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Authors: Richard Burke

Frozen (29 page)

BOOK: Frozen
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“Who's it from?” I asked. The photos were absorbing me. Verity, the tree...

“Can't make out the signature. The account's Wandsworth Offshore Enterprises.”

“It'll be Adam's,” I said dully. “His little stash. He must have tried to buy her off. So she kept the cheque as proof.”

Sam leaned over my shoulder to kiss me, and I groaned as one of my ribs grated. “Oh. Sorry.” She kissed my neck instead. “What about the photos?”

“The zoetrope.”

Verity in mid-air, caught from the side and behind, her hair flying, her legs kicked up, and beyond her the huge trunk of the hornbeam. My memory filled in the missing angles. She was screaming happily, her dress was bunched; skinny gold legs, her teeth glowing white in the failing light. Four photos.

“Eight, nine, ten, eleven,” Sam said.

And, at last, I knew why she had cut them out. It wasn't the tree; it was what hid behind it. In one shot, a crouched back and legs were visible. In the other three shots, on the other side of the tree, there was a face. It peeped out alertly at her. Glasses, thickish lips, wide blue eyes; a certain slyness that had seemed quite natural at the time. The face suggested nothing; it was as frozen as a cat staring at a bird. The gaze was beady and expectant.

She was asking for it, Harry. You'd have done it too.

No, Adam. No, I wouldn't have.

“I think I'd like to lie down now,” I mumbled. I put the tapes and photos back in the box, and locked it.

Sam held me as I lay. She stroked my hair and said nothing.

CHAPTER 31

REGRET.

Is there a moment in a life, a single point around which everything turns? A glance, or a word, a person, a landscape, a proposition? Was there a moment when it all could have changed, when the outcome could have been different, our world transformed?

You can never know. Because what's done is done. What's lost is lost.

*

It was perhaps a month before she fell.

Jim's had had the usual crowd. There had been three men at the bar with cement-blunt fingers curled round their pints, there had been a couple of pinstriped idiots trying to drown the overloud music with their laughter. And there had been me, and Verity.

It was early summer, slightly chilly. The door to the street was open, admitting the bright grey light of early evening. Not many cars passed; when one did, you could hear the thump of its stereo even over the music. The air smelt of grass and traffic.

We had our usual small round table, its uneven top slopped with condensation and beer. Verity was scraping the puddles around with a beer mat, marshalling them and blotting them up. It was my fourth pint. Verity was on her third tequila but had two glasses of Pils waiting in the queue. We weren't far off the swift-piss-then-off-to-a-restaurant phase, but it looked like tonight we might not get that far.

I was miserable. The night before, a girl had tried to seduce me, a girl I didn't fancy. And after three and a half pints with Verity, it seemed to me that this was the story of my life.

“It's never exactly right, is it, Verity?” I mumbled. I grabbed my pint and created another spillage for Verity to mop up. “They fancy
you
, so you don't fancy
them
, or you fancy
them
...”

“Oh, come on, Harry, it could be worse.” She stroked the back of my not-drinking hand where it lay between puddles on the table.

Above the pub's benches there were etched windows; above those, the glass was leaded and stained. The glass leaves of a vine wove their way round the edge of the ceiling, sharp green against watery yellow. As the twilight became paler, the colours faded.

The song changed. Verity stood without asking and bought another round. I raised my glass to her, and handed her a fresh beer mat from the neighbouring table to chase any new spills.

“I'm serious,” I said, after my first gulp. She knocked back half of one of her Pils chasers, then nursed her new tequila.

She was lovely. Her eyes were wide and attentive, her skin brown, delicately stretched over her cheeks. I could see a faint crease of tiredness beneath her eyes, but her smile was as wide, her teeth as bright as ever. She glowed. She always had.

“Thanks, Verity,” I said, “for being there.”

“Hey,” she said, and spread her arms. “How could I miss a date with a hunk like you?”

I sniggered for her, but I felt a lurch of emptiness. “Seriously...”

“I
am
serious,” Verity said, nettled. She stroked my hand again. “You're the biz, Harry.
Anyone
would have you.”

Her breasts were small under the sheer silk of her blouse, upturned, sharp-pointed. Lower, near her waistband, in the gap between two buttons, the blouse gaped a few millimetres, and I could see the sunken shadow of her belly button.

