Authors: Kate Thompson
âI'm glad you've come again,' she said. âI have to admit that I didn't think you would, but I'm glad you did. Martin seems to like you. He was quite cheerful for a while after your last visit. I don't suppose ...' She stopped, looking searchingly at Tess as though she wasn't sure whether she could trust her or not.
âYou don't suppose what?'
The woman sighed, her deathly white face relaxing into its usual defeated slackness. âI don't suppose you'd talk to him? Try and make him see reason?'
Tess looked away. There was no point in trying to explain that she had come with exactly that purpose in mind. âI'll do my best,' she said. âBut I wouldn't raise your hopes too high if I were you.'
In the stuffy darkness of Martin's room, his hands and face showed up against the bedclothes like pale moths in the night. In the corner opposite, the greeny-blue light on the video clock flashed on and off: oo.oo. oo.oo. The curtains had been reinforced by a grey army blanket so that the only light coming in from the day was a feeble line of paler grey above the curtain rod.
Tess waited in the doorway until her eyes became accustomed to the gloom and she could hear Martin's slow, regular breathing, then she crossed over to the bedside. The boy's face wore a smug, satisfied expression and the hairs on the back of Tess's neck prickled as she became aware once again of the dark power which slumbered within that innocuous frame. But she had power as well: the inner freedom that the phoenix had given her. That was why Lizzie had been so keen for her to come soon, before it wore off. If she couldn't stand up to him, who could?
She called to him, gently. He stirred and sucked his teeth but didn't wake. She called again, a little louder. He sighed and woke, his eyes searching the room until they found her face. For a moment he looked bewildered, as though her presence there didn't fit with the dreams he had been having. Then he recovered his confidence, smiled his sweet smile and sat up.
Tess smiled back. âSorry to wake you. But it's a beautiful day outside.'
âIs it?' Martin yawned and stretched. Tess moved over towards the window, but he said, âWhoa, hold on. One step at a time, eh?'
He reached out and switched on a heavily-shaded lamp which stood on the bedside table, then he leaned back and stretched himself again.
Tess cleared a chair and pulled it up beside his feet. âYour mother's bringing us breakfast,' she said. âWell, lunch, actually.'
Martin laughed and rubbed his bleary eyes. âI was out until nearly dawn, but the pickings were mean. I hope she's making a fry.'
Tess made no answer and there was an awkward silence for a few minutes. Then Martin sighed and cuddled himself back down into the bedclothes.
Tess looked over at the mop of red hair which shaded his marble-green eyes and felt a sudden surge of affection for him. He couldn't be that bad, he just couldn't. He was only a boy, after all.
âYou didn't tell me that your father died,' she said.
Martin shrugged, pulling the covers tight for a moment over his toes. âDid my mother tell you that?'
âYes. Just now. Downstairs.'
âShe tells everyone about it. She thinks it's like, some kind of big tragedy in my life which made me go wrong. She thinks it explains everything, but it doesn't. It doesn't explain anything. It didn't make any difference to me at all.'
âI find that hard to believe. How could you lose your father and not be affected by it?'
you mean?' Martin's voice had a sharp edge that Tess hadn't heard before. âYou're talking about yourself,' he went on, ânot about me. Everyone does that. You'd miss your father so you assume everyone else would, too. But I didn't, not one bit. I didn't miss him 'cos I hated him.'
His face wore a sullen, bitter expression as he spoke, and his eyes were like glinting granite when he turned to Tess and said, âDo you understand?'
Tess kept her face straight, determined to hide the unease his words had produced in her heart. âNot really,' she said.
âDo you want me to tell you about it?'
âIf you want to.'
âIt's very gory. Do you like gory stories?'
Tess shrugged, torn between ghoulish curiosity and what she liked to think of as her finer sensibilities. âI don't mind.'
âNo, I'm sure you don't.' Martin's tone was sarcastic. âBut I'll tell you anyway. I like talking about it. I've talked about it to every shrink in Dublin, so it doesn't bother me one bit.'
