Exactly one month after arriving at the cabin we begin packing up to leave – and there’s a sense of thrill and anticipation in the whole performance of filling bags, emptying the refrigerator, and checking the car that practically crackles and thrums. None of the arduous grind that usually accompanies the conclusion of a vacation even remotely applies, because the whole episode has really just been a prelude to something far more significant. In fact, if anything, we’re glad to go. The plan is to return to the city and briefly camp out in another hotel, whereupon I can return the hire car and collect my own (finally released from forensic testing), then tie up some assorted loose ends and say my goodbyes (which you think is completely maudlin and pointless, and I secretly attribute to you resenting me paying attention to anyone who’s not you). Then after that we head up north to spend some time (currently unspecified) in Canada to wait for the FBI scrutiny to dwindle even further. And then after that – we go.
“So where do you want to head first?” I say. “Not Italy?”
“No. That would probably not be particularly wise. Although I should like us to visit eventually.” Then you pause and look beady. Oh God, here it comes...
“Do remind me why it is so very necessary to see Jack Crawford and cohorts in person? It would be far easier to email or telephone.”
“It would, yes, but I don’t want to. I want to see them. We’ve been through this.” I resist the urge to roll my eyes, before wondering what you’d do if I wagged my finger at you…It would probably be worth it just to see the expression on your face. “And there’s no need for you to make the trip as well,” I add. “You can just as easily stay here if you prefer.”
“Of course I will accompany you,” you say. “Obviously.”
“Good. I want you to…Just as long as you stay out of sight.”
“Again – obviously.”
“Well, okay then,” I reply. “Anyway it won’t take long, a day or two at most.” Of course you’re right and it would be easier to phone or email. Certainly if the original round of escape plans had gone ahead then they wouldn’t even have had that much – I’d have simply disappeared and no one would have known why. But now that the taint of suspicion has been removed (purchased at a painfully high cost I amend self-righteously, noting the recurring twinge in my stomach wound) and a facsimile faked death is no longer necessary, then I prefer this course of action. It’s hardly feasible that I’ll be able to sustain any meaningful level of contact with Jack or Alana, but I prefer them knowing I’m alive. Even though they’ll never be able to understand just quite how alive I really am – finally happy, finally healthy; protected, prosperous, safe and sane. And loved. I glance over at where you’re preparing to chop some more firewood to get us through the final evening and looking, if possible, even more intimidating and impressive than usual (although no doubt secretly sulking despite it); and I can’t help smiling to myself.
Later on we sit on the bench out front and I drink the remains of the vinegary wine while you flick your collar up and give me the occasional look of fond exasperation. It’s still icy and raw despite the chiminea smouldering nearby, and after successive shivers I finally concede defeat and go back inside to rummage for a blanket. I opt for the plaid one on the sofa as the most convenient (even though we’ve had an excessive amount of sex on top of it), and am surprised to notice your sketch book lying on the coffee table on my way back out. I haven’t really been aware of you drawing while we’ve been here: you must have been doing it to pass the time in the first week when I was asleep nearly constantly. Furtively – and a touch guiltily – I pick it up. It’s exactly the kind of book I would have expected you to own: thick creamy paper, slightly yellowed with age on the fore-edge, and bound in glossy leather the same deep vermillion as blood. You’ve written your name on the flyleaf and I study it for a few moments, noting the indentation on the stem of the H from the force with which you pressed down the pen; the slight dot of ink where the nib dashed away to the right. Everything you do is so dynamic and purposeful, even something as simple as an autograph that no one was ever supposed to see beyond yourself.
On leafing through it’s immediately apparent that most of your sketches are of me, attentively depicted and rendered in every conceivable way. Some from life (dozing on the front steps of the cabin with the blanket over my knee), some from memory (in your old office, leaning pensively against your desk with my hands in my pockets), and some plucked purely from imagination (in a piazza, ornate and dimly lit in the manner of the 18thcentury; my feet treading across the flagstones as I stare at something out of view). There’s me looking angry, and me looking forlorn, and me with a bright, hopeful smile that I’m only rarely aware of producing but which you’ve obviously noticed and captured perfectly. Each picture has been executed with a remarkable level of care and detail – a labor of love…a love letter, each and every one – and the awareness of this suddenly makes me feel guilty; as if I’m blundering, with clumsy fingers and uncouth, peering eyes, into a part of yourself that you haven’t explicitly invited me to see. I carefully replace the book on the table and head back outside instead where you’re still sat exactly as you were when I left you – poised and watchful, illuminated in the glow of the chiminea. The sight of you makes me smile and I go and sit next to you so I can rest my head on your shoulder. You curve your arm round and stroke my cheek (lingering, as always, on the scar) before moving your hand to my hair, and I tilt my head so I can watch you: how absorbed you appear, as if you’re meticulously cataloguing each sensation.
“You’re very beautiful aren’t you?” I say thoughtfully, even though it makes me cringe because it’s not the type of observation I’d readily make to a woman, let alone another man. But it’s true; you are. I suppose you shouldn’t be really. The component features don’t work in isolation – you have too many bones and sharp angles, planed and fleshless as a Medieval saint. But combined together they create something that’s undeniably striking.
“Thank you Will,” you reply calmly. “Yourself likewise.”
“Not like you though. I’m actually pretty ordinary looking. Nondescript.” I’m not even being self-deprecating – it’s not false modesty, it just feels like the truth. I’m not like you. No one is.
“I must disagree with you there I’m afraid,” you say. “Although I suppose it is not customary to describe male attractiveness as beautiful. Handsome would be more typical.” You pause, and I wait with genuine interest to see if you’re going to add some slang epithet like ‘hot’ or ‘sexy’, but of course you don’t. “Although you obviously assume that whenever I call you beautiful I am talking about your physical appearance only, and I am not. Naturally you have a beautiful face and form, but it is far more than that.”
“Well of course it is, don’t be so tiresome.” You tap me on the forehead in an affectionate way. “I, of all people, am hardly going to be so preoccupied with only the aesthetic; at least not when it comes to human beings. You know how attuned I am to what lies beneath the superficial surface of things – and there is no escaping the fact that even the finest and most sensitive features in the world all have the same grimly leering skull behind them. No, when I say you are beautiful I mean your entire self. Your mind, your percepts, your emotions, your rules and reasoning. Your morals, even. The entire way you conduct yourself is quite extraordinarily lovely.”
“Thank you,” I say quietly.
“I dare say you would not be to everyone’s taste…”
This makes me laugh. “Are you playing cannibal bingo again by any chance? Because if you are, then you can stop that shit right now.”
“…not to everyone’s taste,” you continue languorously, “just as I am not; just as no mortal is ever going to have the good fortune to be universally adored and well-regarded. But as far as I am concerned you are singularly and strikingly perfect; even in your extreme imperfection. And of course I am generally regarded as an impeccable arbiter of such things.”
“By anyone with good judgment.”
I can’t help smiling at your monumental arrogance, which would be repellent in anyone else yet with you manages to be inexplicably charismatic. “Although you didn’t always think that,” I add after a pause.
“No. You could have destroyed me; you certainly tried to at several points.”
“If you truly believe that then you are sadly over-estimating my capacities. Or, more likely, underestimating your own. Do not perceive yourself the way in which the Jack Crawfords of the world are disposed to: as this sad, beautiful, sensitive thing that is poised to be utterly crushed. That is not what you are.”