Time passed.

I stood to get another round. Somewhere, in the last ten minutes, the idea of finding a restaurant had begun to recede; it was already nine-thirty, so what was the point? “Yeah,” I said, wagging my finger again. “But I want someone to
love
me.” I headed for the bar.

I stood next to the three silent wise men and ordered a Kronenbourg, a tequila and—I looked at Verity over my shoulder—best to forget the Pils. Jim nodded, and then disappeared to talk to someone else who had just walked in. Rounds in Jim's took time. On the frosted panes beneath the tree motif, the glass was turning rosy. There were old black and white photos on the walls: long-gone people standing, gaunt, in stiff rows outside vanished buildings.

“There you go, mate. Kronenbourg, tequila.”

I shoved a fiver at him. It was hard to make out the pictures in the twilight. I carried the drinks back.

I scraped at the puddles with a beer mat of my own, then gave up and turned it end to end to end between my forefinger and thumb.

“It'll happen,” she said.

“What will?”

“Love. You'll see.”

“Yeah.” I laughed bitterly. I drew rays of liquid outwards from the pool.

The pinstripes left. Another song.

“Yeah,” she said. “It will.” She reached over, and stilled my hand from fiddling. She gripped it and shook it until I looked at her. Her eyes were glossy pools. “
I
love you, Harry.” She bit her lip softly. She looked strangely fragile.

I held my breath. I could feel each ridge of her fingers. Her thumb brushed against the back of my hand, softly, persistently. I knew the perfume I would smell if I raised it to my face—woodscent and leaves and olives—smooth skin and the finest hairs, gold and faint and all but invisible, to brush against my lips. She squeezed. I stared at the table. My back ached from holding myself still.

Because I couldn't move—not ever. I was frozen, suspended between hope and nothingness. The words she so often said but never really meant, because she
couldn't
mean them, because she never had.
Be home soon, Harry. Not with you, Harry
. I was adrift in memories, the endless game, Verity drawing me in, Verity dancing away.

Not
you
, Harry. Never you.

She searched my face, and then dropped her eyes to the table. And after a while she stopped stroking my hand and she just held it.

“I love you, Harry,” she said again, softly, simply. “Really.”

Her voice, so scared. And me, so still.

“I do, Harry,” she said.

Her eyes were wide and afraid. Her blouse was falling slightly away. Her skin...

I was transfixed, terrified.

“Um, yeah...” she said.

She squeezed my hand again, and then pulled hers back to her drink.

We sat. After a while, she sniffed, and then fussed and busied herself over her bag, made a show of looking at her watch. “Yeah...” she said again. Her voice was uncertain and fragile. She hovered, and patted my hand again, unconvincingly. And she gathered her things, sniffing hard. And she left.

I stayed, one hand curled round a forgotten pint, the other frozen where she had touched it.

The thin smell of the city drifted in from the open door. I watched as rising shadows sucked the light from the stained-glass leaves, and the old staring pictures on the walls faded into the dark. Jim began drying glasses and straightening the copper slop trays on the bar. He glanced at his watch, and at me. Then he pursed his lips sorrowfully, and rang the bell for time.

CHAPTER 32

TIME PASSES—AND you find that you can never forget, that everything that's past will stay with you always. Verity will always be there in her hospital bed, and she will always be there in my memories. Nothing will change; nothing can.

I knew that I would keep visiting her until both of us grew old. Her face would sag a little further every year; her perfect skin would loosen and crease. And one day, she would finally be gone, or I would be. But until then, she was part of me, just as she always had been.

But there had to be a first time. A time when I told her that I knew, that finally I understood. I would keep seeing her until old age made it impossible—but still, I had to say goodbye.

It took me months. I knew it would be hard, and there was no hurry—so the time slid by. Eventually Sam shoved me into her car and drove me there herself. We said nothing on the journey, and when we got there, we sat silently for minutes. Then she said, “I'll park. See you in there. Go on.”

Autumn had come early. The trees were nipped by a cold mist. A few muffled people drifted along the streets like uncertain ghosts. The brick front of the hospital radiated cold as I approached.

Verity hadn't changed, of course. Her eyes were fixed on the door, and when I walked in, they stayed fixed on it. Her gaze didn't follow me as I edged round her bed.

