Sarah chased her father out of the kitchen with an egg whisk.
‘Jesse and I will tidy up. I know you’re dying to get to work.’
Finn eyed the small pool forming at Sarah’s feet, then chewed his bottom lip without looking directly at Jesse. ‘Well—’
‘Go on, we’ll take care of it,’ Jesse said, reaching for the roll of paper towels. ‘I’m OK,’ he added firmly.
The dishwasher was midway through a cycle, chortling ghoulishly to itself. Nubi had taken one look at the machine and retreated again to the garden. Who knew what it might eat next?
Sarah tossed the whisk into the sink. ‘Let’s just rinse the breakfast things. We can stack them on the worktop till the dishwasher’s empty.’
‘These few dishes?’ Jesse scoffed. ‘It won’t take us more than ten minutes. I don’t fancy leaving the kitchen untidy.’
Sarah could tell from the set of his shoulders that he would do it alone if she refused. And she didn’t care for the impudent glint in his eyes. Think her spoilt, did he? She began to run hot water into the sink, then went to the table to collect plates and mugs.
‘Come down when you’ve finished, and I’ll give you the laptop,’ Finn said from the doorway.
‘Laptop?’ Sarah asked. ‘Not your spare?’
‘I told Jesse he could use it.’
‘Finn! I’ve asked you and asked you!’
‘You know the new PC’s always available,’ Finn said.
‘Yeah right. When Mum’s not hogging it, you mean.’
‘I don’t want to cause any problems,’ Jesse said.
‘No problem, Jesse,’ Finn said.
Sarah flounced to the sink and began to crash plates and mugs together, her plait swinging with petulance. Bloody male bonding. Jesse wouldn’t answer any of her questions about his weird talents, but she bet he’d told Finn plenty.
‘Hold on,’ said Jesse, ‘let me wash. You can dry.’
Finn beat the classic hasty retreat while Sarah and Jesse argued over who was more likely to break things. Once they’d settled the issue, they worked quickly and well together, though the air still held a few more charged particles than strictly necessary. It didn’t take them long to finish. Sarah was filling ice cube trays when Jesse balled the J-cloth he’d been using to wipe the tabletop and tossed it into the sink, just missing the tip of her nose.
‘Jesus! Now my T-shirt’s soaked,’ Sarah exclaimed. ‘I’d hate to see you with a basketball.’
‘If I’d intended to hit you, I would have.’
Arms akimbo, she glared at him for a moment. ‘Awfully sure of yourself, aren’t you?’ Then, poised on the cusp of a grin, she raised an eyebrow. ‘Or maybe you did that on purpose. Like Kevin would have, to highlight my nipples.’
Jesse coloured and bent to pick up a stray piece of eggshell, then straightened with an apologetic gesture. ‘Sarah, please don’t be cross with me. I wish you hadn’t seen that business with the fire, but you have, and I can’t change it. It’s just not something I’m ready to talk about.’
Her expression softened. ‘Maybe when you know me better.’
‘Maybe.’ He looked round for a broom. ‘We ought to do the floor. It’s full of crumbs and dog hair.’
‘Later. It’s too nice to stay indoors.’
The doorbell rang.
‘Go fetch the damn laptop while I see who it is,’ Sarah said.
Jesse was busy in the office for twenty minutes while Finn cleared some old files and explained how to operate the computer. Jesse listened politely, though it was all patently obvious. Finn’s model was a little outdated, but perfectly serviceable, or would be once Jesse made a few modifications.
Climbing the stairs from the darkroom, Jesse heard low voices and Sarah’s laugh from the direction of the sitting room. Talk slowed to a halt as Jesse entered the room. Mick, Kevin, and Tondi were clustered in a knot around Sarah. There was an awkward pause.
‘Look who’s here,’ drawled Mick, his eyes travelling from Jesse’s bare feet to his tousled hair. Mick winked at Sarah, but his eyes were cold. ‘You didn’t tell us you had company.
Sarah dropped her gaze and shifted from foot to bare foot, at last arching the left into an improbable crescent and tracing half-circles on the floor with stork-like grace. She couldn’t be clumsy if she tried. Jesse asked himself if she were embarrassed by his own presence or Mick’s taunt. Tightening his lips, he set the laptop on the floor and moved to her side. Though his heart was racing, he forced himself to show nothing but cool disdain. Sarah settled into a quiet stance but kept her eyes downcast, and her discomfiture fuelled his anger. Up close her skin smelled warm and faintly yeasty, like a new-baked loaf. A pulse beat suddenly in Jesse’s throat. He must have communicated something to her, for she stiffened slightly. Her arm brushed his—a prickling of the hairs along his skin.
‘Want to do a little skating?’ Jesse asked in a voice he himself hardly recognised.
Mick grinned but a muscle in his temple jumped. ‘Not today, Jesse boy, not today. We’re going to the club pool.’ His glance barely flicked towards Sarah. ‘Ready, Sar?’
