, which made things worse still. He was afraid to burn it. He gave the mask a pleading look, the same sort of look that Anna had found so endearing when they first met, then went to reassure Guri.
Oliver had arrived in Berlin on what later turned out to be the hottest day of the year, and one of the hottest on record. The stink in the U-Bahn, the sweat soaking his T-shirt, the jabbering his school German couldn’t decode, the weirdness of the train reversing direction at Schwartzkopfstrasse—Jenny was right, what was he doing here? Never mind that he’d promised to go home for Christmas, that he couldn’t afford to turn this job down. If the flat turned out to be unliveable, he’d get the next flight back. She’d smile that knowing smile of hers, but wouldn’t say anything as crude as I told you so. She’d whip up a brilliant dinner to accompany her advice. She’d let him make love to her without any coaxing.
On top of it all, the lift in the station was out of order. He hefted his case up to street level, cursing his idiocy in refusing to be picked up from the airport. At the time he’d looked forward to a few days of quiet—the indulgence of wandering, nameless and faceless, in a city of strangers; sleeping when he wanted to sleep, reading the thrillers he’d picked from the bestseller display after check-in, drinking beer rather than a Parker-sanctioned red, speaking to no one; answerable to no one.
According to Google maps, the flat was about fifteen minutes’ walk from the station, maybe twenty. The paving was uneven in places, and he struggled to keep his case from tipping over on its wheels. Germans were supposed to be fanatic about cleanliness, but evidently this didn’t extend to cleaning up after their dogs. Or much else, he thought in disgust at the sight of a mangled creature left to rot at the kerb—a squirrel whose head had been crushed. By a car, he hoped, not some teen punk with a brick.
He was desperate for a glass of cold water by the time he reached the building. Pick up the key from Anna Hirsch, the owner had written. She works from home, and her name’s on the doorbell. Though there was nothing in the email to suggest it, Oliver wondered if she were a hooker. Sex worker, Jenny would have said, a touch acidly. They’re legal in Germany.
Have you ever paid for sex? she’d asked him after The Guardian had published a feature written by a well-known activist. Of course not, he’d answered. Jenny’s career in event management was beginning to take off, and no doubt she’d outgrow her leftwing politics eventually. In the meantime, he chose to agree that all prostitutes were victims, most of them trafficked.
Oliver rang the Hirsch woman’s bell several times, waited, then rang some more. It wouldn’t be the first time that an inexplicable hunch ended up disconcerting him. He dug out his phone to see if Martin, the owner, had mentioned anything about a signal—two shorts and a long, say. When the entry buzzer went off, he nearly missed his chance. Three floors up, she was waiting with an apology and a streak of what he first thought was blood on her cheek. Come in and I’ll make you some iced tea, she said. My sister keeps telling me that I need to install a louder bell. When I’m working, the world retreats to a twilight zone.
—Or you do, he said. It’s a risky, magical place.
She smiled, and he knew that Berlin had not been a mistake.
The following morning, he awoke to the smell of coffee. He slipped on his rumpled boxers and made his way to the kitchen. Hey, he said. You’re up early. The window was open wide, admitting the hoarse grumble of a dustcart on its rounds, beast enough to remind him that Berlin, his Berlin—a phantasmagoria of Cabaret and We Children from Bahnhof Zoo and The Lives of Others, of Lonely Planet and expat blogs, of a fabulous welcome by an even more fabulous woman—might also be a Berlin that chewed up foreigners, devoured dreams, and excreted rotting garbage.
—There’s a good bakery two blocks away. Care to fetch some rolls? I’ll make fresh coffee, and we can eat on the balcony. It’s a beautiful morning.
Her hair still loose, she was wearing baggy Thai trousers and a camisole which had obviously been chosen for his benefit. She rose from the table, and they met in an abundance of sunlight.
—Later, he said. Under the sun’s tutelage, he was learning the secret colours of her skin.
Anna had made Simba’s mask for a new stage production of the musical, giving Oliver the prototype when the director decided on an even larger version, one however without the reddish glint to its eyes and nostrils. The original was ferocious in a way that should have frightened a small child, but they often found Guri standing in front of it, talking with a solemnity other kids reserved for their teddy bears. He listened too, in pauses suggestive of a phone conversation. You fuss like a Jewish grandmother, Anna said to Oliver with a laugh. And he’s already got one of those. Who fusses enough for three. Kids are natural copycats. It just shows how bright and observant he is. After Guri fell off the sewing table and split his chin, they moved the mask to the top shelf in their wardrobe till Simba joined them at mealtimes, slept next to Guri’s cot, and began running alongside Anna’s bicycle to and from Kita. He’s watching out for baddies, Guri explained. I’m going to be Lion King when I grow up.
I wanted to be a princess, Anna said. Stop worrying. They decided that hiding the mask was pointless, though Oliver wouldn’t allow it to stay overnight in Guri’s room. For several years it lived on the living room bookcase, where he could reach it whenever he needed. The costume was Anna’s idea. The adult world can be a scary place, it’ll help him feel safe.
—That’s what parents are for.
—Tell that to my father.
At first feeling foolish, Oliver donned the costume a couple of times per week. Guri loved it, and they acted out long, rambling adventures together. Though Oliver had never been much of a natural storyteller, something about wearing the costume released an outpouring of tales, half-remembered myths, sendaks which he couldn’t imagine originating in his own head. Nonsense, Anna said. Everyone starts out with a rich imagination. You’ve just learned to suppress yours somewhere along the way.
—I had a very happy childhood, he protested.
—Aside from all that praying.
—That’s unfair! My mum goes to church, yes, but that doesn’t make her a repressive Überbully.
—Unlike my father, you mean?
The one-sided conversations tapered off, the imaginary friend gradually disappeared except for the times when Simba was to blame for a broken vase or a wet bed or missing meatballs. He was very hungry, Guri said. He wanted to eat Frau Klein’s dog, so I had to feed him. She likes her dog. She’s always kissing him. The mask was returned to the hook above Anna’s sewing machine, from which, king that he was, he could rule over the other masks and costumes which took their turn to be on display in her sunny workroom.
For his father’s seventieth birthday, Oliver’s mother and older brother Sean had planned the sort of family gathering which Jenny would have delighted in managing. Sean, who had made a pile of money in property development, booked an entire Sicilian hotel for the first weekend in October. It’s not a handout, it’s what big brothers do, Oliver said. Anyway, even as a kid he was generous. He’ll be offended. And to tell you the truth, I think both of us could use a break. But Anna claimed that she couldn’t get away, not with the ballet premiere only ten days later. Take Guri, he’ll have a great time with his cousins. At the last moment he came down with an earache, and despite his wails of protest, they couldn’t risk a punctured eardrum. And a feverish child would only spoil the weekend for everyone. Do you want me to stay? Oliver asked. My parents will understand. No, of course not, Anna said. She laughed. How else will I hear about the gloriously vaingory details of Sean’s latest coup?
When Oliver returned, feeling guilty that he’d had such a good time on his own, Anna looked wan.
—What did you expect? she snapped. I didn’t get much sleep.
That night she surprised him by removing the book from his hands and setting it on the bedside cabinet. It had been a while since they’d had sex, she always worked hard but in the run-up to a new production the hours became inhuman, and of course Guri kept them both on the go. He knew it was unfair to Anna to compare her with Charlotte, Sean’s wife, who had even more energy than Sean, himself once described by a primary teacher as ‘enterprisingly hyperactive’. If you could afford a nanny and housekeeper, plus a gardener several times per week, it was easy to keep up with three kids, a law practice, church activities like Sunday school and choir, and the pro bono work she did for a couple of foundations. Her wicked sense of humour had taught him a thing or two about do-gooders, and he’d saved up her latest anecdote—an asylum seeker from the Congo who contended he was being persecuted for having only one testicle—to temper Anna’s dislike. Don’t be such a racist, he’d said in jest last summer (Charlotte was of Jamaican descent). You don’t understand Jews if you believe that of us, she’d said. Her attitude towards ‘die Türken’ in Berlin, and Muslims altogether, didn’t count, evidently.
—Aren’t you too tired? he asked.
—I may not be your family’s answer to Superwoman, but I’m not dead yet either.
At Christmas, they spent a week with Oliver’s parents. Though there was no snow, everything else could not have been more traditional—the swags of evergreens, the tree with its mix of antique ornaments and handmade decorations proudly toted home from school over the years, the Christmas cards, the mince pies, the carol service and nativity play and local panto, the whispers behind closed doors. It’s fine, Anna said. An authentic encounter with the natives. Oliver’s mother, Claire, would soon be getting a new hip, so Charlotte and Oliver pitched in with the nearly non-stop meal preparation while Anna went on long walks with Oliver’s dad, who as a retired civil engineer became ‘snappish’, as he put it, if confined indoors. Anna said it was boredom. He and your mum don’t seem to have much to talk about, do they? Forty years is an awfully long time to spend together.
With presents to consider, Alex, the eldest boy, didn’t have to be asked twice to help clear the dinner table two days before Christmas. Afterwards Sean and Oliver settled down with Guri and the twins for a game of Snakes and Ladders, their old board held together with sticky tape, Charlotte and Claire went back to pouring over the family albums, some photos dating back three-quarters of a century, and Simon, Oliver’s dad, sat by the fire, ostensibly reading a biography. Alex had disappeared with a muttered excuse which fooled no one, except maybe Guri. When Anna went upstairs to wrap up the life-size puppets she’d made for the twins, each puppet a replica of the other twin but with a playful twist—scaly rainbow wings for Richard, a bright blue tail with a concealed, golden eye at its tip for William—Charlotte exchanged a glance with Claire, then suggested that Guri spend the summer with them in the country. You don’t want him becoming too German now, do you, was the sentiment all round, though Oliver wasn’t sure who’d first voiced it; or even if it had been voiced as such. Guri squealed when Charlotte mentioned their new pony. Later that evening, Sean took Oliver aside and told him that he’d just made a sizable donation to the school which Alex was attending. Berlin is a great city, Sean said, but you’re nearing forty. How about coming home? Good schools are always looking for good teachers. And then there’s this business of Guri’s imaginary friend. Charlotte thinks Guri needs to get away from Anna’s artsy-fartsy crowd, Mum too. He needs a decent, down-to-earth school. And he ought to be going to Sunday school by now too.
—We’re not into ghosts or dodgy miracles or superstition, Oliver said.
Three months later, he was given the choice of relocation to Dubai or redundancy. English teachers were a cheap commodity, as fungible as a dollar bill. Sean renewed his offer to help with a teaching post, then with unusual forbearance—only the faintest of sighs—proposed to install him in one of his own offices, but working for your brother took sibling rivalry to a whole new level, and in any case Anna wasn’t prepared to leave Berlin right now. Maybe in a few years, she said. Neither of them was extravagant, and the severance package as well as their savings, though modest, would give him a chance to decide whether he wanted to spend the rest of his working life explaining to indifferent adolescents the difference between who and whom, the way to pronounce thwart without sounding like a YouTube Kabarettist. His German now proficient, he already translated the odd website or leaflet when asked, so he could let a couple of people know that he had time for longer projects. Other than that, he had no idea what he’d be good at. Everyone can learn to be competent, Anna said. What is it you dream about? Apparently he was supposed to dream about something.
Alone with a text to translate, he found himself reading more and more online—or what passed for reading. As the weeks went by, checking out his favourite cookery blogs ended up being the most productive part of the morning, and their meals began to outperform their frequent pre-Guri evenings out, when within walking distance you could eat great immigrant food—Turkish, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian—for less than the cost of the ingredients. While Guri’s preschool buddies knew their VW Golf from their Opel Corsa, Guri was learning to distinguish between basil and oregano, crème brûlée and crème caramel, and Anna even suggested that Oliver train as a chef. Mirjam would help him get started.
—Work for your sister? Sorry, not on.
not on your life
Mirjam tried to convince them to enrol Guri in school straightaway, but despite her tenacity they decided to give it another year. A brother or sister might be good for him, might help with his dreaminess. We should wait till things are more settled, Anna said. As Guri’s sixth birthday approached, the prospect of a baby still got mentioned, but Anna had accepted a new commission—a film project this time, some futuristic epic based on an improbable literary bestseller whose author was practically family, Daniel, the son of her mother’s oldest friend—and she had plunged straight in, meeting with the screenwriters, the director, Daniel himself quite often, reading and researching and sketching with a passion that supplanted any desire for sex. They only made love maybe once a month, maybe twice, but Oliver began sending off his CV to all the international schools, the private boarding schools, the language schools—to anyone, in short, who might need an English teacher.
Afternoons, Oliver took Guri to the playground, and for his birthday dressed up in the costume and led the kids on a treasure hunt through the park while Anna and Mirjam set out the food at home. Despite her workload, Anna had made the time to create a stunning birthday cake—this year, Rafiki anointing newborn Simba on Pride Rock—sew each child a different hand puppet—Lion King characters—and decorate the living room like a scene from the musical. It was only after Guri woke from a bad dream later that night that they learned about the dead squirrel he’d found next to the treasure chest. Simba doesn’t eat squirrels, Guri said.
Oliver had already been cooking dinner, now he usually gave Guri his bath, read him a story, tucked him into bed. Daniel is strict about his routine, Anna said, he writes during the day, teaches a graduate workshop twice a week, evenings are the only chance we get to work together. Three days short of her thirty-fourth birthday, cramps awoke her. Oliver stripped off the bloodstained bedding while she rang her gynaecologist. A miscarriage, it turned out, about eleven weeks. Why didn’t you tell me? Oliver asked.
She shrugged it off, worked even harder. Eventually Mirjam rang to ask why no one ever saw them any more. She listened to him botching an excuse, his German in freefall—her silences could be put to good use in Guantanamo—then pitched up the next morning while they were still in bed. As apology for waking them so early, she handed him a fresh slab of swordfish. In other circumstances he’d have laughed, and after a stony look from under those biblical eyebrows, she’d have laughed right along with him. Women who laugh at themselves could be forgiven their wicked good looks; even their sisters forgave them.
—I thought Michel does the fish market rounds, Oliver said dryly.
—Shut up and go put the kettle on, Mirjam said.
She pushed past him and marched into their bedroom. Jewish families don’t dispute quietly—nor rationally, he often thought, and went to start Guri’s porridge. It’s OK, he said when Guri came in clutching his pyjama bottoms. Simba made the bed wet. It’s OK, soldier, Oliver repeated, scooping him up in a fierce hug. Though Guri was too young to understand what ‘miscarriage’ meant, the raised voices meant Something Bad. At breakfast Anna and Mirjam chattered to each other, and to Guri, as though a good row were as invigorating as a brisk morning shower and pot of strong coffee. They ignored Oliver. They were pointedly polite about it.
You had no right to tell her, Anna said after Mirjam left, taking Guri with her to see the new twin panther cubs at the zoo, the snow leopard; real lions.
—It’s my business what I tell my sister, Anna said.
—I won’t have it, Anna said.
—This passive-aggressive crap has got to stop, Anna said.
She told him that she’d be out till late, first at a bunch of meetings and after lunch holed up in the Lipperheide Costume Library. Oliver was tired and had no energy for bickering, but he had a translation to finish. Then finish it this morning, she said. You can’t expect Mirjam to look after Guri the whole day.
Anna was exacting, he knew, but historical research made no sense for a story set in a bleakly dystopian future. She greeted his suggestion of khaki boiler suits with an impassive look which Guri, at six, already used to great effect when it came to brussels sprouts. Then what about sexy jumpsuits colour-coded for rank? he asked, struggling to keep the tone light. Before the thankfully debilitating stroke, her father had collected lurid science fiction pulps, masses and masses of them, which Mirjam had not yet convinced their mother to discard. Maybe he’s still wanking off, Anna said. Left-handed. As in only hand left. Despite their derision, everyone used to scour the internet for items to add to his collection when a gift fell due, less for his sake than his wife’s.
—You know, like on your dad’s ‘covers-up’.
—That stopped being funny about the time they began to market Viagra.
He spent the next hour angrily descaling the shower with a sharp knife, toothbrush, and pickling vinegar, whose fumes brought tears to his eyes. When he finally sat down at his laptop, the tangled sentences that idiot of a sociology professor was hoping to inflict on the reading public wouldn’t unsnarl in English, no matter how much Oliver combed and clipped and styled. Fuck this, he muttered. Pretentious moron needs a bloody barber, not a translator. For a radical buzz cut. He rose from his desk, headed for the kitchen to make a mug of tea. Malt whiskey, he discovered, vastly improves the taste of Lapsang Souchong.
—Why are you wearing that costume? Mirjam asked when he opened the door a while later.
Guri rushed unwittingly to his rescue. I saw them feeding the lions! And the sealions. And we dopted a baby cheetah. And . . .
His morning bubbled out, then he ran off to stow his trophies in his room—a new book, an explorer kit with binoculars, torch and compass, a wildlife conservation sweatshirt and matching cap. One thing you had to say for Mirjam, she wasn’t stingy. Stubborn, arrogant, far too hungry and overdriven, but never stingy.
—You’re usual work outfit? She smiled as though her pastry chef had brandished a tantalising new confection for her to taste.
—Just checking that it still fits. I’ve gained a bit of weight lately.
Mirjam eyed his midriff, then told him to turn round. If he’d been in his street clothes, he’d have been reluctant to submit to her gaze. But he felt giddy and a touch reckless in the costume. His work had finally gone well and he’d finished the translation, checked it over twice, and sent it off in time to prepare a marinade for tonight’s spareribs.
—Anna always did have badass taste in men.
She moved closer. In the high-end restaurant trade, a woman who makes it to the top likes to be on top.
—Guri’s all tired out, and he’s already had lunch. He could probably use a nap. Me too, frankly.
She took out her iPhone.
It was Anna who’d fished the costume out of the black wheelie bin in the courtyard after work. It lay in a heap on the kitchen table, smelling of rubbish—of the sour crap people left of their lives. You’re losing it, she told Oliver. He refused to give her an explanation, mostly because he didn’t have one—or at least not one which wouldn’t have her running to her sister. What was he supposed to say? That wearing the costume, he’d been able to translate at speed? That wearing the costume, he was a different person?
In the morning Guri had tripped and scraped his knees on the pavement in front of his preschool. Simba’s cross, Guri said, he stayed at home. After the wounded-warrior ritual, Oliver stopped for an espresso at a nearby cafe, a reward for having finished his latest translation, sixty pages of project description for an aid organisation. Boring stuff, but it paid the bills. While he drank, he scrolled through his emails. ‘There must be something wrong with your PDF software,’ his client had written. ‘The text you’ve submitted is gibberish. Please send us a usable file immediately. Your contract specifies the penalty for delays.’ Disbelieving, angry at her tone, Oliver had gulped down the rest of his espresso and quickly cycled home. He opened first the PDF file, then his original Word document. The words were English but totally garbled, as if someone had cut up a long vocabulary list, dropped the pieces into a paper bin, and plucked out scraps at random. In panic he opened the copy on his backup drive and discovered that he was going to have to redo the entire translation. By not meeting his deadline, he would forfeit a sizeable chunk of money—and should word spread, his reputation for reliability. He paced the length of the flat, telling himself that he’d manage, that the text was now familiar, that he’d work all day, and through the night if necessary, would have it ready by the time that damned woman was reading tomorrow’s emails. He could hear her impatience. The longer she clicked her scarlet fingernails against her coffee mug, the more agitated he became. Finally he’d snatched up a scissors from his desk and shook it at the mask. Why the fuck are you doing this to me? he cried. He rushed to the bedroom for the costume.
Anna showed him the ugly tear. Look what you’ve done.
