Friday, October 20, 2006

Chapter Fourteen


Jesse raised his head, but it took him a few moments to bring the room into focus, the place and time. He was kneeling at Nubi’s side. From the doorway Meg was watching them, her face pale and shadowed in the light spilling from the hallway. He remembered now. He’d turned off the kitchen lights to make it easier to concentrate. He laid his head on Nubi’s flank and breathed. He breathed.

‘You’re a healer, aren’t you?’ Meg asked.

He was unable to speak.

Meg crossed the room and crouched at his side, waiting quietly until his face had lost its mottled, watery green tinge. Then she rose again, switched on the overhead lights, and pulled out a chair for him.

‘Come, you need some tea.’ She gazed at him. ‘Some sugar.’

‘Is there any chocolate?’

‘I’ll fetch a box of the Swiss pralines.’

Jesse shook his head. ‘Leave them. It’d be a shame, I’d eat the lot without even tasting them.’

She smiled. ‘I’ve got a small stash of my own.’ She put the kettle on to boil and left the room.

Jesse looked over at Nubi, who was dozing on his blanket. A more complicated break than the kestrel’s, so he was likely to sleep for a while yet. Jesse sighed; he abhorred sedatives. Not even Matthew’s medication had affected him like this. Then he grinned to himself – maybe an allergy?

While he ate and drank, Meg sat with her own thoughts till he’d recovered enough for the trembling in his muscles to cease.

‘Have you done any healing?’ he asked.

‘My gift is different.’ She paused and broke off a piece of chocolate for herself, then pushed the chocolate bar back across the table. ‘There’s not much left. Eat it all,’ she said. ‘I was going to do spaghetti for supper, but if you can’t wait, I’ll make you something now.’

Jesse grimaced. The thought of food made him queasy.

‘No, just this. Sarah’s promised to bring me some chocolate,’ then added in an undertone, ‘I think.’

‘So she knows?’

He shook his head. ‘Only that I had a craving for chocolate.’

A few coarse grains of demerara were scattered near the sugar bowl. Jesse prodded them with a fingertip. An ant would see what? Large craggy chunks of grit? A gift of the Great God Ant? An ecstatic chance? He brought his finger close and stared at the crystals clinging to his skin. He tried to imagine what it would be like not to wonder, not to have a life in his head. It was a damned lonely business, this noisy shuttered skulling. Yet without it … He licked his finger.

‘How did you know I can heal?’ he asked.

‘Because I can follow you in a bit.’

‘You’re always talking in riddles!’ he said crossly.

‘Would you prefer an equation? You, of all people?’

He shrugged.

‘Empathy is not always a gift, you know. Sometimes it’s overwhelming…terrifying. And mostly it’s just frustrating.’

‘Are you warning me off?’ Jesse asked with an edge to his voice. Then he ducked his head and muttered, ‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t apologise, I’ve been known to throw things after some of my worst – well, Finn likes to call them trips to annoy me.’

‘Yeah, I've been wondering whether you use any of the hallucinogens in your little black bag.’

Nonplussed, she stared at him for a moment. Then she chuckled.

‘Compared to you, I’m something like an ant asked to follow Shakespeare. It can crawl between the pages. It can trace the path of the printer’s ink. And it can certainly be crushed if you slam the book shut.’ With the edge of her hand she swept the sugar together into her palm, a movement as sweet and cruel as a sonnet. ‘But it will still find its way to the sugar from far off, won’t it?’ She brushed the crystals off into the sugar bowl.

Jesse felt a crawling sensation along his skin. To hide his disquiet, he broke up the rest of the chocolate and ate it piece by piece, in between sipping his tea. Psychiatrists’ tricks, he tried to tell himself, but wasn’t reassured.

Meg went to the back door and opened it, letting in a gust of cool air. It was still drizzling. The sky was grey and dull and featureless, hours from nightfall. The lights in the kitchen emphasised rather than dispelled the gloom.

‘I’ll cut some sweet peas,’ Meg said. ‘Their scent’s best at evening. The kitchen needs cheering.’

‘Would you like me to do it?’ Jesse asked.

‘No, it’s fine. I like to get out in the garden as often as I can, among things that are growing.’ She smiled. ‘As you are.’

