Tondi’s body glistened with sweat, her meagre clothes clinging to her skin. When she offered to lend Jesse her skateboard, he mumbled his thanks and kept his head low as she came close, too close. Let her think that he was embarrassed or overcome or whatever. With her board tucked under one arm he approached the ramp.
They wanted to humiliate him, Sarah’s friends. They were practised skaters with lots of tricks and manoeuvres. At the skater plaza he’d watched them first on the concrete flat and ramps, then on the steps and rails and ledges, now on the half-pipe. All except Tondi, who skated well but kept in the background. The lads launched themselves from the top of the ramp straight into the air. They hung there, defying gravity, then twisted and flung themselves right back down. Impossible. Only they did it. No one in his right mind started there.
‘Come on,’ called the tallest bloke – Mick? – who had gelled blond hair, hot and taunting eyes. ‘It’s easy, give it a try.’
Jesse knew it wasn’t easy. He wiped his hands on his jeans. He was beginning to be seriously annoyed with himself. At school he’d learned early on to keep a low profile, not to be drawn into lose-lose situations. What did he care what these stupid apes thought of him? He raised the board, about to toss it down in contempt. Sarah would be back any moment now. She’d never expect him to start with the half-pipe.
The sun had slid towards the trees, glazing the leaves with a shiny eggwash of light, as golden as his grandmother’s Easter loaf studded with sultanas and almonds. He could taste Mick’s mockery. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the packet of cigarettes that Sarah had bought him. He dropped the board on the patch of grass in front of him and put his left foot on the deck, testing its spring. It felt comfortable, right. Jesse lit a cigarette. His mind went back to Sarah’s words: stop running.
Sarah rode into sight on Kevin’s board, Nubi racing alongside her. Though she’d obviously given it some practice, she wasn’t a skater like these four. Jesse could see that straightaway.
Plait frisking behind her, she swerved through the last curve and came laughing to a sudden halt in front of him. She flipped her board up, catching it in one hand. Nubi dropped down at Jesse’s feet, panting.
‘Don’t you want to try?’ she asked.
Tondi came sauntering over, Kevin right behind. He was carrying a bulging carrier bag, and his muscles bulged under his tan. Jesse was sure that the cut-off T-shirt he was wearing cost as much as it took to feed a third-world family for a month. Three months.
‘Refreshments,’ Kevin said with a smirk. No doubt he was underage. He called to Mick and Don. ‘Hey, take a break. Lager’s here.’
Kevin and Tondi sprawled on the grass. Sarah glanced at Jesse, and he caught the flicker of uncertainty in her eyes. Good. He’d agreed to go skateboarding – not to be taken down. Defiantly, he turned on his heel to study the ramp. Mick and Don joined the others, both having worked up a sweat. Mick stripped off his too-tight tank-top, wiped his face ostentatiously, and stretched out with his arms behind his head, midriff ridged and bare and bragging.
Sarah flicked her plait over her shoulder. Brushing damp scallops of hair off her forehead, she took a step backwards. Mick could stand a shower, she thought, a little surprised at her own disgust. She used to admire the view as well as the next girl. Her eyes wandered towards Jesse, who was holding himself stiffly, his back proud and inaccessible under the old T-shirt. He was tall, but not too tall, lean to the point of hunger. He probably had more growing to do; he certainly needed feeding. Although his muscles were as well-defined as Mick’s – his hair as blond, his shoulders fully as broad – there was something more understated, less showy about Jesse. Subtler, somehow. Even his skin, though tanned, didn’t seemed newly gilded like Don’s after a week spent sailing the Mediterranean. Perhaps it was that Jesse wore his skin like a promise, and a refuge, reminding her of the exquisite polished surfaces of the Zen poetry they’d done in school last year, poems beautiful in their very impenetrability. His ragged hair hung well below the neckline. It was wild and soft and unruly, for he’d washed it only this morning. She thought that she might cut it for him, if he let her. She watched him a moment longer, then settled onto the ground, taking care to keep her distance from Mick, and accepted a lager. Jesse smoked his cigarette.
‘Aren’t you thirsty?’ Mick asked him.
‘I don’t drink,’ Jesse said without turning round.
‘Well, pass us a cig then,’ Kevin drawled.
Reluctantly Jesse handed him the packet.
Tondi shaded her eyes and looked up at Jesse. ‘Which school do you go to?’ she asked, taking another swig from her can.
‘I don’t go to school.’
Mick raised his eyebrows. ‘Lucky sod,’ he said. ‘Where do you work?’
‘I don’t work,’ Jesse said.
The four friends exchanged glances, while Sarah stared at her can.
‘Well, well,’ Kevin said. ‘A real honest-to-goodness skiver.’
The others laughed. Sarah lifted her chin. Her colour had heightened, and she opened her mouth to speak. Narrowing his eyes, Jesse gave her an almost imperceptible shake of his head. He could take care of himself just fine.
‘Do you do anything at all?’ asked Mick.
‘Not even fuck?’ Tondi asked, licking a bit of foam from her lips.
