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1. New website

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2. Snowstorm


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Helen’s thoughts kept sliding off course as she gripped the steering wheel. It had been a mistake not to stop for coffee at the last service area, but she was good at making mistakes. Even if she could spot a roadside café through the ever-thickening snow, anybody in their senses would have locked up and gone home long ago. Certifiable, she’d seen it on their faces when she refused to wait out the snowstorm. ‘You ought to be locked up,’ Richard had raged at his son after the Incident. But Mack will feed Garm, bake a couple of frozen pizzas for Cait and Phil (had she remembered Mack’s Cajun Chicken?), see that they brush their teeth, he’s a good kid really. One evening of ‘unsuitable programmes’ won’t kill them. Do his colleagues know how obsessed Richard can get? There are hints of it, though they’re circumspect with the New Wife, except for that ridiculously transparent Liz. ‘Possessed’, Helen used to tease him, back when she could still tease him.

Out of her musings a dark spectre came at her. With a small cry she twisted the wheel to the right, too far, too fast, and the car began to skid. Richard’s voiceover: ‘Don’t brake.’ Had there been time, she might have wondered what it would be like to let go, the snow so soft and thick, pillowy. But a compact almond of nuclei inside her temporal lobe had already taken charge, and there would be no overturning, no swift trajectory into oblivion, not this time. Her foot unsteady on the brake pedal, she brought the car to a halt straddling the verge and switched on the emergency flashers. She leaned her forehead against the steering wheel, breathing fast, then after a few seconds forced herself to sit upright and unclench her hands. It had been a roadside tree, bare and ghostly in its winter coat. Ahead of her there was only snow, more snow. The mileometer couldn’t be right, could it? She’d like to get out and walk a bit, her foot was aching from being flexed without respite, and her neck felt welded to her shoulders, but her boots were back home in the boot rack. Instead she wound the window down and let the snowflakes melt on her face till the heater could no longer compete with the indraft of cold air. She checked her rearview mirror, but there was little danger from behind; the last car had turned off at least half an hour ago, though somewhere not far ahead a snowplough must be clearing the road. She promised herself not to look at the clock till she passed the stretch of wind turbines. Day or night, sunshine or blizzard, they hovered over the countryside like metallic storks, and she would sense their presence – a nursery constructed to deliver electricity, not babies. Though the local authority insisted the noise from the turbines was low, about the level of a small, meandering stream, on nights when, sleepless, she’d sit for hours in the front room, a faint crooning drifted through the double glazing, the caulking, the weather stripping, the foam-injected walls. Richard would never tolerate a badly insulated house.

She wouldn’t mind so much if it were about the money, or the future of the planet. It was odd, really, all this snow, with the global warming they were forever going on about. White noise, it became after a while, though she only switched to another programme if by herself. Still, she remembered those winters from her childhood, when the lake would freeze for weeks at a time, and she’d skate with Ian till their fingers and toes lost all sensation, despite the bulky, itchy, and slightly greasy woollens which their nan supplied each autumn – red for Ian, blue for Helen; till it would be growing dark and they could no longer see the rough patches or ensnared branches, sometimes thick as an arm, or a frozen crow which Ian would kick around if his mates were out; till the ice cracked. Twenty years, and she still heard that first crack: fate thrusting its fist through the icy threshold to seize her little brother. ‘It was meant to happen,’ Nan had said. ‘Some things are meant to happen, no one’s to blame.’

She decided not to leave the flashers on, though it would be dark soon. If she had any beauty, it was the delicate, understated sort which didn’t call attention to itself. Her hairdresser said that with her bones she would age well, but he was a kindly man for all his flourishes, his endearing insistence upon ‘stylist’. At first she’d been surprised by Richard’s interest in her – flattered, but daunted too – though they say opposites attract. As she inched out onto the road, her mobile rang, and without glancing at the display, she knew instinctively it was Richard, who would only berate her. ‘For God’s sake, try to be a little firmer with them. Mack’s making a fool of you,’ he’d said just last night. She switched on the radio.

A foreign language, one she couldn’t identify. Something exotic like Persian, maybe. She switched to another channel, her attention on the road ahead. Were you supposed to brake downhill? A panicky rush of blood to her chest left it hot and prickling even after she contrived to ease off the accelerator and change down a gear. Unlocking one hand from the steering wheel, she plucked at her collar, then flapped the front of her jumper. The snowflakes hurtled towards her, an unceasing barrage, as though time had chipped its every arrowhead from ice. It was difficult not to focus on them. It was spellbinding to focus on them.

The radio crackled, and along with the burst of static she heard a vaguely familiar voice, but before she could fix on one of the usual newsreaders, it disintegrated into gibberish, yet with a plaintive tone that needed no translation. ‘What’s a shirt lifter?’ Ian had asked plaintively once their dad moved out of earshot. She tried another channel before giving up altogether. It must have something to do with the weather conditions. With a fierce squint she looked beyond the snowflakes to a hot drink and a warm house and Garm’s boisterous welcome. Ian had chosen the name, he’d been given a book of Norse myths for his birthday the year they got the first Garm as a fat puppy. She still had it on her shelf. ‘Funny old book,’ Cait had said. ‘Can I colour in the pictures?’

Helen had more photos of her dogs than of Ian, it was time to ask her mum for some prints, other families talked about these things. The Newfoundland was Garm number four; no rescue-centre mongrel for Richard. ‘Get yourself a puppy, we don’t need any more children.’ On occasion she’d thought about an ‘accident’, but Cait (and, increasingly, Phil) was beginning to see through her evasions, her small white lies. That business with the shirt – it had been a mistake trying to explain, Richard’s voice carried, and it just made things more difficult with his children. Mack could be sweet, but like all teenagers knew when to use a situation to his advantage. And accidents … no, on balance it was probably better this way, though she sometimes pictured a little boy with Ian’s red curls. A grandchild at last, her mum would surely stop being so toxic. ‘Last chance,’ Richard had said about Christmas, and now it was only a week away. Why had she ever pressed him? If she had an accident, they’d be able to put it off. She projected herself into a frame for a shattered leg, weeks in hospital, then a long, restful period of recuperation at a rehabilitation centre with the latest memoirs of Sylvia, plus that Moses novel she’d always meant to read. Wintering, how apt. They could afford a private room. There would be fresh-squeezed fruit juices, a heated pool, massages, aromatherapy. There would be a detoxifying diet. There would be no reason to hurry her healing, back home it would be pizza and chips and rows over the broccoli.

She glanced at the clock, its numerals glowing with electronic rebuke, then was immediately annoyed at herself for her lapse. If she kept this up, she’d never get there. It already felt as though she’d driven off the road into one of Mack’s games, the car motionless amidst a stream of snowy pixels. Maybe she ought to drape something over the clock. Her eyes shifted to the passenger seat, where she’d tossed her bag and jacket.

Headlights flashed behind her. Startled, but not unduly so, she saw in her rearview mirror what looked like a 4x4 or people carrier approaching – not speeding, precisely, but travelling faster than she’d dare. A curve up ahead forced her to slow, but the signalling persisted. ‘Damn,’ she muttered, and switched on her emergency flashers, then slowed even more and edged towards the verge as the driver sounded the horn, a long rude blast. His horn: Helen could now make out a man behind the wheel, fortyish, balding and with a beard like Richard’s. ‘Idiot.’ As though able to hear, he hooted three, four times so that she felt her palms grow moist. To pull off any further might mean getting stuck, or worse – the banks were steep along certain stretches of the road, there was no way to tell short of getting out and testing the snow’s depth.

‘Go on, overtake me. Serves you right if you end up in a ditch.’

With a final, brazen, jubilant trumpet – just like a bull elephant in heat, she thought in disgust – he swung out through the darkening afternoon and sped past, his wheels spurting up a granular fusillade which splattered the windscreen. Already overburdened, the wipers needed several passes to clear the glass, by which time his taillights, thickly coated, were a mere reddish glow, soon to vanish into memory.

As she cautiously headed into the bend, a cone of light swept sideways, briefly illuminating a snow-encrusted road sign and the gauzy outline of a stand of pines, then swept onwards towards her like a lighthouse beacon. Her brain initiated its cunning trick of time dilation to brace her for the impending impact while the beam revolved another half-turn – later she’d recall a glimpse of red – before sailing in a graceful skyward arc. The 4x4 rolled twice and came to rest belly up, its tyres spinning to a gradual halt, its horn mute after one final bleat, its headlights still gleaming through the shroud of falling snow. As the spume thrown up by the crash settled, it left the car buried up to its door handles in a deep drift.

