Chapter 1 ~ 2007
It drifted down slow as morning mist, settling white on brown, white on silver, white on white. It fell so thickly that Nicholas could see no more than a meter or so ahead. His hair, normally the color of dry grass, was white with it. His hands on his hips, flecked coral, blood red, and indigo, grew steadily paler as he stood in the steady downward wash of white. His eyes, the darkest part of him, were all that moved as he watched the figure above him. A ghost, swaying its arms to the milky sky, waving. Or a summoning angel. A spectral thing, unmindful of him.
He stared a long moment, then pulled off his earmuffs.
The snow was driven by the roar of an orbital sander. The machine's electric hornet buzz was so amplified by the soundbox of the ceiling that it seemed some lunatic was on the roof tumbling an endless stream of rocks down the tiles. A stepladder was perched half-in and half-out of the bath, and atop it Cate strained upward as she sanded around the vent in the bathroom ceiling. Plaster dust was everywhere, making the small room a blizzard world of indeterminable size.
She attacked the ceiling in broad strokes that belied her size, swooping mightily over the plaster filler like a baker spreading dough or a shipwright planing planks. He watched the way her arm muscles moved under their geisha patina, the way her calves stretched.
It was a gloomy Saturday afternoon. While Cate prepped the bathroom, Nicholas had been chiseling up tiles in the minuscule laundry. Because they worked in separate rooms, it was all the more enjoyable to come together, picking their ways through the battlefield of paint cans, balled drop sheets, takeaway curry containers holding limey water and soaking brushes, to find some clean little beachhead in the madness, wipe the dust off each other, kiss, and encourage themselves that the renovations would indeed end and this would soon-God, please, soon!-be the sexiest little flat in Ealing.
The dumb sky outside grumbled darkly, making the small bathroom in false winter seem even cheerier.
A tearing sound, and Cate switched off the sander.
"You effing . . . shit." Her lips pursed tight, as if fighting to dam a wild ocean of obscenities.
Nicholas tutted. "The language. It never fails to shock me."
She turned to him-an albino alien, goggled and masked.
"Funny boy. How long have you been skiving off there, pervert?"
Nicholas shrugged. "Why the foul mouth?"
Cate preferred not to swear, but that didn't mean she wouldn't. At a dinner party eighteen months ago, the host had asked Nicholas what date his and Cate's wedding anniversary fell on and he had momentarily drawn a blank. In the car on the way home, Cate had described the moment as "fucking humiliating." Delivered quietly in her round, wholesome vowels, the words cut with surprising efficacy. Less, for Cate, was more.
"A nailhead tore the sandpaper. Again. Last sheet."
She lowered her dust mask and lifted her goggles, revealing skin almost as pale as the plaster dust. She climbed down off the ladder, over the bath, to the floor. She was small. She spread her arms wide. Without thinking, he stepped into them-a beautiful trap. She slapped her arms around his waist-thup!-releasing a huge cloud of white dust.
"Sucka!" she cackled, and stepped back to survey her handiwork: a huge white patch on his front and a belt of white powder around his waist. She grinned.
Nicholas shook his head in mock disgust. "You lured me. You used your body as bait and lured me."
"Sucka!" she repeated, grinning more broadly. And opened her arms again.
This time she closed them around him slowly, and they talked through their kiss.
"How are you going?"
"Lazy slag." Cate slapped his bum. "Get back to it. I'll drive in and get some sandpaper."
"I'll go. You're dirty. A dirty, filthy girl."
He felt her lips smile under his.
"And now you're a dirty, filthy boy."
It was four years ago, in a flat like this on a rainy evening, that he'd met her. They'd talked for an hour, danced drunkenly and badly for ten minutes, and kissed-smiling and clicking teeth-until the hosts called them a cab and, with no small relief, sent them home together. Maybe that was why he so liked their little apartment: because it felt like Cate. New love, and lovely at it.
"Be careful, bear," she said. "It sounds like rain outside." She patted his backside again and clambered up the ladder.
She was right: rain fell, steady and chill.
Nicholas shoved his hands in his pockets and stumped toward the curb. Their flat might become the sexiest in Ealing, but it still didn't have off-street parking.
He stopped and swore under his breath.
Their '03 Peugeot was neatly trapped between a Yaris and the new neighbor's Land Rover. Again. He owns a truck capable of climbing Kilimanjaro, thought Nicholas, but still catches cabs to get to Paddington. But he was in a good mood and didn't want it ruined by having words. He'd take the motorbike.
A minute later, Nicholas pulled on his helmet, twisted the throttle, and his BMW let out a baritone rumble as it eased out from its stable behind the dustbins onto the street. He'd be soaking wet before he got to the hardware, and thoroughly dissolved by the time he got home, but he couldn't be arsed going back inside to fetch his slick or facing Cate's insistence that the urban adventurer next door get a talking- to. The lumpy side panniers would keep the sandpaper dry.