“You never were. You are a fragile rock. Vulnerable yet imperishable.”
I can’t help feeling that you’re letting yourself off the hook just a little bit too much with this speech (and am trying to decide whether or not I can be bothered to call you out on it) when you gently squeeze the back of my neck and I slacken and go still, contentedly leaning into the touch.
“Interesting,” you say, smoothing your hand over the skin. “I have observed this before with you – pressure, just here, often exhibits both a soothing and inhibiting effect. Rather like a small feline.”
“Small feline? God, have you heard yourself? Why can’t you just say kitten?”
“Very well; like a crotchety, conspiring kitten that subsists in a permanent state of rebellion. Possibly the runt of the litter.”
“Did you just call me a runt? You did, didn’t you – an actual runt. Anyway that would make you a lumbering old maternal feline, so you really didn’t think that analogy through at all.”
“No,” you say thoughtfully, “evidently not.”
“It’s quite a depressing image isn’t it? An ancient, careworn festering feline, constantly preoccupied with the welfare of…”
“…of the runt. Yes, quite.”
I move off your shoulder and lie across the bench, arranging my head on your knee so you can stroke my hair, and then stare up at you and roll my eyes. You roll yours right back. “You’re so annoying sometimes,” I say.
“Ah. The runt is roused.”
“Yes – don’t you dare rouse the runt.”
“Indeed, I do not dare.”
I smirk at you then idly take hold of your hand so I can press our palms together, noting the longer length of your fingers and how pale my skin always looks next to yours. “I wonder which one of us would win in a fight?” I say with a grin.
“I don’t know; I do not intend for us to ever find out. I suppose I am physically stronger than you are. But of course it is not merely a question of brute strength but also of resourcefulness and vigour; in which accomplishments we are fairly evenly matched.”
“I’d have to give you handicap points for your advanced age.”
“And I you for your advanced feebleness.”
“The clash of the Titans,” I say. “Although seeing as it’s purely hypothetical I like to think it would be me. The good guy always wins after all.”
“You are quite welcome to think that, considering that it is hypothetical and mutually agreed to remain so.”
“Hmmm, yes. This bench should be considered the formal site of the armistice.”
“All hostilities must cease sometimes, I suppose, especially when the warring parties begin to explore one another’s views. Conflict thrives on miscommunication.” You’ve got one hand in my hair and the other on my waist; it’s nice. A bit longer and I could probably fall asleep like this. “Interaction and exchange, on the other hand, create respect. And respect enables sympathy and consideration. And empathy.” You lightly take hold of my hand in yours and run your thumb over my wrist. “And they do say that without empathy there can be no forgiveness.”
We arrive in the new hotel in the early hours of the morning and then have to wait in the parking lot for the reception to open before stumbling inside half-dead with tiredness. I’m so exhausted my legs refuse to coordinate for the final few yards and you end up having to practically carry me to the entrance, despite not being in a much better state yourself. It’s entirely obvious how things stand between us from the way in which I lean against you and you stroke your palm across my shoulders – neither of us makes any attempt to hide it – and the receptionist runs his eyes over me in an approving way and darts some coyly suggestive smiles in my direction; until you glance up from signing a (fake) name in the register and shoot him a look of such total menace that he clears his throat awkwardly and hands the key over without another word.
“It is just as well for him that you set your conditions for my conduct prior to arrival,” you say grimly when we’re in the elevator; and I can’t help finding the possessiveness tremendously thrilling, even though I know I shouldn’t. We collapse onto the bed without even getting undressed, but while I could happily sleep through to the afternoon I set the alarm on my cell for 6am and force myself to get up when it goes off. We’re only here for one more day and there’s a lot to be arranged.
The first thing I do is return the hire car and retrieve my own, then take the latter to the garage to confirm it’s up to the long drive ahead. It’s rather freeing to have my own transport again after the endless succession of cabs (and fucking eternal parade of unbearable cab drivers) and I wind down the window and tear up the freeway with the stereo blaring and a grin on my face.
The second thing I do is go back to my old apartment. In some ways it’s a bit of an anti-climax; I was anticipating stirring memories and profound realizations, and all I really end up thinking is how utterly shit it is and thank God I won’t have to live here anymore (although the sight of the sofa musters a genuine smile). I have pathetically few belongings so it takes very little time to compose three hasty piles: one for the trash, one for the Goodwill, and one to take with me. The first pile grows far more prodigiously than the second, and nothing really goes into the third except a few clothes and books and the shock blanket. I hesitate over packing the latter; but while it might be a malevolent fluffy blue bastard it also has a rather rousing set of associations (a silent witness, in fact), and I can’t quite bring myself to leave it behind.
The third thing I do is stop off on the floor below mine (not that it is my floor anymore, and never will be again) so I can say goodbye to Mr Haversham.
“William!” he says when he opens up and I’ve given an account of my presence on his doorstep. “Well if that isn’t the nicest thing!”
He rests his hand on my back and shepherds me into his cluttered little living room, where I allow him to fuss over me without complaint and force myself to drink the tea he provides despite the fact it’s the color of furniture polish and has a few specks of tea leaf floating on the surface.
“You were really nice to me when I first moved in,” I say. “I wanted you to know how much I appreciated it. It was a difficult time.”
“Ah, it surely was.” He pats me kindly on the wrist. “You poor boy.”
“You looked like the walking wounded. We used to say that when I was in the army: the walking wounded, we’d say. It means injured but ambulatory, that was the official term, but we’d have it as well for the boys that seemed okay but were hurting inside of themselves. You know…emotionally.” He peers at me, trying to establish whether I grasp his meaning. I suppose his generation never really discussed psychological issues; he doesn’t realise that this sort of terminology is bartered daily now, beloved of everyone from chartered counsellors to TV talk show hosts.
“I understand,” is all I say. “And you’re right. I was.”
“But look at you now!” he replies merrily, as if realizing that the conversation has taken a prematurely depressing turn and is determined to resuscitate it. “Look at you now William! You look grand!”
“Thank you, I am, I’m doing much better.” I smile at him to prove it and then take a cautious sip of the tea without grimacing, which as a feat of endurance meets proportions that are fucking epic – if not Olympian.
“You surely are,” he says happily. “There’s nothing like family is there?”
“Your uncle. You sure perked up when your uncle came to see you.”
“Oh yes, of course.”
“Your Uncle Jack.”
“And your young lady. You have a young lady now don’t you?” His left eye swivels around in what may very well be an approximation of a wink. “What did you say her name was?”
I carefully replace my teacup in its saucer to conceal the fact I’m beginning to feel a bit desperate (hardly surprising given that Uncle Jack and the Young Lady are technically the same person…which as a concept is so spectacularly wrong that it shouldn’t even be thought, let alone spoken aloud). “What about you Mr Haverham?” I say quickly. “How have you been?”
“Well that’s just it William, it’s the grandest thing. My boy is back in Maryland now; back at last. He and his wife have just bought a fine old house out by Baltimore and are mighty keen for me to go and live with them. Spend some proper time with the grandchildren; isn’t that the grandest thing?”
“That’s really great,” I say. “I’m so pleased for you.”
