Sacrament Clive Barker
77-85 Fulham Palace Road,
Hammersmith, London W6 8JB
First published in Great Britain by
Copyright © Clive Barker 1996
The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Source ISBN: 9780006482642
Ebook Edition © AUGUST 2010 ISBN: 9780007358298 Version: 2014-07-17
Table of Contents
I am a man, and men are animals who tell stories. This is a gift from God, who spoke our species into being, but left the end of our story untold. That mystery is troubling to us. How could it be otherwise? Without the final part, we think, how are we to make sense of all that went before; which is to say, our lives?
So we make stories of our own, in fevered and envious imitation of our Maker, hoping that we’ll tell, by chance, what God left untold. And finishing our tale come to understand why we were born.
To every hour, its mystery.
At dawn, the riddles of life and light. At noon, the conundrums of solidity. At three, in the hum and heat of the day, a phantom moon, already high. At dusk, memory. And at midnight? Oh then the enigma of time itself; of a day that will never come again passing into history while we sleep.
It had been Saturday when Will Rabjohns arrived at the weather-bullied wooden shack on the outskirts of Balthazar. Now it was Sunday morning, two-seventeen by the scored face of Will’s watch. He had emptied his brandy flask an hour before, raising it to toast the Borealis, which shimmered and billowed far beyond Hudson Bay, upon the shores of which Balthazar stood. He had knocked on the door of the shack countless times, calling out for Guthrie to give him just a few minutes of his time. On two or three occasions it had seemed the man was going to do so; Will had heard him grumbling something incoherent on the other side of the door, and once the handle had been turned. But Guthrie had not appeared.
Will was neither deterred nor particularly surprised. The old man had been universally described as crazy: this by men and women who had chosen as their place of residence one of the bleaker corners of the planet. If anyone knew crazy, Will thought, they did. What besides a certain lunacy inspired people to build a community – even one as small as Balthazar (population: thirty-one) – on a treeless wind-battered stretch of tidal flats which was buried half the year beneath ice and snow, and was for two of the remaining months besieged by the polar bears who came through the region in late autumn waiting for the Bay to freeze? That these people would characterize Guthrie as insane was quite a testament to how crazy he really was.
But Will knew how to wait. He’d spent much of his professional life waiting, sitting in hides and dugouts and wadis and trees, his cameras loaded, his ears pricked, watching for the object of his pursuit to appear. How many of those animals had been, like Guthrie, crazed and despairing? Most, of course. Creatures who’d attempted to outrun the creeping tide of humankind, and failed; whose lives and habitats were in extremis. His patience was not always rewarded. Sometimes, having sweated or shivered for hours and days he would have to give up and move on, the species he was seeking, for all its hopelessness, preserving its despair from his lens.
But Guthrie was a human animal. Though he had holed himself up behind his walls of weather-beaten boards, and had made it his business to see his neighbours (if such they could be called; the nearest house was half a mile away) as seldom as possible, he was surely curious about the man on his doorstep, who had waited for five hours in the bitter cold. This was Will’s hope, at least; that the longer he could stay awake and upright the likelier it became that the lunatic would surrender to curiosity and open the door.
He glanced at his watch again. It was almost three. Though he had told his assistant Adrianna not to stay up for him, he knew her too well to think she would not by now be a little concerned. There were bears out there in the dark: eight hundred, nine hundred pounds some of them, with indiscriminate appetites and unpredictable behaviour patterns. In a fortnight, they’d be out on the ice floes hunting seal and whale. But right now they were in scavenging mode; come to befoul themselves in the stinking rubbish heaps of Churchill and Balthazar, and as had occasionally happened – to take a human life. There was every likelihood that they were wandering within sniffing distance of him right now. beyond the throw of Guthrie’s jaundiced porch-light, studying Will, perhaps, as he waited on the doorstep. The notion didn’t alarm him. Quite the reverse, in fact. It faintly excited him that some visitor from the wilderness might at this very moment be assessing his palatability. For most of his adult life he’d made photographs of the untamed world, reporting to the human tribe the tragedies that occurred in contested territories. They were seldom human tragedies. It was the populace of the other world that withered and perished daily. And as he witnessed the steady erosion of the wilderness, the hunger in him grew to leap the fences and be part of it, before it was gone.
He tugged off one of his fur-lined gloves and plucked his cigarettes out of his anorak pocket. There was only one left. He put it to his numbed lips, and lit up, the emptiness of the pack a greater goad than either the temperature or the bears.
‘Hey, Guthrie,’ he said, rapping on the blizzard-heater door, ‘how about letting me in, huh? I only want a couple of minutes with you. Give me a break.’
He waited, drawing deep on the cigarette, and glancing back out into the darkness. There was a group of rocks twenty or thirty yards beyond his jeep; an ideal place, he knew, for bears to be lurking. Did something move amongst them? He suspected so. Canny bastards, he thought. They were biding their time; waiting for him to head back to the vehicle.
‘Fuck this!’ he growled to himself. He’d waited long enough. He was going to give up on Guthrie, at least for tonight; head back to the warmth of the rented house on Balthazar’s Main (and only) Street; brew himself some coffee, cook himself an early breakfast, then catch a few hours’ sleep. Resisting the temptation to knock on the door one final time, he left the doorstep, digging for the keys as he strode back over the squeaking snow to the jeep.
At the very back of his mind, he’d wondered if Guthrie was the kind of perverse old bastard who’d wait for his visitor to give up before opening the door. He was. Will had no sooner vacated the comfort of the lamplight when he heard the door grinding across the frosted steps behind him. He slowed his departure but didn’t turn, suspecting that if he did so Guthrie would simply slam the door again. There was a long silence. Time enough for Will to wonder what the bears might be making of this peculiar ritual. Then, in a worn voice, Guthrie said: ‘I know who you are and I know what you want.’
‘Do you?’ Will said, chancing a backward glance.
‘I don’t let anybody take pictures of me or my place,’ Guthrie said, as though there was an unceasing parade of photographers at his door.
Will turned now, slowly. Guthrie was standing back from the step, and the porch-light threw very little illumination upon him. All Will could make out was a very tall man silhouetted against the murky interior of the shack. ‘I don’t blame you,’ Will said, ‘not wanting to be photographed. You’ve got a perfect right to your privacy.’
‘Well then what the fuck do you want?’
‘Like I said: I just want to talk.’
Guthrie had apparently seen enough of his visitor to satisfy his curiosity, because he now stepped back a pace and started to push the door closed. Will knew better than to rush the step. He stayed put and played the only card he had. Two names, spoken very softly. ‘I want to talk about Jacob Steep and Rosa McGee.’
The silhouette flinched, and for a moment it seemed certain the man would simply slam the door, and that would be an end to it. But no. Instead, Guthrie stepped back out onto the step. ‘Do you know them?’ he said.
‘I met them once,’ Will replied, ‘a very long time ago. You knew them too, didn’t you?’
‘Him, a little. Even that was too much. What’s your name again?’
‘Will – William – Rabjohns.’
‘Well…you’d better come inside, before you freeze your balls off.’
Unlike the comfortable, well-appointed houses in the rest of the tiny township, Guthrie’s dwelling was so primitive it barely seemed habitable, given how bitter the winters up here could be. There was a vintage electric fire heating its single room (a small sink and stove served as a kitchen; the great outdoors was presumably his toilet) while the furniture seemed to have been culled from the dump. Its collector was scarcely in better condition. Dressed in several layers of grimy clothes, Guthrie was plainly in need of nourishment and medication. Though Will had heard that he was no more than sixty, he looked a good decade older, his skin red-raw in patches and sallow in others, his hair, what little he had, white where it was cleanest. He smelt of sickness and fish.
‘How did you find me?’ he asked Will as he closed and triple-bolted the door.
‘A woman in Mauritius spoke to me about you.’
‘You want something to warm you up a bit?’
‘No, I’m fine.’
‘What woman’s this?’
‘I don’t know if you’ll remember her. Sister Ruth Buchanan?’
‘Ruth? Christ. You met Ruth. Well, well. That woman had a mouth on her…’ He poured a shot of whisky into a well-beaten enamel mug, and downed it in one. ‘Nuns talk too much. Ever noticed that?’
‘I think that’s why there are vows of silence.’
The reply pleased Guthrie. He loosed a short, barking laugh, which he followed with another shot of whisky. ‘So what did she say about me?’ he asked, peering at the whisky bottle as if to calculate how much solace it had left to offer.
‘Just that you’d talked about extinction. About how you’d seen the last of some animals.’
‘I never said anything to her about Rosa and Jacob.’
‘No. I just assumed if you’d seen one you might have seen the other.’
‘Huh.’ Guthrie’s face knitted up as he thought this through. Rather than be seen to be studying him – this was not a man who took kindly to scrutiny – Will crossed to the table to look at the books that were piled upon it. His approach brought a warning growl from under the table. ‘Shut up, Lucy!’ Guthrie snapped. The dog hushed its growl, and came out of hiding to ingratiate herself. She was a sizeable mongrel, with strains of German Shepherd and Chow in her bloodline, better fed and groomed than her master. She’d brought her bone out with her, and dutifully carried it to her master’s feet.
‘Are you English?’ Guthrie said, still not looking at Will.
‘Born in Manchester. But I was brought up in the Yorkshire Dales.’
‘England’s always been a little too cosy for me.’
‘I wouldn’t call the moors cosy,’ Will said. ‘I mean, it’s not wild like this, but when the mists come down and you’re out on the hills—’
‘That’s where you met them then.’
‘Yes. That’s where I met them.’
‘English bastard,’ Guthrie said. Then, finally looking at Will: ‘Not you. Steep. Chilly, English bastard.’ He spoke the three words as if cursing the man, wherever he was. ‘You know what he called himself?’ Will knew. But it would serve him better, he suspected, if he let his host have the moment. ‘The Killer of Last Things,’ Guthrie said. ‘He was proud of it. I swear. Proud of it.’ He emptied the remnants of the whisky into his mug but didn’t drink. ‘So you met Ruth in Mauritius, huh? What were you doing there?’
‘Taking pictures. There’s a kestrel there looks like it’s going to be extinct some time soon.’
‘I’m sure it was grateful for your attention,’ Guthrie said dryly. ‘So what do you want from me? I can’t tell you anything about Steep or McGee. I don’t know anything, and if I ever did I put it out of my head. I’m an old man and I don’t want the pain.’ He looked at Will. ‘How old are you? Forty?’
‘Good guess. Forty-one.’
‘Don’t. It’s a rat-trap.’
‘It’s not likely, believe me.’
‘Are you queer then?’ Guthrie said, with a little tilt of his head.
‘As it happens, yes.’
‘A queer Englishman. Surprise, surprise. No wonder you got on so well with Sister Ruth. She Who Must Not Be Touched. And you came all this way to see me?’
‘Yes and no. I’m here to photograph the bears.’
‘Of course, the fucking bears.’ What little trace of warmth or humour his voice had contained had suddenly vanished. ‘Most people just go to Churchill, don’t they? Aren’t there tours now, so you can watch them performing?’ He shook his head. ‘Degrading themselves.’
They just go where they can find a free meal,’ Will said.
Guthrie looked down at the dog, who had not moved from his side since her reprimand. Her bone was still in her mouth. That’s what you do, isn’t it?’ The dog, happy she was being addressed, whatever the subject, thumped her tail on the bare floor. ‘Little brown-noser.’ Guthrie reached down as if to take the bone. The dog’s ragged black lips curled back in warning. ‘She’s too bright to bite me and too stupid not to growl. Give it to me, you mutt.’ Guthrie tugged the bone from her jaws. She let him take it. He scratched her behind her ear and tossed the bone back on the floor in front of her. ‘I expect dogs to be sycophants,’ he said, ‘we made ‘em that way. But bears – Jesus, bears shouldn’t be fucking nosing around in our garbage. They should stay out there –’ he vaguely waved in the direction of the Bay ‘ – where they can be whatever God intended them to be.’
‘Is that why you’re here?’
‘What, to admire the animal life? Christ no. I’m here because being with people makes me vomit. I don’t like ‘em. I never did.’
‘Not even Steep?’ Will said.
Guthrie shot him a poisonous look. ‘What in Christ’s name kind of question is that?’
‘Fucking stupid question,’ Guthrie muttered. Then, softening somewhat, he said: ‘They were something to look at, both of them, and that’s the truth. I mean, Christ, Rosa was beautiful. I only put up with talking to Steep to get to her. But he said once I was too old for her.’
‘How old were you?’ Will asked him, thinking as he did so that Guthrie’s story was changing slightly. He’d claimed only to know Steep; but apparently he’d known them both.
‘I was thirty. Way too old for Rosa. She liked ‘em real young. And of course she liked Steep. I mean the two of them, they were like husband and wife and brother and sister and fuck knows what else all rolled into one. I didn’t stand a chance with her.’ He let the subject trail away, and picked up another. ‘You want to do some good for these bears?’ he said. ‘Get out there on the dump and poison ‘em. Teach ‘em not to come back. Maybe it’ll take five seasons, and that’ll be a lot of dead bears, but they’ll get the message sooner or later.’ Finally he downed the contents of his glass, and while the liquor still burned his throat said: ‘I try not to think about them, but I do—’ He wasn’t talking about the bears now. Will knew. ‘I can see both of them, like it was yesterday.’ He shook his head. ‘Both of them so beautiful. So…pure.’ His lip curled at the word, as though he meant its antithesis. ‘It must be terrible for them.’
‘What must be terrible?’
‘Living in this filthy world.’ He looked up at Will. ‘That’s the worst part for me,’ he said. ‘That the older I get, the more I understand ‘em.’ Were those tears in his eyes. Will wondered, or simply rheum? ‘And I hate myself for it so fucking much.’ He put down his empty glass, and with sudden determination announced: That’s all you’re getting from me.’ He crossed to the door and unbolted it. ‘So you may as well just get the hell out of here.’
‘Well, thank you for your time,’ Will said, stepping past the old man and into the freezing air.
Guthrie waved the courtesy away. ‘If you see Sister Ruth again—’
‘I won’t,’ Will said. ‘She died last February.’
‘Huh. That’s what you get for not using what God gave you,’ Guthrie said.
The dog had joined them at the threshold now, and was growling loudly. Not at Will this time, but at whatever lay out there in the night. Guthrie didn’t hush her, but stared out at the darkness. ‘She smells bears. You’d better not hang around.’
‘I won’t,’ Will said, offering his hand to Guthrie The man looked down at it in puzzlement for a moment, as though he’d forgotten this simple ritual. Then he took it.
‘You should think about what I told you,’ he said. ‘About poisoning the bears. You’d be doing them a favour.’
‘I’d be doing Jacob’s work for him,’ Will replied. ‘That’s not what I was put on the planet to do.’
‘We’re all doing his work just being alive,’ Guthrie replied. ‘Adding to the trash-heap.’
‘Well at least I won’t be adding to the population,’ Will said, and started from the threshold towards his jeep.
‘You and Sister Ruth both,’ Guthrie called after him. There was a sudden eruption of fresh barking from his dog, a shrillness in its din which Will knew all too well. He’d heard camp dogs raise a similar row at the approach of lions. There was warning in it, and Will took heed. Scanning the darkness to left and right of him he was at the jeep in half a dozen quickened heartbeats.
On the step behind him, Guthrie was yelling something – whether he was summoning his guest back inside or urging him to pick up his pace Will couldn’t make out; the dog was too loud. He blocked out the sound of both voices, man and animal, and concentrated on making his fingers perform the simple function of slipping the key into the lock. They played the fool. He fumbled, and the key slipped out of his hand. He went down on his haunches, the dog’s barking shriller by the moment, to pluck it out of the snow. Something moved at the limit of his vision. He looked around, his fingers digging blindly for the key. He could see only the rocks, but that was little comfort. The animal could be in hiding now and on him in five seconds. He’d seen them attack, and they were fast when they needed to be, moving like locomotives to take their quarry. He knew the drill if a bear elected to charge him: drop to his knees, arms over his head, face to ground. Present as small a target as possible, and on no account make eye contact with the animal. Don’t speak. Don’t move. The less alive you were, the better chance you had of living. There was probably a lesson in that somewhere, though it was a bitter one. Live like a stone and death might pass you by.
His fingers had found the dropped key. He stood up, chancing a backward glance as he did so. Guthrie was still in the doorway, his dog, her hackles raised, now silenced at his side. Will hadn’t heard Guthrie hush her; she’d simply given up on this damn fool man who couldn’t come out of the snow when he was told.
On the third time of trying, the key went into the lock. Will hauled open the door. As he did so he heard the bear’s roar for the first time. And there it was, barrelling out between the rocks. There was no doubting its intention. It had him in its sights. He flung himself into the driver’s seat, horribly aware of how vulnerable his legs were, and reached back to slam the door behind him.
The roar came again, very close. He locked the door, put the key into the ignition and turned it. The headlamps came on instantly, flooding the icy ground as far as the rocks, which looked as flat as stage scenery in their glare. Of the bear there was no sign. He glanced back towards Guthrie’s shack. Man and dog had retreated behind the locked door. He put the jeep in gear and started to swing it round. As he did so he heard the roar again, followed by a thump. The bear had charged the vehicle in its frustration, and was rising up on its hind legs to strike it a second time. Will caught only a glimpse of its shaggy white bulk from the corner of his eye. It was a huge animal, no doubt of that: nine hundred pounds and counting. If it damaged the jeep badly enough to halt his escape, he’d be in trouble. The bear wanted him, and it had the means to get him if he didn’t outpace it. Claws and teeth enough to pry the vehicle open like a can of human meat.
He put his foot on the accelerator, and swung the vehicle around to head it back down the street. As he did so the bear changed tactics and direction, dropping back onto all fours to overtake the jeep, then cutting in front of it.
For an instant the animal was there in the sear of the headlamps, its wedge-snouted head pointing directly at the vehicle. It was not one of the pitiful clan Guthrie had described, their ferality dimmed by their addiction to human refuse. It was a piece of the wilderness still; defying the blaze and speed of the vehicle in whose path it had put itself. In the instant before it was struck, it was gone, disappearing with such speed that its departure seemed almost miraculous; as though it had been a vision conjured by the cold, then snatched away.
As he drove back to the house, he felt for the first time the poverty of his craft. He had taken tens of thousands of photographs in his professional lifetime, in some of the wildest regions of the planet: the Torres de Paine, the plateaus of Tibet, the Gunung Leuser in Indonesia. There he had photographed species that were in their last desperate days, rogues and man-eaters. But he had never come close to capturing what he had seen in the jeep’s headlamps minutes before: the power and the glory of the bear, risking death to defy him. Perhaps it was beyond his talents to do so; in which case it was probably beyond anybody’s talents. He was, by general consensus, the best of the best. But the wild was better. Just as it was his genius to wait upon his subject until it revealed itself, so it was the genius of the wild to make that revelation less than complete. The rogues and man-eaters were dying out, one by one, but the mystery continued, undisclosed. And would continue. Will suspected, until the end of the rogues and mysteries and the men who were fools for them both.
Cornelius Botham sat at the table with a hand-rolled cigarette lolling from beneath his blond feather moustache, his third beer of the morning set at his elbow, and surveyed the disembowelled Pentax laid out before him.
‘What’s wrong with it?’ Will wanted to know.
‘It’s broken,’ Cornelius dead-panned. ‘I say we hack a hole in the ice, wrap it in a pair of Adrianna’s knickers and bury it for future generations to discover.’
‘You can’t fix it?’
‘Yes, I can fix it,’ Cornelius said. ‘That is why I’m here. I can fix everything. But I would prefer to hack a hole in the ice, wrap it in a pair of Adrianna’s knickers—’
‘It’s given good service, that camera.’
‘So have we all. But sooner or later, if we’re lucky, we’ll be wrapped in a pair of Adrianna’s knickers—’
Will was at the stove, making himself a ragged omelette. ‘You’re obsessing.’
‘I am not.’
Will slid his breakfast onto a plate, tossed two slices of stale bread on top of it, and came to sit at the table opposite Cornelius.
‘You know what’s wrong with this town?’ Cornelius asked.
‘Give me an A, B or C.’
This was a popular guessing game amongst the trio, the trick being to dream up alternatives more believable than the truth.
‘No problem,’ Cornelius said. He sipped a mouthful of beer and then said: ‘Okay. A, right? There aren’t any good-looking women in two hundred miles, besides Adrianna, and that’d be like fucking my sister. Okay? So, B. You can’t get any decent acid. And C—’
‘Wait, I haven’t finished.’
‘You don’t have to.’
‘Fuck, man. I got a great C
‘It’s the acid,’ Will said. He leaned towards Cornelius. ‘Right?’
‘Yeah.’ He peered at Will’s plate. ‘What the hell’s that?’
‘What did you make it with? Penguin eggs?’
Will laughed, and was still laughing when Adrianna came in out of the cold. ‘Hey, we got more bears at the dump,’ she said, her Southern drawl perfectly mismatched with every other detail of her appearance and manner, from her badly trimmed bangs to her heavy-booted stomp. ‘At least four of ‘em. Two adolescents, a female and a huge male.’ She looked first at Will, then at Cornelius, then back at Will. ‘A little enthusiasm, please?’
‘Just give me a few minutes,’ Will said, ‘I need a couple of cups of coffee first.’
‘You’ve got to see this male. I mean—’ she was struggling for the words ‘—this is the biggest damn bear I ever saw.’
‘Maybe the one I saw last night,’ Will said. ‘Actually we saw each other. Outside Guthrie’s place.’
Adrianna unzipped her parka and sat down on the beaten-up sofa, flinging aside a pillow and blanket to do so. ‘He kept you talking for quite a while,’ she said. ‘What was the old fuck like?’
‘No more crazy than anybody’d be. living in a shack in the middle of nowhere.’
‘On his own?’
‘He had a dog. Lucy.’
‘Hey…’ Cornelius cooed. ‘Does that sound like a man with a supply or what?’ He grinned, his eyes popping. ‘Only a guy with a habit would name his dog Lucy.’
‘Christ!’ Adrianna shouted. ‘I am so thoroughly sick of hearing you talk about getting high.’
Cornelius shrugged. ‘Whatever,’ he said.
‘We came here to do a job of work.’
‘And we’ve done it,’ Cornelius said. ‘Every damn undignified, pitiful thing a polar bear can do we’ve got on film. Bears playing around the broken sewage pipes. Bears trying fucky-fucky in the middle of the dump.’
‘Okay, okay,’ Adrianna said, ‘we did good.’ She turned to Will. ‘I still want you to see my bear,’ she said.
‘ Your bear now, is it?’ Cornelius said.
She ignored him. ‘Just one last shoot,’ she implored Will. ‘You won’t be disappointed.’
‘Jeez,’ Cornelius remarked, putting his legs up on the table. ‘Leave the man alone. He doesn’t want to see the fucking bear. Haven’t you got the message?’
‘Keep out of this,’ Adrianna snapped.
‘You’re so fucking pushy,’ Cornelius replied. ‘It’s just a bear.’
Adrianna was up from the couch and over to Cornelius in two strides. ‘I told you: keep out of this,’ she said, and shoved Cornelius’ shoulder just hard enough to tip him over. Down he went, clearing half of the doomed Pentax from the table with his boot-heel as he went.