The slow, eerie, nearly silent accident had taken no time at all. Perhaps there had been a slight tremor, felt rather than heard, the way you feel pressure waves from nearby thunder or a bass drum. But now Helen felt nothing except a dreamlike calm: she watched herself wind down the window, she watched herself creep along the bend, she watched herself turn her head towards the wreck, she watched herself scan for a vital sign – arm pushing through the snow, muffled shout. Her mobile lay on the dashboard. The air was icy and whipped her hair about. She ought to stop, everyone knew that. Soon it would be dark. The snow would fall for hours, fairytale snow, pure and pristine, and fall long past midnight, cold and cunning and cruel, and keep falling. By dawn a death mask would have set over the frozen earth. It was likely there would be a white Christmas. She drove on.

~~~

The hitchhiker stood in the middle of the road, waving his arms; otherwise she wouldn’t have stopped. As it was, he was forced to scamper out of her path, his red stocking cap as long as the ones Gran had knitted to match their mittens. A pompom dangling from its tail, too, distinctly eccentric for a lad his age. One year Ian had cut his off, not realising the wool would unravel.

‘What are you doing out here in the midst of a blizzard?’ she asked testily. Seventeen or eighteen, she guessed.

‘Can you give me a lift?’

He clapped his gloved hands together and stamped his feet while waiting for her decision. At least he’s wearing boots, she thought, wondering if that were excuse enough to leave him behind.

‘Look, I’m not going to rape you or anything. I just want to get out of the cold for a stretch.’

‘I’ve got a mobile.’

‘I don’t care if you’ve got an AK-47, as long as your heater’s working.’

She hesitated a moment longer, then pictured all the times Mack must have stood at the roadside with his thumb out. ‘OK, get in. But shake off your cap first, the snow will melt down your neck.’

While she tossed her clutter into the back seat, he did as asked, even using the hat to brush off his shoulders and sleeves before walking round the car and folding himself inside. The light of the small interior lamp highlighted his springy, shoulder-length red hair, a startling contrast to pale, almost waxen skin. Wasn’t that a sign of frostbite? Without the crisscross of snowflakes to obscure his features, she could see that he was actually quite beautiful, though perhaps older than she’d first assumed. His face reminded her of the Rossetti paintings she’d loved so much in her late teens. And no lad ought to have such sensuous lips.

‘Your jeans must be soaked through,’ she said.

‘Not really. I haven’t been outside that long.’

Had she made another of her mistakes? She regarded him uneasily, but he returned her gaze with the cool mockery so typical of Mack and his mates that she found herself disguising a smile (and her curiosity) with a hurried yawn, rather than bristling. So he knew what she was thinking, did he? Shifting into gear, she resolved not to question him till he’d thawed a bit. Not all adults are insufferable meddlers.

He unzipped his anorak, leaned back against the headrest, and closed his eyes. She was surprised that he didn’t ask for music. For a while they drove in silence, and it was a nice change not to steal glances at the clock. In profile his face seemed older still, more androgynous, with a delicate bluish cast from the snow. Was he beardless or merely clean-shaven? Despite his bulky jumper, she could see he was very slender. And the lithe way he’d moved in the cold hinted at the effortless grace of a dancer or figure skater. A few times her eyes strayed to his crotch.

He had a gift for stillness. Just when she reckoned he must have fallen asleep, he said without opening his eyes, ‘About half a kilometre ahead there’s a lane on the left.’

‘Your house?’

‘It’ll be hard to see in the snow, I’ll warn you in plenty of time to turn off.’

If she hadn’t given up smoking to be a good model to Richard’s children, she would have reached for a cigarette – a stratagem of Mack’s which infuriated Richard but secretly amused her, since it served as provocation as well as delaying tactic. She switched on the radio. A low hum came from the speakers, but no reception. She tried another station, then cycled futilely through all the channels, AM and FM, before fumbling for a CD, only to recollect that Richard had recently told Mack to ‘put down the damn guitar for once and clean the car’. Her hitchhiker straightened up but said nothing.

‘Sorry, but I’m not taking a diversion in this weather. You’ll have to hike in.’

‘Don’t worry. We won’t get stuck.’

Again she revised her estimate of his age. The next time Richard railed about teenagers taking things for granted, she might be less inclined to defend Mack. With her eyes on the road, she searched for a conciliatory response. The stress of driving through this damn blizzard was making her ridiculously jumpy. He was only a lad. She wished he hadn’t mentioned a gun, though. Risking a sidelong glance in his direction, she spied her mobile on the dashboard. ‘Why don’t you ring your parents and see if someone can drive out to pick you up?’ But before she could congratulate herself on her quick thinking, he reached for the mobile, keyed in a number, and brandished the display: the no-network logo.

‘It’s a heavy snowstorm,’ he said.

‘Interference?’

‘Slow down now. We’re coming to the turning.’

She peered into the snowy maelstrom, convinced he couldn’t possibly recognise any landmarks in the foreshortened corridor lit by their headlamps. After a short distance, however, a gap in the snowbanks appeared, and as she drew abreast and stopped, a light glimmered at the bottom of the lane, surrounded by an amber halo.

‘It’s not so very far for you to walk.’ Or for her to drive, but she was determined not to capitulate.

‘It’s up to you. You can always turn round and go back.’

‘Look, I’ve got a family waiting for me at home. Please, just get out so I can carry on.’

‘That’s not possible. The road ends about 150 metres from here.’

‘What are you talking about? I’ve driven this road hundreds, maybe thousands of times.’

Not this road, you haven’t.’

Other than abandoning the car, she had no way of divesting herself of this clearly disturbed, or at best confused, hitchhiker. To think that she … angrily, she rammed the clutch pedal to the floor and shoved the gear lever forward.

‘OK, I’ll take you up to the house. After we have a look at this dead end of yours.’

‘Suit yourself.’

Her mind elsewhere, habit reasserted itself. A touch too much pressure, and everything spins out of control. But as the wheels lost traction, the hitchhiker reached over as if to touch her hand – ‘Easy, now’ – and though she jerked aside, she let up on the accelerator so that the car rolled backwards. She eased it forward again, and then with a few careful rocking movements, they were free of the rut.

The barrier, as far as she could gauge, was situated squarely where he said it would be. He’d exaggerated, of course; typical teen. The road didn’t end, but might as well have: snow had been ploughed across its entire breadth to form a two-metre high bulwark. It would take a bulldozer to clear a passage, not that teaspoon masquerading as a spade in the boot.

‘What idiot decided to block the road like this?’ she finally asked.

‘Don’t worry, it’ll be gone later. In the meantime, you can get some coffee and a sandwich at my place.’ He gestured towards the right snowbank. ‘Can you turn on your own or should I get out to guide you?’

‘I can manage,’ she snapped.

They drove back without speaking, Helen stubbornly silent when the lane – more a track, really – proved indeed navigable. The snow continued to fall heavily round and about, but the gravel was merely dusted with a sprinkling of white, like icing sugar. She wondered if heating cables had been laid beneath the surface; or some other technological marvel, lasers maybe. She didn’t notice the pattern to the snowfall.

A building soon came into view through the trees, a very unappealing squat structure more warehouse than dwelling, all concrete and glass and sixties. The orange glow coalesced into an industrial streetlight, the sort you find in car parks and along the motorway; admittedly useful at such a secluded site. Several windows in the house were lit but shaded, so that it was impossible to see if anyone was moving about.

He directed her along a semi-circular drive to the front door. An overgrown holly needed a good trim, but neat, snow-laden shrubs bordered several metres of bare paving slabs. Under the rest there might be a lawn, or there might be a yard wrested from the wood; or further dreary concrete. She drew up to the path, cut the engine, and turned to the hitchhiker.

‘Are your parents at home?’

‘There’s a garage round back.’

She nodded, having seen the fork at the start of the drive.

Inside, the house reassured her by its utter normalcy – brass coat stand, pale wooden floors, cream walls, classy oak armoire which Richard himself would approve of, and in the sitting room, a tempestuous northern seascape in a carved and gilded frame, two squishy leather sofas the colour of malt whisky, and an enormous TV and sound system. It took her a moment to discern the only odd note, which was the extreme quiet – no humming from the heating system, no pinging of snow against the windowpanes, no skirling of the wind under the eaves. Even their footfalls had a muted quality, as though they were treading on a thick carpet rather than polished floorboards.

Their voices, however, sounded much as before, if slightly flat, a detail whose import she would never fully appreciate. Mack, years later a leading studio engineer, would have been fascinated, though a bit disbelieving, had she told him. But of course she would tell no one.

‘Sit down, and I’ll fetch something from the kitchen.’

Where is everyone?’

‘It’s a big house. We’ll have a look for them right after eating.’

‘Do you want some help?’

‘No, I’ll do it, you’ve been driving for hours.’

Soon she’d need a toilet, but for the moment she was glad to sink into one of the sofas, shut her eyes, and think about nothing. Richard, and his children, receded to ghostly silhouettes amidst the snow inside her head. It was warm in the room, unusually warm. Under pressure snow which has melted can recrystallise into dense, granular, intractable firn; the stuff of glaciers.

~~~

‘I’m sorry I can’t offer you a bed for the night.’

She roused slowly, reluctantly, then wondered if she’d been dozing with her mouth open. What had he asked? Pushing a hand through her hair, she sat up and adjusted her jumper. From a tray on the coffee table he passed her a large mug, to which she added two heaping teaspoons of sugar. She’d swallowed half the coffee and several bites of a cheese sandwich before registering there was only one mug, one plate.

‘Aren’t you eating?’

Most men have a bad habit of grazing when they’re in the kitchen,’ he said with a smile.

She finished the sandwich, ate another, and sipped a refill while he sprawled in an armchair, his hair screening part of his face. She not-watched him through the steam from the coffee till her eyes began to prickle. Why, after all these years of arid silence, had Piers chosen to ring? ‘Your mother gave me the number.’ She’d heard the rasp of the veldt in his voice, the droughts. A cloudless summer day never failed to conjure up the sun-bleached colour of his eyes. There must be creases round them now.

‘Have you got any idea when they’ll clear the road? Probably I still have a few hours ahead of me.’

‘Let’s go find out.’

He showed her the guest toilet, then led her through a complicated twist of passages to a set of sliding glass doors, behind which thronged a mass of tropical vegetation.

‘The conservatory,’ he explained.

The air beyond the doors was warm and humid, yet devoid of the cloying smell which prevails in so many hothouses; devoid, in fact, of much smell at all. They sidled round fleshy plants tapping the roof as though in search of an escape route. Helen ducked under a low-hanging limb with leathery, red-veined leaves and glistening crimson berries, narrowly avoiding the outstretched talons of a thorn bush. With one hand her host parted the fronds of a palm for her to step through.

The glass wall in front of them gave onto an outdoor pond, as large as a small lake. Someone had swept the ice clean of snow, which shone like pewter in the moonlight. Scratched pewter: she could see where the blades of the skaters had scored its finish. Several kids were still larking near the banks, and one intrepid lad was zigzagging backwards, practising camels and camel-sits, as well as the odd lutz. It all came back to her then, Ian’s obsession with skating – the lessons, the competitions, the endless talk. She hadn’t been on skates since the accident, nor would she allow Cait and Phil to learn, despite Cait’s repeated pleas. ‘It’s not fair, it’s not. All my friends go skating.’ And to her father, ‘Why are you letting her decide?’ There weren’t many domains in their marriage where she, Helen, prevailed, but this was one of them.