‘I—I don’t know. It’s awfully early yet,’ she said, her eyes still on her feet.
‘Just got out of bed?’ Mick smirked.
The others laughed. No way, thought Jesse, no bloody way.
‘I’m afraid we’ve got other plans.’ Jesse’s voice was quiet and pleasant and regretful. He might have been refusing an invitation to tea. ‘Another time, perhaps. Like next year. Or next century.’ He spoke without the merest trace of sarcasm. ‘You do know the word century?’
The mocking smile faded from Mick’s lips. The room stilled, then shivered; the challenge had driven summer from the air. Slowly Sarah raised her head to regard Mick. Something like pity, something like derision glittered in her eyes. With an oath Mick jutted out his chin, took a step forward, and grabbed Jesse roughly by the arm.
‘Why you little wanker,’ he said. ‘Go back to whatever fucking hole you’ve crawled out of.’
Kevin looked uneasy. He put a hand on his friend’s arm. ‘Come on, Mick, chill.’
Mick shrugged Kevin off without releasing his hold on Jesse.
‘Freak,’ Mick spat at Jesse.
The word twisted like a blade of ice in Jesse’s gut. A deep breath, he told himself, take a deep breath. They’re only words. Who cares what these apes think? Let it go. Cunt. Weirdo. Pisshead. You’ve heard them all. Fucker. Cumbag. The band around his skull began to tighten. Pervert. A sudden weight on his shoulder made him turn his head—Finn’s hand warm and heavy there. Jesse felt himself grow taller, broader.
‘Take your hand off me,’ Jesse said, his voice icy. ‘Right now.’
Tondi watched Jesse with interest, a smile playing on her lips. Even on a hot summer day she wore a shiny red gloss of lipstick, plenty of kohl.
Two patches of red splotched Mick’s cheeks like frostburn. He sneered but a shadow of uncertainty scuttled out from beneath his bravado. Jesse smiled at the sight, he’d had enough Mals to last him a lifetime. Steely, flame blue, his eyes held Mick’s. At first imperceptibly, soon forcefully, Jesse drove a fire-forged tip through the cocky carapace. Mick’s fingers tightened on Jesse’s arm, gouging deep furrows. Deeper still. Mick hissed and dropped his gaze.
The room began to stir.
‘Mick, I think you’d better go,’ Sarah said. ‘I don’t want to have to call my father.’
Mick flung Jesse’s arm away, swallowing a curse under his breath. He pivoted and left without a backward glance. Sarah said nothing as the others muttered goodbye. In the doorway Tondi turned, hooked her thumbs into her waistband, and flashed Jesse a look which melted the last splitters of ice in the air.
‘You’re going out with him?’ Jesse asked.
Sarah and Jesse were sitting on a grassy embankment by the river. Nubi lay next to them, wet and panting. He swam easily, joyfully, chasing waterfowl and sandpipers in a great thrashing of water, though he came out willingly enough when reprimanded. The sky overhead was a brilliant blue whose glassy clarity magnified the heat.
Sarah took a long sip of her coke. Jesse watched her surreptitiously, enjoying the slender line of her throat as she tilted her head back. Her collarbone seemed sharp enough to tear her thinly gilded skin, and a few freckles chased the swell of her chest into her skimpy top. He averted his eyes, he felt vulnerable at her easygoing attitude towards her body.
‘It’s not what you think,’ Sarah said.
Jesse shrugged, not trusting himself to speak. Sarah and Mick—Jesse had wanted to be wrong. What could she see in someone like that? He turned his head and stared at the river. None of his business, after all.
‘Jesse, look at me.’
Reluctantly, Jesse turned in her direction, combed his fingers through his hair. Sarah thought how fine and silken it looked, like a child’s, and her fingers itched for a hairbrush. A golden mane, streaked with many subtle shadings, and bleached almost to white at the tips by the sun—Joseph’s coat in yellow.
‘You don’t owe me an explanation,’ Jesse said.
‘You’re right, I don’t. But I’d like to tell you, if you’ll listen.’
Jesse emptied his own can of coke, then crushed it in his hand. ‘OK, tell me about it.’
Sarah wrapped her arms round her knees. ‘I went out with him a few times. We weren’t really a couple. I’m pretty sure he was seeing other girls at the same time. He said he wasn’t but you know how it is. He probably thought I’d be jealous or possessive or something.’
‘And you wouldn’t have been?’
‘Hardly. I wasn’t in love with him, nothing like that. I wasn’t even sure how much I liked him.’
‘But you went out with him,’ Jesse snapped. ‘Slept with someone, I suppose, you didn’t even like.’
‘And you haven’t?’ retorted Sarah, stung by his contempt.
Sarah was quiet for a time.
‘You haven’t slept with anyone yet, have you?’
He picked at a loose thread on his jeans. ‘Not in the way you mean.’
