Why did you stop with Gavin’s hands? Think of what else the bastard deserves.
Jesse told his inner voice to shut up. Destroying Red hadn’t been quite the success he’d hoped. There was a kind of internal bleeding, a seepage that continued to affect his thoughts. And sometimes he wondered … Suppressing a sigh, he picked up his book and flipped back to the beginning of the chapter, which he’d apparently read without remembering a word. He was alone in the house, Sarah having gone to the airport to meet Katy, who was returning from the States for the start of term.
After ten minutes Jesse looked up from the page to wipe a few beads of sweat from his upper lip. The description of the Border Collie loping along a canal towpath was so vivid that Jesse could smell the steam rising from the damp earth, could feel himself getting short of breath as he struggled to keep up. For a moment he considered ringing Matthew again, but their last conversation had been very difficult.
‘Matthew, you know how –’ he’d tried to say.
Matthew had cut him off. ‘Not now. Not yet.’
And Jesse had glanced down at Nubi, sprawled nearby with his tender underbelly exposed.
‘OK,’ Jesse had muttered into the phone. ‘I understand.’
An hour or so later, Jesse gave up on the book. He rose and stretched, then went to the kitchen for a glass of milk and a sandwich, which he carried with him into the garden. Seated on the edge of the sundial, he quickly finished the baguette, sharing it with Nubi. The dog was particularly fond of the Italian rosemary salami Finn had taken to buying lately, though curled his canine lip at mustard.
I should have made several, Jesse thought, but the still, hazy air was too soporific, and he too indolent, to get up and head back for the fridge. Sarah was right. He was going to get fat if he kept eating like this, Nubi too. He could hear the dog stalking through the raspberry canes near the compost heap, probably in search of another snack. Idly Jesse pulled out the top and spun it in the air. After watching it for a moment, he caught it deftly in his left hand. Purple, he decided, and grinned as it changed colour. Yellow. He continued to toss it up, each time higher, each time a different colour, each time with a different spin. Kid’s games. Well, why not?
Nubi skirted Jesse with something tasty between his teeth and lay down near the pool. Jesse glimpsed a limp tail hanging from Nubi’s mouth, jumped up mid-spin, and growled, ‘What have you got there, you clod? Give it here.’ The top struck the gnomon with a ringing note, turned blue once more, and fell into the water on the far side.
The battle over the field mouse was short, expedient, and decisive. Nubi gulped down his catch before Jesse was able to prise open his jaws. Not the best way to enjoy a delicacy, yet better than nothing. Jesse didn’t see it that way. He scolded Nubi with a brief but colourful harangue, then resumed his seat. The water level in the pool, quite shallow to begin with, had sunk in recent weeks, and Jesse made a mental note to top it up from the hosepipe in the evening. He gazed at the sundial, whose bronze face dazzled him so that he could hardly make out the gnomon, much less its shadow, and he was forced to blink and look away. The gnomon was sharp and lethal as a pike. He still hadn’t met Ursula, but her sundials had come simultaneously to fascinate and repel him in the same way as might a medieval instrument of torture – time’s rack.
A small pale spider launched itself across open space from a spent dandelion in the grass, catching Jesse’s eye, and he had to smile – so sure of its trajectory, its destination. Or content to trust itself to chance? Questions, always questions … He bent down and snagged the spider on his finger, watched it scamper over his skin so lightly that he couldn’t tell if he felt its legs or only imagined the sensation. Warm and salty, a little rough, but not like grass at all, charged with racing jezzy current, fine hairs, loud thrumming as rhythmic as thumpers beneath the surface, a large worm perhaps, but warm? Jesse laughed aloud in delight and set the spider down in the grass. It disappeared almost immediately from sight, one of the kwakabazillion specks of life with which humans, for the most part begrudgingly or unwittingly, share the planet. And each and every one of those specks replete – glorious – with being.
It amused Jesse to light his cigarette without matches or lighter, and he was surprised to find that it even tasted different – not better, just a little more resinous. Only as he returned his cigarette packet to his pocket did he remember the top. He stared into the pool but there was nothing in the water; the top must have fallen to the grass. The sun warm on his neck and back, he was feeling sleepy. I’ll look for it, he told himself, as soon as I finish my fag.
