Because The Night
by Tessa Hadley
Their parents had fantastic parties, they were famous for it. The bath in the downstairs bathroom would be filled with ice, and then with bottles of Veuve du Vernay. All this was paid for on their father's entertainment account at the import-export company where he was managing director, and a lot of the guests would have to be dull Anglia World people to make this all right. But the Anglia World people didn't usually stay that long, and when they'd gone the party atmosphere changed, it was taken over by their parents' real friends, the ones they still had from university, or the ones their mother, Peggy, had met as a teacher and a painter.
When they were little, Tom and Kristen were allowed to stay up late and run around, although it wasn't the sort of party where anyone else's children were invited. The au pair was meant to put them to bed at some point, but their parents didn't really mind; often the au pair - Annegret then Sylvie then Bengta - would be partying, too: Annegret drooping her head shyly, tipping the drink from side to side in her glass, being chatted up by some teacher from Mum's school, Bengta dancing barefoot by herself, to Blondie or David Bowie or the Eurythmics. If it was summer, there would be coloured flares burning among the flowers in the beds, grown-ups swinging in the dark in the two hammocks slung between the trees.
Tom was always good at inventing games, but the ones he made up on party nights were wilder. The children withdrew from the lit-up house, afloat in the dark, swollen with music and voices, hardly recognisable as the ordinary space they knew in daytime. The house was on a hill at the edge of one of those minor towns in Surrey that are clustered up against the skirts of London; once it must have been in the countryside, but newer houses had been built around it, and pieces had been chopped off from the garden to go with each new one. But still they had a lawn with flowerbeds, and some huge old trees where the hammocks were slung, and beyond that a tiny wood, about a third of an acre. At the back of this wood - reached by an earth path that wound past the tank with the oil for the central heating and the outhouse where the bikes and the lawnmower were kept - there were a couple of old greenhouses not used for anything. The children weren't supposed to play in these, because of the broken glass, and because in one of them there was a deep well with a square stone across the top. But on party nights the greenhouses became their base.
Kristen wore the gauzy flowery frilly Ossie Clark her mother had been married in, pulled up above her Brownie belt so she didn't trip on it; Tom was in his soldier suit, red jacket unbuttoned, pistol in the holster slung low on his hip. Their gym daps gave them extra silence and speed. Kneeling among the rustling baked-dry leaves on the stone floor of the greenhouse with the well, they made their plans. If the weather had been fine that day, the glass panes would hold in their pocket of heat long into the evening, pungent with the high green smell of tomato stalks, even though no tomatoes ever grew in there any more, only fleshy tall weeds that spurted up wherever the rain leaked in, then died and parched to ghosts in the dry spells. The greenhouses were built of brick to about waist height; an aisle ran between raised beds of dry earth and shelves of flowerpots, empty, or with stubs of dead stalk in compacted pot-shaped boluses of dried compost.
Kristen was assigned the easier tasks for their raids, filling their water bottle at the tap in the kitchen, taking any food that was easy to carry from where the buffet was laid out. Tom would try to put something alcoholic into his Action Man flask without being spotted. The grown-ups were their enemies, or at best neutral. As well as food and drink, they took trophies: their mother's silver watch, left by the kitchen sink when Peggy washed her hands after putting out the party food; the keys to the Audi. Tom outrageously once even took a picture from the wall - not one of Peggy's, but an ink drawing by a man friend of hers, of a woman's ugly naked bosoms all by themselves, not attached to any other part of a body; the children hadn't known how they hated it until Tom lifted it coolly from its place in the hall and put it in his rucksack. They always put all the trophies back, next morning. In these games Kristen worked herself up into a vivid passion of resentment against the grown-ups, which she never felt the rest of the time. Ordinarily she was passionately attached to her family, also to Annegret and Sylvie and Bengta in turn (and for ever after they left); she was homesick whenever she was parted from them. At the parties, her feeling of alienation from them all was like a kind of hunger in her chest: whatever she and Tom took wasn't enough, couldn't fill this greedy, aching, thrilling space.