‘Look,’ she said, ‘it’s stopped snowing.’

‘Not exactly.’

Puzzled, she glanced at him, then back outdoors. ‘But –’ One hand shielding her eyes, she stepped up close and pressed her face against the glass, which felt slightly clammy. ‘I can see perfectly well it’s stopped. The moon’s even out.’ She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, then rubbed the condensation from the window, recalling her doodles and stick figures drawn with a fingertip, Ian’s outlandish beasts; their countless games of noughts and crosses. ‘Is that your family?’

‘Watch for a moment longer while I see about the road.’

As the boy attempted a double axel jump, his cap flew off and skittered across the ice towards the centre of the lake. He landed awkwardly, though without falling, then stamped one foot in obvious frustration. How well she remembered Ian’s bursts of fury! He could never stand the slightest shortcoming in himself, the slightest blunder. For a few seconds he rested his hands on bent knees to catch his breath before heading for the wayward cap, his dandelion-clock hair freewheeling in the wind. A tall figure detached herself from the others at the shore and skated towards him, waving her arms so wildly that she lost her balance after only a short distance and sprawled onto the ice. At the sound of her cry a flock of crows rose in a single mass from the tree in which they’d been roosting, huddled together against the cold. The crows fluttered and flapped their wings in unison, flapped and fluttered and cawed as they passed like a black cloud across the face of the clairvoyant moon. Then their eerie caws died away, leaving behind a silence which the ice cleaved to fill. Winded, knees throbbing, and one ankle twisted painfully beneath her, she was unable to get to her feet. Always the clumsy one, she should have known to be more heedful.

‘No,’ Helen whispered.

Go back,’ she said. ‘It’s only a hat.’

‘I promise I’ll never tell another lie,’ she said.

A touch on her arm. She turned round, but recognition didn’t come at once. He’d tied back his hair, which accentuated the planes of his face so that he looked older again; aloof, with the patrician sombreness of a time-darkened portrait. He held up a mobile. ‘It’s working now.’ Ian had hated it when humidity made his hair go all kinky. ‘The road’s clear. But going back is still an option. Think about it, will you.’

‘Back?’ she asked, glancing involuntarily towards the window. Then numbly, ‘It’s snowing again.’

Without so much as a pondward flicker of his eyes, he went past her to a ceiling-high lemon tree laden with fruit, extended an arm, and uttered something in a guttural language, half speech and half croak: a string of incomprehensible words, followed by what sounded like, ‘Come, Mooning.’ To her astonishment, a glossy black bird flew down from amongst the dark leaves and landed on his forearm, then strutted to his shoulder with an air of self-possession. She studied the bird, who, as though chancing upon a particularly droll specimen of scarecrow, maybe with uncharacteristically bulbous frontage and shocks of strawlike hair, turned to study her, its undisguised curiosity trumped by a disconcerting intelligence. Mack would call it a bird with attitude.

‘A family pet?’ she asked.

‘Something like that.’

After a brief silence, she indicated the window, and its ghostly reflections. ‘They won’t be able to skate now. And they ought to be careful, people have got lost only a few metres from shelter.’

‘Snow insulates surprisingly well. The Inuit burrow into a snowdrift if caught in a blizzard. They can survive for quite a while. But of course there are human limits.’

‘You mean –’

He smiled then, the sort of boyish smile Ian used to flash when keen for her to coax a secret from him. ‘It’s up to you, but the road back might not be open for long.’

~~~

As she drove along the track to the main road, the hard-packed surface was beginning to snow over. To the left she could see drifts mounding against the underbrush and tree trunks, and despite the dense woodland, a heckling wind jabbed and jeered at her car. Bypassing a concert of contemporary music and a dull report from the Middle East, she tuned in to a discussion about children and bereavement, the volume loud enough to drown out the voice of the storm. Any sense of travelling through a glass tunnel had vanished, and falling snow soon obliterated all trace of the house in her rearview mirror.

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3. Trick or Treat

This is a story about Halloween, a packet of toffees, and a bloke.

The toffees are easiest to describe, so I’ll start with them. Chewy treacle, a whole 1,35 kilos – I believe in being exact, it would’ve saved a lot of bother if the nutter who wrote Genesis had specified exactly what he meant by 'day', like solar day or sidereal day or millennial day, and I say 'he' with malice aforethought, because no woman would have been so dim as to –

I mean, come on, an apple?

OK, let’s try again. This is a story about Halloween, a packet of toffees, and

Except that it isn’t a packet, more like a small sack with a pumpkin painted on it and tied with a piece of shiny orange ribbon, just right for Halloween, and a pretty note written with a chartreuse gel pen, which at school I wouldn't be seen dead using, and of course the toffees, and I don’t want to give you the wrong idea, they aren’t any horrid supermarket muck, but homemade ones, I’m really good at making stuff like shortbread and fudge and caramel popcorn and stuff, and don’t laugh, I like to garden too, and though I oughtn't tell you, I even grow some weed in my mum’s garden, in the corner behind the shed, she’s never around to notice or would think it was, like, weedy weeds if she saw it, she can’t even recognise nettles and ragwort and those greenish toadstools which smell like honey, you could kill someone with one of them, not to mention all the old tins in the shed, but anyway, about the toffees, I use only real butter and a bit of salt, makes all the difference, and despite everything, Paul just swoons over my baking, he’s got a socking great sweet tooth and

Right. Last try. This is a story about Halloween

Except that it’s not a story. Or maybe it is, I reckon I’ll let you work it out for yourself. Anyway, last night I made the batch of toffees, you would’ve too after that text, I mean, talk about cowardly. Three months, and the sod can’t even ring. Telling me to my face that I ought to stop stuffing it – yeah, I don’t know a single lad who could do that, but a text? A misspelt text, like he was in some sort of bloody hurry to dump old fatso Anne – a shag is a shag, but you wouldn’t want to take her to a club or anything, would you?

Not like Lauren. Blond hair she could just about wipe her arse with, pipe-cleaner legs, tits like soup plates – the posh, flat sort. She’s got nice handwriting, though, I’ll give her that.

So, anyway. As I've said, last night after I’d eaten a few crisps and had a good cry, I set about making the toffees. Measured them extra carefully this time, and added 55 ml of strong dark rum for flavour. They turned out gorgeous, they did. I was dying to taste them – dying, that’s a good one. Exactly thirty-five lovely chunks, and if I know Paul, he’ll polish them off in one go. Now it’s nearly dark, and all the little kids are already out, so I’ve dressed up witchy, black hat and hooked nose from that panto two years ago and heaps of slap, and I’m off to ring his bell before he goes out, nobody but him is ever home at this time, and then he'll find the sack on the doorstep with that little note from Lauren – sort of.

Trick or treat.

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4. Noise

The unrelenting drip of a leaking roof into a bucket, contents trembling on the verge of overspilling.

You lean your forehead against the windowpane, watching raindrops slip from the leafless branches. It’s cold in the flat, dark too, and you hug your ribs, shivering. There’s no end to the beepbeepbeep of the answering machine. Even the hammer hasn’t silenced it. But the baby’s no longer crying.

You go to the kitchen and wash your hands again, carefully. Use the stained nailbrush, carefully. Dry them, carefully. In the hallway you stare at the mangled bits of the phone strewn on the floor. Where can the beeping be coming from? It penetrates your head your head. You pick up, one after another, splintered plastic, ruined chips, wires twisted like coloured embroidery threads – the sort you once used to plait into your hair; one after another, you hold them to your ear.

beepbeepbeep

There are fresh blotches of milk on your T-shirt. You lift its hem to form a cradle and with trembling fingers gather together all the pieces. You miss nothing, not even the strip of clear plastic that covered the display. You throw them into the washing machine and slam the door, only afterwards remembering that it’s broken down again.

‘Why’s the washing machine full of red gunge?’ Ben asked.

‘It’s Roasted Pepper.’

‘For chrissake, why have you put roasted peppers in the washing machine?’

‘Not peppers. Roasted Pepper. It’s the name of a paint.’

So now there is red paint and telephone in the washing machine. Also, you think, the baby’s screams. Though maybe that’s only Ben’s heavy metal CDs you added last night after he left to Go Out. You can’t be sure, so you crouch by the machine, crack open the door, and listen.

Your breasts are sore, they’re hot and hard and leaking. Time to feed the baby. ‘A beauty,’ Ben’s mum says. ‘And bright. Look how alert she is. The colic will pass.’

The baby’s not in the washing machine. You have to find where you’ve put the baby.

You go into the bathroom, where you search the cabinet, the laundry hamper, even the toilet tank. Then you sit on edge of the dirty tub and examine the tags on the walls. Back in the day when you blockbusted whole trains with Graham, the black and gold letters with the snake karaks were hot. You bombed school walls with those turdy mustard drips till it became too freaking wack. But you really came into your own with the Gemad tag, that’s the one you’d use if you were still writing. And just yesterday you added the perfect piece – a gentian blue platypus, the exact colour of the baby’s eyes. Maybe after you put her down you could sneak out and at least hit the bus shelter, you’d be back before Ben came home.

‘The baby’s screaming her head off, and all the fuck you do is paint the bathroom walls!’

‘I didn’t hear her.’

‘Yeah right. Didn’t want to hear, more like.’ And slammed out of the bathroom, kicking the spraycans out of his way.

‘How could I hear her when the cheese is wailing so loud?’

But of course he couldn’t hear you, the tags were shouting your name.

~~~

‘This is fantastic work, Caroline. Absolutely brilliant. Have you ever thought of doing a fine arts course?’

‘I’ve thought about it, yeah.’

She grinned at him. Mr Lyle was a decent sort for a teacher, and he knew his stuff. And unlike most of the lazy sods in this sinkhole, he actually bothered to find new material from one year to the next. Nor did he think graffiti was criminal or destructive. ‘Of course it’s art,’ he’d told the class. ‘True art is always subversive. Graffiti artists are our hackers of physical rather than digital space.’