“Well I’m pleased for you too Son, I surely am. You know, I wish we could go back and give this good news to our old selves. A time machine, William! You know what I mean? Say to ourselves: ‘chin up boys! It’s bad now but it won’t be that way forever. Something good is just on the horizon, if you can just stick it out a bit longer.’ Wouldn’t that be a thing; if you could do that? If your future self could go back in time and give a bit of comfort, a bit of reassurance, to your sad self in the present.”
Briefly I glance down at my cup: teacups, time, and the rules of disorder. When I raise my head I’m smiling again. “Yeah,” I say. “I know exactly what you mean.”
The fourth thing I do is stop by the office to say goodbye to Price, Zeller and Jack. The latter, as usual, is nowhere to be found so I leave a message with his secretary and head down to the lab instead.
“Will!” shrieks Price when I walk in. “My God. How are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m good.”
“You can’t possibly be either of those things,” says Price firmly.
“You can’t,” agrees Zeller, nodding vigorously.
Price and Zeller raise their eyebrows in carefully coordinated scepticism and fold their arms.
“Okay, whatever. I’m terrible.”
“Well of course you are,” says Price in a cosy voice. “Of course you’re terrible. The Thug Life chose you Will; you did not choose It.”
“Right…Thanks for that.”
“Jeez Will,” says Zeller sympathetically. “That was something else. I mean seriously. I couldn’t believe it when I heard.”
“He really couldn’t,” Price adds.
“Well, you couldn’t either. You said you thought it was some elaborate practical joke.”
“I did not.”
“You did, you said…”
“Look,” I interject, “it’s fine. It happened, and I got through it, and it’s fine. And I’m fine. Except when I’m terrible, obviously. But overall it’s mostly fine.”
“It’s not really though is it,” says Zeller. “No one knows where he is now.”
“No, I guess not.”
“He could be anywhere,” adds Price in a theatrical whisper. We all briefly fall silent, as if expecting you to demonstrate this by dramatically appearing from one of the examination rooms.
“Well he’s not here,” I finally say. “Although admittedly he could be pretty much anywhere else. And I’m delighted to say that as of this afternoon that is officially no longer my problem. You can have him all to yourselves.”
“So it’s true then?” asks Zeller. “You actually are leaving? Giving it all up?”
“Yes, it’s true. I don’t know why you’re so surprised. I walked away from it for three full years.”
“Good for you Will,” says Price.
“We’ll miss you – it’ll be weird not having your tormented little bearded face round my lab all the time.”
“I’ll try and stop by every so often,” I say, even though I know I can’t.
“So what are you going to do? You’re too young to retire.”
“Write, probably. At least in the short-term. Textbooks or monographs, that kind of thing. Maybe.”
“I know,” says Zeller eagerly, “you should write your autobiography.”
“Yes!” Price actually claps his hands together. “Yes, you should absolutely do that. Think of all the money you’d make.”
“You could call it Sex and Death,” suggests Zeller.
“No I couldn’t. How could I? Where does the sex part figure?”
“Because sex sells,” replies Zeller. “Who’s going to buy a book called Death?”
“But I wouldn’t call my autobiography Death,” I say patiently.
“No, Zeller’s right, you need a reference to sex. It doesn’t matter that you never have any, people won’t realize until after they’ve bought it, at which point you can take the money and run.”
Natasha-call-me-Tash then comes into the lab looking for Jack, and we spend the next ten minutes discussing what I’m going to call my phantom autobiography. Zeller is sticking with Sex and Death whereas Price prefers Murder and Sexual Favors. Natasha thinks Date With Depravity has a certain ring to it. After that we decide what I’m going to wear when I go on the Conan show to promote it, and all the glowing, watery-eyed tributes I’m going to pay my FBI colleagues when I deliver my acceptance speech for the Pulitzer Autobiography prize. Jack turns up halfway through and demands to know what all the noise is about.
“Will’s rehearsing his ‘I’d like to thank the Academy’ speech for when Empathic Murder Sex wins an Oscar for best adapted screenplay,” says Price. Jack opens his mouth then closes it again.
“I hope you’re going to put some thought into who’s going to play me,” adds Price. “Because it should be someone with the right amount of gravitas, coupled with a certain whimsical charm. Intelligent as well, obviously.”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind if he was bit of an idiot in real life – don’t think I’d mind about that Will, I know actors are all a bit vapid – but he has to be able to portray intelligence convincingly. He has to have gravitas. And if he’s boyishly good-looking that would be desirable but not essential. Because really it’s all about…”
“The gravitas. Yeah, I get it.”
“I’ve missed something haven’t I?” says Jack.
“Not as much as Will is going to miss if he doesn’t hurry up and write Empathic Murder Sex.”
“Empathic Murder Sex?” repeats Jack slowly.
“Or do you think Sex and Death sounds better?” chips in Zeller. “Because I think Sex and Death sounds way better.”
“Jack,” I say, a bit hysterically. “Have you got a minute? I’m leaving soon – tomorrow, probably – and I’d like to see you before I go. Is that okay?”
Jack says that he has, and it is; and I gradually manage to extricate myself from Zeller and Price via a series of slightly awkward handshakes which devolve into even more awkward hugs, and ultimately conclude with mutual vows to keep in touch via email (and which I hope might prove to be possible, at least in the short-term, even though it doesn’t seem all that likely). After that I escape into Jack’s office and slump down into one of his perennially uncomfortable visitor chairs – which I’ve always been convinced (and will forever more remain so) that he keeps that way on purpose in order to discourage actual visitors.
Jack smugly settles himself into his own luxuriously upholstered chair and beams at me from the other side of his desk, but I’m not really paying attention anymore because I can’t stop my eyes flicking to the empty chair on the left. If I focus hard enough I could almost imagine you sat next to me: slightly quizzical, the faintest of smiles on your face. Approving yet contemplative: “Not fond of eye contact?” Trying to establish the measure of one another; you with somewhat greater success. Centre stage, curtain up – go.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry, just…thinking about stuff.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” says Jack. “All things considered. So – you’re really off this time?”
“I really am.”
“It’s the right thing. But we’ll get him Will; we’ll get him eventually. Don’t feel like you’re being exiled.”
“I don’t. And it’s not just about him, it’s about me as well.” And this is actually true, although not in a way that Jack could even begin to understand.
“I hope you’ll come back some time – we’ll miss you. I’ll miss you. And not just because of the work. You know that, right?”
“Thanks.” I hesitate and then glance up at him from over the top of my glasses. “I’m sorry Jack.”
For everything. I think. For the betrayal. For the abandonment. For not being the person you thought I was – and for not caring about it. “I feel like I’m bailing on you,” is all I say instead.
“Well you can stop that right now. You’ve done your bit Will. You’ve more than done it. These gifts you have…they’ve not exactly been very easy to bear. But you forced yourself to use them anyway. Look at the difference you’ve made – the lives you saved.”
“I guess.” Briefly I think about you, of your words all those years ago: “I don’t care about the lives you save. I care about your life.”
“I made a mistake when I asked you to come back,” says Jack. “I should have left you alone. I’m not going to make that mistake again. You deserve a bit of happiness finally. So go. Go on.” He grins and waves his hand at the door. “You have my blessing. Not that you need it of course.”
And I suppose that’s true – I don’t need his blessing. Although as I’m smiling at him and shaking his hand, and letting him give me a fatherly hug and then even ruffle my hair (Christ), I can’t help feeling that I like to know I’ve got it all the same.
