He can’t be sure, but he thinks he’s been standing there for nearly two hours. The sun has long since dipped below the sea, leaving its streaks of mauve and tangerine across the polar blue sky. A deep ache pervades the muscles in his legs as he shifts from one foot to the other, back again, back again, until the cold begins to seep through his shoes. He won’t head back yet, no. Not yet. Another sunset means another day survived.
John Luther is nothing if not a determined man. Some might call it obstinance.
The sky’s slow tilt to navy blue-black with pockmarks of bright, white light finally signals his return home. It isn’t really a home, though; just another way station. A place to hole-up in transit. He often thinks of his home with Zoe (a proper home with milk in the fridge, rugs on the floor, even cable television) and wonders if he’ll ever know that feeling again. It’s hard to imagine, and the more he tries, the more the edges blur.
He walks back in the dark and senses the edge of the cliff, but does not gravitate toward it. The distance between sky and land only interests him in the light, it seems.
The shack by the sea has been packed up, its remnants of life crammed into an overstuffed duffel. Still, there’s nothing he takes with him he doesn’t need. The boot of that busted car is full of haphazardly packed toiletries, the contents of a chest of drawers meant for socks and pants, a handful of photos (loose and framed), very few mementos of past lives, books filled with pen marks, and the rest of a life lived largely alone. Even this modesty will not do. Some things will meet a bin bag when he nicks a suitcase and finds it still isn’t large enough.
As for the telescope, well—he supposes Martin might take it off his hands; keep it safe. That would involve seeing Martin, however. Taking it would be imprudent. Leaving it would be intolerable.
It’s pissing down the next morning, grey and blustery, when a sleek black Mazda pulls into the mud beside the shack. He hears it before he sees it, and approaches the door with a sense of irritation more than anything else. There’s not much anybody can do to him now that would matter. Not really. He’s supposed to be on a plane in six hours, and this, he thinks, will probably throw a great big wrench into those plans.
A woman in fashionable purple Wellingtons emerges from the driver’s side. She covers her head with a mess of manila folders stuffed full of paper and rushes to the door. Before she can introduce herself, John ushers her in. He’s got a good sense for dangerous people, and his good sense tells him to offer her something hot to drink.
“John Luther, yes?” she asks.
He nods. “Cuppa?”
“Please,” she says, and sets her folders on the table.
“Not many people come round here, you know,” he says. He retrieves two ceramic mugs from a cupboard and tends to the kettle.
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry. Janette. I—I’m Janette. I’ve come to see to some business on behalf of the Vaughan-Carew Estate,” she says, rushing the words as she realises this stranger has taken her into his home, meagre as it is, without explanation.
He says nothing. They wait for the screech of the kettle in silence.
As he sets a steaming mug in front of her, Janette understands, with a tight knot in her stomach, what her (former) client meant. She understands exactly what he meant. This man is… something else entirely.
They wait for the tea to cool.
“I’m not aware of a Vaughan-Carew Estate, Janette,” he says simply. “If DSU Schenk has sent you for my help, I’m afraid you’re a bit late. I’m not a copper—”
“No, I know,” she says. “I haven’t been sent for anything like that. It’s a matter of property rights, you see. I’ve been on retainer with the family for years now, just before the Lady Carew took ill.”
John nearly smiles. Instead, he shrugs.
“Haven’t got a clue what you’re on about. I’m sorry.”
She looks down at her tea, wraps her hands loosely round the mug to warm them.
“I tried to find you at the funeral. I’ve been trying to find you for ages. You knew Justin Ripley.”
He flattens both palms on the table, slides them toward the middle, slides them back again. He settles his gaze on her, solidly, nearly without blinking.
“What do you want?” he asks lightly.
“The Ripley family inherited quite a large sum of money when Lady Carew died, but she left not one pence of it to Justin,” she says. John’s face is a blank mask, though his eyes are alight with curiosity. She continues, “She loved him best of all her family. He visited her in her sickest days, travelling back and forth to Pembrokeshire just to sit with her and read to her. He told me himself that he spent half his childhood at the Estate.”
“You spoke to Justin,” he says. It’s almost an accusation.
And when, when was this? he wants to ask, but doesn’t.
“Frequently,” she says. “Often when he turned up to make repairs. He needed permits. Nearly an historical landmark, that place, tucked away as it is.”
John sips at his tea but cannot settle his hands. He glances at the papers. At her. Back at the papers. That’s when she finally opens a folder and leafs through its contents. She holds a single piece of paper for a moment stretched beyond its own elasticity, and hands it over.
“What is this?”
“When Mr. Ripley passed—”
“Killed,” John says. “He was killed in action.”
“Yes, I’m so sorry. When Mr. Ripley was killed in action, his last will and testament dictated that his partner inherit the Estate.”
John sets the paper on the table and runs a hand over his face in exhaustion.
“I didn’t even know he had a partner,” he says. “God, I was such a shit friend. What kind of shit friend—”
“I didn’t know!” he shouts. He hates himself, then. “He meant more to me than… than almost anybody, and I never even asked him about…”
Janette finally looks him in the eye, and quieter now, she says only, “John.”
The rain is cast sideways, battering the thin panes of glass surrounding the sun porch. His mind is infinitely blank for five bright, brilliant seconds (the last five seconds he will ever spend ignorant of this, of all of the things he could have said or done and didn’t). John has been stabbed, shot, beaten to the ground, but this, this feels like it might actually kill him. He wants to vomit. The rain hums in his ears until it’s nothing more than white noise.
Eventually, after how long neither of them knows, he picks up the piece of paper again.
“When, uh,” he starts, though doesn’t know how to force out the words he needs to say. “When did he, when was this stipulation… when did he write it? Do you know?”
Her lips come together in a thin line. That’ll be a no, then.
“Lady Carew passed nearly seven years ago,” she says. “Mr. Ripley didn’t inherit the property, strictly speaking, until nearly a year following.”
“Twenty-ten, at the earliest,” John says. His tone is very nearly disbelieving.
“I can find out for you,” she says, and adds quickly, “Maybe. I can try.”
“Please,” he replies.
In the end, she won’t. Not that it will matter.
Silence stretches out before them, blanketing the room, and all at once the sound of rain rushes back twice as hard as before. The wind picks up and turns each drop into a needle-prick.
“Until then,” she says, “Please do visit the Estate. They’ve no one to keep it up since the caretaker’s grown too old to attend to much, and it’s a terrible shame to think… well, you can make your own decisions, Mr. Luther, but there will be paperwork to be done either way, and a meeting to be had with the realtor, whether you decide to keep the property or not.”
“I will,” he says immediately. “I’ll make the trip as soon as possible.”
The thought of discarding Justin’s family home without a visit, discarding it at all, knowing what he knows—even if he hadn’t known it—he can’t. He simply cannot do it.
“I’ll be in touch.”
She places a business card on the table and shows herself out. Her host is lost somewhere in his mind, reliving moments that meant different things entirely, and she is polite enough to understand this. Her Wellies leave mud across the floor and he couldn’t care less. It takes him another hour sitting there with tepid English Breakfast tea to realise his flight will be leaving without him.
