Sarah is heading for the corn circle. It’s a warm golden afternoon, the first after a grey start to October, and the sidewalk cafés and playgrounds are beginning to fill. She comes often to the park. On most days she wheels the pushchair along the gravel paths she and Jesse walked that very first afternoon. Today she has a book tucked into the net along with the usual baby paraphernalia, also an old waterproof camping sheet. If the grass isn’t too damp, she’ll stretch out on the ground, get through that chapter for history.
She missed some school last year, but not much. There had been private tutoring, and with her marks she was allowed to sit most of her exams late. The rest she’ll be able catch up, in the end she’ll finish with her year. These are modern times – a single parent, a teenager, shouldn’t have to suffer. Her parents know how to exploit the system. And in school she wears her motherhood like a badge of honour, a test passed.
October is a country month, one of the best. Maybe at the weekend Meg will drive them to Gran’s. Some of the apples will be ready for picking, fragrant bunches of lavender hang under the eaves – Gran has bought almond oil this year for infusing – and there’s always jam to be made. The sweet, sharp tang of quinces simmering in the kettle would permeate the whole cottage. Sarah smiles to remember how she and Peter used to fight over the scrapings.
The baby needs country air – Sarah, even more so. At five months the baby still sleeps in Sarah’s bed, wanting only a nice long suck to settle. It isn’t quite so easy for Sarah. She’s been dreaming of Jesse again, though never as vividly as the night the baby was born and lay next to her in that tiny cot.
The path ahead is thronged with people, which Sarah doesn’t mind as long as she can find a quiet corner. After the fire, she needed months to be able to walk into a crowded room without beginning to shake. And she still avoids large enclosed spaces like shopping malls, the school auditorium. She hasn’t been to the cinema since that one time with Jesse. And she’s just begun her first dance class a few weeks ago, though she’s not keen to perform onstage again.
Occasionally she meets with someone from school for a coke or bit of TV, but mostly she prefers to be on her own. Having a child has changed her in more ways than she could have ever imagined … having had Jesse … Aside from teachers and exams, there isn’t much she has in common with the old crowd, even Katy. But she misses Thomas, who left for New York at the beginning of term.
Talk has died down, yet the fire still smoulders in everyone’s memory; the fire, and the boy who set it, and Mick. Sarah was insulated from the gossip for a while – her parents sent her for six weeks to her grandmother in Norway – but upon her return she soon got wind of what was being said at school, and her rage was cataclysmic. It took three blokes to pull her off the girl. With her mum’s help, Sarah has come to understand that, deep down, she’s angry at Jesse (and herself), not the stupid kids who have no idea what they’re talking about. She doesn’t really blame them any longer – well, not much – when she thinks about it rationally. They all know someone who died in the fire. Why should they doubt Mick’s version of the story?
Finn has done his best, but everyone knows of his vested interest in defending the boy. There was an official inquiry into the actions of Howell’s elite team, which resulted in a few dismissals, a few reprimands, but not much else – certainly no prosecutions. Sarah continues to avoid Mick, not that he seeks her out. And of course, together with Gavin, he flatly denies the rape. Jesse was right all along – she should have gone to the police straightaway, when it would have been possible to submit to a few simple tests. Might things have turned out differently? The fire … Jesse…?
‘I know you don’t want to believe he’s dead, but he’d never let you suffer like this without getting word to you,’ Finn said after she'd come back from Norway. She’d been racing to answer every phone call; checking her email a thousand times a day; setting upon the post like a fix. ‘At least for him it was over quickly, he didn’t have to live with his guilt,’ Finn added thickly, turning away.
Her parents then suggested that she change schools, but Sarah refused. Her obstinacy, her pride were the only things that kept her from going under in those first months of denial and loneliness and desolation and grief; her family’s support. And Thomas – thank god for Thomas. Even so, there were moments when she thought about an abortion. As soon as her pregnancy showed, though, she squared her shoulders and stared down any questions about the father until nobody, but nobody, dared to ask. It surprised her, where the strength had come from. After a while she discovered that their speculations ceased to matter. Once reasonably popular, she became something of an outsider, despite Thomas. The books she’s read make it out to be lacerating, the worst kind of gaol sentence – solitary confinement. Maybe for some. But she no longer trusts simple fictions. It’s as if she speaks another language, not the common tongue. She uses the same words but they sound strange, distorted – underwater. And there are still times when she sees lips move and hears sounds fill the room, but it feels like watching TV with the meaning rather than the volume switched off. She listens to music for hours. Solitude sings. She needs it, she supposes. And gradually, she’s beginning to notice a certain admiration, a grudging respect – and interest – from some quarters. There are friends out there, when she’s ready for them.