The fifth thing I do is stop by at a downtown coffee shop that I haven’t been in for months, where I wait to keep a pre-arranged appointment (humming to myself and occasionally smiling at nothing) until the bell on the top of the door chimes and Alana walks in. As expected she looks pale and strained, and she slumps into the seat opposite me and takes my hand in a way that entirely lacks her usual self-possession.
“Oh Will,” she says.
I open my mouth to reply when the waitress materializes out of nowhere and proceeds to make a big performance (frustrated drama student, almost certainly) of offering the day’s specials in all their convoluted glory. I stop paying attention halfway through – the last thing I’m consciously aware of is ‘double-shot, decaf, vanilla soy’ – until Alana snaps at her to go away.
“Oh God, that was really rude wasn’t it?” she adds when the waitress has retreated in a fog of (theatrical) indignation. “I shouldn’t have spoken to her that way.”
“It was self-defence. I would have done it myself, if I hadn’t already lost the will to live after ‘frappe mochaccino macchiato’.”
“I know right? When did coffee become so elaborate? It used to be just two types: black or white.”
“And now ordering it is only marginally less complicated than breaking the Enigma code.” I take a sip of mine and then brandish the mug. “Presenting the asshole beverage. I suppose it means we’re getting old; we’re failing at the 21st Century.”
Alana gives me a sad smile then squeezes my hand. “I can’t believe how well you’re looking Will. Seriously, when I got the call from Jack, I…Well. You can probably imagine.”
“So – he’s…he’s back.”
“Well, he was. For one night.”
She looks a bit sick; I can’t say I blame her. “God, Will. I want to ask what happened to you and at the same time I feel like I can’t bear to know.”
“That’s okay. Anyway, you don’t really need to know; I didn’t invite you to meet me for a post-mortem. I wanted to say goodbye.”
“Oh yes, you said on the phone.” She smiles, making a visible effort to appear more cheerful on my behalf. “I’m glad you’re getting away Will, you deserve it. You need it. I’ve never known you take a proper vacation before. Do you plan on going abroad?”
“At some point.”
“How far? Think you’ll make it to Europe?”
“No. I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet. I might go to, um…” Oh God – where do people actually go? “Um Hawaii,” I eventually manage. I falter slightly, not sure how convincing this sounds; it hardly seems like the type of place I would visit through choice…I have a sudden ludicrous image of myself wearing a lei while brandishing a flamboyant cocktail in sickly primary colors. “I’ve always wanted to see Maui,” I add, a bit lamely.
Alana (who has of course seen Maui) waves her hand in dismissal of this. “You could do that anytime,” she says. “It’s only a few hours away. Go to Europe Will, you’d love it.”
“I have been before you know.”
“Yes, and look what the circumstances were. You need to lay a few ghosts. So don’t go to Italy.” She gives me a pointed look. “In fact leave the Mediterranean, everyone goes there. Why not try the Scandinavian countries instead. Or Eastern Europe? Prague is so beautiful. Or Bucharest. Bratislava? Dubrovnik has the most breath-taking views of the sea.”
“Thanks, they’re good suggestions.”
“I know, what about Germany? A neighbor of ours has just come back from there. His wife’s a medievalist at the university; apparently she could get by with bits of Anglo-Saxon and Middle High German…”
“Yeah, great, thank you.” I wave my hand around a bit. “Look, Alana…”
“That wasn’t the only reason I asked you here.”
“No. Okay, so…do you remember the last time we met in this place? Just after that whole Michael French thing?”
“Of course. I wish I could forget.”
“We were talking about Hannibal. What he said to you; what it meant. What it could mean.”
“I remember it Will.”
“Well…I wanted to tell you that it’s okay now. I can imagine how you must have felt when you heard he was still alive, but you don’t need to. Forget about him – live your life. Free. Without fear. He’s not going to come back for you.”
She goes very still, and when she speaks her voice is low and intense. “How do you know?” she says – at which point I falter slightly and she abruptly leans forward, her face blanched and taut. “Will, please. How do you know?”
“He had me in that room for over an hour,” I say. Then I reach out and place my hand over hers again. “Alana, I know. I wouldn’t tell you if I wasn’t sure.”
She draws in a small, shaky breath and looks down at her lap. When she glances up again her eyes are wet. “Thank you Will,” she says.
“Because I know that somehow this is to do with you. That you made it happen – that it wouldn’t have been possible without you.”
I shrug awkwardly, as if I think she’s giving me too much credit, and she gives me a pre-emptive shake of the head in return: “No one else could have asked him in a way that he’d have taken seriously. No one.”
“He gave me his word,” is all I say. And you did; just not in the circumstances she thinks.
Now she runs one slim hand over her face and fumbles in her purse for a tissue with the other. “Thank you,” she says again. “It’s not just for me, but…”
“Your family. Of course – I understand.” There are little smears of mascara underneath her right eye, like a smattering of freckles, and I reach out and wipe my thumb over them before briefly resting my hand on the side of her cheek. “I might not see you again for a while,” I say. “I mean a long while. I don’t know when I’m coming back.” I hesitate again. “To be honest Alana, I might not come back at all.”
“Really. But…I’ll think about you. I won’t forget you – please don’t forget me.”
“Never.” She rests her hand over mine. “How could I?”
“Give Margot my love won’t you? Tell her…tell her…I don’t know. Tell her whatever you think she’d want to hear.”
“Then I’ll tell her you’re doing well. And that you’re going to be happy and safe. And that we owe you everything for what you’ve done.”
“I really didn’t do all that much; not really. I just did what I could. And it was no more than what you tried to do for me.”
“And, ironically, he did the rest,” she says. “Although it’s not truly about him is it? That conversation Will, the one we had all those months ago. Do you remember what I told you? I said that I trusted you to do the right thing, and that I believed you’d know what that was when the time came. Well – I still trust you.”
“Thank you. And yes, I do remember that.” I smile a bit ruefully. “I told you that you were taking a lot of trust. But you were right, because I have done the right thing. For once in his life, Will Graham has done the right thing. We should have one of those ridiculous coffees to celebrate.”
“It’s on me.” She squeezes my shoulder on her way to the counter, and I smile to myself again as I think about you: about your face, your voice, about me with you, and you with me. Because of course Alana’s correct, and so am I, because I have done the right thing. Finally. Finally – I’ve done the right thing.
The last visit I pay is the most difficult, hence delayed until last, and involves travelling to a small holding cell, six foot by eight foot with steel walls and a panel in the door through which I can look in and behold what’s inside. I’m not really allowed – technically I shouldn’t be here at all – but Jack managed to swing it for me and the guard’s prepared to turn a blind eye for 20 minutes as long as I don’t touch the glass, don’t approach the glass, pass nothing through except soft paper – no pencils or pens, no staples or paper clips – use the sliding food carrier, no exceptions…
“I know the drill,” I say sharply.
“Of course Mr Graham, apologies Sir. But it’s procedure – I have to run it by you.”
“So you’ve run it by me. Now please can you leave?”
“Well…” he scratches his head, looking uncertain.
“Mr Crawford said unrestricted access. Any problems take it up with him.”
“Okay Sir. Sure. You – you just bang on the door here when you’re done.”