John scribbles in a battered Moleskine for nearly half of the seven hours he spends from Paddington to Pembrokeshire Dock. He sleeps for the rest, fitful and in short bursts, opening his eyes every quarter hour or so to catch a glimpse of green and brown and grey beyond the train’s windows.
There were so many things the solicitor hadn’t said, and he’s glad for that.
A small part of him, though, wanted her to lay it out, all of it aloud, so it wouldn’t feel so cumbersome and prickly stuck in his chest.
More than anything, he’s gutted that it makes so much sense.
It’s easy now to think back and beg a ghost to tell him, just tell him, even if it would’ve scared the bloody Christ out of the both of them. How many hours did they spend together in silence? It drives him mad to remember it all through this new kaleidoscope. When Justin ran after him, stood a bit too close, did it hurt? Did he try to forget those moments, or keep them tucked in his vest? The danger and all of it: did Justin save him so many times because he’s dutiful or because he loved so deeply?
Couldn’t it have been both?
A porter rolls a drinks trolley down the aisle of his train car, and they make eye contact. He’s an older man, slate-grey eyes, pale skin criss-crossed with blue veins. He looks as tired as John feels.
“Coffee? No, you look like you could do with tea,” he says.
John reaches for a crumpled bill, but the porter shakes his head.
“Nah mate,” he says. The man hands John a cup of hot water into which he slips two bags of Earl Grey. “You look like shite warmed over.”
The man displays a genuine smile (perhaps the first one John has seen in ages) and continues on with his trolley.
Time passes slowly, as it is wont to do on public transport. He empties the cup and manages to find a comfortable position in which to lie back, stretch his legs, and close tired eyes. The realtor will meet with him about two hours before sundown. There’s no train back until the next morning, and truly, he has elected to shove this fact aside. This Estate is far out into the country, out beside the sea, and Google Maps has refused to provide him with any lodging for an overnight stay.
The thought of sleeping in this house, this home meant for, for what? It expands his chest until the ache turns sharp as tacks.
When he arrives at the station in Wales, the steady thrum of foot traffic through the dock is nearly comforting. So lost in his head for so long, John is glad for the fact that he can hear the overlap of conversations, smell the freshly roasted coffee (just a bit burnt) at a kiosk by the ticket booth, see the technicolor raincoats and umbrellas tied neatly round the middle. This business, this is a forgotten thing. He remembers when he could stand someplace like this and see through it to the heart of the matter, the criminal hiding in plain sight, his presence merely necessary. Now, he recognises, standing in a crowd is a wonderful way to lose oneself without retreating into ulterior motives. It is, for lack of a better term, comforting.
There’s a car waiting for him. She’ll be there to drive him out to the country—the realtor—and what will he say? Thinking on it for hours, John still doesn’t know. What does one say in a situation such as this, anyway? One conversation, just one honest moment, and he might tell her everything. Ask her everything she knew about the man who loved him so deeply that an expansive Estate waits empty in the Welsh countryside.
When he finds his way through the crowd and exits the station, the wind hits him instantly. Somehow, he knew he’d be right by the sea, but it isn’t until the salt-tasting air hits his tongue that it sinks in. This is how far his best friend travelled to read Steinbeck (Justin’s favorite; he knew that, at least) to a kind old woman. One coast of an island to another. That’s how far John would travel for answers, now.
That’s how far he has travelled.
He meets Alana in a car park a just under a kilometre from the bustle and hum of arriving and departing trains. The crunch of gravel beneath his feet grounds him quite literally. By her description over the phone, he recognises her immediately: daisy-yellow dress, white cardigan, a big mess of reddish-brown curls with hints of grey, horn-rimmed spectacles just like his mum’s.
They’ve already exchanged names and limited information on the phone, but not much past that.
The moment he approaches her, she envelops him in a hug that suggests, yes, they will be talking about his unusual circumstances. How much she knows, John isn’t sure.
How much John himself knows, he isn’t sure.
“Hello love,” she says. “Pop in. Let’s go for a drive, yeah?”
He pulls away from her as politely as he can. The touch, he realises, is almost overwhelming. She smells of clean laundry and a bit of gardenia.
“Yeah,” he replies. “Thank you, yeah.”
Mercifully, she doesn’t elect to begin a conversation. She offers him the radio dial and he accepts, settling on some adult alternative station to which he only half-listens. When John begins to tap at his thigh with his middle and ring finger in a sort of mindless rhythm, Alana clears her throat.
“Only about another twenty minutes or so,” she says.
“Mm? Oh, good. That’s good,” he says.
“I know you must be having—I mean, I suppose I don’t know—I’ve, well,” she turns the radio down. “I can’t imagine how difficult it is, losing your partner like that.”
For what feels like the millionth time in the last few days, John’s heart slams so hard against his ribcage it feels as though it might just burst through the layers of muscle and bone. He hasn’t so much as allowed himself to consider what he would’ve said, exactly, in a moment between he and Justin that never occurred. He lets the idea of Justin’s bountiful, boundless hope bounce around without catching it, too afraid to hold it. Too afraid to let it come to him because it might go just as easily, with the rest of it.
“Yes,” he says, finally.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “Properly sorry. He worked so hard on the Estate, modernising it, remodeling it… he told me it was an investment. The work, that is. I thought he meant to sell it, but we got to know one another over the years, and he told me about you.”
John’s eyes burn. “Did he?”
“Of course, dear. Always saying ‘John will love this wall for books’ and ‘John will want to turn this room into an office’... you know, I never understood why he didn’t bring you out to help him, to work on it together. You were always so busy though. He didn’t fault you for it,” she says quickly, realising how that might sound. “It was always supposed to be a surprise.”
“Do you know when he was going to, um… to bring me out here?”
Alana sets her lips in a tight line. “It never seemed to be the right time. Something else always needed tending to, as he’d say. I do wish it could’ve been him surprising you with all this. If I had to take a guess, I would think something traditional. An anniversary present. Christmas, maybe?”
She’s trying to be hopeful. Trying to know things she can’t; things she doesn’t.
John can’t fault her for that.
When they finally arrive, she doesn’t need to ask John if he’d like to see the house on his own. Her presence would be an intrusion. There are so many things he’d like to say to her; so many things he’d like to know with which she could never provide him.
Alana parks the car at the end of the drive just by the stairs leading to the portico and hands him a single key for the mortise lock.
“May I ask you something rather delicate?” she inquires, layering the key between their palms in a pause.
He nods once.
“Did you two plan to—”
“We didn’t have any plans,” John says honestly.
“Right,” she says. “Well. I don’t want you stumbling in there blindly, dear. It’s just… it isn’t my business, I know, but please do take care. I’ll leave you to it and give you a lift back to the station tomorrow at half eleven if that suits you all the same.”
One more affirmative nod and he’s slipped his fingers round the key. He exits the car and takes the steps two at a time until he’s at the front door.
From the moment he opens the door and crosses the threshold, it becomes clear that the Estate, while rather large, is not as posh as he might have thought.