‘Come on,’ Will said, setting down his omelette in case there was an escalation in hostilities. If there was, it wouldn’t be the first time. Nine days out of every ten Cornelius and Adrianna worked side by side like brother and sister. And on the tenth they fought, like brother and sister. Today, however, Cornelius wasn’t in the mood for insults or fisticuffs. He got to his feet, brushing his hippielength hair back out of his eyes, and stumbled to the door, picking up his anorak on his way. ‘See you later,’ he said to Will. ‘I’m going to go look at the water.’
‘Sorry about that,’ Adrianna said when he’d gone. ‘It was my fault. I’ll make peace when he gets back.’
Adrianna went to the stove and poured herself a cup of coffee. ‘So what did Guthrie have to say?’
‘Not a lot.’
‘Why did you even go see him?’
Will shrugged. ‘Just…some stuff from my childhood…’ he said.
Will offered her a slow smile. ‘Huge.’
‘So you’re not going to tell me?’
‘It’s nothing to do with us being here. Well, it is and it isn’t. I knew Guthrie lived on the Bay, so I kind of killed two birds…’ the words grew soft ‘…with one stone.’
‘Are you going to photograph him?’ she said, crossing to the window. The Tegelstrom children, who lived across the street, were out playing in the snow, their laughter loud. She peered out at them.
‘No,’ Will said. ‘I already invaded his privacy.’
‘Like I’m invading yours?’
‘I didn’t mean that.’
That’s right though, isn’t it?’ she said gently. ‘I never get to hear what life was like for little Willy Rabjohns.’
‘—you don’t want to tell me.’ She was warming to her thesis now. ‘You know…this is how you used to be with Patrick.’
‘You used to drive him crazy. He’d call me up sometimes and vent these streams of abuse—’
‘He is a melodramatic queen,’ Will said, fondly.
‘He said you were cryptic. You are. He said you were secretive. You’re that too.’
‘Isn’t that the same thing?’
‘Don’t get intellectual. It pisses me off.’
‘Have you spoken to him recently?’
‘Now you’re changing the subject.’
‘I am not. You were talking about Patrick and now I’m talking about Patrick.’
‘I was talking about you.’
‘I’m bored with me. Have you talked to Patrick recently?’
‘And how is he?’
‘Up and down. He tried to sell the apartment but he couldn’t get the price he wanted so he’s staying put. He says it depresses him, living in the middle of the Castro. So many widowers, he says. But I think it’s better he’s there. Especially if he gets sicker. He’s got a strong support group of friends.’
‘Is whatsisname still around? The kid with the dyed eyelashes?’
‘You know his name, Will,’ Adrianna said, turning and narrowing her eyes.
‘Carlos,’ Will said.
‘Yes, he’s still around. And he doesn’t dye his eyelashes. He’s got beautiful eyes. In fact he’s a wonderful kid. I surely wasn’t as giving or as loving as he is at nineteen. And I’m damn sure you weren’t.’
‘I don’t remember nineteen,’ Will said. ‘Or twenty, come to that. I have a very vague recollection of twenty-one—’ He laughed. ‘But you get to a place when you’re so high you’re not high any more.’
‘And that was twenty-one?’
‘It was a very fine year for acid tabs.’
‘Do you regret it?’
‘Je ne regrette rien.’ Will slurred, sloe-eyed. ‘No, that’s a lie. I wasted a lot of time in bars being picked up by men I didn’t like. And who probably wouldn’t have liked me if they’d taken the time to ask.’
‘What wasn’t to like?’
‘I was too needy. I wanted to be loved. No, I deserved to be loved. That’s what I thought, I deserved it. And I wasn’t. So I drank. It hurt less when I drank.’ He mused for a moment, staring into middle distance. ‘You’re right about Rafael. He’s better for Patrick than I ever was.’
‘Pat likes having a partner who’s there all the time,’ Adrianna said. ‘But he still calls you the love of his life.’
Will squirmed. ‘I hate that.’
‘Well you’re stuck with it,’ Adrianna replied. ‘Be grateful. Most people never have that in their lives.’
‘Speaking of love and adoration, how’s Glenn?’
‘Glenn doesn’t count. He’s in for the kids. I’ve got wide hips and big tits and he thinks I’ll be fertile.’
‘So when do you start?’
‘I’m not going to do it. The planet’s fucked enough without me turning out more hungry mouths.’
‘You really feel that?’
‘No, but I think it,’ Adrianna said. ‘I feel very broody, especially when I’m with him. So I keep away when there’s a chance, you know, I might give in.’
‘He must love that.’
‘It drives him crazy. He’ll leave me eventually. He’ll find some earth-mother who just wants to make babies.’
‘Couldn’t you adopt? Make you both happy?’
‘We talked about it, but Glenn’s determined to continue the family line. He says it’s his animal instincts.’
‘Ah, the natural man.’
This from a guy who plays in a string quartet for a living.’
‘So what are you going to do?’
‘Let him go. Get myself a man who doesn’t care if he’s the last of his line, and still wants to fuck like a tiger on Saturday night.’
‘You know what?’
‘I should have been queer. I know. We would have made a lovely couple. Now, are you going to move your butt? This damn bear’s not going to wait forever.’
As the afternoon light began to fail, the wind veered, and came out of the northeast across Hudson Bay, rattling the door and windows of Guthrie’s shack, like something lonely and invisible, wanting comfort at the table. The old man sat in his old leather armchair and savoured the gale’s din like a connoisseur. He had long ago given up on the charms of the human voice. It was more often than not a courier of lies and confusions, or so he had come to believe; if he never heard another syllable uttered in his life he would not think himself the poorer. All he needed by way of communication was the sound he was listening to now. The wind’s mourn and whine was wiser than any psalm, prayer or profession of love he’d ever heard.
But tonight the sound failed to soothe him as it usually did. He knew why. The responsibility lay with the visitor who’d come knocking on his door the night before. He’d disturbed Guthrie’s equilibrium, raising the phantoms of faces he’d tried so hard to put from his mind. Jacob Steep, with his soot-and-gold eyes, and black beard, and pale poet’s hands; and Rosa, glorious Rosa, who had the gold of Steep’s eyes in her hair, and the black of his beard in her gaze, but was as fleshy and passionate as he was sweatless and unmoved. Guthrie had known them for such a short time, and many years ago, but he had them in his mind’s eye so clearly he might have met them that morning.
He had Rabjohns there too: with his green milk eyes, too gentle by half, and his hair in unruly abundance, curling at his nape, and the wide ease of his face, nicked with scars on his cheek and brow. He hadn’t been scarred half enough, Guthrie thought; there was still some measure of hope in him. Why else had he come asking questions, except in the belief that they could be answered? He’d learn, if he lived long enough. There were no answers. None that made sense anyhow.
The wind gusted hard against the window, and loosened one of the boards Guthrie had taped over a cracked pane. He raised himself out of the pit of his chair and picking up the roll of tape he’d used to secure the board, crossed to the window to fix it. Before he stuck it back in place, blocking out the world, he stared through the grimy glass. The day was close to departure, the thickening waters of the Bay the colour of slate, the rocks black. He kept staring, distracted from his task not by the sight but by the memories which came to him still, unbidden, unwanted, but impossible to put from his head.
Words first. No more than a murmur. But that was all he needed.
These will not come again—
Steep was speaking, his voice majestic.
—nor this. Nor this—
And as he spoke the pages appeared in front of Guthrie’s grieving eyes; the pages of Steep’s terrible book. There, a perfect rendering of a bird’s wing, exquisitely coloured—
—and here, on the following page, a beetle, copied in death; every part documented for posterity: mandible, wing-case, and segmented limb.
‘Jesus,’ he sobbed, the roll of tape dropping from his trembling fingers. Why couldn’t Rabjohns have left him alone? Was there no corner of the world where a man might listen in the wail of the wind, without being discovered and reminded of his crimes?
The answer, it seemed, was no; at least for a soul as unredeemed as his. He could never hope to forget, not until God struck life and memory from him, which prospect seemed at this moment far less dreadful than living on, day and night, in fear of another Will coming to his door and naming names.
Shut up, he murmured to memories. But the pages kept flipping in his head. Picture after picture, like some morbid bestiary. What fish was that, that would never again silver the sea? What bird, that would never tune its song to the sky?
On and on the pages flew, while he watched, knowing that at last Steep’s fingers would come to a page where he himself had made a mark. Not with a brush or a pen, but with a bright little knife.
And then the tears would begin to come in torrents, and it wouldn’t matter how hard the northeasterly blew, it could not carry the past away.
The bears did not make a liar of Adrianna. When she and Will got to the dump, the remnants of the day still with them, they found the animals cavorting in all their defiled glory, the adolescents – one of them the best proportioned female they’d yet spotted; a perfect specimen of her clan – scavenging in the dirt, the older female investigating the rusted carcass of a truck, while the male Adrianna had been so eager for Will to see surveyed his foetid kingdom from the top of one of the dump’s dozen hillocks.
Will got out of the jeep and approached. Adrianna, always armed with a rifle under these kind of conditions, followed two or three strides behind. She knew Will’s methodology by now: he wouldn’t waste film on long shots; he’d get as close as he could without disturbing the animals and then he’d wait. And wait; and wait. Even amongst his peers – wildlife photographers who thought nothing of waiting a week for a picture – his patience was legendary. In this, as in so many other things, he was a paradox. Adrianna had seen him at publishing parties grinding his teeth with boredom after five minutes of an admirer’s chit-chat; but here, watching four polar bears on a piece of wasteland, he would sit happily mesmerized until he found the moment he wanted to seize.
It was plain he was not interested in either the adolescents or the female. It was the old male he wanted to photograph. He glanced over at Adrianna, and silently indicated the path he was going to take between the other animals, so as to get as close to his subject as possible. She’d no sooner nodded her comprehension than Will was off, sure-footed even on the ice-slickened dirt. The adolescents took no notice of him. But the female, who was certainly large enough to kill either Will or Adrianna with a swipe if she took a mind to do so, ceased her investigations of the truck and sniffed the air. Will froze; Adrianna did the same, rifle at the ready if the bear made an aggressive move. But perhaps because she’d smelt so many people in the vicinity of the dump, the bear wasn’t interested in this particular scent. She returned to gutting the truck seats, and Will was off again, towards the male. By now Adrianna had grasped the shot Will was after: a low angle, looking up the slope of the hillock so as to frame the bear against the sky, a fool-king perched on a throne of shit. It was the kind of image Will had built his reputation upon. The whole paradoxical story, captured in a picture so indelible and so inevitable, that it seemed evidence of collusion with God. More often than not such happy accidents were the fruit of obsessive observation. But once in a while, as now, they presented themselves as gifts. All he had to do was snatch them.
Typically, of course (how she cursed his machismo sometimes) he was going to position himself so close to the base of (he hillock that if the animal decided to come after him he’d be in trouble. Creeping close to the ground he found his spot. The animal was either unaware of, or indifferent to, his proximity; it was half turned from him, casually licking dirt off its paws. But Adrianna knew from experience such appearances could be dangerously deceptive. The wild did not always like to be scrutinized, however discreetly. Far less adventurous photographers than Will had lost their limbs or their lives by taking an animal’s insouciance for granted. And of all the creatures Will had photographed, there was none with a more terrible reputation than the polar bear. If the male chose to come after Will, Adrianna would have to bring the beast down in one shot, or it would all be over.
Will had by now found a niche at the very base of the hillock that suited him perfectly. The bear was still licking its paws, its face now almost entirely turned away from the camera. Adrianna glanced back at the other animals. All three were happily engrossed in their sports, but that was of little comfort. The geography of the dump allowed for there to be any number of other animals scavenging close by yet out of sight. Not for the first time she wished she’d been bom with the eyes of a chameleon: side-rigged and independently manoeuvred.
She looked back at Will. He had crept up the slope just a little, and had his camera poised. The bear, meanwhile, had given up cleaning its paws, and was lazily surveying its wretched domain. Adrianna willed it to move its rump; turn twenty degrees clockwise and give Will his picture. But it simply raised its scarred snout into the air and yawned, its black velvet lips curling back as it did so. Its teeth, like its hide, were a record of the battles it had fought. Many of them were splintered and several others missing; its gums were abscessed and raw. No doubt it was in constant pain, which probably did nothing for the sweetness of its mood.
The animal’s yawn afforded Will a chance to move three or four yards to his left, until the bear was facing him. It was clear by the caution of his advance that he was perfectly aware of his jeopardy. If the animal took this moment to study the ground rather than the sky then he had a couple of seconds at best to get out of its way.
But luck was with him. Overhead, a flock of noisy geese were homing, and the bear idly turned its gaze their way, allowing Will to reach his chosen spot and settle there before it dropped its head and once again sullenly surveyed the dump.
At last, Adrianna heard the barely audible click of the shutter, and the whir of the film’s advance. A dozen shots in quick succession; then a pause. The bear lowered its head. Had it sensed Will? The shutter clicked again, four, five, six times. The bear let out a sharp hiss. It was an unmistakable warning. Adrianna levelled the rifle. Will clicked on. The bear did not move. Will caught two more shots, and then, very slowly, began to rise. The bear took a step towards him, but the garbage beneath its bulk was slick, and instead of following through the animal faltered.
Will glanced back towards Adrianna. Seeing the levelled rifle he motioned it down and stealthily stepped away. Only when he’d halved the distance between the hillock and Adrianna did he murmur:
She looked again at the animal. It was still poised at the top of the hillock, its scarred head roving back and forth, but she didn’t doubt what Will had said was true. The animal had little or no sight left. Hence its tentativeness; its reluctance to give chase when it was not certain of the solidity of the ground beneath its paws.
Will was at her side now. ‘You want pictures of any of the others?’ she asked him. The adolescents had gone to romp elsewhere, but the female was still sniffing around the truck. He told her no; he’d got what he needed. Then, turning back to look at the bear, he said:
‘He reminds me of somebody, I just can’t think who.’
‘Whoever it is. don’t tell them.’
‘Why not?’ Will said, still staring at the animal. ‘I think I’d be flattered.’
When they got back to Main Street, Peter Tegelstrom was out at the front of his house, perched on a ladder nailing a string of Hallowe’en lights along the low-hanging eaves. His children, a five-year-old girl and a son a year her senior, ran around excitedly, clapping and yelling as the row of pumpkins and skulls was unravelled. Will headed over to chat to Tegelstrom; Adrianna followed. She’d made friends with the kids in the last week and a half, and had suggested to Will that he photograph the family. Tegelstrom’s wife was pure Inuit, her beauty evident in her children’s faces. A picture of this healthy and contented human family living within two hundred yards of the dump would make, Adrianna argued, a powerful counterpoint to Will’s pictures of the bears. The wife, however, was too shy even to talk to the visitors, unlike Tegelstrom himself, who seemed to Will starved for conversation.
‘Are you finished with your pictures now?’ he wanted to know.
‘You should have gone down to Churchill. They’ve got a lot more bears there—’
‘—and a lot of tourists taking pictures of them.’
‘You could take pictures of the tourists taking pictures of the bears,’ Tegelstrom said.
‘Only if one of them was being eaten.’
Peter was much amused by this. His arranging of the lights finished, he climbed down the ladder and switched them on. The children clapped. There isn’t much here to keep them occupied,’ he said. ‘I feel bad for them sometimes. We’re going to move down to Prince Albert in the spring.’ He nodded into the house. ‘My wife doesn’t want to, but the babies need a better life than this.’
The babies, as he called them, had been playing with Adrianna, and at her bidding had gone inside to put on their Hallowe’en masks. Now they reappeared, jabbering and whooping to inspire some fear. The masks were. Will guessed, the shy wife’s handiwork: not gleeful vampires or ghouls, but more troubled spirits, constructed from scraps of sealskin and bits of fur and cardboard, all roughly daubed with red and blue paint. Set on such diminutive bodies they were strangely unsettling.
‘Come and stand here for me, will you?’ Will said, calling them over to pose in front of the doorway.
‘Do I get to be in this?’ Tegelstrom asked.
‘No,’ Will said bluntly.
Affably enough, Tegelstrom stepped out of the picture, and Will went down on his haunches in front of the children, who had ceased their hollers and were standing at the doorstep, hand in hand. There was a sudden gravity in the moment. This wasn’t the happy family portrait Adrianna had been trying to arrange. It was a snapshot of two mournful spirits, posed in the twilight beneath a loop of plastic lights. Will was happier with the shot than any of the pictures he’d made at the dump.
Cornelius was not yet home, which was no great surprise.
‘He’s probably smoking pot with the Brothers Grimm,’ Will said, referring to the two Germans with whom Cornelius had struck up a dope-and-beer-driven friendship. They lived in what was indisputably the most luxurious home in the community, complete with a sizeable television. Besides the dope, Cornelius had confided, they had a collection of all-girl wrestling films so extensive it was worthy of academic study.
‘So we’re done here?’ Adrianna said, as she set about making the vodka martinis they always drank around this time. It was a ritual that had begun as a joke in a mud-hole in Botswana, passing a flask of vodka back and forth pretending they were sipping very dry martinis at the Savoy.
‘We’re done,’ Will said.
‘I’m always disappointed. It’s never what I want it to be.’
‘Maybe you want too much.’
‘We’ve had this conversation.’
‘I’m having it again.’
‘Well I’m not,’ Will said, with a monotony in his tone Adrianna knew of old. She let the subject drop and moved on to another.
‘Is it okay if I take a couple of weeks off? I want to go down to Tallahassee to see my mother.’
‘No problem. I’m going back to San Francisco to spend some time with the pictures, start to make the connections.’
This was a favourite phrase of his, describing a process Adrianna had never completely comprehended. She’d watched him doing it: laying out maybe two or three hundred images on the floor and wandering amongst them for several days, arranging and rearranging them, laying unlikely combinations together to see if sparks flew; growling at himself when they didn’t; getting a little high and sitting up through the night, meditating on the work. When the connections were made, and the pictures put in what he considered to be the right order, there was undeniably an energy in them that had not been there before. But the pain of the process had always seemed to Adrianna out of all proportion to the improvement. It was a kind of masochism, she’d decided; his last, despairing attempt to make sense of the senseless before the images left his hands.
‘Your cocktail, sir,’ Adrianna said, setting the martini at Will’s elbow. He thanked her, picked it up and they clinked glasses.
‘It’s not like Cornelius to miss vodka,’ Adrianna observed.
‘You just want an excuse to check out the Brothers Grimm,’ Will said.
Adrianna didn’t contest the point. ‘Gert looks like he’d be fun in bed.’
‘Is he the one with the beer belly?’
‘He’s all yours. Anyway, I think they’re a package deal. You can’t have one without the other.’
Will picked up his cigarettes and wandered over to the front door, taking his martini with him. He turned on the porch-light, opened the door and leaning against the door-jamb lit a cigarette. The Tegelstrom kids had gone inside, and were probably tucked up in bed by now, but the lights Peter had put up to entertain them were still bright: a halo of orange pumpkins and white skulls around the house, rocking gently in the gusting wind.
‘I’ve got something to tell you,’ Will said. ‘I was going to wait for Cornelius but…I don’t think there’s going to be another book after this.’
‘I knew you were fretting about something. I thought maybe it was me—’
‘Oh God no,’ Will said. ‘You’re the best, Adie. Without you and Cornelius I’d have given up on all this shit a long time ago.’
‘So why now?’
‘I’m out of love with the whole thing,’ he said. ‘None of it makes any difference. We’ll show the pictures of the bears and all it’ll do is make more people come and watch them getting their noses stuck in mayonnaise jars. It’s a waste of bloody time.’
‘What will you do instead?’
‘I don’t know. It’s a good question. It feels like…I don’t know…’
‘What does it feel like?’
‘That everything’s winding down. I’m forty-one and it feels like I’ve seen too much and been too many places and it’s all blurred together. There’s no magic left. I’ve done my drugs. I’ve had my infatuations. I’ve outgrown Wagner. This is as good as it’s going to get. And it’s not that great.’
Adrianna came to join him at the door, putting her chin on his shoulder. ‘Oh my poor Will,’ she said, in her best cocktail clip. ‘So famous, so celebrated, and so very, very bored.’
‘Are you mocking my ennui?’
‘I thought so.’
‘You’re tired. You should take a year off. Go sit in the sun with a beautiful boy. That’s Dr Adrianna’s advice.’
‘Will you find me the boy?’
‘Oh Lord. Are you that exhausted?’
‘I couldn’t cruise a bar if my life depended upon it.’
‘So don’t. Have another martini.’
‘No, I’ve got a better idea,’ Will said. ‘You make the drinks, I’ll go fetch Cornelius. Then we can all get maudlin together.’
Cornelius had spent the dregs of the afternoon with the Lauterbach brothers, and had a fine time of it, watching the wrestling flicks and smoking their weed. He’d left as darkness fell, intending to head back to the house for a couple of shots of vodka, but halfway along Main Street the prospect of dealing with Adrianna had loomed. He wasn’t in the mood for apologies and justifications; they’d only bring him down. So instead of heading back he fished out the fat roach he’d connived from Gert, and wandered down towards the water to smoke it.
As he walked, weaving between the houses, the wind carried flecks of snow from across the Bay, grazing his face. He stopped beneath one of the lamps that illuminated the ground between the back of the houses and the water’s edge and turned his face up to the light so as to watch the flakes spilling down. ‘Pretty…’ he said to himself. So much prettier than bears. When he got back, he’d tell Will he should give up with animals and start photographing snowflakes instead. They were a lot more endangered, his gently befuddled wits decided. As soon as the sun came out they were gone, weren’t they? All their perfection, melted away. It was tragic.
Will didn’t get as far as the Lauterbach house. He’d trudged maybe a hundred yards down Main Street – the wind getting stronger with every gust, the snow it carried thickening – when he caught sight of Cornelius, reeling around, face to the sky. He was obviously high, which was no great surprise. It had always been Cornelius’ way of dealing with life, and Will had far too many quirks of his own to be judgmental about it. But there was a time and a place for such excesses, and the Main Street of Balthazar in bear season was not one of them.
‘Cornelius!’ Will yelled. ‘Cornelius? Can you hear me?’
The answer was apparently no. Cornelius just kept up his dervish dance under the lamp. Will started down the street in the man’s direction, cursing him ripely as he went. He didn’t waste his breath shouting, the wind was too strong, but part of the way down the street he regretted not doing so because without warning Cornelius gave up his spinning and slipped out of sight between the houses. Will picked up his pace, though he was tempted to head back to the house and arm himself before pursuing Cornelius any further. If he did so, however, he risked losing the man altogether, and to judge by his stumbling step Cornelius was in no fit state to be wandering alone in the dark. It wasn’t so much the bears Will was concerned about, it was the Bay. Cornelius had headed in the direction of the shore. One slip on the icy rocks and he’d be in water so cold it would stop his heart.
He’d reached the spot where Cornelius had been dancing, and followed his tracks away from the comfort of the lamplight into the murky no-man’s-land between the houses and the tidal flats. There he was pleased to discover Cornelius’ phantom figure standing maybe fifty yards from him. He’d given up his spinning and his sky-watching, and he was standing stone-still, staring out towards the darkness of the shore.
‘Hey, buddy!’ Will called to him. ‘You’re going to get pneumonia.’
Cornelius didn’t turn. In fact he didn’t move so much as a muscle. What kind of pills had he been popping? Will wondered.
‘Con!’ he yelled again. He was no more than twenty yards from Cornelius’ back. ‘It’s Willi Are you okay? Talk to me, man.’
Finally, Cornelius spoke. One slurred word that stopped Will in his friend’s tracks.