—I’ll wash it by hand.
—And wreck it even more than you already have? I’ll mend it after supper and you can take it to the drycleaners in the morning.
The gash on his forearm stung when he slathered it again with an antiseptic cream, and though a throbbing three inches long and reddened at the edges, it was not deep enough to need stitches. Oliver bandaged it neatly, then popped a couple of painkillers from the blister pack, locked the medicine cupboard, and drew on a long-sleeved sweatshirt before going to the kitchen to fill a flask with coffee for the long night ahead. He was only a quarter way through the sabotaged translation.
Anna’s family, what was left of it, passed on their emigration stories in languages as diverse as Hebrew and Spanish and Brooklynese, but her grandmother, who had escaped on the Kindertransport to England, met her future husband while studying mathematics at Cambridge. He was German and they agreed on the sort of compromise which would set the tone for their marriage: he would convert to Judaism and they’d settle in Germany, her return marked by an enduring if cordial contempt for her neighbours. She spoke English to her children and their children, paid for their exchange years abroad and, when she could prevail, English boarding schools for the brightest of them. She refused to answer to ‘Oma’. At thirteen or fourteen, Anna, who was a favourite, began to ask about her grandmother’s parents, about the brother and cousins, the mishpokhe who didn’t survive. Why don’t you talk about them, Grandma? Do you know how they died? Her grandmother was silent for so long that Anna became frightened her father would hear of her stupid prying, and even more frightened when she saw tears in her grandmother’s eyes. She had never seen her grandmother weep.
—When you’re older, Anna, you’ll understand that even if you speak a thousand languages, some things are beyond words.
But just before Anna left for St Martin’s, her grandmother handed her a disc labelled ‘Family Archive’ and a grey metal file box. It’s all in here, she said. I don’t intend to talk about any of it, and you must promise me not to share it with anyone else, not even your sister—especially not your sister, for whom the concept of discretion is as alien as tinned peas—till I’m dead.
—You’re not ill, are you? Anna asked in alarm.
—Homesickness is like a herpes infection. Latent most of the time, but lifelong.
Anna thought about this for a moment. Then why did you come back to Germany? Why didn’t you just stay in England? Did Grandpa force you?
Her grandmother smiled then. Of course not. It’s a shame he died before you could get to know him properly. He was a good man, a decent man. Your mother should have . . . no, never mind, that’s for another time. You may not remember, but he used to call you his fierce little lion.
—I do remember. I’ve always thought it was because of my hair. Horribly bushy and tangled, and I’d roar when Mum brushed it.
—It wasn’t just your hair, though it was lighter then, almost tawny, and your grandfather didn’t want to see it cut any more than you did, despite the daily fight with the hairbrush. Quiet men love women of character, women with the temerity to stand and fight—even, if necessary, with themselves.
—You slept with my sister? Anna said.
—What are you talking about?
—You can’t be serious! Your sister has disliked me from Day One. She’ll do or say anything to break us up. And anything, for her, is either about sex or food. In that order.
Mirjam was a man-eater. Her rampage was bound to end when someone shot her, cooked her, and fed her to her own patrons; or she became so wrinkled and stringy that only a Tsavo lion would go near her. Until then, Oliver would rather sleep with an entire pride of hellcats. Anyway, he didn’t do adultery—except in his fantasy, and that didn’t count, did it?
After the translation debacle, Oliver redoubled his attempts to find a teaching job. There was one interview, a number of outright rejections, and about as many applications binned or deleted without the courtesy of a response. Courtesy was a Fremdwort in Germany. At the interview he listened incredulously to the offer—€7,50 an hour, not even cleaner’s wages—rose from his chair, told the fucker what he could do with his fucking language school, and slammed out. Fired with indignation, he headed for Mirjam’s restaurant but had cooled down somewhat by the time he got there. He was left to wait in her office—to simmer, damn her, like a stockpot shoved onto a back burner. When she came in wearing pink crocs and a chef’s apron, carrying a tray, and smiling as though coffee and a bit of pastry could make good her treachery, he cut off her greeting with a furious outburst.
—You bloody Germans! Nazis, every last one of you!
She regarded him with astonishment, his horror of rude language, and rudeness altogether, practically a family joke. Instead of reminding him of the obvious, she set the tray down and laid a hand on his forearm. It’s about time you stopped acting so repressed, she said. Now tell me what’s the matter. He shook off her arm and took a turn about the office, knocking over a stack of catalogues from a chair.
—Why did you run to Anna with such a vicious lie? Jealousy, spite, sheer nastiness, what?
She watched him kick the catalogues out of his way and her expression changed, but something untoward must have happened to provoke such uncharacteristic behaviour. From here she couldn’t smell anything on his breath, and the moment had passed to kiss him. He’d probably bite.
—You can tell me exactly what lie you mean, or I can leave you alone to drink some coffee and think about how you’re acting. Or, she thought to herself, I can get Michel and Andrei to escort him out the back door if it sounds like he’s rampaging in here.
—You really are a cunt, aren’t you.
—Right, that’s it. Now sit down before I fetch a couple of my lads. Did you hear me? I said, sit down!
He sat then, sinking into one of the chairs by her desk, holding his head in his hands, defeated, spent. She collected the catalogues and stacked them neatly on top of her father’s wooden file cabinet that she’d kept when remodelling, apparently a pre-war salvage; a survivor of sorts. There were few enough of those.
She poured them mugs of coffee, stirring three teaspoons of sugar into Oliver’s. Here, drink this, she said. He looked up and she saw that his eyes had filled with tears.
—Why? he asked. I love Anna. We have a good relationship. We have a beautiful child. Why did you have to do this to us?
Gentle, caring men attracted her. Problem was, they inevitably became pathetic. She resolved to spend more time with Guri. It was a lot easier to avoid curdling a Hollandaise than fix it afterwards. These Prenzlauer Berg parents—how often she itched to slap some sense into them! Just last week she’d had to explain to a five-year-old that no, you don’t prance from table to table, snatching titbits from every plate you can reach with your grubby little digits, rudimentary as in rude, while your mummy and daddy look on indulgently. Her father may have been a mean bastard, but along with decent behaviour she’d learned to expect—demand—the same from others, whether prince or no-name brat. Her father’s version of parenting had made her tough. Made both of his kids tough. They were survivors.
—Anna would never act this way, Oliver said.
—Anna is a costume designer, Mirjam said with a touch of irritation. There’s a reason why she’s so good at it.
—Is that it? You think she’s outdone you somehow? He indicated the plate of pastries, which he hadn’t touched. Anna would love to be able to cook like you. You’ve made this restaurant famous. You, not your father.
There it was again. Fathers. Always the bloody fathers. For years Anna had believed that if she put on a costume, theirs wouldn’t see her. In her teens, it had been makeup and outlandish fleamarket tat. At least Oliver was a decent father—in some ways, even a great father. On good days, Anna probably didn’t regret her choice.
An inner sigh, a glance at the clock, a final mouthful of coffee. She was the older—the tougher—sister after all. Her father had never apologised in his life. After taking over the restaurant, she’d taught herself when to look steely, when conciliatory; when rueful.
—Oliver, listen, we both know how impetuous I can be. Seducing you was bad enough, but confessing was self-serving and hurtful. It won’t happen again.
He stared at her.
—What? she finally asked.
—Is this some sort of twisted game? I would never cheat on Anna.
It was her turn to stare.
Oliver attended the lavish party for the cast and crew after the film premiere, listened to fulsome praise of Anna’s talents, drank. When he tired of the truth, he started telling ever wilder tales of his occupation, and though he wasn’t particularly good at accents, no one seemed to disbelieve his ‘lion whisperer from the Transvaal’ claim. Anna later told him that the intense, green-eyed actor starring in her new project had grown up on a matrilineal Sebacean colony 600 light years from Earth. Or maybe it was 6000 light years. The ensuing row touched on his drinking, her refusal to time a so-called soft-boiled egg, his drinking, her strands of hair in the shower, in the kitchen sink, in the spaghetti sauce for godsake, his drinking, her behaviour at these pretentious bashes, his drinking, her know-it-all family, his drinking, her lying batshit sister, who was FUCKING UNFIT to look after Guri, his drinking—and finally, on his earnings, or lack thereof.
—Don’t you dare, she said. If you think I won’t call the police and have you charged, just try me. His rage, as it turned out, made for good sex.
The next morning, her half-finished mug of green tea still lukewarm, Anna rushed off to another of her meetings. She’d already begun work on the film, a British-German-French coproduction about time-travelling rebels. I’ve got heaps of ideas, she’d said. Daniel was the scriptwriter, and there was talk of a possible TV series to follow. Oliver collected the mug, for once barely registering the watermark ring left on the coffee table. He switched on early-morning TV, a treat Guri greeted with the enthusiasm of a geek whose favourite SF writer had just sent him an advance reading copy of his latest doorstopper.
—Daniel has a TV in the playroom, Guri said. Mama lets me watch sometimes while they’re working.
—Daniel has kids? Mama never said.
—The playroom’s for me. It’s humongous. Humongous, Guri repeated, relishing his newest word. Lots of Lego and books and a wooden train and curtains that Mama made. And a cool fold-down for sleeping and watching TV.
—Futon, Oliver corrected automatically, his mind elsewhere. To an observer he would have seemed bemused by the incomprehensible animated antics on TV—as incomprehensible, in fact, as a lot of science fiction would have been to him. He continued to stare at the screen, sipping Anna’s tea till a mouthful of scuzzy, bitter dregs made him gag and he went to the kitchen for a decent cup of coffee. Then he rang his brother.
While Guri sat in front of his muesli, Oliver booked a last-minute flight online with Anna’s credit card, entered an out-of-office message and set his email to autoreply, and jotted down a list of stuff to pack, something he still liked to do in pencil.
—Papa, can I have toast with Nutella?
—Eat your breakfast, Oliver said without looking up from his laptop.
Guri picked out the raisins, then mushed the banana slices with his spoon, one after another, tickled yet by degrees antsy that his dad wasn’t stopping him, wasn’t even scolding. Mama didn’t make him eat mushy bananas, though peas were worse. Grandma didn’t believe in muesli. Germans are fruitcakes, she’d said. Then she laughed. No, not that kind.
—Stop fiddling, Simba told him. This isn’t a good time to bug your dad.
Oliver hadn’t planned to spend Easter with his family but he needed to get out of Berlin and Guri hadn’t seen his cousins in more than a year. Anna would raise her usual objections, but in the end would allow that, yes, he was right, she could really use a week on her own for the new project. Still, he decided it was best to text her after they’d landed.
When Oliver came down to breakfast on the last Saturday in April, Charlotte had already packed an enormous picnic lunch and even Alex, who had reached the nonchalant stage of teenagery, did not have to be coerced—or bribed—into spending the day with the younger boys. Licking the grease from his fingertips, he was relishing their uneasy awe till his mum told him to sit down or quit pilfering the bacon, and quit scaring them with tales of passageways into other worlds and evil mages and kids lost forever. He’s always been fascinated by mazes, Charlotte told Oliver as they watched him swagger out to her 4X4 with the heavy coolbox on one shoulder. Typical laddish behaviour. Oliver would do anything to spare Guri his own adolescence—one long pissing contest, with prefects (and pimples). German kids were different—maybe not so polite, but plenty independent (though there were still pimples). He liked that about German kids. He like that about Germany. It showed you could change things.
—Let’s do it already, Alex said after the car had been loaded.
Oliver finished his coffee, then went with Guri to brush his teeth and fetch his red pullover, the closest thing to a high-vis jacket he could wear without being teased. A couple of reflective vests for the kids hung in the mudroom, but Charlotte already thought Oliver far too over-protective and she was blind to Alex’s mean streak. You can’t even talk proper English, he told Guri whenever a German word slipped into his conversation. Alex was taking German at school. His accent was atrocious, but he was clever and it rankled that another kid could correct him; a younger kid, a cousin. A maze would give him the opportunity to get back at Guri.
It was a bright, breezy day and Charlotte kept Guri and the twins from squabbling with a new audiobook, her window open to muffle—and chill—any heated backseat grumbling, then with her iPad on which she’d loaded an adventure game featuring a labyrinth planet and all manner of booby traps, aliens, laser swords, and time warps. Though Alex had his own iPhone out, he couldn’t resist ‘helping’ so that there was no need for a time-out, only a short break at a layby before lunch. Oliver took off his jersey and stretched in the glorious sunlight while Charlotte poured them coffee from the flask. How sleek you’ve become since coming home, she said. Like a pet jaguar who’s escaped captivity. Tugging his shirt down, he flushed and turned to watch the boys prodding at a clutch of wild teasel almost as tall as Alex—admittedly not the tallest of lads—the dry, spiny heads too proud to lie down and rot. They’ll make a lovely arrangement, but mind the prickly stems, Charlotte called out. Alex retreated to a tangle of alder and hawthorn already in leaf, shades of green so luminous that they soon leach from memory. Oblivious to beauty he would one day, twenty years from now, on a spring morning as bright as this one, witness in a last desperate act of atonement, he tore aside the delicate foliage, scrabbled under a low-hanging limb, and returned with a dead branch.
—More coffee? Charlotte asked. Oliver nodded and she brought over the flask. It was a small miracle that after several hours the coffee could still smell so earthy and rich, much like Charlotte herself. Bending his head to the steam, he inhaled like a smoker trying to quit.
—Why don’t you come with me to church tomorrow? Charlotte asked.
Having heard this before, he’d worked out a noncommittal answer that wouldn’t offend her. She gave him a wry smile, then set the flask on the ground between them and went back to watching the boys. After a short while, she took his arm and pointed towards a red squirrel running along the branch of an oak tree a small distance away.
—What’s it doing with a mouse? Oliver asked. I thought squirrels were vegetarians.
—They’re opportunists. Survival is a tough game. But look up there at the drey—the nest. She’s carrying one of her kittens. We must have alarmed her, and she’s moving them to safety.
He glanced sideways at Charlotte, her expression abstracted despite the precision of her answer, her hair ruffling in the light breeze. She would surprise more than one vexatious litigant who only saw the girl next door, wholesome and guileless, not exactly obtuse but no Mensa candidate either, her success the result of race, gender, a fortuitous marriage. She was the girl you took home to Mum. She was the girl who attested to your firm’s diversity. She was the girl who’d look gorgeous in a Jason Wu gown. She was, in fact, a masterful poker player.
In profile, she made you want to stare. And then to tuck a flyaway strand of hair behind her ear. The handle in his right hand felt too small for his fingers, making for an awkward grip, and to steady his hold, Oliver cupped his left round the other side of the mug and took a punishing gulp of coffee, scalding his tongue. Like his dad, Alex was not the sort to let himself be unsettled by his own feelings. A crop of pimples? He’d post pictures of himself in leather and naked flesh, turning acne into a brazen (and undoubtedly viral) fashion statement. Shame was a foreign country. Even now, so many years later, Oliver could remember the scalding humiliation, the rejection, the concealment that had been school. Back then, he’d envied Sean. But you grew up. You didn’t need to be afraid of challenging your nephew.
—Alex, what are you boys doing?
Crouched alongside Alex, whose back was turned to the adults, the smaller boys were absorbed by his handiwork with the stick. The traffic was sparse this morning, so the sudden assault from a radio startled Oliver, and he spun round to see a car, red it had to be, already disappearing into the bend as though it had never been. Indoors, a loud bass clubs your thoughts into submission, but here, despite the volume, only a truculent arsehole would think, Cut his throat, someone ought. In the time it would take to think any thought at all, the howl dwindled to inconsequence, wavering between presence and absence, between stranded chord and wind, then it too was gone. The boys had not looked up.
Oliver exchanged a glance with Charlotte, who spread her hands in a tolerant what-do-you-expect gesture, but he was uneasy and moved forward till he could see what Alex was prodding. Guri noticed his approach first.
—Papa, look, its head is gone.
Oliver’s gut clenched as he took in the grey squirrel, its neck cleanly severed. Except for a scant splatter on a nearby clump of grass, there wasn’t any blood. It hadn’t rained since last week and the rest of the body was intact—no rot or stench, no maggots, and if there had been flies, the boys’ interest had driven them away. Interloper be damned! The squirrel had been decapitated, something only a human could have done. He glanced round. The head was nowhere in sight.
—We should bury it, he said. There, near the patch of dandelions. He remembered how much young children liked the sunny faces.
—With what? Alex asked. A plastic spoon? Glancing at his acolytes, he shrugged in a show of indifference. Oliver felt a surge of anger, but Guri and the twins, not yet furtive with shame, had gone back to studying the squirrel, less impressed by Alex’s posturing than he hoped, or simply used to it. When do we start to look/not look at an acid-attack victim, her face a rubbery mask of the Halloween within? There’s no monster under the bed, every parent tells his child, but every child knows better.
Alex tossed the stick aside, told the little kids to get a move on, and loped towards the car. Richard and William ran after him, in a hurry to keep up with their big brother, but Guri rose slowly, knitting his brows in imitation of Oliver himself, a mannerism Anna used to tease him about—‘your Yahweh look’. Whenever Guri frowned, she smoothed the creases away with her fingertips, ending with a tweak of his nose and a smile, but to Oliver she made her displeasure felt. Lately it had become his ‘ayatollah look’. For godsake, do you expect me to subject myself to Botox? he’d finally asked. More and more he didn’t understand what she wanted. If he kept stuff to himself, she complained. If he let his feelings show, she complained.
He held out his hand. Come on, Guri, everyone’s waiting for us.
—Something will eat it.
—You know that animals need to eat.
Guri’s lower lip began to tremble. It would have been simplest to scoop him up, with the promise of a treat later on. And later on, when they were alone, talk to him about cruelty, about killing for food and killing for fun. Guri had seen the lions feeding at the zoo. He watched the news with them. Eight months ago, Anna had been furious when a well-meaning nurse had told him that Uroma had gone to sleep. Make him afraid of death, she’d fumed, you make him afraid to live.
—What’s happened to the squirrel’s head?
—I don’t know, Guri. Sometimes people do things we can’t understand.
—It wasn’t people.
Oliver rummaged in his pocket for a tissue. You had to ask yourself if such monsters were people, but of course that’s not what Guri meant.
—Here, blow your nose. It’ll be OK. I’m sure it happened so fast that the squirrel didn’t feel anything.
Guri took the tissue but wiped his nose on his sleeve, which Oliver decided, for once, to ignore. He watched Guri tear the tissue into small pieces, dropping them one by one over the squirrel’s body, though most of them drifted away onto the grass. For someone who would one day run a successful political campaign, Alex had yet to learn that shouting impatiently was not the best way to elicit cooperation. We’ll be right there, Oliver replied with only the slightest edge to his voice. (A teacher who lost his temper soon lost his job.) Spring had begun early, one of those balmy childhood springs you carried with you for ever, and quite a few dandelions had already gone to seed. When he was growing up, his mother had paid them one pence for each plant they dug up. Those long, stubborn roots! Despite his mother’s determination to eradicate the dandelions, they always came back, whole colonies of them. Alex shouted again, then at a word from Charlotte clambered into the car, slamming the door. A bit of weeding would do the boy good.
Oliver finished off his coffee without hurrying, then set his mug down and picked two dandelions with seedheads, passing one to Guri. Blow, he told his son, and together they blew till the magic did its work.
—When are we going home? Guri asked.
—Don’t you want to see the maze? It’s really something. I know it’s a long drive, but we’ll be home for dinner.
—Aren’t there any mazes at home? We could go with Mama.
Oliver glanced back over his shoulder. Charlotte beckoned and he held up a finger, mouthing, one minute. Then he crouched to be at eye level with Guri.