Christmas was very difficult, and in the end her parents rang Inge in Norway and begged her to come for the rest of the holidays. Her grandmother sat with Sarah for hours, sometimes right through the night. In her beautiful alto voice Inge sang aria after aria from her favourite operas, or sometimes those wonderful blues classics, until Sarah would finally fall asleep. To her alone Sarah showed the lines which Jesse had left under her pillow. Inge said nothing, only stroked her granddaughter’s hair. No one was astonished that Inge agreed with Sarah about school. ‘Don’t let that serpent have the satisfaction of driving you away,’ she said. ‘It’s a matter of honour.’ An old-fashioned concept, but Sarah found it curiously satisfying. It reminded her of Jesse.
On New Years Eve Mick and Gavin were involved in a bizarre accident. They were crossing the Old Bridge on foot with some mates, returning late from a party. It had begun to rain. Gavin had his arm around Mick’s shoulders. A bolt of lightning struck them both, and Gavin spent months in hospital, so badly burnt that his charred penis had to be amputated. While Mick escaped with less severe injuries, he needed a long period of recuperation, and he’ll carry the scars for the rest of his life, the ones on his back being the worst. At school everyone noticed the personality changes, the memory problems, and his difficulty in processing information, though the incoherent remarks about his brother soon tapered off. Mick’s hearing was also impaired, and only recently has he begun to play sax again. He’s stopped talking about the fire since the accident. No one else was harmed.
Sarah spent New Years Eve quietly with Thomas and went to bed soon after midnight. She slept soundly for the first time in months.
People move on. The fire is no longer a hot topic, and even Sarah can make a gentle pun about it, or tolerate the ones her father makes, to be precise. That black humour of his keeps him sane, he claims. She no longer swears at him when he says things like that. He only means that people forget, after all. And he’s right. Sort of. Sometimes.
Her dad still takes overseas assignments, but not as many. In the immediate aftermath of Jesse’s death Sarah was too numb to notice much about Finn’s feelings, though she can clearly remember one night when he went out to the shed with a crate of old – and probably valuable – porcelain and smashed one dish after another against the wall till a neighbour rang up to complain. Since his musical tribute at Jesse’s memorial service, which he was unable to finish, Finn plays his trumpet often. And even now, when she can’t sleep, she sometimes finds him smoking on the patio, unashamed of the tears in his eyes.
Finn adores his first grandchild. Well, of course he would. Sarah loves to see him carrying the baby around – big bearded biker, belly a little larger, a little sloppier, hair a little greyer, with this tiny scrap in his hands. He’s got his Harley back, rides it some, and is talking about a fancy sidecar arrangement for infants which he’s seen featured in a magazine. As if. And her mother has finally qualified as a specialist registrar. She’s been asked to join a team being put together to work with runaways, an offer which Meg is seriously considering. Sarah is sure her mother will take the job. It’s a new and rather gritty programme – exactly the sort of thing Meg will love, despite the long hours. None of them has much time for cleaning, but they’ve hired a housekeeper cum childminder since Sarah went back to school. Jesse wouldn’t recognise the house any more, Sarah thinks with a smile. He was always uncomfortable with their untidiness, though he never complained.
They talk more often now about Peter. Sometimes Matthew comes round. Still in remission, he’s described Jesse’s healing. As much as anyone, he’s helped them to speak of the dead. It doesn’t hurt any less, though it has got a bit easier. But Sarah hasn’t told them about her dreams, and she keeps her suspicions about the baby to herself. There’ll be time enough to worry her parents if and when she needs to. At least the neighbour’s cat won’t be tempted to jump into another pram again soon.
The baby sneezes and opens her eyes sleepily for a moment, almost as if she knows that Sarah has been thinking about her. Well, why not? With a grandmother like Meg and a father like ... Jesse, Sarah thinks with a surge of anger as she stops to adjust the blanket, I miss you, damn it! You should be here to see her – to be with her. Sarah studies her daughter’s face, her bright blue eyes. Everyone comments on how unusual it is for them to be so clear and intense already. Like Jesse’s, they change colour readily. Sarah has noticed that they darken when it storms or someone is shouting – or when some heavy metal is playing on the radio. Today they reflect the cloudless frieze overhead, painted in a clean strong azure with prodigal hand.
