Thirty

‘I want Adam to move in.’

Dad turns from the sink, his hands dripping soapsuds onto the floor. He looks utterly stunned. ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’

‘I mean it.’

‘Where’s he supposed to sleep?’

‘In my bedroom.’

‘There’s no way I’m agreeing to that, Tess!’ He turns back to the sink, clunks bowls and plates about. ‘Is this on your list? Is having a live-in boyfriend on your list?’

‘His name’s Adam.’

He shakes his head. ‘Forget it.’

‘Then I’ll move into his house.’

‘You think his mother will want you there?’

‘We’ll bugger off to Scotland and live in a croft then. Would you prefer that?’

His mouth twitches with anger as he turns back to me. ‘The answer’s no, Tess.’

I hate the way he pulls authority, as if it’s all sorted because he says so. I stomp upstairs to my room and slam the door. He thinks it’s about sex. Can’t he see it’s deeper than that? And can’t he see how difficult it is to ask for?

Three weeks ago, at the end of January, Adam took me out on the bike, faster than before and further – to a place on the borders of Kent where there’s flat marshy land sloping down to a beach. There were four wind turbines out at sea, their ghostly blades spinning.

He skimmed stones at the waves and I sat on the shingle and told him how my list is sprawling away from me.

‘There are so many things I want. Ten isn’t enough any more.’

‘Tell me,’ he said.

It was easy at first. On and on I went. Spring. Daffodils and tulips. Swimming under a calm blue evening sky. A long train journey, a peacock, a kite. Another summer. But I couldn’t tell him the thing I want the most.

That night he went home. Every night he goes home to keep his mother safe. He sleeps just metres away from me, through the wall, on the other side of the wardrobe.

The next day he turned up with tickets for the zoo. We went on the train. We saw wolves and antelopes. A peacock opened its tail for me, emerald and aquamarine. We had lunch in a café and Adam bought me a fruit platter with black grapes and vivid slices of mango.

A few days later he took me to a heated outdoor pool. After swimming, we sat on the edge, wrapped in towels, and dangled our feet in the water. We drank hot chocolate and laughed at the children hollering in the cold air.

One morning he delivered a bowl of crocuses to my room.

‘Spring,’ he said.

He took me to our hill on his bike. He’d bought a pocket kite from the newsagent’s and we flew it together.

Day after day it was as if someone had taken my life apart and polished every bit of it really carefully before putting it all back together.

But we never shared a single night.

Then, on Valentine’s day, I got anaemic only twelve days after a blood transfusion.

‘What does it mean?’ I asked the consultant.

‘You’ve moved nearer the line,’ he said.

It’s getting harder to breathe. The shadows under my eyes have deepened. My lips look like plastic stretched over a gate.

Last night I woke up at two in the morning. My legs were hurting, a dull throbbing, like a toothache. I’d taken paracetamol before going to bed, but I needed codeine. On the way to the bathroom I passed Dad’s open bedroom door and Mum was in there – her hair spilling across the pillow, his arm flung protectively across her. That’s three times she’s stayed over in the last two weeks.

I stood on the landing watching them sleep and I knew for a fact that I couldn’t be alone in the dark any more.

 

Mum comes upstairs and sits on my bed. I’m standing at the window watching the dusk. The sky is full of something, the clouds low down and expectant.

‘I hear you want Adam to move in,’ she says.

I write my name in condensation on the window. My finger marks smeared across the glass make me feel young.

She says, ‘Your dad might agree to the occasional night, Tess, but he’s not going to let Adam live here.’

‘Dad said he’d help me with my list.’

‘He is helping. He’s just bought us all tickets to go to Sicily, hasn’t he?’

‘Because he wants to spend a whole week with you!’

When I turn to look at her, she frowns at me as if I’m someone she’s never seen before.

‘Did he actually say that?’

‘He’s in love with you, it’s obvious. Travel isn’t even on my list any more.’

She looks bemused. ‘I thought travel was number seven.’

‘I swapped it for getting you and Dad back together.’

‘Oh, Tessa!’

It’s weird, because of all people, she should understand about love. I fold my arms at her. ‘Tell me about him.’

‘Who?’

‘The man you left us for.’

She shakes her head. ‘Why are you bringing this up now?’

‘Because you said you didn’t have a choice. Isn’t that what you said?’

‘I said I was unhappy.’

‘Lots of people are unhappy, but they don’t run away.’

‘Please, Tess, I really don’t want to talk about this.’

‘We loved you.’

Plural. Past tense. But still it sounds too big for this little room.

She looks up at me, her face pale and angular. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘You must’ve loved him more than you’d ever loved anyone. He must’ve been wonderful, some kind of magical person.’

She doesn’t say anything.

Simple. A love that big. I turn back to the window. ‘Then you should understand how I feel about Adam.’

She gets up and comes over. She doesn’t touch me, but stands very close. ‘Does he feel the same way about you, Tess?’

‘I don’t know.’

I want to lean on her and pretend that everything’s going to be OK. But I just smear my name off the window and look out at the night instead. It’s strangely gloomy out there.

