Lucifer flew well for her in the fading light, falling through the sky when she summoned him and away again towards a great bruising sunset. She was alone on the ridge at first: just her, the bird and the wide-open view. It was one of those nervy summer days of sudden strong winds that fretted the hawk’s feathers as he stared at her from his perch on her gauntlet.
She was wearing a long red shirt over jeans and sandals, her hair was breaking free of its band. A leather pouch hung from her belt and a whistle from a cord around her neck. The hawk braced his feet on her wrist, making a leather tassel swing from the gauntlet. She felt the breath of his feathers on her face as he departed and she watched him go with the wind right under his wings, scattering crows like drops shaken from an umbrella.
Julia was trying her best to get it right for the bird, the morsels were small to keep him active. A shaming twenty-six ounces he’d weighed on the scales that morning. She called him with the whistle, two sharp bursts and there he was: a dark Cupid’s bow firing straight at her from the heavens.
She continued along the ridge, Lucifer steady on her arm, his manic eyes never leaving her face until she gave the signal. She sent him reeling to and fro and neither of them knew that this was to be their last dance.
The evening started to chill. She’d almost forgotten that Julian was supposed to be meeting her there or perhaps she’d just given up hope. He was panting when he arrived, still red in the face from the run up the hill, his bike and its useless tyre abandoned. He had the air of a boy who’d crossed three continents to see her, his sweatshirt knotted round his waist. Impossibly young, with hair falling over his eyes, and an uncertain lope, one leg of his jeans still tucked into a sock. He didn’t dare kiss her, he said, with the hawk glaring at him like that from the end of her wrist.
The hawk shrugged his shoulders and she sent him flying. They kissed and when Julian stopped to glance nervously at the sky she took off her gauntlet and pushed his hand inside. She urged the hawk with her whistle, moving Julian’s arm up and down, the gauntlet’s tassel dancing, but Lucifer only soared higher, the wind whispering murder into his ear and deafening him to her call. Julia ran cursing, Julian lolloping beside her. She grabbed back the gauntlet as the hawk fell to his kill. Julian’s hands were warm on her waist and it seemed to them both that the scream of the rabbit went on for ever.
It was almost midnight when she got back to Wychwood. She’d have stayed at Julian’s digs until morning if it hadn’t been for Lucifer, bloody bird.
She parked the car in the lane, coaxed him from his crate and clipped him on. Lucifer shook out his feathers, a little irked that somebody had carelessly creased his cape.
Fallen twigs cracked underfoot as she cut through the copse, the bird a resentful weight on her arm, the accusatory glitter of his eyes the only brightness beneath the trees. The darkness dropped, the branches stilled: Wychwood stood alone in the clearing, as unexpected as a Grimm Brothers’ cottage with its wonky black boards and crooked windows. At once she could see a light was on, though was certain she’d switched everything off.
Her face owlish white, Julia slipped through the back gate, whispering to Lucifer as she transferred him to his post in the shed, and on alone up the path. Heart beating, a skittering loose stone at the steps, she pushed the door open with her foot and straight into the kitchen. A gasp, mostly relief: Chris, her husband, streaky hair flat to his head, his giant grey trainers kicked halfway across the floor, chinkering his spoon in a cup.
She took half a pace back. ‘Why the look of surprise?’ he said. ‘I live here too, you know.’ Maggie, his lurcher, quivered in disgust beside him, her nose pressed to his knee.
‘So here I am. Ho-ome.’ He made a mockery of the word, bristling with it, pointing his spoon at her.
‘I wasn’t expecting you.’ She hung the leather gauntlet on its hook, brain racing for an alibi and stalling. ‘You gave me a fright. You could’ve been anybody.’
He cursed her for the welcome, baring teeth older than his mouth: Nescafé and tobacco.
‘What did you do, did you leave Lucifer in the boot while you . . .?’
‘I couldn’t get the car to start.’
He snatched the leather pouch from her and threw the leftover bits of meat to his dog, then pulled it inside out. ‘If you don’t clean it out there’ll be maggots again.’
He had eighteen floors in Dagenham to paint, that’s what he’d told her. One hundred and eighty offices, little hutches, all rollered the same drab grey that was spattered over the overalls from which his torso was hatching. He was supposed to be away until Christmas, by which time Julia had promised herself to be gone. His overalls fell open to a Ramones T-shirt so faded you’d have to already know the name of the band and down to a belt with a large metal buckle. He unloaded his pockets over the kitchen counter: tobacco, Murray Mints, rolling papers, dope tin, change clattering. His hair was dotted with the same grey paint, like flies had been laying eggs in it.
‘It’s great you’re so pleased to see me,’ he said. ‘A real treat.’
‘Likewise,’ she said but as he turned she caught a glimpse of an earlier version of Chris, a sudden trick like a hologram strung between them, something about the crease of his forehead and his overhung brows, a glint in amber eyes. His overalls had been unbuttoned just this way the first time she set eyes on him, in the playground as it happened – where he was part of a team painting the Nissen huts that would become the new classrooms. His hair was streaked in spikes of peroxide and ash. They all called him Sting. The girls of the fifth form took to gathering around the huts at break when he slunk over to talk to them, his chest golden brown.
She’d lain in bed after the first night with him, her hairbrush pushed under the door so the sound of it opening would wake her should her father come stumbling in. Through the floor the noise of the bar had been an unwelcome soundtrack as she thought of Chris’s tiger’s eyes, of how he could skin up a joint with one hand, leaving the other free to stoke her into a stoned frenzy.
Now he was wiping her kiss from his cheek as if she’d stung him, coffee sloshed all over the counter.
‘Lucifer killed a rabbit tonight.’ She was trying to act normal, unzipping his holdall and subjecting the contents to strict apartheid before the washing machine: a pile each of whites (so-called) and coloureds (balled-up pants, sweatshirts and socks stiff with rigor mortis).
‘I don’t suppose you brought it home,’ he said. ‘The rabbit?’ His lip curled. ‘No, of course you wouldn’t, would you.’
