Read an Excerpt
Friday, 15 August 2003
Later, Kit Nouveau was to realise that his world unravelled in Tokyo, six months after a cos-play stuffed large amounts of money into a locker that could be opened with a cheap screwdriver, had anyone known what it contained. Until then, he’d thought it ended fifteen years earlier, at 10.38 pm, on Friday, 15 August 2003, behind an old barn on the chalk hills above Middle Morton, a small town in Hampshire.
Who knew? Certainly not the nineteen-year-old squaddie leaning against the barn’s wooden wall. He’d come to the party with his latest girlfriend, a high-breasted Welsh girl called Amy who had a filthy laugh and, he hoped, filthy habits. Only she was inside sulking and the girl whose bandeau top he’d just undone was going out with someone else.
“Hey,” said Kit. “It’s okay.”
Pushing him away, the girl re-tied a ribbon. “No,” she said. “It’s not.” Mary O’Mally wore lipstick, black eyeliner, and bare legs under a frayed white miniskirt . . . Both makeup and attitude put on in a bus shelter roughly half way between her parents’ house and the barn. She’d cut her hair since Kit last saw her and had red highlights put in.
Under his own waxed jacket Kit wore a Switchblade Lies tee- shirt, with jeans and biker boots. His fair hair had been cropped and the faintest trace of a blond, very non-regulation goatee ghosted his chin.
Inside the hut someone took off Original Pirate Material and slung on Tight Smile, jacking up the volume.
“Wait,” said Kit, when Mary tried to say something. And they both listened to the bass line, as Vita Brevis thumbed a Vintage five-string. Then came Art Nouveau, splintering Vita’s bass line with a three-chord crash, and Kit found himself fingering fret shapes onto empty air.
“I’ll walk you home,” he said.
“Kit . . .”
Undoing her top had been stupid but old habits died hard. Josh was a nice guy, in a rich-boy kind of way, but Mary was Kit’s ex-girlfriend and he still occasionally dreamed about her. Reassuring dreams, at least reassuring to someone who’d puked his way through an Iraqi firefight, put his sniper training into practise, and was on compassionate leave while his Colonel worked out what to do about an incident no one really wanted to make the papers.
“I’d better go back.”
“Okay,” said Kit.
“You coming with me?”
Shaking his head, Kit said, “Better not. Can you get Josh to give Amy a lift home? And, you know . . .” Kit stopped, wondering how to put his thoughts into words.
“What?” said Mary.
“You know. If you and Josh ever . . .”
“If we . . .?”
“If you split up,” said Kit, “then maybe we could try again?” His voice trailed off as he realised Mary wanted to slap him, which wouldn’t be the first time. “I know,” he said, holding up his hands.
“No you don’t,” she said, dirty blonde hair brushing bare shoulders as she shook her head, each shake fiercer than the one before. “You have no fucking idea.”
Mary and Kit went out for five months, right up to the start of last year’s exams. She’d just about convinced her mother that Kit and band practise weren’t about to ruin her grades when Kit broke up Switchblade Lies, dumped Mary, and talked himself into a thirteen-week Army Preparation Course, all in the same afternoon.
Josh was the one who picked up the pieces and walked Mary to her exams and convinced her life could still be good. Josh was the one Mary’s mother liked, though she’d probably have liked him more if his mother hadn’t been Korean.
“It was just a thought,” said Kit.
“Yeah,” said Mary. “A shit one.” And there it might have rested, except the moon chose that moment to slip between clouds, and Mary caught tears in the eyes of the boy opposite.
“You broke it off,” she said crossly.
“It’s not that.”
“I don’t know,” said Kit. “Life, I guess . . . You’d better go back inside. Josh will be wondering where you’ve gone.”
“He doesn’t own me.”
“Hey,” said Kit. “No one owns you, I know that. No one owns me. No one owns anyone. We just get to borrow each other for a while.”
She glared at him. “Did you make that up?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Kit thought about it. “At least, I don’t think it’s stolen from anybody else.”
Kit and Mary ended up pushing his Kawasaki between them, while the moon stretched an elongated couple and bike onto Blackboy Lane and night winds whispered through fields on the far side of the hedge.
The barn was stained black and had been built before any of them had been born, the pub to which the hut belonged and the three farm cottages that made up Wintersprint were half a mile behind. Two of the cottages had been knocked together to make a house. It was his mother’s idea.
“What are you thinking?”
Anyone else would have left it there. “Do you regret testifying?”
Kit’s mother had been American, an artist from New York. His father was small-town Hampshire, a Sergeant on the local police force. It would have been hard to find two people more unsuited. Their marriage had been coming apart for most of Kit’s childhood; certainly for as long as he could remember, and Kit had a good memory.