“I’ll do that,” I say, even though I’m no longer looking at him, instead preparing to begin my lonely pilgrimage down the corridor. The cell I want is at the very bottom and shrouded in complete darkness: there’s nothing to see through the Perspex window except pools of black, but I know that its occupant is expecting me. I pick up the intercom phone that’s suspended next to the door and clear my throat.
There’s a long, limping pause, and then: “Hello Mr Graham.”
“Here you are…Large as life.”
“I can see you Mr Graham.” He draws in his breath then pushes it out again in a sighing, sibilant hiss. “I see you.”
“I guess you can.”
“Come to gloat?”
“No,” I say.
“No? I wouldn’t blame you if you had.”
Another pause. “So why are you here?”
And isn’t that the question? Because while I told Jack that the answer was “closure”; and while I’ll tell Matthew himself that it’s because I’m sorry how things have worked out and that I hope he can finally get the help he needs (and there’s a small element of truth in both); the real reason is that he’s my own personal cautionary tale: a customized warning about the importance of not becoming so enslaved to the idea of someone else that I lose all ownership of myself. Of not constructing the image of the Other to suit my own needs and preferences…of staying true to myself before devolving all autonomy and stewardship to something beyond me. I always saw a symmetry between his fixation with me and mine with you; I thought it both times in both alleyways. And so I’m here because if the last few weeks have been about coming full circle then this is the final loop and swirl. And as with all the others, it’s one that leads back to you, drawn by me, and completed by both of us.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” says Matthew Brown; and it’s as if he’s just read my mind. “What I saw you do. With him. I didn’t say.”
I satisfy myself with making a vague, non-committal noise in response to this; partly in case anyone’s listening in on the call, but also because I know that it’s a complete lie. Jack came to see me about it two weeks after my first operation. He looked miserably concerned and foreboding the entire time, sitting by the bed for ages without speaking while pleating the cover into anxious little folds.
“Matthew Brown’s out of the ICU now,” he said eventually.
“I know. I got the phone call.”
“Lucky little sonofabitch. Head injury like that should have killed him.”
“We’ve been questioning him. He told us everything about Cane – or Gideon – the whole thing. Jesus Will, you were right all along. I should have listened to you.”
“You always say that Jack, until the next time – when you just ignore me again.”
He laughed at that then pulled the chair even nearer to the bed; I remember how the scraping of the feet against the floor set my teeth on edge. In fact I remember that more than anything else: not feeling guilt (because I had no remorse about any of it), and not fear or anxiety either (because I knew that we were unstoppable and so anxiety didn’t apply). Just the scraping sound of four plastic feet across the linoleum, and Jack’s unhappy face when he said: “Brown came out with a striking account of what happened in that warehouse.”
Another pause and then: “Will, I need to ask. You need to tell me. Did Hannibal…Did he…Do you need…?”
“Did Hannibal assault you?” (Deep breath from Jack; frown even more pronounced). “Not physically. I mean…I mean sexually.”
“What? No. Of course not, why would you even think that?”
“Brown was pretty adamant that he saw the two of you…well. I mean obviously that couldn’t be consensual, so…”
“Jack, it’s fine, I promise you. Don’t take Matthew Brown too seriously.”
“I can get you someone else to speak to? A doctor? Or a counsellor? I appreciate I’m probably not the…”
“Jack, he’s either inventing it wholesale as some of kind of sick deflection, or else he saw me struggling and put his own construction on it. In fact it was probably the latter. You know he’s obsessed with me. He’s projecting.”
“He’s certainly obsessed. He won’t stop talking about you. It’s ‘Mr Graham this’ and ‘Mr Graham that.’ Unbelievable how far some people are prepared to go; a bit tragic really. It’s just like before, like he wants to court you. He seems to think what he’s done is a legitimate form of devotion. Of love.”
“Love is a weapon of mass destruction,” I replied. “I know.” And that was when I decided I needed to see him one final time.
“You and me,” Matthew Brown says now, crooning softly into my ear. “You and me Mr Graham, chewing the fat in the BSHCI. Just like old times.”
“Not quite though, is it?” I reply, but he doesn’t respond. He wasn’t actually supposed to come back here – the preference was for prison rather than hospital – but the psychiatric evaluations recommended against it. Jack says that he’s faking. I think he just thinks that he is.
There’s another long pause, and I’m wondering whether he’s hung up, when his voice abruptly comes hissing down the receiver: “How could you do that?” he says, low and venomous, and I know he’s talking about you. “How could you Mr Graham?”
How could I not? I think. It was determined; it was destiny. It’s what I was always supposed to do.
“You’re not the person I thought you were.”
“I know,” I say. Because in fact I’m not the person I thought I was – and for the first time ever, I’m actually okay with that.
“You’re not a hawk at all. Are you? Are you? I don’t even know what you are.”
“I’m just me,” I say.
“Just you,” he repeats tonelessly. “Just Will Graham.”
Another long silence follows this announcement, and I begin to contemplate simply hanging up myself when the quiet is destroyed by a loud, aggressive thud – and I flinch in spite of myself as his face abruptly rears out of the gloom and presses up against the side of the window. His skin looks yellow, parchment thin and stretched over his bones, and his eyes roll around in their sockets as his mouth gapes open in a wet, scarlet snarl like a rabid dog. The sight is at once grotesque – like a ghastly, grinning Death’s head – yet also strangely pitiful; and the contempt I imagined I’d feel begins to dissolve away to be replaced by something much closer to compassion.
“I found you once.” He’s not using the phone anymore; I can hear his voice, rumbling and muffled through the screen. “I got out of here once. I got out of here and I found you.”
“Yes, you did,” I say calmly. “And I sent you right back again. For your own sake I strongly suggest you don’t try a second time.”
For a few beats we stare at each other, and I know that I’m done here. “You’re right Matthew,” I finally say. “I’m not what you wanted me to be. So do yourself a favor – all your ambitions, all your hopes and aspirations. Keep that stuff for yourself. Don’t heap them onto anyone else; don’t just give them away. Trust me, it’s what I’m going to do.”
“I found you.” It’s as if I haven’t spoken. “I found you.”
“I know,” I say. “But you still didn’t find what you were looking for.” I can hear him screaming at me as I walk away but I’m not disturbed by it and I don’t look back. Even if he did escape a second time, even if the pursuit reignited all over again – he still wouldn’t be successful. He can’t find that person again, simply because that person no longer exists. He died that night on the clifftop; the ocean claimed him.
I reach the end of the corridor and then bang on the door for the guard to let me out. Out, out, out into the light.
I’m so keen to leave the BSHCI that I practically run to my car and then keep my foot pressed down on the pedal the entire way back to the hotel. This is it now; only a few more hours and we’re leaving. Oh God, we really are. I run up to our room when I arrive and promptly discover you asleep on the bed: elegantly draped across the top of the covers with one hand curled up close to your face and the other arm resting behind your head. I take a few seconds just to watch you, because it’s still quite striking to see you asleep. In fact up until recently there’s no way you would have allowed me to catch you like this: as if any moment of vulnerability had to be fiercely guarded. I fold myself over your back and kiss your neck, and you make a tired-sounding noise and reach round to run your hand over my face.
“Hello Will,” you say. “Revoltingly over-energetic as usual, I see.”
“You mean because I’m disturbing you from your old man nap? Get up.” I press my lips against your skin. “Today’s the day.”
“I am well aware.”