‘It was bad enough fighting Lucifer off it.’ She shuddered at both the memory and the smell of him. ‘Your clothes are rank.’
‘Some of us have to work for a living.’ He glared at her and checked the freezer, pulling out a metal tray of frozen little pink corpses, banging it on to the counter so they bounced free of the frost. Had she filled in the chart? What had Lucifer weighed in at that day? The day after that? How many hours had she flown him? How many kills?
‘He’s your bird,’ she said eventually, wishing the sick feeling in her stomach away. ‘You’re lucky I make time to fly him at all.’
From the corner of her eye she saw him select a couple of stiff baby mice and place them on a dish. When thawed their defeated heads would hang as he took them from puddles of spreading pink to pull them apart with his fingers. His jaw was tight. ‘At least one of us earns proper money.’
He was wiping his hands on the seat of his overalls: ‘So, when were you planning to tell me about wonder boy?’ He crashed the metal tray back into the freezer and came towards her rising out of his overalls. His arms were muscular for someone so skinny, something she’d once found attractive.
Her hands flew to protect herself. ‘Stop it, Chris.’ But she stood her ground, rocking back on her heels in front of the washing machine and holding her breath as he kicked himself free and roared into her face: ‘I suppose you’ve been flying my bird with him, haven’t you?’
She turned her head, afraid that she might laugh. He cared more about the hawk’s fidelity than her own.
‘Did you?’ He grabbed her shoulders. ‘You’ve been gone this long. Did you let him fly my bird?’ His face was a roaring hole, his breath rotten.
She shook her head and he flung her from his grip.
His jaw was so tight the skin was stretched white on the bone. A sudden realisation followed by a jolt of terror sent her shooting to the bathroom where she slammed and locked the door.
Had he already checked and found her Dutch cap missing from its plastic clam in the cabinet? She pulled down her jeans and squatted over the pan. He was yelling from the kitchen about how she’d been seen with the ‘little college boy’, ranting on about money and MOTs and all the things that couldn’t possibly be wrong with her car. Her body was flooding with shame at the names he was calling her. She hooked out the Dutch cap and ran it under the tap.
The instant she emerged he sprang at her, yelling, ‘Liar!’ Grabbing her by the hair, he wrenched back her head. ‘You let lover boy fly my bird.’ He continued yanking, making her eyes smart. ‘Don’t believe you haven’t been seen. And you’re a fucking cradle snatcher, a fucking joke.’ He twisted his handful of her hair until her face was pressed hard against his chest. She could smell his sweat and the turps he used for washing his brushes. She could hear his heart pounding.
‘Let me go.’ She managed to knee him, though she missed his balls. She heard more than felt the searing at the back of her scalp as she broke free, leaving him with a fistful of her hair.
He stared at it in surprise for a moment, then sprang at her as she tried to drag the door open, pulling her away and wrestling her to the floor.
He had her pinned face down in the scattered clothes. ‘Don’t leave me.’ His anger turned to raw pleading. ‘Don’t go,’ he said.
‘Let me go.’ She tried to stop her voice shaking. ‘Please let me go. Let me go, let me go.’
‘Promise not to leave me and I will,’ he said, as though this was just play-fighting and it was simply a matter of getting her to say ‘Submit’.
‘Let me go!’
He was attempting to kiss her.
‘Leave me alone.’
She was exhausted and lay impassive, though her heart was still knocking. She could feel his slobber and tears on the back of her neck.
‘Take down your jeans.’ Her favourite red shirt was now ripped in several places.
‘Don’t be stupid, Chris.’
‘For old times’ sake before you go.’
Julia knew she’d wear the shame for ever, but she was suddenly just tired.
He pulled her jeans to her knees as soon as she stopped resisting and spat into his hand.
The loose frame of the back door rattled; the wind was building up again outside. Her stomach churned as she thought of another night, windy like this one, the same part of the Downs where she’d flown Lucifer earlier.
They’d been ‘lamping’ with a powerful light fixed to a truck and a helpless rabbit in the beam. Chris’s hawk swooping low into the ring of light, like a skater in an elaborate cape and hooking its talons into the rabbit’s spine, shielding it with its mantle as it screamed. Chris on his haunches stretching the rabbit’s neck: ‘It’s kinder this way.’ She didn’t hear a crack and it continued jerking its hindlegs, running nowhere. ‘Just nerves,’ he said, presenting it like a sacrifice, and the bird ripped strings of meat from its throat while its legs kept pumping.
He took his time. She begged him not to come inside her. But he did.
At last he relinquished his grip and rolled away into his sea of dirty laundry. She stood shaking and pulling up her jeans, and flew at the door and over the steps with no one to run to but Julian.
There are no photographs of Mira now. A drugged sleep, a ringing phone, a room full of daylight that has been cleansed of her existence. Julian surfaces, arms flailing, and wakes to a morning with no reason for waking. There is no sticky bottle of Calpol by Julia’s side of the bed, no chewed copy of Goodnight Moon by his. The doll baby has disappeared along with her cardboard-box cot from the corner where Mira played. Even the extra little pillow they had kept between their own in tacit approval of the nights she crawled in between them has been tactfully removed. Julian ignores the phone and buries himself deep beneath the sheets, sinking back into a fug that smells only of himself so that he has to curl into a ball to bear it.
Another August day dawns blasphemously close to midday with his arms and hands so groggy it is an effort to silence the phone when it starts up again. It’s stuffy. He has to keep the windows shut against the creeping night-scented jasmine because it’s been giving him a headache of late. Birds squabble among its vines, something scritches at the glass, a distant cow bellows. A flare of light cuts through a gap in the curtains, dust motes swirl and though the picture is missing from his bedside table, Mira’s face is the first thing that swims into focus: Mira, with a crown of daisies and sunshine in her hair.