He raised a sardonic eyebrow, but she didn’t seem to mind. If anything, she was amused – quietly appreciative, as though they were sharing a good joke.

‘Give it time, Jesse. You’ll grow into it. The mind has many rooms, and strangely painted doors, which my straighter colleagues think of as mere synapses. Some are bound to be dead ends. And others … who knows?’

She opened a drawer and took out a pair of scissors.

‘I’ll be very interested to see how you develop. You might not want to hear this, but yours is the most powerful mind I’ve ever come across.’

‘There are lots of smart people out there.’

‘You know that’s not what I’m talking about.’

He ran his hands through his hair, once, then a second time. When he spoke, his tone was convincingly offhand. ‘Will you tell Finn?’

‘About the healing?’ Meg regarded him for a long moment. ‘I give you my word, only if it’s ever absolutely necessary.’

She took down an old, drab olive rain cape from a hook behind the door and shrugged it over her head, then kicked off her shoes. Another person who liked to walk barefoot in the rain. She picked up a basket that had seen years of good use, laid the scissors inside, and hooked it into the crook of her arm. At the threshold she turned back to look at him.

‘Never doubt that the mind is real, Jesse.’

She closed the door with a soft click and walked out into the rain.


How touching,’ said Sarah from the doorway.

Seated at the table, Jesse was handing Meg flowers one by one, which she was arranging in a vase. A pot of tea steamed gently in front of him, a book lay open to his left. The kitchen was filled with the rich smell of garlic and tomato and oregano.

Sarah sauntered across the kitchen to lift the saucepan lid, releasing an even greater assault on her empty stomach so that it gave a plaintive growl, and with a wooden spoon stirred the sauce, prolonging the activity with just the right dramatic timing – not too short to go unnoticed, not too long to become absurd – then stomped over to Jesse and tossed her fistful of Cadbury bars onto the table, not caring if they broke into pieces – wanting them to break.

Nubi had raised his head when Sarah came into the kitchen. He seemed much more alert. Still without another word she went to stroke him. To her astonishment he rose to all fours and shook himself. Not only had the sedative worn off, but he was paying no more heed to his injured leg than to his leather collar. She set her chin. She’d be damned if she’d ask him. It would be easy enough to tackle her mother on her own afterwards.

‘How was your class?’ Meg asked.

‘Fine.’

‘Was Thomas there?’

‘Yeah.’

‘We’ll be eating in fifteen minutes.’

‘Not hungry.’

Meg dealt with schizophrenia and severe depression and bipolar disorder and autism on a daily basis. A little temper tantrum didn’t even register on her radar screen.

‘No problem.’ Meg turned to Jesse. ‘Would you mind fetching Finn up from the office?’ She was careful not to look at the intercom.

But Sarah also knew a thing or two about mothers. ‘I’ll do it. I’m going anyway.’

She turned on her heel and left, closing the door behind her. Not slamming it, just letting it make a nice loud statement.


Jesse thought he’d have a look at the games on the laptop before going to check on Nubi. He loaded the chess program and played a few games. Despite his fatigue, he trawled easily through the advanced level but left grandmaster for another time. No matter how much he ridiculed himself, he remained stubbornly loathe to lose to a machine. He had a rapid look at the other games, all pretty much standard fare. He’d have a go at them eventually – he enjoyed a good cop chase as much as the next bloke, so long as it stayed virtual. Smart people didn’t tangle with the police, ever.

Idly he doubleclicked on a last game, then frowned. The screen had gone blank.

Or so it seemed. Reckoning the whole thing was a typical freeze, Jesse was about to soft boot when the screen became a uniform dark purple. His hand hovered over the keyboard. He was curious, but he also wanted to have another look at Nubi – the femur had been in bad condition. Though Nubi could put his weight on the leg now, the healing process would be slow, and Jesse knew he’d have to go back in. It would be foolhardy, of course, to make another attempt so soon. He leaned his elbows on the desk and massaged the knots at the base of his skull. That deathly cold – he shivered, then straightened abruptly. It wasn’t memory that frosted his computer screen, that exhaled a puff of white vapour. He was suddenly afraid.