—People can have more than one home.
—I guess. Guri looked down at the squirrel, his right hand plucking at the fabric of his jeans, an irritating habit which made Oliver feel like a bad parent. He took his son’s hand, squeezed it gently, exactly as a good father would do, and waited till Guri spoke. Yeah, I guess. But at home home Simba keeps the monsters away.
Though Oliver asked him about it several times over the next few days, Guri couldn’t explain how he’d known to navigate the maze without a single wrong turn. The yew walls were high and deep and dense, as good maze walls should be, but the appeal of the maze wasn’t just in its devilish complexity, the oddity of its tunnels, underground culs-de-sac and drawbridges, the most oddball of them a clanking, cast-iron steampunk extravaganza, in the walkways which passed over (and occasionally through) a water course—one waterfall shifted direction erratically, so that even dashing over the rough stones was likely to mean a brief shower—but in the freeflow of its hedges, rounded and asymmetrical and nowhere alike. Wizardry, Oliver thought. You felt as though the walls weren’t kept in check by human hand but surged and billowed, plunged and surged again, contriving to engulf you.
Within the maze voices carried in deceptive ways, and more than once Oliver expected to meet Alex beyond the next junction, only to come upon another visitor, or an empty stretch of disembodied murmurs. Most people seemed inclined to speak quietly, secretively even: not Alex, going it alone, whose peevish voice they caught from time to time. Where are you now? he kept calling out to his mother-and-brothers. Or, Uncle Oliver, don’t let Guri get lost. This is no maze for a little kid. Alex had left his iPhone in the car, disdainful of relying on a crutch. Afterwards in the café, they could all see how much it irked Alex that Guri and Oliver had finished first, and Oliver was careful not to reveal Guri’s uncanny talent.
Nor to reveal his talent for scaring his dad. Just before they climbed the Escherian staircase in the centre of the maze, Guri had skipped ahead into a dark, leafy chamber and Oliver, only steps behind, could no longer see him. He caught the sweetish smell of something rotting as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. And then he took it in: his son was gone—gone! Impossible, there was no other exit but the way they’d come. Guri, he called. Guri, where are you?
He swallowed, then swivelled slowly, his eyes picking out shadowy threats. Could there be a hidden exit? A trapdoor for a molester or child trafficker who had already knocked Guri out? He shouted several times more before realising that it was he himself who was acting like a child in a supermarket, mother suddenly out of sight, a child who’d panicked at being abandoned. He’d never see his home again! Closing his eyes, he talked sternly to himself. There were security cameras everywhere. There was only one way out of the maze. There were other people, plenty of them with kids (and phones).
—Papa, Guri said, come on.
Startled, Oliver turned, found Guri at his side, and grabbed him by the arm, just managing not to shake him (or not too hard). Where have you been? he yelled.
—We have to go this way. Guri pointed towards a section of the undulating yew ceiling where it dipped to its lowest point. In the greenish, murky light, they could have been in an underwater cave with walls uneven enough to scrape their hands, but Oliver still couldn’t see an opening.
—I asked you where you’ve been. Though no longer yelling, he meant to have an answer. Guri, who had absolutely no reason to quail before either of his parents, fingered his jeans again and said nothing.
—I went home to see Simba, Guri whispered, avoiding his dad’s eyes.
It was not like Guri to lie, though Anna maintained what small kids did was not really lying. Oliver wasn’t quite so sure.
—You know what we’ve told you about telling stories.
—But I did go. His eyes were filling with tears. I did. I asked him to bring Mama here.
A draught slipped across the back of Oliver’s neck, and he caught another whiff of overripe fruit. Anna usually bought too many bananas, a good third of which turned black and mushy and filled the kitchen with their smell before he got round to throwing them away. There was only so much banana bread he could bake, he kept telling her. At least don’t buy the pricey organic ones if you’re bent on wasting them.
Picnic remains, he told himself. Some kid who, as soon as he got a chance, tossed away the disgusting healthy bits of his mum’s packed lunch. Exactly what Guri will do ten years on.
—Guri, you know Mama has to work.
Guri nodded, blinking back tears, and Oliver felt ashamed of his earlier anger, ashamed too of what amounted to subterfuge; or if not subterfuge, distraction when his son so obviously needed to be told—and deal with—the truth. Tonight, he promised himself. Tonight I’ll talk with him.
—I know that, Guri said. She could sleep here at night. Simba is faster than an airplane. Faster than a Jedi starfighter, even.
Just when does a child’s magical thinking become delusional?
—But Simba said he can’t, Guri continued.
Despite himself, Oliver was curious. Why not? he asked.
—Home is stronger magic.
Oliver stared at his son. Kids hear things and repeat them, but Guri had spoken in a voice far removed from childhood, a voice with the weight and take of a drumbeat meant to carry across a vast, arid, lonely veld. Small and tearful though he was, it wasn’t Guri who was lost. There was something majestic in his attempt to summon his mother, and for the first time, Oliver had a glimpse of the lion his son would become. In Prenzlauer Berg, where everyone was a creative, and almost everyone recreated himself, it was easy to forget three thousand years of history. Guri was the ultimate fantasist. Guri was a Jew.
—We’ll ring Mama tonight, even if she’s at work, and you can talk as long as you want. But for now, let’s show everyone what a good team we make.
He turned to leave the way they’d come, but Guri tugged on his hand and again pointed towards the rear of the chamber. Oliver ought to have been surprised, but his supply of surprise had run out. With Guri in the lead, he moved towards an unmistakable opening in the yew, behind which rose an oddly angled staircase a la Escher. Impossible to have missed it before. There must be a concealed door triggered by a proximity sensor, a timer, maybe remote controls from a surveillance room—whatever suitable gizmo the maze’s designers had come up with.
They encountered no wentelteefjes, but on ledges along the stairs they passed what at first seemed like a series of mounted animals till you noticed the chimerical anomalies—a red-horned horned bill with tiny hands at his wingtips, a hyena whose back legs were scaled like a cobra, a mandrill with delicate human ears, a lion whose roaring mouth revealed a forked tongue; a Janus-headed squirrel.
On Monday morning, Oliver and Guri flew back to Berlin. Oliver had resolved to make things work. It’s OK to be scared, Charlotte had told him. The truth is, we’re all strangers. Since Anna was often working long hours on set, he went to collect Guri from preschool, generally around five but earlier if a headache put an end to his translating for the day. It was the sort of mild spring which brought a brisk trade to the döner stands, seasonal gelato parlours, and street markets, to the tiny pavement cafés where the stuffing escaped from faded, mismatched cushions on mismatched chairs and the cakes were homemade. When the sun shone, no one seemed to be in a hurry, and you could practically smell the dark, dense pungency of unfiltered Gauloises, hear the clink of the old men’s boules, squint at the yachts and sailboats which did not race across the Spree.
Unless it was raining, the two of them would stop for an ice cream and an hour in the park, where an ongoing campaign against the evil Sith conscripted all the local kids—boys, in fact, though it wasn’t PC to say so, and a squadron of girls would often interrupt their own games to watch for a while from the sidelines and even on occasion, the feistiest of them, try futilely to join in. Oliver, meanwhile, tried not to wonder how the mums in headscarves would look if dressed like Anna. The squirrels had grown used to people, and for about a fortnight after their return, Guri insisted on packing a daily supply of unshelled peanuts in his snack box, which he would place around the base of ‘squirrel trees’—chestnut and oak—in what Oliver came to recognise as a fixed pattern. Each time Guri set down a peanut, he chanted something under his breath, a word or two impossible to make out, but when Oliver moved closer, Guri would stop. Finally Oliver questioned him about it, his voice as casual as he could make it. I don’t know, Guri said. You have to ask Simba.
Oliver decided to give it another week before telling Anna. Later, after her death, it became another of those things you find it hard to talk about—maybe because it was so trivial in comparison with what followed; maybe because Guri would inevitably look at you the way he did now, in disbelief at adult stupidity; maybe because, quite simply, you were afraid of what he’d say.
—I want to be fair, Anna told him, but surely you see that joint custody is out of the question. What if you take it into your head to run off with him again?
—A visit to my brother isn’t running off!
She regarded him coolly, and it took all of his self-control not to snatch up the pile of sketches on the kitchen table and tear them into a set of jigsaw puzzles for that bloody playroom. He didn’t move, but the effort not to move, the rigid cage of his anger, alerted her to the significance of his gaze, and her eyes darkened.
—Guri is very imaginative, she said.
—So? How is that possibly relevant?
—He needs a stable role model, not someone who believes his own lies.
Someone like Daniel, Simba whispered.
Then he did lunge, knocking over the vase of roses he’d bought her less than an hour ago—two dozen creamy white roses, tender and flawless. An extravagance that should not have been stripped of thorns. With a cry, she sprang forward to rescue her drawings, slipped in the pooling water, fell. She landed face down, half twisted to the side, her arms bearing her weight, and there she remained for long enough to scare him. Anna? he said. She sat up and flexed her left wrist, supporting it with her other hand. They stared at each other. The room filled with silence as the roaring in his head subsided and he began to weep.
—Please, he said. Don’t do this. I love you.
She got to her feet slowly, and he saw that, mask stripped away, she looked pale and tired, the skin under her eyes resigned to shadows. It struck him that she’d lost weight. He righted the vase and blotted up the water with a tea towel while she wadded up several of her drawings, exposing a sheet he hadn’t seen.
—Why are you drawing squirrels?
—It’s for the film.
—They’re like no squirrels I’ve ever seen.
—Think biopunk. An army of rodents who’ve turned on humans. We’re the exiles now. Payback for what we’ve done to the planet.
—No space travel then? No escape to another world?
—This is the only home we get.
By the time he finished sorting out the roses, she’d left the room. He found her in front of her sewing machine, clutching a set of fresh bed linen and looking up at the mask. Her hair hung loose, its living presence one yank away from exposing the antelope tenderness of her throat. But no, he wouldn’t think about that. He wouldn’t think about Simba. His mother would have suggested a bit of dignified prayer—with their upbringing, it had always surprised him that Sean would choose such a churchly wife, one who, unlike her husband, didn’t see the parish as a version of Facebook—but he had no intention of kissing divine arse. He’d promise to see a shrink, a therapist, a couples counsellor, whatever. He’d drink only coffee and coke—herbal tea, if she insisted. He’d talk about things, he’d show her that he could change, and she wouldn’t leave.
That night, after Guri was asleep, she told him that she’d soon be needing a wig. Will you be able to do what most people can’t—or won’t? she asked. Wordlessly he stared at her, wordlessly reached for her hair, the fierce, defiant tangle of it framed by a treasured pillowcase which had already survived three generations of indomitable women. He knew then that she’d put something of her own spirit into the costume. Not the best fit, but he’d wear it and it would have to do. She didn’t leave his life—their life—till five months later.
Later still, years later while sorting through some shoe boxes full of kids’ stuff Guri will have left behind in his wardrobe—yoyos in different sizes, a couple of Nintendo games, a harmonica, stickers, a pristine set of oil pastels (a gift from Mirjam, Oliver will recall), Lego pieces, half-empty packets of chewing gum, a watch—he’ll find the wooden animals Guri carved for a school project, a dozen fantastical creatures which would have enchanted Anna; and an object wrapped in a linen kitchen towel which Oliver will first mistake for the detached head from one of Guri’s old plush toys. On closer examination, he’ll realise that it’s a squirrel’s head, desiccated, somewhat shrunken, its eyes open and its grey fur still intact. Inexplicably, it won’t have decomposed.
Patrick Savage, who has died aged 31, was a poker player fast on his way to becoming a cult figure in the music scene.
‘I’ve got nine lives,’ Patrick says after I pull him from the river. ‘There goes number two.’
We’re flopped on the bank and he’s laughing as I pant for breath—thick, laboured sounds—and I want to pummel him till my knuckles split. Bite him till our lips do. This is before he makes any money for the good life he’s always talking about, like the handmade shoes or the meals in three-star restaurants or the Ferrari that will kill him ten years later. I won’t be sharing any of those meals with him, something I already know but don’t let myself think about.
‘Get dressed,’ I say. ‘I’ll be late for work.’
‘So what? It’s your father-in-law’s place.’
He sits up, stretches languorously, flips back his dripping hair. Everything’s a performance with him, even drowning. I’ve never been in his room, but I’m willing to bet there’s a big, ornate mirror above the bed.
I reach for my jeans. Penny leaves them alone now, after I made her unpick the patch over the arse. Dad thinks they’re inappropriate, she’d protested. He means sloppy. He means vulgar. He means, get your arse in gear and find a real job, a job where you have to wear the uniforms of the expensively educated. No one sees my arse when I drive a forklift, I tell her.
‘Love your arse,’ Patrick says. Classy schooling teaches you how to lie with the highest in the land, and I spin a convincing tale of a hitchhiker in desperate need of a meal, sobering been-there-done-that advice, and a bus ticket to her grandparents’, when I report late for my shift. Penny’s dad is a great one for advice, he’ll never crap it that no teenager listens to advice from senior citizens, even those barely into their twenties.
Mostly, we use the delivery van. Whenever I’ve got a route, I head for a McDrive—alternating between the two nearest the factory—and ring Patrick while waiting for my coffee. If it’s before noon, he usually doesn’t pick up. Afternoons he often doesn’t. Working on my game, he says. I know all the quiet spots where a man will go to shoot his dog, but sometimes we don’t make it out of the van. Penny’s got a lovely body, it’s not that, maybe it’s the way his skin tastes, like something from the sea, or maybe the sort of spice nobody here can put a name to. I spend a lot of time trying to work it out.
Savage was killed early Friday morning when his Ferrari swerved into oncoming traffic and struck a delivery van. He died instantly.
3 AM. It’s the what-if thinking that takes hold like a tentacled sea monster and drags you down into the shapeless, sleepless dark. Black cold, enough to numb you, enough to stop your breath, but the stings of possibility never stop. What if you’d gone straight back to the flat instead of stopping in the market square to marvel at a living statue—Michelangelo’s David—and not caught Patrick’s quizzical gaze? What if you’d gone with him to Las Vegas? What if he’d got up ten minutes later, or ten minutes earlier, or stopped for a latte that Friday morning?
You’ll hit the alarm and stretch, then reach for his shoulder. Now that he plays less poker, it’ll be this club or that one till five, later sometimes, free shows, no record label deals, no self-issues, not even a website yet, ‘learning his New York shit,’ he calls it. Laughs it off. When did it become bad form to reveal a decent technique? But they know about him—listen to him, too. Record him on their cells, it’s the easiest thing in the world. Laughs that off too.
But this Friday he’ll have a dental appointment, about as banal as it gets, and he’ll have asked you to wake him. He’ll be giving you a lift to the campus, then meeting you for lunch. You’ll shower and make him a double espresso, which he’ll drink while towelling off. Later, he’ll say, when you mention his stubble. How old’s that dentist of yours anyway? you’ll ask.
It’ll be a sunny morning, the whetted edge of autumn a reminder to see to some firewood. Since Penny’s dad died, she’ll be happy for you to come round and clear off whatever the storms and acid rain will have damaged. Her new bloke won’t go near a chainsaw, smart enough when you think how much whiskey he puts away. Penny’s still got her figure, but there’s a pallor to her face which her makeup doesn’t quite disguise, a slackening under her eyes, slight as yet, as though her skin is already embarrassed to stick around. She won’t mention the last miscarriage.
The autumn woodcutting, the Christmas tree ritual—you and Penny’s dad did OK with those things. He’d pick the day, but otherwise it was two men toiling as equals, a pact as old as song. Friendship didn’t come into it. Maybe, in another time, another country, you could have hunted together. Then again, maybe he’d have shot you in the back. Accidents happen.
Both the driver of the van and Savage’s passenger, jazz pianist and longtime companion Jon Farraday, were badly injured in the accident.
Patrick wrenches open the door to the van. ‘Oi,’ he says, flinging the diphthong before him like a banner. ‘Adrian, you’re not going to believe this.’
‘Get in,’ I say and tap the accelerator. Any other time, Patrick would tell me to cool it, Penny’s dad isn’t hiding behind the nearest bus shelter. Or laugh and slide over and lay his hand on my thigh. Instead he dangles a key in my face.
‘Head out towards the old mill. I’ve got a surprise planned.’
The wipers need replacing. I pull out into traffic, hear the angry bleat of a horn behind us, take a deep breath and focus on the road. Light from oncoming headlamps shatters in the tracks left by the wiper blades, a bedazzlement like sunlight on ice. After a moment I risk a sidelong glance. Patrick has settled back and closed his eyes, as though waiting for a thaw. Droplets on his hair, his face—the miracle of water. I look back to the road. He doesn’t speak till we reach the river.
‘Turn right after the bridge,’ he says.
‘Where are we going?’
I cross the bridge, then pull off onto the verge. The wipers drag reluctantly across the glass.
‘Why are you stopping?’ he says. ‘The lane’s just beyond the bend.’
‘You’ve made it? You’ve really done it?’
‘Champagne’s already chilling, Sven promised.’
It’s an old farmhouse, the sort Penny dreams about; me, I think of dry rot and weeds and the inevitable dog hairs, new wiring and blocked drains. ‘There’ll be ghosts,’ I tell her. As Patrick unlocks the front door, I hunch against the rain, deliberating about a puncture, then ring Penny’s dad. ‘You could’ve told me beforehand,’ he says. ‘But since it’s for Penny.’ In the hall there’s a mirror with just the right gilt frame, not brassy and overbearing, its glass convincingly tarnished, and I glimpse in its depths a kinder version of myself, a version I wouldn’t mind hanging on our wall, but the truth is that its absence would be tricky to account for, and I settle on a more breakable find. Sven—or his partner—must like eBay (and Country Living).
The champagne is a bit too sweet to linger over. I drink one glass off dutifully. ‘Sven asked me to water the plants,’ Patrick says, his hand inside my jeans, and pours the rest of the stuff into a cactus with spines like something from an Inquisitor’s kit.
‘You’ll kill it,’ I say.
‘Exactly,’ he says.
The sex is good, it’s always good despite his penchant for sandalwood, but at least he doesn’t smell like a damned rose garden and I don’t have to ask myself if he’s faking. And there’s none of the stubble, unseemly, almost repulsive, which Penny wears proudly like a hair shirt when switching to her ‘natural woman’ mode. Why can’t she make up her mind which it’ll be? That’s maybe her worst trait—indecisiveness.
Patrick forgets to eat for long stretches, then all at once is ravenous. I help myself to a sourdough baguette from the deep freeze, fry up some bacon, scramble half a dozen eggs. We sit cross-legged on the bed, facing each other like kids on an indoor picnic, gleefully using our fingers. There are crumbs everywhere, and I retrieve a few buttery curds from his crotch. ‘We’ll have to change the sheets,’ I say.
‘Penny’s got you well trained.’ He laughs and deposits everything on the floor, except the last rasher of bacon, which he wraps round his glorious cock. A shrink would say sex is all about intimacy. The thing is, Patrick strips away the need for subterfuge. If Penny has any erotic fantasies, she’ll never admit to them. What is she so damned afraid of? That I’ll run to Daddy?
Penny is listening when Patrick tells me about Las Vegas. I can just about picture it—the famously glitzy lights, the luxury suite, the desert heat banished to the pool deck, the sex. My understanding of poker is sketchy, and I’ve never seen Patrick play, online or off, but I don’t have to. He doesn’t eat because he feeds off intensity.
‘So I’m to be your mascot?’ I ask.
He sets his espresso cup down on the worktop.
