He’d forgotten about Joe’s charm in his jeans pocket. It got pulled out somehow as he crouched in the mud, and he picked it up automatically, feeling suddenly scornful at himself. How on earth could he have believed that a bag of leaves and sticks could protect him? Why had he wanted to believe it?
They were close now; ten feet away, he guessed. He could hear the sounds of their boots. Someone threw a bottle or a jar hard against the stones; it exploded, and he flinched as glass showered his head and shoulders. The decision to hide beneath their feet seemed ridiculous now; suicidal. All they had to do was look down and he was at their mercy. He should have run, he told himself bitterly, run when he had the chance. The footsteps came closer. Nine feet. Eight. Seven. Jay flattened his cheek against the wall’s dank stones, trying to be the wall. Joe’s charm was moist with sweat. Six feet. Five feet. Four.
Voices – Sideburns’ and Aeroplanes’ – sounding agonizingly close.
‘Tha dun’t reckon he’ll be back, then?’
‘Will he heckers, like. He’s a fuckin’ dead man if he does.’
That’s me, thought Jay dreamily. They’re talking about me.
Three feet. Two feet.
Zeth’s voice, almost indifferent in its cool menace: ‘I can wait.’
Two feet. One. A shadow fell over him, pinning him to the ground. Jay felt his hackles rising. They were looking down, looking over the canal, and he didn’t dare raise his head, though the need to know was like a terrible itch, like nettle-rash of the mind. He could feel their eyes on the nape of his neck, hear the sound of Zeth’s smoker’s-corner breathing. In a moment he wouldn’t be able to bear it. He’d have to look up, have to look-
A stone plapped into a greasy puddle not two feet away. Jay could see it from the corner of his eye. Another stone. Plap.
They had to be teasing him, he thought desperately. They had seen him and they were prolonging the moment, stifling mean laughter, silently picking up stones and missiles to throw. Or maybe Zeth had lifted his air rifle, his eyes pensive…
But none of that happened. Just as he was about to look up, Jay heard the sound of their boots moving away. Another stone hit the mud and skidded towards him, making him flinch. Then their voices, already receding lazily towards the ash pit, someone saying something about looking for bottles for target practice.
He waited, oddly reluctant to move. It was a ruse, he said to himself, a trick to make him break cover, there was no way they could have missed him. But the voices continued to recede, beyond the jetty, growing fainter as they took the overgrown path back towards the ash pit. The distant crack of the rifle. Laughter from behind the trees. It was impossible. They had to have seen him. But somehow…
Carefully Jay pulled out the treasure box. The charm was black with the sweat from his hands. It worked, he told himself in astonishment. It was impossible, but it worked.
London, March 1999
‘EVEN THE DULLEST AND COLDEST OF CHARACTERS’, HE TOLD HIS evening students, ‘may be humanized by giving him someone to love. A child, a lover, even, at a pinch, a dog.’ Unless you’re writing sci-fi, he thought, with a sudden grin, in which case you just give them yellow eyes.
He perched on his desk, next to his bulging duffel bag, resisting the urge to touch it, to open it. The students looked at him with awed expressions. Some took notes. ‘Even’ – writing laboriously, straining so as not to miss a single word – ‘even… at pinch… dog’.
He taught them on Kerry’s insistence, vaguely disliking their ambition, their slavish obedience to the rules. There were fifteen of them, dressed almost uniformly in black; earnest young men and intense young women, with cropped haircuts and eyebrow rings and clipped, public-school vowels. One of the women – so like Kerry as she was five years ago that they might have been sisters – was reading aloud a short story she had written, an exercise in characterization about a black single mother in a flat in Sheffield. Jay touched the Escape brochure in his pocket and tried to listen, but the girl’s voice was no more than a drone, a slightly unpleasant, waspish buzz of interference. From time to time he nodded, as if he were interested. He still felt slightly drunk.
Since last night the world seemed to have shifted slightly, moving closer into focus. As if something he had been staring at for years without seeing it had suddenly come clear.
The girl’s voice droned on. She scowled as she read and kicked one foot complusively against the table leg. Jay stifled a yawn. She was so intense, he told himself. Intense and rather disgusting in her self-absorption, like an adolescent looking for blackheads. She used the word ‘fuck’ in every sentence, probably an attempt at authenticity. He felt the urge to laugh. She pronounced it ‘fark’.
He knew he wasn’t drunk. He had finished the bottle hours ago – even then he had barely felt dizzy. After that day’s business he had decided not to attend the tutorial, but went after all, suddenly appalled at the thought of going back to the house, to face the silent disapproval of Kerry’s things. Killing time, he told himself silently. Killing time. Joe’s wine really should have worn off, but still he felt oddly exhilarated. As if the normal running of things had been suspended for a day, like an unexpected holiday. Perhaps it came of thinking so much about Joe. The memories kept coming, too many to keep track, as if the bottle contained not wine, but time, uncoiling smokily, like a genie from the sour dregs, making him different, making him… what? Crazy? Sane? He could not concentrate. The oldies station, permanently tuned to summers past, jangled aimlessly at the back of his mind. He might be thirteen again, head filled with visions and fantasies. Thirteen and in school, with the smells of summer coming through the window and Pog Hill Lane just around the corner and the thick tick of the clock counting time to the end of term.
But he was the teacher now, he realized. The teacher going crazy with impatience for the end of school. The pupils wanted desperately to be there, drinking in every meaningless word. He was, after all, Jay Mackintosh, the man who wrote Three Summers with Jackapple Joe. The writer who never wrote. A teacher with nothing to teach.
The thought made him laugh aloud.
It must be something in the air, he thought. A whiff of happy gas, a scent of the outlands. The droning girl stopped reading – or maybe she had finished – and stared at him in hurt accusation. She looked so like Kerry that he couldn’t help laughing again.
‘I bought a house today,’ he said suddenly.
They stared at him without reaction. One young man in a Byron shirt wrote it down: ‘Bought… house today’.
Jay pulled out the brochure from his pocket and looked at it again. It was crumpled and grimy from so much handling, but at the sight of the picture his heart leaped.
‘Not a house exactly,’ he corrected himself. ‘A chatto.’ He laughed again. ‘That’s what Joe used to call it. His chatto in Bordo.’
He opened the brochure and read it aloud. The students listened obediently. Byron Shirt made notes.
Château Foudouin, Lot-et-Garonne. Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. This authentic eighteenth-century château in the heart of France’s most popular wine-growing region includes vineyard, orchard, lake and extensive informal grounds, plus garage block, working distillery, five bedrooms, reception and living room, original oak-roof beaming. Suitable for conversion.
‘Of course, it was a bit more than five thousand quid. Prices have gone up since nineteen seventy-five.’ For a moment Jay wondered how many of those students were even born in 1975. They stared at him in silence, trying to understand.
‘Excuse me, Dr Mackintosh.’ It was the girl, still standing, now looking slightly belligerent. ‘Can you explain what this has to do with my assignment?’ Jay laughed again. Suddenly everything seemed amusing to him, unreal. He felt capable of doing anything, saying anything. Normality had been suspended. He told himself that this was what drunkenness was supposed to feel like. For all these years he had been doing it wrong.