IN THE CLOAKROOM they started talking about the millennium. Heather’s mother, an accountant, claimed that everything was going to crash at midnight on December thirty-first. “But there must be safeguards,” Matthew said. The idea of massive disruption was disturbing and thrilling: Big Ben with both hands stuck at twelve; trains running randomly; the Co-op giving out free food. Tim said there were safeguards, but some hacker in Moscow could topple the whole system. Raj said the important thing was not to fly on New Year’s Eve. By the time Matthew collected his jacket and retrieved his books, the bus had left. He decided to visit Rachel. Between fencing lessons and his search with Tomas, they had scarcely seen each other for a fortnight. With luck, her mother would still be at work. He half walked, half ran through the darkening streets, knocked on her door, and stood back. Maybe he’d pretend to be collecting for Oxfam. The door opened.
“Hi, I was—”
Something was wrong. Her eyes were too wide, her mouth too tight. “Matthew, what are you doing here?”
His presence had never before needed explanation. “Can I come in?” He smiled, hoping she would do the same.
She could have added several things to that simple sentence. They were studying. He was borrowing a book. But none would have given more information than those two words and the way she stood, blocking the doorway. He turned and ran into the street. As he hurtled down the pavement, his footsteps drummed out the syllables: Ben-ja-min, Ben-ja- min. How could his friend do this? What had he done to deserve this? He took refuge in the bus shelter where, a week ago, he had stored donations for Oxfam. The bench was cold and damp; from the shadows beneath rose the smell of old chips. In the midst of trying not to shiver and trying not to breathe, he had one clear thought: he could not go to school tomorrow.
He didn’t notice the car pulling up at the curb until the door opened. “Want a lift?” his father said. He settled gratefully into the odorless warmth. As they headed out of town, his father asked if something was wrong.
“I had a row with Rachel.” Did two words count as a row? “We’ve broken up.” He understood the cliché in a new way.
“I’m sorry. And right before Christmas, with lots of parties.”
He hadn’t thought about that. Night after night he, Benjamin, and Rachel would find themselves in dimly lit rooms filled with music and mutual friends.
“Breakups are hard,” his father was saying. “Time is the only thing that helps. When I was your age ...”
Suddenly he worried that his father might be about to confess his own romantic difficulties. Even in the midst of his misery he knew this must, at all costs, be avoided. As long as the woman was unspoken, she would have to be fitted into the small spaces left over from work and family. Any mention of her would be a step toward allowing her to take up more room. Desperately he began to talk.
“We didn’t just break up. She was with Benjamin. We’d never have got together in the first place except for him. He was the one who told me to invite her to a film he knew she wanted to see. Who told me she was interested in recycling and stuff.”
“Christ. No wonder you’re gutted. Your girlfriend and your best friend. Are you sure? Benjamin’s the last person I’d have expected to behave like this.”
A dark shape scampered across the road, a vole or weasel dashing to safety. “They were there together,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me in. I keep telling myself that Rachel wasn’t perfect. She went on and on about the Green Party, and a couple of times she wasn’t nice to Duncan.”
“People are allowed to be boring,” his father said, “but everyone should be nice to Duncan. Sometimes when I’m about to lose my temper, I think, Could I tell Duncan what I’m about to say? Last week ...”
He began to describe a client who kept changing his mind about a fire screen. Matthew managed to say just enough to keep the conversation going until they reached home.
LYING IN BED, HE PARSED the morning sounds—voices, doors, dishes, toilets—of which he was usually a part. He heard footsteps outside his room and a faint rustling. A sheet of paper slid under the door. A few minutes later, another followed. When the front door closed for the last time and his mother’s car coughed to life, he retrieved the notes.
The first was from Zoe: Hope you feel better. Let’s plot REVENGE!!!
The second from his mother: Dear Matthew, there’s soup on the stove, and the usual things for sandwiches. You need to go back to school tomorrow, so try to figure out what will make that bearable. See you this evening. Love, Mum. P.S. You’re a star.
Downstairs in the parlor he retrieved a cardboard box. He circled his room, gathering up reminders of Rachel: photographs, a cinema ticket, a scarf she’d knitted, prophetically already unraveling, a T-shirt from a concert, a note signed with kisses. He taped the box shut and wrote Private. Do Not Open on the side. But where to put it? He couldn’t bear the thought of it in his room, and Zoe, if she found it, would open it immediately. Finally he carried it to Duncan’s room and pushed it under the bed.