‘I’ll talk to Dad,’ she says. ‘He’s seeing Cal to bed, but when he’s finished, I’ll take him out for a beer. Will you be all right by yourselves?’

‘I’ll ask Adam over. I’ll make him supper.’

‘All right.’ She turns to go, then at the doorway turns back. ‘You want some sweet and lovely things, Tessa, but be careful. Other people can’t always give you what you want.’

 

I cut four giant slices of bread onto the chopping board and put them under the grill. I get tomatoes from the vegetable rack, and because Adam stands with his back against the sink watching me, I hold a tomato cupped in each hand at breast height and shimmy back to the counter with them.

He laughs. I slice both tomatoes and place them on the grill next to the toast. I get the grater from the cupboard, the cheese from the fridge, and grate a pile of cheese onto the chopping board while the toast cooks. I know there’s a gap between the bottom of my T-shirt and the waistband of my trousers. I know there’s a particular curve (the only curve I have left) where my spine meets my bum, and that when I lean on one hip, that curve pushes itself towards Adam.

After grating the cheese I lick each finger in turn, very deliberately, and it does just what I knew it would. He walks over and kisses the back of my neck.

‘Want to know what I’m thinking?’ he whispers.

‘Tell me.’ Although I already know.

‘I want you.’ He turns me round and kisses me on the mouth. ‘A lot.’

He talks as if he’s been grabbed by a force that he doesn’t understand. I love it. I press myself against him.

I say, ‘Want to know what I want?’

‘Go on then.’

He smiles. He thinks he knows what I’m going to say. I don’t want to stop him smiling. ‘You.’

The truth. And not the truth.

I turn the gas off before we go upstairs. The toast has turned to charcoal. The smell of burning makes me sad.

In his arms I forget. But afterwards, as we lie quietly together, I remember.

‘I have bad dreams,’ I say.

He strokes my hip, the top of my thigh. His hand is warm and firm. ‘Tell me.’

‘I go somewhere in them.’

I walk bare-footed over fields to a place at the edge of this world. I climb stiles and trek through tall grass. Every night I go further. Last night I got to a wood – gloomy and not very big. On the other side was a river. Mist hovered above the surface. There were no fish, and as I waded out, mud oozed between my toes.

Adam brushes my cheek with one finger. Then he pulls me close and kisses me. On my cheek. On my chin. On my other cheek. Then on my mouth. Very gently.

‘I’d come with you if I could.’

‘It’s very scary.’

He nods. ‘I’m very brave.’

I know he is. How many people would be here with me in the first place?

‘Adam, there’s something I need to ask you.’

He waits. His head next to mine on the pillow, his eyes calm. It’s difficult. I can’t find the words. The books on the shelf above seem to sigh and shuffle.

He sits up and hands me a pen. ‘Write it on the wall.’

I look at all the things I’ve written there over the months. Scrawls of desire. There’s so much more I could add. A joint bank account, singing in the bath with him, listening to him snore for years and years.

‘Go on,’ he says. ‘I have to go soon.’

And it’s these words, with an edge of the outside world in them, of things to do and places to be, that allows me to write.

I want you to move in with me. I want the nights . I write it quickly in really bad handwriting, so maybe he won’t be able to read it. Then I hide under the duvet.

There’s a second’s pause.

‘I can’t, Tess.’

I struggle out from the duvet. I can’t see his face, just a glimpse of light reflected in his eyes. Stars shining there perhaps. Or the moon.

‘Because you don’t want to?’

‘I can’t leave my mum by herself.’

I hate his mother, the lines on her forehead and round her eyes. I hate her wounded look. She lost her husband, but she didn’t lose anything else.

‘Can’t you come back when she’s asleep?’

‘No.’

‘Have you even asked her?’

He gets out of bed without touching me and puts on his clothes. I wish it was possible to smear cancer cells onto his arse. I could reach from here, and he’d be mine for ever. I’d lift the carpet and haul him under the floor to the foundations of the house. We’d make love in front of the worms. My fingers would reach under his skin.

‘I’ll haunt you,’ I tell him. ‘But from the inside. Every time you cough you’ll think of me.’

‘Stop messing with my head,’ he says.

And then he leaves.

I grab my clothes and follow him. He gets his jacket from the banister. I hear him walk through the kitchen and open the back door.

He’s still standing on the step when I catch up. Beyond him, out in the garden, great flakes of snow are swirling down. It must have started when we went upstairs. The path’s covered, the grass too. The sky’s full of it. The world seems silent and smaller.

‘You wanted snow.’ He puts out a hand to catch a flake and shows it to me. It’s a proper one, like I used to cut out of doilies and stick on the windows at primary school. We watch it melt into his palm.

I get my coat. Adam finds my boots, scarf and hat, and helps me down the step. My breath is frost. It’s snowing so much our footprints are wiped out as soon as we make them.

The snow on the lawn is deeper; it creaks as we stand on it. We cross the newness of it together. We tramp our names, trying to wear it out, to reach the grass beneath. But fresh snow covers every mark we make.