There was a cloud of breath at Will’s lips. He waited, as still as Cornelius, while the cloud cleared, then scanned the scene to the limit of his vision. First to the left. The shore was empty as far as he could see. Then to the right; the same.
He dared a one-word question.
‘Ahead. Of. Me.’ Cornelius replied.
Will took a very slow sideways step. Cornelius’ druginduced senses were not deceiving him. There was indeed a bear maybe sixteen or seventeen yards in front of him, its form barely visible to Will through the snow-flecked murk.
‘Are you still there. Will?’ Cornelius said.
‘What the fuck do I do?’
‘Back off. But, Con: very, very slowly.’
Cornelius glanced back over his shoulder, his stricken face suddenly sober.
‘Don’t look at me,’ Will said. ‘Keep your eyes on the animal.’
Cornelius looked back towards the bear, which had begun its implacable approach. This wasn’t one of the playful adolescents from the dump; nor was it the blind old warrior Will had photographed. This was a fully grown female; a good six hundred pounds.
‘Fuck…’ Cornelius muttered.
‘Just keep coming,’ Will coaxed him. ‘You’re going to be okay. Just don’t let her think you’re anything worth chasing.’
Cornelius managed three tentative backward steps, but his equilibrium was poor after the dervish act, and on the fourth step his heel slid on the slick ground. He flailed for a moment, then recovered his balance, but the harm was done. Hissing her intentions, the bear gave up her plod and came bounding at him. Cornelius turned and ran, the bear roaring in pursuit, her body a blur. Weaponless, all Will could do was dodge out of Cornelius’ path and yell himself hoarse in the hope of distracting the animal. But it was Cornelius she wanted. In two bounds she’d halved the distance between them, jaws wide in readiness—
Will threw a glance back in the direction of the voice and there, God save her, was Adrianna, rifle raised.
‘Con!’ she yelled. ‘Get your fucking head down!’
He got the message, and flung himself to the frozen dirt, with the bear a body’s length from his heels. Adrianna fired, and hit the animal’s shoulder, checking her before she could catch up with her quarry. The animal rose up with an agonized roar, blood staining her fur. Cornelius was still within swatting distance, however, if she chose to take him out. Ducking to make himself as small a target as possible. Will scrambled towards him, and, grabbing his trembling torso, hauled him out of the bear’s path. There was a sharp stink of shit off him.
He looked back at the bear. She wasn’t finished; nowhere near. Roaring so loudly that the ground shook, she started towards Adrianna, who levelled her rifle and fired a second time, at no more than ten yards’ range. The animal’s roar ceased on the instant, and again she rose up, white and red and vast, teetering for a moment. Then she reeled back like a breaking wave, and limped away into the darkness.
The entire encounter – from the moment Cornelius had named his nemesis – had perhaps lasted a minute, but it was long enough for a kind of delirium to have taken hold of Will. He got to his feet, the snowflakes spiralling around him like giddy stars, and went to the place where the bear’s blood had splashed on the ice.
‘Are you all right?’ Adrianna asked him.
‘Yes,’ he said.
It was only half the truth. He wasn’t hurt, but he wasn’t whole either. He felt as though some part of him had been torn out by what he’d just witnessed, and had fled into the darkness in pursuit of the bear. He had to go after it.
‘Wait!’ Adrianna yelled.
He looked back at her, trying his best to block out Cornelius’ sobbing apologies, and the shouts of people on Main Street as they came sniffing after the bloodshed. Adrianna was staring straight at him, and he knew she was reading the thoughts on his face.
‘Don’t be a fuck-wit, Will.’ she said.
Then at least take the rifle.’
He looked at it as though it had just pumped its bullets into him. ‘I don’t need it,’ he said.
He turned his back on her; on the lights, on the people and their asinine questions. Then he loped off towards the shoreline, following the red trail the bear had left behind her.
Oh, all the years he’d waited. Waited and watched with his dispassionate eye while something died nearby, recording its passing like the truthful witness he was. Keeping his distance, keeping his calm. Enough of that. The bear was dying, and he would die too if he let her go now; let her perish in the dark alone. Something had snapped in him. He didn’t know why. Perhaps because of the conversation with Guthrie, which had stirred up so much pain, perhaps the encounter with the blind bear at the dump; perhaps simply because the time had come. He’d hung on this branch long enough, ripening there. It was time to fall and rot into something new.
He followed the bear’s trail along the shoreline parallel to the street with a kind of exulting despair in him. He had no idea what he would do when he caught up with the animal; he only knew he had to be with it in its agonies, given that he was to some degree their author. He was the one who’d brought Cornelius and his habits here, after all. The bear had simply been doing what she would do in the wild, confronted by something threatening. She’d been shot for being true to her nature. No thinking queer could be happy with his complicity in that.
Will’s empathy with the animal hadn’t totally unseated his urge to self-preservation. Though he followed the trail closely most of the way, he gave the rocks a little distance when he came upon them, in case there were more animals lurking there. But what little light the lamps of Main Street had supplied was now too far behind him to be of much use. It was harder and harder to make out the bloodstains. He had to stop and study the ground to find them, for which pause he was grateful. The icy air was raw in his throat and chest; his teeth ached as though they were all being drilled at the same time, his legs were trembling.
If he was feeling weak, he thought, the bear was surely a damn sight weaker. She’d shed copious amounts of blood now, and must be close to collapse.
Somewhere nearby a dog was barking, her alarm familiar.
‘Lucy…’ Will said to himself, and looking up through the flickering snow saw that his pursuit had brought him within twenty yards of the back of Guthrie’s shack. He heard the old man shouting now, telling the dog to shut up; and then the sound of the back door being opened.
Light spilled from it, out across the snow. A meagre light by comparison with the streetlamps half a mile back, but bright enough to show Will his quarry.
The animal was closer to the shore than to the shack, and closer to Will than either: standing on all fours, swaying, the ground around her dark with her free-flowing blood.
‘What the fuck’s going on out here?’ Guthrie demanded.
Will didn’t look at him; he kept his eyes fixed on the bear – as hers were fixed on him – while he yelled for Guthrie to go back inside.
Rabjohns? Is that you?’
There’s a wounded bear out here—’ Will shouted.
‘I see her,’ Guthrie replied. ‘Did you shoot her?’
‘No!’ From the comer of his eye Will could see that Guthrie had emerged from his shack. ‘Go back inside will you?’
‘Are you hurt?’ Guthrie called.
Before Will could reply the bear was up, and turning her bulk towards Guthrie, she charged. There was time as she roared upon the old man for Will to wonder why she’d chosen to take Guthrie instead of him; whether in the seconds they’d stared at one another she’d seen that he was no threat to her: just another wounded thing, trapped between street and sea. Then she was up and swiping at Guthrie, the blow throwing him maybe five yards. He landed hard, but thanks to some grotesque gift of adrenalin he was on his feet a heartbeat later, yelling incoherently back at his wounder. Only then did his body seem to realize the grievous harm it had been done. His hands went up to his chest, his blood running out between his fingers. His yells ceased and he looked back up at the bear, so that for a moment they stood staring at one another, both bloodied, both teetering. Then Guthrie spoiled the symmetry and fell face down in the snow.
Still standing at the doorstep, Lucy began a round of despairing yelps, but however traumatized she was she plainly had no intention of approaching her master. Guthrie was still alive; he was attempting to turn himself over, it seemed, his right hand sliding on the ice as he tried to lift himself up.
Will looked back the way he’d come, hoping that somebody was in sight to help. There was no sign of anyone on the shoreline; perhaps people were making their way along the street. He couldn’t afford to wait for them, however. Guthrie needed help and he needed it now. The bear had sunk down onto all fours again, and by the degree of her sway she looked ready to keel over entirely. Keeping his eyes on her he cautiously approached the place where Guthrie was lying. The delirium that had seized him earlier had guttered out. There was only a bitter sickness in his belly.
By the time he reached Guthrie’s side the man had managed to turn himself over, and it was clear that he was wounded beyond hope of healing: his chest a wet pit, his gaze the same. But he seemed to see Will; or at least sense his proximity. He reached out as Will bent to him, and caught hold of his jacket.
‘Where’s Lucy?’ he said.
Will looked up. The dog was still at the doorway. She was no longer barking.
Guthrie didn’t hear him reply, it seemed, because he drew Will closer, his hold remarkably strong.
‘She’s safe,’ Will told him, more loudly, but even as he spoke he heard the warning hiss of the bear. He glanced back in her direction. Her whole bulk was full of shudders, as though her system, like Guthrie’s, was close to capitulation. But she wasn’t ready to die where she stood. She took a tentative step towards Will, her teeth bared.
Guthrie’s other arm had caught hold of Will’s shoulder. He was speaking again. Nothing that made much sense to Will; at least not at this moment.
‘This will…not come…again…’ he said.
The bear took a second step, her body rocking back and forth. Very slowly Will worked to pull Guthrie’s hands off him, but the man’s hold was too fierce.
The bear…’ Will said.
‘Nor this…’ Guthrie muttered, ‘…nor this…’ There was a tiny smile on his bloody lips. Did he know, even in his dying agonies, what he was doing; holding down the man who had come with such sour memories, where the bear could claim him?
Will had no choice: if he was going to get out of the bear’s way he was going to have to lug Guthrie with him. He started to haul himself to his feet, lifting the old man’s sizeable frame with him. The motion brought a howl of anguish from Guthrie, and his grip on Will’s shoulder slipped a little. Will stepped sideways in the direction of the shack, half-carrying Guthrie with him like a partner in some morbid dance. The bear had halted, and was watching this grotesquerie with black-sequin eyes. Will took a second step, and Guthrie let out another cry, much weaker than the first, and all at once gave up his hold on Will, who didn’t have the power left in his arms to support him. Guthrie slipped to the ground as though every bone in his body had gone to water, and in that instant the bear made her move. Will didn’t have time to dodge, much less run. The animal was on him in a bound, striking him like a speeding car, his bones breaking on impact, the world becoming a smear of pain and snow, both blazing white.
Then his head struck the icy ground. Consciousness fled for a few seconds. When it returned he raised his hand; saw the snow beneath him red. Where was the bear? He swivelled his gaze left and right looking for her. There was no sign. One of his arms was tucked beneath him, and useless, but there was enough strength in the other to raise him up. The motion made him sick with pain, and he was fearful he was going to lose consciousness again, but by degrees he bullied and coaxed his body up into a kneeling position.
Off to his left, a sniffing sound. He looked in its direction, his gaze flickering. The bear had her nose in Guthrie’s corpse, inhaling its perfumes. She raised her vast head, her snout bloody.
This is death. Will thought. For all of us, this is death. This is what you’ve photographed so many times. The dolphin drowning in the net, pitifully quiescent; the monkey twitching amongst its dead fellows, looking at him with a gaze he could not stand to meet, except through his camera. They were all the same in this moment, he and the monkey; he and the bear. All ephemeral things, running out of time.
And then the bear was on him again, her claws opening his shoulder and back, her jaws coming for his neck. Somewhere far off, in a place he no longer belonged, he heard a woman calling his name, and his lazy brain thought: Adrianna’s here; sweet Adrianna—
He heard a shot, then another. Felt the weight of the bear against him, carrying him down to the ground, her blood raining on his face.
Was he saved? he vaguely wondered. But even as he was shaping the thought another part of him, that had neither eyes to see nor ears to hear, nor cared to have either, was slipping away from this place; and senses he had never known he owned were piercing the blizzard clouds and studying the stars. It seemed to him he could feel their warmth; that the distance between their blazing hearts and his spirit was just a thought, and he could be there, in them, knowing them, if he turned his mind to it.
Something checked his ascent, however. A voice in his head that he knew was familiar to him, yet he could not put a name to.
‘Where d’you think you’re going!’ the voice said. There was a sly humour in it. He tried to put a face to the sound, but he saw only fragments. Silky red hair; a sharp nose, a comical moustache. ‘You can’t go yet.’ the interloper said.
But I want to, he said. It hurts so much, staying here. Not the dying part, the living.
His companion heard his complaints, and would have no truck with them. ‘Hush yourself,’ he said. ‘You think you ‘re the first man on the planet lost his faith? That’s all part of it. We’re going to have to have a serious conversation, you and me. Face to face. Man to—’
Man to what?
‘We’ll get to that.’ the voice replied. It was starting to fade.
Where are you going? Will wanted to know.
‘Nowhere you can’t find me when the time comes,’ the stranger replied. ‘And it will come, my faithless friend. As sure as God put tits on trees.’
And with this absurdity, he was gone.
There was a moment of blissful silence, when it crossed Will’s mind that maybe he’d died after all, and was floating away into oblivion. Then he heard Lucy – poor, orphaned Lucy – howling out her heart somewhere close to him. And coming on the heels of her din, human voices, telling him to be still, be still, he was going to be all right.
‘Can you hear me. Will?’ Adrianna was asking him.
He could feel the snowflakes dropping on his face, like cold feathers. On his brow, on his lashes, on his lips, on his teeth. And then – far less welcome than the pricking snow – a swelling agony in his torso and head.
‘Will,’ Adrianna said. ‘Speak to me.’
‘…ye…s,’ he said.
The pain was becoming unendurable, rising and rising.
‘You’re going to be all right,’ Adrianna said. ‘We’ve got help coming, and you’re going to be all right.’
‘Christ, what a mess,’ somebody said. He knew the inflections. One of the Lauterbach brothers, surely; Gert the doctor, struck off the register for improper distribution of pharmaceuticals. He was giving orders like a field sergeant: blankets, bandages, here, now, on the double!
‘Will?’ A third voice, this one close to his ear. It was Cornelius, weeping as he spoke. ‘I fucked up man. Oh Christ, I’m sorry—’
Will wanted to hush the man’s self-recrimination – it was of no use to anybody now – but his tongue would not work to make the words. His eyes, however, opened a fraction, dislodging the dusting of snow in his sockets. He couldn’t see Cornelius, nor Adrianna, nor Gert Lauterbach. Only the snow, spiralling down.
‘He’s still with us,’ Adrianna said.
‘Oh man, oh man—’ Cornelius was sobbing. ‘Thank fucking God.’
‘You hold on,’ Adrianna said to Will. ‘We’ve got you. You hear me? You’re not going to die, Will. I’m not going to let you, okay?’
He let his eyes close again. But the snow kept coming down inside his head, laying its hush upon him; like a tender blanket put over his hurt. And by degrees the pain retreated, and the voices retreated, and he slept under the snow, and dreamt of another time.
For a few precious months following the death of his older brother, Will had been the happiest boy in Manchester. Not publicly so, of course. He had quickly learned how to put on a glum face; even to look teary sometimes, if a concerned relative asked him how he felt. But it was all a sham. Nathaniel was dead, and he was glad. The golden boy would reign over him no longer. Now there was only one person in his life who condescended to him the way Papa did, and that was Papa himself.
Papa had reason: he was a great man. A philosopher, no less. Other thirteen-year-olds had plumbers for fathers, or bus-drivers, but Will’s father, Hugo Rabjohns, had six books to his name, books that a plumber or a bus-driver would be unlikely to understand. The world, Hugo had once told Nathaniel in Will’s presence, was made by many men, but shaped by few. The important thing was to be one of those few; to find a place in which you could change the repetitive patterns of the many through political influence and intellectual discourse, and failing either of these, through benign coercion.
Will adored hearing his father talk this way, even though much of what Papa said was beyond him. And his father loved to talk about his ideas, though Will had heard him once fly into a fury when Eleanor, Will’s mother, had called her husband a teacher.
‘I am not, never have been, nor ever will be a teacher!’ Hugo had roared, his always ruddy face turning a still deeper red. ‘Why do you always seek to reduce me?’
What had his mother said by way of reply? Something vague. She was always vague. Looking past him to something outside the window, probably; or staring critically at the flowers she’d just arranged.
‘Philosophy can’t be taught,’ Hugo had said. ‘It can only be inspired.’
Perhaps the exchange had gone on a little longer, but Will doubted it. A short explosion, then peace: that was the ritual. And sometimes a fond exchange, but that too quickly withering. And always on his mother’s face the same distracted look whether the subject was philosophy or affection.
But then Nathaniel had died, and even those exchanges had ceased.
He was injured on a Thursday morning, crossing the street: run down by a taxi, the driver racing to carry his passenger to Manchester Piccadilly Station in time for a noon train. Struck square on, he was thrown through the window of a shoe-shop, sustaining multiple lacerations and appalling internal injuries. He did not die instantly. He held on to life for two-and-a-half days in Intensive Care at the Royal Infirmary, never regaining consciousness. In the early hours of the third night his body gave up the fight and he died.
In Will’s mythologized version of the event, his brother had made the decision, somewhere in the depths of his coma, not to come back into the world. Though he was only fifteen when he died, he had already tasted more of the world’s approbation than most men who lived out their Biblical spans. Loved to devotion by those who’d made him, blessed with a face nobody could lay eyes upon without wanting to love, Nathaniel had decided to let go of the world while it still idolized him. He had been adored enough, feted enough. He was already bored with it. Best to be gone, without a backward glance.
After the funeral Eleanor did not stir from the house. She’d always liked to walk and window-shop; she no longer did so. She’d had a circle of women-friends with whom she lunched at least twice a week; she would no longer come to the phone to speak to them. Her face lost all its glamour. Her distraction turned to vacuity, her obsessions grew stronger by the day. She would not have the curtains in the living-room open, for fear she saw a taxi. She could not eat, except off white plates. She would not sleep until every door and window in the house had been treble-locked. She took to praying, usually very quietly, in French, which was her native tongue. Nathaniel’s spirit, Will heard her telling Papa one night, was with her all the time; did Hugo not see him in her face? They had the same bones, didn’t they? The same, French bones.
Even at the age of thirteen, Will had an unsentimental grasp of the world; he didn’t lie to himself about what was happening to his mother. She was going crazy. That was the simple, pitiful truth of it. For several weeks in May she could not bear to be left alone in the house, and Will was obliged to skip school (no great hardship there) and stay at home with her – banned from her presence (she had no wish to see a face that resembled a poor copy of Nathaniel’s perfection) but called back with sobs and promises if he was heard opening the front door. Finally, in the middle of August, Hugo sat Will down and told him that life in Manchester had plainly become intolerable for all three of them, and he had decided they would move. ‘Your mother needs some open skies,’ he explained, the toll of the months since the accident gouged into his face. He had, in his own words, a pugilist’s face; its monolithic rawness an unlikely rock from which to hear fine distinctions of thought and vocabulary spring. But spring they did. Even the simple business of describing the family’s departure from Manchester became a linguistic adventure.
‘I realize these last few months have been troubling to you,’ Papa told Will. The manifestations of grief can be confounding to us all, and I can’t pretend to fully understand why your mother’s distress has taken such idiosyncratic forms. But you mustn’t judge her. We can’t feel what she feels. Nobody can ever feel what somebody else feels. We can guess at it. We can hypothesize. But that’s it. What happens up here—’ he tapped his temple,’—is hers and only hers.’
‘Maybe if she talked about it—’ Will tentatively suggested.
‘Words aren’t absolutes. I’ve told you that before, haven’t I? What your mother says and what you hear aren’t the same thing. You understand that, don’t you?’ Will nodded, though he only grasped the crudest version of what he was being told. ‘So we’re moving,’ Hugo replied, apparently satisfied that he’d communicated the theoretical underpinning of this.
‘Where are we going?’
‘A village in Yorkshire, called Burnt Yarley. You’ll have to change schools but that’s not going to be much of a problem for you, is it?’ Will murmured no, it wasn’t; he hated St Margaret’s. ‘And it won’t hurt for you to be out in the open air a little more. You look so pale all the time.’
‘When will we go?’
‘In about three weeks.’
The move didn’t happen quite as planned. Two days after Hugo’s conversation with Will, quite without warning, Eleanor broke her own rules and left the house in the middle of the morning and went wandering. She was escorted home in the late evening, having been found weeping in the street where Nathaniel had been struck down. The move was postponed, and for the next fortnight she was watched over by nurses and tended to by a psychiatrist. His medications did some good. Her mood brightened after a few days – she became uncharacteristically jolly, in fact, and dived into the business of packing up the house with gusto. On the second weekend of September, the delayed move took place.
The journey from Manchester took little more than an hour but it might as well have delivered the two-vehicle convoy into another country. With the charmless streets of Oldham and Rochdale behind them they wound their way into open countryside, sweeping moorland steadily giving way to the steeper fells, whose lush green flanks were here and there stripped to pavements of grim, grey limestone. The wind blew hard on the hilltops, buffeting the high-sided van in which Will had asked to be a passenger. With map in hand he followed their route as best he could, his eyes straying from the road they were taking to venture where the names were strangest: Kirkby Malzeard, Gammersgill, Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Yockenthwaite and Garthwaite and Rottenstone Hill. There was a world of promise in such names.
Their destination, the village of Burnt Yarley, was to Will’s eyes indistinguishable from a dozen other villages they’d passed through on their way: a scattering of plain, square houses and cottages built of the local limestone, and roofed with slate; less than half a dozen shops (a grocer, a butcher, a newsagent, a post office, a pub), a church with a small churchyard surrounding it, and a steeply-humped bridge rising over a river no wider than a traffic lane. There were, however, three or four more substantial residences on the outskirts of the village. One of them would be their new house, he knew: it was the largest house in Burnt Yarley, so beautiful that according to Will’s father Eleanor had cried with happiness at the thought of their living in it. We’re going to be very happy there, Hugo had said, offering this not as a cherished hope, but as an instruction.
The first sign of that happiness was waiting for them at the front gate: a plumpish, smiling woman in early middle-age who introduced herself to Will as Adele Bottrall and welcomed them all with what seemed to be genuine pleasure. She instantly took charge of the unloading of the car and the removal van, supervising her husband Donald and her son Craig, who was the kind of sullen, thick-necked sixteen-year-old Will would have feared an arbitrary beating from in the yard of St Margaret’s. Here, however, he was a workhorse, eyes downcast most of the time, as he lugged boxes and furniture into the house. Will was given a glass of lemonade by Mrs Bottrall and wandered around the house to survey it, coming back to the front now and then to watch Craig at his labours. The afternoon was clammy – thunder later, Adele promised, it’ll clear the air – and Craig stripped down to a threadbare vest, the sweat trickling down his neck and face from his low hairline, his neck and arms peeling where he’d caught too much sun. Will was envious of his muscularity; of the curling hair at his armpits, and the wispy sideburns he was cultivating. Pretending a concern for the care Craig was exercising with the tables and lamps, he idly followed the youth from room to room, watching him work. Occasionally, Craig would do something that made Will feel as though he shouldn’t be watching, though they weren’t particularly odd things for anyone to do. Passing his tongue over his frizzy moustache; stretching his arms above his head; splashing water on his face at the kitchen sink. Once or twice Craig looked his way, a little bemused at the attention he was getting. When he did Will made sure he was wearing a facsimile of that indifference he’d seen on his mother’s face so often.
The unloading went on until the early evening, the house – which had not been lived in for two years – subtly resisting its re-occupation. Interior doors proved too narrow for several of the tea-chests, and rooms too small gracefully to accommodate pieces of furniture from the house in the city. As the hours went on, tempers grew tattered. Knuckles were skinned and bloodied, shins scraped and toes stubbed. Eleanor maintained an imperious calm throughout, seating herself in the bay window which offered a magnificent panorama of the valley and sipping herbal tea, while her husband made decisions as to the arrangement of rooms she would never have trusted to him in the old days. Once, trapping his fingers between a box and the wall, Craig let loose a fair stream of foul language, silenced by a hard slap on the back of the head from Adele. Will chanced to witness the blow, and saw how Craig’s eyes teared up from the sting. He was. Will realized, just a boy, for all his sweat and muscle, and his interest in watching Craig’s labours instantly evaporated.