There’s a kitchen with a breakfast nook and an island, tables and chairs made of polished wood. The living room, right off the kitchen, is sparse but furnished with a sofa, bookshelves, overstuffed chairs, and reading lamps. John vaguely remembers Justin ordering a rug far too big for his flat, mentioning something about having a row with a customer service agent over it being damaged in the post. He looks beneath his feet, and yes, there it is. Must be it. John patiently removes his shoes and sets them on the hardwood at the edge of the room where the rug does not cover. Dirt in this room meant for them seems like an unforgivable abasement.
He crosses back through the foyer after discovering a linen cupboard and two toilets. There’s a bend in the staircase, a vantage point from which he can see into two of the five bedrooms. Once in the hall, John decides not to enter each room. His presence feels both an intrusion and a gift too grand to comprehend. Shall he step where Justin stood, imagining them embracing, and forgive himself for it?
Shall he linger where Justin tacked in new carpeting and accept this previously unknown piece of his best mate as one last benefaction of love?
Justin would want him to feel at home.
He won’t, though. He can’t. Not like this.
It seems as though no time has passed at all, though the sky has gone dark sometime in-between the living room and John’s silent, detached admiration for the shellacking of the banister.
Finally, down the hall, the master bedroom. He’s had enough of this hellish private tour.
Once he’s found and changed into an old pair of pyjama bottoms and a shirt splattered with paint that matches the color of the window trim, he makes a bee-line for the chest of drawers beside the en-suite loo and opens the top drawer to find a pair of balled up socks. Tentatively, he shuts the drawer and takes a seat on the very edge of the bed. One at a time, he rolls the socks onto his feet. Though the bed seems terribly comfortable and sleep tugs at his eyelids, John is hesitant to climb under the covers.
It’s then he notices: two pillows, two night tables, two bedside lamps.
This day, he decides, must end now.
He pulls the duvet back and shuffles beneath it for warmth. Time passes slowly in the dark, and just at the edge of sleep, he realises he’s shaking. One calming breath. Another. Focus on the softness of the sheets, the cotton of the socks, the feel of his stubble against the pillowcase. Grounding himself works to quell the anxiety, almost always.
“God, Justin. Were you afraid I…” he rasps. John gathers the pillows and the bedclothes to his body, hugs them there to his chest as tightly as he can.
At last, he allows himself to cry. Not the singular tear he’d allowed Erin and her bastard partner to see, no. He cries, sobs, and the grief lodged in his throat is hot coal. The bedside lamp pools soft light around him as he’s bent, nearly foetal now, fists full of soft fabric.
Morning washes over him in a wave of remembrance. Light yet threatens to embrace the cold, empty sky, though John won’t sleep once he’s awoken, bruised sky or not. Still in borrowed night clothes, he hauls himself out of bed and stares at his reflection in a mirror placed just above a writing desk.
When did he become this exact person? This exact version of himself?
The shirt, of course, is too small. The flannel pyjama bottoms barely reach his ankles. He’s full to bursting with some sense of nostalgia that can’t quite be real. He yearns for a home, maybe this one, but it’ll never be the home he knows. Not in the way Justin meant for it to be.
He approaches the writing desk and takes a seat in front of it. It wouldn’t exactly be proper to rifle through it, but then again, none of this is proper. His best mate loved him, gifted him this house that could’ve been a home, and that’s something he’ll never be able to set square. Justin must’ve imagined them brushing their teeth in the too-small loo, watching telly in the oversized bed, keeping a dog and letting it roam the acreage, and honestly, honestly—John doesn’t know how he can reconcile that kind of love and not split right in half.
He pulls open one of the top drawers to find an odd receipt or two from a home improvement shop. Another drawer, empty. The third, a copy of East of Eden worn at the edges.
Light seeps into the room.
The tome is in his hands within seconds; his right thumb plays at the edges like a child would a flip-book and a plume of dust motes fills the air around him.
There’s no way he could know that a passage of this book was read at Justin’s funeral by an elder brother. He finds the page of origin anyway, its dog-eared corner worn thin with use. Underlined is a passage filled with one of the characters’ Biblical examination of the Cain and Abel tale. Though John will never know this, either, Justin believed wholly in the “tales” which John himself often casts away with ease. What can a God do for a man such as himself? Such a selfish view. Such a necessary one, throughout the course of this life he’s led.
Blue pen underlines the passage with care.
It doesn’t make sense.
With perhaps more frustration than at any moment thus far during his journey, John shuts the book away and feels heat rush up through his throat and press against the back of his eyes. Without changing into fresh clothes (there aren’t any, anyway, and why didn’t Justin think to stock this miserable tomb with clothes for his “partner” as well? John is nearing rage, now) he rushes downstairs still in sock-feet.
There’s a coat rack by the hulking front door which he hadn’t noticed before. On it hangs a battered, tartan Duffle coat with mud caked on.
John stops there in the foyer before the door, closes his eyes, and an image of Justin materialises: he’s wearing the duffle coat, knees bent on a foam gardening pad, hands deep into the soil. Breath comes in sharp, frosty inhalations. The vision, clear as the sky after a storm, warps a bit. John sees himself coming to the foreground holding a mug of something warm. He sets the mug next to Justin, who smiles. Justin raises his hands, freezing and covered in dirt. John bends his knees to crouch. They lean toward one another and kiss softly, John’s hands on his partner’s cheeks, Justin pressing the tender flesh of his wrists against either side of John’s neck so as not to get him muddy.
John opens his eyes.
Slowly, he opens the front door, unprepared completely for the weather (just as cold as he imagined it would be) and wanders round the house to the garden.
He kneels there before rose bushes long dead, sapped of water, nothing more than twigs for cracking. He pulls them out of the dirt with all his might. A low growl in his throat turns primal when he opens his mouth to let it escape; he pulls, twists, rips the bushes out and thrashes his hands on flint-hard thorns in the process. He’s bleeding, scratched as if by a manic housecat. There is no respite for him until every bush sits atop the dirt, broken, and he can no longer conjure Justin, or the steaming mug, or their embrace.
Breath comes in gulps, the taste of blood at the back of his throat.
There in the dirt, John does something he has not done since his mother laid a hand upon his shoulder in the shadow of Mother Mary, made of marble.
Once he’s washed up, he roots around the kitchen. When he neglects to find anything to eat that hasn’t grown mould or sprouted new, green shoots, he plucks his mobile from his pocket and thumbs it thoughtfully. Call or text? Call or text?
Need to talk — J
He waits approximately seventeen minutes (not that he’s counting) for a reply.
John, don’t tell me… time for telling tales out of school again? — x
It’s important — J
Must be if you can’t be arsed to text back for months and here you pop out of the blue. You’ve missed my wedding. — x
He blanches at this. It twists between his ribs in a way he couldn’t’ve predicted.
Jenny, I’m sorry — J
Have you even spoken to Mark since...? — x
Haven’t done, but listen. I’m being serious about a chat — J
Yes, alright, course I will. Meet up? — x
Tomorrow morning, nine o’clock. Coffee shop on McAllister down the old way, yeah? — J
See you then — x
It’s not that he’s made up his mind to leave the Estate to the realtor and solicitor so they may deal with the business of selling it. He hasn’t even made up his mind whether or not to accept it in the first place. If he can’t speak to Alice, can’t make this decision without feeling torn down the center, he needs someone. No, that’s not easy to admit. With Jenny, though, it’s easy. She makes it easy. Just a look from her and he knows exactly what he’s got to do.
