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Sarah appeared in the kitchen just in time to peer over Finn’s shoulder at the frying pans.
‘Where did you find all that bacon?’ she asked. ‘You can’t have been to the shops already.’
‘Under a bag of chips that’s split its guts. Somebody’s going to have to defrost that deep freeze before we need an axe—or a flame-thrower.’ Finn’s gaze rested on Jesse for a moment as he handed Sarah two plates of scrambled eggs and mushrooms. ‘What are you doing up so early anyway?’ He made Nubi sit for his share of bacon. ‘Turn over a new branch?’
‘Leaf, you mean. As in book.’
‘Nope. Forest, maybe, for the amount of paper you’d need.’
Even Nubi seemed to grin. Sarah snorted and tossed her plait over her shoulder. ‘It’s too early for bad jokes.’
Finn brought Jesse a heaped plate, then sat down and tucked into his own breakfast. It was only after he’d eaten several rashers of bacon and a thickly buttered slice of toast, heavy with jam, that he paused for breath. ‘I’ve really missed good home-cooking.’
‘You’re going to put back all those pounds within a week,’ Meg said drily.
‘Now don’t start with that again.’ Finn turned to Sarah. ‘Heard from Katy yet?’
‘An email a few days ago.’
‘How’s it going?’ Finn asked.
‘Not too bad. Hot.’ Sarah explained to Jesse. ‘Katy’s one of my best mates. She’s working on an Indian reservation in Arizona for the summer holidays.’
‘Native Americans,’ Finn said. ‘Navajo, in this case.’
Meg glanced at her bare wrist, then up at the clock.
‘Don’t forget your watch.’ Finn said.
‘It needs to be repaired.’
‘What have you done? Taken a sledgehammer to it?’ Sarah asked.
‘Just a minor adjustment,’ Meg shot a warning look at Finn, who was about to make one of his comments. ‘Look, I’m going to be late if I don’t hurry.’ She addressed Sarah. ‘I’ve left a shopping list and some money. Could you pick up the things we need for supper? We’re going to barbecue. I’ll be back by eight.’ A smile. ‘Truly.’
‘OK.’ Sarah buttered a piece of toast. ‘Anything else?’
‘Tell your father when you go out, and don’t forget your mobile.’
Sarah made a face at her mother.
‘I mean it, Sarah Louise Andersen. You must be the only teenager in the country whose ear is not permanently affixed to the phone.’
‘Think of how much I’m saving you. I ought to get more pocket money.’
No stranger to such comments, Meg wiped her fingers on her napkin and laid it at her place. She turned to Jesse, her voice level, her eyes gentle. ‘Do I need to say goodbye?’
Jesse ducked his head, go and stay chasing round and round in his mind like cat and dog, round and round again. He looked over at Nubi, whose opinion couldn’t have been more obvious: maybe you prefer a bridge, but I’ll take a clean mat and bacon any day. And I’d like another chance at that stuck-up, pampered feline who’s begging to be taught a little respect.
Finn intervened. ‘Leave the boy, Meg. He and I have got a few things to sort out.’
After breakfast Finn sent Sarah off to the newsagent by bike.
‘Jesse and I will tidy the kitchen,’ he said. When she scowled, he added, ‘Well, you can always do the dishes at supper if you’re feeling slighted. And I think Meg mentioned something about the downstairs loo. A good scrub, wasn’t it?’
Sarah snorted at her father’s perfidy but left the two of them alone.
‘She’s a good kid,’ Finn said after she’d gone. ‘She’ll give us enough time to talk.’
Jesse said nothing.
‘More coffee?’ Finn asked.
Jesse shook his head.
Finn poured himself another mug, then added cream and a hefty amount of sugar. ‘Meg’s always after me to leave off the sweet stuff,’ he despaired. ‘Just this once.’
Jesse’s lips twitched. He pushed back his chair. ‘I’ll start the washing up.’