A fortnight later, he asked to speak with her after the lesson, then handed her a large brown envelope. ‘I’ve put together a couple of prospectuses for you. Take them home and study them,’ he told her. ‘You might even have a chance with the Slade. I’ll help you sort out a portfolio.’

‘There’s no money in art, Mr Lyle.’

‘Been speaking to your dad, have you?’

‘Yeah, well …’

‘Look, maybe I can have a chat with him.’

At that moment Ben put his head round the open door – gorgeous lanky Ben with green eyes like dragonfire, like wet grass on a dazzling spring morning, and the chipped front tooth which made his smile even sexier. He always told everyone it had been a snowboarding accident, but she knew from his mum, who cleaned at her dad’s office, that he’d slipped on an icy patch of pavement right outside their building. Caroline didn’t mind the lie, which was somehow endearing. Often Ben reminded her of a little boy who’d been caught with a pocketful of fags, or the bits of his mum’s favourite pink china cat, now wrapped in a hanky, that he’d smashed when careening through the front room. The way he still careened through the corridors at school …

‘Come on, Paintbrush, we’ll be late for maths.’

‘Just give us two minutes, Ben,’ Mr Lyle said. ‘Wait outside, please.’ And went to shut the door.

‘Caroline, I feel I ought to warn you.’

‘About what?’

Mr Lyle studied his paint-ringed fingernails for a moment. ‘Ben’s a bright lad, a very bright lad, but there are one or two things –’

Which things?’ she asked, her voice sharp.

‘That business with the fire, for one.’

‘Ben had nothing to do with it! He was at my house the whole evening. Which, by the way, I’ve already explained to the police.’ She remembered their lovemaking, he’d been exceptionally tender that night, afterwards had even played some of her favourite CDs downstairs in the sitting room while she was bathing and washing her hair. Even above the sound of running water she’d caught the occasional snatch of his voice, as usual slightly, sweetly out of tune. She had very acute hearing – uncanny hearing, her dad liked to call it.

Mr Lyle regarded her soberly, his cheeks flushed above his flamboyant beard, then smiled in that quizzical way of his.

‘You’re right, I shouldn’t be listening to rumours. I apologise.’

She nodded and turned to leave.

‘Caroline –’

‘Yeah?’

‘You’re forgetting the envelope.’

~~~

You threw it into a wheelie bin on the way home, then went back ten minutes later and fished it out. Kept it till Ben opened it one day when he was going through your bottom drawer. ‘What do you want to keep all this old crap for, anyway?’ But he’s wrong – you keep so little. Long before, you’d buried the clots under the apple tree, you couldn’t have just flushed them down the toilet, could you? You had tried to save them, but your wardrobe was beginning to stink. Even now, when you sneak out to visit Dad with the baby – not that you blame Ben for feeling uncomfortable – you can hear the plaintive whispering, though no words. Sometimes you stretch out and put your ear to the ground, sometimes you can almost make out a ghostly mamama. There are so many voices under the earth, a cacophony of tags.

It’s a good thing you’ve never told Ben, he gets crazy pissed off if even Julia or Rachel or any of your old mates comes round. Which they’ve stopped doing since the broken jug. But you don’t really mind, you’ve no longer got much in common with them anyway. A baby changes everything. And you’d rather sleep when there’s thirty minutes of quiet. Ten minutes. Babies are noise machines.

~~~

A platypus closes eyes and ears underwater. From the packet you pull off a wad of cotton wool, divide it in two, screw the plugs into your ears. The beepbeepbeep continues, even louder, as though it’s an alarm on a cardiac monitor like the one in the preemie unit. Maybe your dad rang and left a message. He’s always leaving messages. ‘Ben’s mum has just gone home. She’s terribly pleased with the plasma TV Ben bought her. I think you’d better ring me, Caroline.’

After searching and searching the flat, you draw the curtains in the living room, you’re feeling shivery again, and the light hurts your eyes. You blink a few times, trying to clear the black dot from your vision, the flare and fizzle like sparklers. If you didn’t have to find the baby, you’d lie down. But instead you sit at the computer Dad gave you for Christmas. ‘So you don’t lose touch altogether.’ And Ben was quite happy about it, really. Now he uses it too, he gets lots of emails.

You cross your arms over your swollen breasts. ‘Milk cow,’ Ben says sometimes with a laugh, he likes to suckle almost as much as the baby. Who’s got to be somewhere. You google baby and come up with about 259,000,000 results. That’s a lot of babies, one will do. But thirty or forty sites later, you still can’t find her. Could Ben have hidden her under platypus? ‘Likes his little jokes, our Ben does,’ his mum says. You’d better check, the baby might be in danger. Males have poisonous spurs on their hind limbs, whose sting is powerful enough to kill a small mammal.

beepbeepbeep
~~~

Caroline would set the alarm for twelve, by which time her dad was fast asleep and she could sneak out and be back by five, or a bit after. Graham had a car, so they were able to cover a lot of territory. She always left her gear in his boot. Nobody could touch his wildstyle, and his Inferno pieces, incredibly detailed, incredibly guerrilla, burned themselves into her vision – her memory – like live embers. Whenever he completed a new painting, he’d read her the canto from which it was drawn. Commissions were starting to come in, he’d already done a couple of CD covers. He’d taught her everything she knew. Everything she wanted to know.

There was only a light drizzle, and when she met him at the bottom of her drive, they decided to hit the estate subway, which had recently been buffed. At least they’d stay dry.

Graham wasn’t big on kissing straight off, but this time he’d pulled her close as soon as she got into the car. And kept his arm around her as he drove.

‘Something wrong?’ she asked.

He shook his head, but she could hear a low rumble that reminded her of the sound a dog made deep inside its throat before it began to growl. She checked the sound system.

‘Want some music?’ Graham asked with his lazy smile.

‘Later maybe.’ She listened. ‘Isn’t the motor louder than usual?’

‘Not that I’ve noticed.’

But the nearer they came to the estate, the worse it got. By the time they’d parked the car, her teeth were on edge, and she had to exert all her self-control not to snarl at Graham. He was a lot like Grandpa, who had never snapped, never raised his voice. Whose silences had sung her many times to sleep. She remembered riding with him in the farm lorry, not long after her mum’s funeral; on the unpaved tracks the vehicle had shaken so much that her insides were soon heaving, her chalky bones screeching. Screeching, that place on the top of her head where her mum had always kissed her goodnight. Without a word Grandpa had stopped for her to walk about, then wiped her cheeks with his rough hand. She’d nearly been sick.

She and Graham had just finished marking the outline when footsteps sounded behind them.

‘What the fuck d’ya think you’re doin?’

Three of them, big and meaty. The tattooed kid had thick lips, eyes like hot tarmac, shaved head. The growling, which had subsided as Graham and Caroline worked, now sprang at her with renewed ferocity. For a moment she thought there must be a dog, one of those vicious Rottweilers or Dobermanns. She swung her head round, heart beating fast. Only the blokes.

Graham showed them his spraycan. ‘Just a graf, mates.’

‘Piss off before we ram it in your cake-hole.’ A phlegmy laugh, then Tattoo hawked and spat a glistening gob near Graham’s foot. ‘Your arse.’

Threads of light were beginning to flash before Caroline’s eyes. ‘Graham,’ she said, pleading.

The three of them looked at her then, really looked. Exchanged glances. Grinned.

Graham stepped in front of her, his eyes on Tattoo. ‘Listen, let’s –’

The knife was out before he had a chance to finish. With a practised movement, Graham flicked off the spraycan lid, then shook the can and held it out before him.

‘Run, Caro,’ he said.

‘But –’

‘RUN, damn it!’

And she ran. For the rest of her life she would never forget that she ran, the frenzied baying of the pack echoing behind her through the empty November streets.

~~~

In the afternoon the spotting began. By evening, Caroline could tell that this too, she would lose.

~~~

Hidden in the loft where your dad will never find it is a portfolio of Graham’s sketches, forty-three loose sheets you’d borrowed and never got a chance to return. There’s even a page dense with studies of tormented figures for Canto XII. Once the baby settles, you’ll scan them and upload the images to a decent site. By then you’ll get out more and bomb the entire city with the platypus. Graf writers have already begun to use hypertext. Word will spread like a healthy virus, like a meme. For a moment you close your eyes: Graham’s smile flashes at you, his lips move. He’s trying to tell you something. Could it be about the baby?

If it weren’t for the beeping, you’d be able to make it out. Angrily you shake your head, as though to dislodge a mobile implanted in your skull. They’ll do that someday, won’t they?

Out of the water a platypus has very sensitive hearing. You go to one site after another, calling her name. You whisper that you’re sorry, it’s not her fault. You promise to be more patient no matter how much she screams. Once you think you catch a glimpse of her slipping into sun-spangled shallows, but she’s gone before you can be sure.

In the bucket the water is squalling. You fetch a basin from the kitchen, then empty the bucket into the toilet. There’s a large damp patch on the living room ceiling in the shape of a potter wasp’s nest, like a jug. Ben said he rang the landlord a week ago. The phone’s no longer working, you guess.

~~~

For weeks afterwards Caroline did nothing but paint – drink coffee, bitter black coffee, and paint. When she ran out of canvas board, she whited the images out and began again. Layer of tag upon tag – there was a name for what she felt, if she could only find it. Elusive as dreams, sleep hid under her bed, in her wardrobe, behind drawn curtains, wherever monsters prefer to lurk. Finally her dad abandoned his good parent act, and she went back to school. Sometimes she showered and changed her clothes. In lessons it was easy to sit in the last row and draw.

‘Let me have a look at it.’

‘What?’

‘Your picture,’ Ben said. ‘I bet you’ve drawn old Sykes with tits down to her waist, lewd tattoos, and a navel piercing.’

Caroline’s lips twitched.