John makes sure he locks up before meeting Alana for the ride back and arranges everything back the way it was before he dared touch it.
Maybe he’ll tell her he was Justin’s partner on the force, that they simply worked together, had a pint or two as mates every odd weekend or so, shared a few personal details by casual accident. Maybe he’ll tell her he loved his partner’s renovations and that he’s mourning the death of a lover; just can’t live somewhere that feels too similar to a mausoleum. What’s a lie between strangers, anyway? What’s a lie at this point, anyway?
In fact, he sleeps through the whole drive.
When he wakes, the teal sky blends into a sort of beryl-blue with the green of Wales, and calm covers him like a safety blanket.
John sees them before they see him. There’s Jenny at a table beside the tall glass window and someone sat beside her whom he couldn’t pick out of a crowd (save the lavender-grey hair cut in a long bob).
He rounds the corner and she springs to her feet immediately, embracing him as if he’d been to war. (He might as well have been.)
Oomph, he groans as she nearly knocks the air out of him. “Wotcha.”
“Hiya, dummy,” she says. After a beat she adds, “This is Gemma.”
Gemma stands to shake his hand and John smiles sincerely for the first time in ages.
“Nice to meet you, Gemma.”
“Likewise. I’ve heard loads about you,” she says warmly.
It seems they forget to order coffee entirely, though an empty cup with the last dregs of an espresso sits by Gemma’s elbow.
“You got married,” he says to Jenny.
“I did! D’y’know, Mark walked me down the aisle? I tried phoning you… no, don’t look at me like that, it’s fine. Really, ‘s fine. He did a lovely job. Even danced to a bit of Abba and Sister Sledge, if you can imagine.”
John laughs. “I really can’t.”
Silence stretches between them. The din of the shop attempts to fill it.
“I do makeup now. Proper clients and everything, nothing sketch,” Jenny says. “Met Gems doing her look for the Brits last year. Totally glam.”
“It’s an awards show. The Brit Awards? Pop artists.”
“You sing, Gemma?”
Both women laugh.
“Her brother does,” Jenny says. “Pretty popular, actually.”
“I’m a writer,” Gemma adds.
“Congratulations,” he says finally. “On all of it. Both of you.”
He’d tell her that she deserves to be this disgustingly happy, deserves someone who will love her unconditionally, deserves the whole world in a teacup sat beside her bed. That’s not how they talk, though. She knows it, anyway. She once told him something similar about deserving to be married; that he should be married. Despite his best efforts, he hasn’t forgotten it.
Gemma answers him. “Thank you.”
John pulls a key from his pocket.
“I have… a dilemma,” he says, and the next quarter hour holds the attention of two women like nothing else in the world. He holds nearly nothing back. He tells her about Alice, too; why he’s been hiding out (if he leaves out the illegal elements, that’s his own business).
When he finishes speaking, Jenny reaches across the table to squeeze his arm, looking as though she might cry. Her wife, a bit more reserved, sits with a pained expression on her face. With all of it said out loud, he feels a kick of reality to his solar plexus.
“Oh John, he loved you,” Jenny says. She sniffles and lets go of his arm.
John clears his throat. “I know.”
“I’m so sorry about Alice,” she adds.
“See, the thing is, I don’t actually think…”
“Alice is too clever, isn’t she? The fake psychic or wha’ever, she’s taking the piss, right? She’s got to be.”
“Yeah. Yeah, she is,” John says, and adds, “Thing is, I have to see for myself.”
Jenny shakes her head. She knows how dangerous it’ll be for him to travel about like that searching for the madwoman who would’ve killed for her. Actually killed for her. Of course she’s going to encourage John to do whatever it takes to find her.
“You always do, don’t you?”
Gemma finally enters the conversation, though tentatively, and her words come out harsher than they’re meant.
“What do you need from us?”
John stands abruptly and drops a kiss to the crown of Jenny’s head. Without answering, he says, “I’m going to grab a coffee. Want anything, either of you?”
“We’re good, thanks,” Jenny says, still a bit stunned.
They don’t see John slip out the back. He counts his heartbeats in his ears, the blood rushing in like high tide, and disappointing Jenny for a second (tenth?) time could be the worst thing he’s done in quite a while, but he knows somehow that she’ll understand. She must.
By the time they notice his absence, it becomes clear that he won’t be returning for the key on the table.
The two women stare at each other for a long, long time in silence, and finally embrace.
“I’m sorry he’s left you again,” Gemma says, without malice. “But God, Jen, look what he’s done for you.”
“It isn’t about that,” she says. “I care about him. I just want him to be happy. I want him coming back in one piece, y’know?”
Gemma squeezes her wife a fraction tighter. “I know, love.”
An hour later, Jenny receives a brief text and nothing more; not even a signature. She doesn’t need one.
830 Angharad, Pembrokeshire, St. Mary’s Parish
Dealing with the business of signing over the Estate was quite easy. He feels as though perhaps they made it far easier than it might’ve been for anyone else, and he’s grateful for that.
John boxes and buries the telescope on the land where the sea-shack resides. He doesn’t bother taking down the coordinates; memory will serve him well enough if he’s ever lucky enough to retrieve it.
Once more before leaving, he stands at the edge of the cliffs. The tide rolls in and out again. Morning light breaks through the clouds and warms his skin. The roar of the ocean calms frayed nerves. It always does, somehow. There’s nothing left here worth keeping except this feeling: the ocean air, the salt on his tongue, the clementine horizon just before the sun fully lights the sky.
His mobile beeps.
There’s a new email with an attached QR code:
LHR → ANR, please confirm—
Before he can swipe into the email, another arrives:
He touches “ACCEPT” with the pad of his thumb.
£25000 HAS BEEN TRANSFERRED TO YOUR ACCOUNT flashes green.
The money-sharing app he and Jenny downloaded back when she lived in the flat... back when she needed bus money on a day out at the job centre. The sausage rolls he bought her when she was out late on a temp job in her new city. The bit of rent she didn’t ask for just two months after leaving but he sent anyway, because he knew. It’s still downloaded to his mobile.
John takes a seat right there where he stood. Dew seeps through his trousers. He doesn’t care.
Ten minutes pass, and he receives a lone text.
Nicked your number from Jen’s phone. She loves you so much, John. Be safe. — G x
Jenny’s adoration and genuine love is not something he treats lightly. He swears to himself he won’t incur the wrath of her wife.
A whirlwind carries him to Antwerp. First, he meets with Emma in the car park where they stood together once before, just after Theo, and she lets him take photos of every piece of paper in Alice’s file. Can’t have it going missing, but she’ll do as much as she can for John. There are no new leads, and he didn’t expect any, but now he’s got an advantage.
He’s got Megan. He’s got her on his trail and every step she takes, he takes two. She’ll follow him there, almost certainly, and he’ll have to find a way to deal with that when the time comes. For now, he’s got enough (meaning more than nothing) to go on and he’s got Emma if he needs her.