He’s clumsy on the stairs, grabs the handrail to stop himself falling. He’s an old man of twenty-nine before the double hit of nicotine and coffee. Crocked up and scratching beneath yesterday’s T-shirt and boxers, automatically stooping his head beneath the beam at the turn and again at the door to the kitchen. The dog dances around him, out of kilter with his mood, tail whacking the back of his legs, oblivious to anything but the emergency of its bladder. It bursts like a cork through the door when Julian opens it and runs sniffing among the fruit trees. Before setting the kettle to boil, he scrapes meat into the dog bowl and lands the fork with a clatter into the sink.
Outside there’s the slam of a car door, the indignant cough of an ignition. He heaps coffee into a pot. The drawn curtains at the front (which, of course, Julia had wanted to change) are gauzy with sunlight. He keeps them closed so the people who come knocking might believe him not in. At last the car drives away.
There remain Sellotape traces on the fridge door. They show up more on bright days like this, tiny ziggurats at the corners of spaces where once had been a cut-out zebra daubed black and white; a face painted on a paper plate; an abstract in pasta shapes; a nursery timetable; a strip of photos from a booth, Mira’s eyes surprised by the flash and big as flying saucers; a red and yellow painted butterfly; the merry wave of her handprint.
Inside the fridge there’s nothing much to want apart from the milk for his coffee. Half-wrapped butter sits stippled with crumbs. There are meals that his mother has prepared, not knowing what else to do, their contents marked on cardboard lids. Lemon chicken, lasagne – things he especially liked as a boy – banoffee pie and Persian stews with nuts and oranges, barberry, almond and lamb. She’s added extra labels: You must eat and Made with love. It’s a wonder there isn’t one declaring: You will get over this. There is a tray of eggs that Katie Webster’s mother left at the front door, speckled browns from her Marans. He thinks briefly of boiling a couple but his stomach tightens, leaving little space for anything other than salty grief.
He wanders, slurping coffee, to his study. The dog trots in from the garden, finds him sitting there with his chin in his hands and slumps at his feet with a deflated sigh. Julian’s desk is about as welcoming as a pool of stagnant water, its surface littered with Post-its. His computer is poised for action; a bunch of pens offer their services from a green glazed jar. Again there’s a space to which his eye always wanders, where once had been a photograph in an ebony frame. The picture has been taken away along with everything else. There will be no asking for it back.
The jar for his pens was made by his mother, the glaze partially oxidised in sawdust so it is almost metallic where darker rivers run through it. He has everything he needs: Pentel V5s in black, blue and red, new foolscap, ink and toner for the printer, packets of gum, tobacco, Rizlas and all the time in the world.
He reaches a hand to the bottom drawer of his desk. Resists. Daily he must stem the urge to check it’s still there. One scuffed shoe: the left. Soft leather. Mira’s with a T-bar and a silver buckle that she’d almost learned to do by herself.
The dog stretches, shoulders twitching, throwing his master baleful looks. Julian’s mother will ring, she won’t mention Julia, she won’t talk about Mira: everyone agrees it’s for the best. She’ll ask if he’s eaten, if he’s managed to take Zephon for a walk. ‘It would do you good, walking always does,’ she’ll say and the forced brightness of her tone will bring an extra bleakness to his day.
He slides open the drawer. You will get over this. The shoe is the only thing there. Cut-out diamonds in the leather and a whitish crêpe sole. Her heel has left a grubby print where it says Start-rite inside. She was a good little walker right from the start: he remembers the tug of her hand, the determined hoppity-skip of her steps. Her shoe is a little rough across the toes, worn down on the outer edge of the heel. She’d walked too soon – at eleven months and thirteen days. He remembers the feeling of slight loss that quite shamed him as she made it triumphantly across the room. Mira, the jutting of that determined chin announcing that she wouldn’t stay a baby for long. Always keen to be some- where else. Her ever-pointing finger: ‘There, over there . . .’
He closes the drawer, tries to make himself focus on work.
Above his desk is a window, jasmine wreathes across leaded glass, vines reaching and twisting in double helixes. The sun throws patterns across the flotsam of yellow Post-its. Their corners curl, his scribbled words have faded and some are circled by coffee from his mugs. Sometimes he reads what’s written – a short description of something, a phrase, the odd metaphor – and tries to make sense of it.
‘And so it came, this dark messenger, flapping towards him like an omen,’ says one in ancient biro. What omen? But it is his writing.
‘Gather a cloud around us to secretly make love (Homer?),’ scrawled across another like ancient code. Time passes.
In the kitchen he shovels down something slippery from a tub. As for walking, the poor dog lives in a state of dashed optimism, darting to the door each time Julian stands from his chair to ease his back or pace, scooting back and forth like a cheerleader, prodding him with his nose.
‘OK, OK, let’s go out,’ he says, opening the door. They get as far as the outbuildings, the dog twirling around his legs, before Julian is defeated by voices along the lane.
He returns to his desk, wakes his computer, makes himself check his inbox but fails to answer a single email. It doesn’t help that the pills are making him muzzy. The dog stays outside, barking at swallows to annoy him. He stares at his mystifying notes, though they might as well be written on papyrus: ‘They disappeared into the mist, arm in arm, like lovers walking into the pages of a book.’
He wonders what it all means but for now can do nothing much but rest his head in his arms and think about Mira.
Missing pictures haunt the spaces they once inhabited. Indelible, though gone from her ebony frame, Mira is a sunny baby in Julia’s arms. The front door to their flat in Cromwell Gardens is ajar, a mild April morning with the dust just starting from the plane trees and Julia concerned that the baby’s eyes might get irritated. Mira has the gummy smile of a pixie, on her head a flecked red wool hat with a green stem at its centre, like a strawberry. She’s in a white billowy dress for her party, across which Julia has managed to get her name appliquéd in red felt.
Mira Eliana. Mira for the miracle and wonder of her birth (from the Latin mirus ‘surprise’). The second name sprung on him by Julia on the day they registered her at Hornsey Town Hall. Eliana. According to the book of names it had Hebrew roots meaning God-given, or Greek ones relating to the sun.
It had a good ring. Mira Eliana. And it made sense, for he had been present for the miracle: the midnight sunshine of her birth.