That was when they were little. Tom didn't want anything to do with the parties any more, he made a retching noise at the idea of their parents and their parents' friends dancing and messing around in hammocks. When a party was planned the summer he was 16, he arranged to be out all night, staying with boys from school. Lots of things had changed since the old days. They didn't have au pairs any more. On Sylvie's last morning, when Jim had to drive her to the airport very early, she had left a message beside Kristen's pillow, written in lipstick on a tissue; Kristen unfolded it and gazed at it every night before she went to sleep, breathing its perfume, until the tissue eventually dissolved into pink dust.
Now Kristen let herself in at the front door every afternoon with the key she wore round her neck on a string, stirring up the dreaming empty air in the hall, feeling on her skin the secret breathing of the house, the boiler clicking and creaking as the heating came on, the tiny thudding of the cat stepping downstairs. Kristen didn't hate her girls' independent school; she had plenty of friends and did reasonably well in most subjects. But when she pushed the door shut behind her, it was such a relief to be alone at last, away from the jostle of green uniforms, dropping her briefcase, pushing off her outdoor shoes without undoing the laces, then standing in her socks in the kitchen (which the cleaner would have tidied in the morning), making herself strawberry milkshake and toast with peanut butter. Watching children's TV, sitting among the big floor cushions in the glass extension room, she seeped back gradually into her real self. The knowledge that her mother would be home in an hour (Dad picked up Tom and they came later) was a cocoon, keeping her safe, yet also apart and immune.
As long as the Pune wasn't around.
Sometimes when Kristen was sitting in front of the telly, thinking she was all alone in the house, she'd suddenly hear him moving about upstairs, or using the lavatory (which he didn't bother to flush), or running water into the kettle in the kitchen. He didn't speak to her - even if sometimes he came in and sat watching television with her - but his being there spoiled everything. He was supposed to live with his own mother half a mile away on one of the new estates (ghastly but expensive, Peggy said), though he was 21, old enough to have left home long ago. But he moaned on to Peggy about his mother, he claimed she was driving him mad, he followed Peggy round going over word by word whatever latest awful thing his mother had said, which Peggy analysed with the special air of patient, amused exasperation that she reserved for him. His dad was dead, or had left home, or something.
Peggy said to the Pune that there was always a room for him in their house, by which she meant the room that used to belong to the au pairs; he said their house was the only place he could express what he really felt. And so he began to use this room as his own whenever he stayed, filling it with cigarette smoke, and cassette tapes, and bottles of the pills he had to take, and dirty clothes he never sorted out for washing (the cleaner wouldn't go in there). He never opened the curtains, he slept in late, Kristen guessed that often he only got out of bed when she came back in the afternoon after a whole day of travelling and lessons and playtimes and school dinner. Tom started calling this room the Pune-hole.
Peggy had taught the Pune when he was still at school. She wasn't the ordinary kind of teacher, she worked with the kids who needed special help, which usually meant very thick or very naughty, but sometimes meant weirdos like the Pune (whose real name was Simon), clever but out of their minds. She had helped him through his A-levels and then to get into Sussex University, where he had lasted one year before coming back to live with his mother again.
- It's funny how although he hates his mother so much, he can't get away from her, their dad said.
- Well, of course, darling. That's the whole point.
The Pune only loved their house when Peggy was in it. Alone there with Jim or Tom or Kristen, he was crucified if they spoke to him. Mostly, until Peggy was home, he skulked in his room, only venturing out to refill his mug with the horrible coffee he made, three heaped teaspoons of granules, no milk or sugar. He was tall and skinny, with bad posture, and glasses with thick black rims; he pushed back the greasy hair flopping in his face with a compulsive twitching movement, so that the naked long cheekbones and jawline beneath were visible in flashes. When he sat with Kristen in the afternoons, he reacted to the programmes as if she wasn't there: groaning, dropping his head in his hands, giving off shouts of derision like gunshots. He used their ornaments for ashtrays.
When Peggy came in, hallooing at the front door with her ringing, singing voice, the Pune would home in on her straight away, like some needy kind of pet. (They'd had a grown-up cat like this once, who meowed without stopping and sucked Tom's sleeves.) Peggy would make a point of coming in to kiss Kristen, asking how her day had been at school, how she'd done in her French test.
- All right, said Kristen, altering the position of her head around the kiss so as not to lose sight for a moment of the television screen. - Not too bad.