‘I’m going to win, you know,’ he says. ‘This year the grand prize is close to $11 million. Eleven fucking million. You’ll be able to quit that crap job of yours and set up on your own, make that indie film you’re always talking about. Or even go back to university and get yourself a string of degrees that’ll have Hollywood kicking in your door.’
‘It doesn’t work that way.’ I empty my cup, tasting the sugary dregs, then drink some water.
‘You ought to know.’ He gives me the perfect poker-table look. ‘There’s one thing I know. Pride doesn’t buy a single tube of makeup, not to mention anything like a decent camera or studio time. Stop being so stubborn.’
Again I regret having told him about my mother and her producer husband. Larry T., with his—pardon me, their—friends, their parties, their property. How many homes do they have now, anyway? Malibu, New York, Cannes, the wine estate in the Cape—I’ve lost count. There must be a ski chalet in there somewhere. The last time I saw my mother, eleven years ago, when she was still doing some screenwriting, I spent most of my half-term visit helping Ramona polish the silver. The Spanish she taught me was the only souvenir I brought back, aside from the Easter egg her grown-up son spent days painting (I still read any articles on el autismo I come across). All my new gear I’d secretly given away to the staff for their kids, stuffing my cases with crumpled newspaper. At school no one believed I’d really been in California: ‘Where’s your tan then?’
They sent a fine gift for our wedding, my mother and Larry did. A silver tea service, just what a young couple needs for their first home. Penny keeps it on the bookshelf in the front room. She’ll take it down for an elaborate polish once a month—PMT, more accurate than the calendar, maybe the Pope should send all newlyweds a piece of silver. Engraved with his coat of arms.
‘What about Penny?’ I ask.
‘What about her?’
‘Just where does she fit into your plans?’
Farraday is in intensive care and unable to respond to questions at this time.
After his big win, Patrick gives interviews away like Yanks, their lurid Halloween candy. Unwrap them with caution. I’m not lured by public revelations, I tell myself, but end up googling his name whenever I’m online, it’s like prodding a chipped tooth with your tongue. One of his answers exposes the pulp: ‘No more satellites, no more tournaments. In this game, you’ve got to know when to quit. When to walk away.’
Maybe they’ll discover a gambling gene. Or how about a neurochemical imbalance? No sane person pits his wallet against a random number generator. I think of my mother, who used to buy lottery tickets every week when I was a little kid. She’d have me pick the numbers: ‘You’re my lucky, plucky boy.’ We made a game of it, taking turns to outdo each other with fantastical plans—‘We’ll buy a house just for the two of us, a house made of silvery fish scales’, ‘a house made of Lego’, ‘a house made of rainbows’, ‘no, Mum, a house made of chocolate fudge’, ‘a house made of solid gold ingots’.
A house made of cards.
Patrick doesn’t quit, of course, not entirely. I reckon he can’t, the way he’s going through his money. Even when he had almost none, he was beyond generous. Some people may think he’s buying friendship, buying loyalty, but that isn’t it. Sudden wealth doesn’t change your nature, only rescales it. Interpolation, it’s called in computer graphics, and there’s always some loss. ‘You know,’ he once told me, ‘it’s a good thing I’m not going to have any kids. I’d spoil them rotten.’ Penny is finally pregnant again. If only I’d been less of a fool—face it, less of a coward—he’d have made a wonderful godfather.
Friends report that Savage and Farraday were in the process of adopting a child, eagerly awaiting a match after a favourable assessment.
‘What am I supposed to tell Penny?’
Penny is watching me when I walk from room to room, looking for the airing cupboard. It’s not under the stairs, where the shelving displays bin upon bin of buttons, sorted by colour. There’s something about buttons. On rainy afternoons I was allowed my mother’s button tin: now the buttons would become Borrowers, a whole rather bloodthirsty village; now an elaborate mosaic on our table (kitchen, dining, sewing, writing); now counters in a game I played with Kevin, a plump, wheezy neighbourhood boy who was so grateful for a friend, I understood even then, that he acquiesced to my every demand and mid-game rule change. When I plunge my hand into a bin of nearly colourless buttons, letting them run through my fingers, his pale eyes reproach me with a hint of tears.
It’s not in the main bathroom, where I eye the oversized claw-foot tub, its exterior painted exactly the right shade of aquamarine to suggest a whole new range of waterplay. The oak linen press holds plenty of white towels—only white—but no bedding. On the landing there’s a built-in cupboard crammed with winter jerseys, cushions, mohair rugs, all manner of lovely things. Just to be sure, I slide each stack forward and check for concealed items, turning up, however, nothing more than a couple of cedar blocks. In one bedroom the armoire is empty, the chest of drawers too, except for a life-sized and remarkably—disturbingly—detailed thumb cast in bronze, and a whole salami (French, walnut). In another bedroom, I discover a wardrobe full of vintage ballgowns. When I finger a fold of lustrous green satin, Penny’s favourite colour, she moans with lust. The tiaras on the shelf can’t be real, can they? I slam the wardrobe door shut and march out of the room, feeling like I’m back in school, once again forced to read some stupid poem. Individually, the words make sense—mostly—but just try to figure out what’s going on. One exam, it got so bad that I ended up in the lavatory, hanging over a basin. Panic attack, they later called it. At least there’s not much to panic about when you’re shifting boxes in a warehouse.
Sven, I think, how about some help here, I can’t spend the whole fucking afternoon searching for a sheet. The shrinks I know would get a hard on after ten minutes in this place.
Which thought does a lot for my mood, but nothing at all when it comes to finding the airing cupboard.
In the study there are enough museum catalogues and art books on the shelves, sketches on the walls, plus a free-standing large-format printer which I first mistake for an electric mangle, to make me think, artist, but where’s the studio? In the back garden? And what’s with the entire shelf of medical texts? Whoa, I think, as something fires in my head. I grab a pen and paper from the desk, sit down and scribble a couple of notes, flip the brass-mounted hourglass, stare at the trickling sand, scribble some more. With the buzz fading, I get up and slowly circle the room. I’m on my knees in front of the fireplace, peering up the chimney, when Patrick asks, ‘What the hell are you doing?’
‘Searching for clean sheets,’ I answer without thinking.
He begins to laugh and after a sheepish moment I do too. I get to my feet, dust off my hands, and blurt out my idea for a script, but want to wring his neck when he mentions my stepfather. And tell him so.
‘Shall we try it?’ he asks. ‘It’s about as amazing an orgasm as you can get.’
Savage is renowned for his remarkable victory in the World Series of Poker ten years ago when, barely meeting the minimum age requirement, he catapulted from online poker room to the main event floor in Las Vegas after winning a US$57 satellite tournament. Flamboyant in live play, he became an overnight idol for all wannabe poker stars by going on to take the US$11.3 million first prize.
The light is nearly gone. Adrian has fallen asleep, and I watch him for a moment, his long lashes, the faint scar on his temple—a plate meant for his dad—the boyish flush, lids which tremble slightly. Asleep, he’s the child he won’t allow himself to be. I could happily strangle that mother of his. Though you can’t tell when they’re shut, his eyes are not quite the same size, and it’s always the vulnerable one, the shy watchful eye that I kiss first. Its droop will become more pronounced in middle age, he’ll be helpless to prevent it, yet fewer and fewer people will notice. I watch him for a moment longer, then bend down and whisper in his ear. He stirs, and I whisper again: ‘I won’t leave you.’
Unlike other top prize winners, Savage confounded his fans and supporters by largely withdrawing from poker and reinventing himself as a musician. For months he played free shows in small clubs, writing his own songs and slowly gathering a devoted—some would say a fanatic—following.
Still warm from the drier, the cotton sheet crackles with static electricity as I snap it over the mattress. It refuses to cooperate, clinging to itself as though afraid to settle, to embrace a flattened posture. I wonder whether there’s someplace I’ve overlooked, someplace which ought to be obvious, or whether Sven has actually hidden his spare sheets from us, perhaps covetous of heavy linen or regal satin, of the thin, tenuous miracle of silk. But Patrick is right: there’s no good reason to keep looking.
From the other side of the bed he takes hold of the sheet and swiftly draws it taut, then moves round, tucking and folding and tucking again till I eye the expanse of white like a child, the icing on a birthday cake or a patch of unbroken snow.
‘Don’t you dare,’ he says.
I pounce, he groans, the matter is settled. Some things are irresistible.
On the way home I rehearse what I’m going to tell Penny: only a week, all expenses paid, can’t let a mate down. The last will work with her dad too. He’s big on loyalty. When I pull up out front, I curse under my breath, then drive on till I find a place to park the van. Penny’s dad has taken my usual space.
Before getting out, I turn on my mobile to check my missed calls: TD, TD, and again TD. He’s going to be plenty pissed—his time, some of it anyway, and his petrol and his van—but I sprint through the rain, and the puddles, as though outfitted with a serviceable excuse. At the last crossing I nearly collide with a cyclist whose glasses are speckled with rain and lose my footing, while she swerves, flings a curse over her shoulder, and rides on. Winded and wet, I’m fitting my key in the lock when the door to the flat is snatched open.
‘Where the fuck have you been?’
I gape at my father-in-law, who once told me that he’d forsworn all coarse language after his wife’s death. Admittedly, he’d needed to be vigilant till the habit was established; excuses are for the weak. ‘You slip once, Adrian, you’ll slip again.’ With my mother, it had been junk food. Other kids would brush their teeth and gargle after a fag, while even now, I haven’t got a single filling. Single parents are so fond of rules that they have about twice as many.
Penny is spotting but became frantic at the suggestion of an ambulance. Nor would she let TD drive her without me. Since her mum died, she’s been terrified of hospitals. They keep her overnight after the D&C, and she’s weepy for several days. ‘I always wanted twins,’ she sobs. ‘What are the chances we’ll have twins again?’ TD gives me time off from work and doesn’t remember to harass me about my irresponsible behaviour while my wife is miscarrying till a good week later. I make all the right promises to get him off my back. I cook lots of her favourite soups and casseroles, dishes like zucchini gratin with bacon and walnuts, but end up eating most of them myself. I fetch heaps of DVDs, first vetting them for pregnant women, for babies. I’m patient and tender and make no demands. I wank off in the shower. I spend a lot of time at the computer, learning to play poker. I calculate odds—like the odds that I’ll run into Patrick in the video shop. The odds that TD will have a second coronary.
Though Savage rarely covered someone else’s songs, his debut album pays homage to the man he repeatedly called his own idol—the legendary Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. Savage recorded Brel’s ‘Ne me quitte pas’ in French for the first track and in his own hauntingly lyrical English version for the last.
Three days before he’s to fly to Las Vegas, Patrick rings and we meet for a pint after work. I don’t trust myself with the van.
‘It’s not too late to change your mind,’ he says. ‘Penny must be OK by now.’
‘I’ve been learning how to play poker.’
‘Is that a yes?’
There’s dirt under my fingernails, TD’s decided on white tulips for the borders, his wife was a passionate gardener and Penny won’t admit, least of all to herself, that she resents tending, season for season, her father’s expectations. Maybe that’s why she’s so desperate for a child. Since her miscarriage we spend chill grey Sunday afternoons kneeling on spongy ground without even a decent hymn to break up the monotony.
‘Will it be hot enough to swim?’ I ask.
‘I think most of the hotels have heated pools, jacuzzis. Maybe even waterbeds.’
‘Waterbeds are so babyboomer.’
‘OK, no waterbed. But think of the 24-hour room service.’
Room service. I begin to laugh.
‘What?’ he asks.
‘The sly bugger. So that’s how he does it.’
He gives me an exaggerated share-the-joke look.
‘Penny’s dad. He goes off every couple of months on business trips. Five-star hotels, heated pools, great room service. Yeah, that’s what he says: nothing can beat great room service.’
‘And isn’t it obvious? He’s got to be getting it somewhere. He’s good, though. Has everyone fooled by his show of undying love.’
His look becomes complicated, something wounded about it.
‘Stop that. This is real life, not some Hollywood blockbuster.’ I think of all the films that have been shot in Las Vegas, in its casinos and bars and hotel rooms.
‘So you’re not coming?’ he asks.
‘I haven’t said that.’
He takes out a pack of cards and shuffles, his fingers fluent in the language of foreplay. I’m not crackpot enough to think that rectangles of pasteboard carry an erotic charge, so it must be his edginess, or mine, which gives them the energy to speak. They blur as I stare at them, fuse and blur into a hypnotic, compelling, inevitable yes.
‘Go on, cut.’ He places the pack in front of me. ‘We’ll let the cards decide.’
At rest, the cards are stiff and silent. A game with him would be no game at all. I shake my head, and he laughs as if he’s already anticipated my reaction.
‘Then we’ll each pick a card. If mine is higher, you’ll come with me.’
He’s going to win in Las Vegas, I know it now. His sort of confidence is for winners. When he goes to pay the bill, I square the pack, slip it into its cunning little leather case, conspicuously new, and pocket the cards we’ve drawn.
Within minutes of the accident, reports were circulating online, and messages pouring into Savage’s Facebook page. Most of his fans cite his fabled generosity as well as his stunning voice, fearless spirit, and virtuoso musicianship, often mourning his loss in terms of the Brel song he has reinterpreted for a new generation. They plead, ‘Don’t leave me, Patrick.’
I’ve been out of the country too long. There’s been another bloody muck-up, this time with the translator, and we’re so wiped anyway that I call it a day and send everyone off for some sleep, though a lot of the crew plan to get in their sightseeing or shopping or fucking the pretty boys you see everywhere; whatever. I head back to the hotel, stopping at a food stall to film a noodle maker whose infallible hands were made to shape fortunes, not dough. The street is crowded, my elbow is often jostled, but I watch for much longer than I film, an uneasy spectator waiting for—willing—the godlike to fumble. Several times I need to wipe sweat from my upper lip, and there’s a tightness in my chest which the noonday heat doesn’t quite account for. My new camera is a beautiful piece of equipment, so compact that I’m easily mistaken for a discount tourist. After one particularly nimble tell, the vendor catches my eye and solemnly inclines his head a fraction, and then I’m certain, absolutely certain, of a momentary glint of mischief before I lift my camera and his fingers blur in an even more intricate pattern, fuse and blur till I’m staring at a double exposure.
Back in my room I have a tepid shower and stretch out on the bed, first picking up my paperback, then my latest notes, then my mobile, but I’m too keyed up to work my way through something like seventy-five emails and the air is stale, the smell of long-discarded butts a reminder of former inhabitants. I’d insisted on a family hotel, and while clean and comfortable, it’s also a bit too intrusive—too friendly. A lot of the crew smoke, though it’s not tobacco I worry about. Despite my strict warnings about local laws, and a clause in all the contracts, there are always risk-takers. I seem destined to end up with more than my fair share of risk-takers.
The window won’t budge. The oldest son, who speaks good English, is still in school, so I poke my head into the kitchen and attempt to explain to his mother about the window and the curtain whose hem I’ve managed to rip. She insists on feeding me several dumplings, perhaps as a reward for my enchanting performance. I’ll speak to her son in the evening.
In the park there’s shade, if not exactly quiet—the congestion on the streets is too close by, the heavy machinery at a building site too outspoken, the pedestrians too numerous, and in any case pop music follows you everywhere in this city like a chronic migraine—but as soon as I stop to watch the river traffic, it’s the lads splashing off a wooden pier who deaden all else to silence. Tourists are warned not to swim in the fast-flowing river, its waterfill of flotsam a continual hazard. We larked as recklessly, as boisterously, as joyously, Patrick and me, for a few brief weeks that summer, and when I shut my eyes I hear us larking still.
I turn round, instinctively tightening my grip on my camera bag. The boy, his dark eyes too old for his skinny frame, gives a small, sad shrug.
‘No stealing, Mister. I serve, you pay.’
We stare at each other till I think to ask, ‘Are you hungry?’
Again a shrug.
A flicker at the corner of my eye alerts me to someone’s approach. The boy takes off, darting round those in his path with silverfish grace, vanishing so swiftly that I glance riverwards in anticipation of telltale ripples. In a land of lakes and rivers, there are surely waterspirit legends.
‘These boys are unsafe.’ The policeman is slightly built, and young enough to look as though he’s got some growing to do to fill his uniform. ‘Dirty.’
‘He wasn’t soliciting me. I asked him to pose for a photo.’
‘I know better places for that.’ His visor shades his eyes, and he keeps one hand cocked on a hipbone so that I can’t help noticing his wristwatch.
‘No thank you.’
Clad in all the starched menace of his uniform, he asks for my passport, then inspects my arms for track marks and turns out my backpack. I’m worried that he’ll confiscate my camera, but it’s my wallet he appraises like an antique dealer. ‘Very nice, very good quality.’ He returns it to me. ‘Most foreigners appreciate how safe we keep our streets.’ I extract some notes and murmur a few polite phrases, exit lines which aren’t really humiliating, not under the circumstances, not in this part of the world. Don’t scurry, I tell myself, don’t saunter, and whatever you do, don’t look back, there won’t be a chance to edit the take. Last time I saw Penny, she picked a fight about my so-called detachment. You can’t help it, though. You see things differently once you live with a camera. It’s got nothing to do with arrogance.
Neither does my blogging, Penny dearest. Since I hate to cart my laptop around in public (only an idiot falls for their ‘no crime’ propaganda), and a mobile isn’t great for posting more than a couple of lines, it’s either trot back to my stuffy room or settle for an internet café. I remember that just beyond the flower market is a busy street where there’s bound to be a couple of places, they’re everywhere, and I’m already working out what to say about the dignity of street kids as I make my way towards the south gate. Patrick blogs too, but I’ve never detected any indication he reads mine. He’s got hundreds of followers.
They buried him yesterday.
They buried him.
—Adrian, he whispers. His voice, his musky scent, his breath warm on my neck.
With a cry I jolt round, and there, there he is . . . Patrick, whom I haven’t seen in so many long years. Thankgod, it was a mistake, or hoax, a cruel joke. Maybe a publicity stunt.
The smell of sandalwood vanishes, driven off by the sour imperative of sweat. I lean away and rub my temples. I must be more tired than I realise.
The boy’s eyes go to the monitor. ‘He’s pretty.’
I notice now that the boy’s hair is wet. ‘Move back, you’re dripping on the keyboard.’
‘The policeman, he give you trouble?’
‘No trouble. Why are you following me?’
The boy looks back to the monitor, to Patrick’s photo, and his lips move as he tries to work out the English text. I reach over and close the window. All I have to do is say the word, they’ll chase him off. He looks even skinnier with his ragged hair plastered to his skull, his skimpy T-shirt damp at the neckline. How can he run in those flipflops? I take out my wallet. He shakes his head.
‘Why not? Get yourself something to eat.’
He delves into a pocket of his jeans and hands me two playing cards—my playing cards. ‘Sorry, Mister. I give them back.’ An accomplished pickpocket, then. And yet all he jacked were the cards. Again his eyes go to the monitor. ‘Maybe I steal your good luck.’
I stare at the cards, remembering what Patrick said about the odds of drawing two aces. He was always calculating odds, and always defying them. He must have known that I’d kept the cards. Why hadn’t he understood what I was telling him?
The kid looks so damned serious. Anyone who works overseas learns to respect local customs, so I keep my mouth shut. Still, I shouldn’t have kept the cards. It’s got nothing to do with superstition. I shouldn’t have done a lot of things. And should have done lots more, but hadn’t. Jesus, is that how we end up? Adding year by year to an obituary of regrets?
‘What’s your name?’ I ask.
‘Patrick,’ he says. ‘A good name, no?’
Now I know what it feels like to drown.
They plead, ‘Don’t leave me, Patrick.’
At the touch of his hand, I raise my head. The pools of his eyes are dark and deep. I haul myself up towards the sunlight that is all Patrick.