‘Afterwards,’ Finn said. ‘This won’t take long.’
Now was the opportunity. Jesse played with the crumbs on his plate, considering how to explain.
‘Let’s start with the fire in my office,’ Finn said.
‘I was just about to tell you.’ Jesse didn’t like the way it made him appear, as if he’d been planning to sneak off like a pathetic coward. ‘Look, I’m sorry. I’ll repay you as soon as I can.’
‘Don’t pretend to be obtuse.’
Jesse stared at his plate for a long time. ‘I guess you’re not going to be satisfied with something like spontaneous combustion,’ he finally said.
Jesse shrugged. ‘I can’t give you an explanation.’
‘It’s happened before?’
In the lengthy silence Finn wondered whether Meg had ever run into this sort of thing. And there was that research project he’d heard about, the one Ayen was directing.
‘How long have you been on the run?’ Finn asked.
‘I’m all right. I don’t need any help.’
Finn tilted his chair back onto its rear legs, folded his hands across his midriff, and regarded Jesse soberly, without a trace of pity. ‘That’s not what I asked you.’
‘A few months.’
‘A police matter?’
‘Good.’ He saw Jesse’s grimace. ‘I have some experience with the police. They don’t always get things right. How could they? But it makes things a lot easier if they’re not involved.’
‘I’m not wanted for anything criminal.’ Mal would never have reported the damage to his models. Not after Jesse’s phone call.
‘How old are you?’
‘Old enough to decide where I want to live, what I want to do with my life.’
Jesse didn’t answer.
‘You don’t know, do you?’
‘That’s my problem.’
‘No, it’s not. It’s everyone’s problem. A society is responsible for its kids.’
‘An activist,’ Jesse sneered.
‘I’ve been called worse.’ Finn kept his temper. ‘You’ll have to do a lot better than that if you want to rock me. Do you have any idea of the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen?’ Only the sharp scything motion of his hand revealed the depth of his feelings.
Jesse hunched his shoulders. There was a long deep scratch, almost a groove, on the tabletop in the shape of an irregular z, as though a child had tried to carve a lightning bolt. Jesse traced his finger along it—back and forth, back and forth.
‘You know, Jesse, you’re young and smart, with all your parts in working order, while I’ve seen kids with half a face, kids crawling on legs stunted by polio—polio, for god’s sake, in this day and age—kids orphaned and emaciated by AIDS. And most of them tenacious little buggers who, despite having been dealt a bloody lousy hand, don’t give up.’ Finn gestured towards Jesse, a knife thrust. ‘Look at yourself. Take a good hard look. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you’—he couldn’t miss the contemptuous expression that crossed Jesse’s face—‘your whole life, and I don’t mind repeating it, no matter how trite it sounds, because it’s obvious you’ve no clue where to go and what to do. You’re running like a car on empty. Have you got any idea—any idea whatsoever—what’s likely to happen to you if you keep going?’
Jesse’s chair screeched. ‘I’m not going to—’
‘Sit down!’ Finn’s voice cracked over Jesse’s head, while his chair thumped back solidly onto all four legs.
The clock ticked as Jesse hesitated, a low steady pulse. Then he sat. Sometimes it was easiest to wait things out. He didn’t have to listen—he’d heard it all a million times before.
But Finn had finished. He drank his coffee. He went to the kettle and filled it, plugged it in. He fussed with coffee beans and electric grinder and filter. He began to wash the frying pans. The smell of fresh coffee wafted across the room. Jesse looked through the open kitchen door to where Nubi lay on a sunny patch of lawn, gnawing on a stick. The sundial winked from its pool. It took Jesse a few minutes longer to work out that Finn would clean the entire kitchen, if necessary—and paint it too—before saying another word. An unusual man, Jesse had said to Sarah. He wondered if she understood just how unusual.
Sarah’s father brought the coffee pot to the table and sat down. This time Jesse accepted a refill.