He watched the glowing tip of the cigarette, the curling wisp of smoke, the lengthening ash which eventually dropped off into the grass; in fact he watched more than he smoked. There was something deeply satisfying about looking at the simplest things, really looking. Shed preconceptions, shed expectations, shed the self, and the world becomes magical again. He remembered the wonder he felt when his grandmother showed him how cream churned into butter. Or his father’s games with wood. ‘Close your eyes, Jes, and smell, really smell. Become that smell. Each type of timber smells different, the ash from the pine from the oak. Wood talks and tells you its name.’ Funny, he could think about that now without bitterness. It hurt – it probably always would – but not with that flood of heat which had required all his energy to contain. He was beginning to recall some of his father’s stories.
It hit him then, a realisation as penetrating as a baby’s cry of need, of hunger – his love of words was as much his father’s legacy as his grandmother’s. Not everything had been destroyed by a single act of madness. Buried in the ashes were shards of poetry, waiting to be disinterred. And feelings, once vitrified feelings ...
Lost in thought, Jesse didn’t hear the sounds of approach until a voice spoke behind him.
‘Such a waste, but we need to teach Andersen a lesson. He’s a persistent bugger, and the shipments aren’t coming through the way they should.’
Jesse cries out, drops his cigarette, and springs to his feet. The air has a sudden glassy ring to it, as though it would shatter at a misstep. He turns slowly, heart hammering, to see a stranger with long white hair standing behind the pool, the cool appraising look of the art connoisseur on his face – eyes narrowed, nostrils flared, thin lips pursed in consideration. A new piece to add to his collection, if the price is right, and a certificate of authenticity guaranteed. Jesse feels mounted behind a sheet of plate glass; on display. The air winks with reflected light.
It takes a moment or two for Jesse to recover from the shock, and a moment or two longer for him to grasp that he’s not seeing something real – perhaps not unreal either, but not the here-and-now of the Andersen garden on this quiet, complacent, sunny afternoon in August. He squints against the glare from the sundial, just able to make out the figures slightly off centre to his right – the tall white-haired stranger, two other youngish blokes and an older one, who are staring, not at Jesse, but at … my god, it’s Peter there on the bed, Jesse recognises him from Finn’s photos. All at once Jesse’s body is dripping sweat, he can feel it soaking into his T-shirt. He takes a step backwards, then another, though he knows he can’t be seen: it’s Peter and the others who are imprisoned behind time’s two-way mirror. And the scene is gradually clarifying, taking on the sharp lucidity of cloudy water allowed to settle – water whose still lens magnifies the details of glistening stones and sediment, concentrates the focus of Jesse’s perceptions.
Kill me. I can’t take any more.
Jesse can’t tell whether Peter is speaking the words aloud or only thinking them. Or whether they originate in Jesse’s own head. What does it matter? Peter’s desperation is clear enough. He’s naked and cadaverous, his skin already as translucent as lampshade parchment. His breathing is shallow, his eyes shut. He’s lying on his side, his hands curled before his genitals. It looks as though he can hardly lift his head. Jesse doubts that Peter would be able to stand, much less walk or run.
At a sign from the boss, one of the men steps forward, grabs their prisoner’s arms, and yanks them away from his body. The blue top drops from Peter’s fingers to the floor, where it skitters out of sight under the bed, but Jesse barely notices. Aghast and uncomprehending, he’s staring instead at the bloke holding Peter’s hands; despite his beard, the resemblance is unmistakable: Daniel, Mick’s twin brother. One of the others moves in to help, and then Jesse recognises him as well – the fat man who’d been carrying a syringe that one time. Together they roll Peter onto his back and wind thick cords around his ankles which they attach to the bedframe, splaying his legs, then pass another rope around one of his wrists – his left one – which they secure to an iron ring above him on the wall, so that his arm is stretched at an unnatural and inescapably painful angle. His hip bones jut up like steel king poles in canvas worn thin through years of hard use, canvas become papery and slack and chalky, which would tear as readily as ageing skin. Jesse aches to cover the sight of that sunken abdomen, those shrunken organs. Some archives should never be unsealed.
Peter makes no attempt to struggle with his captors – hopelessness or resignation or sheer frailty, Jesse assumes. Perhaps all three. Or is Peter even conscious? As if in response to Jesse’s silent question, Peter opens his eyes. They’re dulled with pain – and drugs, probably – but then beneath the murky film Jesse sees a ghostly flicker of pleading. Peter works his mouth and seems to mumble something, but either it’s too faint for Jesse to hear, or Peter is too weak to do more than move his lips. Or too frightened: for the fat sod has walked away into the periphery, where the light reflecting off the sundial blinds Jesse’s vision, but returns almost immediately bearing a knife in one hand, a knife much larger than Jesse’s own, as long as a good-sized carving knife, and from the glint like a bright blue flame along its cutting edge, just as sharp.