- I have to talk to you, the Pune said to Peggy. - I've had this incredible dream. You were in it, of course. We were at the zoo together, you and me. It was a beautiful afternoon, everything was perfect. We looked through the bars of all the cages at the animals, and they were looking back at us, only not with animal expressions, it was as if they knew everything about us, better than we did. I was afraid of them, I wanted to go, but then it turned out that you, only you, could communicate with them.
- Like Dr Dolittle, Kristen suggested.
He was annoyed. - Well, no, not like Dr Dolittle.
- Just give me a minute, Simon. Give me time to draw breath.
You could hear Peggy was fed up with him, but at the same time she couldn't help wanting to find out what he'd been dreaming about her. Kristen got to know a certain expression on her mother's face whenever the Pune was with her: guarded and curious, with a spot of feverishness in her cheeks. Peggy was small and compact with pale skin and big eyes with thin sensitive lids; she had a mass of red hair, just beginning to be threaded with grey, which was always a statement however she wore it: loose, or pinned up with ribbons, or in a swinging plait. Kristen was small and pale like her mother but her hair was nondescript. Peggy dressed brilliantly, too, in green dungarees and striped satin shirts and old flowered party dresses from junk shops: this was one of the things that made her stand out from the company wives at the parties (by this time Jim had moved on from Anglia World to Transglobal Services).
If Kristen went into the kitchen when children's programmes had finished, the Pune would be at the table still holding forth, while Peggy in her apron was getting supper ready. He would have lapsed from his excitement at the beginning of the conversation and sunk into despair about himself. This was their pattern, familiar as a ball game: he chucked the unravelling bundles of his despair, she fielded them and beamed back her resilient brightness.
- I can't talk to girls; I don't know what they want to talk about. They run a mile when they see me coming. I'll be the only 21-year-old virgin left on the planet.
- Don't be silly, Simon. Peggy would be batting out escalopes of pork with her rolling pin and flouring them. - You're an exceptionally attractive young man. You've got it going for you both ways, your gorgeous looks and your brains. The only thing you haven't got is belief in yourself.
- They'll want to talk to me about their feelings, he said gloomily. - I don't know about anybody else's feelings.
The Pune had the sense not to want to discuss this subject around Jim and Tom; when they came in, he'd stare fixedly into his empty mug, wrap his long legs together under the table. He was shy of anyone seeing his face, but Kristen was always having to notice the gap between his sagging loon trousers and half-unbuttoned grubby shirt: the stretch of lean belly was whorled with surprisingly vigorous black hair, heading in a bristling line down into the fraying waistband of his underpants. He wore his socks without shoes around the house, which Kristen wasn't supposed to do. It disturbed Kristen, when she and the Pune sat watching TV side by side with their legs stretched out, to know that they had even this one accidental detail of the socks in common; though hers were tidy fawn regulation ones, and his would very likely not even be a pair, and often had a white knobbly potato-toe poking out from a hole in one of them.
- He's a bit of a poor specimen, Jim said, - you must admit.
- He's actually a very good-looking boy, said Peggy, - if you look below the surface of his problems.
- He's so puny, said Tom (this was where the nickname came from). - His wrists are so skinny, they look like they'd break if they had to hold up more than a cup of coffee, and he can't even hold that, he spills everything. He's always staggering about, falling over his own feet.
Red-headed Tom was small and hard and solid, invaluable in the first rugby 15 at Dulwich College.
Jim said he was blinded by the surface and couldn't get past it.
Kristen didn't know how to dress up for this party. She messed around for hours in her bedroom, putting things on, then taking them off again: she was too old for stuff from the play-box, not old enough to look right in grown-up clothes. Her new breasts, little pyramids of fat, embarrassed her whatever she wore. In the end she resorted to an inconspicuous pull-on denim skirt and T-shirt, devoting herself to decorating her head instead, screwing her hair up in joke knots high on her head, plaiting in bits of beading and lace, gluing sequins above her eyes. She could have had a friend over, Peggy had offered it; she had dithered over who she should ask, then with relief abandoned the idea. She got on well with everyone in her crowd at school, but whenever she brought any of them home she suffered from a strange dissociation the whole time, as if this wasn't her real home but another parallel place resembling it in every detail; she felt, until she was finally alone again, as if she couldn't let go of a lungful of outside air she had brought in.
