and a small winged dragon curls herself into a ball as a foot comes down and kicks her and her cries slice through his head into a jumble of limbs and grunts while wake up he tells himself it’s a nightmare of pounding music and slick bodies dancing writhing with the hot smell of sweat running shrieking into the flames and their screams always the screams wake up before they die this time wake up wake up wake
Jesse gasped and tore open his eyes.
‘No don’t,’ he said, his voice cracked and peeling.
He lay still while the images from his dream loosed their stranglehold. He’d been sweating, and heavily; he could feel the sheet sticking to his skin. Then he shuddered and held his breath – this was more than sweat he smelled.
Jesse found Finn at the kitchen table, a mug of coffee, a dictionary, scribbled sheets of paper, and a scattering of pens at hand, and his laptop open in front of him. He looked up as Jesse came into the room.
‘You’re awake,’ Finn said. ‘How’s the cold? Still feeling feverish?’
‘She’s gone to an exhibit in the city,’ Finn said, disconcerted by the abruptness of Jesse’s manner.
‘Call her mobile.’
Finn stared at him.
Jesse’s urgency was beginning to affect Finn. He rose and fetched the phone from the worktop, punched a couple of keys. He listened for a moment.
‘It’s ringing,’ he said. Then he frowned. ‘She picked up, but we were disconnected.’
‘Try again,’ Jesse said.
Finn pressed redial and let it ring for a while. ‘Unavailable.’
They looked at each other.
‘Tell me what this is about,’ Finn said.
Jesse put a hand to his head. Suddenly he needed to sit down fast. He pulled out a chair and sank into it, lowered his head to the table. Finn came over to his side and laid a hand on his shoulder.
‘What is it, Jesse? Dizzy?’
‘Sarah’s in trouble. What are we going to do?’ Jesse muttered.
‘How do you know?’
Jesse raised his head. Finn was shocked by the look on Jesse’s face. He’d seen that kind of despair before, in far too many places. In the mirror.
‘While I was sleeping –’ Jesse floundered, unable to formulate a coherent explanation. He grimaced as though Thor were using his skull for hammer practice. ‘I don’t know how I know. I just do,’ he finished lamely. It was becoming a familiar refrain.
‘I’m going to ring Meg.’
‘Meg. Yeah, ring Meg. I hadn’t thought of that. She’ll know if something’s happened to Sarah, won’t she?’
Finn hesitated. Jesse’s faith in Meg’s abilities, though touching, was misplaced. A mind like Meg’s couldn’t be switched on and off like a light bulb.
‘It doesn’t always work like that, you know,’ Finn said.
Some colour had returned to Jesse’s face. ‘Stop wasting time. Ring her!’
To his surprise Finn reached Meg at once. She listened, then asked to speak with Jesse. The conversation was very one-sided, Jesse answering mostly in monosyllables.
In the meantime Finn used his own mobile to try Sarah again. He’d feel much better if he knew that she was really all right. Which was not only unnecessary but clearly obsessive, wasn’t it? He reminded himself that anxiety was contagious. Sarah had only switched off her mobile. He’d done the same a thousand times over while in a meeting or during a shoot.
Jesse had known about kwakabazillion.
‘Meg wants to speak to you,’ Jesse said.
He handed Finn the telephone. Jesse had got his face under control, but not his eyes. Finn thought that Jesse would never be able to mask the depth of feeling to be plumbed there.
‘Finn?’ Meg’s voice broke into his thoughts. ‘Give Jesse two nurofen and see that he goes back to bed. I’ll be home as soon as I can get away.’
‘There’s nothing the matter, is there?’ Finn felt compelled to ask, even though Jesse hadn’t left the room, was in fact watching him from the window to which he’d retreated, squinting as if the light were blistering his optic nerve.
‘We’ll talk about it when I get there.’
Finn’s hand tightened on the phone. Meg spoke composedly enough, but he knew her very well and recognised what he liked to call her shrink voice. She always smiled whenever he teased her about it. Both he and Sarah hated it when she used it on them.
