Finn cancelled his long-scheduled trip to New York over Jesse’s protests. ‘So I won’t sell as many books. Who cares? We won’t be going hungry, not with a doctor in the family.’
Finn’s joking did nothing to mask the worry at the back of his eyes. Together he and Jesse dug a grave near Nubi’s favourite spot under the walnut tree, hacking and finally sawing through limb-thick roots in grim determination. Meg and Sarah joined them when the hole was deep enough. No one said much while Nubi was buried, Jesse least of all.
The last spadeful of soil in place, Jesse went right off to the unfinished job of clearing away the sundial, whose destruction Finn wasn’t quite inclined to classify with broken windows; however, it was clear to everyone that Jesse was in no condition to be questioned closely. Soon afterwards he retreated not just to his room, but to a place where even Sarah couldn’t reach him. Though he didn’t lock her out physically – they still spent the nights together – his skin, his breath, his thoughts became so cold that it hurt to touch him. It felt like a car handle on winter days in Norway – put your naked fingers to it, and you left part of your own skin behind.
When Finn asked about enemies, Jesse looked at him blankly, as though he didn’t understand the words. And when Finn persisted, Jesse shrugged. ‘I already know who it is. I’ll deal with him.’ Disquieted, Finn tried to probe for more information, but Jesse turned back to his weeding without a word. For that was all he seemed able to do – hours and hours of labour, hard physical labour, long into the night. Sarah thought he was trying to sweat away the pain. He hardly ate, and he wouldn’t shower, as if he welcomed the smell of his own sweat – as if its very rankness proved something.
After discussing the situation with Meg, Finn rang Matthew on Thursday. There too something was wrong – Jesse had not been to the boathouse in days – but Meg thought Matthew might be able to carry some of Jesse’s grief. ‘Matthew has a way with strays, we all know that,’ she said. And though Matthew was stiff on the phone, bluntly declining to answer any of Finn’s questions, he did turn up a few hours later. Even more laconic than usual, he made straight for the garden where he found Jesse forking over the compost heap. After about twenty minutes Finn suddenly remembered some tools he desperately needed from the shed, but Matthew flicked him such a severe look from under his black cap that Finn withdrew without even bothering to open the shed door. Sarah added a few choice words of her own about nosy, meddling parents before leaving for a dance class.
In another hour or so Matthew came into the kitchen where Finn, having relinquished all pretence of repair work, was hovering over a mushroom risotto and a salad he was preparing. They exchanged a couple of pleasantries but Matthew refused to stay for supper, and refused even more firmly to divulge what he and Jesse had talked about. ‘Give him time,’ was all he’d say. Finn bit back a sour comment about Meg’s influence when he saw Matthew attempt, and fail, to mask his sadness. He left, however, with a promise to return soon.
On Friday Jesse still ached when he woke. Mornings he felt as if someone had beaten him soundly in the night with the handle of his spade, though the soreness in his muscles did little to disguise the deeper ache. He groaned softly, and Sarah’s eyes flew open. This time, however, he stared at her with unguarded, festering eyes, then crawled into her arms. She said nothing, held him close. The smell of lavender gauzed them both.
Later he showered and dressed in clean clothes. Finn was hanging out a load of laundry on the rotary clothesline when Jesse joined him. Finn fished out some white cotton knickers.
‘I keep trying, but Meg just gives them away,’ Finn said laconically.
‘Gives what away?’
‘The lacy red camisoles and thongs I buy her.’
‘Yeah, right.’ Jess flicked a wet T-shirt at Finn, who dodged to avoid a stinging reprimand.
‘You and Meg,’ Jesse asked, ‘you still – still, well, make love?’
Finn laughed from his belly, like a good loud belch. ‘What’s brought that on?’
‘Sorry.’ Jesse seemed to be losing more and more control of his rackety tongue. ‘It’s none of my business.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind. I keep forgetting that to kids your age, anyone over thirty is old, and over forty, decrepit.’
‘Rubbish. Over fifty.’
They laughed together in a shared lull between waves. For some reason Jesse felt like seizing fast to Finn, probably the better swimmer, an admission Jesse would make about few others. This Viking could probably hold him afloat in one hand.
‘I’ll let you in on a secret,’ Finn said. ‘It’s like a fine cognac, improves with age.’ He must have seen something on Jesse’s face. ‘Trust me.’
‘It’s wonderful sometimes,’ Jesse said a bit shyly. ‘Liberating. It dissolves everything – not just time and place, but my skin and bones, my head, my sense of self.’ Jesse stopped for a breath. ‘But coming back hurts, like being squeezed into a pair of shoes that are too tight, a pair of wet jeans, your skin.’