Before he cycled off to his friend's house, Tom came into her room with instructions; his eyebrows - faint dark brushstrokes, not red - lifted in surprise at the sight of her hair decor, but it would have been beneath his dignity to comment. - Keep an eye on the Pune, Kristie. Don't let him make an idiot of himself. I'd stick pretty close to Mum, in case he starts shooting his mouth off to her in front of all her friends.
These days all his campaigns were directed against one thing: the Punic Wars, he called them. Kristen had no intention of spending her evening standing guard over her mother. Before the party began, she stowed supplies among the flowerpots in the greenhouse: two slices of Peggy's lemon fridge cake in a Tupperware box, apples and the old Action Man flask filled up with sherry. Sherry wasn't really what anyone drank at parties, but it was the only alcoholic drink she liked, so far. She also put a candle and a box of matches ready, and for a few minutes felt excited, then silly, because nothing could really happen if she was all by herself. But the greenhouse might be a good place to hide away in, if the party was awful.
The sky was shut under a grey lid of cloud, the afternoon was limply warm. Kristen ran a bath for her mother, combining scented oils like a witch mixing potions; once she thought she heard, behind the thunder of the tap, waves of rain insisting at the open windows, but when she looked out, the garden was still dry and blank. Her dad was hanging paper lanterns in the trees. Peggy's 50s strapless evening dress, green silk, was laid out on the bed with her new strapless bra, new tights still in their packet, ropes of beads; in a glass on the dressing table was the yellow rose she'd cut in the garden for her hair. When Peggy had finished setting out the food the caterers had delivered, she came upstairs to change.
That bath smells extraordinary. I suppose it's safe to get in, I won't turn into a frog or anything?
Undressing, she scrutinised her daughter in rapid assessment. - What are you going to wear, darling?
This, said Kristen briefly. She looked away from the sight of her mother in her underwear, the complicated adult voluptuousness. - D'you like my sequins?
Peggy balked for one audible instant then forgave her. - You're rather wonderful, she said. - You're like...
No, shut up, don't say what I'm like.
The Pune, miraculously, wasn't the first to arrive, as Tom had predicted he would be. And when he did come, he looked quite like a normal human being, he'd changed out of the usual Pune-wear into a black polo-neck top with black trousers. He walked round everywhere with his cigarette in his hand, of course, sucking on it as if it was the first one he'd had in weeks; and his trousers were too short, they showed stretches of hairy leg when he sat on the floor with his knees up in front of him. He wasn't any good at the polite stuff like talking to strangers, but some of the teachers from school knew him and got down on the floor with him, even when the party was really still in its stage for standing up chatting, holding on to plates and glasses. The group on the floor seemed to have more fun, they were shrieking with laughter. Kristen was sure she heard him telling them the thing about him being the only 21-year-old virgin left.
Kristen moved around between the clusters of guests for a while, standing at the edge of each one with her glass of juice, looking from face to face as they spoke, responding politely if they made an effort to include her. But there wasn't much they could ask her about at her age, apart from school: she saw herself insignificant, as if from a great distance, her inner life compacted into a small, flat, tasteless cake. She got tired of telling them that chemistry was her favourite subject; they seemed to think this meant she would go on to win a Nobel prize or something, though she didn't really like it all that much, she just found the chemistry lab an orderly and tranquillising place. Peggy kissed Kristen and squeezed her tight against the green dress: its skirts stood out stiffly, the material crackled and was scratchy like coarse paper. - My daughter is the most sensible girl in the world, she said - much more sensible than her mother. Don't be fooled by the crazy plaits.
A Transglobal wife said Peggy was so clever to wear something old, she'd never dare. Kristen slipped away to watch television in her bedroom, but the waves of noise from below made it difficult to concentrate, and after a while departing guests, looking for the room where they'd left their coats, came trekking past her door, and sometimes even opened it by mistake and peered inside: it must be odd for them to stumble on this pocket of dullness tucked away inside the noisy adventure of the party. The music was beginning to get louder: Dancing In The Street, then Relax, then Purple Rain. She went to see if things had taken off at last, half sliding on her bottom down the banister; her dad was crossing the hall, fetching more wine from the downstairs bathroom. In photographs from when he was young, Jim was almost unrecognisable, with bare feet and hair down to his waist; that wild past self was packed away inside his genial, paunchy present one, and his hair now was normal, shoulder-length, wearing thin at the temples and on top. Jim could answer all the difficult questions on the quiz programmes; he seemed too solidly knowledgable ever to have been a hippy.