Sarah rocks the pushchair. With a snuffle the baby shifts under her blanket, blinks, half opens her eyes. A drowsy smile touches her mouth. Then her lids drift shut, and she goes back to sleep. Sarah bends to retie a shoelace which has come undone, then pushes on. It’s hard work on the gravel, but there really isn’t any hurry. The baby has taught her the discovery, the pleasure of slowness.
The summer’s corn has been cut, but the autumn’s new growth already reaches above Sarah’s ankles. The fresh green stalks thrust thin as seconds, sturdy as hours towards the sun. This year it’s wheat, not amaranth (which she looked up on the internet). She wonders why the gardeners plant twice, since this is obviously a late sowing. It doesn’t seem likely that many people come to the circle in winter. Another of Jesse’s legacies: at one time she’d have taken the park – like so many other things – for granted, never questioning how any of it came to be. Jesse was fascinated by the park. It’s magical, he told her more than once. And it’s true that she feels very close to him here, where she first danced for him. Where, perhaps, she first began to fall in love with him.
I promise, he told her in the darkroom. And he never lied.
Sometimes she can hear his voice fall like spring rains, like soft music in her head. She finds herself remembering odd snatches from the madcap stories he made up for her after she was raped. Little things he said, or might have said. The way he murmured her name at just the right moment. The lines of poetry he liked to quote. And most often of all: when I wak’d I cried to dream again. She’s read the play over and over again, searching for ... for what? a hidden message? understanding? consolation? peace? But there are few answers. She doesn’t even have a photograph of him. Nothing for the baby except a scrap of verse. In her saddest moments, often on sleepless nights, it almost seems to her that it was all a dream. How could there have ever been anyone like Jesse? Then she smells his skin, the spicy sweat of their last lovemaking; rides the Harley through the early morning streets; feels his lips brush her neck; sees the bullets rip into his flesh. Why? Why had he never said goodbye there on the bridge? He knew what was coming; he had engineered it, goddamn him. (And she had let him.)
I promise …
And those final seconds, remembering what she can remember … so much is confused … her mind skitters away … the fireball … Jesse rising like a living torch … from the bridge … from that woman … a firebird …
She knows it’s wishful thinking.
‘Why?’ Finn choked out at Christmas, breaking off in the middle of a Norwegian carol, ‘why did I let him leave?’ And Meg, ‘He wouldn’t want you to blame yourself. I think the greatest gift we’ve given him has been our trust.’ Her eyes rested on Sarah as she added, ‘So trust him to have known what he wanted – needed – to do. Believe in him.’ Sarah still catches her mum watching her, more often the baby, Meg’s eyes deepening to that intense and prescient shade of gold.
Sarah stands in the centre of circle, tilts her head to the sun, and closes her eyes. It was very hot the day she danced for Jesse. Today the clouds have dropped their guard for a few hours, a few days at most. The sun will have to wait until the earth creeps close again to launch its full assault. There is still the long winter to get through. Sarah lifts her arms, swings round in a complete circle. Her hair is short now. She took a scissors to it in Norway. Sometimes she misses its heft, its anchor. When she dances her head weighs too little: she finds it affects her sense of balance. She’s having to relearn how to hold herself.
She makes another windmill, then another.
She doesn’t miss the stage. She’s always danced more for herself than others. Except that day in the park – even then she wanted to entice Jesse, to capture him, hadn’t she?
Jesse, she thinks as she makes another turn, I’m still dancing. She blinks back the luxury of tears and slows to a standstill, a little dizzy.
Once the world steadies, Sarah checks on the baby, whose soft downy cheeks are flushed above the blanket. Her eyelids flutter, she must be dreaming. Sarah looks down on her as only a new mother can look at her infant. Then she slips off her trainers and socks. She wants to feel the earth beneath her feet. The grass is cool and wet and springy; the ground swollen with stored life. Sarah circles the pushchair, then pauses to rock in place and wriggle her toes. She looks round. There’s nobody in sight. She begins to dance.
In her head she hears the first notes of Fauré’s Elegy, which friends of Finn’s played at the memorial service. Finn gave her a copy of the CD after he tired of searching for his own disc. The deep sonorous notes of the cello sound like a human voice to her, and she listens to it late at night, letting the music wash over her in throaty waves, imagining the dance she would choreograph for it. If the baby awakes while the cello sings, her eyes shine in the flame of the candle Sarah often lights – glows in the music’s wick. While dancing Sarah wonders, as she’s done many times before, if Jesse knew the piece. Yes, Seesaw, he whispers. Yes.