That was Saturday. The night did not bring thunder, as Adele had predicted it would, and the next day the air was already sticky before St Luke’s solitary bell had summoned the faithful to worship. Adele was amongst the congregation, but her husband and son were not. By the time their task-mistress finally appeared, they had already put in almost two hours of graceless work, unloading the tea-chests in such a ham-fisted fashion that several pieces of crockery and a Chinese vase had been forfeited.
Alert to the general malaise, Will decided to keep out of the way. While the Bottrall clan stamped around below he remained upstairs in the room with the sloped, beamed ceiling which he’d been given. It was at the back of the house, which suited him fine. From the deep-silled window he had a view up the unspoiled slope of the fell, with not a house nor hut in sight, just a few wind-stunted trees and a scattering of hardy sheep.
He was pinning a map of the world up on the wall when he heard the wasp, its last days upon it, come weaving around his head. He snatched up a book and swatted it away, but back it came, its buzz escalating. Again, he struck out at it, but somehow it avoided his blow and, winding its way around him. stung him below his left ear. He yelped, and retreated to the door as the insect flew a victory circuit around his head. He didn’t attempt to swat it a third time, but opened the door, and stumbled downstairs, wailing.
He got no sympathy. His father was in the midst of a heated altercation with Donald Bottrall, and shot him such a glance when he approached that he swallowed his complaints. Gulping back tears he went to find his mother. She was once again sitting at the bay window, with a bottle of pills on the arm of her chair. She had a second bottle open, the contents in her palm, and was counting them.
‘Mum?’ he said.
She raised her eyes from the pills, a look of genteel despair upon her face. ‘What’s wrong?’ she said. He told her. ‘You are careless,’ she replied. ‘Wasps always get nasty in the autumn. You shouldn’t annoy them.’
He began to protest that he hadn’t annoyed it at all, he’d been the innocent party, but he could see by the expression on her face that she’d already tuned him out. A moment later, she returned to counting the pills. Feeling frustrated but utterly ineffectual, he withdrew.
The sting was really throbbing now, the discomfort fuelling his rage. He went back up to the bathroom, found some ointment for insect bites in the medicine cabinet and gingerly applied it to the sting. Then he washed his face, removing any evidence of tears. He was never going to cry again, he told his reflection; it was stupid. It didn’t make anybody listen.
Feeling not in the least happier, he headed back downstairs. Little had changed. Craig was lounging in the kitchen, his mouth stuffed with something Adele had cooked up; Eleanor was sitting with her pills; and Hugo had taken his argument with Donald – who looked bull-headed enough to give as good as he got – out into the front garden, where they were talking at each other in a red rage. Nobody noticed Will stamp off towards the village; or if they did, nobody cared sufficiently to stop him.
The streets of Burnt Yarley were virtually deserted, the shops all closed. Even the little sweet-shop, where Will had hoped he might soothe his frustration and his dry throat with an ice-cream, was locked up. He peered in through the window, cupping his hands around his face. The interior was as small as the façade suggested, but packed to the rafters with goods, some dearly targeted at the ramblers and hikers who passed through the town: postcards, maps, even knapsacks. Curiosity satisfied, Will wandered on to the bridge. It wasn’t large – a span of maybe twelve feet – and built of the same grey stone as the tiny cottages in its immediate vicinity. He sat on the low wall and peered down into the river. The summer had been dry, and there was presently little more than a stream creeping between the rocks below, but the banks were fringed with marsh marigolds and dumps of balsam. There were bees around the balsam in their dozens. Will watched them warily, ready to retreat if one winged its way towards him.
‘It’s all stupid,’ he muttered.
‘What is?’ said somebody at his back.
He turned round, and found not one but two pairs of eyes upon him. The speaker, a fair-haired, fair-skinned and presently heavily-freckled girl a little older than himself, was standing at the rise of the bridge, while her companion squatted against the wall opposite Will and picked his nose. The boy was plainly her brother; they had common broad, plain features and grave, grey eyes. But while she still looked to be in her Sunday best, her sibling was a mess, his clothes wrinkled and grimy, his mouth stained with berry juice. He stared at Will with a scowl.
‘What’s stupid?’ the girl said again.
‘ ‘Tisn’t,’ said the boy. ‘You’re stupid.’
‘Hush, Sherwood,’ the girl said.
‘Sherwood?’ said Will.
‘Yeah, Sherwood,’ came the boy’s defiant reply. He scrambled to his feet as if ready for a fight, his legs scabby with old scrapes. His belligerence lasted ten seconds. Then he said: ‘I want to go and play somewhere else.’ His interest in the stranger had plainly already waned. ‘Come on, Frannie.’
That’s not my real name,’ the girl put in, before Will could remark upon it. ‘It’s Frances.’
‘Sherwood’s a daft name,’ Will said.
‘Oh yeah?’ said Sherwood.
‘So who are you?’ Frannie wanted to know.
‘He’s the Rabjohns kid,’ scabby-kneed Sherwood said.
‘How’d you know that?’ Will demanded.
Sherwood shrugged. ‘I heard,’ he said with a mischievous little smile, ‘ ‘cause I listen.’
Frannie laughed. The things you hear,’ she said.
Sherwood giggled, pleased to be appreciated. The things I hear,’ he said, his voice sing-song, as he repeated the phrase. The things I hear, the things I hear.’
‘Knowing somebody’s name isn’t so clever,’ Will replied.
‘I know more than that.’
‘Like you came from Manchester, and you had a brother only he’s dead.’ He spoke the d-word with relish. ‘And your dad’s a teacher.’ He glanced at his sister. ‘Frannie says she hates teachers.’
‘Well he’s not a teacher,’ Will shot back.
‘What is he then?’ Frannie wanted to know.
‘He’s…he’s a Doctor of Philosophy.’
It sounded like a fine boast, and for a moment it silenced his audience. Then Frannie said: ‘Is he really a doctor?’
She had unerringly gone to the part of his father’s nomenclature Will had never really understood. He put a brave face on his incomprehension. ‘Sort of,’ he said. ‘He makes people better by…by writing books.’
‘That’s stupid,’ Sherwood said, crowing the word that had begun their whole exchange. He started to laugh at how ridiculous this was.
‘I don’t care what you think,’ Will said, putting on his best sneer. ‘Anybody who lives in this dump has got to be the biggest stupid person I ever saw. That’s what you are—‘
Sherwood had turned his back on Will and was spitting over the bridge. Will gave up on him and marched off back towards the house.
‘Wait—’ he heard Frannie say.
‘Frannie,’ Sherwood whined, ‘leave him alone.’
But Frannie was already at Will’s side. ‘Sometimes Sherwood gets silly,’ she said, almost primly. ‘But he’s my brother, so I have to watch out for him.’
‘Somebody’s going to bash him one of these days. Bash him hard. And it might be me.’
‘He gets bashed all the time,’ Frannie said,’ ‘cause people think he’s not quite…’ she halted, drew a breath, then went on: ‘…not quite right in the head.’
‘Fraaaannnnie…’ Sherwood was yelling.
‘You’d better go back to him, in case he falls off the bridge.’
Frannie gave her brother a fretful backward glance. ‘He’s okay. You know, it’s not so bad here,’ she said.
‘I don’t care,’ Will replied. ‘I’m going to be running away.’
‘I just said, didn’t I?’
‘I haven’t made up my mind.’
The conversation faltered here, and Will hoped Frannie would go back to her brattish brother, but she was determined to keep the exchange going, walking beside him. ‘Is it true what Sherwood said?’ she asked, her voice softening. ‘About your brother?’
‘Yeah. He was knocked down by a taxi.’
That must be horrible for you,’ Frannie said.
‘I didn’t like him very much.’
‘Still…if something like that ever happened to Sherwood…’
They had come to a divide in the road. To the left lay the route back to the house; to the right, a less well-made track that rapidly wound out of sight behind the hedgerows. Will hesitated a moment, weighing up the options.
‘I should go back,’ Frannie said.
‘I’m not stopping you,’ Will replied.
Frannie didn’t move. He glanced round at her, and saw such hurt in her eyes he had to look away. Seeking some other point of interest, his gaze found the one visible building close to the right-hand track, and more to mellow his cruelty than out of genuine curiosity he asked Frannie what it was.
‘Everybody calls it the Courthouse,’ she said. ‘But it isn’t really. It was built by this man who wanted to protect horses or something. I don’t know the proper story.’
‘Who lives there?’ Will said. As far as he could tell at this distance, it was an impressive-looking structure; it almost looked like a temple in one of his history books, except that it was built of dark stone.
‘Nobody lives there,’ Frannie said. ‘It’s horrible inside.’
‘You went in?’
‘Sherwood hid there once. He knows more about it than I do. You should ask him.’
Will wrinkled up his nose. ‘Nah,’ he said, feeling as though he’d made his attempt at conciliation and he could now depart without guilt.
‘Fraaannnie!’ Sherwood was yelling again. He had clambered up onto the wall of the bridge and was imitating a trapeze artist as he walked along it.
‘Get down off there!’ Frannie shouted at him and, saying goodbye to Will over her shoulder, hurried back to the bridge to enforce her edict.
Relieved to have the girl gone, Will again considered the routes before him. If he went back to the house now he could slake his thirst and fill the growing hole in his belly. But he’d also have to endure the atmosphere of ill-humour that hung about the place. Better to go walking, he thought; find out what was around the bend and beyond the hedgerows.
He glanced back at the bridge to see that Frannie had coaxed Sherwood down off the wall and that he was now sitting on the ground again, hugging his knees, while his sister stood gazing in Will’s direction. He gave her a halfhearted wave, and then struck out along the unexplored road, thinking as he went that perhaps the route would be so tantalizing that he’d make good on his boast to the girl, and keep walking till Burnt Yarley was just a memory.
The Courthouse was further than he’d thought. He walked and walked, and every turn in the road showed him another turn and every hedgerow he peered over another hedgerow, until it dawned on him that he’d completely miscalculated the size of the building. It was not near and small, it was far and enormous. By the time he came abreast of it, and surveyed the hedge looking for a way into the field in which it stood, fully half an hour had passed. The day had grown more uncomfortable than ever, and there were heavy clouds louring over the fells to the northeast. Adele Bottrall’s cleansing storm, at last, its billowing thunderheads casting shadows on the heights. Perhaps it would be better to leave this adventuring for another day, he thought. The sting on his neck had begun to pain him afresh, and had passed its throb to the bones of his head. It was time to go home, whatever he’d boasted.
But to have come so far and not have anything to tell was surely a waste. Five more minutes he’d be through the hedge and across the field, into the mystery building. Another five and he’d have seen its dank interior, and he could be away, taking a short cut across the fields, content that his trudge had not been in vain.
So thinking he scouted for a gap in the woven hawthorn and, finding a place where the branches looked less tightly meshed, pushed through. He didn’t emerge entirely unscathed, but the spectacle on the other side was worth the scratches. The grass in the meadow surrounding the Courthouse was almost up to his chest, and there was life in it everywhere. Peewits erupted from underfoot, hares he could hear but not see raced away at his approach. He instantly forgot his aching head, and strode through the hay and cow parsley like a man lost on safari, his stomach suddenly churning with excitement. Perhaps, after all, this wouldn’t be such a bad place to live: away from the dirty streets and the taxis, in a place where he could be somebody else; somebody new.
He was just a few yards from the Courthouse now, and any doubts he’d entertained about the wisdom of venturing inside had fled. He climbed the overgrown steps, passed between the pillars (which had the girth of Donald Bottrall) and pushing open the half-rotted door, stepped inside.
It was colder than he had expected it to be; and darker. Though there had been so little rain that the river had been reduced to a trickle, there was nevertheless a dankness everywhere, as though somehow the building was drawing moisture up from the earth below, and with it came the smell of rot and worms.
The room he’d entered was most peculiar: a kind of semi-circular vestibule, with a number of alcoves carved into it that looked as though they might have been intended for statues. On the floor was an elaborate mosaic, depicting a curious collection of objects, some of which Will recognized, others which he did not. There were grapes and lemons, flowers and cloves of garlic; there was what might have been a piece of meat, except that it had maggots crawling out of it and he thought that must be his mistake, because nobody in their right mind would go to the trouble of building a magnificent place like this and then put a picture of a rotted steak on the floor. He didn’t linger to puzzle over it for long. A call of distant thunder so deep it reverberated in the walls reminded him of the coming storm. He needed to be out of here in a couple of minutes if he was to have a hope of outrunning the rain. He headed on, into the belly of the building, down a wide, high-ceilinged corridor (it was almost as though the doors and passageways had been designed to let giants pass) and through another door, this less vaulted than the first, into the central chamber.
As he entered there was a clattering in the shadows ahead of him, so loud his heart jumped in his chest. He threw himself back towards the door, and would have been away through it – his adventurous spirit quenched – had he not moments later heard the pitiful bleat of a sheep. He studied the chamber. It had a round skylight in the middle of its domed roof, and a beam came down to strike the filthy ground, like a single bright pillar designed to hold the whole magnificence in place. There was a wash of light up upon the tiers of stone seats which ran round the entire chamber, bright enough to touch the walls themselves. Here, he saw, there were carvings, depicting who knew what? Sporting events, perhaps; he saw horses in one of them, and dogs in another, straining on long leashes.
The bleating came again, and following the sound Will set eyes on a pitiable sight. A fully grown sheep – its body pitifully thinned by malnutrition, its fleece hanging off it in filthy rags – was cowering in a niche between two tiers of seats where it had retreated upon Will’s entrance.
‘You’re a mess,’ he said to the animal. Then, more softly: ‘It’s okay…I’m not going to hurt you.’ He started to approach. The sheep regarded him balefully with its bulbous eyes, but it didn’t move. ‘You got stuck in here, didn’t you?’ he said. ‘You big dafty. You found your way in and now you can’t get out again.’
The closer he got to the creature, the more pathetic its condition appeared. Its legs and head and flanks were covered in scrapes, where it had presumably attempted to push its way out. There was one particularly befouled wound along the side of its jaw where flies were busy.
Will had no intention of actually touching the animal. But if he could just scare it in the right direction, he thought, he might get it out into the light where at least it had a chance of finding its way home. The theory had merit. When he climbed up onto one of the tiers of seats, the poor creature, frightened out of its simple wits, fled its bolt-hole in an instant, its hooves clattering on the stone floor. He pursued it to the door, and overtook it. Terrified, the animal reeled around, bleating pitifully. Will put his shoulder against the door, and pushed it open. The sheep had retreated to the pool of light in the centre of the chamber, and stood watching Will with its flanks heaving. Will glanced down the passageway to the front door, which was still as he had left it, open wide. Surely the animal could see that far? The sun was still shining out there; the grass swayed in a rising wind, as pliant and seductive as this place was severe.
‘Go on!’ Will said. ‘Look! Food!’
The sheep just stared at him, bug-eyed. Will glanced back along the passageway, and saw that here and there the wall had crumbled and blocks of stone slipped from their place. He let the door go, found a block that he had the strength to move, and rolling it ahead of him, used it to wedge the door open. Then he went back into the chamber and, scooting around behind the sheep, shoved it towards the open door. Finally its undernourished brain got the message. It was off down the passageway and out through the front door to freedom.
Will was pleased with himself. It wasn’t quite the adventure he’d expected to have in this bizarre place, but it had satisfied some instinct in him. ‘Perhaps I’ll be a farmer,’ he said to himself. Then he headed out, into whatever was left of the day.
The episode with the sheep had delayed him in the Courthouse longer than he’d intended; even as he stepped outside the clouds covered the sun, and a gust of wind, strong enough to bow the grass low as it passed, brought a spatter of rain. He would not now be able to outrun a soaking, he knew, but he was determined not to go back the way he’d come. Instead he’d take a short cut across the fields to the house. He walked to the comer of the Courthouse, and tried to spot his destination, but it was out of sight. He knew its general direction, however; he would simply follow his nose.
The rain was getting heavier by the moment, but he didn’t mind. The air carried the metallic tang of lightning, sweetened by the scent of wet grass; the heat was already noticeably mellowed. On the fells ahead of him, a few last spears of sunlight were shining through the big-bellied clouds and stabbing the heights.
Just as the storm was filling the valley, so it seemed his senses were filled: with the rain, the grass, the tang, the sunlight and thunder. He could not remember ever feeling as he felt now: that he and the world around him were in every particular connected. It made him want to yell with happiness, he felt so full, so found. It was as though, for the first time in his life, something in the world that was not human knew he was there.
His blessedness made him fleet. Whooping and shouting he ran through the lashing grass like a crazy, while the clouds sealed off the last of the sun and threw lightning down on the hills.
He did his best to hold to the direction he’d set himself, but the rain quickly escalated from a bracing shower to a downpour, and he could soon no longer see slopes that minutes before had been crystalline, so obscured were they by veils of water and cloud. Nor was this his only problem. The first hedgerow he encountered was too thick to be breached and too tall to be clambered over, so he was obliged to go looking for a gate, his trek along the edge of the field disorienting him. It was some time before he found a means of egress: not a gate but a stile, which he hoisted himself over, glancing back at the Courthouse only to find that it too had disappeared from sight.
He didn’t panic. There were farmhouses scattered all along the valley, and if he did find himself lost then he’d just strike out for the nearest residence and ask for directions. Meanwhile he made an instinctive guess at his route, and ploughed on first through a meadow of rape and then across a field occupied by a herd of cows, several of which had taken refuge under an enormous sycamore. He was almost tempted to join them, but he’d read once that trees were bad spots to shelter during thunderstorms so on he went, through a gate onto a track that was turning into a little brook, and over a second stile into a muddy, deserted field. The rainfall had not slowed a jot, and by now he was soaked to the skin. It was time, he decided, to seek some help. The next track he came to he’d follow till it led him somewhere inhabited; maybe he’d persuade a sympathetic soul to drive him home.
But he walked on for another ten or fifteen minutes without encountering a track, however rudimentary, and now the ground began to slope upwards, so that he was soon having to climb hard. He stopped. This was definitely not the right way. Half-blinded by the freezing downpour he turned three hundred and sixty degrees looking for some clue to his whereabouts, but there were walls of grey rain enclosing him on every side, so he turned his back to the slope and retraced his steps. At least that was what he thought he’d done. Somehow he’d managed to turn himself around, without realizing he’d done so, because after fifty yards the ground again steepened beneath his feet – cascades of water surging over boulders a little way up the slope. The cold and disorientation were bad enough, but what now began to trouble him more was a subtle darkening of the sky. It was not the thunderclouds that were blotting out the light, it was dusk. In a few minutes it would be dark; far darker than it ever got on the streets of Manchester.
He was shivering violently, and his teeth had begun to chatter. His legs were aching, and his rain-pummelled face was numb. He tried yelling for help, but he rapidly gave up in the attempt. Between the din of the storm and the frailty of his voice, he knew after a few yells it was a lost cause. He had to preserve his energies, such as they were. Wait until the storm cleared, when he could work out where he was. It wouldn’t be difficult, once the lights of the village started to reappear, as they surely would, sooner or later.
And then, a shout, somewhere in the storm, and something broke cover, racing in front of him—
‘Catch it!’ he heard a raw voice say, and instinctively threw himself down to catch hold of whatever was escaping. His quarry was even more exhausted and disoriented than he, apparently, because his hands caught hold of something lean and furry, which squealed and struggled in his grip.
‘Hold it, m’lad! Hold it!’
The speaker now appeared from higher up the slope. It was a woman, dressed entirely in black, carrying a flickering lamp, which burned with a fat yellow-white flame. By its light he saw a face that was more beautiful than any he had seen in his life, its pale perfection framed by a mass of dark red hair.
‘You are a treasure,’ she said to Will, setting down the lamp. Her accent was not local, but tinged with a little Cockney. ‘You just hold that damn hare a minute longer, while I get my bag.’
She set down the lamp, rummaged in the folds of her sleek coat and pulled out a small sack. Then she approached Will and with lightning speed clawed the squealing hare from his arms. It was in the bag and the bag sealed up in moments. ‘You’re as good as gold, you are,’ she said. ‘We would have gone hungry, Mr Steep and me, if you hadn’t been so quick.’ She set down the bag. ‘Oh my Lord, look at the state of you,’ she said, bending to examine Will more closely. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I had a William once,’ the woman remarked. ‘It’s a lovely name.’ Her face was close to Will’s, and there was a welcome heat in her breath. ‘In fact I think I had two. Sweet children, both of ‘em.’ She reached out and touched Will’s cheek. ‘Oh but you are cold.’
‘I got lost.’
That’s terrible. Terrible,’ she said, stroking his face. ‘How could any self-respecting mother let you stray out of sight? She should be ashamed, she should. Ashamed.’ Will would have concurred, but the warmth seeping from the woman’s fingers into his face was curiously soporific.
‘Rosa?’ somebody said.
‘Yes?’ the woman replied, her voice suddenly flirty. ‘I’m down here, Jacob.’
‘Who’ve you found now?’
‘I was just thanking this lad,’ Rosa said, removing her hand from Will’s face. He was suddenly freezing again. ‘He caught us our dinner.’
‘Did he indeed?’ said Jacob. ‘Why don’t you step aside, Mrs McGee, and give me sight of the boy?’
‘Sight you want, sight you’ll have,’ Rosa replied, and getting to her feet she picked up the sack, and moved a short way down the slope.
In the two or three minutes since Will had caught hold of the hare, the sky had darkened considerably, and when Will looked in the direction of Jacob Steep it was hard to see the man clearly. He was tall, that much was clear, and was wearing a long coat with shiny buttons. His face was bearded, and his hair longer than Mrs McGee’s. But his features were a blur to Will’s weary eyes.
‘You should be at home,’ he said. Will shuddered, but this time the cause was not the cold but the warmth of Steep’s voice. ‘A boy like you, out here alone, could come to some harm or other.’
‘He’s lost,’ Mrs McGee chimed in.
‘On a night like this, we’re all a little lost,’ Mr Steep said. There’s no blame there.’
‘Maybe he should come home with us,’ Rosa suggested. ‘You could light one of your fires for him.’
‘Hush yourself,’ Jacob snapped. ‘I will not have talk of fires when this boy is so bitter cold. Where are your wits?’
‘As you like,’ the woman replied. ‘It’s no matter to me either way. But you should have seen him take the hare. He was on it like a tiger, he was.’
‘I was lucky,’ Will said, ‘that’s all.’
Mr Steep drew a deep breath, and to Will’s great delight descended the slope a yard or two more. ‘Can you get up?’ he asked Will.
‘Of course I can,’ Will replied, and did so.
Though Mr Steep had halved the distance between them, the darkness had deepened a little further, and his features were just as hard to fathom. ‘I wonder, looking at you, if we weren’t meant to meet on this hill,’ he said softly. ‘I wonder if that’s the luck of this night, for us all.’ Will was still trying hard to get a better sense of what Steep looked like; to put a face to the voice that moved him so deeply, but his eyes weren’t equal to the challenge. The hare, Mrs McGee.’
‘What about it?’
‘We should set it free.’
‘After the chase it led me?’ Rosa replied. ‘You’re out of your mind.’
‘We owe it that much, for leading us to Will.’