Julia had made him promise to stay away from what the midwife called ‘the business end’. But the South African doctor was calling: ‘She’s crowning!’ And Julia’s face was turned away. ‘Quick!’
A membranous dark dome was forcing its way through the lividly splayed folds of Julia. Her thighs were bloody and the head was emerging, pushing and stretching her into a purple scream. She was propped on her elbows panting, hair clinging to her forehead (tentacles it was his job to hold back), as the crown pressed towards him like a giant eye from its socket and was born in a splatter of blood.
‘Oh God, Julia,’ he cried three times, overcome by a sudden flood of remorse.
‘My baby, is my baby all right?’ her only concern.
Julian can see it all: the birth room that had seemed so without charm when they arrived, the stern bed and banks of monitors, the optimistic primrose-yellow walls, squishy bean bags piled in a corner. As she’s placed in his arms, Mira’s quavery wails shoot to his heart and a golden light – impossible because it is the middle of the night – starts spreading throughout the room.
He sits beside the bed and someone tucks a white waffle blanket around the baby and slips a tiny cotton cap over her head. He cradles her in the trembling hollow between the crook of his elbow and his chest and she stops wailing with a quiver of her lower lip. A look of deep concentration takes over, her fingers play an invisible harp. They are opening and closing around the astonishing lightness of air and her forehead furrows into a deep V beneath her new cap while she considers this strange phenomenon. He lifts her closer to his face to reassure her, pressing his lips to the softness of her skin, breathing her new smell of warm bread and hot blood.
The South African doctor, who seemed a little grizzled only hours before, takes on the sun-kissed sheen of a movie star, his coat and teeth pearlescent. ‘She’s a beauty,’ he says. Mira is moving her mouth, trying out shapes and pursing her lips, her cheeks surprisingly rounded and as soft as new mushrooms. Julia wears the pale face and pellucid eyes of a saint, turning her head on her pillows, cooing to the baby girl in his arms while the doctor finishes stitching. The anaesthetist, who Julian had only partially registered previously (when the gauge of the needle she’d pushed into Julia’s spine had made him go genuinely weak at the knees), has a pretty Irish voice and a halo of red curls. She clucks over the baby. Mira yawns and locks on to his gaze, her eyes so steady he feels she is reading his mind.
‘There, you can give the baby to Mum now.’ The doctor snapped off his gloves. ‘You’ve done very well,’ he said, patting Julia’s thigh as though she was a favourite filly. Even that failed to rile him as Mira continued staring into his eyes.
Almost reluctantly he broke the contact to place her into Julia’s waiting arms and sat beside the bed quietly in awe of the pair of them. Watching them falling in love. Murmuring. Crying. Julia unbuttoning her nightdress.
A tractor has started up nearby, its droning amplified and falling as it drags the baler back and forth along Horseman’s Field. A distant shout brings him back to his desk. His emails remain stubbornly unanswered. Michael is cautiously broaching one or two outstanding questions: the design for a slipcase of his entire Historical Dogs series awaits his approval; his film agent wants him to sign up to write Fletch le Bone III.
He ought, at least, to deal with Michael. Michael has every right to think of himself as his stepson’s saviour as well as his agent, but the last thing Julian wants right now is anyone turning up to save him.
Not so when he was twenty-one. Then Michael’s offer of a job had come as a blessing. Julia was pregnant and they were about to be thrown out of his student room when Michael flew in. Julian was working every shift he could at the Crown and Julia was in the sort of debt that made her scribble hasty sums on bits of paper. She was constantly tearful and Chris, her fuck-up of a husband, kept turning up at his lodgings (where Julian wasn’t supposed to have overnight guests), dumping bin bags of her clothing in the hall and pushing wads of bills that he’d maliciously decided were hers to pay through the letterbox.
London was as good a place as any to start their life together. They found a cheap room with its own bathroom at the end of the Northern Line. Julia, washed out with the morning, noon and night sickness of that short-lived first pregnancy, was hired by a horticultural centre a short bus ride from their street. Julian was glad that she at least could be in the fresh air. Unlike him. First the tube, then on to the subterranean world of the children’s books slush pile in the basement at Abraham and Leitch. The Abraham being Michael, his mother’s husband, the man he was supposed to think of as a father.
His employer then, his agent now and bursting with questions that need answers. Julian scrolls on past Michael’s emails. There’s something from the new girl in publicity, a school has requested he open their library: couldn’t someone there ensure he wasn’t bothered by this sort of thing? From the shelves beside him garish copies of his own books leer down at him in their cartoon covers.
This career of his, built on a knack for reducing history to the level of pets, started to pall even before Mira was born. When Julia needed to go back to work, he was more than happy to take a break from the hairy rogues’ endless gossip, the goings-on in the kennel at Hampton Court, the New Model Army of bull terriers, the sycophantic little dogs in the laps of their Queens. Yap, yap, yap.
Oh, but he should be grateful. Without them he could never have raised the cash and loans to reclaim Firdaws. But even Firdaws, which he used to think he loved as much as any person, had not been enough to override the flare of humiliation when a writer he admired congratulated him on the success of his most recent, Ponsonby. This last, a Restoration comedy told through the eyes of Charles the Second’s spaniel, was finished without enthusiasm shortly before Mira’s birth.
He attempts a couple of emails, but still has difficulty settling. There are several from his old mate William. They are cautious in tone: ‘I am sorry to disturb . . . I’m sure it may not be the right moment for you to think about this . . . Please do not hesitate to call if it would help to talk, any time, day or night . . .’ Julian rocks back in his chair and closes his eyes.
‘Mira’, a miracle. They started trying for a baby soon after Julia lost the first one, but it took Mira five years to arrive. They were in the bathroom of their flat in Cromwell Gardens, trying not to care, when she first made herself known. He was in the shower when Julia peed on the stick (as she did most months because her periods liked to taunt her by being late). She called to him over the beat of the water, pointing to the white stick on the cistern and a blue line that was deepening from a hint of pale forget-me-not to a navy certainty. They both stared at it, hardly daring to speak, and Julia had to sit back down on the loo. He quickly did the maths on his fingers. ‘Paris!’ he said, and biting her lip she looked up at him and nodded.