The world was painted from a palette of grays. There was next to no traffic. The rain on his face stung lightly enough to be pleasant, and the bike rumbled contentedly. As he turned down past Walpole Park, Nicholas resolved to enjoy the icy wet. He would be cold and happy with it: a pasha on his mount, a cavalier on royal duty; a man with an excuse to become naked before his beautiful wife in a quarter of an hour. He smiled to himself and glanced at the green park flashing past.
The grove always drew his eye. It was tucked in the corner of the park, its old trees cloistered together, huddled close as weary soldiers under grim umbrellas. Neglected and conspiring. Secretive. Their trunks were dark as tar in the late light and the gray rain, and their tops were huge inverted bowls of sea black-thick green and rambling and restless.
Between the dark trunks was a face.
A man's face . . . yet not human. Larger. Older. In the instant before it retreated into the night-black shadows of the grove, Nicholas saw that from the corners of its mouth grew-
A sharp, sick symphony of collapsing metal and shattering plastic, then he was arcing through the air. For a long moment, his eyes were filled with cloud-bruised acres of sky and telephone lines and silence. Then a small cracking sound and his lungs filled with mercury. Pain as hard as ice jolted through him like electricity. He was still moving: not flying now, but sliding on his back along the wet bitumen, frozen in a breathless world of insane agony. Sliding. Slowing. Stopped.
Gray rain and dark leaves. Silence.
And pain so solid that he felt carved from it-lungs spasming, wanting to work but unable to, more winded than he'd ever been during high school rugby or behind-the-shed fisticuffs. He could do nothing but lie there and will his burning lungs to please, please, please inhale!
A face loomed over him. Brown teeth behind thin fish lips. Wide eyes, deep frowns. Two faces. Then, like a tide returning and bringing waves with it, the world's noise returned with his breath-with a rattle, he sucked in cold, wet, beautiful air.
". . . an ambulance!"
"Don't move him!"
He let out a whistling breath and tried to sit up, but the movement brought fresh icicles of pain.
"Oh, Terry, he's okay!"
Nicholas, wanting to contribute to the optimistic mood, tried to whisper, "I'm okay," but all that came out was a weak sigh.
A man and a woman stood above him, their details vague through tears of wretched pain.
Words spilled out of the woman like marbles from a split sack. "We just backed out and didn't look and we are so, so sorry-"
"Don't say you're sorry!" hiss-whispered her husband.
"I didn't say sorry."
"Phone?" wheezed Nicholas.
The couple clarified: a horse-faced pair in matching tweed, looking down at this wounded, talking marvel.
"Of course." The man handed over his mobile. Nicholas's thumb shook as he dialed. He loosened his helmet as the LCD screen blinked: Calling.
"My bike?" he whispered.
The man lifted his chin and peered between the top of his glasses and the brim of his tweed driver's cap.
"Pretty well buggered. You know you're bleeding?"
"Oh, God! He's bleeding?"
Nicholas held up a hand for silence. A click as the other end picked up.
Cate. Nicholas's heart slowed. Relief as warm as sunlight washed through him.
"Hello, bear. What's up?"
"Cate." He was so happy to hear her. Why? He'd only left her a moment ago . . .
"Nicky? Where are you? Are you on the road?" Concern in her voice now. "I heard the motorbike and-oh, God, have you had an accident?"
Her voice was growing fainter.
"I'm fine, nothing. A little bingle. You, though. Are you all right?"
He was so happy. Happy and amazed. She was fine. Why had he worried so?
Evening seemed to be falling fast. The equestrian couple was darkening in shadow, their faces growing as lean and hidden as the evening trees themselves. The rain was a steady hiss.
"I'm worried about you! Where are you? Nicky? Nicholas?" Her voice was thin and distant, words from the bottom of a well.
"I'm here . . . but you're all right?"
A gray pall fell over the world, rapidly making everything dimmer and darker. Gray became black. Evening became night.
"You're all right . . ." he whispered.
Just a little nudge, stirring a tinkle of ice. Bump. A flick of paper somewhere.
Nicholas opened one eye a fraction. It was night. Well, dark, certainly. And his face was cold and damp; chill hissed down on him. Was it still raining? His vision was swimmy.
He opened the other eye, and blinked.
The aircraft cabin was as dark as a cinema. Hard plastic window shades were pulled down. The cool air was loosely laced with body odor and cologne. Passengers lay motionless with blankets drawn to necks, mouths agape, sleeping. Most lights were out, but a few private oases of yellow or blue peppered the gloom, a woman reading here, a man wearing headphones watching a small screen there. Up the aisle, a flight attendant checked on her wards, walking between passengers as silently as a benevolent spirit.
Someone behind Nicholas was drinking: ice ticked on thin plastic. Across the aisle from him, a girl of six or seven sat awake, coloring a picture.
"Oh, God . . ."