‘What is it? What aren’t you telling me?’
‘Finn, there’s nothing we can do for the moment.’
Now the first stirring of real fear. ‘Meg, don’t do this. Tell me what’s going on.’
‘I don’t know what’s going on.’
That was when Finn realised Jesse might be right about Sarah. ‘Where is she?’ he bellowed into the phone.
‘Losing your temper won’t help anybody.’
‘Don’t give me that fucking line of crap!’
‘Finn, listen to me. It may be nothing at all, just fever and bad dreams. Jesse needs you to stay calm. Get him into bed till I come home. I'll try to arrange for David to take over a bit earlier.’
Finn closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, and succeeded in holding his fear – and his anger – in check. ‘OK, I hear you. Do you –’
‘Look, I’ve got to go. Don’t worry. We’ll sort it out.’ And then she was gone.
Finn slammed the phone down. She treated him like an adolescent sometimes, like another of her children. Or a patient. It was intolerable. Hands clenched, he strode to the refrigerator, yanked it open, and pulled out a bottle of lemonade. Jesse watched him without speaking.
‘Want some?’ Finn asked.
Finn poured them each a glass. He drank his at a gulp, the cold making his teeth ache and his throat burn as it slid down his gullet. Jesse sipped his slowly, as if it hurt for him to swallow. By the time Finn had finished his second glass, his temper had cooled. He went to the window and stared out, chewing his lip. For all her gifts, Meg hadn’t been able to help trace Peter, had she?
‘You’d better go lie down. I’ll bring you your tablets,’ Finn said.
After putting his glass into the dishwasher, Finn moved to the table and saved the changes he’d made while Jesse had been asleep. In no mood to work on the bloody translation, Finn wished he hadn’t agreed to do it, even as a favour to his brother.
‘You blame Meg, don’t you? For Peter’s death?’ Jesse asked.
His face savage for an instant, Finn rounded on Jesse. Then, expression softening like wax held too close to a flame, Finn turned away. After a hesitation, Jesse went over and touched Finn tentatively on the arm.
‘You told me yourself it doesn’t work like that,’ Jesse said. ‘Meg’s not a fortune-teller.’
‘It’s got nothing to do with palm-reading and tarot cards and all that sort of crap,’ Finn said.
‘Then tell me why you’re so angry at her.’
‘I can’t talk about it.’
‘Can’t? Or won’t?’ Jesse paused, then added, ‘I’m just a kid, aren’t I? A fucked-up street kid who’s got no business asking. And who couldn’t possibly understand anyway.’
‘Bollocks. You heard me. I don’t want to talk about it. So zip it.’
Jesse made a noise halfway between a sob and a snarl. ‘And if something happens to Sarah, who will you blame then?’
Finn struck him across the face.
Huddled on the bed, Jesse found himself close to shaking. His cheek didn’t really sting any more, only the memory of the slap. He picked up the top and rubbed it between his fingers until heat began to rise from the wood. The rest of him felt cold. He’d failed Sarah. And alienated Finn with stupid taunts. Jesse laid the top against his cheek. For the first time in years, he’d found decent people, people he could respect. And what did he do? He deserved to be struck.
It’s no good, Jesse thought. Liam was right. Mal was right. Even I was right. I can’t live with them … with anyone. It was stupid to try. Better to be alone than end up like Mal and Angie.
He who is alone now, will remain alone ... will wander the streets restlessly ...
A soft knock, and the door opened. Finn stood on the threshold, his face sombre.
‘May I come in?’ he asked.
‘Suit yourself,’ said Jesse, shrugging. After one quick look, he refused to meet Finn’s eyes.
Finn crossed the room and sat down on Jesse’s bed, careful to leave a space between them. Leaning forward, he propped his forearms on his knees so that his spare tyre rolled comfortably over his waistband. There was a long silence, broken only by the faint snuffle of Nubi’s breathing.