She broke away, urging caution when he knelt to hug her. She asked him to get a second test ‘just to be sure’ and when he ran back with it, out of breath, with the bag from the chemist in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other, she was in the kitchen and, still wrapped in her towel, was sitting on the little stool beside the telephone, crying.
The day disappears much like the ones that went before it. Firdaws sinks into the dusk until eventually he switches on the lamps. He manages crisps, heats up some sort of stew and finds the scent of the jasmine has grown stronger when he returns to his desk with a sturdy Duralex glass and the remains of a bottle of red wine.
In their bedroom above, Julia would throw open the window to let in the scent. He imagines she’s up there now, her lustrous hair kinking and purling, Mira framed beside her in the golden square of light, holding out her arms, calling down to him: ‘Dadoo . . .’ to make sure he can see her there in her favourite pyjamas. He pours the wine.
Soon he’ll go out for some air, find the dog and together they’ll cross the garden by moonlight. He takes a gulp from his glass, the smell of the jasmine giving him a headache already. He can summon the taste of the sleeping pill he plans to take. Upstairs the empty bed waits.
He has nightmares about Mira falling. He’ll wake in a sweat, his arms grabbing at the air like a newborn. Then emptiness. No Julia, no Mira.
He rolls a last cigarette, calls to the dog. Mira skips back into his mind, avenues of trees unfurling leaves and promises, the afternoon sunny enough that he can’t resist her pleas for the playground when he picks her up from nursery. Pigeons hanging around like boys at the bus shelter hoping for a few extra crumbs from her lunchbox, and Mira hurtling down the bigger children’s slide, her face screwed shut until he catches her. Blinking with shock, her eyes meet his and instantly she’s confident as she gauges that he is smiling. All will be well: ‘Brave girl,’ he says as she slips from his grasp. ‘Again, again.’ Running back along the concrete to the steps, a loose strap of her dungarees flying, grabbing her to secure it; she watches his fingers intently, always learning. Her funny skippy steps and his mix of pride and terror whenever she tries anything new. Swinging her straight up to the top just so she doesn’t have to work so hard climbing the metal steps, swooping her skywards and blowing a raspberry on her neck to make her laugh.
All of this over and over until he glanced at his watch and realised that it was Friday and Julia would be back at Firdaws already.
Mira looking down at him from the brink to where he’s ready to catch her: ‘OK Dadoo?’ – that’s what she called him and neither he nor Julia could bear to correct her. ‘Ready?’ Quite solemn. Seeing her from a new angle, from the crepe soles of her shoes up, no longer a baby. And then down she comes, a starfish hurtling towards him, and he braces himself ready to catch her.
He set Mira on the foot of the slide to help her get a stone from her shoe, her sock a little sweaty as he straightened it. He slipped the shoe back on to her foot, bowing nobly, ‘Is your name Cinderella?’ And she giggled, told him: ‘Don’t be a silly.’ He showed her again how to thread the strap through the buckle. Her breathing grew heavy as she concentrated on the task and he held her foot steady.
He reaches to the drawer, opens it a touch just to be sure it’s still there. It’s impossible to resist. He takes it out and holds it as he does every day. The creases across the toes have shaped it; the soft leather sole has yielded, the heel bulges, so it is almost as though he has her little foot in his hand and not just her shoe.
Around him familiar shadows watch, the friendly ghosts of four generations of Vales. It’s snug in here, with beams so low they just clear his head, a couple of ancient armchairs, Turkish rugs on the floor that have had their corners chewed by a succession of his mother’s dogs. ‘Hey, how about this as a playroom for Mira?’ Julia tried suggesting the first time he showed her the estate agent’s pictures of Firdaws.
‘Oh, but that was always my den.’ He couldn’t help but be crestfallen. ‘It’s probably the best place for me to write.’
It’s cosy, this room of his: the familiar west-facing window partially covered by the vines, lending a suggestion of a cave or an arbour.
He replaces Mira’s shoe and closes the drawer. This desk was once his father’s. On the day he and Julia moved in, his mother had all the old furniture taken from storage and sent around in a van. Julia was uncharacteristically grumpy as it all came through the door: the big kitchen table, the Welsh dresser and its brightly painted pottery animals, chests of drawers, armchairs, rugs, this desk. Sitting here now, he’s struck by the thought that perhaps nothing had happened to him. For a moment he is a boy again, looking up at the same patch of sky through the same leaded glass, waiting for his mother to call him to the kitchen for soup. He drains the last of the wine, closes his document, puts his computer to sleep. He won’t be far behind.
Firdaws is the last cottage along the lane that winds from the village to the river and since the schools have broken up it seems there is never a day someone isn’t around, whistling to a dog or shrieking on the way down through the water meadows. Most of the other houses have front paths and gardens, but Firdaws is reached across a small meadow of scrubby grass filled at this time of year with yellow wildflowers, cornflowers and dog daisies. Its chimney rises tall and crooked and in the evenings soft mist rolls in from the river to surround it, giving it the appearance of a house in a dream. Of a gentle weathered brick and hanging tile, it was built into a natural nook, so if you lie on the riverbank looking up towards the village it’s the first house you see, tucked close into the bosom of the landscape with nothing but dark-green conifer woods at its shoulders and the spire of St Gabriel’s pointing to the sky.
Beyond the meadow the lane from the village comes to a meandering halt at Jerry Horseman’s fields, whose rusting gates with their elaborate bracelets of baler twine are of no conse- quence to locals long decided this access to the river is common land. Occasionally Jerry Horseman livens things up by grazing a bull in one of his fields but on the whole he is amicable and leaves this part of his empire to a rough hay which is always too full of buttercups.