‘You keep them,’ I say, returning the cards. Though my hour isn’t over, I get up to leave. ‘Come on, I’m hungry. We’ll stop for a bowl of noodles, then you can show me the best place to swim.’
Helen’s thoughts kept sliding off course as she gripped the steering wheel. It had been a mistake not to stop for coffee at the last service area, but she was good at making mistakes. Even if she could spot a roadside café through the ever-thickening snow, anybody in their senses would have locked up and gone home long ago. Certifiable, she’d seen it on their faces when she refused to wait out the snowstorm. ‘You ought to be locked up,’ Richard had raged at his son after the Incident. But Mack will feed Garm, bake a couple of frozen pizzas for Cait and Phil (had she remembered Mack’s Cajun Chicken?), see that they brush their teeth, he’s a good kid really. One evening of ‘unsuitable programmes’ won’t kill them. Do his colleagues know how obsessed Richard can get? There are hints of it, though they’re circumspect with the New Wife, except for that ridiculously transparent Liz. ‘Possessed’, Helen used to tease him, back when she could still tease him.
Out of her musings a dark spectre came at her. With a small cry she twisted the wheel to the right, too far, too fast, and the car began to skid. Richard’s voiceover: ‘Don’t brake.’ Had there been time, she might have wondered what it would be like to let go, the snow so soft and thick, pillowy. But a compact almond of nuclei inside her temporal lobe had already taken charge, and there would be no overturning, no swift trajectory into oblivion, not this time. Her foot unsteady on the brake pedal, she brought the car to a halt straddling the verge and switched on the emergency flashers. She leaned her forehead against the steering wheel, breathing fast, then after a few seconds forced herself to sit upright and unclench her hands. It had been a roadside tree, bare and ghostly in its winter coat. Ahead of her there was only snow, more snow. The mileometer couldn’t be right, could it? She’d like to get out and walk a bit, her foot was aching from being flexed without respite, and her neck felt welded to her shoulders, but her boots were back home in the boot rack. Instead she wound the window down and let the snowflakes melt on her face till the heater could no longer compete with the indraft of cold air. She checked her rearview mirror, but there was little danger from behind; the last car had turned off at least half an hour ago, though somewhere not far ahead a snowplough must be clearing the road. She promised herself not to look at the clock till she passed the stretch of wind turbines. Day or night, sunshine or blizzard, they hovered over the countryside like metallic storks, and she would sense their presence—a nursery constructed to deliver electricity, not babies. Though the local authority insisted the noise from the turbines was low, about the level of a small, meandering stream, on nights when, sleepless, she’d sit for hours in the front room, a faint crooning drifted through the double glazing, the caulking, the weather stripping, the foam-injected walls. Richard would never tolerate a badly insulated house.
She wouldn’t mind so much if it were about the money, or the future of the planet. It was odd, really, all this snow, with the global warming they were forever going on about. White noise, it became after a while, though she only switched to another programme if by herself. Still, she remembered those winters from her childhood, when the lake would freeze for weeks at a time, and she’d skate with Ian till their fingers and toes lost all sensation, despite the bulky, itchy, and slightly greasy woollens which their nan supplied each autumn—red for Ian, blue for Helen; till it would be growing dark and they could no longer see the rough patches or ensnared branches, sometimes thick as an arm, or a frozen crow which Ian would kick around if his mates were out; till the ice cracked. Twenty years, and she still heard that first crack: fate thrusting its fist through the icy threshold to seize her little brother. ‘It was meant to happen,’ Nan had said. ‘Some things are meant to happen, no one’s to blame.’
She decided not to leave the flashers on, though it would be dark soon. If she had any beauty, it was the delicate, understated sort which didn’t call attention to itself. Her hairdresser said that with her bones she would age well, but he was a kindly man for all his flourishes, his endearing insistence upon ‘stylist’. At first she’d been surprised by Richard’s interest in her—flattered, but daunted too—though they say opposites attract. As she inched out onto the road, her mobile rang, and without glancing at the display, she knew instinctively it was Richard, who would only berate her. ‘For God’s sake, try to be a little firmer with them. Mack’s making a fool of you,’ he’d said just last night. She switched on the radio.
A foreign language, one she couldn’t identify. Something exotic like Persian, maybe. She switched to another channel, her attention on the road ahead, as much as she could see of it. She was a good driver, a cautious and responsible driver; she knew the route, and in good weather didn’t even notice the gentle slopes, but now she could feel the car begin to pick up speed and contrived to ease off the accelerator, change down a gear. Unlocking one hand from the steering wheel, she plucked at her collar, then flapped the front of her jumper. The snowflakes hurtled towards her, an unceasing barrage, as though time had chipped its every arrowhead from ice. It was difficult not to focus on them. It was spellbinding to focus on them.
The radio crackled, and along with the burst of static she heard a vaguely familiar voice, but before she could fix on one of the usual newsreaders, it disintegrated into gibberish, yet with a plaintive tone that needed no translation. ‘What’s a shirt lifter?’ Ian had asked plaintively once their dad moved out of earshot. She tried another channel before giving up altogether. It must have something to do with the weather conditions. With a fierce squint she looked beyond the snowflakes to a hot drink and a warm house and Garm’s boisterous welcome. Ian had chosen the name, he’d been given a book of Norse myths for his birthday the year they got the first Garm as a fat puppy. She still had it on her shelf. ‘Funny old book,’ Cait had said. ‘Can I colour in the pictures?’
Helen had more photos of her dogs than of Ian, it was time to ask her mum for some prints, other families talked about these things. The Newfoundland was Garm number four; no rescue-centre mongrel for Richard. ‘Get yourself a puppy, we don’t need any more children.’ On occasion she’d thought about an ‘accident’, but Cait (and, increasingly, Phil) was beginning to see through her evasions, her small white lies. That business with the shirt—it had been a mistake trying to explain, Richard’s voice carried, and it just made things more difficult with his children. Mack could be sweet, but like all teenagers knew when to use a situation to his advantage. And accidents . . . no, on balance it was probably better this way, though she sometimes pictured a little boy with Ian’s red curls. A grandchild at last, her mum would surely stop being so toxic. ‘Last chance,’ Richard had said about Christmas, and now it was only a week away. Why had she ever pressed him? If she had an accident, they’d be able to put it off. She projected herself into a frame for a shattered leg, weeks in hospital, then a long, restful period of recuperation at a rehabilitation centre with the latest memoirs of Sylvia, plus that Moses novel she’d always meant to read. Wintering, how apt. They could afford a private room. There would be fresh-squeezed fruit juices, a heated pool, massages, aromatherapy. There would be a detoxifying diet. There would be no reason to hurry her healing, back home it would be pizza and chips and rows over the broccoli.
She glanced at the clock, its numerals glowing with electronic rebuke, then was immediately annoyed at herself for her lapse. If she kept this up, she’d never get there. It already felt as though she’d driven off the road into one of Mack’s games, the car motionless amidst a stream of snowy pixels. Maybe she ought to drape something over the clock. Her eyes shifted to the passenger seat, where she’d tossed her bag and jacket.
Headlights flashed behind her. Startled, but not unduly so, she saw in her rearview mirror what looked like a 4×4 or people carrier approaching—not speeding, precisely, but travelling faster than she’d dare. A curve up ahead forced her to slow a bit, but the signalling persisted. ‘Damn,’ she muttered, and switched on her emergency flashers, then slowed even more and edged towards the verge as the driver sounded the horn, a long rude blast. His horn: Helen could now make out a man behind the wheel, fortyish, balding and with a beard like Richard’s. ‘Idiot.’ As though able to hear, he hooted three, four times so that she felt her palms grow moist and her chest begin to prickle. To pull off any further might mean getting stuck, or worse—the banks were steep along certain stretches of the road, there was no way to tell short of getting out and testing the snow’s depth.
‘Go on, overtake me. Serves you right if you end up in a ditch.’
With a final, brazen, jubilant trumpet—like a bull elephant in heat, she thought in disgust—he swung out through the darkening afternoon and sped past, his wheels spurting up a granular fusillade which splattered the windscreen. Already overburdened, the wipers needed several passes to clear the glass, by which time his taillights, thickly coated, were a mere reddish glow, soon to vanish into memory.
As she cautiously headed into the bend, a cone of light swept sideways, briefly illuminating a snow-encrusted road sign and the gauzy outline of a stand of pines, then swept onwards towards her like a lighthouse beacon. Instinctively she braked. Her brain initiated its cunning trick of time dilation to brace her for the impending impact while the beam revolved another half-turn—later she’d recall a glimpse of red—before sailing in a graceful skyward arc. The 4×4 rolled twice and came to rest belly up, its tyres spinning to a gradual halt, its horn mute after one final bleat, its headlights still gleaming through the shroud of falling snow. As the spume thrown up by the crash settled, it left the idiot’s car buried up to its door handles in a deep drift.
The slow, eerie, nearly silent accident had taken no time at all; she hadn’t even come to a complete stop. Perhaps there had been a slight tremor, felt rather than heard, the way you feel pressure waves from nearby thunder or a bass drum; or perhaps it had merely been the judder of the ABS beneath her foot. But now she felt nothing except a dreamlike calm: she watched herself creep forward, she watched herself wind down the window again, she watched herself turn her head towards the wreck, she watched herself scan for a vital sign—arm pushing through the snow, muffled shout. Her mobile lay on the dashboard. The air was icy and whipped her hair about. She ought to stop, everyone knew that. Soon it would be dark. The snow would fall for hours, fairytale snow, pure and pristine, and fall long past midnight, cold and cunning and cruel, and keep falling. By dawn a death mask would have set over the frozen earth. It was likely there would be a white Christmas. She drove on.
The hitchhiker stood in the middle of the road, waving his arms; otherwise she wouldn’t have stopped. As it was, he was forced to scamper out of her path, his red stocking cap as long as the ones Gran had knitted to match their mittens. A pompom dangling from its tail, too, distinctly eccentric for a lad his age. One year Ian had cut his off, not realising the wool would unravel.
‘What are you doing out here in the midst of a blizzard?’ she asked testily. Seventeen or eighteen, she guessed.
‘Can you give me a lift?’
He clapped his gloved hands together and stamped his feet while waiting for her decision. At least he’s wearing boots, she thought, wondering if that were excuse enough to leave him behind.
‘Look, I’m not going to rape you or anything. I just want to get out of the cold for a stretch.’
‘I’ve got a mobile.’
‘I don’t care if you’ve got an AK-47, as long as your heater’s working.’
She hesitated a moment longer, then pictured all the times Mack must have stood at the roadside with his thumb out. ‘OK, get in. But shake off your cap first, the snow will melt down your neck.’
While she tossed her clutter into the back seat, he did as asked, even using the hat to brush off his shoulders and sleeves before walking round the car and folding himself inside. The light of the small interior lamp highlighted his springy, shoulder-length red hair, a startling contrast to pale, almost waxen skin. Wasn’t that a sign of frostbite? Without the crisscross of snowflakes to obscure his features, she could see that he was actually quite beautiful, though perhaps older than she’d first assumed. His face reminded her of the Rossetti paintings she’d loved so much in her late teens. And no lad ought to have such sensuous lips.
‘Your jeans must be soaked through,’ she said.
‘Not really. I haven’t been outside that long.’
Had she made another of her mistakes? She regarded him uneasily, but he returned her gaze with the cool mockery so typical of Mack and his mates that she found herself disguising a smile (and her curiosity) with a hurried yawn, rather than bristling. So he knew what she was thinking, did he? Shifting into gear, she resolved not to question him till he’d thawed a bit. Not all adults are insufferable meddlers.
He unzipped his anorak, leaned back against the headrest, and closed his eyes. She was surprised that he didn’t ask for music. For a while they drove in silence, and it was a nice change not to steal glances at the clock. In profile his face seemed older still, more androgynous, with a delicate bluish cast from the snow. Was he beardless or merely clean-shaven? Despite his bulky jumper, she could see he was very slender. And the lithe way he’d moved in the cold hinted at the effortless grace of a dancer or figure skater. A few times her eyes strayed to his crotch.
He had a gift for stillness. Just when she reckoned he must have fallen asleep, he said without opening his eyes, ‘About half a kilometre ahead there’s a lane on the left.’
‘It’ll be hard to see in the snow, I’ll warn you in plenty of time to turn off.’
If she hadn’t given up smoking to be a good model to Richard’s children, she would have reached for a cigarette—a stratagem of Mack’s which infuriated Richard but secretly amused her, since it served as provocation as well as delaying tactic. She switched on the radio. A low hum came from the speakers, but no reception. She tried another station, then cycled futilely through all the channels, AM and FM, before fumbling for a CD, only to recollect that Richard had recently told Mack to ‘put down the damn guitar for once and clean the car’. Her hitchhiker straightened up but said nothing.
‘Sorry, but I’m not taking a diversion in this weather. You’ll have to hike in.’
‘Don’t worry. We won’t get stuck.’
Again she revised her estimate of his age. The next time Richard railed about teenagers taking things for granted, she might be less inclined to defend Mack. With her eyes on the road, she searched for a conciliatory response. The stress of driving through this damn blizzard was making her ridiculously jumpy. He was only a lad. She wished he hadn’t mentioned a gun, though. Risking a sidelong glance in his direction, she spied her mobile on the dashboard. ‘Why don’t you ring your parents and see if someone can drive out to pick you up?’ But before she could congratulate herself on her quick thinking, he reached for the mobile, keyed in a number, and brandished the display: the no-network logo.
‘It’s a heavy snowstorm,’ he said.
‘Slow down now. We’re coming to the turning.’
She peered into the snowy maelstrom, convinced he couldn’t possibly recognise any landmarks in the foreshortened corridor lit by their headlamps. After a short distance, however, a gap in the snowbanks appeared, and as she drew abreast and stopped, a light glimmered at the bottom of the lane, surrounded by an amber halo.
‘It’s not so very far for you to walk.’ Or for her to drive, but she was determined not to capitulate.
‘It’s up to you. You can always turn round and go back.’
‘Look, I’ve got a family waiting for me at home. Please, just get out so I can carry on.’
‘That’s not possible. The road ends about 150 metres from here.’
‘What are you talking about? I’ve driven this road hundreds, maybe thousands of times.’
‘Not this road, you haven’t.’
Other than abandoning the car, she had no way of divesting herself of this clearly disturbed, or at best confused, hitchhiker. To think that she . . . angrily, she rammed the clutch pedal to the floor and shoved the gear lever forward.
‘OK, I’ll take you up to the house. After we have a look at this dead end of yours.’
Her mind elsewhere, habit reasserted itself. A touch too much pressure, and everything spins out of control. But as the wheels lost traction, the hitchhiker reached over as if to touch her hand—‘Easy, now’—and though she jerked aside, she let up on the accelerator so that the car rolled backwards. She eased it forward again, and then with a few careful rocking movements, they were free of the rut.
The barrier, as far as she could gauge, was situated squarely where he said it would be. He’d exaggerated, of course; typical teen. The road didn’t end, but might as well have: snow had been ploughed across its entire breadth to form a two-metre high bulwark. It would take a bulldozer to clear a passage, not that teaspoon masquerading as a spade in the boot.
‘What idiot decided to block the road like this?’ she finally asked.
‘Don’t worry, it’ll be gone later. In the meantime, you can get some coffee and a sandwich at my place.’ He gestured towards the right snowbank. ‘Can you turn on your own or should I get out to guide you?’
‘I can manage,’ she snapped.
They drove back without speaking, Helen stubbornly silent when the lane—more a track, really—proved indeed navigable. The snow continued to fall heavily round and about, but the gravel was merely dusted with a sprinkling of white, like icing sugar. She wondered if heating cables had been laid beneath the surface; or some other technological marvel, lasers maybe. She didn’t notice the pattern to the snowfall.
A building soon came into view through the trees, a very unappealing squat structure more warehouse than dwelling, all concrete and glass and sixties. The orange glow coalesced into an industrial streetlight, the sort you find in car parks and along the motorway; admittedly useful at such a secluded site. Several windows in the house were lit but shaded, so that it was impossible to see if anyone was moving about.
He directed her along a semi-circular drive to the front door. An overgrown holly needed a good trim, but neat, snow-laden shrubs bordered several metres of bare paving slabs. Under the rest there might be a lawn, or there might be a yard wrested from the wood; or further dreary concrete. She drew up to the path, cut the engine, and turned to the hitchhiker.
‘Are your parents at home?’
‘There’s a garage round back.’
She nodded, having seen the fork at the start of the drive.
Inside, the house reassured her by its utter normalcy—brass coat stand, pale wooden floors, cream walls, classy oak armoire which Richard himself would approve of, and in the sitting room, a tempestuous northern seascape in a carved and gilded frame, two squishy leather sofas the colour of malt whisky, and an enormous TV and sound system. It took her a moment to discern the only odd note, which was the extreme quiet—no humming from the heating system, no pinging of snow against the windowpanes, no skirling of the wind under the eaves. Even their footfalls had a muted quality, as though they were treading on a thick carpet rather than polished floorboards.
Their voices, however, sounded much as before, if slightly flat, a detail whose import she would never fully appreciate. Mack, years later a leading studio engineer, would have been fascinated, though a bit disbelieving, had she told him. But of course she would tell no one.
‘Sit down, and I’ll fetch something from the kitchen.’
‘Where is everyone?’
‘It’s a big house. We’ll have a look for them right after eating.’
‘Do you want some help?’
‘No, I’ll do it, you’ve been driving for hours.’
Soon she’d need a toilet, but for the moment she was glad to sink into one of the sofas, shut her eyes, and think about nothing. Richard, and his children, receded to ghostly silhouettes amidst the snow inside her head. It was warm in the room, unusually warm. Under pressure snow which has melted can recrystallise into dense, granular, intractable firn; the stuff of crushing glaciers.
‘I’m sorry I can’t offer you a bed for the night.’
She roused slowly, reluctantly, then wondered if she’d been dozing with her mouth agape. What had he asked? Pushing a hand through her hair, she sat up and adjusted her jumper. From a tray on the coffee table he passed her a large mug, to which she added two heaping teaspoons of sugar. She’d swallowed half the coffee and several bites of a cheese sandwich before registering there was only one mug, one plate.
‘Aren’t you eating?’
‘Most men have a bad habit of grazing when they’re in the kitchen,’ he said with a smile.
She finished the sandwich, ate another, and sipped a refill while he sprawled in an armchair, his hair screening part of his face. She not-watched him through the steam from the coffee till her eyes began to prickle. Why, after all these years of arid silence, had Piers chosen to ring? ‘Your mother gave me the number.’ She’d heard the rasp of the veldt in his voice, the droughts. A cloudless summer day never failed to conjure up the sun-bleached colour of his eyes. There must be creases round them now.
‘Have you got any idea when they’ll clear the road? Probably I still have a few hours ahead of me.’
‘Let’s go find out.’
He showed her the guest toilet, then led her through a complicated twist of passages to a set of sliding glass doors, behind which thronged a mass of tropical vegetation.
‘The conservatory,’ he explained.
The air beyond the doors was warm and humid, yet devoid of the cloying smell which prevails in so many hothouses; devoid, in fact, of much smell at all. They sidled round fleshy plants tapping the roof as though in search of an escape route. Helen ducked under a low-hanging limb with leathery, red-veined leaves and glistening crimson berries, narrowly avoiding the outstretched talons of a thorn bush. With one hand her host parted the fronds of a palm for her to step through.