Jesse catches his breath. ‘No,’ he says. ‘No.’ His voice strikes against the air, and he can hear the sound it makes, that first shrill crack.
Peter’s eyes widen, and he turns his head weakly from side to side, as if trying to locate the source of a sound whispered in his ear, below the threshold of speech. Does extremity thin the reflective coating on the mirror? Or proximity to death dim the light enough to allow you to see a little, just a little, of the other side? Peter has the look of someone with nothing more to lose. Yet glowing deep within his pinprick pupils is a fugitive but unequivocal spark of determination. Jesse doubts that the others notice: the whites of Peter’s eyes have yellowed like cheap paper, and their beautiful green now has the cloudy mottled look of antique bottles.
‘What are you going to do?’ Jesse cries hoarsely upon seeing the man approach the bed.
We should geld him, boss. Like a steer. I can do it good, learned how as a kid. Or d’you want to cut his cock off as well?
Help me. Please.
The bastard smiles and lays the cold steel on his victim’s groin. Peter shudders violently, an unexpected show of strength. The man runs the tip of his blade lightly along the length of Peter’s penis, almost a lover’s caress, then cups Peter’s balls in his free hand.
Feel good, boy? Better enjoy it. It’ll be the last time.
And to Jesse’s horror, Peter is becoming aroused – his body’s ultimate betrayal. Though not his last. His last is that he would still live. Peter closes his eyes and says nothing, makes no sound; it’s Jesse who moans in distress.
Enough. The boss steps forward and gives his orders. Not now. Gag him. Which they do, quickly and efficiently with a balled-up rag and a length of black duct tape, something they’ve obviously done before, so practised are their movements.
Good, says the boss. He addresses the older man. Now here’s what I want you to do. Take off his right hand. His artist’s hand. You’re the doctor. Make sure he doesn’t bleed to death. I’ve got a use for him yet.
And then the boss smiles for the first time, a smile made of toughened glass. I wish I could be there when Andersen opens the parcel, he says.
Jesse hears the scream in his head – Peter’s his own Peter’s – and he acts without conscious thought, without words, without restraint. Some abominations have to be stopped.
shrieking the fireball erupts from the gnomon shrieking hovers for a split-second in the air shrieking mushrooms with shrieking a blinding flash of light and heat and pressuR shrieking to break with boundless shrieking through the impassable glassy barshriekingrier of the past shrieking shock waves waves waves shrieking knock Jesse to the ground shrieking the air cascading shrieking in shards around him shrieking
As Jesse falls, he has a single brief glimpse of incandescent dancing bones – a reverse image like an x-ray branded on his retina, on his mind, on the symmetry of time itself.
Jesse lay still, afraid to open his eyes. He knew what he’d done. The past could not be altered without immense consequence. Or an infinite programming loop. Or could not be altered at all, and he was the ghost in the machine, and himself the paradox.
He listened to feathery sound of the wind. He listened to a bird singing its short sharp refrain, again and again, at regular intervals. He listened to a plane pass in a trombone slide overhead. He listened to the earth shift and drumble. He listened to his own lungs and heart and stomach clang and hiss like antiquated cast-iron radiators. And he thought he heard, though perhaps only with his inner ear, a ghostly thank you like a harmonic on the cello, reverberating to an elegiac stop within his larynx.
If the world had changed, its sounds had not. Slowly he sat up, opened his eyes, and looked round. His gaze rested on the remains of the sundial. How would he explain that to Finn and Meg? The metal warped – no fused – into a clump of lustreless bronze, the plinth dismembered into pieces of severed marble strewn like ancient statuary in and near the cracked ruins of the pool, now dry. He had an uneasy suspicion that the Andersen’s insurance would not cover acts of – what, precisely? not God.
He got to his feet. Peter’s top lay by the twisted gnomon. When he picked it up, it felt no warmer than usual, no different. But it no longer belonged to Peter, that much Jesse knew. He had finally made it his own.
And once he’d made certain that no anomaly had cracked the plinth of the known universe, he’d have to find a way to tell the Andersens. Uncertainty was fine in principle, but they had the right to learn what had happened to Peter. And even someone like Mick, to his brother.