The darkroom occupied most of the cellar – though in this case the word darkroom was doubly a misnomer, for it comprised some six interconnecting rooms, brightly lit and each with its own function. In the printing room Finn demonstrated the red safety lights, then explained the more arcane pieces of equipment. The office seemed as much sitting room as workplace, with its comfortable leather sofa and armchair, bookshelves, refrigerator, and ultra high-tech espresso machine which could probably produce rocket fuel in a pinch. Cameras, lenses, and filters lay everywhere; several tripods were stacked in a corner.
‘Don’t you do most everything on computers nowadays?’ Jesse asked.
Finn smiled. ‘A certain amount, of course. But I prefer the old-fashioned methods. More subtlety, more depth of expression.’
‘May I have a look at some of your work?’
‘No need to be polite. Sarah hates it if I try to convert her friends.’
‘I really like what I’ve seen upstairs.’
‘OK. How about a coffee first?’
Jesse nodded, and Finn gestured towards the sofa.
‘Espresso or cappuccino?’ Finn asked.
‘Uh … cappuccino, I suppose.’
Jesse watched as Finn played with his machine. The heady smell of coffee soon filled the room. Jesse accepted the overlarge cup that Finn passed him, added several spoonfuls of sugar, and took a cautious sip. One cup should be OK. He was getting to like their bitter brew. It was a little like the Andersens themselves – potent, best in small doses.
Finn rummaged in one of his storage cupboards. ‘Here,’ he said, tearing open a packet of shortbread. ‘Secret supply.’ He patted his stomach.
They drank their coffee and crunched their way through the biscuits in companionable silence. When they had finished, Finn handed Jesse a large book, the kind that people bought as Christmas or birthday presents.
‘One of my last projects. I know it’s a coffee-table thing, but I did enjoy doing the photographs.’
Jesse slowly turned the pages while Finn fiddled with the computer on his desk.
‘Do you mind if I check my email?’ Finn asked. ‘I need to do a bit of catching up.’
‘Fine with me.’
Finn returned to his monitor, while Jesse continued to study the book on his lap. It was demanding, provocative – unexpected. He wondered whose coffee tables it would grace. The photographs were brutal: mutilated bodies, acts of violence, slaughterhouse scenes juxtaposed with sensuous objects – a flower, a stone, a breast. There were abstract elements in most of the photographs, and many of the colours had been manipulated. Some pictures were monochromatic, some in black-and-white, others in full colour. Jesse turned back to check the title of the book: Transitions. There was no text.
One photograph made his heart race: a little girl lying naked on a fold of black velvet. More than half her face was burnt away to the bone, and there were huge blackened craters along most of her body. A glistening seashell had been placed between her thighs, obscuring whatever remained of her genitals. In colour it might have been horrendous, but in black-and-white it shimmered with an otherworldly light.
Jesse closed the book. He looked around the room. The air was cool, the light artificial. It was impossible to tell whether it was still raining, whether in fact it was night or day down here. A faint hum from the fridge and computer were the only sounds he could detect, aside from Finn’s breathing. Even the shadows in the corners of the room didn’t stir.
To take something like that and make it beautiful – his gut twisted at the thought. What kind of man was Finn? A husband, a father, a nice guy. He would never throw stones at a dog, never beat his daughter, never murder anyone. Jesse closed his eyes, but the image waited behind his lids. He could feel the skin on his face grow clammy.
Jesse shoved the book onto the sofa and stood up.
‘I feel sick,’ he said. ‘Is there a toilet down here?’
Finn looked up, his face concerned. ‘A glass of water?’
Jesse shook his head. ‘Just the toilet,’ he gasped.
Finn rose and put his arm around Jesse’s shoulders, which Jesse shook off. Not that, not him. Finn led Jesse to the little alcove under the stairs and snapped on the light.
‘Do you want me to –’
Jesse brushed past without answering and shut the door. He leaned his head against the cool surface of the mirror above the basin, finding that his nausea subsided as soon as he was alone. A little girl no more than five or six years old. Blond hair still intact on one side of her scalp. Pearly fingernails on her left hand, dimpled. The other a blackened stump. Jesse! Where are you? Cries struck from the cold metal of memory. He grasped the sides of the basin. What’s done is done. There are no second chances.
He stared at himself in the mirror. Not a mark on his face, not a single scar anyone would be able to detect. Not that it mattered – all the real ugliness was inside. A fucking monster. How would he get through the next fifty or sixty years?
Finn rapped softly on the door. ‘Jesse,’ his voice muffled, ‘are you all right?’