He slid into the seat next to her. ‘That’s the first smile from you in months. If we practise really hard, do you reckon you might be able to laugh?’

~~~

In the portfolio is also the only photo you’ve got of Graham. Already fading, it reminds you of the disintegrating albums washed up at flea markets. And there’s no place in the flat where you could possibly keep it. At Christmas while Ben and Dad were busy drinking – arguing – you managed a quick scan before they reached flashpoint. Now you can access it online whenever you want, so long as you remember to clear browser cache and history. But you don’t look at it often.

~~~

‘He doesn’t hit me.’

‘Then why is there a bruise around your eye?’ Julia asked.

‘It’s not a bruise.’

‘Come off it! I can see it right through your makeup.’

‘A wasp stung me. I’m allergic to wasps.’

‘Toxic insects come in all sizes and shapes.’

~~~

At the swimming pool the wasps clustered thickly near the rubbish bins. Ben propped himself on an elbow and laughed at her struggle to protect her fast-melting ice cream. Finally, he flicked at the wasps with his thumb and middle finger, driving them away.

‘Persistent buggers,’ he said indulgently.

‘Mind. They’ll sting you.’

Two of them were back, buzzing loudly.

‘Not me,’ he said. ‘Nothing touches me.’

To demonstrate, he caught one of them between cupped palms. She could hear the angry buzzing, but Ben was right. It didn’t sting him, and after a few minutes he released it. Rather than flying off, the wasp landed on her leg, where he swatted it with the flat of his hand.

‘Sorry, I hope you don’t bruise easily,’ he said.

She could still hear the buzzing, even angrier than before. Like a small sullen mob, a swarm was hovering over some half-eaten burgers and an open coke on a nearby blanket. The couple had gone off to swim. She’d watched them surreptitiously, especially the lad. Hair as long and black and glossy as Graham’s.

‘Tell me about this bloke you used to go round with.’

Startled, Caroline dropped what was left of her ice cream. Ben cleared it up, then moved their towels away from the sticky patch on the grass. But he hadn’t forgotten his question.

‘What was he like?’

‘Who?’

‘Your boyfriend. The painter who got killed by that gang.’

‘If you mean Graham, he wasn’t my boyfriend. Just one of my crew.’

‘Got a picture of him?’

‘No. But there might have been one in the newspapers, if you’re interested.’ She rose to her feet. ‘Let’s go cool off. That horrible buzzing is giving me a headache.’

‘I don’t hear anything.’ Ben took her outstretched hand. ‘You need to turn down your volume control.’ He put his lips to her ear and whispered, then grinned when she blushed. ‘You see? Turn it even lower.’

~~~

The baby looks like Ben. His mum says he screamed like her too. ‘Five and a half months straight, day and night. Nearly drove me barmy, it did,’ she says with relish, the way some women will brag about their gall bladders. ‘They say it’s a sign of creativity.’ Intones the word in a hushed reverential tone, as though it were a prayer. The new religion. You try not to wonder whether Graham’s children would have looked like him, been as gifted or as gentle. You’ve read about alternative universes. Maybe those children are out there somewhere – lives that could have, should have been.

You go into the bathroom and express some milk into the washbasin. You’ve got plenty, no need to save it for the baby like in those early days. Though your T-shirt and jeans are stained, there’s no place to wash them. The bathtub is still smeared with paint, the Red Pepper which Graham always used in his tag. You thrust your head under the tap and turn the cold water on. For a moment you think it’s going to work. Five minutes of quiet is all you need to be able to hear the baby. You’ve always had such keen hearing.

beepbeepbeep

A sob escapes from your throat. You have to find her, Ben will go mad if she’s not clean and fed.

Tears running down your cheeks, you return to the computer. ‘Graham,’ you whisper, waiting for his photo to load. Then he’s smiling at you, surrounded by kids, the sun in his eyes and the platypus from the children’s zoo cradled in his arms. A hot Saturday in July. You lean your head against the monitor. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘your turn. She doesn’t bite. Come and hold her.’

There’s a click from the door to the flat, and you hear it swing open, then slam shut. You hear footsteps. When you turn your head, Ben is standing in the doorway.

‘Look what I’ve brought Jo-Jo,’ he says.

He holds up a mobile – pretty butterflies and bees and a hummingbird.

‘It even makes sounds for her to listen to.’ He winds it, and above the beeping in the room you suddenly hear buzzing – the loud angry buzzing of a swarm of wasps.

‘No,’ you cry. ‘Stop!’

Now what the fuck’s the matter with you?’ He strides towards her, then stops and looks round. ‘What’s that weird smell? Have you been cooking liver again? You know how much I hate it.’

A platypus squeaks and clucks and bubbles like a baby, but growls when threatened. Quickly you turn back to the monitor. Come on, Graham says, don’t be afraid. ‘Are you sure?’ you whisper. Of course, he answers. There are so many secure sites. Together, we’ll hit them one by one. His soft laugh. They’ll never tag us.

And just before you click enter and all noise ceases, you remember. You’ve buried the growls outside in the wheelie bin.

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5. The Christmas Box

Martin opened the box for the first time on Christmas Eve.

‘Not till Christmas morning,’ his mum had said with a smile lacquered on her face as his dad backed out the drive, clipping the rhododendron because the car was so overloaded with ski gear and suitcases and laptops and pillows and carrier bags stuffed full of gift-wrapped parcels and all the crappy junk Martin’s sisters thought they needed for a week in some posh resort in Switzerland that his dad couldn’t see where he was going. Sylvia might actually ski, but Jaime would slink round in a different eyeball-roaching outfit every day and try to pull as many blokes as would have her. If they even got to Switzerland – after ten minutes on the road they’d be sniping at each other, and his dad would hit the next lay-by and do his I’m not going anywhere till you lot quiet down and appreciate what a sacrifice your mum and I are making to take ten whole days off for a family holiday not to mention the money routine. Christ.

Guilt had been positively oozing out of the banknotes as his mum stuffed yet another wad into Martin’s fist (his dad having done the same thing not half an hour before). But hell, let em, they couldn’t wait to be shot of him, could they? As if they really cared whether he rang Aunt Susan every morning to clock in. Though his call me Susie, you’re an adult now aunt might just take it into her head to come round, she was about as different from her sister as you could get. Big on Social Responsibility. Best play their little game.

An hour after they’d left – he wanted to make sure they didn’t come back for some other piece of shit they’d forgotten and couldn’t possibly do without (Jaime’s vibrating condom ring and raspberry-flavoured condoms?) – he lit his first spliff and laid into his pile of gifts. Usual pair of flannel pyjamas from Gran, at least it wasn’t some ruddy paisley muffler. What was he going to do, tell his 83-year old grandma he slept starkers? Might as well say he wanked off every night, thrice on Saturdays. The new CDs were OK, he’d given his mum a list to make sure, the clothes he’d flog, the books weren’t even worth burning in the fireplace. A large bottle of eau de toilette from Sylvia. Eau de toilette. Someone lives with a brother for almost 14 years, you’d think she’d know his style.

At least he’d got the new Ibanez guitar, he’d been afraid they might make him work for it, son. What he did wasn’t work, apparently.

Martin carried up the loot to his room and shoved most of under the bed. Then he spent a couple of hours feeling up his new baby and working on the song that had been shadowing him for days. When he surfaced, it was dark outside. Christmas Eve.

He went downstairs, switched on some lights, and microwaved the macaroni cheese his mum had left in the fridge. Ate it standing up by the worktop. Gluey stuff, but he couldn’t be bothered to break out a pizza. He looked at the clock. Just gone seven. Pete and Kevin wouldn’t pitch up till after nine at the earliest, Clare maybe not at all. Family night at the arena, ringside seats, no referee. Better them than him.

Beer in hand – of course not, Dad – Martin wandered into the sitting room and idly flicked on the Christmas tree lights. A real Blue Spruce, no tacky plastic thing for his mum and dad, not in this neighbourhood, not with their sort of friends. Don’t forget to top up the water every second day. Martin grinned and crept under the tree with his bottle. Great preservative, he reckoned, his dad’s naff Bavarian beer. Who needs a sober tree anyway?

Right at the back under an low-hanging branch was a present he hadn’t noticed first time round. He hauled it out and sat cross-legged before the tree, nipping his beer and regarding the box. Unlike the others, this one wasn’t wrapped in half a metre of recycled tree, embossed with smirking golden cherubs and tied with matching ribbon. Plain wood, about the size of a little kid’s shoebox. And no obvious crack to indicate a lid.

Martin shook the box, which told him nothing. Sounded empty, but maybe it was just well padded. Whatever it was. He ran his fingers along the smooth, slightly oily surface of the wood. Discovering no notches or depressions, no buttons or catches, he was about to toss it aside as someone’s idea of a prank when he noticed a small area on the underside that felt warmer than the rest of the wood. He rubbed his thumb over the section several times, a small circular motion, and his skin began to tingle as though the box were emitting a low-level charge of electricity. Then it sprang open in his hands.

His nose wrinkled at the tarry smell, which dissipated before he had a chance to decide what it reminded him of. Something slightly rank, though not as bad as backed-up school drains. More like one of the chem lab smells. Sulphur, maybe?

The box was empty. Clean, unvarnished, and full of nothing. Rien. Nichts. Nada. If his dad was trying to tell him something, a handwritten note would have done the job much better. Or an email. Very fond of emails, his dad was, even to his kids. Especially to his kids. The Headmaster’s secretary has rung me. We need to have a little chat after dinner. Martin just loved those little chats.

He bent forward, then swore. A branch of the tree had caught in his dreds. He tried to pull free, but the tree began to tilt alarmingly. ‘Fuck this,’ he muttered, ‘Bloody tree belongs in the dump.’ Reaching behind himself, he planted one hand round the offending bough, and with the other, yanked hard. He could imagine Sylvia’s prissy comment. Disgusting rat’s nest. I bet you’ve got bugs in there. I bet you’ve got bubonic plague germs.

How had he ended up with such a family? As a little kid he used to wonder if he was adopted. Now he reckoned there must have been a rogue gene in his DNA. He sighed, flipped shut the lid on the box, finished his beer. Still a bit curious, he picked up the box once more, but this time no matter how hard he rubbed, he couldn’t get the damned thing to open. Block of wood, like Jaime’s head.