Nicholas turned at the desperate whisper, before realizing it was his own. His nose was blocked. He touched his face. His cheeks were wet and cold under the air hissing from the vent above.
He'd been crying in his sleep.
If I shut my eyes now and go to sleep, he thought, I can go back. Back to the beautiful lie that Cate had answered the phone, worried, but alive.
But the truth of things rushed through floodgates, dousing him wide awake. He was alive and leaving Britain. Cate was dead: three utterly dreadful months in the ground. She'd fallen getting down the ladder to answer his telephone call after the motorbike crash, splintering her neck on the bath edge.
The cold weight of the realization sank Nicholas deeper into his seat. He swallowed back bile and wiped his nose. The little girl across the aisle glanced at him disapprovingly. The flight was an eternity. He angled his watch to catch what little light there was.
"Are you all right, sir?"
A flight attendant looked down at him, brows drawn in tight concern. Her face was pale but her cheeks were pink and her nose freckled. Young.
The flight attendant leaned closer, whispered again, "Are you all right, sir? You . . . made some noise in your sleep." She held a tissue toward him.
"Oh." Not knowing what else to do, he took the tissue. "I'm fine." A lie to send her on her way.
"Yes." Another lie. So, now she could go.
But she lingered. The little girl across the aisle had stopped coloring and was sitting upright.
"That's no good. We like our passengers to sleep well." The flight attendant's white smile was disconcertingly bright in the darkness.
"You really don't have to charm me. I'm already on the plane."
The woman's smile faltered. "But we'd like you to come back. Another blanket?"
Movement across the aisle caught Nicholas's eye. The little girl was shaking.
"Hey, you okay?" He pushed himself out of his seat, but was held back by the buckled belt. "Jesus, look."
The little girl was convulsing now, her legs jack-hammering and her hands clawing at her tiny neck. Her face was sharp red and her mouth was opening and closing like a hooked fish's.
The flight attendant followed Nicholas's glance, then looked back at him, concerned. "Or a pillow?" she asked quietly.
"Help her!" said Nicholas loudly, finally unclasping the strap. "She's . . ."
The little girl was turning blue, her eyes so wide they showed a finger's width of reddening white around the irises.
Nicholas stood too quickly, smacking his head on the luggage compartment. Other passengers began to stir at the noise.
"Help who?" The young woman's voice was sharp. "Sir?"
The silently gasping girl fell to the floor right at the attendant's comfortable flats. The child's pink and yellow top tore open, wrenched by invisible fingers, exposing a pale fluttering little chest and ribs. Nicholas stared in horror as the attendant took an awkward half- step back . . . and her foot passed through the girl to rest solidly on the carpeted floor.
Nicholas trembled. His heart smashed in his chest, vibrating his body.
The little girl's back arched, and her head wrenched back at a hideous angle. She jerked mightily, a landed trout flopping with horrible, drowning violence. Then, like a sandcastle undermined by a wave, she collapsed on herself and grew still.
"Sir?" whispered the attendant sharply. "Could you sit down please, sir?"
Nicholas felt the pressure of the young woman's grip on his wrist, and looked into her face. A tough, forced smile was on her face, her cheeks red. Nicholas saw other passengers turning to look at him, murmuring, whispering to one another.
He glanced down at the aircraft floor.
The little girl's dead eyes stared at the cabin ceiling for a long moment . . . then rolled to fix on Nicholas's.
"Sure." His voice was a sandy whisper. Shaking, he sat back into his seat. "Sorry."
The attendant shook her head, as if his behavior was perfectly normal, and sent a quick, calming smile around to the other passengers. Nicholas forced himself to focus on rebuckling his belt, on not looking at the dead girl the attendant was standing upon.
"Can I get you something?" the young woman asked. "Water? Tea?"
"What did the little girl die of?" he whispered.
The attendant blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
Nicholas looked across the aisle. The little girl was suddenly in her seat again. Her blouse was whole. She watched Nicholas, eyes unreadable. Her hands, as if with minds of their own, picked up the coloring book and crayon and recommenced their childish business.
Nicholas knew he should just shut up. But the words came of their own accord.
"A little girl just died here, didn't she?"
The woman stared at Nicholas, her mouth working as she made some decisions. He knew the look: the how-did-he-know-that, is-he-a- reporter, is-he-mental, is-he-dangerous look.
"How do you -" Her words were clipped. No politeness now.
The little girl was coloring her book with tedious slowness. Her face was in shadow. The passenger beside her rolled in his sleep and put his arm right through her head.
The flight attendant straightened her skirt. "I have no idea, sir. Information like that is kept by the airline. I must ask you not to talk about . . . such things on the flight, sir."
She glanced once at the empty seat opposite Nicholas, then moved away, a little too fast, up the dark aisle.
Nicholas looked over. The girl's hands stopped coloring. Her gaze was on his as she started shaking and turning blue again.
He rolled away from her and closed his eyes.