The floor of Mick’s bedroom. Mick and Gavin smoking in the next room. The music still audible but no longer booming. Mick had told her she was welcome to bath. He’d opened the large wardrobe with a smile, ‘Borrow what you like.’ As if nothing were the matter.
Drowsily Sarah drifted into a snowy landscape where she huddled under the boughs of a tall pine sheltering her from the heavy flakes, which blinded her whenever she ventured to escape. Better to remain – the cold had ceased to be painful. Slowly, in fact, a delicious lethargy began to invade her mind. Here she could sleep. Here she could dream.
But her body had its own urgency – eventually it roused her. In slow motion she levered herself upright. She licked her lips, which were caked with dried blood. It hurt to breathe, and it hurt to move, but Sarah knew that she needed to get herself out of here before she could begin to think about what had happened. She hugged her ribs for a long time, shivering and unable to budge. There seemed to a roadblock between her brain and her muscles. Every time she told herself to get up, her numb legs wouldn’t obey. Only after she massaged them roughly did the pins-and-needles diminish and she trust herself to stand. She leaned on the laughter from the next room like a crutch. Just get home, she told herself over and over again.
Much as the prospect of wearing Mick’s things sickened her, she could hardly leave in what was left of her own clothes. She knew that you were supposed to go straight to the police without washing. An examination, tests. They should be stopped, a voice in her head told her. But it was small and weak and came from a great distance. As if the law ever meant anything to people like Mick. His parents had plenty of money.
How could she tell anyone what they’d done?
Don’t think about it. Think about going to the toilet, cleaning yourself up, getting dressed somehow, walking downstairs, then out the front door. Step by step. But there was no way she could make it home in a bus, or even as far as the bus stop. She had her mobile, if they hadn’t wrecked it. She shook her head, trying to clear her mind of the sighing of the wind, a thick drifting of snow, and a single blackbird. She was so cold again.
For a moment she considered ringing Finn, then discarded the idea. His rage would be colossal, and incalculable. She sometimes wondered if her father were capable of murder – those fights with Peter, the months afterwards. If Finn ever learned what she’d done … Was this her punishment at last? She’d hoped that by helping Jesse –
Jesse. Oh god, Jesse …
Sarah closed her eyes and pressed a fist to her mouth, hard against her teeth, but she couldn’t hold in the ragged cry as they drove and drove again, cleaving her life, her self-respect, her soul. Now the blood ran red and hot and thick in her veins. It beat back the snow. Her mind shrieked: kill them kill them kill them kill them kill them
There was no bolt of lightning. No avenging angel. No earthquake which sundered the ground beneath their feet.
Sarah could hear more laughter from the next room.
No matter how open her parents were – how understanding – there was no way she could tell her father this. Not even if she sent him a letter from another continent.
And most of all, she couldn’t bear for Jesse to know.
Once, after hours and hours of effort, she hadn’t been able to manage a very difficult ballet sequence and had been reduced to tears. Her teacher had reminded her of Agnes de Mille’s famous words: it never becomes easy to dance; it becomes possible.
Sarah had finally mastered the steps; and she would somehow find a way to conceal what they’d done from Jesse.
Slowly she dragged herself to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. There were fewer bruises than she expected, and none above her breasts. The face which looked back at her was strangely unchanged, which shocked her. She had expected to see a profound difference. Wasn’t the face a reflection of her essence? her self? Or was that as much an illusion as everything else she’d always believed? She thought of Jesse’s quirky mouth, his mysterious and expressive eyes. If she couldn’t read his face … Had they taken that away from her as well?
She stared at her image until the need to wee became overwhelming. Seat raised, the toilet gaped at her like a cold and voracious mouth, and she slammed it shut. There was a stall shower as well as a tub; the shower would do. She ran the hot water and, meanwhile, rinsed her mouth at the washbasin, then drank and drank from the cold tap until she could hold no more. Carefully she stepped under the stinging spray, peed, let the scalding water beat against her skin until it came up red. She leaned her head against the antiseptic white tiles while she showered. The shower gel smelled masculine, and she wouldn’t touch it. Jesse, she thought, but didn’t cry.
She’d finished dressing when Mick came into the bedroom. She looked at him without speaking.
‘Shall I ring for a taxi?’ he asked, as if they’d just been out to dinner and the theatre.
She would have liked to refuse, but there were no other viable options.
‘That was rather exciting, wasn’t it?’ he asked.
She stared at him.