Finn smiled – he remembered that intensity. ‘It’s always a little frightening to care about something … someone. What you have, you can lose. It can break, or be stolen. Or it might stop fitting.’
Jesse plucked a dandelion from the grass and rubbed his fingers over its glossy yellow plush, shredding it actually, without looking up. When the stem was bare and almost crushed, he let it fall to the ground.
‘I don’t think I have the courage to be so defenceless.’
‘Jesse, everyone is vulnerable when it comes to –’ No, he wasn’t prepared to go that far, to ratify a teenage romance with a word already used much too often, and too soon. They were just kids, for god’s sake. ‘– when it comes to sex. That’s what emotional intimacy is all about.’
Jesse was quiet for a few minutes, then spoke in a low rush. ‘But it doesn’t really work, does it? To be the other person. To escape yourself. She says something, or I do, or something happens, and you realise that no matter how naked you are, how stripped of defences, you’re still and always clothed in skin, and separate. That sense of self dissolving – it’s just an illusion. Orgasm lasts for what – maybe a couple of seconds? And then you’re back to wanting what you can never have. The end of loneliness.’
‘But think how glorious those few seconds feel.’
Finn regretted his attempt at humour when he heard the bleakness in Jesse’s voice. ‘Yeah, and think how Loki must be laughing at us. Our few seconds of boundlessness. Of release.’
‘Jesse, intimacy goes far beyond sex. Despite all the conflicts, which are unavoidable, a good relationship makes it a little easier to sing the sun in flight.’
‘Dylan Thomas never knew someone like me.’
Finn regarded Jesse soberly for a lengthy moment, an unflinching look. A disconcerting look.
‘Meet me behind the shed,’ Finn said. ‘I’ll be right back.’ He strode away into the house.
After a short debate with himself, Jesse ducked round the small outbuilding and waited in the shaded gap between its rear wall and the fence. An overgrown lilac bush, a rhododendron, and a woodpile in danger of imminent collapse – something else to take care of – screened the neighbouring garden.
‘Jesse,’ Finn said.
Jesse turned, then stared. Finn was holding a pistol in his hand.
‘Here, take it,’ Finn said, holding it out.
Jesse accepted it gingerly. ‘It’s loaded?’
‘Not much use if it’s not. In my line of work – well, sideline – surprises can be rather unfortunate.’
‘What am I supposed to do with it?’
Finn stepped back towards the fence, sturdy chainlink, and scuffed his foot through the leaf mould and loose chunks of bark near the lilac. ‘This is Sarah and Peter’s pet cemetery. An old tom, guinea pigs, a couple of tortoises, certainly a bird or two, tropical fish even. And Peter’s dog Surfer.’
‘I didn’t know you’d had a dog.’
‘Peter’s really. A young golden retriever, who doted on him, and vice versa.’
Finn bent to pick up a half coconut shell that had somehow found its way under the bush. He rubbed his fingers along its rough surface, its broken edges. His fingers worked by themselves, for his gaze was fixed on a spot above the woodpile.
Without dropping the shell Finn finally looked at Jesse with deep van Gogh eyes – loneliness and pain and despair, and that touch of madness.
‘When I learned of Peter’s death, I led Surfer out here that night after supper. She was very trusting. I didn’t even need to tie her up to shoot her.’
Jesse’s hand tightened around the gun. ‘Sarah’s said nothing about a dog.’
‘We never talk about it. She and Meg think I gave her away.’ Finn indicated the gun. ‘Go ahead. Use it.’
‘Shoot yourself. One shot through the mouth will do.’
‘You’re not serious?’
‘Sure. Why not? I’ll bury you right here next to Surfer. No one need know. You ran off again, that’s all.’
‘You’re fucking crazy. I don’t want to shoot myself.’
‘OK, then do you want me to do it for you? If you’re worried about Sarah, she’ll get over it in time. She’s young. She’ll cry for a while, grieve for a while, but then she’ll move on. There’s school, and there’s dance, and there’s friends, and eventually there’ll be someone else. And in twenty years, every once in a while, but not often, when she hears a certain line of poetry or smells tobacco or is baking brownies, she’ll remember the sweet crazy blond kid with his strange talents – what was his name? Jeremy? Joshua? no, Jesse – and wonder what ever became of him, and she might even find herself crying a bit, the way you cry at a Hollywood tearjerker where the hero gets killed in a tragic accident, maybe a fire while he’s rescuing someone, but the kids will be wanting their tea, and the older lad is sweating his maths, and she still has a report to finish for work, and she needs to ring her mum, who hasn’t been feeling well lately, and her husband will certainly want to fuck after the kids are in bed, and she enjoys it too, so the moment will pass and it’ll be another year or so before she remembers Jesse again.’
