‘May I come in?’
Jesse nodded. The knock hadn’t come as a complete surprise, though he’d hoped to leave unobtrusively. He’d already changed back into his own things and packed his rucksack. Sarah's mother must have ironed his freshly washed clothes, for he’d found them folded neatly on the bed; she’d even mended a hole in the pocket of his jeans. His thank-you note lay on the desk.
Meg closed the door behind her, something which Jesse couldn’t make out cupped in her right hand. In the dim light her face hovered like a bright flame above a long taper. Her white jeans and shirt shone. Jesse glanced at the window. He’d been so engrossed in his churning thoughts that he’d not noticed the change.
‘A storm’s coming,’ Meg said.
The wind was rising, drawing a heavy curtain of cloud across the sky and masking the last twilight. The air crackled with energy. Meg moved towards him and extended her right arm, pearly as the inner skin of an onion. As Jesse reached for the object in her hand, their fingertips brushed. Cool bluewhite tongues flowed across his fingers and up his arm. With an oath he took a step backwards. He waved his arm, and drops of fire splashed onto the floor. His heart began to pound. Wildly, he tried to shake off the flames. They splattered around him. He whirled in panic, thinking to douse them, smother them ... anything.
In the corner an emaciated, naked lad is lying on a mattress with his arm across his face. His long reddish hair is matted and filthy, his body not much cleaner, and he's shivering violently.
‘Jesse,’ Meg said, ‘please stay. It’s not a good time to leave.’
At the sound of her voice the figure disappeared, as well as the flames. Jesse spun back round to Meg, who was bending to retrieve whatever she’d brought with her.
‘Who are you?’ Jesse cried.
Meg went to the doorway and switched on the overhead light.
‘It’ll rain soon,’ she said. ‘A thunderstorm, I think. Where will you go? We’re far from the city centre. Wait at least until morning.’
Slowly Jesse swivelled and examined every corner of the room. All was empty and bright – no deep shadows.
‘Did you see him?’ he asked, his voice urgent.
‘Nobody sees what anyone else sees.’
‘Don’t give me that meaningless drivel!’
‘I can’t help you if you won’t allow me to.’
‘I haven’t asked for your help, and I don’t want it.’
But even to his own ears his protest sounded petulant, childish. He averted his eyes, shocked by the sudden welling of tears. Because of course she was right. Where would he go in the middle of the night? In the middle of a thunderstorm? He swallowed, gagging at the coppery taste.
‘There’s absolutely no shame in accepting help,’ Meg said.
Gingerly he seated himself on the bed and clasped his hands between his knees, bowing his head. He tried to think.
Meg waited a few minutes, then came and stood nearby without crowding him. No matter how grim, he’d always been able to see the irony in a situation. So Meg knew how to handle a troubled adolescent, did she? Of all the places for him to end up … But then she smiled, her eyes compassionate, and he felt the warmth of her empathy. It wasn’t just a job for her. Maybe.
‘Here, I’ve brought you this.’
Nestled snugly in her palm was a blue wooden top, a child’s toy the size of a large chestnut. Jesse accepted it with misgiving. He’d almost expected some kind of handout – clothes, enough money for a meal or two, a referral card, all nothing he’d accept. But a top? What the hell was he supposed to do with a top? And this from a shrink? Vampires, all of them, feeding off other people’s tainted blood. Playing their little games.
‘Do you mind if I sit down?’ Meg asked, indicating the desk chair. ‘My eyeteeth are of normal length.’
Jesse caught his breath. He raised his eyes to Meg’s, which contained nothing more than an amber gleam of laughter. And yet …
He gestured for her to sit, but his gaze returned to the corner of the room. It occurred to him that if Meg hadn’t been here, the lad might have spoken. Then vexed, he shook his head to dispel his own illusions. The figure had seemed so real. Could Meg have had something to do with it? He still hadn’t recovered that chunk of memory after he’d first drunk her brew.
Jesse ran his fingers along the smooth surface of the top. Ash, he thought. The wood was warm, its varnish worn thin in places. The more he rubbed, the more he enjoyed its texture.
‘Don’t give me gifts,’ he said, curt and almost surly. But he didn’t hand it back.
‘You may need it,’ Meg said. ‘It has a habit of returning to where it’s needed.’
She sat down facing Jesse. He soon realised that she had no intention of saying another word till he spoke. Fine with him. Two could play that game. He was good at it.
The curtains at the open window shivered. The air felt swollen, bloated. Jesse held himself stiffly on the bed; he could smell his own sweat. He closed his eyes to find Emmy smiling at him above her glass of milk, the usual moustache painting her upper lip. She licks at it with her kitten tongue. No! Not that road, not here, not now – not ever. Memory’s nothing more than a combination of electrical and chemical codes, with enough effort he’ll delete them. Eventually.
‘Is Emmy a friend?’ Meg asked.
He must have said the name aloud.
‘No,’ he whispered, his voice unsteady.
‘Would you like to tell me about her?’
He shook his head. ‘You’re a psychiatrist.’
‘A punishable offence?’ She smiled.
‘I’m not mad,’ he said defiantly. ‘There was a strange boy in the corner.’
‘You don’t have to prove it to me.’
‘Then you did see him.’
‘There are different kinds of seeing.’
Jesse searched her face, but she seemed perfectly serious.
‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘What are you?’
‘I think you already know that words, powerful as they are, wonderful as they are, can describe only a very thin slice of our reality – some believe, make our reality. Whatever I said would conceal – distort – more than it would convey to you.’
He jackknifed forward, his body sharp with anger, his words steel-tipped. ‘Typical shrink. Always twisting things. Always wriggling out from under.’