The glass wall in front of them gave onto an outdoor pond, as large as a small lake. Someone had swept the ice clean of snow, which shone like pewter in the moonlight. Scratched pewter: she could see where the blades of the skaters had scored its finish. Several kids were still larking near the banks, and one intrepid lad was zigzagging backwards, practising camels and camel-sits, as well as the odd lutz. It all came back to her then, Ian’s obsession with skating—the lessons, the competitions, the endless talk. She hadn’t been on skates since the accident, nor would she allow Cait and Phil to learn, despite Cait’s repeated pleas. ‘It’s not fair, it’s not. All my friends go skating.’ And to her father, ‘Why are you letting her decide?’ There weren’t many domains in their marriage where she, Helen, prevailed, but this was one of them.
‘Look,’ she said, ‘it’s stopped snowing.’
Puzzled, she glanced at him, then back outdoors. ‘But—’ One hand shielding her eyes, she stepped up close and pressed her face against the glass, which felt slightly clammy. ‘I can see perfectly well it’s stopped. The moon’s even out.’ She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, then rubbed the condensation from the window, recalling her doodles and stick figures drawn with a fingertip, Ian’s outlandish beasts; their countless games of noughts and crosses. ‘Is that your family?’
‘Watch for a moment longer while I see about the road.’
As the boy attempted a double axel jump, his cap flew off and skittered across the ice towards the centre of the lake. He landed awkwardly, though without falling, then stamped one foot in obvious frustration. How well she remembered Ian’s bursts of fury! He could never stand the slightest shortcoming in himself, the slightest blunder. For a few seconds he rested his hands on bent knees to catch his breath before heading for the wayward cap, his dandelion-clock hair freewheeling in the wind. A tall figure detached herself from the others at the shore and skated towards him, waving her arms so wildly that she lost her balance after only a short distance and sprawled onto the ice. At the sound of her cry a flock of crows rose in a single mass from the tree in which they’d been roosting, huddled together against the cold. The crows fluttered and flapped their wings in unison, flapped and fluttered and cawed as they passed like a black cloud across the face of the clairvoyant moon. Then their eerie caws died away, leaving behind a silence which the ice cleaved to fill. Winded, knees throbbing, and one ankle twisted painfully beneath her, she was unable to get to her feet. Always the clumsy one, she should have known to be more heedful.
‘No,’ Helen whispered.
‘Go back,’ she said. ‘It’s only a hat.’
‘I promise I’ll never tell another lie,’ she said.
A touch on her arm. She turned round, but recognition didn’t come at once. He’d tied back his hair, which accentuated the planes of his face so that he looked older again; aloof, with the patrician sombreness of a time-darkened portrait. He held up a mobile. ‘It’s working now.’ Ian had hated it when humidity made his hair go all kinky. ‘The road’s clear. But going back is still an option. Think about it, will you.’
‘Back?’ she asked, glancing involuntarily towards the window. Then numbly, ‘It’s snowing again.’
Without so much as a pondward flicker of his eyes, he went past her to a ceiling-high lemon tree laden with fruit, extended an arm, and uttered something in a guttural language, half speech and half croak: a string of incomprehensible words, followed by what sounded like, ‘Come, Mooning.’ To her astonishment, a glossy black bird flew down from amongst the dark leaves and landed on his forearm, then strutted to his shoulder with an air of self-possession. She studied the bird, who, as though chancing upon a particularly droll specimen of scarecrow, maybe with uncharacteristically bulbous frontage and shocks of strawlike hair, turned to study her, its undisguised curiosity trumped by a disconcerting intelligence. Mack would call it a bird with attitude.
‘A family pet?’ she asked.
‘Something like that.’
After a brief silence, she indicated the window, and its ghostly reflections. ‘They won’t be able to skate now. And they ought to be careful, people have got lost only a few metres from shelter.’
‘Snow insulates surprisingly well. The Inuit burrow into a snowdrift if caught in a blizzard. They can survive for quite a while. But of course there are human limits.’
He smiled then, the sort of boyish smile Ian used to flash when keen for her to coax a secret from him. ‘It’s up to you, but the road back might not be open for long.’
As she drove along the track to the main road, the hard-packed surface was beginning to snow over. To the left she could see drifts mounding against the underbrush and tree trunks, and despite the dense woodland, a heckling wind jabbed and jeered at her car. Bypassing a concert of contemporary music and a dull report from the Middle East, she tuned in to a discussion about children and bereavement, the volume loud enough to drown out the voice of the storm, though not the occasional cawing from the boot. Any sense of travelling through a glass tunnel had vanished, and falling snow soon obliterated all trace of the house in her rearview mirror.
The unrelenting drip of a leaking roof into a bucket, contents trembling on the verge of overspilling.
You lean your forehead against the windowpane, watching raindrops slip from the leafless branches. It’s cold in the flat, dark too, and you hug your ribs, shivering. There’s no end to the beepbeepbeep of the answering machine. Even the hammer hasn’t silenced it. But the baby’s no longer crying.
You go to the kitchen and wash your hands again, carefully. Use the stained nailbrush, carefully. Dry them, carefully. In the hallway you stare at the mangled bits of the phone strewn on the floor. Where can the beeping be coming from? It penetrates your head your head. You pick up, one after another, splintered plastic, ruined chips, wires twisted like coloured embroidery threads—the sort you once used to plait into your hair; one after another, you hold them to your ear.
There are fresh blotches of milk on your T-shirt. You lift its hem to form a cradle and with trembling fingers gather together all the pieces. You miss nothing, not even the strip of clear plastic that covered the display. You throw them into the washing machine and slam the door, only afterwards remembering that it’s broken down again.
‘Why is the washing machine full of red gunge?’ Ben asked.
‘It’s Roasted Pepper.’
‘For chrissake, why have you put roasted peppers in the washing machine?’
‘Not peppers. Roasted Pepper. It’s the name of a paint.’
So now there is red paint and telephone in the washing machine. Also, you think, the baby’s screams. Though maybe that’s only Ben’s heavy metal CDs you added last night after he left to Go Out. You can’t be sure, so you crouch by the machine, crack open the door, and listen.
Your breasts are sore, they’re hot and hard and leaking. Time to feed the baby. ‘A beauty,’ Ben’s mum says. ‘And bright. Look how alert she is. The colic will pass.’
The baby’s not in the washing machine. You have to find where you’ve put the baby.
You go into the bathroom, where you search the cabinet, the laundry hamper, even the toilet tank. Then you sit on edge of the dirty tub and examine the tags on the walls. Back in the day when you blockbusted whole trains with Graham, the black and gold letters with the snake karaks were hot. You bombed school walls with those turdy mustard drips till it became too freaking wack. But you really came into your own with the Gemad tag, that’s the one you’d use if you were still writing. And just yesterday you added the perfect piece—a gentian blue platypus, the exact colour of the baby’s eyes. Maybe after you put her down you could sneak out and at least hit the bus shelter, you’d be back before Ben came home.
‘The baby’s screaming her head off, and all the fuck you do is paint the bathroom walls!’
‘I didn’t hear her.’
‘Yeah right. Didn’t want to hear, more like.’ And slammed out of the bathroom, kicking the spraycans out of his way.
‘How could I hear her when the cheese is wailing so loud?’
But of course he couldn’t hear you, the tags were shouting your name.
‘This is fantastic work, Caroline. Absolutely brilliant. Have you ever thought of doing a fine arts course?’
‘I’ve thought about it, yeah.’
She grinned at him. Mr Lyle was a decent sort for a teacher, and he knew his stuff. And unlike most of the lazy sods in this sinkhole, he actually bothered to find new material from one year to the next. Nor did he think graffiti was criminal or destructive. ‘Of course it’s art,’ he’d told the class. ‘True art is always subversive. Graffiti artists are our hackers of physical rather than digital space.’
A fortnight later, he asked to speak with her after the lesson, then handed her a large brown envelope. ‘I’ve put together a couple of prospectuses for you. Take them home and study them,’ he told her. ‘You might even have a chance with the Slade. I’ll help you sort out a portfolio.’
‘There’s no money in art, Mr Lyle.’
‘Been speaking to your dad, have you?’
‘Yeah, well . . . ’
‘Look, maybe I can have a chat with him.’
At that moment Ben put his head round the open door—gorgeous lanky Ben with green eyes like dragonfire, like wet grass on a dazzling spring morning, and the chipped front tooth which made his smile even sexier. He always told everyone it had been a snowboarding accident, but she knew from his mum, who cleaned at her dad’s office, that he’d slipped on an icy patch of pavement right outside their building. Caroline didn’t mind the lie, which was somehow endearing. Often Ben reminded her of a little boy who’d been caught with a pocketful of fags, or the bits of his mum’s favourite pink china cat, now wrapped in a hanky, that he’d smashed when careening through the front room. The way he still careened through the corridors at school . . .
‘Come on, Paintbrush, we’ll be late for maths.’
‘Just give us two minutes, Ben,’ Mr Lyle said. ‘Wait outside, please.’ And went to shut the door.
‘Caroline, I feel I ought to warn you.’
Mr Lyle studied his paint-ringed fingernails for a moment. ‘Ben’s a bright lad, a very bright lad, but there are one or two things—’
‘Which things?’ she asked, her voice sharp.
‘That business with the fire, for one.’
‘Ben had nothing to do with it! He was at my house the whole evening. Which, by the way, I’ve already explained to the police.’ She remembered their lovemaking, he’d been exceptionally tender that night, afterwards had even played some of her favourite CDs downstairs in the sitting room while she was bathing and washing her hair. Even above the sound of running water she’d caught the occasional snatch of his voice, as usual slightly, sweetly out of tune. She had very acute hearing—uncanny hearing, her dad liked to call it.
Mr Lyle regarded her soberly, his cheeks flushed above his flamboyant beard, then smiled in that quizzical way of his.
‘You’re right, I shouldn’t be listening to rumours. I apologise.’
She nodded and turned to leave.
‘You’re forgetting the envelope.’
You threw it into a wheelie bin on the way home, then went back ten minutes later and fished it out. Kept it till Ben opened it one day when he was going through your bottom drawer. ‘What do you want to keep all this old crap for, anyway?’ But he’s wrong—you keep so little. Long before, you’d buried the clots under the apple tree, you couldn’t have just flushed them down the toilet, could you? You had tried to save them, but your wardrobe began to stink. Even now, when you sneak out to visit Dad with the baby—not that you blame Ben for feeling uncomfortable—you can hear the plaintive whispering, though no words. Sometimes you stretch out and put your ear to the ground, sometimes you can almost make out a ghostly mamama. There are so many voices under the earth, a cacophony of tags.
It’s a good thing you’ve never told Ben, he gets crazy pissed off if even Julia or Rachel or any of your old mates comes round. Which they’ve stopped doing since the broken jug. But you don’t really mind, you’ve no longer got much in common with them anyway. A baby changes everything. And you’d rather sleep when there’s twenty minutes of quiet. Ten minutes. Babies are noise machines.
A platypus closes eyes and ears underwater. From the packet you pull off a wad of cotton wool, divide it in two, screw the plugs into your ears. The beepbeepbeep continues, even louder, as though it’s an alarm on a cardiorespiratory monitor like the one in the preemie unit. Maybe your dad rang and left a message. He’s always leaving messages. ‘Ben’s mum has just gone home. She’s terribly pleased with the plasma TV Ben bought her. I think you’d better ring me, Caroline.’
After searching and searching the flat, you draw the curtains in the living room, you’re feeling shivery again, and the light hurts your eyes. You blink a few times, trying to clear the black dot from your vision, the flare and fizzle like sparklers. If you didn’t have to find the baby, you’d lie down. But instead you sit at the computer Dad gave you for Christmas. ‘So you don’t lose touch altogether.’ And Ben was quite happy about it, really. Now he uses it too, he gets lots of emails.
You cross your arms over your swollen breasts. ‘Milk cow,’ Ben says sometimes with a laugh, he likes to suckle almost as much as the baby. Who’s got to be somewhere. You google baby and come up with about 259,000,000 results. That’s a lot of babies, one will do. But thirty or forty sites later, you still can’t find her. Could Ben have hidden her under platypus? ‘Likes his little jokes, our Ben does,’ his mum says. You’d better check, the baby might be in danger. Males have poisonous spurs on their hind limbs, whose sting is powerful enough to kill a small mammal.
Caroline would set the alarm for twelve, by which time her dad was fast asleep and she could sneak out and be back by five, or a bit after. Graham had a car, so they were able to cover a lot of territory. She always left her gear in his boot. Nobody could touch his wildstyle, and his Inferno pieces, incredibly detailed, incredibly guerrilla, burned themselves into her vision—her memory—like live embers. Whenever he completed a new painting, he’d read her the canto from which it was drawn. Commissions were starting to come in, he’d already done a couple of CD covers. He’d taught her everything she knew. Everything she wanted to know.
There was only a light drizzle, and when she met him at the bottom of her drive, they decided to hit the estate subway, which had recently been buffed. At least they’d stay dry.
Graham wasn’t big on kissing straight off, but this time he’d pulled her close as soon as she got into the car. And kept his arm around her as he drove.
‘Something wrong?’ she asked.
He shook his head, but she could hear a low rumble that reminded her of the sound a dog made deep inside its throat before it began to growl. She checked the sound system.
‘Want some music?’ Graham asked with his lazy smile.
‘Later maybe.’ She listened. ‘Isn’t the motor louder than usual?’
‘Not that I’ve noticed.’
But the nearer they came to the estate, the worse it got. By the time they’d parked the car, her teeth were on edge, and she had to exert all her self-control not to snarl at Graham. He was a lot like Grandpa, who had never snapped, never raised his voice. Whose silences had sung her many times to sleep. She remembered riding with him in the farm lorry, not long after her mum’s funeral; on the unpaved tracks the vehicle had shaken so much that her insides were soon heaving, her chalky bones screeching. Screeching, that place on the top of her head where her mum had always kissed her goodnight. Without a word Granpa had stopped for her to walk about, then wiped her cheeks with his rough hand. She’d nearly been sick.
She and Graham had just finished marking the outline when footsteps sounded behind them.
‘What the fuck d’ya think you’re doin?’
Three of them, big and meaty. The tattooed kid had thick lips, eyes like hot tarmac, shaved head. The growling, which had subsided as Graham and Caroline worked, now sprang at her with renewed ferocity. For a moment she thought there must be a dog, one of those vicious Rottweilers or Dobermanns. She swung her head round, heart beating fast. Only the blokes.
Graham showed them his spraycan. ‘Just a graf, mates.’
‘Piss off before we ram it in your cake-hole.’ A phlegmy laugh, then Tattoo hawked and spat a glistening gob near Graham’s foot. ‘Your arse.’
Threads of light were beginning to flash before Caroline’s eyes. ‘Graham,’ she said, pleading.
The three of them looked at her then, really looked. Exchanged glances. Grinned.
Graham stepped in front of her, his eyes on Tattoo. ‘Listen, let’s—’
The knife was out before he had a chance to finish. With a practised movement, Graham flicked off the spraycan lid, then shook the can and held it out before him.
‘Run, Caro,’ he said.
‘RUN, damn it!’
And she ran. For the rest of her life she would never forget that she ran, the frenzied baying of the pack echoing behind her through the empty November streets.
In the afternoon the spotting began. By evening, Caroline could tell that this too, she would lose.
Hidden in the loft where your dad will never find it is a portfolio of Graham’s sketches, forty-three loose sheets you’d borrowed and never got a chance to return. There’s even a page dense with studies of tormented figures for Canto XII. Once the baby settles, you’ll scan them and upload the images to a decent site. By then you’ll get out more and bomb the entire city with the platypus. Graf writers have already begun to use hypertext. Word will spread like a healthy virus, like a meme. For a moment you close your eyes: Graham’s smile flashes at you, his lips move. He’s trying to tell you something. If it weren’t for the beeping, you’d be able to make it out. Angrily you shake your head, as though to dislodge a mobile implanted in your skull. They’ll do that someday, won’t they?
Out of the water a platypus has very sensitive hearing. You go to one site after another, calling her name. You whisper that you’re sorry, it’s not her fault. You promise to be more patient no matter how much she screams. Once you think you catch a glimpse of her slipping into sun-spangled shallows, but she’s gone before you can be sure.
In the bucket the water is squalling. You fetch a basin from the kitchen, then empty the bucket into the toilet. There’s a large damp patch on the living room ceiling in the shape of a potter wasp’s nest, like a jug. Ben said he rang the landlord a week ago. The phone’s no longer working, you guess.
For weeks afterwards Caroline did nothing but paint—drink coffee, bitter black coffee, and paint. When she ran out of canvas board, she whited the images out and began again. Layer of tag upon tag—there was a name for what she felt, if she could only find it. Elusive as dreams, sleep hid under her bed, in her wardrobe, behind drawn curtains, wherever abominations prefer to lurk. Finally her dad abandoned his good parent act, and she went back to school. Sometimes she showered and changed her clothes. In lessons it was easy to sit in the last row and draw.
‘Let me have a look at it.’
‘Your picture,’ Ben said. ‘I bet you’ve drawn old Sykes with tits down to her waist, lewd tattoos, and a navel piercing.’
Caroline’s lips twitched.
He slid into the seat next to her. ‘That’s the first smile from you in months. If we practise really hard, do you reckon you might be able to laugh?’
In the portfolio is also the only photo you’ve got of Graham. Already fading, it reminds you of the disintegrating albums washed up at flea markets. And there’s no place in the flat where you could possibly keep it. At Christmas while Ben and Dad were busy drinking—arguing—you managed a quick scan before they reached flashpoint. Now you can access it online whenever you want, so long as you remember to clear browser cache and history. But you don’t look at it often.
‘He doesn’t hit me.’
‘Then why is there a bruise around your eye?’ Julia asked.
‘It’s not a bruise.’
‘Come off it! I can see it right through your makeup.’
‘A wasp stung me. I’m allergic to wasps.’
‘Toxic insects come in all sizes and shapes.’
At the swimming pool the wasps clustered thickly near the rubbish bins. Ben propped himself on an elbow and laughed at her struggle to protect her fast-melting ice cream. Finally, he flicked at the wasps with his thumb and middle finger, driving them away.
‘Persistent buggers,’ he said indulgently.
‘Mind. They’ll sting you.’
Two of them were back, buzzing loudly.
‘Not me,’ he said. ‘Nothing touches me.’
To demonstrate, he caught one of them between cupped palms. She could hear the angry buzzing, but Ben was right. It didn’t sting him, and after a few minutes he released it. Rather than flying off, the wasp landed on her leg, where he swatted it with the flat of his hand.
‘Sorry, I hope you don’t bruise easily,’ he said.
She could still hear the buzzing, even angrier than before. Like a small sullen mob, a swarm was hovering over some half-eaten burgers and an open coke on a nearby blanket. The couple had gone off to swim. She’d watched them surreptitiously, especially the lad. Hair as long and black and glossy as Graham’s.
‘Tell me about this bloke you used to go round with.’
Startled, Caroline dropped what was left of her ice cream. Ben cleared it up, then moved their towels away from the sticky patch on the grass. But he hadn’t forgotten his question.
‘What was he like?’
‘Your boyfriend. The painter who got killed by that gang.’
‘If you mean Graham, he wasn’t my boyfriend. Just one of my crew.’
‘Got a picture of him?’
‘No. But there might have been one in the newspapers, if you’re interested.’ She rose to her feet. ‘Let’s go cool off. That horrible buzzing is giving me a headache.’
‘I don’t hear anything.’ Ben took her outstretched hand. ‘You need to turn down your volume control.’ He put his lips to her ear and whispered, then grinned when she blushed. ‘You see? Turn it even lower.’