Sarah exhaled in a long soft sigh. She shaded her face with a hand and looked out over the river, where the sunlight dazzled the eye through a spell of mirrors. She had to squint to see the boats trawling past. This part of the river was always heavily trafficked.
‘He was my first,’ Sarah said. ‘He’s good-looking and popular, and just about all the girls fancy him. I was flattered by his attention, I suppose. You’ve seen an ugly side of him. He can be very funny . . . sweet. OK, he’s a bit spoilt, a bit egotistic. So are most blokes with that kind of charisma. And I think there might be something with his father. Mick has a twin brother, Daniel, who got into a lot of trouble over dealing, they sent him off to some uncle or cousin in South Africa to sort him out, he hasn’t been back since. They were always terribly close, Mick and Dan, and Mick changed after his brother left. But he’s usually not quite so nasty. I don’t know what got into him today.’
Sarah ignored his interruption. ‘Why not, I thought. Time to find out what everyone raves about. It‘s not like I‘m going to get pregnant or anything. And Mick’s the sort to know what he’s doing.’ She fiddled with her plait. ‘It seemed smart to have a go with someone I didn’t care that much about, didn’t want to get involved with.’
‘I thought it’s supposed to be the other way around.’
‘Well, believe me, it doesn’t always happen like that.’
‘If you say so.’ Jesse looked away. The pictures in his head were vivid, too vivid. He picked up the discarded can and crushed it even smaller. She was seated close enough for him to smell the lavender on her hair, the not unpleasant tang of sweat, of soap and warmth—of Sarahness. To hear her soft breathing. To see her long limbs, the smooth effortless strokes. Her breasts, nipples puckering in the water. She’s swimming dreamily towards him. Mermaid hair, floating free. A cascade of bubbles from her lips. How close she is, how close. And then thrashing, Mick’s shark mouth, his hands . . .
‘Was it good?’ The question burst out of him.
She looked at him with an unreadable expression.
‘You said he can be fun . . . ’ His voice trailed off. Abruptly he scrambled to his feet and began to strip off his shoes and socks, then his jeans. Finn had found him old trunks. ‘I’m going for a swim.’
‘What, here?’ Sarah asked, surprised by the sudden change of topic. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’
‘Why not? Too polluted?’
‘No. The currents are treacherous. Much stronger than they look. Warnings are posted everywhere.’ Sarah waved her hand in the direction of a signpost. ‘No one swims here.’
‘I’m a good swimmer, I told you.’
‘Jesse, if you really want to swim, let’s go to the pool.’
‘So we can meet Mick?’
Sarah’s spine tillered hard up. ‘That’s low.’
‘Is it? Somehow your version of the story seems rather pat. You go skateboarding with him. He comes sniffing round the house. Looks to me—’
Sarah interrupted him angrily. ‘It looks to me as if you’d better get some real-life experience before you start judging other people.’
They glowered at each other for a moment before Jesse tossed down his jeans and sprinted towards the water without removing his T-shirt. Nubi sprang up and raced to join him. Sarah gnawed her lip, then the tail of her plait. She had something of her father’s quick temper, and more often than not regretted her rash words as soon as she’d uttered them. Which didn’t alter the fact that she was right about the river.
‘Where did you learn to swim like that?’ Sarah asked.
‘I grew up by a lake,’ he said reluctantly. He’d swum in all but the coldest weather.
‘What happened?’ she asked softly. ‘To your family?’
He turned away from her towards the river. She saw the loneliness in the sweep of his eyelashes, the pearly delicacy of his ear, the still curve of his mouth. If she’d dared, she would have put her arms around him. Instead she crossed them over her chest, hugging her thoughts to herself.
‘They died.’ His mouth tightened, and he said no more.
After collecting their things Sarah explained how to get to the boatyard. Then she dug into her pocket for money. Jesse shook his head.
‘Jesse, my mother left it for both of us. Get yourself something to eat.’
He stood mute, his mouth a stubborn slash in his face.
‘Christ, you’re pig-headed.’
‘Finn fixed it that the bloke pays me straightaway.’
‘And you’ll be back for supper?’
‘Your parents really do seem to want me to stay for a while.’ His tone was offhand, and he raised a shoulder as if resigned to the vagaries of adults, but Sarah wasn’t fooled in the least.
She hesitated, then looked straight at him, into that wonderful unsafe blue. ‘I’d like it too.’
Sarah saw the leap of happiness in his eyes before he bent to pull on his jeans. God, but he was a contradiction! A savage tenderness stung her eyes, clogged her throat. What was the matter with people? Why foster someone only to do this to him? She would cheerfully throttle the bastard. And whoever else had had a hand in robbing Jesse of his birthright. He owned so little—only what he could carry about inside himself. She wished she could convince him it was enough, more than enough. She thought of Mick. All his charm—and all the newest gear—wouldn’t cover up his selfishness, his shallowness. Why hadn’t she noticed before?