- What are you up to, Pigeon? Are you having a nice time?
- I hate parties.
- Oh God, he said, exaggeratedly glumly.
- So do I.
With his shirt sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, hands bristling with bottles, he didn't look as if he wasn't enjoying himself; the tie would come off altogether, later. - I suppose you're pretty snug in your little bolt hole of a bedroom. Are you foraging for food?
- Come and watch telly with me if you like.
- Don't tempt me. I'm a slave chained to the wheel of pleasure down here.
She stepped out through the door in the extension room, into the garden. Coloured paper lanterns were strung across the patio, floating like balloons filled weightlessly with light; the night stood back among the surprised pale trees, cigarette smoke hung motionless in the air. Peggy had put out a rug on the flagstones, and all the big floor cushions: she was sitting cross-legged in a circle of friends like an audience, the Pune lying stretched out with his head in her lap. If Kristen could slip behind the trellis that screened the oil tank, then she could make her escape to the greenhouses.
- What do you know about our life? Peggy was saying to the Pune, in an amused, scratchy, drawling voice that made Kristen think of the surface of the green dress. Peggy never got really drunk, but at a certain point, if other people were drinking, she arrived at a state like an exaggerated performance of her usual self: she held court, she was opinionated and funny, she was less tolerant.
- Are you accusing us?
All the time she was doing something to the Pune's hair. He had his eyes closed. He had taken his glasses off and was holding them in his hand; she was pushing back the long fringe from his white forehead, raking through it with her fingernails (which she had painted crimson for the party). The sight of his naked head embarrassed Kristen, reminding her of swimming lessons at school, familiar friends translated into seal creatures under sleeked wet hair, all ears and eyes.
- I know about Transglobal Services, for instance, said the Pune.
- Who's that? asked somebody.
Jim had arrived in the doorway. - They paid for the wine, he said. - So don't bite the bloody hand.
The Pune craned his head for a moment up off Peggy's lap, blinking in Jim's direction.
- The bloody hand, he said - it's just that. Don't inquire too closely into where the money comes from, for this lovely house on the hill.
He was trying to pick one of his fights over politics: about some company Jim said was only a TGS subsidiary anyway.
- Nobody's allowed to spoil my party mood, said Jim. - Don't even let him get started.
Peggy was drawing out long strands of the Pune's hair, tugging at them. - What about me? she said, in a fake-pleading voice. - Don't I do good? Haven't I done good to you, ungrateful boy?
- As I'm sure you're aware, Jim went on - European community sanctions prohibit the export of any military hardware to South Africa.
- But you export them to an Italian firm, which sells them on.
- Don't be simple-minded. It's not the manufacturers who make the wars.
- That's debatable, said one of Peggy's friends from school.
- Decent jobs and economic stability are more use to them than your pure fucking thoughts.
- I don't have any pure thoughts, said the Pune. - Only fucking ones.
Peggy started pushing at him, to roll him off her lap. - Go away, you're being horrid. I don't like you very much tonight.
- You sound just like my mother.
- I'm beginning to sympathise with your mother.
Kristen stepped backwards out of the light, into the shadow of the oil tank: no one saw her vanish. From her new perspective, the purple clematis growing thick on the trellis loomed suddenly momentous against the party-glow; the grown-up talk dropped into blurred lively noise, as if she had crossed a frontier. On her side of it was the night-quiet, a bird blundering in the bushes, a dank breath of earth, a rattle when her skirt caught on the shiny laurel leaves. She hadn't brought out her torch; when she turned to follow the path back past the bike shed into the wood, the blackness at first was like a wall preventing her, but melted after a few moments' staring into grey, seeped into by the light of the party behind. Imagining being blind, with her eyes strained open and her hands feeling out all round her, lifting her knees high in case she stumbled, she made her way cautiously past the shed and then on into the denser dark of the wood. Tom would have remembered the torch.