Jesse ground his cigarette out underfoot, bent and pocketed the butt, then picked up the skateboard. He strode towards the half-pipe and stepped onto the flat base. In the centre he stood there gazing up at the high sloping concrete walls. He squinted a little, shielding his eyes with a hand. The sun was just visible above the dense foliage of an oak tree. As he watched, the greens brightened to a dazzling emerald intensity. His heart was thudding, all his nerve endings buzzing. His mouth was dry. Raising the board above his head, he felt a spark leap from the sun and race along the board, race through his hands, up his arms, into his shoulders, and he's gripping the deck tightly in his fingers. His body vibrates like a tuning fork to the high-pitched note the board emits. He closes his eyes, and the smell of pine resin fills his nostrils. He drops the board at his feet.
Back and forth Jesse pumps the ramps, back and forth and back again, building up speed through the U-shaped pipe till he nears the coping, where he ollies without rotating just as his front wheels kiss the lip. He rides back down, soon dropping into a crouch but straightening as he traverses the flat. Upon entering the sloped part of the ramp – the transition – he flexes his knees once more, then uncompresses them almost immediately. The momentum lofts him upwards on an immense wing of speed. Why has he never skated before? Nothing – not even swimming – has felt like this. The board, the pipe, the sky – all are his; his, the whole universe, and it sings to him. Again, effortlessly, he executes a perfect ollie. On the way down he takes a deep breath and tightens his diaphragm, sharpens his focus, then soars in a fluid line up the wall, lifting his arms, and rises high in an aerial off the vert, very high, then higher still, and catches – no, embraces – the unbounded air. He spins to meet the transition. The rush of exhilaration stays with him at re-entry into realtime.
A moment longer on the board, the smell of pine gradually fading. Then Jesse came off the pipe.
‘You’re right,’ he said to Mick, tossing the board at his feet. ‘It’s easy.’
‘It’s an analemma,’ Jesse said.
‘A what?’ Sarah asked.
‘An analemma,’ he repeated. ‘The figure-8 path that the sun makes in the sky throughout the year. Have you got a globe at home?’
‘There’s one in Finn’s office.’
‘Have a look at it. Very often it’s marked. Here Ursula has incised the figure-8 on the inner surface of the sundial.’
‘How do you know these things?’
Jesse shrugged. ‘I spend a lot of time in the library. Keeps the rain off.’ He never talked about his memory – another of his rules.
The sundial was a dramatic and arresting piece of sculpture, an ellipse of carved white marble mounted on a stone pedestal. Beautifully proportioned, it stood about two metres high in the middle of a terraced plaza, where a group of jazz musicians was improvising to an appreciative gathering. The cellist had disappeared before Jesse and Sarah arrived.
‘He’s first-rate,’ Jesse said, gesturing towards the trumpeter.
‘Yeah, a lot better than my dad.’
‘Your father plays?’
‘A little piano, a little more trumpet. He’s always threatening to take lessons again and get really good. If you ask me, he’s tone deaf.’
‘What else does he do, aside from motorbiking?’
Sarah glanced at Jesse, wondering whether to elaborate, whether to suggest that Jesse get to know Finn. But Jesse had moved closer to the sundial in order to read the inscription carved on the pedestal.
Lay your shadows upon the sundials …Jesse read the lines aloud in German, then English. ‘From Autumn Day,’ he said. ‘Fitting.’
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren …
--Rainer Maria Rilke
‘You read German?’ Sarah asked, again impressed.
‘Is that the same kind of some as in not knowing how to skate?’
‘I was wondering when you’d ask me about that.’
He ran his hands through his hair, so that it became even more flyaway.
‘Why did you tell me you’d never been on a skateboard before?’ Sarah asked.
‘Because it’s true.’
‘Then how on earth could you skate like that?’
‘I don’t know.’
Sarah snorted. ‘Any other things you don’t know how to do? Neurosurgery? Piloting the space shuttle? Diamond cutting? Or what about classical Greek? I bet you whip through Sophocles between beers. Oh that’s right. You don’t drink.’
‘Don’t exaggerate. I read a bit of German. It’s no big deal. I happen to enjoy Rilke.’ He looked at her shrewdly. ‘You can’t tell me that no one in your family opens a book. Your mother quoted Shakespeare to me this morning.’
‘You’re changing the subject.’
‘Yeah, that’s another thing I’m rather good at.’
Sarah couldn’t help grinning. It was impossible to stay annoyed with him for long. ‘Well, I hope you’re good at maths too. I could certainly use some help once school begins.’
He frowned and looked away.
Shit, she thought. There I go again. Open mouth, insert foot. She hurried to make up for her misstep. ‘Ursula doesn’t just make sundials. She lectures part-time at university. Landscape design.’
‘Is she from Germany?’ Jesse asked.
‘Berlin, originally. But her partner’s local.’ She regarded Jesse thoughtfully, as if to gauge his reaction.
‘If you’re trying to tell me she’s lesbian, I’m not going to fall over in a dead faint.’