Bored now, Martin fetched another beer and settled down before the TV. He channel-surfed for a while, but most of the stuff was pissier than his mum’s idea of party punch. He went in search of some DVDs. In Jaime’s room he dug through her secret hoard of porn films, found a couple of new ones he hadn’t seen.

When he went downstairs, the Christmas tree had disappeared.

‘Just go back upstairs and start again, Marty,’ he muttered. ‘You fell asleep after all that practising.’

But a thorough search of the house, garage and garden shed included, turned up nothing remotely resembling a Christmas tree or parts thereof. Not even a lone pine needle. Nor was there any sign of a break-in, though only a loony would walk off with a fucking Christmas tree from a house full of hi-tech goodies. And what would a thief do, drag it over the sill and tie it onto the roof of his van with all the glass baubles bouncing along behind him like pingpong balls?

Oh fuck. All his mum’s antique crystal ornaments. She wouldn’t let anybody else touch them. Ever. When not hanging on the tree, they were wrapped individually in cotton bunting like newborns and packed away in made-to-order storage cots.

‘What did you do with your mum’s tree?’ Pete asked a few hours later. ‘Toss it out already?’

Martin inhaled, held his breath, let out the smoke in a long thin stream.

‘No idea,’ he said.

Pete and Kevin exchanged glances. Marty had a Reputation, even among his mates.

‘What do you mean, no idea? Where’d it go?’ Kevin asked, taking his turn with the spliff.

‘On walkabout.’

‘You pop something brain-mashing?’ Kevin asked.

‘I wish. My mum’s going to mince mine for paté when she comes home and finds all her ornaments gone.’

‘Come off it, what happened? Parents piss you off so much that you axed it?’ Pete garbled, his mouth full of pizza.

‘Yeah.’ Martin shrugged. What the hell, he couldn’t be bothered.

‘Nice piece of ash,’ Kevin said, picking up the box from the couch table and fondling it. He knew something about wood, his dad was a cabinet maker. ‘What’s it for?’ Then he gawked when the lid opened. ‘Hey, look at that. Some sort of hidden release button. I bet my dad would like to get a look at it.’

‘Funny smell in here,’ Pete said. ‘Someone fart?’

‘It’s nothing special. Just an empty box,’ Martin said, ignoring Pete. They ignored Pete a lot. Played a mean set of drums, though.

‘It’s not empty,’ Kevin said.

‘What?’ Martin asked.

‘Have a look,’ Kevin said, passing him the box.

There was a small piece of paper at the bottom. Martin lifted it out. A postage stamp, one of those special issues with a picture of a Christmas tree on it. He looked at it for a moment, then dropped it back into the box.

‘I’ll fetch some more beer,’ he said, getting to his feet.

‘Not for me, got to shove off,’ Kevin said. ‘Carol service with my parents. I promised them I’d be back in time. Their car’s acting up.’

‘You’re not driving them to church on Christmas Eve in that heap of rusting scrap metal and flaking paint you call a car?’ Martin asked.

‘Hey, it’s more wheels than you’ve got. Wish it would self-destruct, though, maybe then my dad would fork out for a decent bit of tin.’

Kevin closed the box, set it back on table, rose and stretched. ‘Lift?’ he asked Pete.

‘Yeah, guess so. Too friggin cold to walk.’

But when they opened the front door, Kevin let out a bellow that ripped through the quiet neighbourhood like their hottest hurtin’ chords.

‘WHERE THE FUCK IS MY CAR?’

~~~

The police had plenty to do on Christmas Eve, and Kevin never made it to church. By the time they’d established his car hadn’t been towed but nicked, and rung his parents and the insurance hotline, and filed the police report, and waited for someone to call back with the crime number, the man in red had done most of his rounds.

Next morning Martin was roused about eleven by the phone. He fumbled for it blearily, knocking something off the bedside table, followed by the handset. His oath was perfunctory, it was too early even to breathe. With one hand he groped about on the floor, demucking his eyes with the other. He came up with the wooden box, which he couldn’t remember having brought upstairs. The phone continued to squawk.

‘Yeah?’ he was finally able to say.

‘Martin? Is that you?’

Aunt Call Me Susie.

‘Uh, yeah, Aunt Susan.’

‘Happy Christmas, Martin.’

‘Same to you.’

Martin worked himself upright against the pillows. The wooden box felt heavier than yesterday, and his fingers played over its surface as he listened to his aunt’s questions. To give her credit, she didn’t complain that he hadn’t rung.

‘Heard from your parents yet?’ she asked.

‘No.’

There was an awkward silence.

‘I really wish you’d agree to come for Christmas dinner. Sam’s volunteered to pick you up and drive you back again afterwards.’ Sam was her partner, though they lived in separate homes. ‘Two writers? We’re far too idiosyncratic to live together,’ she’d once explained when Jaime asked. Martin had looked the word up in the dictionary (took a while to figure out the spelling).

‘I’m OK, mum’s left plenty of food.’

‘That’s not the point.’

‘Some mates are dropping by later.’

‘Well, if you change your mind, just ring back. We’re only eight to dinner, and not as stuffy a lot as you probably imagine.’

After he’d rung off, Martin remembered that he’d forgotten to thank his aunt for her gift. He searched his memory. Just what had she given him anyway? He was beginning to wonder whether someone had fouled his last batch of ganja.

Martin glanced towards the window. He hadn’t bothered to close the curtains, but the sky was so dark with rain that it made little difference. Normally he’d burrow back under the duvet, but he wanted to have another look at those presents. Aunt Susan always gave him something.

He sniffed. There it was again – that noxious smell. He saw that the wooden box had popped open once more. Now two stamps lay at the bottom, side by side. Martin stared at them for a long time.

The wind splatted a bladder of rain against the glass. Sounds like an old drunk, Martin thought glumly. Even the weather’s pissing on me.

‘Aunt Susie,’ he said into the phone ten minutes later, ‘maybe I’d like to come after all.’

‘Wonderful. Sam could be there in twenty minutes. Is that all right?’

‘Can you make it half an hour? I want to have a quick shower.’

‘No problem. See you just now, the soup needs stirring.’

‘Wait, just one question. Did you, uh, give me a wooden box for Christmas? I seem to have lost the card.’

Martin heard her delighted chuckle.

‘Found a way to open it yet?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Clever lad. A Hungarian friend of mine makes them. I’ve also got one, in rosewood. Each one’s unique, with a secret mechanism. No two open the same way.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Glad you like it. I thought a lad your age needed somewhere to stow his, how shall I put it, recreational commodities.’

While drinking a strong cup of coffee in the kitchen, Martin considered how little he really knew about his aunt’s life.

~~~

The dinner was delicious, and to his surprise Martin found himself seated next to a freelance journalist who covered the indie rock scene. After the meal, Martin went into the kitchen to load the coffee tray while his aunt filled plates with biscuits and luscious-looking chocolates.

‘Aunt Susie,’ he said, ‘I was wondering. You’ve got one of those boxes too, you said?’

‘Is it so hard to leave off the Aunt?’ she asked. ‘You make me feel ancient.’

Martin released his exasperated sigh inside the fridge while he searched for cream. Christ. Just like their vicar, always trying to prove he was cool. Even the word had gone out with the Beatles.

‘About the box –’ he said.

‘Would you like to see mine? It’s right over there.’ She nodded in the direction of the dresser. ‘Why, how odd, I always keep it next to the muesli.’ Their dentist spoke in that thoroughly bland way just before drilling. ‘Remind me to ask Sam about it.’

They looked at each other in silence for a moment. ‘What would happen if my parents died?’ he asked at last.

His aunt set the coffee pot she was holding down on the worktop.

‘Haven’t they rung yet?’

He shook his head. He caught her frown, though she smoothed it out straightaway.

‘Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re fine,’ she said.

‘Still,’ he persisted, ‘what would happen to me?’