He won’t, but she’s opened her arms to him all the same. When he leaves, she tells him that the Serious and Serial has filled Theo Bloom’s spot with some cocky transplant from Harlow who hates sci-fi and smells of tunafish. John is properly sorry, though her tone is light and allows him a bit of a chuckle.
He thinks of how they might’ve replaced Justin. They couldn’t’ve, really.
Belgium is a blur. It’s grey and drab, identical flats and block after block of freight containers stacked in neat rows. He stuffs himself with chipped beef and chips at some corner bar, washes it down with a pint he’s earned desperately. He’s got to get his head on right.
The first place he goes is a shipyard that leads him nowhere; nothing there, nothing’s been there for a long time despite the German connection. He follows his instincts. If they were run out of their own territory, it’s most likely they attempted to take the territory of a rival outfit. John doesn’t dare approach the Lokale Politie Antwerpen—they’d march him right to jail and question him about Alice endlessly. They’d never let him leave a free man.
It takes less than a day follow a new trail picked up with the leverage of a Parisian connection. It helps to have an Arrondissement of Paris in his pocket, knowing what he knows. Contracted killers all over Europe with their boss based smack in the middle of London? Highly unlikely they’d give up their lot over a diamond scuffle.
The bolthole is beside the Schelde as he might have suspected. Criminals are many things, but they are almost always predictable in the patterns of their movement. Of course they wouldn’t take Alice too far out of the city.
They’d rather bait her lover. A (former) copper. A man who fights with bare knuckles and loves with his whole heart.
Stupid, John says under his breath, as he approaches the back entrance.
Without time to let himself hesitate, he tries the door. Locked, obviously. John psychs himself up, breathes heavily, hops from one foot to the other, and slams his shoulder into the door. It opens into a disgusting hovel that smells of rot. As the literal dust settles, he steps into the pseudo-warehouse (too small for anything but criminality) and knows that he’s made enough commotion that shouting now wouldn’t exactly make things worse.
“Alice!” he shouts. Over and over he shouts her name, finding his way through overflowing bins and metal shelves loaded with chemicals.
There’s rustling off to his left and he follows the faint sound.
“Alice!” he shouts, hoping.
There’s a body facing away from him on a twin mattress. He holds his breath.
And then the softest, “John.”
There are two flashes, pop, pop, but they’ve no time to process it because he’s at her side in a millisecond.
“Are you hurt? Where are you hurt?”
He’s got a hand on her thigh, the other on her shoulder. Between them, they manage to help her into his arms.
“Nothing critical,” she says, throat dry.
His eyes go wide.
“Get me out, John!” she demands, and he hauls her to her feet. For the first time in months, Alice stands in the waning sunlight. Her eyes slam shut. It’s sensory overload.
“Where’s el-Mejjati’s partner? I know George Cornelius sent them to kill you, I knew you weren’t dead, I knew.”
It seems he’s in shock for more reasons than one.
“Slit his throat. He’s in a drum back there,” she says.
“Right. Alright,” John says.
Her steadiness of tone would disturb him, and yet.
Yet, it doesn’t.
Between the car John stole upon arrival and the building from which they just exited stands Megan, as if on cue.
“Not that easy, John,” she says.
“There’s nothing left for you, Megan,” he says, as if he expected her to be there. “Now let us in the car.”
“Afraid I can’t,” she says.
“Or I’ll kill you,” John replies.
Megan approaches them, noticing the way Alice is draped against John’s side, holding herself up. All of that pain and torture for what? She’s scrambling for a plan and they know it. Nothing she has on either of them matters, now. Even dehydrated, battered, and deprived of human contact, Alice could end her.
They stand beside the Schelde and for a brief moment, it is silent.
Then, “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Alice says. She closes the space between them in a flash, grabs Megan by the hair, and slams the woman’s head against the concrete wall of the building.
“I reckon she might have a concussion,” John says belatedly.
He isn’t shocked. He really ought to be, shouldn’t he? Now isn’t the time for a morality crisis, he knows.
“Well?” Alice says, and gestures to the limp body.
John glances up for cameras, listening devices. No working ones he can spot.
Nice of her to shoot them out a moment ago.
He hauls Megan onto his shoulder and lets her drop into the river.
The sun sets over Antwerp as John helps Alice to the car. She’s worse for wear, a bit weak and croaky, but nothing physically traumatic is immediately apparent. Part of him (a big part, mind) always knew she would be waiting for him somewhere; knew it wouldn’t be safe and it wouldn’t be right, but she’d be alive. A smaller part of him (the part that’s seen crime and death and human frailty) wondered if there was a limit to her invincibility.
He opens the car door for her.
“Are you hurt? I mean, really, properly… emergently…”
“John, put me in the car.”
“Okay, right,” he says, and helps her in. They pull away moments later, headed out into the dark. “But how’re you feeling?”
“Grotesque. I need a bath. How are you feeling?”
“Fair to middling!” he shouts abruptly, in frustration.
“I haven’t seen you in five months and you want to do this now? Right now? Can we not save this for the morning?”
“Alice, you’re pregnant.”
She gives him a look that directly translates to, yes, obviously, you idiot.
“They beat me, John, but they didn’t violate me.”
“God. God…” he runs a hand over his face. “Okay. We’ll find someplace here, somewhere safe.”
“To do what, exactly?”
They lock eyes for the briefest moment before he returns his gaze to the road.
“I thought you wouldn’t want—”
“You thought,” she says sharply, and takes a deep breath. Softer now, with compassion, “I appreciate everything you’re willing to do for me John, truly, and I suppose it’s fair to assume I might, oh, I don’t know, eat my young… but this child is yours and it is mine and it is the only thing that kept me alive except for the hope that you’d come for me in time, so don’t you dare… don’t you assume…”
She might be crying, but he can barely tell in the dark on a back road. If she is, it lasts only a minute.
“Alice,” he says cautiously. “I’ll find a way. We’ll protect this child. I’ll protect it with my life, I—”
“We’ll protect her, then,” he says. “I’ll find a way back for us. Maybe Schenk can be talked round into giving you some sort of… I dunno, immunity, if I give up what I have on the eighteenth Arrondissement. I’ve got the personal phone number of the bloody boss-man putting out hits out all over Western Europe. I handcuffed him to a radiator. You’d’ve been proud.”
“I don’t doubt it,” she says. She won’t believe that he has a solid plan just yet. In point of fact, he doesn’t.
“Or we could get ourselves into a witness protection scheme in America. I could try to pull any last strings I’ve got left.”
“Well, there’s that,” she says.
“We can’t afford Brasil. You shouldn’t have tried to—”
“I know. I’m sorry, I know.”
He regrets guilting her immediately.
“You’re safe,” he says, and it’s more reconciliation than a statement, because that’s what matters most now. Always has, if he’s being honest with himself.
“I’m with you,” she says. Reconciliation it is.
They arrive at a hotel sometime past midnight. Neither of them even remembers falling asleep.
Alice wakes slowly. She registers each bruise and sprain with annoyance before she even opens her eyes fully. The plush mattress beneath her supports sore muscles in a way she’d missed terribly. Without touching, she can feel herself dressed in a robe only, sandwiched between the duvet and a few pillows shoved to the side during the night. Light flows in through the sheer curtains. A hand wraps around one of her bare feet, gently, and squeezes.