Your accent comes out stronger when you’re tired; thicker on the vowels. It’s quite endearing. I try to think of something else to say to make you do it again. “Why are you asleep in the afternoon?” I ask. “You never even sleep at night.”
“Because you were not here and I grew bored. You were gone a very long time; I assume you have accomplished all you wished to?”
“Yes. I’ve had a busy day.”
“Jack, I suppose?”
“And the rest. I saw Alana; she thinks we should go to Germany.” You quirk an eyebrow. “Okay, you pedant, she thinks I should go to Germany. Although I guess I could allow you to tag along.” I stretch out next to you and prop my head on your shoulder. “She said she had a friend who went to Germany and got by with speaking bits of Anglo-Saxon. Don’t you think that’s impressive?”
“I do not, I think it is ludicrous. Like going to Italy and speaking Latin.”
“Can you speak Latin?”
“I can read Latin. One does not converse in it, because it is a dead language.”
“So? You love dead things. Come on, get up.”
“There is no need. We are not leaving for several more hours; how over-excitable you are. Although it does rather suit you – in fact it is very pleasant to see you so carefree.”
“You should get used to it. I’ve decided I actually quite like not feeling tormented on a permanent basis. I intend to take every possible opportunity of being carefree.”
“Excellent,” you say. “No doubt it will be an interesting divergence to my own more sober state of mind.”
“Maybe.” I run my hand up along your arms then down over your ribcage and you shift slightly under the touch. I wonder if you’re ticklish? Oh my God, that would be hilarious; one day I’m going to have to find out. “Although I bet it’ll annoy you eventually,” I add with mock severity. “You’ll want me to be more earnest and restrained.”
“Who knows what is going to happen. I am not a clairvoyant.”
“You probably will. You’re so severe when you want to be. You’ll go back on your word and try to turn me into your acolyte after all.”
“And how do you imagine I would accomplish that?”
“I don’t know. You’d probably try and take me over the dining table while shouting Hannibal ante portas.”
Your mouth twitches at that as if you’re struggling not to laugh. “Do be quiet, you little horror,” you eventually say.
“Or else what?”
“Or I shall take you over the dining table.”
“Going to take me over a table are you? What a filthy mouth you have; where have you been keeping it all these years? Do you psychoanalyze people with that mouth? Anyway, how do you know I wouldn’t take you first?” I hitch a bit closer to you and rest my head on your chest; I can hear your heartbeat through the fabric of your shirt. There’s a companionable silence as you massage my shoulder blades and I tap an absent-minded rhythm onto your collar bone with my index finger. “It was strange today,” I eventually say. “Talking about you with different people – it felt odd.”
“Yes, I imagine it would have done.”
"There is never only one of anybody. Now I understand more what you meant.”
“I suspect you always understood. It was only the experiencing of it which was difficult.”
“Everyone is afraid of you. Your name instils so much dread and doubt in people.” And all of them referring to different versions; a great composite of identities, none of them entirely capturing the whole.
There’s another pause: you’re still stroking my back, I’m still tapping your chest. Your skin’s so warm. “And what about you?” you eventually say. “Are you afraid?”
My eyes are closed but when you say this I abruptly snap them open. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised (of course it’s the type of thing you’d be aware of) and so I don’t answer immediately, giving the question proper consideration and turning it over in my head – inspecting at all possible angles. “I don’t entirely know,” I say at last. Tap tap tap on your collar bone. “Maybe a little. Or at least parts of me are.”
“It is understandable.”
“Parts of me which are afraid of parts of you.”
“And yet; you do not allow the fear to govern your choices.”
“No, indeed. Besides fear is not a reason to cease and desist. It is the inspiration to strike out.”
“I know, you said something similar before. That night, the first time we…y’know. But it’s not always easy. It’s a very pleasing paradox – it’s a good phrase – but not entirely practical as an axiom. You must see that?”
“It is a process,” is all you say.
Instead of replying I turn over so my chin is propped on your sternum and I can look at you directly. You smile down at me and rest your hand on my hair, winding a few strands round your finger while continuing to stroke my back with the other one. “You’re so different like this, aren’t you?” I eventually say. “So…gentle. And candid in it.”
“Yes; I am entirely sincere.”
“Why are you never like this outside?”
“Because it would not serve any purpose. Besides, the location is irrelevant; I am not like this because I am indoors, I am like this because I am with you.”
I smile at that, then haul myself a bit further up so virtually my entire weight is pressing on you, taking hold of both your hands in mine and resting them on either side of your face. Now you’re pinned in place beneath me; but while you could haul yourself free with virtually no effort at all, I know that you won’t.
“Are you happy?” I hear myself asking.
“No reservations at all? No concerns.”
“Of course I have; they simply do not preclude my sense of contentment. But naturally I have spent many hours considering the various contortions into which the future could arrange itself. I think about you constantly. I think about myself in relation to you; of you to me. The shape of things. The sights I would like to show you and the expression on your face when you behold them. The way you look when you are happy, or thoughtful, or restive. Your eyes. Your smile. What settings would complement you best; places in which we are most likely to thrive. I have taken us all around the world without leaving this room.”
“I can imagine,” I say, even though I can’t – not entirely. Instead I lean over and press my lips against your forehead. “And it sounds exhausting. You’re always in your head so much. You need taking out of yourself every once in a while.”
“I dare say I do. Are you going to assist?”
“Yes, if you’ll let me.”
“Always,” you reply.
There’s a beat of silence and then: “I’ve got you,” I murmur into your hair. “I’ve always got you.” My voice is extremely quiet; so quiet it’s hardly possible that you’ve heard me. Not that it matters – I know you understand anyway. You knew before I did. I turn my head so I can kiss you and we just lie like that for a while, me half on top of you with your fingers interwoven with mine, breathing in each other’s air and exchanging silent vows and understandings without having to speak a word. Eventually you push back against me so you can sit upright and I remain on your lap with my legs on either side of yours and my arms hooked round your neck. Then you just smile at me and I smile back: my hair’s fallen into my eyes but I don’t want to let go of you to brush it off so twist my mouth upwards instead to blow it away, which makes you laugh.
“Aš tave labai myliu Hannibal,” I say. And even though my accent is appalling and the vocabulary is patched together from the Internet (and the whole enterprise is, in all honesty, as corny as fuck), your entire face lights up at the sound of it. I slowly lean forwards and kiss you, stroking my tongue against yours with a slow languid rhythm, and finally releasing my grip on your shoulders so I can unfasten your shirt. Then I start to laugh as well at how much I’m fumbling with your buttons, ultimately just giving up and attempting to tug it over your head instead.
“Oh God, get this off,” I say, but you don’t because you’re too busy trying to remove mine, and although we do finally manage (somehow) to take each other’s clothes off it’s in the most circuitous and convoluted way possible because no one wants to lose contact for the time it would take to undress efficiently. I have a vague sense that the lube is still in my backpack and blindly fumble around to try and locate it while you kneel behind me and kiss my neck. My skin feels so sensitive that your touch is electrifying and I gasp in a rather desperate way, letting my head tip back against your shoulder then twining my arms behind me so I can tug your hair and rub my face against yours.