‘I’ll thank it as I skin it, Jacob, and that’s my final word on the thing. My God, you’re impractical. Throwing away good food. I’ll not have it.’ Before Steep could protest further she snatched up the sack, and was away down the slope.
Only now, watching her descend, did Will realize that the worst of the storm had blown over. The rainfall had mellowed to a drizzle, the murk was melting away; he could even see lights glimmering in the valley. He was relieved, certainly, but not as much as he thought he’d be. There was comfort in the prospect of returning home, but that meant leaving the company of the dark man at his back, who even now lay a heavy, leather-gloved hand upon his shoulder.
‘Can you see your house from here?’ he asked Will.
‘But it will come clear, by and by.’
‘Yes,’ Will said, only now getting a sense of how the land lay. He had managed somehow to come halfway around the valley during his blind trek, and was looking down on the village from a wholly unexpected angle. There was a track not more than thirty yards down the ridge from where he stood; it would lead him, he suspected, back to the route he’d followed to get to the Courthouse. A left at that intersection would bring him back into Burnt Yarley, and then it was just a weary trudge home.
‘You should go, my boy,’ Jacob said. ‘Doubtless a fellow as fine as you has loving guardians.’ The gloved hand squeezed his shoulder. ‘I envy you that, having no parents that I can remember.’
‘I’m…sorry,’ Will said, hesitating because he was by no means sure a man as fine as Jacob Steep was ever in need of sympathy. He received it, however, in good part.
Thank you, Will. It’s important that a man be compassionate. It’s a quality that our sex so often neglects, I think.’ Will heard the soft cadence of Steep’s breathing, and tried to fall in rhythm with it. ‘You should go,’ Jacob said. ‘Your parents will be concerned for you.’
‘No they won’t,’ Will replied.
‘They won’t. They don’t care.’
‘I can’t believe that.’
Then you must be a loving son in spite of them,’ Steep said. ‘Be grateful that you have their faces in your mind’s eye. And their voices to answer when you call. Better that than emptiness, believe me. Better than silence.’
He lifted his hand from Will’s shoulder, and instead touched the middle of his back, gently pushing him away. ‘Go on,’ he said softly. ‘You’ll be dead of cold if you don’t go soon. Then how would we get to meet again?’
Will’s spirits rose at this. ‘We might do that?’
‘Oh certainly, if you’re hardy enough to come and find me. But Will…understand me…I’m not looking for a dog to perch on my lap. I need a wolf.’
‘I could be a wolf,’ Will said. He wanted to look back over his shoulder at Steep, but that was not, he thought, the most appropriate thing for an aspirant wolf to do.
Then as I say: come find me,’ Steep said. ‘I won’t be far away.’ And with that he gave Will a final nudge, setting him off on his way down the slope.
Will did not look back until he reached the track, and when he did he saw nothing. At least nothing alive. The hill he saw, black against the clearing sky. And the stars, appearing between the clouds. But their splendour was nothing compared to the face of Jacob Steep; a face he had not yet seen, but which his mind had already conjured a hundred different ways by the time he reached home, each finer than the one before. Steep the nobleman, fine-boned and fancy; Steep the soldier, scarred from a dozen wars; Steep the magician, his gaze bearing power. Perhaps he was all of these. Perhaps none. Will didn’t care. What mattered was to be beside him again, soon, and know him better.
Meanwhile, there was a warm light from the window of his home, and a fire in the hearth. Even a wolf might seek the comfort of the hearth now and then, Will reasoned, and knocking on the front door, was let back in.
He did not go up the hill the following day to look for Jacob, nor indeed the day following that. He came home to such a firestorm of accusations – his mother in racking tears, certain he was dead, his father, white with fury, just as certain he wasn’t – that he dared not step over the threshold. Hugo wasn’t a violent man. He prided himself on his reasonableness. But he made an exception in this case, and beat his son so hard – with a book, of all things – he reduced them both to tears: Will of pain, his father of anguish, that he’d lost so much control.
He wasn’t interested in Will’s explanations. He simply told his son that while he, Hugo, didn’t care if Will went wandering for the rest of his damn life, Eleanor did, and hadn’t she suffered enough for one lifetime?
So Will stayed at home and nursed his bruises and his rage. After forty-eight hours his mother tried to make some kind of peace, telling him how frightened she’d been that some harm had befallen him.
‘Why?’ he said to her sullenly.
‘Whatever do you mean?’
‘I mean why should you worry if something happens to me? You never cared before…’
‘Oh, William…’ she said softly. There was only a trace of accusation in her voice. It was mostly sorrow.
‘You don’t,’ he said flatly. ‘You know you don’t. All you ever think about is him.’ He didn’t need to name the missing member of this equation. ‘I’m not important to you. You said so.’ This was not strictly the case. She’d never used those precise words. But the lie sounded true enough.
‘I’m sure I didn’t mean it,’ she said. ‘It’s just been so hard for me since Nathaniel died—’ Her fingers went to his face as she spoke, and gently stroked his cheek. ‘He was so…so…’
He was barely listening to her. He was thinking of Rosa McGee, and how she had touched his face and spoken to him softly. Only she’d not been talking about how fine some other boy was while she did so. She’d been telling him what a treasure he was, how nimble, how useful. This woman who had barely known his name had found in him qualities his own mother could not see. It made him sad and angry at the same time.
‘Why do you keep talking about him?’ Will said. ‘He’s dead.’
Eleanor’s fingers fell from Will’s face, and she looked at him with tear-filled eyes. ‘No,’ she said, ‘he’ll never be dead. Not to me. I don’t expect you to understand. How could you? But your brother was very special to me. Very precious. So he’ll never be dead as far as I’m concerned.’
Something happened in Will at that moment. A scrap of hope that had stayed green in the months since the accident withered and went to dust. He didn’t say anything. He just got up and left her to her tears.
After two days of home-bound penance he went to school. It was a smaller place than St Margaret’s, which he liked, its buildings older, its playground lined with trees instead of railings. He kept to himself for the first week, barely speaking to anyone. At the beginning of the second week, however, minding his own business at lunchtime, a familiar face appeared in front of him. It was Frannie.
‘Here you are,’ she said, as though she’d been looking for him.
‘Hello,’ he said, glancing around to see if Sherwood the Brat was also in evidence. He wasn’t.
‘I thought you’d be gone on your trip by now.’
‘I will,’ he said. ‘I’ll go.’
‘I know,’ Frannie said, quite sincerely. ‘After we met I kept thinking maybe I’d go too. Not with you—’ she hastened to add ‘—but one day I’d just leave.’
‘Go as far away as possible,’ Will said.
‘As far away as possible,’ Frannie replied, her echoing of his words a kind of pact. There’s not much worth seeing around here,’ she went on, ‘unless you go into…you know…’
‘You can talk about Manchester,’ Will said. ‘Just ‘cause my brother was killed there…it’s no big deal to me. I mean, he wasn’t really my brother.’ Will felt a delicious lie being bom. ‘I’m adopted, you see.’
‘Nobody knows who my real Mum and Dad are.’
‘Oh wow. Is this a secret?’ Will nodded. ‘So I can’t even tell Sherwood.’
‘Better not,’ Will replied, with a fine show of seriousness. ‘He might spread it around.’
The bell was ringing, calling them back to their classes. The fierce Miss Hartley, a big-bosomed woman whose merest whisper intimidated her charges, was eyeing Will and Frannie.
‘Frances Cunningham!’ she boomed, ‘will you get a move on?’ Frannie pulled a face and ran, leaving Miss Hartley to focus her attention on Will. ‘You are—?’
‘Oh yes,’ she said darkly, as though she’d heard news of him and it wasn’t good.
He stood his ground, feeling quite calm. This was strange for him. At St Margaret’s he had been intimidated by several of the staff, feeling remotely that they were part of his father’s clan. But this woman seemed to him absurd, with her sickly sweet perfume and her fat neck. There was nothing to be afraid of here.
Perhaps she saw how unmoved he was, because she stared at him with a well-practised curl in her lip.
‘What are you smiling at?’ she said.
He wasn’t aware that he was, until she remarked upon it. He felt his stomach churn with a strange exhilaration; then he said:
He made the smile a grin. ‘You,’ he said again. ‘I’m smiling at you.’
She frowned at him. He kept grinning, thinking as he did so that he was baring his teeth to her, like a wolf.
‘Where are you…supposed to be?’ she said to him.
‘In the gym,’ he replied. He kept looking straight at her; kept grinning. And at last it was she who looked away.
‘You’d better…get along then, hadn’t you?’ she said to him.
‘If we’ve finished talking,’ he said, hoping to goad her into further response.
But no. ‘We’ve finished,’ she said.
He was reluctant to take his eyes off her. If he kept staring, he thought, he could surely bore a hole in her, the way a magnifying glass bumed a hole in a piece of paper.
‘I won’t have insolence from anyone,’ she said. ‘Least of all a new boy. Now get to your class.’
He had little choice. Off he went. But as he walked past her he said:
Thank you, Miss Hartley,’ in a soft voice, and he was sure he saw her shudder.
Something was happening to him. There were little signs of it every day. He would look up at the sky and feel a strange surge of exhilaration, as though some part of him were taking flight, rising up out of his own head. He would wake long after midnight and, even though it was bitterly cold, open the window and listen to the world going on in darkness, imagining how it was on the heights. Twice he ventured out in the middle of the night, up the slope behind the house, hoping he might meet Jacob up there somewhere, star-watching; or Mrs McGee, chasing hares. But he saw no sign of them, and though he listened intently to every gossipy conversation when he was in the village – picking up pork chops for Adele Bottrall to cook with apples for Papa, or a sheaf of magazines for his mother to flick through – he never heard anybody mention Jacob or Rosa. They lived in some secret place, he concluded, where they could not be troubled by the workaday world. Other than himself, he doubted anybody in the valley even knew they existed.
He didn’t pine for them. He would find them again, or they him, when the time was right. He was certain of that. Meanwhile, the strange epiphanies continued. Everywhere around him, the world was making miraculous signs for him to read. In the curlicues of frost on his window when he rose; in the patterns that the sheep made, straggling the hill; in the din of the river, swelled to its full measure by an autumn that brought more than its share of rain.
At last, he had to share these mysteries with somebody. He chose Frannie, not because he was certain she’d understand, but because she was the only one he trusted enough.
They were sitting in the living-room of the Cunningham house, which was adjacent to the junkyard owned by Frannie’s father. The house was small, but cosy, as ordered and neat as the yard outside was chaotic: a needlepoint prayer framed above the mantelpiece, blessing the hearth and all who gather there; a teak china cabinet with an heirloom tea-service elegantly but not boastfully displayed; a plain brass clock on the table, and beside it a cut-glass bowl heaped with pears and oranges. Here, in this womb of certainties, Will told Frannie of the feelings that had risen in him of late, and how they had begun the day the two of them met. He didn’t mention Jacob and Rosa at first – they were the secret he was most loath to share, and he was by no means certain he would do so – but he did talk about venturing into the Courthouse.
‘Oh, I asked my Mum about that,’ Frannie said. ‘And she told me the story.’
‘What is it?’ Will said.
‘There was this man called Bartholomeus,’ she said. ‘He lived in the valley, when there were still lead mines everywhere.’
‘I didn’t know there were mines.’
‘Well there were. And he made a lot of money from them. But he wasn’t quite right in the head, that’s what Mum said, because he had this idea that people didn’t treat animals properly, and the only way to stop people being cruel was to have a court, which would only be for animals.’
‘Who was the judge?’
‘He was. And the jury probably.’ She shrugged. ‘I don’t know the whole story, just those bits—’
‘So he built the Courthouse.’
‘He built it, but he didn’t finish it.’
‘Did he run out of money?’
‘My Mum says he was probably put in a loony bin, because of what he was doing. I mean, nobody wanted him bringing animals into his Courthouse and making laws about how people had to treat them better.’
‘That was what he was doing?’ Will said, with a little smile.
‘Something like that. I don’t know if anybody’s really sure. He’s been dead for a hundred and fifty years.’
‘It’s a sad story,’ said Will, thinking of the strange magnificence of Bartholomeus’ folly.
‘He was better put away. Safer for everybody.’
‘I mean if he was going to try and accuse people of doing things to animals. We all do things to animals. It’s natural.’
She sounded like her mother when she spoke like this. Genial enough, but unmovable. This was her stated opinion and nothing would sway her from it. Listening to her, his enthusiasm for sharing what he’d seen began to wane. Perhaps after all she was not the person to understand his feelings. Perhaps she’d think he was like Mr Bartholomeus, and better put away.
But now, her story of the Courthouse finished, she said: ‘What were you telling me about?’
‘I wasn’t,’ Will replied.
‘No, you were in the middle of saying something—’
‘Well it probably wasn’t important,’ Will said, ‘or I’d remember what it was.’ He got up from his seat. ‘I’d better be off,’ he said.
Frannie looked more than a little puzzled, but he pretended not to notice the expression on her face.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ he said.
‘Sometimes you’re really odd,’ she said to him. ‘Did you know that?’
‘You know you are,’ she said, with a faint tone of accusation. ‘And I think you like it.’
Will couldn’t keep a smile from his lips. ‘Maybe I do,’ he said.
At which juncture, the door was flung open and Sherwood marched in. He had feathers woven in to his hair.
‘You know what I am?’
‘A chicken,’ Will said.
‘No, I’m not a chicken,’ Sherwood said, deeply offended.
That’s what you look like.’
‘Geronimo the chicken,’ Will laughed.
‘I hate you,’ said Sherwood, ‘and so does everybody at school.’
‘Sherwood, be quiet,’ Frannie said.
‘They do,’ Sherwood went on. They all think you’re daft and they talk behind your back and they call you William Dafty.’ Now it was Sherwood who laughed. ‘Dafty William! William Dafty!’ Frannie kept trying to hush him, but it was a lost cause. He was going to crow till he was done.
‘I don’t caret’ Will yelled above the clamour. ‘You’re a cretin, and I don’t care!’
So saying, he picked up his coat and pushing past Sherwood – who had begun a little dance in rhythm with his chant – headed for the door. Frannie was still trying to shush her brother, but in vain. He was in a self–perpetuating frenzy, yelling and jumping.
In truth, Will was glad of the interruption. It gave him the perfect excuse to make his exit, which he did in double quick time, before Frannie had a chance to silence her brother. He needn’t have worried. When he was out of the house, past the junkyard and at the end of Samson Road he could still hear Sherwood’s rantings emerging from the house.
‘We moved out here because you wanted to move, Eleanor. Please remember that. We came here because of you.’
‘I know, Hugo.’
‘So what are you saying? That we should move again?’ Will couldn’t hear his mother’s despair. Her quiet words were buried in sobs. But he heard his father’s response. ‘Lord, Eleanor, you’ve got to stop crying. We can’t have an intelligent conversation if you just start crying whenever we talk about Manchester. If you don’t want to go back there, that’s fine by me, but I need some answers from you. We can’t go on like this, with you taking so many pills you can’t keep count. It’s not a life, Eleanor.’ Did she say, I know? Will thought she did, though it was hard to hear her through the door. ‘I want what’s best for you. What’s best for us all.’
Now Will did hear her. ‘I can’t stay here,’ she said.
‘Well, once and for all: do you want to go back to Manchester?’
Her reply was simply repetition. ‘I know I can’t stay here.’
‘Fine,’ Hugo replied. ‘We’ll move back. Never mind that we sold the house. Never mind that we’ve spent thousands of pounds moving. We’ll just go back.’ His voice was rising in volume; so was the sound of Eleanor’s sobs. Will had heard enough. He retreated from the door, and scurried upstairs, disappearing from sight just as the living-room door opened and his father stormed out.
The conversation threw Will into a state of panic. They couldn’t leave, not now. Not when for the first time in his life he felt things coming clear. If he went back to Manchester it would be like a prison sentence. He’d wither away and die.
What was the alternative? There was only one. He’d run away, as he’d boasted he would to Frannie, the first day they’d met. He’d plan it carefully, so that nothing was left to chance: be sure he had money and clothes; and of course a destination. Of these three the third was the most problematical. Money he could steal (he knew where his mother kept her spare cash) and clothes he could pack, but where was he to go?
He consulted the map of the world on his bedroom wall, matching to those pastel-coloured shapes impressions he’d gleaned from television or magazines. Scandinavia? Too cold and dark. Italy? Maybe. But he spoke no Italian and he wasn’t a quick learner. French he knew a little, and he had French blood in him, but France wasn’t far enough. If he was going to go travelling, then he wanted it to be more than a ferry trip away. America, perhaps? Ah, now there was a thought. He ran his finger over the country from state to state, luxuriating in the names. Mississippi; Wyoming; New Mexico; California. His mood lifted at the prospect. All he needed was some advice about how to get out of the country, and he knew exactly where to get that: from Jacob Steep.
He went out looking for Steep and Rosa McGee the very next day. It was by now the middle of November, and the hours of daylight were short, but he made the most of them, skipping school for three consecutive days to climb the fells and look for some sign of the pair’s presence. They were chilly journeys: though there was not yet snow on the hills the frost was so thick it dusted the slopes like a flurry, and the sun never emerged for long enough to melt it.
The sheep had already descended to the lower pastures to graze, but he was not entirely alone on the heights. Hares and foxes, even the occasional deer, had left their tracks in the frozen grass. But this was the only sign of life he encountered. Of Jacob and Rosa he saw not so much as a boot-print.
Then, on the evening of the third day, Frannie came to the house.
‘You don’t look as if you’ve got ‘flu,’ she said to Will. (He’d forged a note to that effect, explaining his absence.)
‘Is that why you came?’ he said. To check up on me?’
‘Don’t be daft,’ she said. ‘I came ‘cause I’ve got something to tell you. Something strange.’
‘Remember we talked about the Courthouse?’
‘Well, I went to look at it. And you know what?’
‘There’s somebody living there.’
‘In the Courthouse?’
She nodded. By the look on her face it was apparent whatever she’d seen had unnerved her.
‘Did you go in?’ he asked her.
She shook her head. ‘I just saw this woman at the door.’
‘What did she look like?’ Will asked, scarcely daring to hope.
‘She was dressed in black—’
It’s her, he thought. It’s Mrs McGee. And wherever Rosa was, could Jacob be far away?
Frannie had caught the look of excitement on his face. ‘What is it?’ she said.
‘It’s who,’ he said, ‘not what.’
‘Who then? Is it somebody you know?’
‘A little,’ he replied. ‘Her name’s Rosa.’
‘I’ve never seen her before,’ Frannie said. ‘And I’ve lived here all my life.’
‘They keep themselves to themselves,’ Will replied.
‘There’s somebody else?’
He was so covetous of the knowledge, he almost didn’t tell her. But then she’d brought him this wonderful news, hadn’t she? He owed her something by way of recompense. There’s two of them,’ Will said. The woman’s name is Rosa McGee. The man’s called Jacob Steep.’
‘I’ve never heard of either of them. Are they gypsies, or homeless people?’
‘If they’re homeless it’s because they want to be,’ Will said.
‘But it must be so cold in that place. You said it was bare inside.’
‘So they’re just hiding in an empty place like that?’ She shook her head. ‘Weird,’ she said. ‘How do you know them, anyhow?’
‘I met them while I was out walking,’ he replied, which was close enough to the truth. Thanks for telling me. I’d better…I’ve got a whole lot of things to do.’
‘You’re going to see them, aren’t you?’ Frannie said. ‘I want to come with you.’
‘Because they’re not your friends.’
‘They’re not yours either,’ Frannie said. ‘They’re just people you met once. That’s what you said.’
‘I don’t want you there,’ Will said.
Frannie’s mouth got tight. ‘You know, you don’t have to be so horrible about it,’ she said to Will. He said nothing. She stared hard at him, as if willing him to change his mind. Still he said nothing; did nothing. After a few moments she gave up, and without another word marched to the front door.
‘Are you leaving already?’ Adele said.
Frannie had the door open. Her bicycle was propped up against the gate. Without even answering Adele, she got on her bike and was away.
‘Was she upset about something?’ Adele wanted to know.
‘Nothing important,’ Will replied.
It was almost dark, and cold. He knew from bitter experience to go out prepared for the worst, but it was hard to think coherently about boots and gloves and a sweater when the sound of his heart was so loud in his head, and all he could think was: I’ve found them, I’ve found them.
His father was not yet back from Manchester, and his mother was in Halifax today, seeing her doctor, so the only person he had to alert to his departure was Adele. She was in the midst of cooking, and didn’t bother to ask him where he was going. Only as he slammed the door did she yell that he should be back by seven. He didn’t bother to reply. Just set off down the darkening road towards the Courthouse, certain Jacob already knew he was coming.
The soul who had taken the name of Jacob Steep stood on the threshold of the Courthouse, and clung to the frame of the door. Dusk was always a time of weakness for both himself and Mrs McGee. This dusk was no exception. His innards convulsed, his limbs trembled, his temples throbbed. The very sight of the dimming sky, though it was tonight most picturesque, made an infant of him.
It was the same story at dawn. They were both at these hours overtaken with such fatigue it was all they could do to stand upright. Indeed tonight it had proved impossible for Rosa. She had retreated into the Courthouse and was lying down, moaning, calling for him once in a while. He did not go to her. He stayed at the door, and waited for a sign.
That was the paradox of this hour: that when he was most unmanned was when he was most likely to hear a call to duty, his assassin’s heart roused, his assassin’s blood surging. And tonight, he was eager for news. They had languished here long enough. It was time to move on. But first he needed a destination, a dispatch, and that meant facing the sickening spectacle of twilight.
He did not know why this hour was so distressing to their systems, but it was one more proof – if he needed it – that they were not of ordinary stock. In the depths of the night, when the human world was asleep, and dreaming its narrow dreams, he was bright and blithe as a child, his body tireless. He could do his worst at that hour, quicker than the quickest executioner with his knife, or better still with his hands, taking lives away. And by day, in countries where the noon heat was crucifying, he was just as tireless. Death’s perfect agent, sudden and swift. Day, in truth, suited him better than night, because by day he had the proper light by which to make his drawings, and both as a maker of pictures and a maker of corpses he liked to pay close attention to the details. The sweep of a feather, the slope of a snout; the timbre of a sob, the tang of a puke. It was all worthy of his study.
But whether light or dark had hold of the world, he had the energy of a man a tenth his age. It was only in the grey time that the weakness consumed him, and he found himself clinging to something solid to keep himself standing. He hated the sensation, but he refused to moan. Such complaints were for women and children, not for soldiers. That was not to say he hadn’t heard soldiers moan in his time; he had. He’d lived long enough to have known many wars, large and small and though he had never sought out a battlefield, his work had by chance brought him to a place of combat more than once. He had seen how men responded to their agonies, when they were beset. How they wept, how they called for mercy and their mothers.
Jacob had no interest in mercy; neither in its dispensing nor its receiving. He was set against the sentimental world as any pure force must be, entertaining neither kindness nor cruelty in his dealings. He scorned the comfort of prayer, and the distractions of fancy; he mocked grief, he mocked hope. He mocked despair also. The only quality he revered was patience, bought with the knowledge that all things pass. The sun would drop out of sight soon enough, and the weakness in his limbs melt into strength. All he had to do was wait.
From inside, the sound of motion. And then, Rosa’s sighing voice: ‘I’ve been remembering,’ she said.
‘You have not,’ he told her. Sometimes the pains of this hour made her delirious.
