On the way home from their picnic Jesse let himself be talked into a film evening, though he’d far prefer to read; he was beginning to need some time alone. Sarah agreed to make a huge bowl of buttered popcorn – not the microwave sort – in exchange for watching her preference first. With any luck she’d be yawning before they got to a second film.
While the popcorn was popping, Jesse went to fetch the DVDs Sarah had left in the sitting room. He stopped in front of the photos of Peter. The sundial photo, as he’d come to think of it, continued to preoccupy him. Favourite no longer quite described his feelings, however. He studied it often, several times a day in fact, the way you’d return again and again to the picture of a grotesque mutant no matter how repelled you were by your own obsession; no matter how plagued by the suspicion that every voyeur is looking into a mirror – one of those distorting fairground mirrors, but a mirror nevertheless. There was something about Peter’s smile, or the expression in his eyes, or the way he held himself, that spoke of secrets: ‘Who are you?’ Jesse would find himself whispering, and sometimes wondered what Meg saw when she looked upon this image of her son. She’d be home by ten, she’d said; maybe this time he’d ask her.
Or maybe some things are best left be.
Jesse leaned his forehead against the glass cover of the frame and closed his eyes. Why did you leave, Peter? Did you think Meg and Finn were so awful? Your life so awful? What could you have possibly known about awful? Those parents of yours, they’d have helped you. You stupid, beautiful fool.
You’re beautiful, the man says. They’ll gobble you up right off the screen.
How much? Peter asks.
How much? he repeats stubbornly. I’m not doing it unless I get a good price. And I want half up front.
The man snickers. Right, kiddo. As if.
Peter tilts his head.
Peter, don’t. Get the hell out of there.
Peter frowns, his eyes wandering as though in search of something.
Don’t you understand? Whatever their game, it’s no online giveaway. They’ll grind you up for dog meat.
The man points to a door. Through there. Get a move on. They’re waiting for you.
Listen to me, Peter. Damn you, please listen.
Peter puts a hand to his temple and squints like someone with a migraine.
What now? growls the man.
Peter snaps to attention. Only with condoms, he says.
The man’s laugh raises gooseflesh on Jesse’s arms.
That all? No Beluga caviar? Magnum of champagne? Asses’ milk to bathe in first? Royal jelly for lubrication? He stops to cough, a nasty wet bark. When he catches his breath, he speaks in the tone of someone whose jokes – and patience – have run out. Showtime, mate. Get in there and strip. You’re going to do it, and you’re going to do it our way. Or we’ll let you leave here with your pretty face. But half of it’ll be in a doggy bag.
Peter runs his tongue along his lips before catching his lower lip between his teeth.
What the fuck are you waiting for? The man raises his voice, likewise his arm, then draws back with a knowing snort. He reaches into his pocket, removes a small powder-filled packet, and dangles it in front of Peter’s face. This maybe?
Jesse gasped as Sarah took his arm.
‘Jesse, stop. You’ll break it like that.’
The frame in front of him gradually came into focus. He must have removed it unawares from the wall, for he held it in fists clenched so tight that it took him a few seconds to loosen his grip. Peter’s glossy smile wavered as Jesse replaced the photo, hands unsteady, beside the others. He felt his eyes prickle and a thick clot of distress form in his throat. The poor misguided sod. In a way Jesse was relieved that Sarah had broken the bizarre link. His anger had been mounting, and with it the heat at the centre of his being.
Are you mad? Jesse asked himself when he realised the direction of his thoughts. Peter is dead; the incident long over, part of a distant and immutable past. You might as well try to incinerate the dragon before it felled Beowulf; detonate the planes in midair before they rammed the Twin Towers.
Jesse ran his fingertips over the glass.
‘He looks so happy there, doesn’t he?’ Sarah said. ‘But it’s a lie, the worst kind.’
‘He was pretending that everything was OK. Trying to convince himself.’
Sarah gave him a bleak smile, tenuous as a candle flame in a brisk breeze. ‘You understand, don’t you.’
Jesse cupped his words round the shared luminescence to keep it from guttering. ‘I’ve been there myself.’
‘A sandwich would be great,’ Matthew said an hour later. And ate three. Plus an apple, a banana, some crisps, half the remaining popcorn, a piece of cheesecake, and a handful of sultanas. Sarah watched him in astonishment and delight.
‘I can’t remember when I’ve last seen you eat so much. You must be in remission.’
Jesse and Matthew exchanged glances. Matthew had turned up unexpectedly, Sarah’s presence forestalling any talk about his health. Sarah looked from one to the other, then set her mug of tea down on the table with particular care, though it was only half full.
‘Jesse?’ she asked.