He stopped, listening. There were slow footsteps on the stairs, and a moment later his mother elbowed the door open, struggling beneath the weight of a heavily-laden tray. Tess jumped up and unloaded the plates, then, while Martin's mother got her breath back, reloaded the tray with yesterday's empty cups and dishes.
âI'll bring it down for you,' she said.
âNo. You stay here and have your chat. If you need anything else, give me a shout, all right?'
When his mother was gone, Martin began tucking into his plate of rashers and black pudding.
âWe used to live in the countryside, you know. Just outside Dublin.'
âDid you?' Tess thought he had changed the subject, but he went on, âYes. We had a run-down old cottage and a few acres. My dad used to breed greyhounds and sell them to people from England. That was all he thought about: greyhounds, greyhounds and greyhounds.'
He paused for a minute to chew, then went on. âIt was a weird kind of life. One minute we'd be living on bread and margarine, wondering how we were going to last another week, and the next thing, he'd sell a dog or a pup for silly money to some English trainer and we'd be rolling in it. New clothes for me and my mother, Chinese takeaways every night of the week, him off to the pub buying rounds for the parish. Then back to bread and margarine again. I didn't mind, though. At least it was exciting.'
Tess poured out tea and handed him a cup. He took a few sips, then perched it on the bedside table beside the lamp and returned to the fry.
âThen what?' said Tess.
âWhere was I? Oh, yes. I was into top gear by that time with this animal thing. What did you call us? Switchers, that's right. Well I used to be off in the woods and fields every spare minute trying out all kinds of things. I suppose it was good while it lasted. Then one of our neighbours gave me a donkey foal. Have you ever seen one?'
âOnly in the zoo.'
âYeah. Not many people keep donkeys these days. But the foal was ...' He felt silent, staring ahead of him, and for a moment Tess fancied that he was vulnerable, that his guard had finally dropped. But if it had, it wasn't for long.
âFact was that I was dead soft in those days. I doted on that little donkey like a right eejit. Spent half my time out in the shed with it, sometimes being another donkey, sometimes just being myself.'
âBet you didn't tell that to the shrinks.'
Martin laughed. âBe a lot more probable than some of the things I did tell them. They wouldn't know the difference anyhow. I didn't meet a single one who was the full shilling. I don't know how they're supposed to cure anyone else.'
He gave his full attention to his breakfast until Tess said, âGo on. About the donkey.'
âThere's not much to tell. Except that my dad said we had to get rid of her.'
âHe said he needed the shed for his hounds. And she couldn't live out on the land because he sold the hay every year and then exercised the dogs there. He said I could have a pup from the next litter instead of the donkey and it would be worth twenty times what she was, but that wasn't the point. Not then, anyway.'
Martin stopped to finish his breakfast. Outside, the birds were beginning to tune down as the short day drew towards an end, and Tess wished that she could see a last glimpse of sunshine. She looked over at the curtains, then decided against it, unwilling to disturb the atmosphere.
Martin wiped up the last of the grease with a piece of soggy toast, then put his plate down beside the bed, balancing it on his upturned trainers.
âSo, anyway,' he said, wiping his mouth on the hem of his T-shirt, âone evening my dad borrowed a cattle trailer and we brought the donkey out to some friends of his in Naas. Fifteen quid is all they gave me for her. It wasn't that, though. I didn't care about the money. The worst thing was that they had greyhounds, too, and I was sure they only wanted my donkey for dog food.
âI wouldn't care now, but it bothered me then. There was nothing I could do about it, you see. I felt completely helpless. And then they got down the bottle of whisky and my dad sat there the whole evening drinking and laughing his head off. Have you seen people get drunk? Have you seen how stupid they look, and how clever they think they are?' Martin's sour expression accentuated the anger he was feeling. âI hated him. I hated him so much I wished he was dead.'
He gulped down his tea and held the cup out to Tess for a refill. âReady for the gory bit?'
She nodded, putting aside her half-eaten fry. Martin's face held a strange kind of delight as he started up with his story again.