At the back of the house a small wooden porch faces the downward slope of the garden across the fields with their waving fronds of yellow and rusty dock and on to the river that glints through the trees. When it rains it’s good to sit in the porch, to smell the wet earth and smoke and listen to the water dripping off the roof and leaves. On a really still night you can hear the owls at the river, and around the house the squeaking of pipistrelles that flit among its creepers.
There’s a small terrace for herbs and beds for clambering roses, a few fragrant shrubs. The rest is down to fruit trees and seedy grasses; that is, if you can manage to ignore the three formal flower beds the Nicholsons left behind, where massed bushes of candy-pink roses have flowered all summer long, the air made heavy by their scent.
Strung between the furthest pair of apple trees the hammock mocks him with a low-slung smile for the hours he spent feeling safe, Mira cradled beside him begging for stories. There’s a worn patch of grass beneath it, down to the earth in the middle, scuffed by his foot pushing them to and fro beneath their canopy of blossom and leaves.
The garden was wet with rain after they had been and gone, as though it too had been rinsed of her presence. Their efficiency was astounding. He became increasingly agitated as he tore through the rooms, opening drawers and searching behind cupboards. That night, unable to sleep, he wandered barefoot across the wet grass. The sky, cleared by the rainstorm, was ablaze with stars. The granary windows glinted silver at him and he shivered as something rustled in the apple tree. His bare arms looked freakishly white as he reached inside the hammock. Mira’s shoe was caught in its folds, the strap still buckled, so it must have slipped from her foot, a damp wad of blossom stuck across the toe.
The blossom is gone from the trees now, replaced by hard little fruits, the hammock is streaked with mould and should probably go too.
In the orchard the air will be sweet with ripe plums, but he doesn’t go there to pick them. Beyond the plum trees and the damsons there’s a tree that Julia planted. He tells himself not to be ridiculous – of course it’s still there – but can’t bring himself to check in case it isn’t. It’s a pear tree, carefully transplanted from Cromwell Gardens, special because it was given to Mira at her Naming Day.
Julia had written their daughter’s name in silver italics on the invitations: Mira Eliana, and they waited until April to throw the party so that people could spill out on to the patch of lawn. They had stumbled over what to call this event since Christening would have opened the door to frenzied entreaties from Gwen, Julia’s Catholic mother. They settled on Naming Day and Mira’s snowy dress was lovely as any christening gown.
Mira was carried round the sitting room like a doll by older children, Julia more relaxed about this sort of handling than him. She was a robust baby, already able to support her own head, but still . . . The bluish pulse, beating like a guppy beneath the tender skin of her fontanelle, had caused him deep pains only a few weeks before when invited to hand her to anyone other than Julia. When Julia’s father Geoffrey waddled in to the hospital to incant her with his brandied breath, he wanted to find a way to say: ‘No, she’s too new.’
Lucky for them Geoffrey rarely left the shambolic caravan behind the recreation centre in Vernow where he sometimes got work on the grass but more often didn’t. At Mira’s naming party he wasn’t to be parted from the table where the champagne was poured for the toast. Julia’s mother Gwen fixed her gaze pointedly at her daughter’s chest: ‘Are you sure you’re producing enough milk for the baby?’
Mira barely cried all day. You’d have to be a fool, or just plain spiteful, to suggest she was hungry. Julia was so strung out by her parents’ presence that a twitch started at the outer corner of her eye.
Everyone wanted their photograph with the baby, he had to leap in to shield her eyes from their flashes. Turn them off, he said. His own mother in a black dress and glittery tights arrived bearing armfuls of bright tulips and Michael, his hand proprietorially resting on the small of her back, was beautifully courteous in his weekend tweed with leather patches on his elbows.
Un-Godmother Freda brought her guitar as well as the pear tree and in her thin breathy voice sang a song she’d written for Mira. It was from the point of view of the tree and made Julian want to laugh and Julia cry. ‘Mira, my dear, a golden pear just for you . . .’
From a poster on the wall beside his desk a cartoon Skye terrier with heartbroken, improbably fringed eyes looks out from beneath the scarlet petticoat of his Queen. Geddon, Her Majesty’s Best Friend. Julian shakes his head at him. His knack of giving family pets daft accents and acerbic opinions was never supposed to have become this: Geddon and a whole pack of historically well-placed pooches all at your service, book after barking book. Hello, how lovely to meet you – and screenplays, many more than ever got made, Fletch le Bone, Laika’s Moon, a remake of Greyfriars Bobby – yes, I’m the one who writes in dog voices.
Children cried when they read Geddon’s story and for this Julian was applauded.
He had read Antonia Fraser on Queen Mary Stuart and wrote in the evenings after work: laughing at his own jokes and typing in fingerless gloves. They were still in Burnt Oak then, and despite all four rings of the gas cooker sputtering away there was frost on the inside of the glass. Julia reading her plant manuals at her end of the table, rocked back in her chair with a blanket hanging from her shoulders and her hair tied back with one of her raggedy scarves, him typing away.
To be honest, at that point, Geddon had been little more than an enjoyable retort to the slush he waded through day after day at Abraham and Leitch. He never would have dreamt that Geddon, along with the swiftly imagined Mrs Pericos in his wake (written in the treacherous vernacular of Elizabeth the First’s lapdog), would so heroically light their way out of Burnt Oak.
And open the door to Cromwell Gardens, a short, leafy walk from Waterlow Park. Julia loved that flat. Who wouldn’t? At Cromwell Gardens there was an original fireplace in the sitting room, picture rails that had survived the conversion, plaster fruits along the cornicing which she painted in luscious colours. They woke each morning in a room she had stained deep raspberry with dark velvet curtains shining like cordial in the morning sun. He loved it too.
At Mira’s Naming Day when Gwen sidled up to him – ‘I hope my daughter’s garish taste doesn’t give you a headache’ – he had to step away from her rather than reply. Freda’s singing pear tree was being politely applauded and next up was William.
It should have been Karl doing the godfatherly honours that day, not William, but Julia had vetoed him: ‘Absolutely not!’ her vehemence stopping him in his tracks. Mira had been suckling and let out a cry. ‘I mean, why him? Oh look, now you’re interrupting the flow,’ she said, stroking Mira’s head.