‘I’d like to hear what you have to say,’ Jesse said.
Finn leaned his elbows on the table. He took his time, tapping his fingers against his lips and staring off into space. Liam used to do that—retreat into his own head at odd moments. It was one of the first things Jesse had noticed about him, and in time Jesse had come to understand how painful—physically painful—the world of assessments and bureaucracy and parents and sarky kids and pretence could be for him. In his blackest moods Liam had said that sex was his only release, his sole escape from himself. They had never spoken of love.
Then Finn asked an unexpected question. ‘Have you ever ridden a motorbike?’
Jesse shook his head.
‘Would you like to learn?’
‘I’ve never really thought about it,’ Jesse said warily. ‘I suppose so. Why?’
‘Motorcycle journeys have a way of travelling into the past as well as the future.’
‘Pirsig. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’
Finn whistled in appreciation. ‘You really have done a lot of reading.’
‘An old paperback I picked up somewhere.’
Finn tapped some more with his fingers. ‘Tell me, Jesse, just how good is your memory, exactly?’
There was no point in false modesty with this man. ‘Good.’
Finn picked up his mug and swirled the hot coffee round, blew on it, but set it down again without drinking.
‘Pirsig has his flaws, but I like the motorcycle metaphor, and some of the fundamental questions he raises haven’t changed. Maybe they never do. Meg thinks me mad, but I find biking exhilarating—empowering even. I get most of my best ideas when biking. If a really tough problem is plaguing me, I try to get out on my Harley.’ Then he grinned. ‘Of course, it’s also great fun.’
Jesse visualised a beach, seabirds, waves. ‘Do you ever go as far as the coast?’
‘It’s not even a hard afternoon’s ride. Longer, of course, if you want to enjoy the beauty of the countryside.’ Finn chuckled. ‘Pirsig’s secondary roads.’
‘I was planning to make my way there. I’ve never been to the sea.’
‘That can be arranged. I’d love to introduce you to biking.’
Jesse drank some of his coffee, uncertain how to react.
‘Look, here’s our proposal,’ Finn said. ‘Stay the rest of the summer with us. We’ve got plenty of room. It’s only a month or so till school begins. Take some time to think about who you are, what you want. No strings attached. You’ll be free to come and go as you please—well, within the normal limits of a home.’
‘You don’t even know me. Why would you offer me something like this?’
Finn’s gaze shifted inward for a moment. Then he sighed, blinking rapidly. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’
‘Not to me.’
‘Because you need it.’
Jesse waved a hand towards the kitchen door and passage beyond. ‘I don’t see a whole lot of other indigents lodged here.’
Finn stared unflinchingly at Jesse, who suddenly found he couldn’t look away. His hands began to tremble, so that he was forced to grip the edges of his chair seat. Finn leaned forward and still would not release him.
‘What will it be, Jesse? The future or the past? You’re going to have to chose. Sure you’ve had a tough time. Anyone can see that, not just Meg. But it’s not a life sentence. Or it doesn’t have to be.’
With an effort Jesse averted his eyes. An unbidden picture of his family, their last meal together. One of his mother’s roast chickens. He can taste the crisp brown skin that Emmy won’t eat. He can taste the cold lager with its head of foam from which he’s allowed to sip. And the other taste, the one mingling with the smell of sweat and the sound of harsh loud breaths, hot against his neck. Again, and again. Will it never end? Pain—hot and fierce—flays his back, his shoulders, his throat. Jesse! Where are you? It’s hot. Jesse!
Jesse tore himself away from the memory. ‘I can’t–’ His voice splintered. Then brokenly, ashes of the past clogging his throat, dry chalky whispers, ‘There was a fire.’
‘I thought there must have been.’
‘You’ve got no idea. None at all!’ Jesse cried. ‘I killed them…’
Finn’s sea-blue eyes washed over him with unbearable kindness.
‘I killed them…’ The anguish in his voice sliced through the slowly rising waves like a dragon-head.