The sheet below her chin was damp with drool. Her mouth drooped and the flesh sagged off her face like half-set plaster. A bag filled with something thick and beige fed the tube into her nose. Another tube emerged from her gown at waist-level, and led to a catheter bag slung from a bed rail. Her knees were bent comfortably. Her hands lay lightly near her head. She didn't blink.

“Hey, gorgeous,” I said softly. “I haven't been for a while, sorry. Still, you know why.” I laughed quietly at myself. “Well, no. You don't, do you?”

I sat for a while, until I could trust my voice. I tried not to let her hear me sniffing.

“Ah, yeah. Yeah, so...”

And I paused again.

On the far side of her bed was the zoetrope. The two cut ends were crudely stapled together. I was amazed that I hadn't spotted it earlier but, then, perhaps we only see what we look for. I wondered if I should spin it for her—one last time, perhaps—or whether I should take it away. It was no use to her.

I spun it, a broken, partial Verity, spinning in the air.

But it's just stuff, isn't it? It's a ring of card on a melamine bedside table in a hospital in Oxford, next to a vegetative patient staring at a wall. I decided to leave it, let it travel with her wherever she goes. I sometimes imagine her in a home, as healed as she will ever be—perhaps
sitting
staring, instead of lying, or being wheeled around to stare at different walls occasionally, trolleyed from place to place, with all her tubes. Verity gradually growing old, always silent, always not really there—and a strange circle of photos by her bed. Perhaps the nurses spin it for her every night, but none of them knows what it is, or that the girl in the picture is the same girl who sits beside it gaping at nothing. The girl in leaflight and faded yellow. The girl in the middle of the air.

I leaned forward and rested my hand over hers. It was limp, unresisting, and a little too warm.

“Adam told me, Verity,” I whispered. “He told me everything.”

I tried to imagine that she could hear me—that, even after so many years, the words might be some comfort, she would understand that she didn't need to be alone any more.

“Verity, he said you screamed—” And I had to stop, my throat heaving too much for me to speak, blinking sharply and failing to squeeze away the tears. “Ah... screamed... for me. Said you were screaming for me. I would've—Verity, if I'd—”

My body was shaking. Her limp hand jiggled under mine.

I never heard you, Verity. Not in twenty years of listening.

You never told me, and I never knew.

“She showed your collection, Verity,” I said at last. “Sam did. In London. We missed Paris. Anyway, Sam said it was good therapy for her. She suddenly came over all grim, and just went for it. She didn't even put her own stuff in. She did it right for you, Verity. The plastic bags, the scars and bruises, they all looked half starved.” I laughed aloud and, strangely, it felt good. “Tell you what, though, gorgeous—it bombed. Not a single review. Sam thought that was really funny. I mean, all these critics ponce around trying to make out that fashion's deadly serious—and then someone does something serious and they don't even spot it.”

I didn't tell her the next bit, the bit about me and Sam. Perhaps I didn't know what to say. We were close. Sometimes we were lovers, and I liked that, and I think she did too. But I didn't know what I wanted.

And Sam wouldn't wait much longer. After the fiasco of Verity's collection in London, her career had taken off. She said she had Verity to thank, because when “Damaged Goods” sank without a trace, she'd realised that fashion was bullshit. She stopped taking it seriously, started playing the game. And she's a good game-player, Sam.

“I don't know what to do, Verity,” I muttered.

I was proud of Sam; I liked her. But I wasn't sure that there was any more to it than that—and did there have to be more anyway? You can't banish ghosts that easily.

But that was what Sam had brought me here to do.

My lips brushed Verity's ear, and the sharp stubble where the surgeon had cut away part of her skull. I breathed in—and smelt nothing but skin scrubbed raw by sterile soap.

“I've come to say goodbye, Verity,” I whispered. “Sort of goodbye, anyway. I'll miss you.”

I leaned over her and kissed her lips, for the first time in twenty years.

I reached over her and spun the zoetrope. It ticked round, too far away for me to see the detail: the lonely girl who moved in next door, in mid-leap, screaming, the girl I would never see again.

I said, at long last, “I'll keep coming to see you. I promise I won't forget you. Never.”

I stroked her hair, bent again to kiss her unresisting face.

And I searched for something in her expression, some flicker of where she had gone. But her eyes were locked on the door, and whatever lay beyond.

BOOK: Frozen
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