So William, who he’d never especially thought of as his best mate, was there instead, going on about Larkin’s poem for Sally Amis, ‘Born Yesterday’. Bloody cheek! Julian wouldn’t wish for his daughter to be anything other than extraordinary: for her, kingdoms would be renounced, incurable diseases cured, world records broken. Mira whimpered and Julian shushed her with her head snug as a nut between his shoulder and cheek, whispering: ‘Oh, darling, don’t listen.’ People recharged their glasses and drank to Mira’s health, all except Julia, who remained perched on the arm of a chair, looking out at the street, stray strands of hair catching the light from the window.
He remembers it all: Julia’s breasts leaking milk through her thin silk dress; a big fruitcake; his mother’s eyes rarely leaving his face – trying to read him – as he hands plates to and fro; people spilling things and dropping crumbs; Julia’s dad stumbling into a lamp, breaking it; Julia’s nieces lolling on the floor; Mira at the breast and him longing for everyone to leave so that it would be just the three of them again in the milky fug of their bedroom.
Cromwell Gardens seems as unreal as a dream to him now and it’s an effort to snap himself out of it. He wills himself to stay at his desk while a wasp frays his nerves, traversing the inside of the window, smacking against the glass, zigzagging itself into a tizz and drunkenly falling, resuming angrier than before.
As a boy Julian would have knocked that noisy hooligan into a cup, imprisoned it with clingfilm in the soporific cool of the fridge with a few of its friends. Before the chilled wasps regained consciousness, and though it was fiddly, he tied threads around their prone bodies and waited until they warmed up and took flight so he could soar behind them, momentarily shrunken and almost drunk with happiness, making them dance to his tune, a devil-winged coachman tugging at the end of their silken reins. Their harnesses were the gossamer threads of Queen Mab’s coach. Or was it Thumbelina’s?
Wasps were readily available for cryogenics that summer; people talked of them as a plague. Sometimes they seemed to be stinging children just for the fun of it. Nobody went near the fig trees that grew alongside one of Jerry Horseman’s hay barns and sometimes the wasps’ meat-lust became so severe that people gave up flapping and shrieking and telling each other to ignore them and took their Sunday roasts back indoors.
At the height of their frenzy his mother was stung on the foot while doing nothing more aggressive than working on some pots in the granary. She took a pause from the slip she was mixing, came crashing into the house to change into something less spattered and drove to the farm shop where she bought the last three wasp traps they had in stock. Others she made from jam jars. Together she and Julian filled the traps with a mixture of golden syrup and water and lined them along the sills, where soon they sweetened the deaths of multiple invaders. At the kitchen window he spent many a pleasant evening watching as they fought the inevitable, the sinking sun turning their fool’s paradise to living amber.
But still more came. They nested in the shrubbery behind the granary. His mother was in there dreamily emptying her kiln of a week’s work when he came to alert her. ‘Hmmmm,’ she said. ‘OK, will you do something about it?’
So he did. He didn’t ‘ask someone’ as she suggested with her gaze already on a new pot. There wasn’t a ‘someone’ to ask.
‘So is it OK,’ he said, ‘if I siphon the petrol out of the lawnmower?’
‘Ummmm-hmmm.’ Jenna wasn’t listening, as he knew she wouldn’t be. So, what did she expect?
He was stunned and elated by the magnificence of his Molotov cocktail, almost starstruck by the great orange woomph that bloomed from the shrubbery, sending a swirling mass of smoke and wasps and bits of rosebush into orbit.
To escape Jenna’s wrath, he tucked his air pistol into his shorts and cycled three miles to his friend Danny’s house. A couple of other similarly armed boys were already there and as usual they all ended up in the woods out back taking pot shots at each other – and woe betide any bird – dodging in and out of the trees, lucky, really, that nobody lost an eye.
When it came, the attack was as sudden as someone tipping a carton of wasps straight over his head. They arrived in one vicious stinging cloud, savaging him as he hid in a dip. He ran in his shorts through the trees, batting them off, arriving breathless back at Danny’s with wasps fizzing at his legs and clinging to his hair. Systematically he began killing the ones on his shins, waiting until he could feel their stings going in so he’d be sure of getting them, which only made their compatriots nastier. His skin was blazing as he careered into Danny’s bathroom. There was a strange itching at his throat and in the mirror he could see red lumps across his neck and wondered stupidly if it was heat rash. Within minutes the redness spread. He stared in wonder at this map unfurling across his arms and chest and, pulling down his shorts to check, yes, down there too. Short of breath and with a whistling in his throat, he insisted that he was fine when Danny’s doctor father ran out of his study and told him to lie down.
Dr Andrews saved his life that day with a shot of adrenaline before Jenna arrived, breaking every speed limit taking him the eight miles to Casualty. He remembers the blaring of horns at roundabouts. He was unable to reassure her. His throat contained a balloon that was being slowly but surely inflated, his swollen skin was the colour of ripe plums, but he felt so light-headed he found the whole thing only novel. At the hospital he was fitted with a mask and nebulised, then kept in overnight in case his breathing took a turn for the worse. He was told that he must never ever be without an EpiPen.
Naturally Julian never carried an EpiPen.
It was on a languid day post-exams that he was stung again. His assailant got him, with Exocet precision, right on his Adam’s apple. He’d done nothing to provoke it. Sunshine and cheap plonk, the pages of his book fanning gently over his face as he breathed in the smell of the mown grass and the girls’ Ambre Solaire. William was there too that day, helplessly in love with Cara, a girl from their course with a sexy gap between her front teeth. There was a radio nearby and a noisy game of rounders. Cara was being mildly irritating: ‘Here’s a bunch of flowers,’ pulling grass through her fingers and casting the seeds into the air. ‘Now here’s the April showers.’
The entire college seemed to have chosen this spot to celebrate the end of exams. This time last year he’d gone straight back to Firdaws – his mother’s cooking and the warm folds of his girlfriend Katie were hard to resist – but this year he decided to stay on in the town, which pleased neither Katie nor his mother.