âIt was pitch-dark when we started home that night, and there was only one headlight working on the van. My dad took the back roads home because he didn't want to run into the cops with all that drink in him. He was driving too fast, as usual. I always wore my seat belt when he was driving, never with my ma. He didn't wear his, specially since they brought in the law that said you had to. He wasn't a violent man, but he'd go out of his way to get on the wrong side of the law if he could. That was just the way he was.
âSo when this black cow appeared in the middle of the road, he didn't have a chance. I don't remember hitting her. I just remember seeing her on the road, coming out of nowhere, then waking up in the van with blood all over the place.'
Martin looked over to check Tess's reaction, but she was giving nothing away.
âI didn't know if the blood belonged to Dad or to the cow, and to tell you the truth I didn't care. The van was on its side in the ditch, and Dad's door had swung open during the crash and bent double under the wing. That was how the light came to be on inside the cab and I could see all the blood. Dad was covered in it and he wasn't moving. I was hanging over him, caught in the seat belt. All I could think of was getting out. I didn't care what had happened to him. I was really cool and calculated, manoeuvring myself around so that I could get a foot on the gear housing and lever myself out without standing on him. In the end I managed it. Then I just stood on the road for agesâhours, maybeâwatching this sticky mess of a cow thrashing about on the road. And all I could think was that I didn't care. I had wished he was dead and now I didn't care whether he was or not. I knew then that I was a bad lot; always had been, always will be.'
âI don't believe that,' said Tess.
âThen you're a fool,' said Martin. He looked straight at her, the cold shadow of his night-time self at the forefront of his eyes. âAfter it happened my mother couldn't bear to live out there any more. She sold the house and the land; turned out to be worth a fortune as a development site. We moved here. Too soon, perhaps, some of the shrinks said. I didn't speak to anyone for weeks, maybe months. I do now, though. I'll talk to anyone who wants to listen to me. Why not? It makes no difference. No one can touch me.'
Tess could think of nothing to say. For a long time they sat in silence until at last the gloom became too much for Tess.
âCan I open the curtains now? At least take a look at the day before it gets dark?'
Martin nodded. âI was waiting for you last night,' he said. âWhere did you get to?'
Tess shrugged and went over to the window. âNowhere in particular. I went to sleep. Had to get up early this morning to go and see the phoenix in the zoo.'
âOh, yes. Your phoenix. I keep forgetting about him.' Martin winced as Tess began to dismantle the blanket barricade and daylight lunged into the room. âHow is he?'
âHe's ...' Tess dried up, lost for words which would describe the glorious experience of the morning. âHe's perfect,' was all she could think of.
âThat's good,' said Martin.
âBut you should go and see for yourself. We haven't got all that much time; they're planning to move him to America at the end of the week, so you'd better go as soon as you can. There's an awful crush there at the moment, but if we got up really early in the morning ...'
Martin cut across her words. âNaa. I don't think I'll bother.'
It was the first direct blow, and Tess felt her sense of well-being begin to diminish. She turned, her back to the window. âWhat do you mean, you won't bother?'
Martin's face was screwed up against the light at Tess's back. âI won't bother,' he said again. âWhy should I?'
âWhy should you?' said Tess. âWell, there's two reasons, actually. One is that the phoenix is probably the most beautiful thing you'll ever see. It'll change your life, I guarantee it.'
Martin nodded complacently. âAnd the other reason?'
âThe other is that you promised me you'd help me get him out. You have to come and look at where he is, so we can work out a plan.'
Martin shook his head with an expression of disdain. âI didn't promise you anything.'
âYes you did. You said that you'd help me if I tried your way first. I did that; I kept my side of the bargain. Now it's your turn.'
But again the boy shook his head. âI didn't promise anything. I said that I might consider it, that's all. And I still might.'
Tess waited expectantly as Martin swung his legs out of the bed and stood up, taking his time.
âBut I won't,' he said.
It was like being kicked in the teeth. Tess turned away to hide the fury that was rising like a rush of blood to her face. The phoenix light within her was eclipsed by that rage, and she floundered between enemies, one without, the other within. He was playing with her, teasing her, that was all. He had never had any intention of coming towards her way of seeing things; not one single step.