Jesse gave himself one last mocking look in the mirror. Yeah, I’m all right. He splashed some water on his face and drank a few mouthfuls. Finn would have heard any vomiting, but Jesse wasn’t about to stick his fingers down his throat. He unbolted the door.
‘I’m fine,’ he said. ‘It was nothing. Just tired.’
Finn massaged the skin beneath his beard, which in other men might be a delaying tactic, or uncertainty, or even a good way to disguise a stutter like that I’m Philip C-c-canker your new social worker but just call me Phil fool.
‘Come back and sit down,’ Finn said.
‘I’d like to go to bed.’ Jesse found it hard to avoid the implacable shutter of Finn’s eyes. ‘It’s been a long day, and I'd rather get an early start in the morning.’
‘Soon. I want to talk to you.’
Jesse considered refusing. It would be easy enough; he was leaving tomorrow anyway, so what difference did it make? People expected teenagers to be rude and thoughtless, self-centred. And they were shit-scared of the wild ones, the runaways, the kids begging for spare change; scared – and ashamed, too.
Finn waited, his eyes still calm and steady and unreadable. There was nothing scared about him.
Jesse shrugged. He might as well hear what Finn had to say.
‘Which photo was it?’ Finn asked after installing himself in the armchair.
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘I think you do.’ Finn spoke quietly enough, but Jesse began to suspect that the kindly teddy bear had claws. He should have known that anyone who could create such photographs was no fool, and no wimp either. Yet there wasn’t anything menacing in Finn’s voice.
Finn reached over and handed him the book. ‘Why don’t you show me?’
The photograph had been about two-thirds of the way through the volume. Jesse started on the very first page, turning over each leaf slowly and deliberately as if he had trouble recognising what he was looking for. It did no good. Finn watched him without an iota of impatience, the way he probably watched all the victims of his lens.
When Jesse finally reached the photograph, he was prepared for it, and still he flinched. Finn took the book out of his hands and studied the image. He was quiet for a long while. Then he sighed.
‘I could tell you that the girl’s body was only a computer-generated image, but you wouldn’t believe me, would you?’
Jesse compressed his lips.
‘I sometimes do a spot of work for the coroner’s office and the police. Mostly violent crimes against children. It’s my way of trying to help out, to make people aware of what’s happening, hopefully to change things a bit.’
‘You call this helping?’ Jesse cried.
‘If it moves people –’
Jesse interrupted him. ‘You have no right! It’s a violation, the worst kind. And then to make it so beautiful –’ Jesse stopped, unable to continue. His voice had begun to shake. To his horror he felt the bitterness well, then spill. How could he cry, when all he wanted to do was sneer at this stupid, insensitive man? Finn would think him pathetic. Not that he cared what Finn thought. Jesse bit his cheek, but the more he tried to hold back, the harder it became. He dropped his face into his hands. His lungs and throat and bony shoulders were soon aching from the outpouring of grief, from the savage gale which tore through his frame. He hadn’t wept like this in years.
Swiftly Finn moved to Jesse’s side, the sofa sagging like an old friend under his weight. Once again he laid his arm across Jesse’s shoulders. This time Jesse didn’t push him away. Finn’s arm was strangely light, a featherweight of flesh and bone and salty sweat. Jesse couldn’t have borne a yoke.
Finn said nothing, just let him cry. Finn’s own throat was tight, clogging with compassion for this proud and wounded and magnificent creature – half man, half child. We take the most perfect spirit, he thought bitterly, and flay it, gouge it, twist it until it yields or breaks. What kind of beings are we? what monsters? what hitlers? Very gently he caressed Jesse’s shoulder, his thumb making small circles on the worn T-shirt. It did little to stop the shudders, shudders so strong that they penetrated to his own core.
Gradually the spasms subsided. Jesse raised his head and stammered an apology. Finn removed his arm but remained close. His bulk drew Jesse against him the way a solid mass attracts a passing asteroid in the cold empty corridors of space. Jesse wiped his face with his hand, sniffed. Finn fished in his pocket and brought out an old-fashioned handkerchief.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘It’s clean. Have a good blow.’
After making thorough use of the handkerchief, Jesse crumpled it in his hand, then released his fingers so that the square of cloth unfurled like a crocus in sunlight.
‘I don’t usually do this,’ he said.
‘No, I imagine you don’t. More’s the pity. There’s such a thing as taking reserve too far.’
‘You mean I should always sob on the shoulders of strangers?’ asked Jesse with a hint of a smile.
Finn had a hearty chuckle. ‘Let’s just say that I prefer a man who’s not afraid to show his feelings.’ Then his expression became sober. ‘Ever hear of Janis Joplin?’
‘A blues singer, wasn’t she? Back in the sixties?’
