‘Here. You’ve been dying for a cigarette, haven’t you?’ Sarah asked, laying a packet and some matches in front of Jesse.
‘Thanks but no thanks,’ he said. ‘Don’t buy me stuff.’
‘Let’s get one thing straight,’ Sarah said, taking her seat again. ‘I don’t feel sorry for you. And I don’t want or need your gratitude. Nor do I have to buy my friendships.’
The café was air-conditioned, and its wooden furniture and terracotta floor and colour scheme, all browns and blacks and creams, told Jesse it had been decorated by someone who read the right magazines. Even the names on the menu had been decorated: espresso macchiato, iced caffè latte, chai crème. Sarah had chosen a milkshake with a frothy description, but Jesse, a small plain coke.
He pushed the cigarettes across the table to Sarah.
‘If you’re trying to prove a point, it’s wasted on me,’ she said. ‘I’m not impressed by grand gestures, and anyway, they’re just some fags. Mates help each other out when they’re skint.’
‘I’m not your mate.’
‘Right. Then don’t smoke them for all I care. One of my mates will be pleased to have them.’
Jesse’s lips twitched. She ought to have inherited the red hair.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘But what about the ban?’
She gaped at him. Capitulation was rarely this swift—it almost made her feel cheated, like her dad she relished a good fight. Jesse continually surprised her, and his mood swings could rival a tempest in sheer strength and unpredictability.
‘They look the other way if it’s not busy.’
Jesse unwrapped the packet of cigarettes. He was left-handed, his fingers long and fine and articulate like a musician’s, and the nails were short and very clean. For someone sleeping rough, he was particular. He inhaled deeply, seemed to be deliberating. When he exhaled, his nostrils flared in pleasure, or secret amusement. Again he inhaled.
‘If you inhale like that, you’ll end up killing yourself.’
‘My lungs are the last thing I’ve got to worry about.’
‘They must be so full of tar that the next time you light a match, they’ll burst into flame.’
‘Clever,’ he said drily.
‘If you like fires that much, I can think of better places to start one.’
Something shifted in his eyes, but then he blinked, looked down at the smoke curling from the cigarette in his fingers, and blew on it gently so that the burning tip glowed more fiercely. It must have been a reflection from the fag, Sarah told herself, a trick of the light.
Jesse took another drag on his cigarette—a deep, ostentatious, provocative drag. ‘If you don’t think I ought to smoke, why did you buy them?’
Her mouth turned up at the corner. ‘I thought they might relax you.’
He wafted back a grin of his own. She was quick, he thought, and not without a sense of humour.
His headache had retreated, but he was aware that it lurked on the fringes of his day. The offer that Sarah’s mother had made slid again into his mind. He didn’t have to stay for long, did he? A night, two at most. If he could at least avoid a full-blown migraine, he’d able to move on with renewed energy. He was so bloody tired.
Sarah signalled to the pimply waiter, who came over straightaway with an ashtray but barely glanced at Jesse. His eyes slithered along Sarah’s body, with the requisite pause at her chest.
‘Can I get you guys something else?’ he asked.
Sarah looked at Jesse, who shook his head.
‘Thanks. Just the bill, please,’ she said as she reached into her shoulder bag for her wallet. The waiter flicked a look of contempt in Jesse’s direction. Jesse stiffened but waited till the bloke was out of earshot.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘you may not want my thanks but you’ve got them, and willingly. I was hungry, tired, dirty. I feel much better now. As soon as you’ve finished your drink, I’d like to go back to your house. I’ll be gone before you begin to regret it.’
Sarah looked towards the waiter, who was busy clearing a table near the kitchen door. ‘Do you really imagine I care what someone like him thinks?’
Jesse had not expected her to be quite so perceptive. ‘It’s got nothing to do with him.’
‘Please. Give me credit for a little intelligence.’
‘OK, not much to do with him. He just showed me a hard truth.’ His gesture managed to convey both bitterness and contempt. ‘I don’t belong here. Not in this posh place, not in your posh house, not in your posh lives. I want to leave as soon as possible.’
‘Where will you go?’
He shrugged. ‘Does it matter?’
Sarah slammed the flat of her hand down on the tabletop so that their glasses jumped. At a nearby table two women with cigarettes between crimson-manicured fingers, carrier bags fawning at their feet, looked up in curiosity. Sarah lowered her voice but spoke no less urgently.