He had only recently given up being faithful to Katie. The summer stretched before him. A couple of the girls he’d not been faithful to Katie with had just wandered over holding hands and plonked themselves in front of him not wearing much in the way of clothing and he felt the warmth of the sun concentrate pleasantly at his groin.
And then it got him. ‘Shit.’ He leapt to his feet, trying not to panic, rubbing at his burning neck. The pain subsided quickly and he told himself that everything would be fine.
‘I got stung on my bum at a very embarrassing moment,’ said one of the girls.
‘Haha, pain in the arse,’ said someone else. Julian hoped he was imagining the tingling itch already creeping from his neck.
‘Shit, I need an EpiPen, I think,’ he said, attempting to stay calm.
‘An epi-what?’ Cara looked up from picking grass seeds out of her bra. Everybody else propped themselves on elbows and stared at him.
He spelt it out. ‘I may go into anaphylactic shock. I need to get to a hospital.’
He could feel the warm rash spreading, a new tingling sensation across his stomach.
‘A and E is at the back of the cathedral, isn’t it?’ William said, slowly.
‘Actually, this may be urgent.’ Julian began walking away from them, the act of putting one foot in front of the other already making him woozy. It wasn’t the wine, sadly not that. Something about his mother’s constant entreaty had made him stubbornly irresponsible on the subject of the EpiPen. I am immortal, he teased when she nagged.
His breathing was growing shallow by the time William sprinted ahead to the road trying to spot a taxi, the others scooting round the park calling frantically for a doctor, an EpiPen, a lift to the hospital.
His throat was tightening, every breath shallower and more whistly than the last, his tongue swelling. The road beyond the park was becoming a blur. As he reached the gates he heard a shout and stopped.
A shortish man in a flurry of rumpled clothing flew into view, panting and waving a syringe.
‘You’d better let me get to your thigh,’ Karl said and as Julian fumbled with his belt he felt himself fall.
‘Never mind.’ Karl was kneeling over him and stabbed him straight through his jeans with the needle.
‘Now we have to get you to a nebuliser.’ Karl had already alerted a friend with a hospital pager. ‘I’m not sure I can quite manage a tracheotomy today,’ he said, propping him up, a grin twitching at his lips.
The others caught up as Julian staggered to his feet, Karl lending him an arm, saying: ‘Take it easy. There’s an ambulance on its way, they’ll be here any minute.’
Julian was still finding it hard to breathe. He stared at Karl, trying to remember if he’d ever met this calm, mild-voiced man with John Lennon specs and tufty hair before. Karl’s face seemed to go in and out of focus: beneath thick quizzical brows his brown eyes were humorous, which made Julian feel less panicked.
The sound of the siren was deafening as blue lights flashed across his saviour’s face.
‘Here we go,’ Karl hefted him upright, while William and the others milled uselessly. ‘I’ll come with you, if you like,’ Karl said, taking his weight. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be OK now.’
Julian abandons the modest anaesthesia that sorting through the mysteries at his desk might offer and calls to the dog, whose joy is out of proportion to his planned breath of air in the garden. The noonday sun is obscured by clouds. Outside is muggier than in. The dog spins in ecstasy as he heads for the far corner and the rougher grass. The granary stands squat on its staddle stones, still home to his mother’s old stone kiln, though there’s no sign the Nicholsons ever fired it up. They’ve added various shelves and flat-pack cupboards where Jenna’s work benches used to be and he misses the way it was when he was a boy, with its wheel in the centre and all the industrial bins of minerals, the smell of burning sawdust mingling with the dankness of fresh clay, her work drying on shelves. The pots and figurines are all gone now, as are the old-fashioned spike on which she impaled her orders and her tins of glazes each with its own coloured tile hanging on a nail, sorted so they ran along the wall in a rainbow.
Julian turns his face as he passes. He’s yet to set foot inside, still can’t help regarding any proof of the Nicholsons’ occupancy as vandalism.
He visited them here once, by mistake, the day he travelled from college, bringing his rotten two-timing heart for one final kicking by the girl he’d forsaken. Katie Webster was taking the news of Julia’s pregnancy so badly she’d come home from Manchester so that her mother could at least try to get some good food into her. Her voice was shaky when she called him at his digs and he’d agreed almost at once to come.
He arrived in the village the following day and cycled straight from the train to Katie’s house. He was shaken by the brute physiological effects of his betrayal on her: she looked so diminished in her raggy leggings and T-shirt, all angles where once had been curves. She remained curled miserably on the sofa the entire time, balled-up tissues to her eyes.
He stood awkwardly across the room, hopelessly making excuses. ‘We’ve been together since we were fifteen. You didn’t seriously think . . .’
He didn’t rise to anything she said, put his head in his hands to hear her call Julia ‘some old slag who gets pregnant.’ He let her rant on, shrugging and wincing, until she ran out of words. What else could he do? Katie’s parting shot was vicious: ‘I’m glad Firdaws has been sold,’ she said.
He found himself there on automatic pilot. Mrs Nicholson was looking out of the window and must have guessed the identity of the doleful young man with the bicycle leaning against Jerry Horseman’s rusting gates.
Walking into Firdaws that day was a waking version of the old childhood nightmare of getting home to find there are only strangers who don’t know who you are: it didn’t smell right, the pictures were all wrong on the walls, no dogs, everything so sharp and clean and lemony. Mrs Nicholson led him through to the kitchen. The Rayburn was gone, the wonky apple-green cupboards too. The Nicholson twins sat with their straw-coloured plaits and colouring books at a round table at the wrong end of a shiny new space laboratory of white and steely appliance.
He turned his attention from Mrs Nicholson’s hideous children – what was their problem, why were they staring at him like that? – to the steaming rose-patterned mug placed before him on the table. Noticing the gleam of his knuckles beneath the stretched skin, he made himself unclench his fists. He drank the tea scalding and pedalled to the station with it burning inside him and the wind stinging his eyes.