For the first time in months, she feels safe.
“Morning,” she says, her voice a bit scratchy.
“Can I get you some water?” he asks.
Before she can reply, John retrieves a miniature bottle from the fridge, unscrews the lid, and hands it to her. She gulps it down. In any other situation, she might ask for loads of Paracetamol, or a nip of something strong, but. Well.
“Come here. Come back,” she says, and makes space on the bed where the pillows were.
John climbs in, fully clothed except for the shoes and jumper he shucked before falling asleep.
“I’ll always come back.”
Alice turns on her side to face him and kisses his temple. He shuts his eyes and hums softly. They’re both more tired than they’ve ever been, but they have this. They finally have this.
“I don’t doubt it,” she replies.
“Can I, uh…” he runs a hand down her arm and catches her fingers with his. “Can I help you clean up? I’ll order a proper breakfast and we can sleep after you’ve eaten.”
A smile stretches across her face, genuine and warm.
He situates himself half off the bed and slips his arms beneath her. Carefully, he lifts her with one arm supporting her back and one at the bend of her knees. John carries her to the loo and sets her on the edge of the bath so he can run the water. As they wait for it fill, he gathers the tiny shampoo and conditioner bottles, the wrapped bar of Irish Spring soap, and a wash cloth. When the bath is filled, he shuts off the tap and tests the temperature of the water. The silence after rushing water washes over them, overwhelming. He helps her off with the robe. She insists on climbing in by herself, without help, and he lets her.
As if he could ever make her do anything she didn’t want to do.
Alice groans as she slides into the warm water; a groan of pleasure at the sensation. She lies there with her eyes shut, only opening them briefly when John sits on the edge of the bath and pours shampoo into his hands. He lathers it and begins to work it into her wetted hair. After he pours water cupped in his hands over her head to wash out the shampoo, taking care not to get it in her eyes, he massages conditioner onto the reddish-brown strands and makes work of unwrapping the bar of soap.
“I could do this forever,” she says.
A smile tugs at the corner of John’s mouth.
“Gotta admit I’ve got top-notch washing skills, ‘aven’t I?”
“No,” she says softly, and watches him rub the bar of soap onto the washcloth to lather it. “You and I.”
He looks her straight in the eye; of course she’s serious. A woman like Alice Morgan doesn’t play around. Not like this, anyway.
He attempts the sort of casualness she can see right through.
“That’s the plan.”
In the ensuing quiet, he rubs the cloth over her arms, chest, down her back, careful of the bruises. When he touches it to her swollen stomach, she removes it and flattens his palm against the patch of skin just above her navel. He splays his fingers and rubs small, loving circles.
“I don’t want some hum-drum life, John. I don’t want to be some tame little thing in the kitchen, doting and obedient. I’m not made for it. I know what this could do to us, but,” she lays her hand over his, “I know you. You’d never ask anything less of me than whatever I like.”
“Yes,” he says. “Yes, ‘course I wouldn’t. This… all of this… it can be whatever you want.”
“I want you.” she says, echoing a sentiment long-ago revealed but not once forgotten. “I want a life with you and our child, and maybe it’ll be a little less mischievous from now on, but… I’m choosing it.”
He leans down to press a kiss to her forehead. “Thank you. For choosing me, for whatever we do next. All of it.”
They don’t argue about who chose whom, or who rescued whom—at this very moment, or any moment in the past. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
After her bath, John orders them toast with jam, porridge with fruit and sliced almonds, and plenty of orange juice. Alice eats slowly and with relish, accepting each bite of food he offers her. In a fresh robe, she drifts off to sleep atop the duvet. John tidies up, takes a leisurely shower, and joins her to sleep well into the afternoon. They lie together, finally done running, and breathe evenly.
They find a place to stay in a small town called Hasselt. The tap in the kitchen leaks and the heat doesn’t always work, but they’re so far away from their past life that simple inconveniences are small miracles. Sun filters in through the kitchen window, there’s a fireplace in the living room, and their bed is comfortable. That is far more than they could dream to ask for, circumstances being what they are.
One morning Alice jokes that Mary gave birth in a manger so letting this house is perfectly fine for now, and John laughs. Yes, they’re fine for now; they don’t need much more than this for the time being.
It is truly surreal acclimating to living with one another, though John makes it infinitely easier by keeping things calm. When Alice frets over something (and yes, Alice does fret), he attends to it without complaint.
They spend an entire Sunday lying in bed discussing their favorite books, movies, albums… as it turns out, though they’ve bonded through life-threatening situations and their own sort of battlefield, he never knew she loves modern folk music, of all things, and American literature. She delights no end in the fact that he’s the sort of man who can appreciate films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Bridget Jones’ Diary with near equity. (Zoe made him watch the latter once at Christmas and it became a sort of tradition rooting for Colin Firth.)
They learn that both prefer lean meat but whole fat milk, berries but not melon, and while John likes the odd few slices of pizza or takeaway, Alice will only eat what she can make with her own hands (or, often, what John makes for her). John falls asleep immediately when they go to bed regardless of which side he’s lying on. Alice prefers the right, but realises that John Luther in her bed negates any complaints she may have about sleeping arrangements.
John almost always wakes as soon as dawn breaks. Alice tends to sleep until half ten. Both of them pass the time by reading, and where he’s got a blind spot about astronomy, she can’t beat him at Scrabble for the life of her.
One rainy afternoon when she’s making squash soup and he’s got his feet up on the low table whilst reading some crime novel, Alice stops what she’s doing, wooden stirring spoon in hand.
“Is this what marriage is like?” she asks. “A real one, anyway.”
John is taken aback a moment. He was married. Ages and ages ago.
“Yes,” he says. “Not quite, actually. This is… something else.”
“In what way?”
She licks the back of the spoon, adds a dash of ground black pepper, and turns her attention back to him. He folds the book and sets it in his lap.
“You’re different to what I thought,” he says, and it sounds like a compliment with a dash of wonder. “We’re different together, to be honest. We go hours and hours without talking even when we’re in the same room and you’re not bothered. We don’t coordinate our days to match up, y’know what I mean? You don’t dote on me and I don’t need to know what you’re doing every moment of the day. I thought maybe we’d be pulled too close together like this, but it’s surprising. It’s…”
“Are you going to say ‘healthy’? Oh, John, isn’t that trite?” She gives him a devilish smile.
“I don’t think so,” he says, matching her expression. “It’s different. Different is good. It isn’t boring.”
“No, not us.”
“Exactly,” he says, and opens his book.
Her back is to him, now.
“I do love you,” she says.
He turns a page in the paperback but all of the words look the same.
“Good thing, innit?” he jokes. Then, quieter, “I love you, Alice.”
That’s all they say on the matter. There are never any pieces of signed papers or rings, no. They don’t go in for all that. At a certain point, it becomes an excess; the claptrap of two people who need affirmation. John adored Zoe, enjoyed their wedding, but some things only happen once. Alice isn’t the sort to stand in front of a priest in a white dress, even if he were to ask her.