‘Of course it matters. You know how you’re going to end, don’t you?’
‘That’s my problem.’
‘What are you afraid of?’
‘I’m not afraid.’
‘Then stop running.’
A series of pictures flashed through his head: a bed without nightmares; a room where he could close—and bolt—the door any time he chose; music and quiet voices talking; a chess game; a home. Books, endless books. And the time to read them without worrying about the next meal, the next lonely sod or dangerous piece of goods, the police, the rain, the cold. One by one the pictures faded, leaving at first a ghostly afterimage, and then… nothing.
Once it might have been possible. He had forfeited the right to a normal life long ago. He stared into the bottom of his glass: running, she called it. As if anyone could run that fast.
Sarah’s next words scared him.
‘Mum’s already spoken with Social Services.’
Jesse stubbed out his cigarette. He rose.
‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘I want my gear.’
He turned his head away. He didn’t want her to see the expression in his eyes. Soon after the fire he’d learned it was better not to show his feelings. Sometimes he even stopped feeling them that way. Without a backward glance he hurried through the café.
Jesse was standing by the bike rack where they’d tied Nubi when Sarah joined him.
‘You waited,’ she said.
‘Tell me what your mother said to the Social Services people.’
‘Let’s go into the park and talk about it.’
‘Don’t play games with me, Sarah.’
She stared back at him, not in any way cowed. ‘You’re overreacting.’
‘Sorry, but I don’t think you’re headed for a career in Hollywood.’ She narrowed her eyes in appraisal, then allowed a grin to flirt with her lips. ‘Nope. Forget about it. Plus you’re too blond to be a Mafioso.’
It was not like him to waffle so much. When that bastard had hit him for the last time, Jesse had been gone within the hour. And it would have been sooner if he hadn’t waited till Mal went out. Jesse would never forget the satisfying sound of all those bottles smashing, the delicate model ships crunching underfoot. Mal had never built anything in his life. The entire collection had been his father’s work, but Mal had come to believe his own lies. He’d loved those ships as if he’d laboured over each bit of rigging himself. Pathetic, really. While Angie was at work—usually the night shift—Mal would give the latest woman a proper guided tour. Jesse shivered in spite of the heat. The noise they’d made. Mal hadn’t given a damn if Jesse overheard. He’d even been proud of himself, bragged about it, flaunted himself as a proper man. Until the next morning when Angie usually found the wrong cigarettes or strands of hair—‘do your tarts have to use my hairbrush?’—once even a pair of knickers. Mal had been good at feeling sorry for himself, and grovelling too.
‘Come with me,’ Sarah urged. ‘Just hear me out. I promise not to stop you from leaving if that’s what you really want.’
As if she could.
She untied Nubi’s lead and ran across the street into the park, the dog leaping at her heels. Jesse hesitated, then set off after her. It would be better to know what was happening with the authorities, he told himself.
As soon as Jesse passed the imposing ivy-covered pillars and descended the steps giving on to a wide gravel path, he felt a prickling sensation along his skin, akin to a mild charge of static electricity. He stopped for a moment to rub his arms, and the feeling passed. Calmly replaiting her hair, Sarah was waiting by a fountain—a massive stone sphinx, her wings spread and her eyes sharp and predatory—while Nubi drank noisily from the basin. Together they followed the path, which wound in a long sinuous curve and was fretted by mounds of feathery grasses and lavender, interspersed with sharp, angry spikes of red and orange. A distinctive mind had been at work here; the park was astonishing and almost unnerving in its contrasts.
It was much cooler in the shade. The variety of specimens aroused Jesse’s curiosity, for most of the trees were mature and couldn’t have been planted in recent memory. He supposed a park had stood on this site for many years. Trees had always spoken to him, and he appreciated their disparate characters, their faults: the cockiness of the hazel, needing to compensate for its stature; the stolid slow wit of the oak; and always the beauty and harmony of the willow, whose rooted dance could soothe some of his most turbulent feelings.