Sarah falters. She catches her breath, nearly falls.
‘Jesse,’ she cries.
But she’s alone with the baby.
There isn’t even a gust of wind to be blamed. A week or so before his departure Thomas asked why she keeps torturing herself with visits to the park. ‘You have to let him go.’ Thomas doesn’t understand, she only half understands it herself. He isn’t wrong about her stubbornness, and yet …
She spreads out the rubber sheet on the ground. The dance has fled. Sarah reads for fifteen or twenty minutes, stretched out next to the pushchair. She’s glad no one else comes to invade her space. It hasn’t occurred to her to wonder why nobody seems to find this spot. Then she grows sleepy – the sun, the drowsy reading material. She upturns her textbook and lays her head on her arms across its splayed cover. I’ll just take a short break, she tells herself. She sleeps.
The dream is very vivid. The sun is hot, the water a cool jewelled blue. Jesse holds the baby in his arms and wades with her into the shallows. He tosses her into the air. She screeches in delight and terror. Again he throws her up, again he catches her. Then he presses her to his chest where she clings like a limpet, and dives with her. Sleek and silent as seals they cleave the water. Deep, deeper. They swim far into the depths, where the light is dim and secretive. They pass fluorescent fish and rainbow fish and jellyfish; an underwater leafless forest, silvery and petrified; a creature like a drowned and bloated mother-in-law. Come back, Sarah calls, it’s too far. The water grows colder, darker. Come back, come back. Sarah’s voice slides into the water’s dancing sheath. Jesse, come back.
Sarah opens her eyes. Disoriented, she’s still caught in the watery forechamber of wakefulness. It takes her a moment to raise her head and focus on the present. A shadow has fallen over her, raising gooseflesh on her arms. Then her eyes widen. Jesse is standing at the side of the pushchair, his hair wet and slicked back, shoulder-length again. Droplets glisten like tiny crystals at its tips. Stooped over the baby, he’s whispering softly, smiling a little. He’s older and thinner, perhaps a fraction taller. He’s wearing a worn pair of jeans, frayed, and what could easily be one of Finn’s T-shirts. He’s barefoot. He’s scarred. He’s perfect. Sarah’s heart gives a great thud and begins to race.
‘Jesse,’ she says. Her throat is tight, and she can’t think of anything else to say.
Jesse continues to watch the baby as though he hasn’t heard, but his eyes crinkle, and Sarah realises that he’s teasing her. She props herself on her elbows.
‘Jesse,’ she says again, her voice stronger.
Jesse bends down to kiss the baby. He strokes her cheek with a finger, then draws the blanket up to her chin while she gazes back at him with wonder. Gurgles, a laugh – her small voice like clear sweet notes running across a pebbled riverbed, stones glittering in the sunlight. Jesse laughs with her, and the air trembles – brims – with Fauré’s haunting melody. A strong scent of pine drifts towards Sarah, who catches her lower lip between her teeth. She thirsts to drink from those blue, deep blue, beautiful blue eyes once more … just once more. At that Jesse turns towards Sarah. Their eyes meet.
I promise, she hears him say. Her eyes blur with tears so that his figure swims in front of her, and she drops her head to wipe them away. When she can see clearly again, he’s gone.
The baby burbles to herself and waves her hands. Soon it’ll be time to feed her. Sarah rises, stiff from the ground. Despite the sunshine, it’s not warm enough to lie for long outdoors. Her head feels as if it’s been emptied and filled with wet sand; there’s a slight throbbing behind her temples. She wonders how long she’s been asleep. Will she ever stop dreaming of Jesse?
As though sensing her mother’s distress, the baby falls silent, only to begin whimpering, and Sarah goes to look. The air tilts, slides – for a moment Sarah can’t breathe. Then she gasps and clutches at the handles of the pushchair to steady herself. Fresh tears well in her eyes. This time she doesn’t try to block them, and they course down her cheeks for a long time … for the time it takes to wake … to dream again … She reaches with a tremulous hand for the small object lying on the blanket.
Peter’s blue top.
She’s afraid her hand will close on air. But the top is solid enough. She curls her fingers round it tightly. It’s warm and tingles slightly, or her skin does. She brings it to her lips and feels its charge like a gentle kiss. Then she stares at the baby’s hair, touches it with a fingertip to be sure. Strokes it. It’s wet like Jesse’s.
Sarah has named their daughter Ariel.