“Get on your hands and knees for me,” I say, low and intense. “Please. Would you do that?” And rather than answering you demonstrate that you will by simply kissing my forehead and then arranging yourself that way (which I wasn’t totally expecting). I crouch behind you and drape myself over your body – circling my hips against your leg so you can feel how hard I am; so you can know how much I want you, that I want you all the time – then stroke your chest and kiss the base of your neck while slowly working two fingers inside you with my other hand.
“There you go,” I say softly. I press upwards and am rewarded with a sharp intake of breath. “Does that feel good?”
“Perfect.” You move your legs further apart, pushing back against my hand as your breath hitches again. Oh God; I could listen to you doing that forever. “But then it always does with you.”
I hum in agreement and begin to kiss my way down your spine, noting all the assorted scars (which one day I’m going to ask you for an account of – each and every one) and the delicate patches of freckles (like constellations of stars); and moaning slightly as I begin to lap my tongue around the smooth, slippery skin where I’m fingering you open…and then promptly realize why you always use oil for the same purpose because the lube tastes terrible. But I don’t really care because the sounds you make when I do it are such an incredible turn on that all I can think is how much I want to make you do it again…and again…and again. I reach out so I can take hold of your wrist with my left hand; then decide I like the extra contact (and that I want to hold onto you as much as possible) so replace my fingers with my tongue in order to cling onto your thigh with my other arm. And I’m breathing so fast (panting, really) and arching my back as I grind my mouth against you – sensuous, shameless – experimenting with warmly wet kisses and delicate licks, coaxing the muscles to relax so I can thrust my tongue inside…and this time you actually moan (you really do), and oh fuck, God, I need you so badly. You’re right – I have no self-control at all. I pull away, slightly reluctantly, then grip onto your hips so I can flip you onto your back; marvelling, in spite of myself, at how completely pliable you’re allowing yourself to be.
“I’m sorry.” I’m laughing again now – giggling, even – but I can tell you like it from the way you smile and your entire expression softens whenever you hear me do it. “I can’t wait any longer. You said yourself I have no self-control. Oh God, this going to be over in a few minutes – possibly seconds. Apologies in advance.”
You don’t say anything and the silence is so uncharacteristic that I glance up at you, suddenly anxious that I’ve done something wrong, but you’re just smiling at me: very soft, very tender, yet slightly rapt as well, as if the sight of me captivates you. And I suppose that maybe it does: you look captivated simply because you are. I smile back for a few seconds and skim my hands up and down your legs, noticing the way my breathing has sped up, before leaning over and kissing your knee then sliding my fingers inside you again and circling my thumb outside to match the rhythm. I’ve just had an unexpectedly filthy image of what it would be like to watch my come leaking out of your body after I’ve fucked you, and the thought of it is so arousing it literally makes me groan out loud and rock my hand even faster without fully realizing that I’m doing it. Fucking shit, I’m so turned on. It’s ridiculous really, like a teenager. Surely I’m too old to feel like this.
“Oh God, look at you,” is all I say.
You just keep smiling. Why are you so mute? Usually it’s impossible to make you stop talking. But you haven’t taken your eyes off me once – very focussed, very intense – and it suddenly occurs to me that maybe you’re simply feeling so much that you no longer find it necessary to speak. Just like before: it is only words. “Words, words, words,” as Shakespeare wrote, and ultimately they’re all superfluous, all those words – it’s the feelings that matter. I never really gave you much credit for having any emotional life did I? It’s hard to imagine you brimful of sensation. But you have that bright-eyed expression again, your eyes tracking over me, and in that moment I know I’m right.
On an impulse I take hold of your hand and kiss the back of it then lean over and slide my tongue along the length of your cock, which is flushed and hard and lying flat along your stomach, wet and delicious at the tip. You make a sighing sound that’s so low it’s almost a hiss and I draw a shuddering breath myself and ease forward so I can sink into the tight, smooth heat of your body in one long thrust. The way it feels is phenomenal and my eyes start to widen with something like surprise. It’s not entirely my fault though; it’s only the third time I’ve done this, I’m not really used to it yet. “Oh yes,” I say faintly. “You’re so…Oh God, that’s…that’s…” But I can’t say what it is because I don’t really know how to describe it. No words – none. I know you understand.
I’m still kneeling between your legs and it’s too far away from you so I drop forward, resting my weight on one hand and stroking your hair with the other while sucking a bruise onto the delicate skin of your neck. Broken capillaries, blood hastening its way upwards…Love bites: they call them that in Europe don’t they? Little marks of love, made with one body onto another, from me to you. You tip your head back to give me better access, skimming your fingers up and down my spine…trailing across my waist…caressing my face…Your hands are so warm and your touch unexpectedly gentle and I cry out again, a bit desperately this time, because it’s so much to process and there are no words, no language, no way to properly explain it. I just search out your mouth instead so I can kiss you again, deeply and thoroughly, occasionally pulling away to tell you how good it feels or to gasp out your name; rolling my hips, rocking myself inside you and moaning at the sensation of your cock, slick and hard, as it presses against my abdomen each time I push down. And then I’m not sure exactly which one of us it is who loses control first, whether it’s me or you, or if both of us go together (I think it’s that, I think it’s both of us; I think we’re urging each other on), but it’s like something just fucking ignites. And suddenly it’s no longer slow, tempered with tender yearning, but wild and passionate – frantic, urgent – and I’m clawing against you with my fingers and thrusting into you so hard I can feel your sharp hipbones digging into my skin; and you’re tugging my head back by the hair and scraping your teeth against any part of me you can reach. You look amazing like this; the way you come alive during sex – still graceful but with a molten, unrestrained energy that’s not always apparent at other times. I’ve never been this rough with a partner before, but it’s not aggression – not from a desire to wound – but from a desire to love. From fervour; from the need to demonstrate devotion. I can’t get enough of you, I can’t I can’t. Let me own you, claim you: this is how much you matter to me. And I know it’s the same with you. My eyelashes are slightly damp. I’m not crying though. Am I? I don’t think I am. Oh God, we’re being so loud – the noises we’re making, the way the bed frame is being flung against the wall – and if anyone is in the room next door then they’ll be in no doubt as to exactly what we’re doing. And I don’t care, I couldn’t care less: fuck them, let them hear. Let them know – let everyone know.
“I love you.” I’m grabbing your hands, threading our fingers together. “I love you, I love you.” It’s like free-floating, like falling; my love for you could be my downfall and it would be such a glorious descent I wouldn’t even care.
“More than I thought possible,” you reply, and your voice catches slightly. Is that why you didn’t speak before? “More than sense and reason. More than I have words to tell you.”
“I can’t,” I whisper, “I can’t…” Even though I’m not sure exactly what it is that I can’t do. I can’t get enough of you; I can’t have a proper life without you in it; I can’t let go of you a second time? All of it; all of that plus everything else. I move forward again so I can bury my mouth in yours. I’m so far gone I’ve lost the rhythm, my movements growing fraught and erratic as my hips start to stutter; but it doesn’t seem to matter and for the first time ever you come before I do (I can feel the hot, damp pulse of it against my stomach and it makes me moan with helpless, hopeless desire). I’m not far behind though, and when it hits the sensation’s so intense I practically black out. There’s a single tear snaking down my cheekbone and you wipe it away with your thumb then gently tug me towards you so our foreheads are pressing together. Then you wrap both arms round me and hold me close against your chest and we just stay like that for a while: me trembling slightly and you stroking my shoulders and murmuring snatches of something quiet in a foreign language. My head is tucked beneath your chin and from where I’m lying I can still hear your heartbeat. Strange that this is the organ most closely linked to love – there must be a reason for it but I don’t know what it is. You’d probably know. It’s just a mass of tissue after all. Ingenious and tireless and perfectly constructed, but still just insensate flesh for all that: valves and atriums, ventricles and fine blue veins…what is it about all that which can possibly signify love? And yet it does, even though there’s no way to make a heart give up its confidences, no way to fully understand why it yearns and pulses in the way it does. Because there isn’t, is there? No way to splice it up and examine it, even you couldn’t dissect that. The anatomy of a love story.