Through the branches of an ash, the sun glittered like a finely-cut lead crystal. As the leaves stirred and trembled Jesse glimpsed an ashen face staring back at him from their midst. The notes of a cello floated through the trees, faint but achingly clear. His throat tightened. He had a sudden urge to turn and run, but then the tree swayed and the face was gone. Only an optical illusion, a pattern of sun and shadow fed by his overactive imagination. He’d be seeing ghosts and demons next. But he could still hear the music. He even recognised the piece.
‘Where’s the music coming from?’ he asked Sarah.
‘The cello? Somebody’s probably busking near the sundial. Lots of street musicians come here, very good ones too.’
‘Not just another sundial. It’s one of the things I want to show you. One of Ursula’s best. We’re heading in that direction.’
‘You were going to tell me about your mother.’
‘It can wait.’
‘No, it can’t.’
Sarah studied his face. How strange, she thought. His eyes had become the deep purple of plums, yet as translucent as shadows on water. She might have been gazing into a pool in an ancient forest, her own face reflected there. And a wilderness of thorns.
Sarah gestured with her hand. ‘We can sit down over there,’ she said softly.
They came to an open meadow-like area. Scattered haphazardly among the high grass and wildflowers was a series of willow sculptures, each unique in size and shape. And grotesque: a man swallowing a child, its legs still dangling from gnarled lips; a headless figure riding a motorbike. After setting Nubi free, Sarah led Jesse to a bench.
‘How old is the park?’ Jesse asked.
‘It’s been here as long as I can remember, but they’re always adding or changing something, especially in the last few years. Why?’
‘Some of the trees are very old.’
‘My dad would probably know more about it. He’s involved in some city stuff.’
‘Friends in high places?’ Jesse was a bit ashamed of the mocking note that crept into his voice.
Sarah reached over and feigned flicking something from Jesse’s shoulder, though she was careful not to touch him, not even to come too close.
‘What was that about?’ he asked.
‘Getting rid of the chip.’
‘That bad,’ she agreed with a grin.
Nubi was racing round the meadow, chasing a butterfly. The brightly stippled insect darted first left, then right, then climbed steeply out of reach, then dropped in a nosedive to hover just above Nubi’s muzzle, then swerved again in a sudden feint and sped away to perch upon a bush and flutter her wings like long curled eyelashes. Nubi came to a halt and gazed at her with adoration, and no little reproach. Why was she taunting him? There was no need to keep fleeing. He barked once. The butterfly flew off, with him in pursuit.
Sarah leaned back against the bench and closed her eyes. The sun was hot and brought a flush of colour, a sheen to her face. Jesse thought how vulnerable the tiny beads of sweat above her upper lip made her look. He had a momentary impulse to wipe them away. He turned his face towards the sound of approaching voices, more disturbed than he cared to admit.
‘Sarah! We thought you were still on holiday.’
A girl and three boys carrying skateboards came up to them. The lads wore gaily coloured, baggy shorts; the girl, tight striped shorts, very short, and an even skimpier croptop—she had no qualms about displaying the goods. A market stall, Jesse thought in disgust. Sarah opened her eyes and sat up a little straighter. Her bearing altered subtly, though Jesse would be hard put to describe how. She smiled.
‘Hi there,’ she said in a lazy drawl.
A lot of talk followed, most of it in a code that Jesse couldn’t be expected to crack. He was just thinking of getting up and playing with Nubi when Sarah felt obliged to explain his presence.
‘This is Jesse.’
Jesse rose and turned his back on the group. He whistled for Nubi, who came dashing up as if he’d been training for years. Jesse crouched and rubbed the dog behind his ears.
Sarah got the message. Apologetically—sort of—she came over. ‘They’re going skating. We could join them, if you like.’
‘I don’t like.’
‘Come on, it’ll be fun,’ she urged.
‘I thought there was something you wanted to talk to me about.’
The friends looked at each other. One of them, the girl, spoke in a cultured voice that despite its well-rounded, honeyed vowels bit like a dash of sharp vinegar. ‘It’s OK, Sarah, we don’t want to interrupt anything.’
Jesse felt his hackles rise. Flicking back his hair, he stood to face Sarah’s mates. ‘You’re not interrupting anything. I was just leaving.’
Sarah’s colour deepened. She raised her chin. ‘Go on,’ she said to the four of them. ‘We might join you later.’