They know everything that needs knowing.
Twenty minutes after Alice finishes eating supper, she feels her first contraction. She waits an hour to say anything, and when she finally does, he is visibly rattled for approximately five seconds.
“We time them,” he says. “How far apart are they?”
She grabs his bicep and presses her forehead to his chest.
“Maybe we ought to go to hospital now,” she says.
And on that rainy evening in Belgium, John Luther and Alice Morgan, side by side through every moment, welcome a child into the world.
When the nurses have left them alone and they settle in to rest, just before dawn, John pulls a chair up to the hospital bed. He kisses Alice on the cheek, a tender gesture so unlike the people they once were.
“What do we call her?” he asks.
There’s the question of the birth certificate, and which identification they’ll use, but they sort that out as they sort out anything else.
“I had this sweet little gran on my mum’s side, Rosalyn. She had a wicked sense of humor til the day she died. Bit of a mad old bird. Loved me to pieces, though.”
John places his thumb gingerly to his daughter’s chin and wipes away the spittle.
A moment passes quietly as reality settles in.
“It suits her,” Alice says.
John’s voice is barely above a whisper. “I like it.”
John and Alice weather four winters in Hasselt with a beautiful, healthy daughter.
She’s at once full of energy and perfectly content to lie on her mother’s stomach while Alice reads an old text on disc galaxies. A fairly simple life with intelligent, caring parents helps her form the sort of personality as a toddler that lends itself well to listening and engaging with toys meant for older children, and poorly to outbursts or flat-out disobedience. Rosalyn is quick to show affection and slow to trust (it’s something others must earn from her, and her parents know this). They make sure she’s independent for as much as anyone can give independence to a child.
She’s got her mother’s lips, her father’s eyes, and a mop of chestnut curls that reminds John of his favorite aunt.
They teach her a mixture of English and French as they learn French themselves. It’s useful in the marketplace and their neighbors don’t seem to mind communicating in a mish-mash of both languages. Rosalyn often asks her father what they’re having for supper and he asks her what she would like him to cook.
“Pois et jambon,” she’ll say. “I like it when you mash the peas.”
They go to the marketplace for fresh snap peas and a hamhock for roasting, often on Sunday mornings, and the three of them share pieces of fruit and pastry.
“Papa,” she says, tugging at his hand, “I want pain frite et banane, please!”
“You can have banana and milk,” Alice says patiently, though John will sneak hear a bit of fried dough if she’s behaved well on their shopping trip.
On these days, when the light hits them a certain way and the wind blows gently through the trees, John breathes deeply and feels gratitude bursting within him for this new kind of home into which he’s somehow fallen.
Of course, as they settle into a well-earned, well-loved life, Martin Schenk gets ahold of him one Spring day in April, just after Rosalyn’s sixth birthday, and speaks over the phone in his locked office.
“I’ve got a daughter, Martin,” he says. He knows what’s coming.
“John, listen. I’m retiring. I’d love for you to take the reins,” he says, “but if you’ve got a family there… you know I won’t beg.”
Alice’s name is not mentioned, but it is a known entity, like gravity, like entropy.
“I appreciate it, Guv,” he says. Old habits. “Just… gimme some time, yeah?”
Martin clears his throat. “How much do you need?”
“When’re you becoming a pensioner?” he asks, trying for levity.
There’s a beat.
“How much time do you need, John?”
“Lisez-moi!” Rosalyn shouts. Her father is rarely on the phone; how is she to know she’s interrupting? “Mum got me three new books from down the shops.”
“In a moment, dearest,” he says.
He hears Martin laugh, a soft, muted thing.
John smiles at the noise and his eyes crease at the edges where crows’ feet have begun to deepen.
“You’re a father,” he says.
“I’ll think about it Martin. I will.”
“Take care of them first,” he says, kindness in his voice, and rings off.
That night, John reads his daughter the first twelve pages of Fantastic Mr. Fox before she falls asleep, and tucks Le Petit Prince under her pillow for the morning. When he mentions Martin’s offer to Alice as they sit on the edge of their bed readying themselves for sleep, she drops a kiss to his bare shoulder. She rests there, her lips pressed to his skin.
“I want this,” he says. “I love our life. Our daughter. You.”
She pulls away slowly.
“But you need that work,” she says. It isn’t an accusation. It is only a fact.
“We’ll find a way.”
Alice gives him that patented smile with bared teeth and sharp edges.
“Don’t we always?”
At the end of June that same year, John receives a text.
The adoption papers went through!! Please John, we’d love you to meet him. We’re flying out next week to Lebanon to bring him home. Say you’ll come when we’re back. — x
His mobile sits on the kitchen counter next to the fruit dish for three days and he does not touch it. This is how it ends for them here, he knows. It’s a fact, like the color of grass or the certainty of rain. They discuss it, and they discuss it, and they discuss it. Rosalyn will need to start school in the fall. They’ve saved enough through odd jobs to rent a flat outside London. Still, he hesitates. This is a home he’s grown to know. Far different than his last, but comfortable and constant.
Finally, Alice plucks the mobile from its place beside the satsumas and types a reply.
Wouldn’t miss it for the world. — A
When John calls Martin, they talk about what’s to be done. For all the world, Alice Morgan is still a fugitive and a murderer.
“If she gives you everything on Cornelius’ men—”
“You were the one to intervene, John,” he says.
John rubs at his beard with enough force to bruise his cheeks.
“Let’s say I wasn’t, Guv,” he offers. “Let’s say I found my way to Antwerp on a hunch and Alice filled me in.”
“That… would be entirely different then, wouldn’t it?”
“I want total assurance here,” he says. “Absolute immunity. Protection if necessary. I won’t put my family in harm’s way.”
“Congratulations, DSU Luther,” Martin says after a brief silence.
They pack their life into boxes and ship it to an address in Brixton. The only item John keeps for their travels is his copy of a well-worn book, read many times over.
Alice wouldn’t dare ask to borrow it no matter how much she enjoys the author’s work. It’s one of those things that’s John’s alone; it is to their great benefit that they haven’t become the people she feared; the people who meld together and share every last detail of the day. No, that would be far too tedious.
When they’ve finished and there’s nothing left to do but leave, they stand by the hearth for what seems like an eternity and remember what they’ve built. They’ll take it all with them. It endures.
On the flight to Heathrow, Rosalyn and her mother sleep soundly.
John’s almost at the end of the book again and finds the passage he underlined.
”But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
Years ago, he wished desperately that someone would explain to him what it meant. Now, he knows it’s on his shoulders to work it out for himself. Sometimes he thinks he has. Sometimes he thinks he hasn’t. All the same, it’s something John keeps with him even when he isn’t holding the pages in his hands.
Jenny and Gemma agreed to meet them back in London, as they’ll be staying with family there to acquaint them with Amal. It’s all very much on John and Alice’s terms, however, as they can’t afford to be out in public just yet. There’s plenty of business to which they must attend.
Jenny, however, is family.
The very least he can do is meet her son at the cafe where they used to sit and talk on warm nights, back when their biggest worry was finding her a job and that disgusting flat with its minging kettle grew too hot and crowded.