He backed her up against the wall without actually touching her. She smelled his cologne, the weed on his breath. Those odours would start her stomach churning even years later. With a disarming smile he looked down at her. Her heart beat heavily. She concentrated on keeping her breathing as steady as possible, grateful for her dancer’s training. Fleetingly, she thought that she would never be nervous before a mere performance again. She returned his gaze, afraid that he would take advantage of any sign of weakness. But whether he was reacting to her feelings or simply indifferent to them, he lifted her chin with one finger and kissed her. When she didn’t respond, he laid one hand against the back of her head and with the other encircled her throat and began to press. She gagged and opened her mouth.
‘I love your hair,’ he said when he’d finished, smoothing back a damp lock.
Sarah made an ambiguous sound in her throat. Fortunately Mick didn’t seem to expect a response; he was staring above her head at the poster with a glassy, unfocused cast to his eyes, and it struck her that he might not even be aware of what he’d said. She had the feeling that she’d wandered onto the set of a bizarre psychodrama. Had he forgotten what they’d done to her?
Mick snapped out of his trance. Unblinking, he lowered his gaze to her face, and she noticed that his pupils had shrunk to dark keyholes in his ice-blue irises. A muscle in his cheek was twitching.
‘Has he kissed you?’ he asked.
Sarah had no idea what Mick was talking about. Better to say nothing than risk provoking him. She was beginning to shiver again, and she was afraid that if she didn’t get away soon, she wouldn’t have the strength to walk downstairs and climb into a taxi.
‘I’ve asked you a question.’
‘I don’t know what you mean. Who you mean.’
‘That tosser. Jesse. Has he tried to shag you? to kiss you?’
Mick smiled broadly, with satisfaction, but his eyes glinted with another message, one she found difficult to interpret. For a moment she wondered if Mick and Jesse had already met before she’d introduced them.
Mick went to the door. ‘I’ll tell the taxi driver you’ll be waiting on the doorstep.’
He half closed the door behind him, then stopped and opened it again, as if a sudden parting thought had occurred to him.
‘It wouldn’t be wise to use the word gay about me again.’ His voice was a long sharp icicle composed merely of water, but able to inflict mortal injury.
She vomited in the toilet before she left.
The ride home prolonged by traffic, Sarah leaned her head against the side window of the cab. The afternoon sun, still strong, wrapped her in a somnolent cocoon which reminded her of lazy afternoons in her grandmother Inge’s garden, and the smell of a sour cherry tart cooling on the window ledge for tea. Off and on she drowsed, then jerked awake, heart pounding and senses alert, only to find that they hadn’t travelled very far. And then slipped back again into the capsule of golden filaments where dream and reality merged, and the cherry tart waited in its baking dish, warm and glistening and fragrant, never to be sliced, never to be devoured; and a nightmare stayed firmly between the plates – more solid than stoneware, more fragile than porcelain – of your skull.
Sarah was glad that the driver was one of the quiet ones. He concentrated on the road, leaving her to sleep or think. The radio was playing softly – an opera, she later had the feeling. And she remembered seeing a paperback copy of something difficult, Proust or Faust, on the front seat. So maybe a student. They may have exchanged a few words. She could only recall that he frowned with genuine concern, not impatience, as she hung on to the open door of the taxi for a few seconds after stepping to the ground. ‘Do you need any help?’ he asked with a gentle, sunny, and not unpleasant accent.
Mick had paid the driver in advance. Sarah stumbled up the path and let herself in by the front door. If she just made it to her room before anyone saw her, she’d be able to crawl under the covers, from where it would be easy to plead a headache, a cold coming on.
‘Meg?’ Finn called from the kitchen as soon as she’d closed the door.
‘No, it’s me, Finn,’ Sarah said, forcing herself to speak naturally.
Finn came into the entrance hall.
‘You’re home,’ he said with a strange note in his voice. ‘Everything all right?’
‘How was the exhibit?’
Finn scrutinised her face.
‘Are you sure you’re OK? You seem, I don’t know, upset somehow.’
‘I’m fine. It was hot and crowded, that’s all. Very noisy. I’ve got a headache. I think I’ll go lie down.’
‘You’ve been gone for quite some time.’
‘I had a coffee with Jane afterwards. You know how it is, you get to chatting.’
‘Why didn’t you ring back? I texted two or three times, rang at least twice that.’
‘Nothing. I just wanted to know where you were.’
‘Since when have you started checking up on me? Jane’s got problems with her boyfriend, we didn’t want to be disturbed, OK?’