‘I have. I swear,’ she said. ‘An island comes to mind. Do you remember an island? With wide, white shores? No trees. I’ve looked for trees and there are none. Oh…’ Her words became groans again, and the groans turned into sobs. ‘Oh, I would die now, gladly.’
‘No, you wouldn’t.’
‘Come and comfort me.’
‘I have no wish—’
‘You must, Jacob. Oh…oh, Lord in heaven…why do we suffer so?’
Much as he wanted to stay out of her range, her sobs were too poignant to be ignored. He turned his back on the dying day, and strode down the corridor to the Courtroom itself. Mrs McGee was lying on the ground in the midst of her veils. She had lit a host of candles around her, as though their light might ameliorate the cruelty of the hour.
‘Lie with me,’ she said, looking up at him.
‘It will do us no good.’
‘We may get a child.’
‘And that will do us no good, either,’ he replied, ‘as well you know.’
Then lie with me for the comfort of it,’ she said, her gaze fond. ‘It is such agony to be separated from you, Jacob.’
‘I’m here,’ he said, curbing his former harshness.
‘Not close enough,’ she said with a tiny smile.
He walked towards her. Stood at her feet.
‘Still…not close enough,’ she said to him. ‘I feel so weak, Jacob.’
‘It will pass. You know it will.’
‘At times like this I know nothing,’ she said, ‘except how much I need you.’ She reached down and plucked at her skirt, watching his face all the while. ‘With me,’ she murmured. ‘In me.’
He made no reply. ‘Are you too weak, Jacob?’ she said, still pulling up her skirt. ‘Is the mystery too much for you?’
‘It’s no mystery,’ he replied. ‘Not after all these years.’
Now she smiled, and tugged the skirt to the middle of her thighs. She had fine legs; solid, meaty legs, her skin pearly in the candlelight. Sighing, she slipped her hand beneath her dress, and fingered herself, her hips rising to meet her touch.
‘It’s deep, love,’ she said. ‘And dark. And all wet for you.’ She pulled her skirt up to her waist. ‘Look,’ she said. She had spread herself, to give him a look at her. ‘Don’t tell me that isn’t a pretty thing. A perfect little cunny, that.’ Her gaze went from his face to his groin. ‘And you like the look of it, and don’t you pretend you don’t.’
She was right, of course. As soon as she’d started to raise her skirt his dunderheaded member had started to swell, demanding its due. As if his limbs weren’t weak enough, without having to lose blood to its ambition.
‘I’m tight, Mr Steep.’
‘I’m sure you are.’
‘Like a virgin on her wedding night I am. Look, I can barely fit my littlest finger in there. You’ll have to do me some violence, I suspect.’
She knew what effect this kind of talk had upon him. A little shudder of anticipation passed through him, and he proceeded to take off his coat.
‘Unbutton yourself,’ Mrs McGee said, her voice bruised. ‘Let me see what you have there.’
He cast his coat away and fumbled with the buttons of his mud-spattered trousers. She watched him, smiling, as he brought his member out.
‘Oh now look at that,’ she said, not unappreciatively. ‘I think it wants a dip in my cunny.’
‘It wants more than a dip.’
‘Does it indeed?’
He knelt between her legs, and, reaching out, removed her hand from her sex, to give himself better sight of it. Then he stared.
‘What are you thinking?’ she said.
He fingered her for a moment, then ran his moistened digit down to her arse. ‘I’m thinking…’ he said, ‘…that I’d rather have this today.’
‘Oh would you?’
He pressed his finger in a little way. She squirmed. ‘Let me put it here,’ he said. ‘Just the head.’
There are no children to be had that way,’ she said.
‘I don’t care,’ he replied. ‘It’s what I want.’
‘Well, I don’t,’ she replied.
He smiled at her. ‘Rosa—’ he said softly ‘—you could not deny me.’
He slipped his hands beneath her knees and hoisted them up. ‘We should give up all hope of children,’ he said, staring at the dark bud between her buttocks. They have always come to nothing.’ She made no reply. ‘Are you listening, love?’ He glanced up at her face. She wore a sorrowful expression.
‘No more children?’ she said.
He spat in his hand, and slickened his prick. Spat again, more copiously, and slickened her arse.
‘No more children,’ he said, drawing her closer to him. ‘It’s a waste of your affections, smothering love on a thing that hasn’t even got the wit to love you back.’
This was the truth of the matter: that though they had together made children numbering in the many dozens, he had for her sake taken them from her in the moment of their delivery and put them out of their misery, if the cretins ever knew misery. He would dutifully come back when he’d disassembled them and disposed of the pieces, always with the same grim news. That though they were fine to look at, their skulls contained only bloody fluid. Not even a rough sketch of a brain; nothing.
He pushed his prick into her. ‘It’s better this way,’ he said.
She let out a little sob. He couldn’t tell whether it was out of sorrow or pleasure, and at that moment didn’t really care. He pressed against the warmth of her muscle, his prick utterly enveloped. Oh, it was good.
‘No…children…then…’ Mrs McGee gasped.
She reached up and took hold of his shirt, pulling him down towards her.
‘Kiss,’ she said.
‘Be careful what you ask for—’
‘Kiss,’ she said again, raising her face towards his.
He didn’t deny her. He pressed his lips against hers, and let her tongue, which was nimble, dart between his aching teeth. His mouth was always drier than hers. His parched gums and throat drank deep, and murmuring his gratitude against her lips, he pressed hard into her, their hold on one another suddenly frantic. Her hands went to his throat, then to his face, then to his backside, pushing him deeper, while his fingers pulled at her buttons to gain access to her breasts.
‘Who are you?’ she said to him.
‘Anyone,’ he gasped.
‘Pieter, Martin, Laurent, Paolo—’
‘Laurent. I liked Laurent.’
‘I forget all the names,’ Jacob confessed.
Rosa brought her hands back up to his face, and caught tight hold of it. ‘Remember for me,’ she said to him.
There was a carpenter called Bernard—’
‘Oh yes. He was very rough with me.’
‘—the draper. Very tender.’ She laughed. ‘Didn’t one of them wrap me up in silk?’
‘And poured cream in my lap. You could be him. Whoever he was.’
‘We have no cream.’
‘And no silk. Think of something else.’
‘I could be Jacob,’ he said.
‘You could. I suppose,’ she said, ‘but it’s not as much fun. Think of someone else.’
There was Josiah. And Michael. And Stewart. And Roberto—’ She moved her body to the rhythm of his litany. So many men, whose names and professions he’d borrowed to excite her, wrapping himself in their reputations for an hour or a day; seldom longer. ‘I used to like this game,’ he said.
‘But not any more?’
‘If we knew what we were…’
‘…maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘Not as long as we’re together. As long as you’re inside me.’
They were knitted now, so tightly wound around each other, limbs and kisses intertwined, they would never be separated.
She started to sob again, the breath pushed out of her with every thrust. Names were still coming to her lips, but they were fragments only, pieces of pieces—
She was lost to sensation; lost to his prick, to his lips. For his part, he had given up words entirely. Just his breath, expelled into her mouth as though he were resurrecting her. His eyes were open, but he no longer saw her face, nor the candles that shook around them. There were instead vague forms, particles of light and dark, pulsing before him; dark above, light below.
The sight brought a moan from him. ‘What is it?’ Rosa said.
‘I…don’t…know,’ he replied. It pained him to have this sight before him and not understand what he was seeing, like a fragment of music to which he could put no name, though the notes went round and round his head. But for all the anguish it caused him, he would not have had it taken away. There was something in the sight that quickened a secret place; a place he never spoke of, not even to Rosa. It was too tender, that place; too frail.
He looked down at her, and the phantom evaporated.
‘Are we done so soon?’
Her hand went between her legs, and took hold of his prick. Half its length was still inside her, but it was rapidly softening. He tried to push it back in, but it simply concertinaed against the tightness of her arse, and after a couple of dispiriting attempts he withdrew. She stared at him rancorously.
‘Is that it?’ she said.
He put his prick away, and got to his feet. ‘For now,’ he said.
‘Oh am I to be fucked in instalments then?’ she said, pulling her skirts down over her pudenda and sitting up. ‘I give you my arse against my better judgment and you don’t even have the decency to finish.’
‘I was distracted,’ he said, picking up his coat and putting it on.
‘I don’t know exactly,’ Jacob snapped. ‘Lord, woman, it was just a fuck. There’ll be others.’
‘I don’t think so,’ she replied sniffily.
I think it’s high time we let one another alone. If we’re not out to make children, then what’s the use of it? Huh?’
He stared hard at her. ‘You mean this?’
‘Yes, I do. Most certainly. I mean it.’
‘You realize what you’re saying?’
‘Indeed I do.’
‘You’ll regret it.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘You’ll be weeping for want of a fuck.’
‘You think I’m that desperate for your ministrations?’ she said. ‘Lord, how you deceive yourself. I play along with you, Jacob. I pretend to be aroused, but I have no desire for you.’
That’s not so,’ he said.
She heard the hurt in his voice, and was astonished. It was rare, and like all rarities, valuable. Pretending not to notice, she went to her battered leather satchel and pulled out her mirror, and squatting beside the candles for better light, studied her reflection. ‘It is so,’ she said, after a little time. ‘Whatever was between us is dying, Jacob. If I loved you once, I forgot how. And frankly I don’t much care to be reminded.’
‘Very well,’ he said. She caught his image in the glass; saw the look of distress that crossed his face. Rarer than rare, that look.
‘As you say,’ she murmured.
‘I…I would like to be alone for a while…’
‘If you don’t mind.’
He flicked his fingers together, and a feather of flame leapt from them, extinguishing itself above his head. She did not care to watch him exercise this peculiar gift of his. She had her own skills, picked up, as Steep’s had been picked up, like jokes or rashes, somewhere along the way. Let him have the room to brood, she thought.
‘Will you be hungry later?’ she asked him, sounding (much to her perverse delight) like a parody of a wife.
‘I doubt it.’
‘I have a meat-pie, if you want something.’
‘Yes?’ he said.
‘We can still be civil, can’t we?’ she said.
He let another flame go from his fingertips. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Maybe.’
With that, she left him to his musings.
Halfway along the track that led from the crossroads to the Courthouse, Will heard the squeaking of ill-oiled wheels behind him. He glanced over his shoulder to see not one but two bicycle headlamps a little distance behind him. Breathing an inventive little curse, he stood and waited until Frannie and Sherwood caught up with him.
‘Go home,’ were his first words to them.
‘No,’ said Frannie breathlessly. ‘We decided to come with you.’
‘I don’t want you to come,’ Will said.
‘It’s a free country,’ Sherwood replied. ‘We can go wherever we want. Can’t we, Frannie?’
‘Shut up,’ Frannie said. Then to Will: ‘I only wanted to make sure you were okay.’
‘So why’d you bring him?’ Will said.
‘Because…he asked me…’ Frannie said. ‘He won’t be a bother.’
Will shook his head. ‘I don’t want you coming inside,’ he said.
‘It’s a free—’ Sherwood began again, but Frannie shushed him.
‘All right, we won’t,’ she said. ‘We’ll just wait.’
Knowing this was the best deal he was going to be able to make. Will headed for the Courthouse, with Frannie and Sherwood trailing behind. He made no further recognition of their presence, until he got to the hedgerow adjacent to the Courthouse. Only then did he turn and tell them in a whisper that if they made a sound they’d spoil everything and he would never ever speak to them again. With the warning given, he dug through the hawthorn and started up the gently sloping meadow towards the building. It loomed larger by night than it had by day, like a vast mausoleum, but he could see a light flickering within; there was nothing but exhilaration in his heart as he made his way down the passage towards it.
Jacob was sitting in the judge’s chair, with a small fire burning on the table in front of him. He looked up when he heard the door creak, and by the flames’ light Will had sight of the face he had conjured so many ways. In every detail, he had fallen short of its power. He had not made a brow wide or clear enough, nor eyes deep enough, nor imagined that Steep’s hair, which he had seen in silhouette falling in curly abundance, would be cropped back to a shadow on the top of his skull. He had not imagined the gloss of his beard and moustache, or the delicacy of his lips, which he licked, and licked again, before saying:
‘Welcome, Will. You come at a strange time.’
‘Does that mean you want me to go?’
‘No. Far from it.’ He added a few pieces of tinder to the fire before him. It crackled and spat. ‘It is, I know, the custom to paint a smile over sorrow; to pretend there is joy in you when there is not. But I hate wiles and pretences. The truth is I’m melancholy tonight.’
‘What’s…melancholy?’ Will said.
There’s honest,’ Jacob replied appreciatively. ‘Melancholy is sad, but more than sad. It’s what we feel when we think about the world and how little we understand; when we think of what we must come to.’
‘You mean dying and stuff?’
‘Dying will do,’ Jacob said. Though that’s not what concerns me tonight.’ He beckoned to Will. ‘Come closer,’ he said, ‘it’s warmer by the fire.’
The few flames on the table offered, Will thought, little prospect of heat, but he gladly approached. ‘So why are you sad?’ Will said.
Jacob sat back in the ancient chair, and contemplated the fire. ‘It’s business between a man and a woman,’ he replied. ‘You need not concern yourself with it for a little time yet and you should be grateful. Hold it off as long as you can.’ As he spoke he reached into his pocket and pulled out more fuel for his tiny bonfire. This time, Will was close enough to see that this tinder was moving. Fascinated, and faintly sickened, Will approached the table, and saw that Steep’s captive was a moth, the wings of which he had caught between thumb and forefinger. Its legs and antennae flailed as it was dropped into the flames, and for an instant it seemed the draught of heat would waft it to safety, but before it could gain sufficient height its wings ignited and down it went. ‘Living and dying we feed the fire,’ Steep said softly. ‘That is the melancholy truth of things.’
‘Except that you just did the feeding,’ Will said, surprised by his own eloquence.
‘So we must,’ Jacob replied. ‘Or there’d be darkness in here. And how would we see each other then? I daresay you’d be more comfortable with fuel that didn’t squirm as you fed it to the flame.’
‘Yes…’ Will said, ‘…I would.’
‘Do you eat sausages. Will?’
‘You like them, I’m sure. A nicely browned pork sausage? Or a good steak and kidney pie?’
‘Yes. I like steak and kidney pie.’
‘But do you think of the beast, shitting itself in terror as it is shunted to its execution? Hanging by one leg, still kicking, while the blood spurts from its neck? Do you?’
Will had heard his father debate often enough to know that there was a trap here. ‘It’s not the same,’ he protested.
‘Oh, but it is.’
‘No, it’s not. I need food to stay alive.’
‘So eat turnips.’
‘But I like sausages.’
‘You like light too, Will.’
There are candles,’ Will said, ‘right there.’
‘And the living earth gave up wax and wick in their making,’ Steep said. ‘Everything is consumed, Will, sooner or later. Living and dying we feed the fire.’ He smiled, just a little. ‘Sit,’ he said softly. ‘Go on. We’re equals here. Both a little melancholy.’
Will sat. ‘I’m not melancholy,’ he said, liking the gift of the word. ‘I’m happy.’
‘Are you really? Well that’s good to hear. And why are you so happy?’
Will was embarrassed to admit the truth, but Jacob had been honest, he thought; so should he. ‘Because I found you here,’ he said.
That pleases you?’
‘But in an hour you’ll be bored with me—’
‘No, I won’t.’
‘—and the sadness will still be there, waiting for you.’ As he spoke, the fire began to dwindle. ‘Do you want to feed the fire, Will?’ Steep said.
His words carried an uncanny power. It was as though this dwindling meant more than the extinguishing of a few flames. This fire was suddenly the only light in a cold, sunless world, and if somebody didn’t feed it soon the consequences would be grim.
‘Well, Will?’ Jacob said, digging in his pocket and taking out another moth. ‘Here,’ he said, proffering it.
Will hesitated. He could hear the soft flapping of the moth’s panic. He looked past the creature to its captor. Jacob’s face was utterly without expression.
‘Well?’ Jacob said.
The fire had almost gone out. Another few seconds and it would be too late. The room would be given over to darkness, and the face in front of Will, its symmetry and its scrutiny, would be gone.
That thought was suddenly too much to bear. Will looked back at the moth: at its wheeling legs and its flapping antennae. Then, in a kind of wonderful terror, he took it from Jacob’s fingers.
‘I’m cold,’ Sherwood moaned for the tenth time.
‘So go home,’ Frannie said.
‘On my own? In the dark? Don’t make me do that.’
‘Maybe I should go in and look for Will,’ Frannie said. ‘Perhaps he’s slipped, or…’
‘Why don’t we just leave him?’
‘Because he’s our friend.’
‘He’s not my friend.’
Then you can wait out here,’ Frannie said, looking for the breaking-place in the hedge. A moment later she felt Sherwood’s hand slip into hers.
‘I don’t want to stay out here,’ he said softly.
In truth, she wasn’t unhappy that he wanted to come with her. She was a little afraid, and therefore glad of his company. Together they pushed through the mesh of the hedge, and hand in hand climbed the slope towards the Courthouse. Once only did she feel a little shudder of apprehension pass through her brother, and glancing towards him in the murk, seeing his fearful eyes looking to her for reassurance, she realized how much she loved him.
The moth was large, and though Will held its wings tight-closed, its fat, grub-like body wriggled wildly, its legs pedalling the air. It repulsed him, which made what he was about to do easier.
‘You’re not squeamish, are you?’ Jacob said.
‘No…’ Will replied, his voice far from him, like somebody else’s voice.
‘You’ve killed insects before.’
Of course he had. He’d fried ants under a magnifying glass, he’d cracked beetles and popped spiders, he’d salted slugs and sprayed flies. This was just a moth and a flame. They belonged together.
And with that thought, he did the deed. There was an instant of regret as the flame withered the moth’s legs, then he dropped the insect into the heat, and regret became fascination as he watched the creature consumed.
‘What did I tell you?’ Jacob said.
‘Living and dying…’ Will murmured, ‘…we feed the fire…’
At the Courtroom door, Frannie could not quite make out what was going on. She could see Will bending over the table, studying something bright, and by the same brightness glimpsed the face of the man sitting opposite him. But that was all.
She let go of Sherwood’s hand, and put her finger to her lips to keep him quiet. He nodded, his expression surprisingly less fearful than it had been in the darkness outside. Then she turned her gaze back in Will’s direction. As she did so she heard the man on the opposite side of the table say:
‘Do you want another?’
Will didn’t even look up at Steep. He was still watching the fire devour the body of the moth.
‘Is it always like this?’ he murmured.
‘First the cold and the darkness, then the fire pushing it all away, then more darkness and cold—’
‘Why do you ask?’ Jacob replied.
‘Because I want to understand,’ Will said.
And you’re the only one with the answers, he might have added. That was the truth, after all. He was certain his father didn’t have answers to questions like that, nor did his mother, nor any school-teacher, nor anybody he’d heard pontificate on television. This was secret knowledge, and he felt privileged to be in the company of somebody who possessed it, even if they chose not to share it with him.
‘Do you want another or not?’ Jacob said.
Will nodded, and took the moth from Steep’s fingers. ‘One day won’t we just run out of things to burn?’ he wondered.
‘Oh my Lord,’ Mrs McGee said, appearing from the shadows. ‘Listen to him.’
Will didn’t look at her. He was too busy studying the cremation of the second moth.
‘Yes, we will,’ Jacob said softly. ‘And when everything’s gone a darkness will come upon the world such as we can none of us imagine. It won’t be the darkness of death, because death is not utter.’
‘A game with bones,’ the woman said.
‘Exactly,’ said Jacob. ‘Death is a game with bones.’
‘We know about death, Mr Steep and me.’
The children I have carried and lost.’ She moved behind Will as she spoke, reaching out to finger his hair lightly. ‘I look at you, Will, and I swear I would give every tooth in my head to call you mine. So wise—’
‘It’s getting dark,’ Steep said.
‘Give me another moth then,’ Will demanded.
‘So eager,’ Mrs McGee remarked.
‘Quickly,’ Will said, ‘before the flame goes out!’
Jacob reached into his pocket, and pulled out another moth. Will snatched it from his fingers, but in his haste he missed catching hold of its wings, and it rose above the table.
‘Damn!’ said Will, and, pushing back his chair, along with Mrs McGee, he stood up and reached for the tinder. Twice he snatched at the air, twice he came away empty-handed. Enraged now, he wheeled around, still grabbing for the moth.
Behind him he heard Jacob say: ‘Let it go. I’ll give you another.’
‘No!’ Will said, jumping to snatch the creature out of the air. ‘I want this one.’
His efforts were rewarded. On his third jump his hand closed around the moth.
‘Got it!’ he cried, and was about to deliver it to the flame when he heard Frannie say:
‘What are you doing, Will?’
He looked up at her. She was standing at the Courtroom door, her shape murky and remote.
‘Go away,’ he said.
‘Who’s this?’ Jacob said.
‘Just go,’ Will said, suddenly feeling a little jittery. He didn’t want these two parts of his life talking to him at the same time; it made him dizzy. ‘Please,’ he said, hoping she’d respond to civility. ‘I don’t want you here.’
The light was guttering out behind him. If he wasn’t quick about it, the fire would die completely. He had to feed it again before it went out. But he didn’t want Frannie watching. Jacob would never share what he knew – that knowledge which only the wisest of the wise understood – while she was in the room.
‘Go on!’ he shouted. His yelling didn’t move her, but it intimidated the hell out of Sherwood. He fled from Frannie’s side, off down one of the passageways that led from the Courtroom.
Frannie was furious. ‘Sherwood was right!’ she said to him. ‘You’re not our friend. We followed you in case something had happened to you—’
‘Rosa…’ Will heard Jacob whisper behind him, ‘…the other boy…’ and glanced out the corner of his eye to see Mrs McGee retreat into the shadows, in pursuit of Sherwood.
Will’s head was spinning now. Frannie shouting, Sherwood sobbing, Jacob whispering, and worst of all, the flame dying and the light going with it—
That had to be his priority, he decided, and turning his back on Frannie, reached out to put the moth to the flame. But Jacob was there before him. He had put his entire hand – which he had made into a cage of fingers – into the dying fire. Inside the cage was not one but several moths, which caught alight instantly, their panicked wings fanning one another’s flames. An uncanny brightness spilled through Jacob’s fingers, and it occurred to Will that he was not seeing anything natural here: that this was some kind of magic. The light washed up over Jacob’s face, and flattered it into something beyond beauty. He didn’t look like a film star, or a man on a magazine cover: he wasn’t all gloss and teeth and dimples. He was burning brighter than the moths, as though he could be a fire unto himself if he wanted to be. For an instant (this was all it took) Will saw himself at Jacob’s side, walking in a city street, and Jacob was shining out of every pore, and people were weeping with gratitude that he came to light their darkness. Then it was all too much for him. His legs gave out beneath him, and down he went, as though he’d been struck a blow.
Sherwood had intended to retreat to the vestibule, away from the Courtroom and the smell of burning there, which turned his stomach. But in the guttering darkness he took the wrong route, and instead of being delivered to the front of the building, he found himself lost in a labyrinth. He tried to double back, but he was too frightened to think clearly. All he could do was stumble on, tears stinging his eyes, as it got darker and darker.
Then, a glimmer of light. It wasn’t starlight – it was too warm – but he made for it anyway, and found himself delivered into a small chamber in which somebody had been working. There was a chair and a small desk, and on the desk a hurricane lamp, which shed its light on a selection of items. Wiping away his tears, Sherwood went to look. There were bottles of ink, maybe a dozen of them, and some pens and brushes, and lying in the midst of this equipment a book, about the size of one of his school-books but much thicker. The binding was stained and the spine cracked, as though it had been carried around for years. Sherwood reached to flip it open, but before he could do so, a soft voice said:
‘What’s your name?’