‘Not the first one you’ve met, I gather.’ Her voice, though amused, carried an undertone of regret – apology, almost.
‘I don’t need this.’
‘You’re quite well read – exceptionally so for your age, perhaps any age. Surely you know about the Freudian mechanisms of negation and disavowal.’
Suddenly tired, Jesse dropped his head into his hands. A few fat raindrops splattered against the sill, and through the open window he heard them beginning to spit on the patio roof, still warm from the day’s heat. He dragged his gaze towards the window. While he and Meg had been talking the sky had closed completely. Treetops were bowing – almost cowering – before black thunderclouds massed above the city. The curtains blew inwards like a girl’s long hair. Very soon the storm would break in earnest.
‘Gifts are hard,’ Meg said. ‘Yet for all that –’ she broke off and gazed into the corner where the lad had been.
Jesse stared at her. A chill draught blew across the back of his neck.
‘What do you see?’ he asked.
Jesse couldn’t tell if Meg heard him. A flash of lightning lit the sky, momentarily blinding, followed almost immediately by a loud clap of thunder. From the landing came the sound of Nubi whining, then his paws scrabbling at the closed door, more whimpering. Jesse glanced again at Meg, who hadn’t moved, then went to let him in. Their old border collie Bridget had always crawled under Jesse’s bed during a storm.
And then in one great fall as if the belly of the sky had been slashed open with a sword, it rained. An awesome display of power. The storm strode across the city, its booted feet and balled fists heading straight for this house and this moment and this encounter. Jesse had never been afraid of lightning – its fire was pure, and utterly exhilarating.
Jesse crossed to the window and leaned out over the sill. Rain lashed his face, and the front of his T-shirt was soaked through within seconds. Release had dispelled the heaviness in the air. A heady feeling of elation seized hold of him, and fatigue forgotten, he closed his eyes, stretched out his arms, and breathed … breathed. The next fork of lightning split the sky with a jagged shriek. It leaped straight for him. The house shook with the force of its impact. Meg rose with a hoarse cry from her seat, staring in horror as a sheet of incandescent light enveloped Jesse. Dazzled, she was forced to blink.
‘Magnificent, isn’t it?’
Smiling, Jesse gestured towards the sky. He’d turned back from the window. Meg could discern a faint play of luminescence along his skin, like the glittering tracery of a great metropolis seen from the air at night, then a lingering glow, then the sheen of rain. The top lay on his palm, unharmed.
Nubi whined from under the bed. Jesse knelt to coax the dog from his hiding place, stroked him, laid his head on the animal’s quivering flank. Emmy had sometimes fallen asleep next to Bridget. Jesse felt a warning prickle behind his lids.
Meg stood above him. Her beautiful eyes saw too much. He buried his face in Nubi’s fur, ashamed of his weakness. She crouched down next to him, rested a gentle hand over his.
‘Please stay,’ she said.
As Meg headed towards the kitchen to fix a platter of cheese and crackers for everyone, she automatically glanced at her wrist when she heard their grandfather clock strike the half-hour. Puzzled, she came to an abrupt halt. Her watch was solid, self-winding, and Swiss – a gift from Finn to celebrate her MRCPsych. A beautiful timepiece, it was never inaccurate. Sarah joked that they could use it to time the next Big Bang. Then why had it stopped ten or twelve minutes ago? She looked closer, and her fingertips began to tingle. She was wrong, it hadn’t stopped. The second hand was oscillating erratically, like the needle of a compass in the presence of a moving magnet.
Jesse stood on the roofed patio, smoking and watching the rain, which had settled into a steady downpour. It had just gone ten, but Sarah was still talking with her father while Meg frowned over a sheaf of notes, half listening to the conversation. Jesse had tried to read in his room but had been too restless to concentrate. For a while he’d played with the top, not that he believed it would help him to focus his thoughts despite Meg’s claim. He had no use for hypnosis, or self-hypnosis. Finally he’d given up and come down to join the others. He’d eaten some cheese, feeling awkward and uncomfortable, wondering the whole time whether he’d taken the right decision. He considered telling Sarah how annoyed he was at her for concealing her mother’s occupation. But what was the point? In a few hours he’d be gone.
Jesse turned at the sound of Finn’s deep voice.
‘Fine,’ Jesse said. He didn’t know why he should feel guilty being caught with a cigarette.
Finn pulled out a pipe and filled it from a leather pouch. He tamped down the tobacco with his forefinger. With a large old-fashioned lighter – a really handsome piece, silver, engraved, probably a genuine Zippo – Finn lit the tobacco and puffed with noisy enjoyment.
‘Meg doesn’t care for cigarettes in the house. A pipe she doesn’t mind,’ Finn said, ‘but I got used to an evening smoke outdoors on one of my first expeditions. Even in winter I come outside, look up at the sky.’
‘You’ve been to many places, haven’t you?’
‘Yes, too many, I sometimes think. It must be the Viking blood.’
‘I wondered about your accent.’
‘I grew up in Norway, though I’ve lived in several countries.’
‘What do you mean by too many?’ Jesse asked, curious. He would love to travel, see the places he’d only read about. What he did was not travelling.
‘It becomes harder to look at things with an open mind, to appreciate them. You get inured to strangeness.’ He looked at Jesse. ‘To suffering and poverty too.’
They were quiet for a time.
Jesse stubbed out his cigarette, then bent and picked up the butt. ‘I’ll be leaving in the morning,’ he said. ‘Thank you for your hospitality. I appreciate it.’
‘Would you like to see my darkroom?’
Jesse nodded, relieved that Finn didn’t press him to stay.
‘Come on, then,’ Finn said, stooping to knock the ash from his pipe into a terracotta pot. ‘Before Meg thinks of something for me to do.’