At one point she pitched forward over a root or something, then crawled for a few yards on her hands and knees, her own breathing sounding in her ears as if it was someone else's. Arriving at the back end of the greenhouse, she had to feel her way round to the front through clumps of nettles; the door when she pulled it open screamed like an animal, her stung flesh quailed. At the end of all these trials, it seemed against the odds that the candle would really be where she had left it, or that she would have thought to bring matches; but she put her hands on both of them easily. The flare of light was a miracle; careless of hot wax, she planted the lit candle in a pot of crumbled earth. Liquidly mobile, the flame reflected strangely on the glass panes, enclosing her in the blackness outside. She saw that her hands and knees were muddy and the skin on her legs was coming up in red welts from the nettles; she sat on the tiled floor in a thin layer of chill that rose from the earth beneath, distinct from the held-in day's warmth under the glass. Warily she swallowed a mouthful of the sherry, then ate one slice of lemon fridge cake, although she had eaten some already, in her bedroom. She felt herself going through the motions of the adventures a child might have, in an artificial, nostalgic way, because she wasn't really a child any more. You couldn't be, once you were thinking about what you were doing as childish.
The effects of the sherry began to flood through her, blessed like a wave lifting her from where she was stranded in her solitude. She swallowed more mouthfuls, tasting through the sweetness the plastic lip of the toy flask; the sappy dusty smell of the greenhouse wrapped around her, she leaned her back against the well. Once she and Tom had pushed aside the heavy lid and dropped stones into the well to see if it was deep: it was deep enough to fall into, but there hadn't been any water in it, only a blind disappointing bottom of debris whose colour had decayed to rotten brown. Now the well seemed to reach down inside her, perceptions dropping in like stones falling, as if there was a delay between her sensing things and their arrival in her mind. Even when she became aware of the noise of someone approaching through the wood, it took her a few moments to feel properly afraid. At first she thought it might be Tom, back from his friends' house, looking for her, but the sounds were too indefinite, too blundering. It could be anyone, any stranger or madman. Guiltily she shrank: she shouldn't be out here alone, burning a candle.
Someone called out for her. - Kristie?
It wasn't her father, either.
She waited, to be sure, for the Pune's shape to detach itself from the surrounding darkness and lurch into view in the greenhouse doorway. - It had to be you, he said - when I saw a light shining through the trees. I was drowning, wandering round in the dark out there.
The greenhouse was invaded with his awkward height and limbs; she felt an outraged pang for her lost loneliness. He dropped to sit cross-legged opposite her in the narrow space. - It stinks of booze in here. What are you drinking?
- Extraordinary. Is there any left?
Silently she handed the flask to the Pune. He drank from it, wiped the top, then handed it back as if for her turn; she was almost indignant that he didn't query whether it was sensible for her to be drinking, at her age. After a moment's hesitation she swigged at it deeply.
- This is nice, he said. - I never noticed there was a greenhouse before.
He got out his Golden Virginia tobacco tin and began rolling up by candlelight, not an ordinary cigarette but one of the druggy ones Tom specially resented, with something sprinkled in it out of a little bag. ("Our parents could be arrested, you know," Tom said, "for allowing this to go on under their roof.") The drink's strong effect coiled powerfully in Kristen, pushing out of her mouth in words a thought she hardly knew she'd had. - I suppose you and my mum are having a lovers' tiff.
He flicked his lighter and sucked in his cheeks, shaking back his hair, drawing flame into his raggedy cigarette; after the first deep pull into his lungs, he turned it round in his fingers to admire it. - We're not actually lovers, he said in a strangulated voice, holding the smoke in. - Not in the sense of sexual consummation. I don't think she'd ever really let me near her. Anyway, I never dared try, in case she turned me down. D'you want some?
He held out the cigarette to Kristen. - No thank you, she said, feeling her cheeks burn primly.
- But I suppose we have had a tiff. I'm in a mess over your mother. I can't seem to cope unless I've got her around, and I'm terrified she'll take herself away. Then I say precisely the things that make her most angry.
Kristen seemed to be in a moon-terrain where naked facts lay around for anyone to find. - So why not just take yourself away instead?
He didn't notice she was being rude. - Don't imagine I haven't thought of that. But I'm weak, pathetically weak. He closed his eyes and yawned, leaning his head back against the brick ledge. - I could be happy, in a place like this. It's nice in here.
- There's a well, you know.
- A real well?
- But no water in it. Tom and I looked.
- You didn't bring out any food?