The baby looks like Ben. His mum says he screamed like her too. ‘Five and a half months straight, day and night. Nearly drove me barmy, it did,’ she says with relish, the way some women will brag about their gall bladders. ‘They say it’s a sign of creativity.’ Intones the word in a hushed reverential tone, as though it were a prayer. The new religion. You try not to wonder whether Graham’s children would have looked like him, been as gifted or as gentle. You’ve read about alternative universes. Maybe those children are out there somewhere—lives that could have, should have been.
You go into the bathroom and express some milk into the washbasin. You’ve got plenty, no need to save it for the baby like in those early days. Though your T-shirt and jeans are stained, there’s no place to wash them. The bathtub is still smeared with paint, the Red Pepper which Graham always used in his tag. You thrust your head under the tap and turn the cold water on. For a moment you think it’s going to work. Five minutes of quiet is all you need to be able to hear the baby. You’ve always had such keen hearing.
A sob escapes from your throat. You have to find her, Ben will go mad if she’s not clean and fed.
Tears running down your cheeks, you return to the computer. ‘Graham,’ you whisper, waiting for his photo to load. Then he’s smiling at you, surrounded by kids, the sun in his eyes and the platypus from the children’s zoo cradled in his arms. A hot Saturday in July. You lean your head against the monitor. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘your turn. She doesn’t bite. Come and hold her.’
There’s a click from the door to the flat, and you hear it swing open, then slam shut. You hear footsteps. When you turn your head, Ben is standing in the doorway.
‘Look what I’ve brought Jo-Jo,’ he says.
He holds up a mobile—pretty butterflies and bees and a hummingbird.
‘It even makes sounds for her to listen to.’ He winds it, and above the beeping in the room you suddenly hear buzzing—the loud angry buzzing of a swarm of wasps.
‘No,’ you cry. ‘Stop!’
‘Now what the fuck’s the matter with you?’ He strides towards her, then stops and looks round. ‘What’s that weird smell? Have you been cooking liver again? You know how much I hate it.’
A platypus squeaks and clucks and bubbles like a baby, but growls when threatened. Quickly you turn back to the monitor. Come on, Graham says, don’t be afraid. ‘Are you sure?’ you whisper. Of course, he answers. There are so many secure sites. Together, we’ll hit them one by one. His soft laugh. They’ll never tag us.
And just before you click enter and all noise ceases, you remember. You’ve buried the growls outside in the wheelie bin.
This is a story about Halloween, a packet of toffees, and a bloke.
The toffees are easiest to describe, so I’ll start with them. Chewy treacle, a whole 1,35 kilos—I believe in being exact, it would’ve saved a lot of bother if the nutter who wrote Genesis had specified exactly what he meant by ‘day’, like solar day or sidereal day or millennial day, and I say ‘he’ with malice aforethought, because no woman would have been so dim as to—
I mean, come on, an apple?
OK, let’s try again. This is a story about Halloween, a packet of toffees, and
Except that it isn’t a packet, more like a small sack with a pumpkin painted on it and tied with a piece of shiny orange ribbon, just right for Halloween, and a pretty note written with a chartreuse gel pen, which at school I wouldn’t be seen dead using, and of course the toffees, and I don’t want to give you the wrong idea, they aren’t any horrid supermarket muck but homemade ones, I’m really good at making stuff like shortbread and fudge and caramel popcorn and stuff, and don’t laugh, I like to garden too, and though I oughtn’t tell you, I even grow some weed in my mum’s garden, in the corner behind the shed, she’s never around to notice, anyway she’d think it was, like, weedy weeds if she saw it, she can’t even recognise nettles and ragwort and those greenish toadstools which smell like honey, you could kill someone with one of them, not to mention all the old tins in the shed, but anyway, about the toffees, I use only real butter and a bit of salt, makes all the difference, and despite everything, Paul just swoons over my baking, he’s got a socking great sweet tooth and
Right. Last try. This is a story about Halloween
Except that it’s not a story. Or maybe it is, I reckon I’ll let you work it out for yourself. Anyway, last night I made the batch of toffees, you would’ve too after that text, I mean, talk about cowardly. Three months, and the sod can’t even ring. Telling me to my face that I ought to stop stuffing it—yeah, I don’t know a single lad who could do that, but a text? A misspelt text, like he was in some sort of bloody hurry to dump old fatso Anne—a shag is a shag, but you wouldn’t want to take her to a club or anything, would you?
Not like Lauren. Blond hair she could just about wipe her arse with, pipe-cleaner legs, tits like soup plates—the posh, flat sort. She’s got nice handwriting, though, I’ll give her that.
So, anyway. As I’ve said, last night after I’d eaten a few crisps and had a good cry, I set about making the toffees. Measured them extra carefully this time, and added 55 ml of strong dark rum for flavour. They turned out gorgeous, they did. I was dying to taste them—dying, that’s a good one. Exactly thirty-five lovely chunks, and if I know Paul, he’ll polish them off in one go. Now it’s nearly dark, and all the little kids are already out, so I’ve dressed up witchy, black hat and hooked nose from that panto two years ago and heaps of slap, and I’m off to ring his bell before he goes out, nobody but him is ever at home at this time, and then he’ll find the sack on the doorstep with that little note from Lauren—sort of.
Trick or treat.
Martin opened the box for the first time on Christmas Eve.
‘Not till Christmas morning,’ his mum had said with a smile lacquered on her face as his dad backed out the drive, clipping the rhododendron because the car was so overloaded with ski gear and suitcases and laptops and pillows and carrier bags stuffed full of gift-wrapped parcels and all the crappy junk Martin’s sisters thought they needed for a week in some posh resort in Switzerland that his dad couldn’t see where he was going. Sylvia might actually ski, but Jaime would slink round in a different eyeball-roaching outfit every day and try to pull as many blokes as would have her. If they even got to Switzerland—after ten minutes on the road they’d be sniping at each other, and his dad would hit the next lay-by and do his I’m not going anywhere till you lot quiet down and appreciate what a sacrifice your mum and I are making to take ten whole days off for a family holiday not to mention the money routine. Christ.
Guilt had been positively oozing out of the banknotes as his mum stuffed yet another wad into Martin’s fist (his dad having done the same thing not half an hour before). But hell, let em, they couldn’t wait to be shot of him, could they? As if they really cared that he rang Aunt Susan every morning to clock in. Though his call me Susie, you’re an adult now aunt might just take it into her head to come round, she was about as different from her sister as you could get. Big on Social Responsibility. Best play their little game.
An hour after they’d left—he wanted to make sure they didn’t come back for some other piece of shit they’d forgotten and couldn’t possibly do without (Jaime’s vibrating condom ring and raspberry-flavoured condoms?), he lit his first spliff and laid into his pile of gifts. Usual pair of flannel pyjamas from Gran, at least it wasn’t some ruddy paisley muffler. What was he going to do, tell his 83-year old grandma he slept starkers? Might as well say he wanked off every night, thrice on Saturdays. The new CDs were OK, he’d given his mum a list to make sure, the clothes he’d flog, the books weren’t even worth burning in the fireplace. A large bottle of eau de toilette from Sylvia. Eau de toilette. Someone lives with a brother for almost 14 years, you’d think she’d know his style.
At least he’d got the new Ibanez guitar, he’d been afraid they might make him work for it, son. What he did wasn’t work, apparently.
Martin carried up the loot to his room and shoved most of under the bed. Then he spent a couple of hours feeling up his new baby and working on the song that had been shadowing him for days. When he surfaced, it was dark outside. Christmas Eve.
He went downstairs, switched on some lights, and microwaved the macaroni cheese his mum had left in the fridge. Ate it standing up by the worktop. Gluey stuff, but he couldn’t be bothered to break out a pizza. He looked at the clock. Just gone seven. Pete and Kevin wouldn’t pitch up till after nine at the earliest, Clare maybe not at all. Family night at the arena, ringside seats, no referee. Better them than him.
Beer in hand—of course not, Dad—Martin wandered into the sitting room and idly flicked on the Christmas tree lights. A real Blue Spruce, no tacky plastic thing for his mum and dad, not in this neighbourhood, not with their sort of friends. Don’t forget to top up the water every second day. Martin grinned and crept under the tree with his bottle. Great preservative, he reckoned, his dad’s naff Bavarian beer. Who needs a sober tree anyway?
Right at the back under an low-hanging branch was a present he hadn’t noticed first time round. He hauled it out and sat cross-legged before the tree, nipping his beer and regarding the box. Unlike the others, this one wasn’t wrapped in half a metre of recycled tree, embossed with smirking golden cherubs and tied with matching ribbon. Plain wood, about the size of a little kid’s shoebox. And no obvious crack to indicate a lid.
Martin shook the box, which told him nothing. Sounded empty, but maybe it was just well padded. Whatever it was. He ran his fingers along the smooth, slightly oily surface of the wood. Discovering no notches or depressions, no buttons or catches, he was about to toss it aside as someone’s idea of a prank, when he noticed a small area on the underside that felt warmer than the rest of the wood. He rubbed his thumb over the section several times, a small circular motion, and his skin began to tingle as though the box were emitting a low-level charge of electricity. Then it sprang open in his hands.
His nose wrinkled at the tarry smell, which dissipated before he had a chance to decide what it reminded him of. Something slightly rank, though not as bad as backed-up school drains. More like one of the chem lab smells. Sulphur, maybe?
The box was empty. Clean, unvarnished, and full of nothing. Rien. Nichts. Nada. If his dad was trying to tell him something, a handwritten note would have done the job much better. Or an email. Very fond of emails, his dad was, even to his kids. Especially to his kids. The Headmaster’s secretary has rung me. We need to have a little chat after dinner. Martin just loved those little chats.
He bent forward, then swore. A branch of the tree had caught in his dreds. He tried to pull free, but the tree began to tilt alarmingly. ‘Fuck this,’ he muttered, ‘Bloody tree belongs in the dump.’ Reaching behind himself, he planted one hand round the offending bough, and with the other, yanked hard. He could imagine Sylvia’s prissy comment. Disgusting rat’s nest. I bet you’ve got bugs in there. I bet you’ve got bubonic plague germs.
How had he ended up with such a family? As a little kid he used to wonder if he was adopted. Now he reckoned there must have been a rogue gene in his DNA. He sighed, flipped shut the lid on the box, finished his beer. Still a bit curious, he picked up the box once more, but this time no matter how hard he rubbed, he couldn’t get the damned thing to open. Block of wood, like Jaime’s head.
Bored now, Martin fetched another beer and settled down before the TV. He channel-surfed for a while, but most of the stuff was pissier than his mum’s idea of party punch. He went in search of some DVDs. In Jaime’s room he dug through her secret hoard of porn films, found a couple of new ones he hadn’t seen.
When he went downstairs, the Christmas tree had disappeared.
‘Just go back upstairs and start again, Marty,’ he muttered. ‘You fell asleep after all that practising.’
But a thorough search of the house, garage and garden shed included, turned up nothing remotely resembling a Christmas tree or parts thereof. Not even a lone pine needle. Nor was there any sign of a break-in, though only a loony would walk off with a fucking Christmas tree from a house full of hi-tech goodies. And what would a thief do, drag it over the sill and tie it onto the roof of his van with all the glass baubles bouncing along behind him like pingpong balls?
Oh fuck. All his mum’s antique crystal ornaments. She wouldn’t let anybody else touch them. Ever. When not hanging on the tree, they were wrapped individually in cotton bunting like newborns and packed away in made-to-order storage cots.
‘What did you do with your mum’s tree?’ Pete asked a few hours later. ‘Toss it out already?’
Martin inhaled, held his breath, let out the smoke in a long thin stream.
‘No idea,’ he said.
Pete and Kevin exchanged glances. Marty had a Reputation, even among his mates.
‘What do you mean, no idea? Where’d it go?’ Kevin asked, taking his turn with the spliff.
‘You pop something brain-mashing?’ Kevin asked.
‘I wish. My mum’s going to mince mine for paté in her food processor when she comes home and finds all her ornaments gone.’
‘Come off it, what happened? Parents piss you off so much that you axed it?’ Pete garbled, his mouth full of pizza.
‘Yeah.’ Martin shrugged. What the hell, he couldn’t be bothered.
‘Nice piece of ash,’ Kevin said, picking up the box from the couch table and fondling it. He knew something about wood, his dad was a cabinet maker. ‘What’s it for?’ Then he gawked when the lid opened. ‘Hey, look at that. Some sort of hidden release button. I bet my dad would like to get a look at it.’
‘Funny smell in here,’ Pete said. ‘Someone fart?’
‘It’s nothing special. Just an empty box,’ Martin said, ignoring Pete. They ignored Pete a lot. Played a mean set of drums, though.
‘It’s not empty,’ Kevin said.
‘What?’ Martin asked.
‘Have a look,’ Kevin said, passing him the box.
There was a small piece of paper at the bottom. Martin lifted it out. A postage stamp, one of those special issues with a picture of a Christmas tree on it. He looked at it for a moment, then dropped it back into the box.
‘I’ll fetch some more beer,’ he said, getting to his feet.
‘Not for me, got to shove off,’ Kevin said. ‘Carol service with my parents. I promised them I’d be back in time. Their car’s acting up.’
‘You’re not driving them to church on Christmas Eve in that heap of rusting scrap metal and flaking paint you call a car?’ Martin asked.
‘Hey, it’s more wheels than you’ve got. Wish it would self-destruct, though, maybe then my dad would fork out for a decent bit of tin.’
Kevin closed the box, set it back on table, rose and stretched. ‘Lift?’ he asked Pete.
‘Yeah, guess so. Too friggin cold to walk.’
But when they opened the front door, Kevin let out a bellow that ripped through the quiet neighbourhood like their hottest hurtin’ chords.
‘WHERE THE FUCK IS MY CAR?’
The police had plenty to do on Christmas Eve, and Kevin never made it to church. By the time they’d established his car hadn’t been towed but nicked, and rung his parents and the insurance hotline, and filed the police report, and waited for someone to call back with the crime number, and salvaged the ornaments that were still whole from the compost heap, the man in red had done most of his rounds.
Next morning Martin was roused about eleven by the phone. He fumbled for it blearily, knocking something off the bedside table, followed by the handset. His oath was perfunctory, it was too early even to breathe. With one hand he groped about on the floor, demucking his eyes with the other. He came up with the wooden box, which he couldn’t remember having brought upstairs. The phone continued to squawk.
‘Yeah?’ he was finally able to say.
‘Martin? Is that you?’
Aunt Call Me Susie.
‘Uh, yeah, Aunt Susan.’
‘Happy Christmas, Martin.’
‘Same to you.’
Martin worked himself upright against the pillows. The wooden box felt heavier than yesterday, and his fingers played over its surface as he listened to his aunt’s questions. To give her credit, she didn’t complain that he hadn’t rung.
‘Heard from your parents yet?’ she asked.
There was an awkward silence.
‘I really wish you’d agree to come for Christmas dinner. Sam’s volunteered to pick you up and drive you back again afterwards.’ Sam was her partner, though they lived in separate homes. ‘Two writers? We’re far too idiosyncratic to live together,’ she’d once explained when Jaime asked. Martin had looked the word up in the dictionary (took a while to figure out the spelling).
‘I’m OK, Mum’s left plenty of food.’
‘That’s not the point.’
‘Some mates are dropping by later.’
‘Well, if you change your mind, just ring back. We’re only eight to dinner, and not as stuffy a lot as you probably imagine.’
After he’d rung off, Martin remembered that he’d forgotten to thank his aunt for her gift. He searched his memory. Just what had she given him anyway? He was beginning to wonder whether someone had fouled his last batch of ganja.
Martin glanced towards the window. He hadn’t bothered to close the curtains, but the sky was so dark with rain that it made little difference. Normally he’d burrow back under the duvet, but he wanted to have another look at those presents. Aunt Susan always gave him something.
He sniffed. There it was again—that noxious smell. He saw that the wooden box had popped open once more. Now two stamps lay at the bottom, side by side. Martin stared at them for a long time.
The wind splatted a bladder of rain against the glass. Sounds like an old drunk, Martin thought glumly. Even the weather’s pissing on me.
‘Aunt Susie,’ he said into the phone ten minutes later, ‘maybe I’d like to come after all.’
‘Wonderful. Sam could be there in twenty minutes. Is that all right?’
‘Can you make it half an hour? I want to have a quick shower.’
‘No problem. See you just now, the soup needs stirring.’
‘Wait, just one question. Did you, uh, give me a wooden box for Christmas? I seem to have lost the card.’
Martin heard her delighted chuckle.
‘Found a way to open it yet?’
‘Yeah.’ ‘Clever lad. A Hungarian friend of mine makes them. I’ve also got one, in rosewood. Each one’s unique, with a secret mechanism. No two open the same way.’
‘Glad you like it. I thought a lad your age needed somewhere to stow his, how shall I put it, recreational commodities.’
While drinking a strong cup of coffee in the kitchen, Martin considered how little he really knew about his aunt’s life.
The dinner was delicious, and to his surprise Martin found himself seated next to a freelance journalist who covered the indie rock scene. After the meal, Martin went into the kitchen to load the coffee tray while his aunt filled plates with biscuits and luscious-looking chocolates.
‘Aunt Susie,’ he said, ‘I was wondering.’
‘Is it so hard to leave off the Aunt?’ she asked. ‘You make me feel ancient.’
Martin released his exasperated sigh inside the fridge, while he searched for cream. Christ. Just like their vicar, always trying to prove he was cool. Even the word had gone out with the Beatles.
‘What would happen if my parents died?’ he asked.
His aunt set the coffee pot she was holding down on the worktop.
‘Haven’t they rung yet?’
He shook his head. He caught her frown, though she smoothed it out straightaway.
‘Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re fine,’ she said.
‘Still,’ he persisted, ‘what would happen to me?’
‘You’re old enough for some sort of independent accommodation, but I’d always be happy for you to make your home with me.’ She grinned. ‘At least till you’ve finished school.’
Around noon on Boxing Day his mum finally rang.
‘Everything OK, Marty?’
‘Like your gifts?’
‘Susan said you went round for Christmas dinner.’
‘You rang her?’
‘No, she phoned us. Here’s your dad now, he wants to have a word.’
Have a word. Yeah right, more like a couple of hundred. They must issue the same phrasebook to everyone along with their first payslip. ‘Martin, I’d like to have a word afterwards,’ Pike had said with his usual sneer, that time he caught Martin eyeballing Zoe’s tits and stretching his denim while the fat sod droned on and on about the French bloody Revolution.
‘Hi, Dad. Good skiing?’
‘Terrific.’ His dad cleared his throat. ‘Martin, I hope you’re not going to disappoint us again.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Your mother and I don’t want you getting into any trouble while we’re gone.’
‘I gave you my word—’
‘Now don’t take this the wrong way,’ his dad cut in, ‘but Sylvia thought it advisable to tell us a bit more about your activities lately.’
A cow. Thirteen, and already a sodding cow. Who grassed on her own brother. He shuddered to think what she’d be like in a few years’ time. Somebody ought to put her out to pasture.
Martin looked down at the wooden box, which he’d taken to carrying round the house with him. He no longer found the smell unpleasant. He could hear his dad gibbering away from the handset, which he replaced in its cradle. The sudden quiet reminded him of the sweet expectant hush at a gig before he detonated his first chord.
Martin formulated his words carefully. Then he shut the lid and carried his aunt’s gift to the fireplace, where it made a very satisfying blaze.
Skin bronzed and scarred, dark lenses, banded wild hair, one thumb—the only anomaly was his height. Contrary to legend, he was barely taller than Rhohan herself.
‘Have you brought the Tribute?’ His accent as light as the tonguings of a windchime, he eschewed the traditional greeting.