About an hour later we have a shower and I scrub your back for you and ask about some of the scars, although it turns out you can’t recall the exact provenance of all of them (the unspoken implication being that you’re such an insurmountable badass that you can’t reasonably be expected to remember every altercation you’ve ever been involved in); then I watch you washing your hair and provide a running commentary on the pointlessness of purchasing such ridiculously overpriced shampoo (which I refuse to use on principle; because – seriously), and which you politely ignore. After that we get dried and dressed and sprawl around on the sofa – at least I sprawl; you seem to be attempting it and then give up halfway through – and bicker amicably over who’s going to drive, and where the first rest stop should be, and the virtues of finding a motel vs. driving in shifts while the other one sleeps. It turns out both of us prefer the latter: continuous flight until the destination is reached. Oh God, it’s really not long now; it’s already beginning to grow dark. Really not long at all…and then we go.
To kill some time I wander over to the kitchen area to make myself a coffee, but the lid on the jar is as stiff as fuck and I can’t twist it off. There’s no way I’m going to ask you to do it though (no way at all) so decide to just have a glass of water instead. You prowl in after me and fill up the kettle, then begin to carefully spoon out some highly-scented tea leaves from a box on the counter (another fucking teacup – for God’s sake).
“What’s that you’re drinking?” I say. Oh hell, you’ve spotted the coffee jar. If you get that lid off on the first try…
“I don’t know how you can bear it. That stuff’s like wood smoke.” You have as well; you smug bastard.
“It is an acquired taste, certainly.”
“What’s wrong with regular tea?”
“There is nothing wrong with regular tea. That does not mean I should not choose to drink this. How charmingly illogical you are.”
“How adorably patronizing you are.”
“Yes,” (smirk) “I dare say. Coffee?”
You brandish the jar at me and I can’t help laughing. “No, thanks, I’m fine with water. And you don’t need to look so triumphant – it was only because I’d loosened the lid for you first.”
You smirk again then return to the living area and stretch out on the sofa, fastidiously sipping on the tea the whole time, and I lounge on the floor at your feet and tip my head back onto your knee. Possibly I look slightly ridiculous, although you smile down at me in an unusually benevolent way.
“So,” I say. “Do you think Europe’s big enough to handle us?”
“Oh, I expect it will prove too small eventually,” you reply airily, “at which point we shall simply have to find somewhere new. And somewhere new after that.”
“And after that?”
“Somewhere new again.”
“I think I see a pattern emerging here. Always on the run.”
“Yes, most likely.” You brush your fingers against my cheekbone and I briefly close my eyes. “But always running side by side.”
And then a few hours later – that’s it. The afternoon has melted into evening and the sky begins to streak with scarlet and purple, and we really are getting ready to leave. The bags are packed, I’m in a scarf and thick jacket and you’re wearing your coat and a black fedora hat of the type Jack sometimes favors. Seeing you in it reminds me of lying in the hospital post-cliff leap, critically regarding his and wondering if you could get away with something similar (the answer, naturally, being yes). It actually looks rather dashing on you, like a matinee pin-up from a film noir: espionage in smoky bars where the women have hard, bright faces and scarlet lipstick and everyone double-crosses everyone else. Not that you couldn’t blend into such a world if you wanted to. You could blend in anywhere, seamless and secret, the most lethal adversary that no one sees until it’s too late. Unless I was there too, of course – because I would always see you. I smile to myself at the image and you walk over and remove the hat so you can push it over my forehead.
“That hair of yours is distinctive,” you say.
“That face of yours is distinctive. You should put a hat over it.”
“I shall bear that marvellous advice in mind. Do you have everything?”
I automatically do the glasses-keys-wallet touchdown. “Yes, I just need to get my laptop.”
“Go on then. I have settled the bill so after this we can depart directly.”
Yes – we really can. We smile at each other, and then I leave you by the door and head back into the kitchen area to retrieve the laptop. You’ve washed up all the crockery, extremely conscientiously (and, as far as I’m concerned, utterly pointlessly – the charges are exorbitant enough to cover housekeeping after all), and I’m reaching over onto the counter to get the computer when I catch my sleeve on one of the units and manage to knock your teacup onto the floor. It shatters on the tiles, upon which I promptly go rigid and still. I know I’m being ridiculous – it’s just a broken cup, after all – but the significance of it makes me feel discomfited and awkward, and I position myself to try and hide the pieces; even though you’ve heard the noise and have strolled over regardless.
“So,” you say thoughtfully when you see it. “Another broken teacup. How ironic.”
“Yeah, I guess.” I’m furious to realize I’m blushing very slightly. You’re not looking at me though; instead you’re leaning down to pick up some of the shards, turning them over in your long fingers and regarding them meditatively. I watch you do it, oddly fascinated by how dextrous you are and the way the ceramic seems to snap and writhe in your hands.
“Fate and circumstance have returned us to this moment when the teacup shatters,” you say, then after a few more seconds you glance up at me and smile. “Are you familiar with the concept of kintsugi Will?”
“It is a form of Japanese art: repairing shattered pottery with gold lacquer in a style which honors and elevates the breakage rather than concealing it. It is the art of embracing damage; of celebrating it – of seeing the beauty in broken things.” You lean back slightly and run your eyes over me. “There is a strange resonance isn’t there. Tell me, do you remember what I said to you that night in your apartment?”
I nod mutely because I do remember it; of course I do. It would hardly be possible to forget: “You are so beautifully broken aren’t you? Yet never broken-spirited. The two things are not the same. Did you know that? All these pieces of you, yet you are not truly fragmented; the light shines through your slivers and cracks. Luminous in all your damage.”
“Kintsugi considers the cycle of rupture and repair as something to acknowledge, not disguise,” you add. “The bonds portray the item’s history, which in turn is rendered more resilient and beautiful by what it has endured – the philosophy implies that nothing in life need ever be considered truly broken. Whatever that might happen to be: an object; a person; two people; the relationship between them. The more it is fractured the finer and more eternal it becomes.” You’re smiling at me now, still turning the pieces over in your hand. “You see? Sometimes a teacup can gather together again.”
Now I’m smiling too. We’re both smiling. “Yeah,” I say at last. “I guess it can.” Because it’s true: it can. It has. New forms, new vistas, fresh opportunities and renewed potential. A second chance. A novel outlook – unlike anyone or anything else – with a form and figure that defies expectation and makes the impossible true. No one else could manage it, but we can; we’ll rewrite the past and redesign the future. Reshape it – our future. The shape of me and the shape of you, combined.
I hold out my hand and you take it, smiling as our eyes meet and our fingers entwine together.
“Come on then,” I say. “We’re ready now…Let’s go.”