‘I’m sorry,’ Finn finally said. ‘I don’t know what came over me. I haven’t hit anyone in years.’ He gave a little snort of laughter. ‘Well no, that’s not quite true. There was this nasty bloke in Santiago last year ... You don’t ever want to punch a policeman in Chile.’
‘You’re kidding me.’
‘Nope. Spent a couple of nights in gaol fending off the cockroaches – the two-legged variety. I’ve even got the release papers tucked away somewhere to prove it.’
‘Is Sarah back?’ Jesse asked, although he knew the question was futile.
‘Have you tried her mobile again?’
‘Three times. Also sent her a text.’ Finn eyed Jesse. ‘I got an answer: be back soon.’
‘Anyone could have sent it.’
‘So you still think something’s the matter?’
Finn looked down at his hands. His wedding ring was a simple gold band which had grown a bit tight in recent years. He slid it back and forth a few times. He wasn’t being entirely honest with Jesse. Of course he knew why he’d lashed out, just as he understood Jesse’s feelings of impotence and frustration. No one remembered better than Finn himself how he’d raged at anyone and everyone in the months after Peter had left. It had been touch and go for a while with Meg. Sometimes he wished there would be public floggings for the mistakes you made in life – for the people you hurt, the kids you damaged.
‘Fear deranges faster than the worst addiction,’ Finn said softly.
Jesse felt even more ashamed of his outburst. ‘I shouldn’t have said that to you.’
‘But you were right. It’s more comfortable to blame someone else than yourself.’ Finn straightened his shoulders and scowled at Jesse with mock severity. ‘And don’t you dare tell me that we all do it.’
‘It would never cross my mind to say anything so banal.’
Finn grinned. ‘Touché.’
Jesse ran his hands through his hair. ‘Meg told me that she’d been smelling burnt almonds all day long. Does that make any sense to you?’
‘Meg usually doesn’t talk much about what she sees. But there are certain motifs that seem to recur. Smells or colours or sounds, anything really. In a poem, you’d call them symbols, I suppose. But Meg says that they’re the mind’s way of processing, of conceptualising the unfathomable. Apparently we don’t learn symbol-making. It’s an innate capacity – a biological function, evolved since god knows when.’ His eyes gleamed. ‘Maybe something like the god cells in the brain neuroscientists are starting to talk about.’
‘You still haven’t told me about the burnt almonds.’
Finn began to play with his ring again. It took him a long time to answer. ‘Meg smelled burnt almonds a lot after Peter disappeared.’
‘I’m frightened,’ Jesse whispered. Had he ever admitted that to anyone before? He couldn’t remember.
It was an ephemeral gift, fragile and translucent as a soap bubble, and Finn held it between his hands with surprising delicacy.
‘So am I, Jesse.’
The screen-saver was up – one of those impossible Escher staircases, ascending and descending in a perpetual enigma, which usually amused Jesse but now irritated him. He hit a key, expecting to see his desktop appear. Instead, the image remained in place. Jesse cursed, thinking that the computer had frozen again. Then a flicker under the bell tower caught his attention. A monk was pulling on the bellrope so that a large blue top swung slowly from side to side, the only spot of colour in the entire frame.
Jesse slammed down the lid of the laptop. Cursing himself even more colourfully, he nevertheless groped among the books and odds-and-ends on the bedside table for the top. It wasn’t there.
Jesse sat down with his head in his hands. I’m not mad, he told himself. He knew he ought to forget the top, but instead he searched the bed with care, lifting pillow and shaking out duvet, then dropped to his knees and peered underneath the frame. The effort intensified his headache. When he closed his eyes, a pattern of red and orange sparks fired behind his lids.
‘Sod this,’ he muttered. ‘Who needs a top anyway?’
A strong odour of lavender assailed him. His stomach clenched, accompanied by a renewed feeling of urgency. As he rose to his feet his eyes fell on his pillow. The blue top lay in plain sight, a small length of string dangling from its handle.