Finn rubbed his beard, and Sarah could tell that he wasn’t entirely convinced, and was trying to decide what was wrong with her story. For a moment it looked as though he’d challenge her, but then he nodded and even managed a halting smile. OK, his shoulders signalled, I wish you could trust me, but keep it to yourself if you must.
‘Go have a rest. You look rather pale. Or do you want to eat first? I’ve made a mushroom risotto and a salad.’
She shook her head and moved for the stairs. She began to climb, slower than she’d have liked, but fast enough at least to give the impression that her legs weren’t on the verge of collapse.
Finn called after her. ‘Maybe you’re coming down with Jesse’s cold. Meg will be home soon. I’ll send her up for a look at you.’
Sarah sighed dramatically. ‘It’s a headache, not bubonic plague. I’ll take a couple of nurofen and sleep. Tell her not to wake me.’
In her room Sarah shed Mick’s garments, bundled them into a plastic carrier bag, and hid them in her wardrobe. After a hesitation, she opened one of those little aeroplane bottles of vodka – she couldn’t even remember who’d given it to her – and drank it off quickly, grimacing at the taste. The second bottle was easier to get down. Then she showered again, but had no strength left to wash her hair; it would have to wait till morning. Since the vodka hadn’t quite dispelled a lingering foul taste, she scrubbed her teeth. Shivering again after the shower, she donned the warmest pyjamas she could find, fetched her quilt and two extra woollen blankets from the top shelf of her wardrobe, drew the curtains, and burrowed into her bed. After a period of tossing and turning, when she seriously considered rummaging in her mother’s supplies for sleeping pills, she gradually began to relax. She sweated a little under the thick layer of blankets. She muttered a few words. She changed position. But once she slept, she slept on and on.
Jesse opened the door. The room was dark, but he could make out Sarah’s form curled on her side under the covers heaped on the bed. What was she doing with so many blankets? He watched her for a while without moving. Her breathing was slow and regular, a deep sleep. His head still ached, and his throat when he swallowed, but at least he could think without that awful sense of disquiet. Somehow in the long hours of waiting and dreading, berating and tormenting himself, twisting Peter’s top round and round in his fingers, he’d fallen asleep. He had the feeling that Meg had come in once and asked him some questions, but the memory was vague and sketchy, and he might have dreamt it. And Nubi had definitely licked his face in the middle of another firedream. But at some point in sleep his anxiety had lessened, and when he’d woken up properly, he’d known straight off that Sarah had returned.
But something was still wrong. He could feel it deep within the shadows of the room. Softly he closed the door, even more softly he moved to the bed. Sarah stirred when he sat down but didn’t wake. Even in the near dark he could see a line of sweat along her upper lip. His left hand moved forward almost of its own volition, till he snatched it back at the last minute. Don’t wake her, he told himself. When his hand reached out again, this time towards her hair, he rose abruptly and paced back and forth in the darkness.
Thoughts of Liam tormented Jesse. He could see Liam’s face, so clever and so mocking; hear his beautiful lilting voice reading from some of his favourite poets; feel his hands and his lips and his tongue. There had been nobody since Liam, nor was there going to be. Back and forth Jesse paced, back and forth, gripping his arms, clenching and unclenching his fingers.
At last he dropped his hands and sat down gingerly next to Sarah, trying not to jostle her. He pushed the covers aside so that they formed a small mound between them. Sarah made a soft yearning noise in her throat, the sound of an injured animal that both wanted and was terrified of succour. Instinctively Jesse shifted towards her.
Sarah cried out and rolled away from him. She clutched the duvet to her chest. Her eyes were wide and unseeing, the pupils fully dilated.
‘No!’ she cried hoarsely. ‘No!’
Jesse reached out with upturned palm, the same gesture he would have used with any frightened creature, as unthreatening as he could make it. But she shrank back, uttered a guttural cry, and began to shake uncontrollably. Jesse dropped his hand in dismay.
He watched her steadily. Not daring to touch her, he began to hum one of his grandmother’s songs. Though it didn’t seem to make any difference, he continued in a low and soothing voice, recalling the childhood melodies that had most comforted him. A heavy stone was hanging round his neck, and he had to struggle to breathe, much less to sing.
After a long time Sarah stared at him with something like recognition.
‘Jesse?’ she asked, her voice still tight with fear.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Do you want me to leave?’
She bit her lip and looked away.
‘No,’ she said eventually. ‘Please stay.’
‘Can I get you a glass of water? Tea?’