‘You’re old enough for some sort of independent accommodation, but I’d always be happy for you to make your home with me.’ She smiled. ‘At least till you’ve finished school.’

~~~

Around noon on Boxing Day his mum finally rang.

‘Everything OK, Marty?’

‘Fine, Mum.’

‘Like your gifts?’

‘Great.’

‘Susie said you went round for Christmas dinner.’

‘You rang her?’

‘No, she phoned us. Here’s your dad now, he wants to have a word.’

Have a word. Yeah right, more like a couple of hundred. They must issue the same phrasebook to everyone along with their first payslip. ‘Martin, I’d like to have a word afterwards,’ Pike had said with his usual sneer, that time he’d caught Martin eyeballing Zoe’s tits and stretching his denim while the fat sod droned on and on about the French bloody Revolution.

‘Hi, Dad. Good skiing?’

‘Terrific.’ His dad cleared his throat. ‘Martin, I hope you’re not going to disappoint us again.’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Your mother and I don’t want you getting into any trouble while we’re gone.’

‘I gave you my word –’

‘Now don’t take this the wrong way,’ his dad cut in, ‘but Sylvia thought it advisable to tell us a bit more about your activities lately.’

A cow. Thirteen, and already a sodding cow. Who grassed on her own brother. He shuddered to think what she’d be like in a few years’ time. Somebody ought to put her out to pasture.

Martin looked down at the wooden box, which he’d taken to carrying round the house with him. He no longer found the smell unpleasant. He could hear his dad gibbering away from the handset, which he replaced in its cradle. The sudden quiet reminded him of the sweet expectant hush at a gig before he detonated his first chord.

Martin formulated his words carefully. Then he shut the lid and carried his aunt’s gift to the fireplace, where it made a very satisfying blaze.

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6. Legacy

Skin bronzed and scarred, dark lenses, banded wild hair, one thumb – the only anomaly was his height. Contrary to legend, he was barely taller than Rhohan herself.

‘Have you brought the Tribute?’ His accent as light as the tonguings of a windchime, he eschewed the traditional greeting.

‘Yes, Legate.’ Rhohan’s maternal suraunt fumbled with a fold of the heavy ceremonial robe, her voice hesitant. Obsequious, Rhohan thought, and raised her chin.

He held out a hand, and Rhohan slipped the bound volume – the last of their hoard – from her tunic and passed it to him. She could see the eagerness in the taut curl of his fingers, the almost imperceptible forward movement of his upper body, however impassive his face remained. She must have allowed a smile to reach her lips, for he opened his hand so that the book fell to the ground at their feet, where it dug itself into the fine black sand like a shy puckcrab. If there had still been crabs.

‘Legate?’ Rhohan asked, suddenly afraid. There could be no return without his sanction, only the sea or exile. In the Hearth they still whispered about the girl scorned by an earlier Legate. It had happened when Rhohan was just old enough to join in the search for scraps of corroding metal, glittering glass, for the shells and coral which would purchase a threemonth’s ration of meal, for driftwood.

‘You dare to mock?’ he asked.

Aunt Bindy drew a sharp breath. ‘Forgive her, Legate. She means no disrespect. She’s young. Younger than customary.’

He shifted his attention to Bindy. ‘She bleeds?’

‘Not that young,’ Bindy assured him.

‘You’re certain?’ he asked. ‘You’ve seen for yourself?’

Rhohan’s cheeks pinked readily, something her siblings and cousins had delighted in exploiting since first schooling. Almost their only defence against her keen tongue and even keener intelligence. It was rumoured that the Court Mathematician was already taking an interest, but no matter how adept at numbers and theorems and proofs Rhohan became, she had never learned to control the rush of colour to her face.

And hardly ever, the rush of words into their stupefied, resentful, vengeful faces.

An early Communion, the aunties decreed.

‘The wind is brisk,’ the Legate said. ‘Pick up the book and come inside.’

Rhohan glanced at him in surprise, but he had turned towards the horizon and appeared to be studying the line of breakers, the lone seabird diving and diving for a canny fish. The wind whipped his hair free of its chased golden band, an unrepentant seaweed tangle which gleamed with the same phosphorescence as the sea itself. He must oil it, she thought, then swallowed at the impertinence. There was always the possibility that he could sense her thoughts. No one knew the full extent of his powers. Though she scoffed at the unending speculation – the boys as bad as the girls, never mind the aunties – something about him reminded her of the chambered mollusc shell encased in glass in the Great Hall, whose perfect logarithmic spiral never failed to fascinate her.

Wheezing, Aunt Bindy stooped towards the book, but the Legate stopped her with an impatient gesture.

'Leave it, Auntie. The girl will do it.’

Rhohan picked up the volume, brushed it off, and gently blew away the last abrasive grains of sand. She was still holding it when he whistled two sharp staccato notes above the wind, exactly the way Aunt Tibby called the toddlers to order, or Aunt Una, the dogs. Rhohan extended the book towards the Legate, releasing her grip a fraction of a second before his hands could clasp it securely. Those strange hands, whose single thumb drew her like an unsolved equation. Again the book landed in the sand. Rhohan’s gaze was direct and guileless, despite her flaming cheeks.

Aunt Bindy made a clicking sound with her tongue. If the Legate hadn’t been present, Rhohan would have been reprimanded for her clumsiness, her ears boxed.

‘Arms, and the man I sing,’ Rhohan quoted softly.

The bird swooped towards them with a raucous cry, as if it blamed them for its failed catch. For its hunger.

Where have all the fish gone? Rhohan asked herself. The old tales, worn smooth as seaglass in the retelling, were improbable.
Impossible: Rhohan had been beaten often enough for saying so. Which had merely convinced her to discover the truth someday. She preferred numbers to the fool’s glitter of polished colourless syllables.

‘Where did you learn those words?’ His voice, though low, was as harsh the bird’s, startling her thoughts into flight.

‘It’s the first line of the poem.’ With her toe she pointed towards the book still lying between them.

‘You’ve read it?’

Aunt Bindy shook her head hopelessly, the lines bracketing her mouth now grey and mothy with failure. But the responsibility was hers, and she made one final effort to propitiate the Legate. He soon interrupted her babblings with a dismissive headshake.

‘Enough, Auntie. You may go.’

Disbelieving, she continued to mumble a few disjointed excuses.

‘The girl will return when we’ve finished,’ he said, rather more sharply. Then a sound that might have been a laugh. ‘Though with this one, it may be a while.’

He retrieved the book himself and strode across the black dunes to the cottage doorway, where he waited, expressionless, for Rhohan to join him.

~~~

They ate before the fire, bowls of thick salty porridge. Hot cider, deliciously spiced. Rhohan had never been uncomfortable with silence. It was difficult to escape the continual harryings of the Hearth, though in time she had found a forgotten alcove off the linen storage, a small tidal cave, the crypts. The Legate drank more than he ate, his thoughts hidden by the steam rising from his mug, thoughts drifting perhaps like her own. Occasionally she stole a glance at his hands, but if he noticed, he gave no sign. His scars seemed less prominent in the flickering mellow light.

When Rhohan’s eyelids became heavy, the Legate removed the mug cupped in her hands and replaced it with the book she’d brought.

‘Read,’ he said.

She gazed into the flames, drowsily wondering if this were a test.

‘Do you need a lantern?’

What difference could it make? He’d not send her back now. Without opening the cover, she began to recite from memory, her voice strengthening as she took courage from his stillness. He had a gift for stillness. She only faltered once, when he rose to add a log –
a whole log! – to the fire.

‘Go on,’ he said. ‘Or is that all you know?’

‘I’m tired, but I remember it all. A lot of it’s dull, though.’

‘You don’t like poetry?’

‘Not particularly.’

He leaned against the blackened stone mantel and crossed his arms.

‘How long did it take you to memorise three hundred pages?’

‘Three hundred and sixteen. Seven lines short of seventeen.’

He laughed. A genuine laugh this time.

‘No wonder Bindy was so nervous.’

She shrugged, then swept the room with her eyes. A plain table piled with papers and books and writing utensils, bookshelves, a single pallet in the corner.

‘Where am I to sleep?’ she asked.

‘Haven’t your aunties explained?’

‘Yes.’

They stared at each other while the fire crackled softly, the wind warned of a coming squall.

‘How old are you?’ he finally asked.

‘Sixteen this Hallowtide.’

‘Your name?’

‘Rhohan. And yours?’

At first she thought he wouldn’t answer, that she’d gone too far.

‘Ivan.’

‘Ifan?’

He moved closer and crouched before her. Lifted her chin with a forefinger.

‘Hold your hand in front of my mouth.
Ivan. There’s no puff of air.’

He repeated his name until she nodded. After several attempts she was able to articulate a reasonable approximation of the sound. Still he crouched before her. A long moment passed while her hand crept towards the thickened ridges of scar tissue along the left side of his face. They reminded her of the undulant lines terraced in the sand when the tide retreated.

Suddenly he snapped his head aside, and his mouth twisted. He rose and indicated a closed door near the pallet.

‘There’s a bath through here. Towels, nightclothes. Wash and go to bed. I’ll join you later, when I’ve finished some work.’

She began to collect their dishes, but he shook his head. ‘I’ll take care of it tonight. You’re tired.’

He stood unmoving before the fire, perhaps unseeing, as she opened the door to the passage.

‘Ivan.’

He turned, surprised to hear his name on her lips, though he’d just taught her. He’s used to being alone, Rhohan thought. His eyes glittered in the firelight, and she realised he’d removed the lenses. Green flecked with gold, an unheard of colour. No wonder the aunties whispered about gods who walked the earth.

‘Your scars don’t repel me. They’re beautiful.’

This time his laugh rasped like a file on stone.

‘Please don’t try to flatter me. It won’t work.’

‘I’ve been accused of many things, but flattery isn’t one of them.’ Her mouth lifted at the corner. ‘Besides, I expect it would be easier to flatter a block of granite.’

A flash of memory. Marly, the stonemason, wielding a small hammer and sharp-pointed chisel to split a nodule, pitted and unprepossessing, which resembled a large misshapen tree potato. A tap, precisely – delicately – aimed. Then a long pause, while Marly studied the sample with her single eye, her fingertips, even her tongue. Another tap. ‘Under force stone will crumble rather than proffer its secrets.’

Broken open, the rock revealed a cleavage of perfect prismatic crystals – a rich lustrous green replete with grains of gold and amber and bright yellow, twin veins of deeper green to black.

‘Rare,’ Marly said with a smile nearly as rare. ‘Very rare. It will polish to high repute.’

‘Aren’t the bands a flaw?’ Rhohan asked.

‘On the contrary. Perfection diminishes beauty. Masks it.’ Her laugh, coarse as the granite she usually chiselled. ‘And it quickly bores the eye, even if you’ve got a spare to close.’

Rhohan said nothing, though Marly was the only hearther who wouldn’t mind being contradicted by someone so much younger. By a child.

‘You and your equations,’ Marly said dryly. She passed Rhohan a small piece of the stone. ‘For your collection. So that someday you might just appreciate more than numbers.’

In a soft leather pouch Rhohan safeguarded the cloth-wrapped specimens she’d been given over the years. Marly had disdained to conceal her gaping eye socket; her scarred, callused hands could administer a stinging slap; and she had often been ill-tempered, particularly in cold damp weather. But she’d never turned away a child with genuine curiosity. Rhohan missed her sorely.

At first Rhohan shifted restlessly under the coverings, her thoughts scurrying for shelter before the imminent storm. Would it hurt? Would he talk to her? Show her what to do? Would she like it? Would
he? Every time she peered out at his profile, the fire had burned lower, but he remained bent over his writing, seemingly oblivious to her interest, her anxiety. To her altogether. In the end she began to repeat the prime numbers, testing herself against her previous record. Rain was beginning to gust against the thatch. Later she wouldn’t remember if she’d dreamed the numerals appearing as dancing green flames tipped with gold, or only imagined them.