Present fears are less than horrible imaginings. The words floated in large shimmering 3-D letters across the display, then disappeared, leaving the screen empty once more. Jesse stared at it in disbelief. Macbeth’s words: had he imagined them? Could he be that tired? Or...? Jesse ran a fingertip across the screen. Cold, icy cold. Even his imagination couldn’t possibly produce the thin scraping of frost rapidly melting on his skin. He shivered again and fetched a jumper from the wardrobe. His curiosity was stronger than his fear now. He might not be able to control what was happening to the temperature, but a computer had never yet intimidated him, nor awed him either.

First he tried the mouse, then the keyboard. No response. The screen remained purple, although the colour shimmered into blue at the edges. The oddest system crash he’d ever seen. He could reboot and try again. But if he wanted to fiddle around properly, he would need some time, probably a lot of time. Jesse drummed his fingers lightly on the wooden desktop. He knew himself. Once he began, he might not resurface for hours. Nubi needed attention – and then there was Sarah. He hoped that she’d calmed down enough to talk to him.

A movement on the screen caught Jesse’s attention. Impossible. The computer had locked down. Chin on his knitted hands, he fixed his eyes on the display, as if by fierce concentration alone he could will the computer to yield up its secrets. He didn’t dare touch the keyboard for fear of interrupting what was unfolding before him.

A small sphere had formed in the exact centre of the screen. To begin with it looked like a child’s blue ball, but under Jesse’s scrutiny, land and ocean and clouds appeared, not all at once but slowly, rising from the depths of the display much like one of Finn’s images in the darkroom. It wasn’t the earth. The shape of the continent on the visible hemisphere was wrong. As the object – planet, he assumed – began to revolve, the continent proved to be the sole landmass. Soon the planet was rotating, then spinning, then whirling so fast that Jesse could no longer make out any details on its surface. Uneasily he noticed that it now looked exactly like Peter’s top. One hand stole into his pocket, where he’d been keeping the toy. It felt warm under his fingers and was vibrating slightly. In his palm it seemed the same as usual, except that his skin was tingling by contact with the wood. Jesse glanced back at the laptop screen. Startled, he dropped the top, which bounced off the desk and fell with a thunk to the floor.

It was very hard for him to believe what he’d just witnessed: cradled by a hand, the blue top on the screen had nova’d in a burst of brilliant bluewhite light.

Now the screen was black, and blank. Like the interior of a camera obscura after sunset, or Finn’s darkroom. The room was warm again, and Jesse’s shivering had another source.

Just before Jesse fell asleep that night, he remembered that the continent he’d seen on the display wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Rendered by geographers and later by computer modelling, it had been named Pangaea.

6 comments:

Joe said...

I'm no longer a "YA", but I do enjoy your writing.

Lee said...

Thanks, Joe!

Anonymous said...

Ooooh nice... I'm on tenterhooks to know where you're going with this...

Love these two linked paragraphs:

A few coarse grains of demerara sugar were scattered near the sugar bowl. Jesse prodded them with a fingertip. An ant would see what? Large craggy chunks of grit? A gift of the Great God Ant? An ecstatic chance? He brought his finger close and stared at the crystals clinging to his skin. He tried to imagine what it would be like not to wonder, not to have a life in his head. It was a damned lonely business, this noisy shuttered skulling. Yet without it … He licked his finger.

'Compared to you, I'm something like an ant being asked to follow Shakespeare. It can crawl between the pages. It can trace the path of the printer's ink. And it can certainly be crushed if you slam the book shut.' With the edge of her hand she swept the sugar together into her palm, a movement as spare as a haiku. 'But it will still find its way to the sugar from far off, won’t it?' She brushed the crystals off into the sugar bowl.


I especially liked the references to Shakespeare and haiku...

clare said...

This is becoming more and more absorbing. I love the subtle assumptions e.g. Meg saying you're a healer aren't you?
It says so much, so economically.

Wilf said...

An intriguing end to this chapter, Lee - looking forward to the next...
Addy

Cailleach said...

I agree with clare: as the novel progresses the references and the subtlety of the writing are drawing me further inside the story.

I especially enjoyed the last part of the chapter!