‘Yeah, rock with a heavy blues spin. My mother’s a great fan of the blues. Joplin died when I was a kid but one of her most famous songs has always stayed with me. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose …’
Jesse thought about it for a few seconds, then nodded. ‘Yeah, I see.’
‘Good, because I would hate for you to go on believing that you don’t need anybody.’
Jesse gazed down at the handkerchief still in his hands. ‘I’m OK,’ he muttered.
‘She overdosed, you know,’ Finn said. ‘She was twenty-seven years old.’
Jesse rose, walked to the nearest bookshelf, and ran his fingers along the spines of a row of books, their comforting voices now muted by a soft prattle from beyond the thick stone walls of the house.
‘It’s still raining?’ he asked.
‘A real keeper. Probably rain right through till morning.’
Jesse turned and looked at Finn, who hadn’t moved from the sofa. ‘I don’t do drugs.’
‘That’s not what I meant. There are lots of different ways to overdose.’
A long silence, interrupted by a ping from the computer.
‘Incoming mail,’ Finn said.
‘You want to get some work done.’
Again Jesse trailed his fingers along the books, lingering over one or two large glossy volumes as though reluctant to leave. Finn yawned, then levered himself to his feet, stretched, and yawned again. He was getting too old for airplanes and time zones and jetlag.
‘Another cup of coffee?’ Finn asked.
Jesse shook his head. The coffee machine gurgled and hissed while Finn waited, his occasional sideways glance as unobtrusive as his profession required, but the boy seemed hypnotised by the row of books. There were still traces of tears on his cheeks.
Once the espresso was ready, Finn crossed the room to his desk, pulled out his chair, and settled down. Through the rising steam from his cup he finally ventured to study Jesse more closely; to admit to himself the direction of his thoughts.
Finn wasn’t a particularly religious man – he just managed Christmas – but his heart was beating with something bordering on hope. Is this what he is? Finn asked himself. A second chance? A way to redeem ourselves – myself? Coming out of nowhere. Homeless, needy. Hardly older than a boy. Nothing left to lose. We’ve tried so hard to make sense of things. To get on with living, the way everyone always says. Does the universe ever throw us a gift? Or does it just seem that way? And what does it matter so long as we get it right this time?
Finn was careful to keep his voice even when he spoke. ‘I think you owe us something for the meals and bed.’
Jesse jerked his hand away from the books as though an electric current had run through his fingers. ‘I beg your pardon?’ he stammered.
‘Don’t look so alarmed. I only want a promise from you.’
‘What sort of promise?’
Finn regarded him shrewdly. ‘Your word that you won’t steal away in the early hours before having breakfast with me.’
Jesse exhaled in relief. He hadn’t been aware of holding his breath.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘That I can do.’ He grinned crookedly. ‘How did you know? And how do you know you can trust me?’
Finn ignored the first question. ‘If I didn’t trust you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You only say what you mean, don’t you?’
Jesse ducked his head, inordinately pleased as if he’d just been given a gift, one he’d longed and longed for without the least hope of fulfilment – a little boy who knew there was no way his parents could afford that train set for Christmas.
‘Sarah will probably sleep in, but Meg has to be at the hospital by eight. I usually make breakfast and eat with her when I’m home. Is quarter to seven too early for you?’
‘You needn’t –’ Finn broke off. ‘Never mind, go to bed. I want to finish up some paperwork. We’ll talk tomorrow.’
Jesse nodded. He handed Finn his handkerchief, which the older man carelessly stuffed back into his pocket, and made for the stairs. At the doorway he paused, absentmindedly fingered the supple black leather of a motorcycle outfit hanging near the door, then turned round.
‘Mr Andersen –’ Jesse began.
‘Finn. The photographs are very beautiful. It’s just that –’ He stopped, wondering how to go on without reopening the wound. ‘The girl. The burn victim. I was wrong. The obscenity is in me, not in the photo.’
Finn was holding a pencil in his hand, an elegant mechanical one. He clicked the feed a few times, pressed the fragile lead back into the body of the pencil, clicked again.
‘I never photograph the dead without a sense of debt, and deep respect. They teach us in a way that the living never can. The police told me something about her history. Her parents –’
The pencil lead snapped.
‘I can’t,’ Jesse said. ‘Not yet.’
Finn laid the pencil down. Leaning his elbows on his desk, he steepled his hands and tapped them repeatedly against pursed lips, a gesture that already seemed familiar to Jesse.
‘Jesse, if you don’t revisit the past, you forfeit the future.’
Jesse looked at Finn with deeply dungeoned eyes. ‘I have no past.’
‘Everyone has a past,’ Finn replied.