When Rhohan next opened her eyes, the fire was no more than a faint orange glow in the darkness. She raised herself on an elbow. Once her eyes adjusted, she could make out a figure wrapped in a blanket or cloak and stretched out asleep before the hearth.

~~~

‘You snore,’ she told him as he nudged her shoulder at first light and handed her a mug of hot tea, tantalising her with the smell of fresh wild mint.

He raised an eyebrow. ‘And if I do? It’s impolite to say so on such short acquaintance.’

‘I’m not complaining.’

‘It sounds that way.’

‘Not at all. It makes me less nervous. Gods don’t snore, I wager.’

He snorted. ‘Is that what they’ve told you? That we’re gods?’

‘Well, I had my doubts when I saw you scratching for lice.’

‘I don’t have –’ He broke off, jammed his hands into his wide sleeves, and glared at her while she sipped demurely from her mug. After a moment he began to laugh. He had a wide range of laughs, she was discovering, each of them wonderfully expressive.

Around her shoulders Rhohan gathered the soft creamy woollen blanket, which looked like South Coast handiwork, and padded barefoot to the window, mug in hand. Opening it, she breathed in the cool air, smelled the sea.

‘It rained heavily at night,’ she said, ‘but the clouds have dispersed. Do you mind if I swim?’

‘Please yourself.’

‘Will you join me?’

‘I don’t swim.’

Something in his voice made her glance swiftly at his face. He had a way of masking his feelings that reminded her of the travelling players, and their thick pancake. The stark white colour threw their every smile, every tear into relief.

‘I could teach you,’ she said.

He merely shook his head.

He remained in the cottage while she went down to the shore and stripped, but when she emerged from the water, blood running fast, lips faintly blue, he was there with a large bathing towel, which he wrapped round her body. She turned to face him, laughing from exhilaration until she realised how little two layers of cloth, one quite damp, disguised. They were close enough for her to feel his heat. He hadn’t bothered with his lenses.

‘Why didn’t you come to bed last night?’ she whispered.

After a long silence, he dropped his hands from her shoulders.

‘You’re not what I expected,’ he said.

Later that morning he showed her a device that made her dizzy with possibility. A
computer, he called it. She had difficulty following his explanation of the way in which it was built, but none at all in navigating the first game he demonstrated, an interesting variant of their own rhythmomachia. Once he saw how quickly she caught on, he opened a mathematics text in a foreign language, which ceased to frustrate her as soon as she discovered the introduction to linear algebra. Slowly she began to puzzle out the unfamiliar notation, the axioms that she recognised – and those that she didn’t.

Dusk was falling when she looked up to find Ivan carrying a copper pot and two bowls from the kitchen. Her stomach grumbled as he set the pot before the fireplace and lifted the lid. Saliva spurted into her mouth: potatoes, black morels, seaweed, garlic.

‘Come and eat,’ he said.

She watched his hand as he ladled out the aromatic meal.

‘How did your people come to lose the second thumb?’ she asked.

‘Wrong question.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘You need to ask how yours developed an additional one.’

‘You mean – ?’

‘I mean that we are, genetically speaking, one species. The second thumb inevitably appears in our joint offspring.’

‘Not always. There have been cases, rare cases.’ She looked away. ‘The child is always cleansed.’

‘Cleansed?’

She said nothing.

He put down his spoon. ‘Killed? A baby?’

She nodded reluctantly.

‘Barbarians,’ he said, rising so abruptly that his bowl overturned. He ignored the spill and stomped out of the cottage, not even stopping to snatch up a cloak.

Hours afterwards, she heard him crying out in a strange tongue. A nightmare, she realised, when she saw him thrashing about at the hearth. She went to him, knelt at his side.

‘Ivan.’

He rolled away from her hand, still muttering incomprehensibly. Shivering. Rhohan lay down and drew him close, stroking his hair, stroking. Gradually he calmed, then opened his eyes and stared at her. This time he didn’t pull away when she ran her fingers along the scars. He’s not that much older than I am, she thought in surprise. Why haven’t I noticed before?

‘Will you teach me your language?’ she asked.

Thereafter he slept on the pallet, but the nightmares recurred. Sometimes he screamed, sometimes he fought her. Once she woke to his desperate, almost frenzied love-making, and lay still until he’d finished.

‘I’m sorry,’ he muttered into the damp hollow of her neck. 'I'm so sorry,’ and she knew he was no longer apologising for his brutality. But he would never speak of his past, or his pain.

~~~

‘Rhinoceros,’ Ivan said, pointing to a picture on the monitor.

‘Rhinosos –’ Rhohan stumbled over the difficult word.

He repeated it patiently until she could pronounce it. Then ‘giraffe.’ And ‘alligator.’

Rhohan grinned at the images. ‘Are they for children? We do that too. Whoever drew them has a good imagination.’

‘No. They’re real. Or were.’

‘What happened?’

He gazed at her quietly for a long while, and she understood that this was another forbidden topic. Then his mouth tilted, and she had a new laugh to add to her catalogue.

‘Why not?’ he said, more to himself than her. ‘We’ve violated so many prohibitions already.’

He rose and fetched a book from his shelf. ‘You’ve learned enough to be able to manage. Read it, and then we’ll talk.’

He stood over her while she thumbed through the pages, stopping from time to time to whisper a sentence, sound out an unfamiliar word. She looked up when she heard the door lisp shut. He’d gone out – down to the sea again, probably. Recently he’d taken to walking along the shore for hours, returning grey and exhausted and often wet through. She closed the cover of the book and stared into space. After a few minutes she stood and donned the cloak he’d given her, the boots. The days were cooler, and though she still swam, she doubted that she’d be able to continue for much longer. She thought the snows might come early this year.

A mist was rolling in off the sea, and the wind was chill. Rhohan searched the sky for a bird, but there was only unremitting cloud, dull as tarnished silver. Ivan’s footprints were clearly visible in the damp sand. This time she followed.

An hour later she found him in a small cove where the sand gave way to dark shingle. As soon as she rounded the headland, she paused to steady her breath. He was facing the sea, his hair blowing wild and free, and the legends came flooding back. For an instant she thought of retreating, but it was already too late. Much too late. He turned and caught sight of her, waited in his quiet compelling way until she reached him. He encircled her with his arms, kissed the top of her head, her eyes, her throat. Leaned against her so that she couldn’t miss the weariness in his slender frame. He’d lost weight recently, she suddenly noticed, like one of the Hearth’s chained prisoners on gruel-and-water rations. How she’d hated those compulsory visits to the gaols. Whereas the taunts and sneers, the bold winks of the new detainees could be unsettling, it was the sunken blank eyes of the life inmates that followed her back to the schoolroom, to the sleeping quarters, to her dreams. And the men always worse than the women, something she’d never understood. For days afterwards her fantasies would be ridiculously heroic.

Holding Ivan’s upper arms, she swayed backwards to look into his face. He wasn’t wearing his lenses but the gold in his irises had lost its glint, and even the green had acquired the tinge of scum on a stagnant pool.

‘Tell me what’s wrong,’ she said.

‘They’re out there.’

‘Who?’

In answer he bent for the book she hadn’t noticed at his feet. It fell open like dying black wings to expose a gutted text. He ripped out the next leaf, held it up before him. The book dropped to the ground. Both the surf and the wind slapped cruelly at her ears, almost drowning out his voice, but it was the epic she'd brought him.

‘What thanks can wretched fugitives return,
Who, scatter'd thro' the world, in exile mourn?’

The page dangled loosely from his fingertips as he repeated the passage in his own language. The wind flapped the thin sheet back and forth while he stared into the fog, then snatched it away for him to lunge and catch under foot. With an inarticulate cry, he tore it in half, then in half again. And again, until the scraps were no larger than the shredded leaves the hearthers used for mulch. As she watched with eyes which were beginning to brim, he walked to the water’s edge, raised his hand, and released his grief into the sea. She stumbled to his side.

‘I want to stay with you,’ she said.

‘That, at least, is one bad choice I’m not permitted to make.’ He fingered the scars on his face.

Throat aching with the effort to contain her feelings, Rhohan seated herself on the shingle, drew her cloak tight, and waited. She could smell the rawness of winter in the air. His fingers were white and cold and stiff by the time he’d finished, and she took them between her own, first rubbing and breathing on them, finally laying them under her clothing to give them some life.

That afternoon he seemed content to toil at his books and notes until he was too weary to eat more than a few mouthfuls of the food Rhohan had prepared. Afterwards she practised reading to him in his own language, a strange and rambling tale of wizards and monsters, then the inevitable poetry. Their love-making was brief. If there were nightmares, they were fleeting enough not to rouse her.

Next morning the first snowfall had them outside tumbling like children. Snowballs, face scrubs, even a snowman. She showed him how to make snow angels. Talked about skis, there were so many hidden reaches to explore. Once inside, they towelled themselves dry before the fire, drank scalding mugs of the hearthers’ honey-sweetened bitter tea, and gave themselves the gift of a lazy, intimate afternoon.

‘If it’s a boy,’ Rhohan said, ‘he’ll be called Ivan.’

His eyes reflected the burnish of the firelight again.

Just after dawn she was awakened by an unaccustomed silence. There was no need to search the cottage. Rhohan tore open the door and ran barefoot through the snow, following his fresh tracks to the cliff above the beach. He had already waded to his chest into the icy water. He stopped, and for a moment Rhohan thought he’d turn round to look at her. His hair was loose and rose like wings, like hope at the next gust of wind. She hugged her belly protectively, too benumbed for tears. Then he glided forward and disappeared from sight.

~~~

Rhohan indeed named their son Ivan and taught him what she’d learned of his father’s tongue. Dreamy and elusive in childhood, he detested the court ritual to which he was condemned by Rhohan's appointment as the youngest Court Mathematician to hold the lifelong title. When he could be found, it was usually with one of the bound journals in which he wrote incessantly. In time his poetry became renowned throughout the hearthrealm, and beyond. Poems like exquisitely facetted gemstones that even his mother came to appreciate. Poems that she knew, with an abiding grief, his father would have cherished.

Because of Rhohan’s fierce struggle to save her son, no child born single-thumbed was ever cleansed from the Hearths again.

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