It was dark, warm, heavy. He felt like he was sinking. He reached out for the space in front of him. Something was on his leg. Tight. Strong.
“You all right?”
It was Gilly. And he was…where was he?
“Mum sent me to check on you. You can’t hold your piss, can you?”
His mind was waxy. Thoughts dribbled down. Dave – that was his name. Was Dave still there? Who else had been there? And lunch,. He had been having lunch.
“Uncle Dave said you passed out while he was telling you about the time he got knocked overboard and had to swim back, one handed, cause he was till holding the line, or something. He’s so full of shit.”
The word was not so much said as carried out of her mouth on a fizz of stifled laughter.
“Nuh. You’re alive aren’tcha?”
She shrugged and dropped onto the foot of the bed. He could only hear traffic, so he guessed he was at the front of the house. He wished he’d picked a more graceful way of finding out what was here.
Gilly pulled out a partially smoked joint from the pocket of her hoodie. She glanced quickly at the door. She could either hear something he couldn’t, or she heard the right kind of silence because and so placed it into her mouth.
The lighter was giving her some problems and the joint looked as if it was about to split open. This new habit was not something from the last year. It was from the last couple of weeks. Was it for his benefit? And if it were, he couldn’t say that he wasn’t a little flattered.
“Can I re-roll that for you? It looks like…”
“No. I don’t need your help.”
“It just looks…”
That looked bad. That looked how it kind of was, an attempt to tweeze out her feelings. Not because he would reciprocate, only because he wanted, like anyone else, some validation, any validation of a chance, and a chance unattainable was still a chance.
She sucked on the joint with a little too much effort, blowing out the smoke too soon. The room became stale and peppery, covering his own stale yeasty smell. At least her getting stoned, or trying to, would cover that.
“So, like, what do you do at Christmas?”
“See my folks. Mum and her partner first, then Dad and his family later. He’s got some new kids with his new wife. My Mum’s a socialist so she doesn’t really celebrate. And her and her friends just talk politics, and….”
She was studying something in the carpet.
“Yeah, right. Wish my parents were divorced.”
“They seem to get on all right.”
She shrugged her thin shoulders and picked some leaf from her lip.
“They’re too dumb not to, and, besides, we wouldn’t have to see…” She stopped and looked at him. It was not the appraisal either her father or sister gave. It was the crest of a wave, a wave which quickly sank
“You don’t have a girlfriend to visit?” she asked.
He coughed dryly and pulled himself up straight. He couldn’t believe he had been lying all this time.
“It’s not a come on. Fuck no. I mean you’re like my parents’ age. And, sorry, but that music…”
“The Minute Minutes.”
“They have a trumpet players.”
“Yeah, Gordon McFee. His trumpet lines a pure class.”
“It’s a trumpet.”
He couldn’t deny that there had been some attempt to convert her. When he got it, she was still twelve years old in his head, an age ripe for moulding. His half brother and sister were too young to have his musical tastes instilled in them. Gilly was the best option. He should’ve bought it a year early before she became possessed by this bogan-emo hybrid, some one who probably liked Iron Maiden for the lyrics, but thought the Sisters of Mercy were gay.
“I can swap it for you.”
She picked again at her lip. Nothing was there. She seemed to want to tug at her skin, peel it off.
“Nuh,” she said and continued to study the carpet.
After a pause, she said, “Is your family that shitty?”
“Why? What makes you think that?”
“You keep coming here for Christmas.”
“No, they’re not shitty. My little brother and sister are fun. I mean kids are easy. They like whatever…I’m sorry. I’m not trying to say…”
“I know. I’m a bitch. They tell me all the time.”
She flicked her head toward the wall. The tone was frighteningly mature. She had gone beyond resignation to naked self-awareness. This thin and drawn, part pale, part boot polish black woman-child was what she would always be.
“Betcha wished you’d saved some other kid.”
He had no answer for this. There was no choice. He had just responded. Anyone would’ve done the same. It was what made the Drewitts’ generosity so hard to accept. They were still paying him, and not for saving her.
“I did what I had to do.”
“Still, I betcha wish I wasn’t such a bitch. I know they do.”
She flicked her head again in their direction.
“Your uncle likes you. He was asking about you when you’d disappeared.”
She smiled the perfect sarcastic smile, a tight slit across the face, almost sweet in its acidity. He remembered from high school it was something all teenage girls could do well.
“Well, Dave’s just a charmer. A real ladies’ man. Anyway, I had to go off and listen to that retarded band of yours.”
He wanted to explain their importance. The best he could manage was a protracted ‘gah.’
“Told you I was a bitch.”
He had a feeling he should be grabbing her hand now, if only he knew what he was pulling her from exactly: well-off parents, a big home, apparently a good school. Which of these was he saving her from?
“You know. I don’t remember. I mean I can like see it, but I think that’s so much of what Mum and Dad have said. But like the feelings, being scared or whatever. There’s nothing.”
He could easily recall the rushing water. The spring was located behind his eyes. He’d never seen water that clean or pure. Never felt anything that cold. A cold which disregarded skin and clutched tight round the bone and squeezed, squeezed a she squeezed her hand. Never felt such a tiny hand before. He thought he would break it as the cold would break his.
Equally strange was that there was a river at all. Most of the time it was dry, or at best muddy. One flash flood a few hundred kilometres away, and little Gilly was swept into the water. Or she just jumped in. He could never tell. And when she was screaming, he didn’t think to ask.
If she would have only stopped screaming. He was sure if she stopped, she would be okay. It was her screams, her fear, which was pulling her away. Thank god she was light. It was just that much harder for the river to get a grip. He dragged her out and the held her sopping body close. The waters poured from her and down his front in long cold cords. The parents hadn’t been near at all.
“Don’t just stare into space. Come on. What was it like?”
“I don’t remember much.”
“Bullshit. You must remember something.”
That was one thing he had long wanted to ask. What the fuck where they doing that there little girl was near the river. He was already in the water before they arrived. There was something about their faces, a flushedness, a redness, an impatience, which he was only starting to learn himself, and which, like the peach light of sundown, would flash in his memory and go. You didn’t ask those questions. You didn’t accuse. No one was to blame when nature was involved.
“Cold. There’d been some heavy rain. The river rose and took you.”
“That’s what Mum and Dad said.”
“That’s what happened.”
She looked for somewhere to stub the joint out. Finding nothing, she pinched it with a licked finger and thumb, and placed the butt in her pocket.
“Could I get some water?”
“Help yourself,” she said and got up to open the door.
The voices quickly gathered, though the bodies remained out in the living room. Above them was Dave’s. He wanted to know where the hero was. Jacob stopped and listened to the babble of echoes in the living room. They were having their own muffled party in the empty clean space, free from the languid Boxing Day bodies. If there was a way he would join them, float over, be pure voice. As it was, he left.
The ham was good.