‘Good. It’s sometimes hard to predict how people take it.’
‘There’s nothing to take. It’s a completely personal matter.’
Sarah thought how easy it was to talk to Jesse when he wasn’t being secretive, or defensive. Like a brother, almost. Her throat tightened. Then she recalled his earlier comment. ‘What did you mean by fitting?’
No answer. He had tilted his head, listening to the musicians and either didn’t hear her question, or didn’t want to hear. Sarah resolved to locate a copy of the poem at the next opportunity or ask Ursula upon her return. Come to think of it, her father liked poetry. And spoke German. He might know. Autumn Day, she repeated to herself.
But Jesse was right. The trumpeter was impressive. Sarah began to pay attention. She’d had a good five years of piano lessons – not that anything much had taken – but as a dancer she’d learned quite a bit about music. She let herself be carried away by the intricacies of the riffs, by the voice of the trumpet rising above the other instruments like an unbroken spiral of sound, keen as a metal shaving, fluid as a river. Vaguely she was aware that Jesse had moved closer to the musicians, Nubi at his side, but otherwise she lost all sense of time and place as the music swept her along. She imagined a few steps, then a dance … in blue …
Sarah felt the touch on her hip at the same instant as she heard the grunt of pain from nearby. She whirled. A man was gripping his right hand with his left, his face contorted. His eyes were wide with shock, and his face greyish white under a rough stubble. Sarah could see the raw and blistered skin on his palm. It might have only been her imagination, but for a moment there seemed to be a faint wisp of smoke clinging to the blisters. The man muttered something unintelligible – it sounded like caplata – then turned, pushed his way through the crowd, and broke into a run.
‘Are you OK?’ Jesse was addressing her, but his eyes followed the man’s flight.
‘Yes,’ she said, puzzled. ‘Did you see what just happened?’
‘Me neither. I think that man’ – she nodded in the direction the man had taken, though he was no longer to be seen – ‘I think he wanted to grope me or steal my wallet or something. But he'd hurt his hand. It looked badly burnt. Anyway, he got scared and ran off.’
‘As long as he didn’t hurt you …’
‘No, nothing like that.’ But she pulled her bag off her shoulder and looked inside. ‘Everything’s here. Maybe he just bumped against me with his injured hand. He must have been in agony.’
Jesse reached down to stroke Nubi’s head, but not before Sarah caught a glimpse of a tiny spark of light deep within his eyes, blue within blue. Then he blinked, and his lashes swept away any trace of flame.
‘He never dared to beat me properly,’ Jesse said. ‘A slap or two, a kick was as far as he went.’
‘Your father?’ Sarah asked.
‘No. Mal, my last foster father. A vicious sod when he drinks.’
Sarah pressed her lips together.
‘I left because I was afraid.’
‘That he’d hurt you more?’
‘That I might lose control and kill him if I stayed.’
For a long time neither of them spoke. They sat at the base of a horse chestnut, leaning against its thick solid trunk. Sarah combed the grass with her fingertips, grooming her flyaway thoughts. Nubi lay at their feet, his ear cocked as a bird scolded her mate in the canopy overhead. The soft light which reached their skin felt as fresh as the fine spray off a waterfall. A few embryonic conkers lay scattered on the ground. Fallen too early, they would never ripen, never be collected for a playground game.
Sorry. The word tasted dry in her mouth, stale. She wished she knew what to say. Something like this was beyond her. Something you saw on TV, something you read about. Unreal. She looked at Jesse, who was staring off into the distance, and noticed a shadow just below the neckline of his T-shirt. She wondered if there were a bruise or birthmark on his back – not a question she could ask him easily. His hands were gripping his knees hard enough to whiten his knuckles. She would have liked to take his hand. There was a prominent callus on the middle finger of his left hand. Fingers that wrote a lot. Elegant, strong fingers. What do you say to someone who carries this around with him? She had no idea.
Sarah thought about her own father, his booming laugh and laughing eyes. He could roar in anger, and there had been more than enough dreadful fights in their family. But blows? Once when she’d opened his camera to look inside and spoiled a whole roll of film from Manchuria – she must have been four or five at the time – he’d smacked her bottom with a slipper and then hugged her afterwards, tears in his eyes. He’d never hit her again.
It had been years before she learned that other men hid their tears. She’d never forget the way he cried during that ghastly time …
‘Jesse,’ she said, ‘talk to my mother.’
He shook his head.
‘She’ll help you. I know she will.’
Jesse tore his gaze from whatever vista he’d been contemplating. He mustered a smile but Sarah saw the winter in his eyes, and more.
‘I’ll be all right,’ he said.
Jesse laid his head upon his knees and his hair fell forward, screening his face. At Sarah’s side lay a conker in its green case, one of several. She picked it up, turned it in her hand – perfectly formed if tiny. Leaning forward, she whispered Jesse’s name and offered him the chestnut. Perplexed, he took the stunted little thing, and for a brief moment her fingers curled around his. Then he pulled away.