He shrugged, but she recognised the little-boy smile of self-conscious pride; shoelaces tied on his own, a first fish caught, stabilisers removed from his bike. Sarah played with the bowl of popcorn, picking up the unpopped kernels and examining them one by one, not lifting her eyes until Nubi, who had been dozing at Jesse’s feet, rose and went to wait expectantly at the back door. She let Nubi out, pliéd twice as if to stretch tight muscles, then stood on the threshold with one leg extended in an arabesque. A fresh breeze blew into the room through the open door.
‘Even cancer, Jesse?’ she asked.
At first it seemed he wouldn’t answer, though he’d been watching her every movement.
‘Sometimes, I guess,’ he finally said.
Sarah glanced at Matthew, who understood that this was less a conversation about his illness than about the tentative, fragile relationship between Sarah and Jesse, which had been obvious to him as soon as he’d stepped into the house. He’d always looked on Finn as something of a favourite uncle, something of a big brother, and something of a close mate, but it didn’t surprise him that Finn might not be aware of the undercurrents in his home – not oblivious, precisely, but not as clear-sighted as he would be with someone else. Fathers and daughters – notoriously fraught, a dance over hot coals, with smoke rising on all sides. And Meg might have her reasons for not telling Finn, for she’d always kept her own counsel. But Matthew would be willing to bet an extra year of life that those haunting eyes of hers would never miss what he himself had observed.
Finn blamed himself for what had happened to Peter, but Matthew had often wondered what Meg had seen when she’d looked at her son; and what Peter had thought she’d seen. In some ways he’d been as sensitive as his mother – too sensitive, and without her ice to temper it.
Although Matthew wouldn’t interfere, he allowed a smile of encouragement to cross his face, and his eyes were warm with approval. Remission aside, he liked both Jesse and Sarah very much, and knew that Sarah would grow into a woman as strong as any in the Andersen family. She would love fiercely, but well.
‘Is it permanent?’ Sarah asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Jesse said.
‘You don’t have to be afraid to ask your real question,’ Matthew said. ‘Am I going to die? Of course. Sooner than my promised threescore and ten? Probably. But it looks as if I might get to finish my narrowboat. And float her. And live in her for a time. And think ahead to my next project.’
‘Something nautical?’ Jesse asked.
‘Yeah. Wait till you see her.’ Matthew’s eyes crinkled. ‘I’ve already put down a deposit. A beautiful little sloop.’
‘A sailboat?’ Sarah asked, her eyes lighting up.
‘She’s gorgeous, Sarah. Graceful lines, perfect bones.’ He laughed at his own choice of words. ‘She’ll age like a true beauty. But she’s going to need months of hard work.’ He eyed Jesse. ‘I was hoping you’d give me a hand weekends, maybe after school. Ever sail?’
Jesse shook his head. Matthew’s campaign was beginning to grate.
‘Sarah could give you lessons. It must be her Viking blood. She can crew just about anything.’
There was so much that Jesse didn’t know about Sarah, and cracking open each new seedpod seemed to bruise his fingertips or chip a tooth.
‘I’ve never even been near the sea,’ Jesse said, his voice brittle.
‘A truly nasty secret,’ Matthew said drily.
And a truly nastier response blistered Jesse’s tongue, and might have blitzed their friendship. Until he saw Sarah toss her plait over her shoulder.
‘I’m being a fuckwit, aren’t I?’ Jesse said.
‘Yeah.’ But she smiled, reminding Jesse how sweet a nutmeat inside even the hardest shell could taste.
‘You’ll be a natural,’ Matthew said. ‘I’ve seen you swim. You’re born to the water.’ He grinned. ‘Tell you what. A good schoolyear, then if you can still stand my company by next summer, the three of us will sail her to the Greek islands and back. A perfect way to take her measure. See if she’s up to it.’
‘Up to what?’ Sarah asked.
‘If I live long enough, I’m going to take her round the world.’
Jesse whistled softly. ‘A race?’
‘Not my style. Just to do it. Interested?’
Before Jesse had a chance to discover what Matthew was proposing, Sarah burst out, ‘Matthew, how can you ask? You know I’ve been begging Finn for years to buy a boat, but he won’t do it. Absolutely refuses.’
‘Why?’ Jesse asked, genuinely curious. It seemed just like something Finn would do.
‘No time to look after it, he claims. Now if it had been Peter …’ An expression of resentment flitted across Sarah’s face, and she hurried to add, ‘Besides, he thinks there are plenty in the family to use whenever we want. All my uncles in Norway have boats. Even my grandmother still sails.’
Matthew laughed. ‘Have boats is good. One of Finn’s brothers owns the biggest private shipyard in Norway. And was an Olympic gold medallist in his day, by the way.’
‘A keelboat?’ Sarah asked.
‘Yeah, with a sloop rig. Thirty-four feet.’
A rapid volley of technical details followed, which Jesse had no trouble tuning out. He must have missed more than the shipping news, however, because he suddenly realised that Matthew was shaking his head, grim-faced.