When he woke again, his priorities were clear. The person he needed to talk to was Benjamin, his friend since their primary school teacher had put them in charge of the class begonia, his friend who had said of course she likes you and who had endured many afternoons of doing homework and hanging out with Rachel, his presence both superfluous and essential. And then, when Matthew and Rachel finally got together, his un-complaining acceptance of their need for privacy. As for Rachel, he told himself firmly, she was pretty, she was good at chemistry, she had opinions, but within a hundred miles there must be a hundred similar girls. It was his liking that had made her special.
Could he hold on to this insight? Only, it turned out, for a few minutes. Then the noose of misery tightened again. He remembered her shyly showing him a new dress, paddling in the river on a rainy day. All those hours of talking, and doing it, were not going to vanish so easily.
Downstairs he made tea and toast and forced himself to contemplate tomorrow. He and Benjamin shared every class but one. Together they moved from history to French to algebra; later there was debating club and, on Thursday, fencing. He had never asked himself, Does Benjamin like me? Or do I like him? Their friendship was a given. As he showered and dressed and did homework, he clung fast to this thought. When Zoe came home, he asked her to phone him and arrange a meeting.
“The Green Man at six?” she suggested.
A pungent memory of Tomas made him say no, the Hare and Tortoise.
A few minutes later she was back; Benjamin would be there. Sitting cross-legged on the end of his bed, she said, “Are you going to have a fight? Whatever’s going on with him and Rachel, it won’t last. He’s too clever, and too nice.”
“He’s not very nice at the moment. What makes you such an expert on romance?”
She pouted. “Statistically most teenage relationships don’t last. Unstatistically, Rachel has wandering hands. Remember Mr. Datta, the cricket coach last spring? She was all over him.”
“You never told me that.”
“I didn’t want to make trouble. Besides, nothing happened. Were you really in love with her? I thought you just wanted to sleep with her.”
Was that it? Had he only craved a few square inches of flesh? “Who cares?” he said. “The question is what am I going to say to Benjamin. He was there with her. They wouldn’t let me in.”
“I thought it was Rachel who wouldn’t. Suppose”—Zoe clasped her hands—“ he went round to her house to do homework, or play a new song. They were sitting on the sofa, and she—I don’t know—put her hand on his thigh? Then you were at the door. Rachel liked the idea of two best friends quarreling over her, and pretended something momentous had happened.”
He nodded slowly. Yes, he could imagine that. Benjamin carried away by singing, or solving a problem—both made him happy and heedless; Rachel taking advantage of him.
Outside the night was clear and frosty. He strode down the pavement, enjoying the cold air after being indoors all day, but as the pub sign came into view, the hare seated on the back of the tortoise, his knees threatened to buckle. He stopped beside a garden gate.
Could he do this?
No. No, he couldn’t.
He was still standing there when he heard footsteps. “Cheers, mate,” the jogger said as he pounded past. In his wake, a thought appeared in Matthew’s brain: Who did Karel want to see so badly that even, after working all night and getting a flat tire, he had been determined to reach their town? In all his searching, he had never stopped to wonder. If he met Benjamin, he bargained, then he could go and ask Karel.
A couple of dozen people were scattered around the pub, but the only one he saw was Benjamin, seated at a table, two glasses of beer before him. At the sight of Matthew he half rose, his thigh catching the table; the glasses rocked perilously. “Hi,” he said hoarsely.
Without looking at him, Matthew took off his jacket, slung it over the chair, and sat down.
Benjamin reached for his glass but his hand was trembling too hard to raise it. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I screwed up.”
He had run into Rachel leaving school. They had started chatting; she had invited him over to play his new song. He’d been sitting on the sofa, tuning his guitar, when she kissed him. “I swear, Matty, all I wanted was to get out of there. I knew she didn’t fancy me. And then you rang the doorbell, and she did that thing. It happened so quickly. When she came back into the room, I yelled at her: Why hadn’t she let you in? She said it was none of my business. I grabbed my guitar and ran all the way to the bus stop. You were getting into your dad’s car and didn’t hear me shout.”
So Zoe was right. “Why did she want to break up with me?” he said. “Did she say?”