The first thing he does upon the return to British soil is to dig up an old relic. It takes him the better part of a day travelling out to the edge of the sea and back while Alice and Rosalyn remain warm and well-fed where the department has put them up in the city until they can find a proper place to live.
The next morning, closer to noon than breakfast, the two families meet amongst the smell of roasted coffee beans and sugared pastry.
There’s a moment when John attempts to pull Gemma aside without the others noticing, just before they find a table.
“Gemma, I’m going to pay you back for—”
“No,” she interrupts, shaking her head. She holds her hand up to signal his silence. “You be there for her. That’s all I ask.”
He gives her a sad tilt of a smile and pulls her into a hug. She holds on for dear life.
After all, here he is.
Jenny bursts into tears when she sees Rosalyn, which confuses the young girl no end. Gemma assures everyone that her wife is just tired from travel, though it isn’t the case and they all know it. They introduce Amal, who is soft-spoken and well-mannered, taken to staying very close to his mothers in such a radically different environment. It is apparent (glaringly so) that John is overwhelmed. He remains quiet, sipping coffee and listening to the conversation at their table once they’ve sat.
“Look at us,” Jenny says to him in a hushed voice. Gemma is asking Alice what sort of sport Rosalyn likes, and Rosalyn is going on about something else entirely.
He leans over to reply. “Truly bizarre.”
They smile at one another, and she squeezes his hand.
“You didn’t seem like you wanted to accept their offer to come visit,” Alice says as they curl up on the sofa. She pulls a blanket over them and strokes his temple with her knuckles.
“Dunno,” he says. The answer is honest, at the very least.
“You can’t be in that house, can you?” she asks.
He exhales one long breath.
“Probably not,” he says.
John situates himself so he can stretch out his legs and lay his head on Alice’s thigh. She continues stroking his temple, then moves her hand to rest it on his arm, warm and solid.
“I loved him,” he says, not for the first time, though it’s the first time she’s heard it aloud.
“I don’t know how I—if I loved him like he—I still don’t know.”
“That’s okay, too.”
“I could’ve protected him better.”
Alice rubs comforting strokes along his arm. “Don’t do that. You know you can’t do that to yourself. You loved him, and that’s enough. I’m sure he knew it, too.”
John doesn’t say Because I told him I did, because that’s theirs, his and Justin’s, and that’s something for him to keep.
Eventually, they fall asleep like this, boxes scattered throughout the house to unpack and their daughter asleep in her room.
The next day, mid-morning, she finds John standing in Rosalyn’s bedroom with paint swatches spread out in a sunburst pattern on the carpet, John standing right in the middle, utterly perplexed by dusty rose, sky blue, and two dozen other shades.
She holds her cup of tea with both hands, comfortable in her favorite robe, and leans against the door jamb.
“Mint seems nice and fresh, doesn’t it?”
He turns to face her. It’s clear he was lost in his thoughts.
“Glossy white for the wainscoting?”
“Whatever you like,” she says. “Rosalyn is partial to cool pastels, but you’re doing the painting.”
“Mint it is,” he says. “Maybe one wall that bluish color, like a Robin’s egg.”
She moves to return to the kitchen but he calls her name.
John meets her in the doorway and pulls her tight to him, careful not to splash her tea.
“Thank you, Alice.”
They’ve set up blankets and chairs about a kilometre from the boardwalk for a rare day of rest. The sun is high in the sky just past noon, not a cloud in sight. It’s a perfect day for the beach, as their daughter so excitedly informed them the night previous. Being the big boss at work has its perks—the main one being near-normal hours—and Alice’s bid for tenure at the university loads her up with plenty of work during the week but gives her time on weekends for outings like this.
Their daughter runs up from the water caked in sand with a pressing question.
“Tonight can I play with the telescope papa brought home? Please?”
“We don’t play with the telescope,” Alice says. “It’s very delicate, love. Besides, it’s too bright back at home to see anything.”
Rosalyn’s wheels turn quickly.
“Can we bring it out of the city where it’s darker? We won’t play, we’ll use it for science.”
Alice smiles at her daughter, the brightest star of the lot.
“If you finish your homework early this week, we can come back out here on Saturday evening and look at the stars.”
“That’s my girl. Now go on, go build me something spectacular with the wet sand,” Alice says. She leans back in her beach chair and the oversized hat she’s wearing tips down over her eyes.
“She’s settled well,” John says. He’s sitting beneath the umbrella in shorts and a polo shirt, hands still a bit slick from rubbing sun cream on his girls.
“She has, hasn’t she? I rather think she’ll thrive anywhere she goes.”
“With our DNA?” John leans over to place a kiss on Alice’s lips, and she reciprocates. “She’ll rule the world.”
“Quite,” she says, and closes her eyes to the warmth of the midday sun.
“I’m going to pop off down the boardwalk to have a look at the shops,” he says, primary objective being some shade and maybe a pint.
“Enjoy yourself, darling,” Alice says.
He climbs up the sand embankment to the footpath and surveys the beach; his daughter is creating something resembling a spaceship near the water. It nearly knocks the air out of him how great he’s got it, and how much he once lost.
He chose police work, marriage, isolation, risk, love, and family. He’d choose it all again, too.
There’s a tattoo shop halfway down the boardwalk, and on a whim, he ducks in.
“Welcome!” the shop owner says. “Take your time with the book if you like, unless you ‘ave something in mind.”
“I’m all set,” he replies.
“Well alright then, let’s sit you down,” the man says. He begins to assemble his gun and various other accoutrements. “Name’s Callum. Colors?”
“Right, so what’re you thinking?”
John reaches out and sets his right palm flat on the chair’s edge.
“Here,” he says. “From this knuckle on down here.”
He runs his left index finger from the first knuckle of his thumb to his wrist.
“Script, I’m guessin’?”
“Timshel,” John says. He spells it for the man.
“An interesting one.”
“It’s Hebrew,” he explains.
Callum sterilises the skin and dips the tip of the gun into black ink, electing to do the script freehand. Ten minutes pass quickly as they speak.
“An’ the meaning? If you don’t mind me asking.”
The needles don’t hurt that much, except when they run over the scars he received years back in a garden in Wales.
“It’s, uh… one of my best mates loved those old Steinbeck books about dusty American towns and crop failures,” he says, and laughs to himself. “In East of Eden, there’s this debate about the translation of a word. See, this character believes in free will. Everything being a choice and all that. He had this copy of the Bible with a different translation than most where Timshel meant… well, I guess it meant he could change his life ‘cos he wasn’t tied up in fate and all that.”
“You thought about this a lot,” Callum says. “Usually a man comes in here, has his surname across his back. Drives his mum round the twist.”
John laughs again, careful not to jostle his hand.
When Callum finishes, he rubs a petroleum substance onto the raw skin and eases a plain cotton bandage onto it.
“How much, then?” John uses his left hand to retrieve his wallet.
“Y’know what,” he says. “Keep your money an’ bring me a copy of that book sometime.”
“Yeah mate, no rush or anything,” Callum says, and begins the work of cleaning his tattooing equipment.
“Cheers, then. Will do.”
John leaves the shop to search out that pint, carried along the boardwalk by the kindness of strangers.