He looked up and there, emerging from the doorway on the other side of the chamber, was the woman from the Courtroom. Sherwood felt a little shudder of pleasure pass through him at the sight of her. Her blouse was unbuttoned, and the skin exposed fairly shone.
‘My name’s Rosa,’ she said.
‘You’re a big boy. How old are you?’
‘You want to come here, so I can see you better?’
Sherwood wasn’t sure. There was definitely something exciting about the way she was looking at him, smiling at him, and maybe if he got a little closer he’d see that unbuttoned place better, which was certainly a temptation. He knew all the dirty words from school, of course, and he’d glimpsed a few well-thumbed pictures that had been passed around. But his schoolmates kept him out of the really smutty conversations, because he was a little daft. What would they say, he thought, if he could tell them he’d set eyes on a pair of naked bosoms, in the flesh?
‘My, but you stare,’ Rosa said. Sherwood flushed. ‘Oh it’s quite all right,’ she said. ‘Boys should see as much as they want to see. As long as they know how to appreciate it.’ So saying, she reached up and unbuttoned herself a little further. Sherwood tried to swallow, but he couldn’t. He could see the swell of her breasts very easily now. If he stepped a little closer he’d see her nipples, and by the look of welcome on her face she would not censure him for doing so.
He stepped towards her. ‘I wonder what you could get up to,’ she said, ‘if I let you loose?’ He didn’t entirely understand what she was talking about, but he had a pretty good idea. ‘Would you lick my titties for me?’ she said.
His head was throbbing now, and there was a pressure in his pants so intense he was afraid he was going to wet himself. And as if her words weren’t exciting enough, she was opening her blouse a little further, and there were her nipples, large and pink, and she was rubbing them a little, smiling at him all the time.
‘Let’s see that tongue of yours,’ she said.
He stuck out his tongue.
‘You’re going to have to work hard,’ she said. ‘It’s a little tongue and I’ve got big titties. Haven’t I?’
He nodded. He was three steps from her, and he could smell her body. It was a strong smell, like nothing he’d quite breathed before, but she could have smelt like manure and it couldn’t have kept him from her now. He reached out and laid his fingers upon her breasts. She sighed. Then he put his face to her flesh and began to lick.
‘He’s fine,’ said the man in the dusty black coat. ‘He’s just overcome with excitement. Why don’t you just leave him be and run off home?’
‘I won’t go without Will,’ Frannie said, sounding a good deal more confident than she felt.
‘He doesn’t need your help,’ the man replied, his tone scoured of threat. ‘He’s perfectly happy here.’ He looked down at Will. ‘He’s simply a little overwhelmed.’
Keeping her eye on the man, Frannie went down on her haunches beside Will and, reaching for him, shook him violently. He made a moan, and she chanced a quick look down at him. ‘Get up,’ she said. He looked very befuddled. ‘Up,’ she said.
The man in black had meanwhile settled back in his seat, and was shaking the contents of his hand out onto the table. Bright, burning fragments fluttered down. Will was already turning back in the man’s direction, though he was not yet standing upright.
‘Come back here,’ the man said to Will.
‘Don’t…’ Frannie said. The flames on the table were dying down, the room giving way to darkness. She was afraid as she was only afraid in dreams. ‘Sherwood!’ she yelled.
‘Don’t listen,’ the woman said, pressing Sherwood to her breast.
He couldn’t ignore his sister’s summons; not when it had such a measure of panic in it. He pulled away from Rosa’s hot skin, the sweat running down his face.
That’s Frannie,’ he said, pulling himself free of the woman. She was wearing, he saw, a strange expression – her panting mouth open, her eyes quivering. It unnerved him.
‘I have to go—’ he started to say, but she was plucking at her dress, as if to show him more.
‘I know what you want to see,’ she said.
He retreated from her, his hand thrown out behind him for support.
‘You want what’s under here,’ she said, pulling up her hem.
‘No,’ he said.
She smiled at him, and kept raising her skirt. Panicked, and confused by the stew of feelings that was bubbling up in him, he stumbled backwards, and his weight struck the table. It tipped. The book, the inks, the pens and, worst of all, the lamp went to the floor. There was a moment when it seemed the flame went out; but then it bloomed with fresh gusto, and the rubbish around the desk caught fire.
Mrs McGee dropped her skirts. ‘Jacob!’ she shrieked. ‘Oh Jesus Lord, Jacob!’
Sherwood had more reason to panic than she did, surrounded as he was by combustible materials. Even in his dazed state, he knew he had to get out quickly, or be numbered amongst them. The easiest route was the door by which he’d entered.
‘Jacob! Get in here, will you?’ Rosa was yelling, and without so much as glancing in Sherwood’s direction again, she left the chamber to find her companion.
The blaze was getting bigger by the moment, smoke and heat filling the chamber, driving Sherwood back. But as he turned to leave, his body trembling from the excesses of the last few minutes, he caught sight of the book, lying there on the ground.
He had no idea what it contained, but it felt like proof. He would have it when his schoolmates scoffed, to show them and say:
‘I was there. I did all I told you and more.’
Daring the flames, he ducked and snatched the book off the ground. It was a little singed, no more. Then he was away, back through the labyrinth of passages, towards his sister’s voice.
She and Will were at the Courtroom door.
‘I don’t want to go,’ Will growled, and tried to pull himself free of Frannie. But she was having none of it. She kept a bruising grip on his arm, all the while yelling her brother’s name.
Jacob, meanwhile, had risen from his place at the table, alarmed by the sound of conflagration, and now by the sight of Mrs McGee in a state of disarray, demanding that he come right now, right now.
He went with her, glancing back at Will once, and nodding such a tiny nod as if to say: go with her. This is not the moment. Then he was gone, away with Rosa, to put out the flames.
As soon as he was out of sight. Will felt a curious calm pass over him. There was no need to struggle with Frannie any more. He could simply go with her, out into the open air, knowing that there would be another time, a better time, when he and Jacob would be together. ‘I’m all right—’ he said to Frannie. ‘I don’t need anyone to hold me up.’
‘I’ve got to find Sherwood,’ she said.
‘Here!’ came a shout from the smoky darkness, and out he came, his face smeared with dirt and sweat.
There were no further words. They pelted down the passageway to the front door and out, past the pillars, and down the steps, into the cold grass. Only when they were past the hedge, out onto the track, did they halt for breath.
‘Don’t tell anybody what we saw in there, okay?’ Will gasped.
‘Why not?’ Frannie wanted to know.
‘Because you’ll spoil everything,’ Will replied.
‘They’re bad. Will—’
‘You don’t know anything about them.’
‘Neither do you.’
‘Yes, I do. I’ve met them before. They want me to go away with them.’
‘Is that true?’ Sherwood piped up.
‘Shut up, Sherwood,’ Frannie said. ‘We’re not going to talk about this any longer. It’s stupid. They’re bad and I know they’re bad.’ She turned to her brother. ‘Will can do whatever he likes,’ she said. ‘I can’t stop him. But you’re not coming here again, Sherwood, and neither am I.’ With that she picked up her bicycle and mounted, telling Sherwood to hurry up and do the same. Meekly, he obeyed.
‘So you won’t say anything?’ Will pleaded.
‘I haven’t made up my mind yet,’ Frannie replied in an infuriatingly snotty tone. ‘I’ll have to see.’ With that she and Sherwood pedalled off down the track.
‘If you do I’ll never speak to you again,’ Will shouted after her, only realizing when they were out of sight that this was a hollow threat from a man who’d just declared that he was leaving forever some day soon.
‘Is he dreaming?’ Adrianna asked Dr Koppelman one day in early spring, when her visit to sit at Will’s bedside coincided with the physician’s rounds.
It was almost four months since the events in Balthazar, and in its own almost miraculous way Will’s mauled and fractured body was mending itself. But the coma was as profound as ever. No sign of motion disturbed the glacial surface of his state. The nurses moved him regularly so as to prevent his developing bedsores; his bodily needs were taken care of with drips and catheters. But he did not, would not, wake. And often, when Adrianna had come to visit him through that dreary Winnipeg winter, and looked down at his placid face, she found herself wondering: what are you doing?
Hence her question. She normally had an allergic response to doctors, but Koppelman, who insisted on being called Bernie, was an exception. He was in his early fifties, overweight, and to judge by the stains on his fingers (and his minted breath) a heavy smoker. He was also honest when it came to his ignorance, which she liked, even though it meant he didn’t really have any answers for her.
‘We’re as much in the dark as Will is right now,’ he went on. ‘He may be in a completely closed down state as far as his consciousness is concerned. On the other hand he may be accessing memories at such a deep level we can’t monitor the brain activity. I just don’t know.’
‘But he could still come out of it,’ Adrianna said, looking down at Will.
‘Oh certainly,’ Koppelman said. ‘At any time. But I can’t offer you any guarantees. There are processes at work in his skull right now that frankly we don’t understand.’
‘Do you think it makes any difference if I’m here with him?’
‘Were you and he very close?’
‘You mean lovers? No. We worked together.’
Koppelman nibbled at his thumbnail. ‘I’ve seen cases where the presence of somebody the patient knew at the bedside did seem to help things. But…’
‘…you don’t think this is one of those.’
Koppelman looked concerned. ‘You want my honest opinion?’ he said, lowering his voice.
‘People have to get on with their lives. You’ve done more than a lot of people would, coming here, day in, day out. You don’t live in the city, do you?’
‘No. I live in San Francisco.’
That’s right. There was talk about moving Will back, wasn’t there?’
There are a lot of people dying in San Francisco.’
Koppelman looked grim. ‘What can I tell you?’ he said. ‘You could be sitting here for another six months, another year, and he’d still be in a coma. That’s a waste of your life. I know you want to do your best for him but…you see what I’m saying?’
‘It’s painful to hear, I know.’
‘It makes sense,’ she replied. ‘It’s just…I can’t quite face the idea of leaving him here.’
‘He doesn’t know, Adrianna.’
‘Then why are you whispering?’
Caught in the act, Koppelman grinned sheepishly. ‘I’m only saying the chances are, that wherever he is he doesn’t care about the world out here.’ He glanced back towards the bed. ‘And you know what? Maybe he’s happy.’
Maybe he’s happy. The words haunted Adrianna, reminding her of how often she and Will had talked – deeply, passionately – about the subject of happiness, and how much she now missed his conversation.
He was not, he had often said, designed for happiness. It was too much like contentment, and contentment was too much like sleep. He liked discomfort – sought it out, in fact (how often had she been stuck in some grim little hide, too hot or too cold, and looked over at him to see him grinning from ear to ear? Physical adversity had reminded him he was alive, and life, he’d told her oh so many times, was his obsession).
Not everybody had found evidence of that affirmation in his work. The critical response to both the books and exhibitions had often been antagonistic. Few reviewers had questioned Will’s skills – he had the temperament, the vision and the technical grasp to be a great photographer. But why, they complained, did he have to be so relentlessly grim? Why did he have to seek out images that evoked despair and death when there was so much beauty in the natural world?
While we may admire Will RabJohns’ consistency of vision, the Time critic had written of ‘Feeding the Fire’, his accounts of the way humanity brutalizes and destroys natural phenomena become in turn brutal and destructive to those very sensibilities it wishes to arouse to pity or action. The viewer gives up hope in the face of his reports. We watch the extinction with despairing hearts. Well, Mr Rabjohns, we have dutifully despaired. What now?
It was the same question Adrianna asked herself when Dr Koppelman went about his rounds. What now? She’d wept, she’d cursed, she’d even found enough of her much-despised Catholic training intact to pray, but none of it was going to open Will’s eyes. And meanwhile, her life was ticking on.
This was not the only issue in play. She’d found a lover here in Winnipeg (an ambulance driver, of all things); a fellow called Neil, who was far from her ideal of manhood but who was plainly attracted to her. She owed him answers to the questions he asked her nightly: why couldn’t they move in together; just try it out for a couple of months, see if it worked?
She sat down on the bed beside Will, took his hand in hers and told him what was going through her head.
‘I know I’ll be pulled in to this half-assed relationship with Neil if I hang around here, and he’s probably more your type than he is mine. He’s a bear, you know. He hasn’t got a hairy back—’ she added hurriedly’—I know you hate hairy backs, but he’s big – and a bit of a lunk in a sexy kind of way, but I can’t live with him. Will. I can’t. And I can’t live here. I mean, I was staying for him and for you, and right now you’re not taking any notice of me and he’s taking too much notice, so it’s a bad deal all around. Life’s not a rehearsal, right? Isn’t that one of Cornelius’ pearls of wisdom? He’s gone back to Baltimore, by the way. I don’t hear from him, which is probably for the best because he always annoyed the fuck out of me. Anyhow, he had that line about life not being a rehearsal and he’s right. If I hang around here I’m going to end up moving in with Neil and we’re just going to get cosy when you’re going to open your eyes – and Will, you are going to open your eyes – and you’re going to say we gotta go to Antarctica. And Neil’s going to say: no you’re not. And I’m going to say: yes I am. And there’ll be tears, and they won’t be mine. I can’t do that to him. He deserves better.
‘So…what am I saying? I’m saying I have to take Neil out for a beer and tell him it’s not going to work, then I have to haul my ass back to San Francisco, and get my shit together, because baby thanks to you I have never been so untogether in my whole damn life.’
She dropped her voice to a whisper. ‘You know why. It’s not something we’ve talked about and if you had your eyes open right now I wouldn’t be saying it because what’s the use? But Will: I love you. I love you so much and most of the time it’s okay, because we get to work together and I figure you love me back, in your way. Okay, it’s not the way I’d really like it, if I had the choice, but I don’t so I’ll take whatever I can. And that’s all you’re getting. And if you can hear this, you should know buddy, when you wake up I will deny every fucking word, okay? Every fucking word.’ She got up from beside the bed, feeling tears close. ‘Damn you, Will,’ she said. ‘All you have to do is open your eyes. It’s not that difficult. There’s so much to see, Will. It’s icy fucking cold, but there’s this great clean light on everything: you’d like it. Just. Open. Your. Eyes.’ She watched and waited, as if by force of thought she could stir him. But there was no motion, except the mechanical rising and falling of his chest.
‘Okay. I can take a hint. I’d better get going. I’ll come visit you again before I go.’ She leaned over him and lightly kissed him on the forehead. ‘I tell you Will, wherever the hell you are, it’s not as good as it is out here. Come back and see me, see the world, okay? We’re missing you.’
The morning after the incident at the Courthouse Will woke in a wretched state: aching from head to foot. He tried to get out of bed, but his legs replayed their imbecilities of the night before and down he went, with such a shout (more of surprise than pain) that his mother came running, to find him sprawled on the floor, teeth chattering. He was duly diagnosed as having ‘flu, and put back to bed, where he was plied with aspirin and scrambled eggs.
Sleet had come in the night, and slapped against the window through most of the day. He wanted to be out in it. His fever would turn the icy downpour to steam, he thought, as soon as it fell on him. He’d walk back to the Courthouse like one of the children from the Bible who’d been burned in a furnace but had come out alive; steaming, he’d walk the muddy track, back to where Jacob and Rosa kept their strange counsel. Naked, he’d go, yes naked, through the hedgerow, scraped and nicked, until he got to the door, where Jacob would be waiting to teach him wisdom, and Rosa would be waiting to tell him what an extraordinary boy he was. Into the Courthouse he’d go, into the heart of their secret world, where everything was love and fire, fire and love.
All this, if he could only get up and out of bed. But his body was cheating him. It was all he could do to get as far as the toilet, and even then he had to hold onto the sink with one hand and his penis – which looked very shrivelled and ashamed of itself right now – with the other, to be sure he wouldn’t fall over, his head was spinning so much. Just after lunch the doctor came to see him. She was a softly-spoken woman with short, white hair, though she didn’t look old enough to have white hair, and a gentle smile. She told him he’d get well as long as he didn’t get out of bed and took the medicine she was going to prescribe, then reassured his mother that he’d be right as rain in a week or so.
A week? Will thought. He couldn’t wait a week to be back with Jacob and Rosa. As soon as the doctor and his mother had gone he got up and made his uncertain way to the window. The sleet was thickening into snow, and it was sticking a little on the tops of the hills. He watched his breath come and go on the cold glass, and determined that he would make himself strong, damn it, simply by telling himself to do so.
He started right then and there: ‘I will be strong. I will be strong. I will—’
He stopped in mid-flow, hearing his Papa’s voice in the hall below, and then the sound of his footstep on the stairs. He started back to his bed, and just made the safety of the covers when the door opened and his father came in, his face more forbidding than the sky outside the window.
‘All right,’ he said, without a word of greeting, ‘I want an explanation from you, my lad, and I don’t want any of your lies. I want the truth.’ Will said nothing. ‘You know why I’m home early?’ his father demanded. ‘Well?’
‘I got a call from Mr Cunningham. Damn lunatic, calling me in the middle of the day. He tracked me down, he said, tracked me down, because his son’s in a terrible state. Can’t stop the boy crying, apparently, because of some damn thing you’ve been up to with him.’ Hugo approached Will’s bed. ‘Now I want to know what stupid stories you’ve been putting in this brat’s head, and don’t shake your head at me like that, young man, you’re not talking to your mother now. I want answers and I want the truth, you hear me?’
‘Sherwood’s…not quite right…’ Will said.
‘What the hell’s that supposed to mean?’ Hugo said, spittle flecking his lips.
‘He says things without really knowing what he’s saying.’
‘I don’t care what’s wrong with the little bugger. I just don’t want his father coming to find me and accusing me of raising a complete idiot. That’s what he called you. An idiot! Which you may be, by the way. Have you got no sense?’
Will was starting to get tearful. ‘Sherwood’s my friend,’ he spluttered.
‘He’s not quite right, you said.’
‘So what does that make you? If you’re his friend, what does that make you? Have you got no sense? What were you up to?’
‘We just went looking around, and he…he got scared…that’s all.’
‘You’ve got a peculiar idea of fun, putting nonsense into a little boy’s head.’ He shook his head. ‘Where’d you get it all from?’ he said, already giving up on his son. Plainly he didn’t want an answer, though Will so much wanted to give him one, so much wanted to say: I didn’t make up anything, you dead-eyed old man. You don’t know what I know, you don’t see what I see. you don’t understand any of it—
But he didn’t dare speak the words, of course. He just cast down his eyes, and let his father’s contempt fall on his head until it was all used up.
Later, his mother came in with pills for him to take. ‘I heard your father having a talk with you,’ she said. ‘You know he’s sometimes harsher than he means to be.’
‘He says things.’
‘I know what he says and I know what he means,’ Will replied. ‘He wishes I was dead and Nathaniel wasn’t. So do you.’ He shrugged, the ease of the words, the ease of the pain he knew he was causing, exhilarating. ‘It’s no big deal,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry I’m not as good as Nathaniel, but I can’t do anything about it.’ All the time he was talking, looking at his mother, it was not her he was seeing, it was Jacob, giving him a moth to burn, Jacob smiling at him.
‘Stop it,’ his mother said. ‘I won’t listen to you talking like this. The way you behave. Take your pills.’ Her manner suddenly became detached, as though she didn’t quite recognize the boy lying in the bed. ‘Are you hungry?’
‘I’ll have Adele heat up some soup for you. Just make sure you stay under the blankets. And take your pills.’
As she exited she threw her son an almost fearful look, the way Miss Hartley had at school. Then she was gone. Will swallowed the pills. His body still ached and his head still spun, but he wasn’t going to wait very long, he’d already decided, before he was up and out. He’d drink the soup (he’d need the sustenance for the journey ahead) and then he’d dress and go back to the Courthouse. With his plan made he got out of bed again to test the strength of his legs. They didn’t feel as unreliable as they had a little while before. With some encouragement, they’d get him where he needed to go.
Though Frannie wasn’t sick, she suffered a good deal more than Will had the day after the night in the Courthouse. She had managed to smuggle Sherwood and herself into the house and upstairs to clean up before they were seen by their parents, and had entertained the hope that they were not going to be questioned until, out of the blue, Sherwood had begun to sob. He’d been thankfully inarticulate about what was causing him to do so, and though both her mother and her father quizzed her closely she kept her answers vague. She didn’t like lying, mainly because she wasn’t very good at it, but she knew that Will would never forgive her if she let any details of what happened slip. Her father simply grew cold and remote when his first fury was spent, but her mother was good at attrition. She would work and work at her suspicions, until she had them satisfied. So for an hour and a half Frannie found herself quizzed as to why Sherwood was in such a state. She said they’d gone out to play with Will, become lost in the dark, and they’d got frightened. Plainly her mother doubted every word, but she and her daughter were alike in their tenaciousness. The more Mrs Cunningham repeated her questions, the more entrenched in her replies Frannie became. At last, her mother grew exasperated.
‘I don’t want you seeing that Rabjohns boy again,’ she said. ‘I think he’s a troublemaker. He doesn’t belong here and he’s a bad influence. I’m surprised at you, Frances. And disappointed. You’re usually more responsible than this. You know how confused your brother can get. And now he’s in a terrible state. I’ve never seen him so bad. Crying and crying. I blame you.’
This little speech brought the matter to an end for the evening. But sometime before dawn Frannie woke to hear her brother sobbing pitifully again, and then her mother going into his room, and the sobbing subsiding while quiet words were exchanged, and then the weeping coming again, while her mother tried – and apparently failed – to soothe him. Frannie lay in the darkness of her room, fighting back tears of her own. But she lost the battle. They came, oh they came, salty in her nose, hot beneath her lids and on her cheeks. Tears for Sherwood, whom she knew was the least equipped to deal with whatever nightmares would come of their encounter at the Courthouse; tears for herself, for the lies she’d told, which had put a distance between herself and her mother, whom she loved so much; and tears of a different kind for Will, who had seemed at first the friend she needed in this stale place, but whom she had, it seemed, already lost.
At last, the inevitable. She heard the handle of her bedroom door squeak as it was turned and her mother said:
‘Frannie? Are you awake?’
She didn’t pretend otherwise, but sat up in bed. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Sherwood just told me some very strange things.’
He had told everything: about going to the Courthouse in pursuit of Will, about the man in black and the woman in veils. And more besides. Something about the woman being naked, and a fire. Was any part of this true, Frannie’s mother wanted to know? And if so, why hadn’t Frannie told her?
Despite Will’s edict, she had no choice but to tell the truth now. Yes, there had been two people at the Courthouse, just as Sherwood had said. No, she didn’t know who they were; no she hadn’t seen the woman undressing, and no, she couldn’t be certain she would recognize them again (that part wasn’t entirely true, but it was close enough). It had been dark, she said, and she had been afraid, not just for herself but for all three of them.
‘Did they threaten you?’ her mother wanted to know.
‘But you said you were afraid.’
‘I was. They weren’t like anybody I’d ever seen before.’
‘So what were they like?’
Words failed her, and failed her again when her father appeared and asked her the same questions.
‘How many times have I told you,’ he said, ‘not to go near anybody you don’t know?’
‘I was following Will. I was afraid he was going to get hurt.’
‘If he had that’d be his business and not yours. He wouldn’t do the same for you, I’m damn certain of that.’
‘You don’t know him. He—’
‘Don’t answer me back,’ her father snapped, ‘I’ll speak to his parents tomorrow. I want them to know what an idiot they’ve got for a son.’