‘It hurts, I know.’
The bone-cage tightened around Jesse’s head. He gasped, then his throat and lungs constricted. All colour bleached from the room, and the room began to pitch. He rose, grasping the table for support. It was only a few steps to the garden. Air, he just needed some fresh air. Breathe, he told himself. But there was no air. His face was cold. He floated outside his skin. He saw himself start to slide, saw Finn stand and catch him, saw them enter the whiteout together.
Jesse opened his eyes to find Finn sitting next to him on the bed, looking worried.
‘Jesse?’ Finn said. ‘Are you all right? You gave me a bit of a fright.’
Jesse scanned the room—no flames, no blackened timbers, no skeletons. An ordinary bedroom—prosaic, safe. The way he’d left it this morning. At the edge of his vision something stirred. His eyes darted towards the corner. No ghosts.
‘What happened?’ Jesse asked. ‘How did I get here?’
‘You fainted so I carried you upstairs.’
‘How long was I out?’
‘Only a few minutes. Sarah’s not even back yet.’
Jesse sank back against the pillow. He closed his eyes against the bright sunlight, glad that Meg hadn’t been here to take over. At Finn’s next words he snapped them open again.
‘I think you need a thorough check-up. Just to make sure nothing’s wrong.’
‘I’m not HIV-positive, if that’s what you’re afraid of.’
‘That was the furthest thing from my mind.’
‘I’m fine,’ Jesse insisted. ‘I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I eat.’
Finn smiled. ‘True, you’ve got a healthy appetite. But I’d feel better if you at least let Meg have a look at you.’
Finn regarded him for a moment, then dropped his hand briefly onto Jesse’s shoulder before getting to his feet. A chess player, Finn knew that it was sometimes expedient to sacrifice a piece.
‘Who’s Emmy?’ he asked.
‘How do you know about Emmy?’
‘You said her name as you were coming round.’
Jesse hesitated. ‘She was my sister.’
Jesse nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
A burst of high-pitched laughter through the open window, a shout of my turn. Some little girls were playing in the neighbouring garden. Higher, Jesse, push me higher! Jesse swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. His head felt light, but there was no dizziness. He rubbed his hands through his hair.
‘I’ll clear up in the kitchen,’ Jesse said.
‘Leave it for now. I want you to take it easy.’
‘Stop worrying. It was only—’ Jesse broke off, unwilling to continue.
Finn bent to pick up a jumper that had slipped to the floor. He shook it out slowly and draped it over the foot of the bed.
‘It’s OK,’ Finn said. ‘When you’re ready to talk about the fire, I’ll be there to listen. Be patient with yourself, Jesse. Be good to yourself. You’ve been on the road for a while now. You’re exhausted—mentally, physically. Emotionally. Give yourself the chance to build up your reserves.’
‘Maybe… just a day or two.’
They heard a door slam and Nubi’s welcoming bark. Sarah was back.
‘I suppose Sarah will want to go out. Don’t let her drag you along if you’re not up to it. She can be rather overbearing sometimes. Nobody will mind in the least if you decide to spend the day in bed or lazing in the sun or reading,’ Finn said.
‘I think I’d like to visit a library,’ Jesse ventured.
‘No problem. Sarah can take you.’
‘And maybe ask round for some work.’
Finn looked thoughtful. ‘Let me see what I can do.’ He tugged at his beard for a short while, ten seconds, twenty, then grinned and punched the air like a lad. ‘Got it! Ever seen a narrowboat?’
Jesse marvelled at the ease he felt in the older man’s company. He would have done anything for a foster father like Finn. Then Jesse realised the direction of his thoughts. Shit. He remembered with bitterness the first foster home, then the next. A new start: a kid’s sad little promise to himself. He’d still wanted to make it work in those early years. It had taken him a while, but he’d learned. Altruism was about as likely as time travel. And even kindness had its limits.
So why the fuck was he doing it again?