Jesse was pleased—very pleased—that Sarah had it in her to withstand her friends. He watched with a hint of contempt, his eyes cool and dismissive, as the kids shrugged, made their goodbyes. The girl looked back over her shoulder as they sauntered away.
Sarah crossed her arms. ‘You didn’t have to be rude.’
‘Those are the kind of friends you’ve got?’
‘Since when is it your business who my friends are? You sound like a mother, but not mine, thank god.’
‘No, I suppose your mother’s too out of it to notice the types you hang around with.’
‘Don’t you dare insult my mother! She’s a wonderful, generous person. You could show a little gratitude, you know.’
‘Oh yeah, here it comes. I’ve been waiting for it—the gratitude bit.’
Sarah chewed her lip. At first she didn’t reply. ‘Jesse, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.’
Jesse strode over to the bench to fetch the dog’s lead.
‘Look, they’re mates from school, that’s all,’ Sarah said. ‘Kids you see in the canteen, kids to go to a film or drink a coke with. Not worth fighting about.’
‘I think you’d better tell me about the call to Social Services.’
‘Why are you so anxious about that call? Have you murdered someone?’ She was still laughing when she realised that his face had blanched. He gripped the back of the bench with both hands.
He looked up, his eyes pleading and frightened, a small child’s eyes, clear sapphire, brimming with the no no no no that the world is supposed to listen to but never does. Sarah stifled a cry and took a step backwards.
‘Go,’ he said, when he could finally speak. ‘Please. Just go away and leave me alone.’
Sarah turned and went.
Half an hour later, Jesse was still sitting on the willow bench, back hunched, head in his hands and Nubi at his feet. There was no point in just sitting here, yet he couldn’t bring himself to do anything else. He didn’t even want a cigarette. He tried to think where he should go.
Jesse looked up. Sarah stood with the sun behind her so that he couldn’t make out the expression on her face. The light was warm and liquid, dripping redgold highlights onto her chestnut hair. She held out a bag.
‘Indian takeaway. I hope you like curry.’
‘Yeah.’ He gazed at her. He had no idea what else to say.
‘Come on, then. I know the perfect picnic spot.’
The small cornfield was hidden behind a stand of trees. Sarah pushed her way into the tall heads, fresh and colourful and heavy with ripening seed. Jesse sneezed once, then a second time. The sound was unexpectedly loud, and both of them giggled as if they were six years old and raiding the biscuit tin. As they tunnelled through the leafy grain they were completely enclosed, isolated from the outside world—even the sounds of the city had receded to an almost indistinguishable murmur. Occasionally a child’s high-pitched voice floated down through the dense matrix, but it was disembodied, androgynous, a reedy dreamtime fragment. Jesse was beginning to wonder if Sarah had lost her way when the corn ended abruptly. They emerged into a grassy clearing. Jesse swivelled, a smile slowly lighting up his face. They were in the midst of a perfect circle.
‘Well?’ asked Sarah, her eyes zesting with delight.
Jesse gestured with his free hand. ‘Who planted all this?’
‘No clue. One of the gardeners, I reckon. But it’s good, isn’t it?’
‘I’ve never seen wheat in these colours before. Must be a special hybrid.’
‘That’s because it’s not wheat. It’s amaranth.’
Jesse grinned. ‘Huautli to the Aztecs, who even used it in their religious ceremonies. It’s been around for thousands of years—first known record dates from about 4000 B.C.—and now grows just about everywhere. Cultivated a lot in India, where it’s both a leaf and grain crop. Very high in protein. And very productive. I’ve read that from one plant you can get 100,000 seeds.’
‘Is that so? Then it won’t matter that you’ve harvested several hundred of them.’
She pointed to his head and giggled once again. They had masses of seed, chaff, and torn leaf caught in their hair. A cloud of dust rose when Jesse threshed his own ragged crop with his fingertips, enough for both of them to sneeze.
Sarah picked a spot for them to eat more or less at random. There was no shade, though near the circumference of the circle the tall plants provided a little relief. Sarah knelt, began to unpack the carrier bag, then leaned back on her heels.
‘Your memory’s starting to worry me,’ she said. ‘Petabytes beyond industry standard.’
Jesse reddened. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to show off.’
‘There might be things to apologise for, but being intelligent isn’t one of them.’ She handed him a white carton. ‘That’s for Nubi.’