Kristen gave the Pune the second slice of lemon fridge cake, she ate an apple down to its stalk, they finished the sherry. He described some film he'd seen, where angels came to earth, one of them fell in love with an acrobat and took on mortal form to be with her. He was just the same as when he was an angel, except that his good looks weren't so perfect, there was a bald patch in his hair, his clothes were cheaper and didn't suit him like his angel's greatcoat, he had to pay to get into the circus. - But it was all worth it, the Pune said. - In exchange for mortal love. So the film said. What do you think? (Tom said afterwards that he'd heard of this film, and it was pretentious crap.)
- I don't know, said Kristen.
He yawned again. - Go and tell Peggy I'm out here. Tell her I need her, tell her I'm in a state, tell her I'm going to do something desperate.
- I'll have to take the candle, she warned him.
Walking back to the party, she held up her curved hand to shield the candle-flame from the draught of her movement. She did deliver the Pune's message, but not to Peggy.
- Simon's in the greenhouse, she told Jim when she met him. He was piling up his plate from the wrecked remains of the buffet set out on the dining table. In the front room Peggy was dancing to Because The Night (her old favourite), with the artist who'd drawn the bosoms Kristen and Tom had stolen years ago.
- Simon? What greenhouse? You mean our old greenhouses?
- He wants Mum to go out to him. He says he needs her.
- He can go fuck himself, said Jim. - Excuse my French, Pigeon.
- Are you going to tell her?
- No, I don't think I am.
Then Kristen went upstairs to her bedroom and changed into her pyjamas. All the time she was nursing her drunkenness as tenderly as if it was the candle flame, carrying herself upright, planting one foot in front of another, choosing small sensible words that she could hold like little stones in her mouth. She used the bathroom, stood up and was slightly sick into the toilet, washed her hands and cleaned her teeth, stretched back her lips and bared her teeth at her image in the cabinet mirror. Switching off the light in her bedroom, she stood at the window looking out; one of the paper lanterns in the trees had caught fire and was blazing up, the flare illuminating a pale mass of leaves shocked out of night-time invisibility. She had left Simon by himself, out in the greenhouse in the dark: it was a triumph in their Punic Wars.
And then she was leaping and pounding back across the grass and into the wood, mounds of breasts bouncing under her pyjamas, hardly noticing the sharp sticks and rocks that cut at her bare feet.
The Pune couldn't really have thrown himself in the well. A child might just about fall into it, but it wasn't wide enough for an adult, they'd only get stuck if they tried: she pictured his feet sticking up out of the well and waving around, a sob of breathy derision ripped her chest. Anyway, it hadn't been all that far down to the dry bottom when she and Tom had looked, only 10 feet or so, perhaps not that much. The torch beam - she had remembered this time to snatch the torch from Tom's room on her way out - jagged and bobbed in front of her as she ran, breath hiccupping in her ears; she trained it at the rough ground ahead, leaping over roots and dodging past the old wheelbarrow tipped on its side, a broken go-kart.
But there were other ways to die. Some awful tearing heaving noise came from the dark greenhouse as the torch beam found it, catching first on the rusting ornate pinnacle of the gable above the door, then reflecting off filthy panes overgrown with ivy. The iron frame shook. Through the glass, quenching her in horror, Kristen seemed to see a black shape hanging; then at the shape's centre suddenly, as if a spirit struggled out, a small light bloomed and spurted, with a noise like a flinty scratching.
Kristen had forgotten that the Pune had his lighter. She stepped into the doorway. - Hello, he said. - Don't tell me. She wouldn't come.
- I didn't say anything to her. She was dancing.
- Don't worry. She wouldn't have come anyway.
- Are you OK?
- You were wrong. Look: there is water in it.
She should have recognised the noise she heard: he had been heaving aside the great stone that covered the entrance to the well, more easily than she and Tom had moved it, pushing both together. He was holding up his lighter over the opening; she tilted down her torch beam. Light slid on slick black, nearer to the top than she was expecting.
- But it really was dry, when we looked.
- It'll be a spring. They dry up in a drought and then come back again. Find something to throw down.
Kristen remembered seaside pebbles, lined up along the windowsill; when they dropped them in, one at a time, the well swallowed them with an intimate small wet gulp, an old sound not given out for years. The Pune stared after them. His face was washed in the light shining back from the well's surface: the long slanting lines of his cheekbones, the pits of his eye-hollows, the gathered concentration. He and Kristen exchanged smiles of satisfaction.