Sarah shook her head. Her eyes were wide and dry, and though she wanted to smile at him, all she could do was swallow hard, hoping to dislodge the lump of shame clinging like a fat slug to her throat, and pick, pick at her cuticles.
‘Sarah,’ he asked gently, ‘what’s happened?’
At his tone of voice she began to shiver again. Jesse felt her torment deep within his own body. Unable to bear it any longer, he laid his arm round her shoulders, but nothing more. He knew about permission.
At first she resisted. He could feel the stiffening in her muscles, the pulling back against his touch. He relaxed his hold a bit but kept his arm in place, willing it lightness and warmth. They breathed together. For a long time they simply breathed together.
After her shivering began to abate, Jesse lay back, drawing Sarah with him. She nestled her head against his chest, her breath tickling his neck. Without speaking both of them closed their eyes and sank into the comfort of each other’s presence. Jesse knew that she’d been through something rough. Why did it feel as if the stone were as much his as hers? While Sarah knew that she was being given something far more precious than a kiss. And she was amazed at how her heart could dance when it was heavy as a boulder, and filled with pain.
‘They raped me,’ Sarah said. ‘I went there to talk to Mick, and they raped me. Mick and his friend.’
Jesse’s arm tightened around her but he said nothing.
‘I didn’t mean to tell you,’ she said. ‘I’m so ashamed.’
‘The shame’s theirs, not yours.’
Sarah made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sob. ‘You don’t know what it feels like.’
The air in the room seemed to thicken, as though filling with a pall of smoke.
‘Look at me, Sarah.’
She could see his eyes glittering in the dark. He raised himself, and though it would have been easier without light, switched on the bedside lamp. Swiftly he tugged his T-shirt over his head, turning so that she could see the scars on his back: hard, ridged, the texture of cold oatmeal yet with a translucent mother-of-pearl sheen. She traced a tentative finger along the spine of one long weal, feeling him struggle not to flinch.
‘Do they hurt?’
‘No, they’re just very ugly.’
‘They’re not ugly.’
He was quiet for a long time. She looked into his eyes, deeper than he’d allowed before. Their colour was black or dark purple down there, and dense with stars. She felt the immense pull of time and space, of vast incomprehensible knowledge. He’s alone, she thought without really understanding what she meant, and the hairs rose on the nape of her neck. For a moment it seemed as if the beauty and chaos and hideous indifference of the entire universe were spread out before her; or the immutable solitude of a single mind. Then he took a deep breath and blinked, and when he spoke, his voice was thick and crusted.
‘I’ve been raped too,’ he said.
She caught her breath. The bastards. No wonder he kept running. ‘While you were sleeping rough?’
‘One of your foster fathers?’
Jesse passed his hand wearily across his eyes.
‘Or don’t you want to talk about it?’ she asked.
She thought he wasn’t going to answer. The silence stretched between them until it took form, became as tangible as brick or stone: a bridge worth crossing.
‘Someone who was supposed to love me, to protect me,’ he said. ‘My father.’
‘Your father,’ she whispered, shocked.
‘Yeah, my father. He swam with me, taught me to fish. He played chess with me. He told me stories – night after night he told me wonderful tales. He was teaching me to work with wood, to carve. And one night he came to my room. I could smell the drink on him. He hugged me, caressed me. Then he pulled down my pyjamas. He was weeping when he finished. I’d never seen my father weep before.’
‘Jesse,’ she said.
‘What kind of monster abuses his own child?’ he asked.
She shook her head.
‘I burnt the house down soon after,’ he said. ‘I was nine years old. Nearly ten.’
‘No, Sarah, it wasn’t. I meant to do it. I meant to kill him. I dissolved my mother’s sleeping tablets in his beer. Lots of them. Only my mother and grandmother and sister ... I thought I’d be able to get them out in time. I was wrong. It was night, they were sleeping. The fire spread so fast. The heat … the fumes. They died.’
‘Oh god,’ she said.
‘Now you know. Sometimes I wish the scars would cover my whole body. My face.’
Sarah stroked his hair. She could hear his heart thudding against his chest, feel the flames racing along his veins. His skin was hot against hers. A sudden insight brought the first prickling of tears she’d felt: for as long as Jesse lived, a part of him would always be nine years old and seared by flames.
‘You were just a little kid. He hurt you so much,’ she said.
‘Yes, but that wasn’t the reason.’
‘I was afraid for Emmy,’ he said. He laughed, a bitter rent in the night’s fine cloth. ‘Me, afraid for her. How ironic. Her big brother. Her saviour. Her murderer.’
They held each other until they both slept.