They ate. Jesse noticed that Sarah wolfed the food almost as hungrily as he did. No fine table manners here. They had plastic spoons to use, but Sarah broke off pieces of the chappatis to dip into her curry and didn’t hesitate to lick her fingers. Jesse was more fastidious.
‘When’s the last time you had a proper meal?’ Sarah asked.
After they’d sated their first hunger, Jesse fiddled with his spoon, turning it this way and that in his fingers. ‘Thanks for coming back,’ he said at last.
‘You scared me.’
‘Sorry,’ he muttered.
‘Not like that. I’m not afraid of you.’
‘You ought to be.’
‘Do you want to talk about it?’
They were silent for a while.
Jesse lay back in the grass and stared up at the cloudless sky. Nubi was busy crunching away at his heap of bones. Nearby Sarah had twined her legs into a lotus, her eyes on the corn, her mind probably elsewhere; her breathing was faint but audible, reassuring. Otherwise, the world was still, waiting for deliverance, or at least a winning lottery ticket. The canopy of heat draped a fine gauze across his eyes. He laid an arm behind his head. Summer memories of a swing, high scratchy grass, an ice cream dripping through his fingers, a child’s giggle. There’s no going back. A butterfly flutters and the world changes. Always, it changes. It does no good to wish, to regret, to what-if. You take what’s handed out.
He must have slept. When he opened his eyes, the sun was lower in the sky. Nubi lay at his side, asleep, or half-asleep in the manner of dogs, for he cracked his eyes when Jesse stirred. Jesse realised what had awakened him.
Sarah was dancing.
Jesse tried not to make a sudden movement. Breathing as lightly as possible, he carefully shifted onto his side and propped himself on an elbow. With a feeling close to awe he quietened his mind, his noisy blood. He’d never seen anyone dance like this.
Sarah seemed to have grown taller. In an unbroken skein of movement she crosses and recrosses the nave of corn. Eyes shut, she sees with hands and feet and inner sight: a dreamweaver. Her body darts and flows to a music only she can hear, now bending, now reaching—gliding through the weft and warp of the universe, gathering the threads of time and space into a new pattern. Is she the dancer or the dance?
The earth slows, stops moving, turns black and cold. Against the deep velvet of space Sarah weaves a nebula of light. Jesse reaches out a hand, certain that he can pluck one of the stars—only one—from the glittering web. His fingers burn—the icy touch of a blade—and he jerks back with a cry.
Like a top Sarah spun to rest in the exact centre of the circle and opened her eyes, breathing gently.
‘Jesse,’ she said.
She smiled, came over to him, sat down, crossed her legs. Jesse thought he heard the cello again. He took a deep breath, as much to smell her warm spicy sweat as the lavender.
‘If you want to join your friends, I don’t mind,’ he said. ‘Maybe I was a little rude.’
‘They’ll survive.’ Sarah stroked Nubi. ‘Do you know how to use a skateboard?’
‘I’ll teach you.’
She stood, brushed off her shorts. She extended her hand, and after a brief hesitation Jesse let her help him to his feet.
‘My mother only asked for some information,’ Sarah said. ‘What happens to a minor who’s homeless, who gets to take him in, stuff like that.’
Jesse snorted. ‘Forget it.’
‘Was it—?’ She stopped, unable to complete her question.
He looked at her with a guarded expression in his eyes. ‘It’s over. The rest doesn’t matter.’
‘The summer won’t last forever.’
‘Nothing lasts forever,’ he said with a twist of his lips.
Sarah tossed her plait over her shoulder, a gesture that he was coming to recognise as signalling impatience or even distaste.
‘You can do better than that,’ she said.
‘Like not hiding behind some stupid cliché. Like having a little self-respect. Like dealing with whatever’s happened to you.’
‘You know nothing about me.’
‘No facts maybe. But I hardly need them to understand it’s no life shivering under a bridge in a snowstorm. Scrounging for your next meal.’ Sarah took a breath. ‘Scared and cold and hungry. Lonely. Desperate.’ She hesitated, then spoke bitterly. ‘Or dead.’
Jesse held up a hand as if to ward off her words. One by one they stung his skin like angry wasps.
‘Let’s go,’ he said, his voice rougher than he’d intended. Quickly he bent to collect their rubbish.