One night, three years before, his parents had argued, which was nothing new. And Kit’s mother had demanded a divorce, which was also nothing new. Only this time she meant it, which was. A jogger found her at the foot of Ashley chalk pit, her skull broken and her ribs badly fractured. She’d been dead for roughly two hours, according to the coroner.
Suicide, said his father.
Kit was interviewed and told the inspector what he’d heard. Which was far more than he’d ever wanted to hear. When asked, It was the first such argument, wasn’t it? He said no. And kept saying no, all the way through to appearing as a witness for the prosecution in court.
Kit’s evidence was tainted, that was the position of the defence. He’d had his own argument with his father, a day earlier. A fierce and vicious argument, that saw Sergeant Newton forced to physically restrain his son. This was the boy’s revenge. A twisted attempt to use the death of his mother to hurt his father, a man who was already heartbroken by the loss. The jury believed the defence, and Kit and his father had not spoken since, not a single word. Although, until Kit enlisted, they’d shared the same house.
“You don’t think that maybe . . .”
“No,” said Kit, “I don’t.”
She glanced away, moonlight on her face. Kit saw it happen. She glanced aside and bit her lip. Say it, he wanted to tell her. Only Mary wouldn’t and if he was honest Kit wasn’t sure he wanted it said. Being wrong about his father was as bad as being right.
“A pity,” said Mary, some time later.
“What? About my mother?”
“No,” she said, sighing. “About the band.”
Art Nouveau, Vita Brevis, and Joshua Treece . . . Kit managed a smile. “Not really,” he said. “We were shit. None of us could even play.”
“That’s harsh,” said the girl who’d briefly been Vita Brevis—bass/ vocals/keyboards/lyrics.
“We were worse than shit.”
One single, a week’s airplay on local radio, and a final fumble with Mary in the back of a van, while Josh pretended to sleep and Colonel Treece kept his eyes on the road. Kit had bought the Kawasaki with money he got selling his guitar and the only thing he’d kept was his new name, although the Art bit of that had gone the way of his hair.
“You want a cigarette?”
“No,” said Kit, “I’ve given up.” Kicking his bike onto its stand, he took the packet from her fingers and tapped one free, lighting it with a high-chrome Zippo that read, Iraq 2003, the Democracy in Action Tour. He’d borrowed it from an American Sergeant who was still waiting for him to give it back.
“Here,” he said.
“You know,” said Mary. “We should get out of the road.”
So Kit rolled his bike through a gap in the hedge and parked it. In the old days people would have read meaning into the jagged clouds and back-lit sky, the wind that dragged shivers from both their bodies and a moon as cold and clear as a world trapped in the cross-hairs of a gun sight.
“Time to go,” said Kit, watching Mary grind her cigarette underfoot.
Mary raised her eyebrows.
“Curfew, remember?” As if either of them could forget. One of the reasons Mary’s mother disliked Kit—he had treated her rules as something negotiable.
Kit looked at her.
“Yeah,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe the lecture I got.”
“I would . . . no friends back to the house and no staying out all night. Your dad knows exactly how many beers there are in the fridge and the level of every bottle in the drinks cupboard. I’ve had it,” he added, when she looked surprised. “That time my parents went to London.”
Back in the days when my mother was alive.
“The weekend you had the party?”
Yeah, that weekend.
EClouds continued to scuttle across the sky and eleven o’clock came and went, measured in bells carried on the wind from the village below. At Mary’s insistence, they counted off the bells, but called the first bell two and ended at twelve to muddle the devil.
“Don’t ask,” she said. “Blame my grandmother.”
A battered red Mini came by, followed by a taxi. It looked as if those unable to squeeze into Josh’s car had banded together to get a cab. Amy was among them.
When the next round of bells began, Mary and Kit counted them from two to thirteen and then stood up. It was meant to be a simple thank-you for watching the clouds, letting him count bells, and not holding their last argument against him. A farewell to what had been, little more.
Leaning forward, Kit took Mary’s face in his hands. He expected a kiss, a shrug, and to walk her home. A snog for old times’ sake. Something by way of goodbye. Only, something happened.
As Mary’s hand came up to touch his face, his fingers brushed the bare skin of her waist and a circuit closed between them, the shiver of excitement catching them both by surprise. Her lips tasted of cheap cigarettes and expensive brandy that she’d stolen from home. She said nothing when his hand found the knot on her bandeau top for a second time and even less when he reached for the buttons on her skirt. He was her first, something unexpected.
“I thought you and Josh . . .”
Mary said nothing, just raised herself on one elbow and stared until Kit looked away. “No,” she said, into his silence.
Slivers of daylight had begun to warm the chalk hills around them. A maroon Volvo trundled out of the village, headed for Southampton or London. Its headlights sweeping blindly over the spot where Mary and Kit lay.
“Sorry,” said Kit. “Wrong question.”
Reaching over, Mary patted his face. “You don’t say.”