“I haven’t a clue. You could ask her.” He shook his head vehemently. “If there’s anything she wants to say, she can get in touch.”
Benjamin at last raised his beer. “I feel like an idiot.”
“Maybe she did fancy you for thirty seconds. It’s not completely out of the question.” Watching him take in this small joke, Matthew remembered Duncan saying you could see what Benjamin would look like when he was older. “I don’t think,” he went on, “that either of us should be with Rachel. But if you told me you liked her, I’d have to understand.” Benjamin held up his hands. “I liked her because you liked her. I’m useless when it comes to girls. The ones I like never like me. I’ve only slept with one person.” He gave a little shudder.
“I thought”—Matthew tried to sound suitably casual—“ you’d never done it.”
“Ages ago.” Benjamin looked down at his beer, the foam thinning. “Before you and Rachel ...” He did not finish the sentence, and Matthew understood: Benjamin hadn’t wanted to leave him behind. “It was my brother’s babysitter. One evening she was all over me. She was probably stoned. The next time I saw her, she told me to bugger off.”
“You don’t want to see Rachel again?” “Not for one second. What we need to do is pass our exams and go traveling and go to uni. Then we can be in love, whatever that is. Or not.”
“It’s a plan.” Matthew raised his glass. “Zoe asked if we were going to fight.”
He spoke unthinkingly, part of the ordinary back-and-forth of their friendship, but Benjamin’s gaze sharpened. “That’s not a bad idea,” he said. “We have our foils, our masks.”
“Maybe we could use the gym,” Matthew suggested.
They looked at each other, appreciating the possibilities: a fight that was not a fight, as fake as Wallenia, or the broken corkscrews of New Year’s Eve.
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ZOE HAD THOUGHT she might need an excuse—returning a book, a tutorial—but the porter showed no hesitation in taking a message. See you at the museum tomorrow 4 p.m. There were only a few more weeks of term; then, except for her mornings at the butcher’s, she was free until January. And now she was sixteen. Her age, which she’d so carefully concealed, was acceptable. She could leave home, she could have a lover, she could move to America.
“I’ll tell him,” said the porter.
She set to work on part two of her plan: how to spend the evening in town. Moira agreed to help in exchange for information. Her comments were painfully earthbound. “I thought you thought Americans were stupid.” “He’s so much older!” “You’re not even interested in philosophy.” But she agreed to go to an eight o’clock film; Zoe would be in the lobby at ten, and Moira’s brother would give them a lift home.
At the museum she touched the bear for luck and climbed the stairs. He was sitting at the same table as before, not working but looking down into the courtyard. His face, unguarded, wore an expression of melancholy, like that of the saint in the painting. For a moment, she wondered what she had set in motion. Then he caught sight of her. He jumped up and kissed her.
“Here you are. I was afraid something had happened.”
“I’m sorry I’m late. The bus met a herd of cows.”
“You really do live in the English countryside.”
As they walked down the street, he told her how the night before, a group of them had gone out to celebrate an acquaintance defending his thesis on Spinoza. They had just finished toasting him, when his girlfriend remarked that now maybe their sex life would improve. “You can imagine”—Rufus half smiled, half frowned—“we all rushed to change the subject.”
Flustered by the phrase “sex life,” trying not to show it, she asked what Spinoza would have thought. She could see he liked the question. He said he didn’t think much was known about Spinoza’s love life. He was Portuguese and Jewish and had lived in the Netherlands, where he made money grinding optical lenses. He had written about the work of Descartes and a huge, elusive book called Ethics, published posthumously. While he talked, Rufus led the way down first one street, then another. They were passing a graveyard, approaching Holywell Manor.
“I want to leave my bag,” he said. “Then we can go for a walk.”
She followed him through the doorway, across a small courtyard, and up three narrow flights of stone stairs. He unlocked a wooden door.
She stood there, taking in the room she had tried so often to imagine. The bed was under the slanting eaves, the desk, not as large as she’d expected, in the gable window. There was a small sofa with a lamp, and a coffee table. On the windowsill was a blue vase with a bunch of freesias. Had someone given them to him? A gray stone weighted a pile of papers. When she reached for it, the smooth oval exactly fitted her palm.
“A souvenir of the beach at Brighton,” he said. “I’ve been here long enough to know I should offer you a cup of tea, but you don’t like tea.”
