Talulla Rising Page 91

‘Either that,’ Walker said, ‘or he’s gone off somewhere to kill himself.’

We were in the big sitting room with a garrulous log fire going. (In one of the diaries it said: Listen carefully to fire’s soft babble, its Tourette’s cracks and sparks. Listen carefully: Fire speaks in tongues. Now I had our children with me Jake’s absence was renewed, the irreparable brokenness, the unredressable loss. I had images: the twins, aged five or six, listening, rapt, to some preposterous story he made up, or him presenting them with evidence of nefarious activity and saying: And what, exactly, would you say this was? Or the two of them making fun of him, riskily, just out of range of a swipe, or the two of them holding his hands walking down a street, feeling utterly secure and oblivious to any danger because there he was and there was the heat and strength of him in his hands and his existence was their freedom to delight in the world, the sunlight, the city, his stories, the moon...) The owners had decked the place out for Christmas, with a big fairy-lit tree and tinsel on the mantelpiece and holly wreaths on the doors. The rooms winked and glimmered and reminded me of being a kid and hurt my heart because I hadn’t seen my dad for what felt like years, though it was only six months, and he had absolutely no clue what I’d become. Risk or no risk, in the New Year I was going home and introducing him to his grandchildren. As human beings only, for now. One shock at a time. It would first amaze him, then reopen the wound of my mother’s death, then begin to delight him, then fill him up with love like brandy saturating a cake. He’d want to see them all the time. It was all going to get more complicated.

‘He shouldn’t be out of bed,’ I said, ‘let alone wandering around in the snow.’

‘Yeah, well, this is Mike. This is the Russian thing.’

Zoë and Lorcan were asleep side by side in a new (bigger) bassinet close by me. (It was an excusable madness that I literally wouldn’t let either of them out of my sight. Temporarily excusable. Soon, if I didn’t break the habit, it would turn toxic. Watching them sleep close to each other was an endlessly renewable joy. I’d stand there, transfixed, unutterably happy, happy in my fingernails and teeth and stomach and palms and breasts, then move away to close the curtains or put another log on the fire and when I came back there the same joy was all over again, completely refreshed and brand new and self-incredulous. The beauty of a meaningless universe is that you don’t get what you deserve.) Fergus was already back in London, treating his money with profitable contempt for its stupidity. Lucy and Trish were in the kitchen midway through a second bottle of Bordeaux, Trish trying to teach Lucy not just how to smoke, but how to roll her own cigarettes, now that we’d convinced her, Lucy, that unless they were cigarettes containing silver they’d do her no damage. (If smoking were completely harmless, Jake wrote, everyone would smoke.) Madeline was in the upstairs bathroom making languorous and epic preparation: Cloquet didn’t know it yet but tonight he was going to get comprehensively laid. Dangerous, everyone agreed, but we were reckless and giddy after what we’d been through, and Madeline, I knew, felt sorry for him. Besides, she said, I’ve never done it with a Frenchman. She wouldn’t take money. Don’t be daft. I probably need it more than he does. It’s all right for you, with the big lovey-dovey. In case you forgot, I was babysitting your sprog when I should’ve been you-know-what. Yes, she was. She’d made it all possible – and given me the gift of Walker, too, no strings attached. Do you have any idea what a good person you are? I’d asked her. It had been an odd moment. We were alone in her room, her sitting at the dressing table, me standing by the window with a cup of black coffee, in that peculiar afternoon light you only get from snow outside. I hadn’t meant it to come out so seriously, but I’d been thinking of Jake writing he wished he’d kissed her more, and simultaneously got an intimation of a wretched period in her life when she was seventeen or eighteen, new to London, scared, lost. She’d worn a big leather jacket because it felt like a friend she had with her all the time. She’d found herself in wrong situations. Then met people. Then started the Life. And until the Curse she’d lived in perpetual loneliness and boredom and fear. I hadn’t meant it to come out so seriously, but Pharaoh’s heart, unhardened now, was erratic in its wellings-up. She was just about to dismiss it – Yeah, yeah, fuck off – but found she couldn’t, because we were looking at each other and she knew I meant it, and no one had ever said that to her and meant it, and suddenly the two of us were nearly in tears, and had to try to laugh it off, but the laughter made it worse, and then we both did shed some tears, laughing, and knowing there was nothing to do but just let this moment come into being and pass away. Somewhere in the middle of it she said: It’s okay, you know, I don’t do it with anyone now unless I want to. Then she laughed again and said: It’s just that I want to all the bloody time. Can’t lose, really.

I could hear Cloquet now, moving about in his room above us, humming Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’, thinking he was having an early night. It gave me pleasure to think of the erotic wealth that was coming to his poor neglected body. And because every small good feeling connected to the big one, I got up to look at the twins again.

Walker came to me and put his arms around me from behind. We hadn’t had sex yet, but it was close. He was scared he wouldn’t be able to, in spite of manifest erections when we kissed and touched each other, and he knew it would get mentally tougher the longer he waited. Like standing at the edge of a diving board, he’d said to me last night, when we’d been fooling around, and he’d got hard, then panicked and retreated, and a silence had expanded between us.

For a while we stood without speaking, pressed against by all the newness. We were afraid, both of us, that now there was nothing to stop us being together we wouldn’t want to. We both knew I was attracted to people who were bigger than me – smarter, deeper, less afraid; Jake, most recently and most obviously, but even before him, all the way back to the Very Bad Dirty Filthy Little Girl at college, that was the pattern. Even Richard had been the type, although in his case I’d mistaken vanity and articulate cynicism for depth. But any way you looked at Walker and me, I’d gone ahead, I was waiting for him to catch up.

‘How did you do this alone all those months?’ he asked.

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