Jesse’s throat had closed. He stepped back in order to brace himself against the wall of the shed. He needed the feel of the shiplap edges digging into his skin, the solidity of wood.
‘Well, what about it?’
Jesse could see the leaves of the lilac moving in the breeze, the shifting patterns of greenish light under the rhododendron. But he could hear nothing. All sound had been swallowed by whatever madness had seized hold of Finn.
Slowly Finn moved in close. Jesse held his breath. Without touching him, Finn stretched out an arm, pressed one palm flat against the cladding above Jesse’s shoulder, and leaned as if his legs could no longer support him. Jesse held himself very still. He caught a strong whiff of Finn’s sweat, which brought a prickle of tears to Jesse’s eyes. He blinked rapidly, not wanting Finn to notice. There was no way he could use the pistol against Finn, nor anything else in his own arsenal.
Finn lifted his other hand, which still grasped the coconut shell. For an instant Jesse thought Finn intended to wield it as a weapon. Then with a snap of his wrist Finn tossed the shell towards the woodpile.
‘There it is. All the truth I can offer you, Jesse. Like every one of us, you get to choose between the terrors of living or death. It’s up to you, but I’d suggest giving intimacy your best shot.’
The coconut shell hit the stacked wood with a soft thump and rolled away. A kestrel keened overhead.
Jesse dropped the gun to the ground and stepped into the circle of Finn’s arms. He laid his head on the older man’s shoulder. His breath came in loud gasps – the end of the longest swim yet. They embraced for a long time without speaking. Finn’s skin was warm, it melted the cloth between them, the cold metallic rivets of fear, so that an indelible imprint of Finn’s essence was melded like a fingerprint – a birthmark – onto Jesse’s skin. While Finn also took up his share of scars.
Finn eventually released his hold on Jesse and bent for his pistol.
‘You scared me,’ Jesse said. ‘I thought you’d flipped.’
Finn smiled. ‘Not yet.’
‘The dog. Surfer. How could you do that?’
‘Grief makes everyone a little mad.’ Finn tugged at his beard, and Jesse could tell that he wanted a smoke. ‘You’ve got to forgive yourself, Jesse.’
‘A bit. And a bit more each day.’
‘Would you really have shot me if I’d asked you to?’
‘You tell me.’
Jesse swept back his hair, which was sticking damply to his forehead. From his jeans pocket he removed his cigarettes and lighter, which he offered to Finn. ‘Yeah, I couldn’t have hurt you either, even to defend myself. Not you. And not Sarah’s dad.’ Then he grinned his lopsided grin. ‘I think.’
They both laughed. Finn lit their cigarettes, and they stood for a while in silence, smoke curling between them in a holding pattern before dissipating. Then Finn showed Jesse the gun.
‘Look here, it’s got a safety catch mounted on the slide.’ He demonstrated how to push the lever into the fire position. ‘At some point I’ll teach you how to shoot. Useful skill, though I hope you’ll never actually need it.’ With a decidedly provocative glint in his eyes, he struck the Zippo again. ‘Unlikely, eh?’
‘What you said about Sarah –’ Jesse began.
Finn snapped the lighter shut, cutting off the flame. ‘I know it hurt, and I’m sorry for that, but it’s part of the truth. Or what could be the truth. We’ll have to see.’
‘If there’s nobody to remember us, were we ever alive?’
‘Herregud, you ask the damndest questions. Why don’t you just take it day by day? I’m not much interested in whether someone a century or two from now knows who Finn Andersen was.’
‘That’s because you already know who you are. And that you’ll live on in Sarah and Sarah’s kids.’ Jesse was proud of himself – his voice was very steady over the mention of her future.
Finn walked to the area he’d cleared with his foot and crouched down. He stubbed out his cigarette, picked up a handful of rotting leaf, and crumbled it through his fingers.
‘I miss him so much,’ Finn said. ‘You’re right, you know. In sixty or seventy years, there’ll only be a few photos and an old woman’s memory, then nothing. As if he’d never lived.’
Jesse shivered. A flash of Sarah white-haired, wrinkled, those speaking eyes, dancer’s back erect as ever, still beautiful – foreknowledge? memory? imagination? Perhaps it made no difference. Are we not already mortal ghosts?
‘He lived,’ Jesse said. Now, he thought, tell him now.
But Finn rounded on Jesse, suddenly fierce. ‘Then live for him. You know your Dylan Thomas. Don’t ever give up. Live, and rage, and go out blazing.’