“No.” She held out the stone. “My birthday was last week.”
“We’ll have to celebrate.” He took the stone and gently replaced it.
“Maybe we could celebrate today?” She unzipped her jacket.
“Zoe.” He unbuttoned his own jacket but did not remove it. “There are so many reasons we shouldn’t do this. You’re still at high school, I’ll be going back to the States in June, your parents would be furious. Whatever we feel, having sex will, hopefully, make us feel more so.”
He kept talking, at least his lips kept moving, but she had put her hands over her ears, replacing his words with the rush of blood. “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care. What are we alive for, if not to have feelings? I’ll hate it when you leave, but I’ll hate it even more if we’re too cowardly to do anything. You said it’s rare to feel anything; that when we do, we have a duty to pay attention.”
He took her wrists, gently pulling her hands away. She glimpsed again that melancholy she had seen at the museum. “It’s not that I don’t want to, but—”
“I’m not a child. Mary, Queen of Scots was married by the time she was my age.” Nearby a door opened and closed; footsteps hurried down the stairs.
“But there are so many things,” he said, “you don’t know about me.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to sleep with me because I’m a virgin and don’t understand causation?” It was the worst thing she could think of to say about either of them.
He started to laugh, stopped, and pulled her close. The knit of his sweater pressed against her cheek. She slid her arms beneath his jacket, feeling the hardness of his ribs, his vertebrae. “Quite the opposite,” he said. “No, that’s not right. I want to sleep with you because you’re you.”
He stepped back and, just as she was thinking he had changed his mind, began to kiss her. All her impatience vanished. She could have stood there for a year, two years. When, finally, he retreated to take off his jacket, she saw their two reflections in the dark window, almost touching.
“TELL ME SOMETHING YOU’VE NEVER told anyone,” he said.
The light of the bedside lamp shadowed his face. “I used to think I could walk on water,” she said, “if I tried hard enough.” Then she told him about finding Karel in the field, although not what might have interested him most: namely that the events of that day had, somehow, led to the events of this one.
“So there’s a person who wouldn’t be alive,” he said, “except for you.”
“Have you ever saved anyone’s life?”
“Not that I know of, although I do donate blood. Five years ago my father had an accident at the factory. Afterward he made us all promise to give blood when we were old enough.”
“Tell me something you’ve never told anyone.”
He breathed. She breathed. Some amount of time passed.
“When I was nine,” he said, “a carnival came to a park near our house. I begged and begged and at last Mom said I could go with my friend Keith. She gave me ten dollars and told me not to spend it all at once. We went on a couple of rides. Then I wandered around. There was one stall where you had to throw a ball at a monkey; if you knocked its hat off, you won a prize. One of the prizes was a brown china bear, standing on its hind legs, holding a clock. Mom had said we needed a new clock, and this bear clock was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. I spent the rest of my money buying shots, and with my very last shot, the monkey’s hat fell off. I was carrying the bear home, jubilant, when these older boys jumped out from behind a car. They just wanted to scare me, but I dropped the bear. It broke into a dozen pieces. I kicked them into the gutter and ran the rest of the way home. Mom scolded me for getting dirty.”
“You didn’t tell her what happened?”
“I didn’t want her to be disappointed. She was so beautiful, and I loved the bear so much.”
And me, she wanted to ask, am I beautiful? But he was saying something else, something that it took her a moment to understand: last year he had had a vasectomy. When he was seventeen, his girlfriend had got pregnant. Three agonizing weeks had passed before she decided to give up on marrying him and have an abortion.
“I never wanted to feel that way again,” he said.
“So why did—” As the flow of their movements had grown most intense, he had reached for a small packet on the bedside table.
He pulled her closer so that his words tangled with her hair. “To be safe in another way. I think I’m all right—touch wood—but if anything happened to you, I would never forgive myself.” She was still wondering if she had understood when he said, “I wouldn’t have guessed you were a Scorpio.”
“Is your birthday in November too?”
“April. I’m an Aries. Passionate and confident.”
“I thought you believed in evidence and arguments.”
He laughed. “Zoe, we wouldn’t be here if I only paid attention to arguments.”
Then his hands were moving across her body, suggesting they resume their deeply satisfying, deeply irrational activities.