With that he left her to her thoughts.
The events of the night were not over, however. When the house had finally become quiet, Frannie heard a light tapping on her bedroom door, and Sherwood sidled in, clutching something to his chest. His voice was cracked with all the crying he’d been doing.
‘I’ve got something you have to see,’ he said, and crossing to the window he pulled back the curtains. There was a streetlamp outside the front of the house, and it shed its light through the rain-streaked glass onto Sherwood’s pale, puffy face.
‘I don’t know why I did it,’ he began.
‘It was just there, you know, and when I saw it I wanted it.’ As he spoke he proffered the object he’d been clutching. ‘It’s just an old book,’ he said.
‘You stole it?’ He nodded. ‘Where from? The Courthouse?’ Again, he nodded. He looked so frightened she was afraid he was going to start weeping again. ‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘I’m not cross. I’m just surprised. I didn’t see you with it.’
‘I put it in my jacket.’
‘Where did you find it?’
He told her about the desk, and the inks and the pens, and while he told her she took the book from his hands and went to the window with it. There was a strange perfume coming off it. She raised it to her nose – not too close – and inhaled its scent. It smelt like a cold fire, like embers left in the rain, but sharpened by a spice she knew she would never find on a supermarket shelf. The smell made her think twice about opening the book; but how could she not, given where it had come from? She put her thumb against the edge of the cover and lifted it. On the inside page was a single circle, drawn in black or perhaps dark brown ink. No name. No title. Just this ring, perfectly drawn.
‘It’s his, isn’t it?’ she said to Sherwood.
‘I think so.’
‘Does anyone know you took it?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
That at least was something to be grateful for. She turned to the next page. It was as complex as the previous page had been simple: row upon row upon row of writing, tiny words pressed so close to one another it was almost a seamless flow. She flipped the page. It was the same again, on left and right. And on the next two sheets, the same; and on the next two and the next two. She peered at the script more closely, to see if she could make any sense of it, but the words weren’t in English. Stranger still, the letters weren’t from the alphabet. They were pretty, though, tiny elaborate marks that had been set down with obsessive care.
‘What does it mean?’ Sherwood said, peering over her shoulder.
‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it before.’
‘Do you think it’s a story?’
‘I don’t think so. It isn’t printed, like a proper book.’ She licked her forefinger and dabbed it on the words. It came away stained. ‘It was written by him,’ she said.
‘By Jacob?’ Sherwood breathed.
‘Yes.’ She flipped over a few more pages and finally came to a picture. It was an insect – a beetle of some kind, she thought – and like the writing on the preceding pages it had been set down exquisitely, every detail of its head and legs and iridescent wings so meticulously painted it looked uncannily lifelike in the watery light, as though it might have risen whirring from the paper had she touched it.
‘I know I shouldn’t have taken the book,’ Sherwood said, ‘but now I don’t want to give it back, ‘cause I don’t want to see him again.’
‘You won’t have to,’ Frannie reassured him.
‘I promise. There’s nothing to be afraid of, Sher. We’re safe here, with Mum and Dad to look after us.’
Sherwood had put his arm through hers. She could feel his thin body quivering against her own. ‘But they won’t be here always, will they?’ he said, his voice eerily flat, as though this most terrible of possibilities could not be expressed unless stripped of all emphasis.
‘No,’ she said. ‘They won’t.’
‘What will happen to us then?’ he said.
‘I’ll be here to look after you,’ Frannie replied.
‘I promise. Now, it’s time you were back in bed.’
She took her brother by the hand and they both tiptoed out along the landing to his room. There she settled him back in his bed, and told him not to think about the book or the Courthouse or what had happened tonight any more, but to go back to sleep. Her duty done she returned to her own bedroom, closed the door and the curtains, and put the book in the cupboard under her sweaters. There was no lock on the cupboard door, but if there had been she would have certainly turned the key. Then she climbed between the now chilly sheets and put on the bedside light, just in case the beetle in the book came clicking across the floor to find her before dawn; which possibility, after the evening’s escapades, she could not entirely consign to the realm of the impossible.
Will consumed his soup like a dutiful patient, and then, once Adele had taken his temperature, collected his tray and gone back downstairs, quickly got up and dressed. It was by now early in the evening, and the sleety day was already losing its light, but he had no intention of putting his journey off until tomorrow.
The television had been turned on in the living-room – he could hear the calm, even tones of a newscaster, and then, as his mother changed channels, applause and laughter. He was glad of the sound. It covered the occasional squeak of a stair as he descended to the hallway. There, as he donned scarf, anorak, gloves and boots, he came within a breath of discovery, as his father called out from his study demanding to know from Adele where his tea had got to. Was she picking the leaves herself, for Christ’s sake? Adele did not reply, and his father stormed into the kitchen to get an answer. He did not notice his son in the unlit hallway, however, and while he whittered on to Adele about how slow she was, Will opened the front door and, slipping through the narrowest crack he could make so as not to have a draught alert them to his going, was out on his night-journey.
Rosa didn’t conceal the satisfaction she felt at the absence of the book. It had burned up in the fire, and that was all there was to say in the matter. ‘So you’ve lost one of your precious journals,’ she said. ‘Perhaps you’ll be a little more sympathetic in the future when I get weepy about the children.’
‘There’s no comparison,’ Steep said, still searching the ashes in the antechamber. His desk was little more than seared timbers, his pens and brushes gone, his box of watercolours barely recognizable, his inks boiled away. His bag containing the earlier journals had been beyond the scope of the fire, so all was not lost. But the work-in-progress, his account of the last eighteen years of his vast labour, had gone. And Rosa’s attempt to equate his loss with what she felt when one of her brats had to be put out of its misery made him sick to his stomach. ‘This is the labour of my life,’ he pointed out.
Then it’s pitiful,’ she said. ‘Making books! It’s pitiful.’ She leaned towards him. ‘Who’d you think you’re making them for? Not me. I’m not interested. I’m not remotely interested.’
‘You know why I’m making them,’ Jacob said sullenly. To be a witness. When God comes, and demands we tell Him what we’ve wrought, chapter and verse, we must have an account. Every detail. Only then will we be…Jesus! Why do I bother explaining it to you?’
‘You can say the word. Go on, say it! Say forgiven. That’s what you used to say all the time. We’d be forgiven.’ She approached him now. ‘But you don’t really believe that any more do you?’ She gently reached up and put her hands to his face. ‘Be honest, my love,’ she said, suddenly soft.
‘I still…I still believe there’s purpose in our lives,’ Jacob replied. ‘I have to believe that.’
‘Well I don’t,’ Rosa said plainly. ‘I realized after our fumblings of yesterday, I have no healthy desires left in me. None. At all. There won’t be any more children. There won’t be any hearth and home. And there won’t be a day of forgiveness, Jacob. That’s certain. We’re alone, with the power to do whatever we want.’ She smiled. That boy—’
‘No. The younger one, Sherwood. I had him at my titties, sucking away, and I thought: it’s a sickness to take pleasure in this, but Lord, you know that made it all the more pleasurable? And I began to think, when the child had gone, what else would give me pleasure? What’s the worst I could do?’
‘My mind fairly began to spin at the possibilities,’ she said with a smile. ‘It really did. If we’re not going to be forgiven, why try to be something I’m not?’ She was staring hard into his face. ‘Why should I waste my breath hoping for something we’ll never have?’
Jacob pulled his face from her hands. ‘You won’t tempt me,’ he said. ‘So stop wasting your time. I have my plans laid—’
The book’s burned,’ Rosa snapped.
‘I’ll make another.’
‘And if that burns?’
‘Another! And another! I’ll be the stronger for this loss.’
‘Oh, so will I,’ Rosa said, her features draining of warmth, so that her beauty seemed, for all its perfection, almost cadaverous. ‘I will be a different woman from now on. I will have pleasure whenever I can take it, by whatever means amuse me. And if someone or something gets a child upon me I’ll fetch it out of m’self with a sharpened stick.’ This notion pleased her. Laughing raucously, she turned her back on Jacob, and spat into the ashes. There’s for your book,’ she said. She spat again. ‘And there’s for forgiveness.’ Again she spat. ‘And there’s for God. He’ll have nothing more from me.’
She said no more. Without looking to see what effect she’d had upon her companion (she would have been disappointed; he was stony-faced), she strode out. Only when she’d gone did Jacob let himself weep. Manly tears; the tears of a commander before a broken army or a father at his son’s grave. He didn’t simply grieve for the book – though that added to the sum – but for himself. After this, he would be alone. Rosa – his once beloved Rosa, with whom he’d shared his most cherished ambitions – would go her hedonistic way, and he would take his own road, with his knife and his pen and a new journal full of empty pages. Oh, that would be hard after so many years together, and the work before him still so monumental and the sky so wide.
Then an unbidden thought: why not kill her? There would be satisfaction in that right now, no question about it. A quick slice across her pulsing throat and down she’d go, like a felled cow. He’d comfort her in her final moments; tell her how much he had loved her, in his way; how he would dedicate his labours to her until they were finished. Every nest he rifled, every burrow he purified, he would say: this is for you, my Rosa; and this; and this, until his hands, bloodied and yolked, had finished with their weary work.
He pulled his knife from his belt, already imagining the sound of its swoop across her neck; the hiss of her breath from her throat, the fizz of her blood. Then he went after her, back towards the Courtroom.
She was waiting for him; turned to face him with her pet ropes – what she liked to call her rosaries – cavorting around her arms like vipers. One leapt as he approached her, finding his wrist with the speed of her will, and catching it so tight he gasped at the sensation.
‘How dare you?’ she said. A second rope leapt from her hand, and wrapping itself around his neck caught hold of his knife-hand from behind him. She flicked her eye and it pulled tight, wrenching the blade back towards his face. ‘You would have murdered me.’
‘I would have tried.’
‘I’m no use to you as a womb, so I may as well be crow-bait, is that it?’
‘No. I just…I wanted to simplify things.’
‘That’s a fresh excuse,’ she said, almost admiringly. ‘Which eye is it to be?’
‘I’m going to puncture one of your eyes, Jacob. With this little knife of yours—’ She willed the ropes to tighten. They creaked a little. ‘Which is it to be?’
‘If you harm me, it’ll be war between us.’
‘And war’s for men, so I would lose? Is that the inference?’
‘You know you would.’
‘I don’t know a thing about myself, Jacob, any more than you do. I learned it all watching women do as women do. Perhaps I’d be a very fine soldier. Perhaps we’d have such a war, you and me, that it would be like love, only bloodier.’ She cocked her head. ‘Which eye is it to be?’
‘Neither,’ Jacob said, a tremor in his voice now. ‘I need both my eyes, Rosa, to do my work. Put one of them out and you may as well take my life with it.’
‘I want recompense!’ she said, through her perfect teeth. I want you to suffer for what you just tried to do.’
‘Anything but an eye.’
‘You heard me. Unbutton yourself.’
‘I want one of your balls, Jacob. It’s that or an eye. Make up your mind.’
‘Stop this,’ he said softly.
‘Am I supposed to melt now?’ she replied. ‘Get weak with compassion?’ She shook her head. ‘Unbutton yourself,’ she said.
His free hand went to his groin.
‘You can do it yourself, if that’ll make you feel any better. Well? Would it?’
He nodded. She let the ropes about his wrist relax a little.
‘I won’t even watch,’ she said. ‘How’s that? Then if you lose your courage for a bit nobody’s going to know but you.’
The ropes loosed his hand completely now. They returned to Rosa and looped themselves around her neck.
‘Go to it.’
‘If I do this—?’
‘—you’ll never talk about it to anybody?’
Talk about what?’
‘That I’m not…complete.’
Rosa shrugged. ‘Who’d care?’ she said.
‘I agree.’ She turned her back on him. ‘Make it the left,’ she said. ‘It hangs a little lower, so it’s probably the riper of the two.’
He stood in the passageway when she’d gone and felt the heft of the knife in his hand. He had commissioned it in Damascus, a year after the death of Thomas Simeon, and had used it innumerable times since. Though there had been nothing supernatural about its maker, some authority had been conferred upon it over the years, for it grew sharper, he thought, with every breath it took. He would be able to scoop out what the bitch demanded without much trouble; and after all, what did he care? He had no use for what he now cupped in his palm. Two eggs in a nest of skin; that’s all they were. He put the tip of the blade to his flesh, and drew a deep breath. In the Courtroom, down the passageway, Rosa was singing one of her wretched lullabies. He waited for a high note, then cut.
Will didn’t attempt a short cut back to the Courthouse, but took the road down to the village. At the intersection there was a telephone box, and he thought: I should say goodbye to Frannie. It wasn’t so much for friendship’s sake as for the pleasure of the boast. To be able to say: I’m going; just as I said I would; I’m going away forever.
He stepped into the box, fumbled for some change, then fumbled again (his fingers chilled, even through his gloves) to find the Cunninghams’ number in the out-of-date directory. It was there. He dialled, prepared to disguise his voice if Frannie’s father came on the line. Her mother answered, however, and with a hint of frostiness brought her daughter to the phone. Will got straight to the point: swore Frannie to secrecy then told her he was leaving.
‘With them?’ she said, her voice barely more than a whisper.
He told her it was none of her business. He was simply going away.
‘Well I’ve got something that belongs to Steep,’ she said.
‘It’s none of your business,’ she countered.
‘All right,’ Will said. ‘Yes, I’m going with them.’ There was no doubt in his feverish head that this was so. ‘Now…what have you got?’
‘You mustn’t say anything. I don’t want them coming looking.’
She paused a moment. Then she said: ‘Sherwood found a book. I think it belongs to Steep.’
‘Is that alt?’ he said. A book; who cared about a book? But he supposed she needed some memento of this adventure, however petty.
‘It’s not just any book,’ she insisted. ‘It’s—’
But Will had already finished with the conversation. ‘I have to go,’ he said.
‘I haven’t got time. ‘Bye, Frannie. Say ‘bye to Sherwood, will you?’
He put the receiver down, feeling thoroughly pleased with himself. Then he left the relative comfort of the telephone box, and set out on the track to Bartholomeus’ Courthouse.
The fallen snow had frozen, and formed a glittering skin on the road ahead, upon which a new layer of snow was being deposited as the storm intensified. Its beauty was his to appreciate, and his alone. The people of Burnt Yarley were at home tonight, beside their fires, their cattle gathered into sheds and byres, their chickens fed and locked up in their coops for the night.
The mounting blizzard soon turned the scene ahead of him into a white blur, but he had sufficient wits about him to watch for the place in the hedge where he’d previously gained access to the field, and, spotting it, dug his way through. The Courthouse was not visible, of course, but he knew that if he trudged directly across the meadow he’d reach its steps in due course. It was harder going than the road, and his body, for all his determination, was showing signs of surrender. His limbs felt jittery, and the urge to sink down in the snow for a while and rest grew stronger with every step. But he saw the Courthouse now, coming out of the blizzard. Jubilant, he wiped the snow from his numbed face, so that the blaze in him – in his eyes, in his skin – would be readily seen. Then he started up the steps. Only when he reached the top did he realize that Jacob was in the doorway, silhouetted against a fire burning in the vestibule. This was not a piffling blaze like the one Will had fed: it was a bonfire. And he did not doubt for a moment it had living fuel. He could not see what, exactly, nor did he much care. It was his idol he wanted to see, and be seen by. More than seen, embraced. But Jacob did not move, and a terror came upon Will that he’d misunderstood everything; that he was no more wanted here than at the house he’d left. He stopped one step short of the top, and waited for judgment. It did not come. He was not even certain Jacob had even seen him.
And then, out of the shadowed face, a soft, raw voice.
‘I came out here without even knowing why. Now I see.’
Will dared a syllable. ‘Me?’
Jacob nodded. ‘I was looking for you,’ he said, and opened his arms.
Will would have gone into them happily, but his body was too weak to get him there. As he climbed the final step he stumbled, his outstretched hands moving too slowly to protect his head from striking the cold stone. He heard Jacob let out a little shout as he fell, then the sound of the man’s boots crunching on the frost as he came to help.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked.
Will thought he answered, but he wasn’t certain. He felt Steep’s arms beneath him, however, lifting him up, and the warmth of the man’s breath on his frozen face. I’m home, he thought; and passed out.
Thursday’s evening meal in the Cunningham house was in winter a hearty lamb stew, mashed potatoes and buttered carrots, preceded always by the prayer that the family recited before every meal: ‘For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.’ There was very little talk around the table tonight, but that was not unusual: George Cunningham was a great believer in things having their proper time and place. The dinner table was for dining, not for talking. There was only one exchange of any length, which took place when George, observing Frannie toying with her food, told her sharply to eat up.
‘I’m not really hungry,’ Frannie replied.
‘Are you sickening for something?’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised after yesterday.’
‘George,’ his wife said, casting a fretful glance at Sherwood, who was also not showing much of an appetite.
‘Well look at the pair of you,’ George said, his tone warming. ‘You look like a pair of drowned pups, you do.’ He patted his daughter’s hand. ‘A mistake’s a mistake, and you made one, but that’s the end of it as far as your Mum and I are concerned. As long as you learned your lesson. Now you eat up. And give your Dad a smile.’ Frannie tried. ‘Is that the best you can do?’ her father chuckled. ‘Well, you’ll brighten up after a good night’s sleep. Have you got a lot of homework?’
‘You go up and do it, then. Your Mum and Sherwood’ll take care of the dishes.’
Grateful to be away from the table, Frannie took herself upstairs, fully intending to prepare for the history test that was looming, but the book before her was as incomprehensible as Jacob’s journal, and a good deal less intriguing. At last she gave up on the life of Anne Boleyn, and guiltily pulled the journal out of its hiding place to puzzle over it afresh. She had scarcely opened it, however, when she heard the telephone ring and her mother, having talked for a few moments, called her to the landing. She slid the journal out of sight beneath her study books and went to the top of the stairs.
‘It’s Will’s father on the phone,’ her mother said.
‘What does he want?’ Frannie said, knowing full well.
‘Will’s disappeared,’ her mother said. ‘Do you know where he might have gone?’
Frannie gave herself a few moments to think it over. While she did so she heard the gale bringing snow against the landing window, and thought of Will out there somewhere, in the freezing cold. She knew exactly where he’d go, of course, but she’d made a promise to him, and intended to keep it.
‘I don’t know,’ she said.
‘He didn’t say where he was when he telephoned?’ her mother asked.
‘No,’ she said, without hesitation.
This news was duly communicated to Will’s father, and Frannie took herself back to her bedroom. But she could no longer concentrate on study, legitimate or no. Her thoughts returned over and over again to Will, who had made her a co-conspirator in his escape plans. If any harm came to him she would be in some measure responsible; or at least she’d feel that way, which would amount to the same thing. The temptation to confess what little she knew, and be relieved of its weight, was almost overwhelming. But a promise was a promise. Will had made his decision: he wanted to be out in the world somewhere, far from here, and wasn’t there a part of her that envied him the ease of his going? She would never have that ease, she knew, as long as Sherwood was alive. When her parents were old or dead, he would need someone to watch over him, and – just as she had promised him – that someone would have to be her.
She went to the window and cleared a place on the fogged glass with the heel of her hand. Snow blazed through the light from the streetlamp, like flakes of white fire, driven by the wind that whined in the telephone wires and rattled around the eaves. She’d heard her father say fully a month before that the farmers at The Plough were warning that the winter would be cruel. Tonight was the first proof of their prophecies. Not the cleverest time to run away, she thought, but the deed was done. Will was out there in the blizzard somewhere. He’d made his choice. She only hoped the consequences weren’t fatal.
In his narrow bed in the narrow room beside Frannie’s, Sherwood lay wide awake. It wasn’t the storm that kept sleep from coming. It was pictures of Rosa McGee: bright flickering pictures that made everything he’d ever seen in his head before look like black and white. Several times tonight it felt as if she was right there in the room with him, the memory of her was so overpowering. He could see her clearly, her titties shiny-wet with his spit. And though she’d scared him at the end, raising her skirts that way, it was that moment he replayed more often than any other, hoping each time to extend her motion by a few seconds, so that this time the dress would rise up to her belly-button and he would get to see what she’d been wanting to show him. He had several impressions of what it was: a kind of lop-sided mouth; a patch of hair (perhaps greenish, like a little bush), a simple round hole. Whatever form it took, however, it was wet; of that he was certain, and sometimes he thought he saw drops of that wetness running down the insides of her thighs.
He could never tell anybody about these memories, of course. He wouldn’t be able to boast about what had happened with Rosa once he was back amongst his schoolmates; and he certainly wouldn’t talk about it in adult company. People already treated him as strange. When he went out shopping with his Mum, they’d peer at him, pretending they weren’t, and talk about him in lowered voices. But he heard. They said he was odd, they said he was a little wrong in the head; they said he was a cross to bear and it was good his Mum was a Christian woman. He heard it all. So these rememberings had to stay hidden away, where people couldn’t see them, or else there’d be more whispers, more shaken heads.
He didn’t mind. In fact he liked the idea of keeping Rosa locked up in his brain, where only he could go and look at her. Perhaps he would find a way to talk to her, as time went by, persuade her to lift her skirts a little higher, a little higher, until he could see her secret place.
In the meantime he worked his belly and hips against the weight of the sheet and blankets, pressing his hand hard against his mouth as though his palms were her breasts and he was back licking them; and though he had cried himself dry in the last little while, all his tears were forgotten in the thrill of the memory, and the strange hotness in his groin.
Rosa, he murmured against his hand; Rosa, Rosa, Rosa…
By the time Will opened his eyes the fire, which had been in its heyday when he arrived, was now in its embery dotage. But Jacob had laid his guest close to it, and there was still sufficient heat in its dwindling flame to drive the last of the chill from Will’s bones. He sat up, and realized he was wrapped in Jacob’s military coat, and naked beneath.
‘That was brave,’ somebody on the other side of the fire said.
Will squinted to see the speaker better. It was Jacob, of course. He was lounging against the wall, staring through the flames at Will. He looked a little sick himself, Will thought, as though in sympathy with his own condition; but whereas Will’s illness had left him worn and weak, Steep glittered in his hurt: pale, gleaming skin, shiny curls pasted to the thick muscle of his neck. His coarse grey shirt was unbuttoned to his navel, his chest arrayed with a fan of dark hair which ran over the ridges of his belly to his belt. When he smiled, as he did now, his eyes and teeth glistened, as though made of the same implacable stuff.
‘You’re sick, and yet you found your way through this blizzard. That shows courage.’
‘I’m not sick,’ Will insisted. ‘I mean…I was a little, but I feel fine now…’
‘You look fine.’
‘I am. I’m ready to go any time you want to.’
‘Wherever you want,’ Will said. ‘I don’t care. I’m not afraid of the cold.’
‘Oh this isn’t cold,’ Jacob said. ‘Not like some winters we’ve endured, the bitch and me.’ He glanced back towards the Courtroom, and through the smoke Will thought he saw a contemptuous look cross Jacob’s face. A heartbeat later, his gaze came Will’s way once more, and there was a new intensity in it. ‘I think maybe you were sent to me, Will, by some kind god or other, to be my companion. You see, I won’t be travelling with Mrs McGee after tonight. We’ve decided to part company.’
‘Have you…travelled with her for long?’
Jacob leaned forward from his squatting position and, picking up a stick, poked at the fire. There was still fuel concealed in the embers, and it caught as he raked them over. ‘More than I care to remember,’ he said.
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