‘Watch,’ Adam says.

He lies flat on his back and flaps his arms and legs. He yells at how cold it is on his neck, his head. He jumps up again, stamps the snow off his trousers.

‘For you,’ he says. ‘A snow angel.’

It’s the first time he’s looked at me since I wrote on the wall. His eyes are sad.

‘Ever had snow ice cream?’ I ask.

I send him indoors for a bowl, icing sugar, vanilla, a spoon. He follows my instructions, scoops handfuls of snow into the bowl, whisks all the ingredients together. It turns to mush, goes brown, tastes weird. It isn’t how I remember it when I was a kid.

‘Maybe it’s yoghurt and orange juice.’

He rushes off. Comes back. We try again. It’s worse, but this time he laughs.

‘Beautiful mouth,’ I tell him.

‘You’re shivering,’ he says. ‘You should go in.’

‘Not without you.’

He looks at his watch.

I say, ‘What do you call a snowman in the desert?’

‘I need to go, Tess.’

‘A puddle.’

‘Seriously.’

‘You can’t leave now, there’s a snowstorm. I’ll never find my way back home.’

I undo my zip. I let my coat fall open so my shoulder’s exposed. Earlier, Adam spent minutes kissing this particular bit of shoulder. He blinks at me. Snow falls onto his eyelashes.

He says, ‘What do you want from me, Tess?’

‘Night time.’

‘What do you really want?’

I knew he’d understand.

‘I want you to be with me in the dark. To hold me. To keep loving me. To help me when I get scared. To come right to the edge and see what’s there.’

He looks really deeply at me. ‘What if I get it wrong?’

‘It’s impossible to get wrong.’

‘I might let you down.’

‘You won’t.’

‘I might get freaked out.’

‘It doesn’t matter. I just want you to be there.’

He gazes at me across the winter garden. His eyes are very green. In them I see his future stretching before him. I don’t know what he sees in mine. But he’s brave. I always knew it about him. He takes my hand and leads me back inside.

Upstairs I feel heavier, like the bed glued itself to me and is sucking me down. Adam takes ages getting undressed, then stands there shivering in his boxer shorts.

‘Shall I get in then?’

‘Only if you want to.’

He rolls his eyes, as if there’s no winning with me. It’s so difficult to get what I want. I worry that people only give me things because they feel guilty. I want Adam to want to be here. How will I ever tell the difference?

‘Shouldn’t we tell your mum?’ I ask as he climbs in beside me.

‘I’ll tell her tomorrow. She’ll survive.’

‘You’re not doing this because you feel sorry for me, are you?’

He shakes his head. ‘Stop it, Tess.’

We wrap ourselves together, but the shiver of snow is still with us; our hands and feet are ice. We cycle our legs to keep warm. He rubs me, strokes me. He scoops me into his arms again. I feel his prick grow. It makes me laugh. He laughs too, but nervously, as if I’m laughing at him.

‘Do you want me?’ I say.

He smiles. ‘I always want you. But it’s late, you should go to sleep.’

The snow makes the world outside brighter. Light filters through the window. I fall asleep watching the glimmer and sheen of it on his skin.

When I wake up, it’s still night and he’s asleep. His hair is dark on the pillow, his arm slung across me as if he can hold me here. He sighs, stops breathing, stirs, breathes again. He’s in the middle bit of sleep – a part of this world, but also part of another. This is strangely comforting to me.

His being here doesn’t stop my legs hurting though. I leave him the duvet, wrap myself in the blanket and stumble to the bathroom for codeine.

When I come out, Dad’s on the landing in his dressing gown. I’d forgotten he even existed. He’s not wearing slippers. His toes look very long and grey.

‘You must be getting old,’ I tell him. ‘Old people get up in the night.’

He pulls his dressing gown tighter. ‘I know Adam’s in there with you.’

‘And is Mum in there with you?’

This seems an important point, but he chooses to ignore it. ‘You did this without my permission.’

I look down at the carpet and hope he gets this over with quickly. My legs feel full up, as if my bones are swelling. I shuffle my feet.

‘I’m not out to spoil the fun, Tess, but it’s my job to look after you and I don’t want you hurt.’

‘Bit late for that.’

I meant it as a joke, but he’s not smiling. ‘Adam’s just a kid, Tessa. You can’t rely on him for everything: he might let you down.’

‘He won’t.’

‘And if he does?’

‘Then I’ve still got you.’

It’s weird hugging him in the dark on the landing. We hold each other tighter than I ever remember. Eventually he eases his grip and looks at me very seriously.

‘I’ll always be here for you, Tess. Whatever you do, whatever you still have left to do, whatever your stupid list makes you do. You need to know that.’

‘There’s hardly anything left.’

Number nine is Adam moving in. Deeper than sex. It’s about facing death, but not alone. My bed, no longer frightening, but a place where Adam lies warm and waiting for me.

Dad kisses the top of my head. ‘Off you go then.’

He goes off to the bathroom.

I go back to Adam.

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