‘Yes, Legate.’ Rhohan’s maternal suraunt fumbled with a fold of the heavy ceremonial robe, her voice hesitant. Obsequious, Rhohan thought, and raised her chin.
He held out a hand, and Rhohan slipped the bound volume—the last of their hoard—from her tunic and passed it to him. She could see the eagerness in the taut curl of his fingers, the almost imperceptible forward movement of his upper body, however impassive his face remained. She must have allowed a smile to reach her lips, for he opened his hand so that the book fell to the ground at their feet, where it dug itself into the fine black sand like a shy puckcrab. If there had still been crabs.
‘Legate?’ Rhohan asked, suddenly afraid. There could be no return without his sanction, only the sea or exile. In the Hearth they still whispered about the girl scorned by an earlier Legate. It had happened when Rhohan was just old enough to join in the search for scraps of corroding metal, glittering glass, for the shells and coral which would purchase a threemonth’s ration of meal, for the precious little driftwood the sea gave back.
‘You dare to mock?’ he asked.
Aunt Bindy drew a sharp breath. ‘Forgive her, Legate. She means no disrespect. She’s young. Younger than customary.’
He shifted his attention to Bindy. ‘She bleeds?’
‘Not that young,’ Bindy assured him.
‘You’re certain?’ he asked. ‘You’ve seen for yourself?’
Rhohan’s cheeks pinked readily, something her siblings and cousins had delighted in exploiting since first schooling. Almost their only defence against her keen tongue and even keener intelligence. It was rumoured that the Court Mathematician was already taking an interest, but no matter how adept at numbers and theorems and proofs Rhohan became, she had never learned to control the rush of colour to her face.
And hardly ever, the rush of words into their stupefied, resentful, vengeful faces.
An early Communion, the aunties decreed.
‘The wind is brisk,’ the Legate said. ‘Pick up the book and come inside.’
Rhohan glanced at him in surprise, but he had turned towards the horizon and appeared to be studying the line of breakers, the lone seabird diving and diving for a canny fish. The wind whipped his hair free of its chased golden band, an unrepentant seaweed tangle which gleamed with the same phosphorescence as the sea itself. He must oil it, she thought, then swallowed at the impertinence. There was always the possibility that he could sense her thoughts. No one knew the full extent of his powers. Though she scoffed at the unending speculation—the boys as bad as the girls, never mind the aunties—something about him reminded her of the chambered mollusc shell encased in glass in the Great Hall, whose perfect logarithmic spiral never failed to fascinate her.
Wheezing, Aunt Bindy stooped towards the book, but the Legate stopped her with an impatient gesture.
‘Leave it, Auntie. The girl will do it.’
Rhohan picked up the volume, brushed it off, and gently blew away the last abrasive grains of sand. She was still holding it when he whistled two sharp staccato notes above the wind, exactly the way Aunt Tibby called the toddlers to order, or Aunt Una, the dogs. Rhohan extended the book towards the Legate, releasing her grip a fraction of a second before his hands could clasp it securely. Those strange hands, whose single thumb drew her like an unsolved equation. Again the book landed in the sand. Rhohan’s gaze was direct and guileless, despite her flaming cheeks.
Aunt Bindy made a clicking sound with her tongue. If the Legate hadn’t been present, Rhohan would have been reprimanded for her clumsiness, her ears boxed.
‘I sing of arms and a man: his fate had made him fugitive,’ Rhohan quoted softly.
The bird swooped towards them with a raucous cry, as if it blamed them for its failed catch. For its hunger.
Where have all the fish gone? Rhohan asked herself. The old tales, worn smooth as seaglass in the retelling, were improbable. Impossible: Rhohan had been beaten often enough for saying so. Which had merely convinced her to discover the truth someday. She preferred numbers to the fool’s glitter of polished colourless syllables.
‘Where did you learn those words?’ His voice, though low, was as harsh the bird’s, startling her thoughts into flight.
‘It’s the first line of the poem.’ With her toe she pointed towards the book still lying between them.
‘You’ve read it?’
Aunt Bindy shook her head hopelessly, the lines bracketing her mouth now grey and mothy with failure. But the responsibility was hers, and she made one final effort to propitiate the Legate. He soon interrupted her babblings with a dismissive headshake.
‘Enough, Auntie. You may go.’
Disbelieving, she continued to mumble a few disjointed excuses.
‘The girl will return when we’ve finished,’ he said, rather more sharply. Then a sound that might have been a laugh. ‘Though with this one, it may be a while.’
He retrieved the book himself and strode across the black dunes to the cottage doorway, where he waited, expressionless, for Rhohan to join him.
They ate before the fire, bowls of thick salty porridge. Hot cider, deliciously spiced. Rhohan had never been uncomfortable with silence. It was difficult to escape the continual harryings of the Hearth, though in time she had found a forgotten alcove off the linen storage, a small tidal cave, the crypts. The Legate drank more than he ate, his thoughts hidden by the steam rising from his mug, thoughts drifting perhaps like her own. Occasionally she stole a glance at his hands, but if he noticed, he gave no sign. His scars seemed less prominent in the flickering mellow light.
When Rhohan’s eyelids became heavy, the Legate removed the mug cupped in her hands and replaced it with the book she’d brought.
‘Read,’ he said.
She gazed into the flames, drowsily wondering if this were a test.
‘Do you need a lantern?’
What difference could it make? He’d not send her back now. Without opening the cover, she began to recite from memory, her voice strengthening as she took courage from his stillness. He had a gift for stillness. She only faltered once, when he rose to add a log—a whole log!—to the fire.
‘Go on,’ he said. ‘Or is that all you know?’
‘I’m tired, but I remember it all. A lot of it’s dull, though.’
‘You don’t like poetry?’
He leaned against the rough-hewn and blackened stone mantel and crossed his arms.
‘How long did it take you to memorise three hundred pages?’
‘Three hundred and sixteen. Seven lines short of seventeen.’
He laughed. A genuine laugh this time.
‘No wonder Bindy was so nervous.’
She shrugged, then swept the room with her eyes. A plain table piled with papers and books and writing utensils, bookshelves, a single pallet in the corner.
‘Where am I to sleep?’ she asked.
‘Haven’t your aunties explained?’
They stared at each other while the fire crackled softly, the wind warned of a coming squall.
‘How old are you?’ he finally asked.
‘Sixteen this Hallowtide.’
‘Rhohan. And yours?’
At first she thought he wouldn’t answer, that she’d gone too far.
He moved closer and crouched before her. Lifted her chin with a forefinger.
‘Hold your hand in front of my mouth. Ivan. There’s no puff of air.’
He repeated his name until she nodded. After several attempts she was able to articulate a reasonable approximation of the sound. Still he crouched before her. A long moment passed while her hand crept towards the thickened ridges of scar tissue along the left side of his face. They reminded her of the undulant lines terraced in the sand when the tide retreated.
Suddenly he snapped his head aside, and his mouth twisted. He rose and indicated a closed door near the pallet.
‘There’s a bath through here. Towels, nightclothes. Wash and go to bed. I’ll join you later, when I’ve finished some work.’
She began to collect their dishes, but he shook his head. ‘I’ll take care of it tonight. You’re tired.’
He stood unmoving before the fire, perhaps unseeing, as she opened the door to the passage.
He turned, surprised to hear his name on her lips, though he’d just taught her. He’s used to being alone, Rhohan thought. His eyes glittered in the firelight, and she realised he’d removed the lenses. Green flecked with gold, an unheard of colour. No wonder the aunties whispered about gods who walked the earth.
‘Your scars don’t repel me. They’re beautiful.’
This time his laugh rasped like a file on stone.
‘Please don’t try to flatter me. It won’t work.’
‘I’ve been accused of many things, but flattery isn’t one of them.’ Her mouth lifted at the corner. ‘Besides, I expect it would be easier to flatter a block of granite.’
A flash of memory. Marly, the stonemason, wielding a small hammer and sharp-pointed chisel to split a nodule, pitted and unprepossessing, which resembled a large misshapen tree potato. A tap, precisely—delicately—aimed. Then a long pause, while Marly studied the sample with her single eye, her fingertips, even her tongue. Another tap. ‘Under force stone will crumble rather than proffer its secrets.’
Broken open, the rock revealed a cleavage of perfect prismatic crystals—a rich lustrous green replete with grains of gold and amber and bright yellow, twin veins of deeper green to black.
‘Rare,’ Marly said with a smile nearly as rare. ‘Very rare. It will polish to high repute.’
‘Aren’t the bands a flaw?’ Rhohan asked.
‘On the contrary. Perfection diminishes beauty. Masks it.’ Her laugh, coarse as the granite she usually chiselled. ‘And it quickly bores the eye, even if you’ve got a spare to close.’
Rhohan said nothing, though Marly was the only hearther who wouldn’t mind being contradicted by someone so much younger. By a child.
‘You and your equations,’ Marly said dryly. She passed Rhohan a small piece of the stone. ‘For your collection. So that someday you might just appreciate more than numbers.’
In a soft leather pouch Rhohan safeguarded the cloth-wrapped specimens she’d been given over the years. Marly had disdained to conceal her gaping eye socket; her scarred, callused hands could administer a stinging slap; and she had often been surly and ill-tempered, particularly in cold damp weather. But she’d never turned away a child with genuine curiosity. Rhohan missed her sorely.
At first Rhohan shifted restlessly under the coverings, her thoughts scurrying for shelter before the imminent storm. Would it hurt? Would he talk to her? Show her what to do? Would she like it? Would he? Every time she peered out at his profile, the fire had burned lower, but he remained bent over his writing, seemingly oblivious to her interest, her anxiety. To her altogether. In the end she began to repeat the prime numbers, testing herself against her previous record. Rain was beginning to gust against the thatch. Later she wouldn’t remember if she’d dreamed the numerals appearing as dancing green flames tipped with gold, or only imagined them.
When Rhohan next opened her eyes, the fire was no more than a faint orange glow in the darkness. She raised herself on an elbow. Once her eyes adjusted, she could make out a figure wrapped in a blanket or cloak and stretched out asleep before the hearth
‘You snore,’ she told him as he nudged her shoulder at first light and handed her a mug of hot tea, tantalising her with the smell of fresh wild mint.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘And if I do? It’s impolite to say so on such short acquaintance.’
‘I’m not complaining.’
‘It sounds that way.’
‘Not at all. It makes me less nervous. Gods don’t snore, I wager.’
He snorted. ‘Is that what they’ve told you? That we’re gods?’
‘Well, I had my doubts when I saw you scratching for lice.’
‘I don’t have—’ He broke off, jammed his hands into his wide sleeves, and glared at her while she sipped demurely from her mug. After a moment he began to laugh. He had a wide range of laughs, she was discovering, each of them wonderfully expressive.
Rhohan gathered the soft creamy woollen blanket, which looked like South Coast handiwork, around her shoulders and padded barefoot to the window, mug in hand. Opening it, she breathed in the cool air, smelled the sea.
‘It rained heavily at night,’ she said, ‘but the clouds have dispersed. Do you mind if I swim?’
‘Will you join me?’
‘I don’t swim.’
Something in his voice made her glance swiftly at his face. He had a way of masking his feelings that reminded her of the travelling players, and their thick pancake. The stark white colour threw their every smile, every tear into relief.
‘I could teach you,’ she said.
He merely shook his head.
He remained in the cottage while she went down to the shore and stripped, but when she emerged from the water, blood running fast, lips faintly blue, he was there with a large bathing towel, which he wrapped round her body. She turned to face him, laughing from exhilaration until she realised how little two layers of cloth, one quite damp, disguised. They were close enough for her to feel his heat. He hadn’t bothered with his lenses.
‘Why didn’t you come to bed last night?’ she whispered.
After a long silence, he dropped his hands from her shoulders.
‘You’re not what I expected,’ he said.
Later that morning he showed her a device that made her dizzy with possibility. A computer, he called it. She had difficulty following his explanation of the way in which it was built, but none at all in navigating the first game he demonstrated, an interesting variant of their own rhythmomachia. Once he saw how quickly she caught on, he opened a mathematics text in a foreign language, which ceased to frustrate her as soon as she discovered the introduction to linear algebra. Slowly she began to puzzle out the unfamiliar notation, the axioms that she recognised—and those that she didn’t.
Dusk was falling when she looked up to find Ivan carrying a copper pot and two bowls from the kitchen. Her stomach grumbled as he set the pot before the fireplace and lifted the lid. Saliva spurted into her mouth: potatoes, black morels, seaweed, garlic.
‘Come and eat,’ he said.
She watched his hand as he ladled out the aromatic meal.
‘How did your people come to lose the second thumb?’ she asked.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You need to ask how yours developed an additional one.’
‘I mean that we are, genetically speaking, one species. The second thumb inevitably appears in our joint offspring.’
‘Not always. There have been cases, rare cases.’ She looked away. ‘The child is always cleansed.’
She said nothing.
He put down his spoon. ‘Killed? A baby?’
She nodded reluctantly.
‘Barbarians,’ he said, rising so abruptly that his bowl overturned. He ignored the spill and stomped out of the cottage, not even stopping to snatch up a cloak.
Hours afterwards, she heard him crying out in a strange tongue. A nightmare, she realised, when she saw him thrashing about at the hearth. She went to him, knelt at his side.
He rolled away from her hand, still muttering incomprehensibly. Shivering.
Rhohan lay down and drew him close, stroking his hair, stroking. Gradually he calmed, then opened his eyes and stared at her. This time he didn’t pull away when she ran her fingers along the scars. He’s not that much older than I am, she thought in surprise. Why haven’t I noticed before?
‘Will you teach me your language?’ she asked.
Thereafter he slept on the pallet, but the nightmares recurred. Sometimes he screamed, sometimes he fought her. Once she woke to his desperate, almost frenzied love-making, and lay still until he’d finished.
‘I’m sorry,’ he muttered into the damp hollow of her neck. ‘I’m so sorry,’ and she knew he was no longer apologising for his brutality. But he would never speak of his past, or his pain.
‘Rhinoceros,’ Ivan said, pointing to a picture on the monitor.
‘Rhinosos—’ Rhohan stumbled over the difficult word.
He repeated it patiently until she could pronounce it. Then ‘giraffe.’ And ‘alligator.’
Rhohan grinned at the images. ‘Are they for children? We do that too. Whoever drew them has a good imagination.’
‘No. They’re real. Or were.’
He gazed at her quietly for a long while, and she understood that this was another forbidden topic. Then his mouth tilted, and she had a new laugh to add to her catalogue.
‘Why not?’ he said, more to himself than her. ‘We’ve violated so many prohibitions already.’
He rose and fetched a book from his shelf. ‘You’ve learned enough to be able to manage. Read it, and then we’ll talk.’
He stood over her while she thumbed through the pages, stopping from time to time to whisper a sentence, sound out an unfamiliar word. She looked up when she heard the door lisp shut. He’d gone out—down to the sea again, probably. Recently he’d taken to walking along the shore for hours, returning grey and exhausted and often wet through. She closed the cover of the book and stared into space. After a few minutes she stood and donned the cloak he’d given her, the boots. The days were cooler, and though she still swam, she doubted that she’d be able to continue for much longer. She thought the snows might come early this year.
A mist was rolling in off the sea, and the wind was chill. Rhohan searched the sky for a bird, but there was only unremitting cloud, dull as tarnished silver. Ivan’s footprints were clearly visible in the damp sand. This time she followed.
An hour later she found him in a small cove where the sand gave way to dark shingle. As soon as she rounded the headland, she paused to steady her breath. He was facing the sea, his hair blowing wild and free, and the legends came flooding back. For an instant she thought of retreating, but it was already too late. Much too late. He turned and caught sight of her, waited in his quiet compelling way until she reached him. He encircled her with his arms, kissed the top of her head, her eyes, her throat. Leaned against her so that she couldn’t miss the weariness in his slender frame. He’d lost weight recently, she suddenly noticed, like one of the Hearth’s chained prisoners on gruel-and-water rations. How she’d hated those compulsory visits to the gaols. Whereas the taunts and sneers, the bold winks of the new detainees could be unsettling, it was the sunken blank eyes of the life inmates that followed her back to the schoolroom, to the sleeping quarters, to her dreams. And the men always worse than the women, something she’d never understood. For days afterwards her fantasies would be ridiculously heroic.
Holding Ivan’s upper arms, she swayed backwards to look into his face. He wasn’t wearing his lenses but the gold in his irises had lost its glint, and even the green had acquired the tinge of scum on a stagnant pool.
‘Tell me what’s wrong,’ she said.
‘They’re out there.’
In answer he bent for the book she hadn’t noticed at his feet. It fell open like dying black wings to expose a gutted text. He ripped out the next leaf, held it up before him. The book dropped to the ground. Both the surf and the wind slapped cruelly at her ears, almost drowning out his voice, but it was the epic she’d brought him.
‘What thanks can wretched fugitives return,
Who, scatter’d thro’ the world, in exile mourn?’
The page dangled loosely from his fingertips as he repeated the passage in his own language. The wind flapped the thin sheet back and forth while he stared into the fog, then snatched it away for him to lunge and catch under foot. With an inarticulate cry, he tore it in half, then in half again. And again, until the scraps were no larger than the shredded leaves the hearthers used for mulch. As she watched with eyes which were beginning to brim, he walked to the water’s edge, raised his hand, and released his grief into the sea. She stumbled to his side.
‘I want to stay with you,’ she said.
‘That, at least, is one bad choice I’m not permitted to make.’ He fingered the scars on his face.
Throat aching with the effort to contain her feelings, Rhohan seated herself on the shingle, drew her cloak tight, and waited. She could smell the rawness of winter in the air. His fingers were white and cold and stiff by the time he’d finished, and she took them between her own, first rubbing and breathing on them, finally laying them under her clothing to give them some life.
That afternoon he seemed content to toil at his books and notes until he was too weary to eat more than a few mouthfuls of the food Rhohan had prepared. Afterwards she practised reading to him in his own language, a strange and rambling tale of wizards and monsters, then the inevitable poetry. Their love-making was brief. If there were nightmares, they were fleeting enough not to rouse her.
Next morning the first snowfall had them outside tumbling like children. Snowballs, face scrubs, even a snowman. She showed him how to make snow angels. Talked about skis, there were so many hidden reaches to explore. Once inside, they towelled themselves dry before the fire, drank scalding mugs of the hearthers’ honey-sweetened bitter tea, and gave themselves the gift of a lazy, intimate afternoon.
‘If it’s a boy,’ Rhohan said, ‘he’ll be called Ivan.’
His eyes reflected the burnish of the firelight again.
Just after dawn she was awakened by an unaccustomed silence. There was no need to search the cottage. Rhohan tore open the door and ran barefoot through the snow, following his fresh tracks to the cliff above the beach. He had already waded to his chest into the icy water. He stopped, and for a moment Rhohan thought he’d turn round to look at her. His hair was loose and rose like wings, like hope at the next gust of wind. She hugged her belly protectively, too benumbed for tears. Then he glided forward and disappeared from sight.
Rhohan indeed named their son Ivan and taught him what she’d learned of his father’s tongue. Dreamy and elusive in childhood, he detested the court ritual to which he was condemned by Rhohan’s appointment as the youngest Court Mathematician to hold the lifelong title. When he could be found, it was usually with one of the bound journals in which he wrote incessantly. In time his poetry became renowned throughout the hearthrealm, and beyond. Poems like exquisitely facetted gemstones that even his mother came to appreciate. Poems that she knew, with an abiding grief, his father would have cherished.
Because of Rhohan’s fierce struggle to save her son, no child born single-thumbed was ever cleansed from the Hearths again.