‘She can’t be more than fourteen, fifteen max,’ he was saying. ‘That’s actually why I dropped by. I need to talk to Meg about her. Patricia and Alan are on the verge of calling in the big guns – Social Services – but I’ve got a bad feeling about the whole thing.’
At the mention of Social Services, Jesse began to pay close attention.
‘Isn’t everything supposed to be confidential?’ Sarah asked.
‘In principle, yes. But there’s always this grey area when a minor’s involved, and abuse.’
Sarah noticed Jesse’s interest and explained. ‘Matthew volunteers at a youth crisis centre when he’s feeling well.’ Then she bit her lip and looked away, it was easy to guess what Jesse was thinking.
‘And the girl?’ Jesse asked.
‘A young kid. Pregnant, at least seven months, maybe eight,’ Matthew said. ‘Really striking looks – darkish skin but oriental features, and the oddest eyes – one brown, one hazel. She came in today, and Patricia’s convinced that someone in the family’s probably been abusing her. Father, stepfather, uncle. You know the script. Patricia’s not a trained psychologist, but she’s got a lot of experience, and I trust her judgement.’
Jesse swallowed. He could feel Sarah’s eyes on him. ‘Why do you need Meg, if it’s so clear-cut? Shouldn’t the girl be protected?’
‘Just a feeling I got from her. A sense of blackness, of utter cold. Look, almost all the kids who come to us are desperate, or they wouldn’t be there in the first place. And I’ve got to admit I didn’t really talk to her. That was Patricia’s job. In fact, I only saw her because she was coming out of the lavatory as I went past. An unguarded moment. The expression on her face …’
‘What about it?’ Jesse asked when Matthew didn’t continue.
Matthew was silent for a while longer. Then he shook his head. ‘I don’t know. I can’t be more specific. I said hello, asked if she needed anything, and she muttered some reply. That was the extent of our exchange. We talked about her afterwards, those on duty always get together to discuss problems, do a bit of mutual counselling, I suppose you’d call it, things can get brutal. Patricia wanted to ring Social Services straightaway but I didn’t think we should involve them before Meg has a chance to meet with the girl, if it can be arranged. A misstep in the wrong direction … the consequences are unpredictable. Or too predictable, if you will. Meg might be able to pick up something no one else would be likely to uncover.’
‘But won’t Meg be obliged to notify the authorities?’ Jesse asked.
‘That’s the second reason I’ve come to Meg,’ Matthew said. ‘The others at the centre will follow her lead. The law requires disclosure when it’s in the patient’s best interests, or to prevent serious harm. A tough one to call.’
‘Jesse, you must know my mum well enough by now,’ Sarah added. ‘She’ll do exactly what she thinks is right, no matter what the law says. She has her own views about a doctor’s responsibility to patients.’
‘If she lasts long in government service, I’ll be very surprised,’ Jesse said pointedly.
Next morning Jesse spent a long time at the boatyard. He worked till his muscles ached and sweat soaked his T-shirt. Matthew eyed him worriedly at one point, and told him to slow down. Jesse worked only harder. He refused to take a break; he refused an offer of tea; he would have refused even water if it weren’t for the risk of fainting in the midday sun.
Upon his return he found Sarah bathing Nubi in the garden after an unpleasant episode with a load of manure delivered to a neighbour for his organic vegetables. Jesse took over holding Nubi while Sarah scrubbed.
‘OK, you can let him go now,’ Sarah said.
Nubi, who knew two-legs had no sense of smell at all, reckoned there’d be another chance at that fragrant mound.
Jesse leaned back on his heels as Nubi raced off towards the sundial, where he shook himself vigorously, then gave Jesse a mournful, accusing look. Jesse was staring at the hosepipe in his hands as though it were gushing raw sewage rather than water. He didn’t even glance in Nubi’s direction. It was Sarah who finally reached for the nozzle and switched it off.
‘Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?’ Sarah asked.
Jesse had slept very little the night before, his mind again churning with unanswered questions. His grandmother had whispered cryptic comments; snatches of conversation, real or imagined, had tormented him; the walls of Sarah’s room prolapsed, pulsing and rippling and bulging like pale bloodless flesh; again and again flames danced across the screen of his exhausted mind. And always that card: the death card. Memory was a plague – the pestilence of consciousness, the Black Death of the universe.
But worst of all were the fantasies about Sarah. He’d lied to her. As much as he tried to suppress the images, he couldn’t stop picturing the rape in all its imagined and unspeakable detail, combinations and permutations as endless and sly as time itself: he saw Mick: he saw Gavin (or rather, the Gavin his mind created): he saw Sarah. And his arousal was shameful, and monstrous, and utterly damning. Is this too what his father had done to him?
Sarah crouched down in front of him.
He looked away, but not before she saw the deep blue dirge, almost purple, of his eyes.
‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘Please tell me.’
And though he couldn’t, their embrace felt like speech.