As he wriggled backwards, intent on not dislodging a single block, he felt the air shiver, and a series of golden arrows darted across his vision like a volley of deft thunderbolts. His fingers began to tingle, his hands and arms, and each breath tasted of honey, the delicious illicit taste of honey on a fingertip. How the music melted on his tongue! He rolled onto his back and opened his mouth wide, not wanting to waste a single drop. Above his head the piano trembled, broke apart, reformed into honeycombs. He reached up and with a forefinger prodded a bulging cell, which burst, drenching his skin with song. Amid the dazzling outpour, the cell widened and continued to widen till it became an opening — a hexagonal window through which he could see a woman seated at the piano. Her scarlet gown reminded him of the sitting room curtains, her hands rippling over the keyboard in spite of the heavy, floppy sleeves.
At some point the music came to an end, but not before the woman stretched out those beautiful hands and slid them into his skull. He spent the next day in bed, curtains drawn, dreading yet another round of vomiting. She’d done this to him — played and played till his head was screaming. Years later he would come to realize it was a gift. “A family affliction,” his mum had said. “Your grandmother always had a migraine after a concert.”
Eyes brimming with tears, Thom stripped off his gloves and balaclava, dropping them where he stood. Hoping Julian would notice, complain, say something. As Thom knelt to fumble with his gaiters, he could hear Julian crossing the room, Marty swearing as usual, and the wind, loudest of all, imperiously demanding admittance. Thom had become adept at distracting Lizzie when her lower lip issued a storm warning, better in fact than Kate — herself a ‘no’ short of a temper tantrum lately — but here he didn’t have the option of walking away till the storm passed. If he weren’t so whacked, there’d be yet another broken night in a long succession of broken nights. They said chronic sleep deprivation made you edgy; luckily he wasn’t the high-strung sort like Marty, who’d be schizo by now.
Thom didn’t fancy being cooped up by this blizzard, not with the way Marty had been acting lately. Success had come a little too fast. And ever since that talk show you’d think he’d already discovered a cure for Alzheimer’s — as if he himself were the lead scientist on the research project he was funding.
Should he talk with Julian about that knife? Marty would blow up if they tried to take it away, but they could “lose” it for him. They could, given Marty’s weird obsession with snow leopards, suggest that there was some truth in the local legends. When Marty lost his temper, he really lost it. No wonder he was still single. Kate couldn’t stand him.
Yeah, well, Kate couldn’t stand a lot of people. She thought Julian was an insensitive bastard. “What sort of person writes poems like that about the death of his own child? And publishes them?” Kate didn’t know Julian the way he did, but even he had to admit it was a touch odd, coming up with those gruesome metaphors. Or was it? Grief was supposed to do wicked things to you.
His fingers were clumsy and he’d only gotten one boot off when a bloom of light signalled that Julian, ever competent, would soon have a good fire going. Thom dug into a pocket for the clutch of toilet paper each of them carried, only to remember he’d already used up all of his. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, glancing behind himself guiltily. There were times when Julian was fastidious to the point of absurdity. He —
“Julian?” Thom rose too quickly, dizziness adding to his confusion. “Julian? Marty?”
The stove had been lit, several pieces of wood as well as tinder, but the room was empty except for Gia.
Before he was twelve, Thom had lived in five countries across assorted continents, six if you counted the new name and new status conferred by a war of independence; thereafter he ought consider himself lucky, according to his parents, to spend nearly four years in a city that offered up a decent international school and such amenities as French cheeses, a black market for their dollars, and electricity (most of the time). For a long while it had been assumed he’d do something with languages, since he was the only one of the three kids who retained a good deal of what he’d picked up from nannies and gardeners, cooks and night watchmen, rather than the swarms of local boys his brothers would inevitably search out. The only one, too, who had shivered through dengue fever and amoebic dysentery. He still did more cooking than Kate, who was slowly developing a taste for the aromatic and often fiery dishes from the kitchens of his childhood, though she didn’t understand why he’d go to such lengths to source the right ingredients: “It’ll taste just as good with mint or parsley.” “No, it won’t. It’s got to be daun kesum.”
In Thom’s first year back home, his roommate Marsden had tossed aside the sort of unwanted book that aunts and godmothers tend to choose as birthday gifts, but this one had such a striking black cover that Thom found himself wondering what could possibly be said about salt to fill its four hundred odd pages. He read it late into the night, and the next night as well, not with the page-turning speed of a thriller — Marsden had plenty of those — but with his first real sense of homecoming. “Those who think a fascination with salt is a bizarre obsession have simply never owned a rock like this” (Salt, Mark Kurlansky). Thereafter history became his rock, the salt lick he kept in his bottom drawer, pink-tinged from the battlefields and executioners’ blocks, the gulags and mass graves, taking it out when Marsden got yet another parcel stuffed full of homemade fudge from his mum, or when he, Thom, intercepted a smirk on the football pitch, or when he made the mistake of talking about their lives overseas. “Then go back there if you like it so much.” The past, he’d already learned, is the one place to which you can always go home again.
Kate had been brought up on a farm in southwest Wales, now run by one of her brothers but still the place where Christmas and Easter and family milestones were celebrated, where children, an ever burgeoning number of them, could spend entire holidays free from electronic surveillance, where Lizzie screeched in delight as soon as she caught sight from the car window of her aunt’s herd of alpacas. No matter how often Kate complained about her boisterous and demanding and practically manic family, the bad influence of certain older cousins on Lizzie, it was home. Resentment that your sister-in-law got to cut up your mum’s velvet curtains for a pantomime costume or replace the beautiful old range cooker with a catering monstrosity, all stainless steel and preen, dwindled like so many other of Kate’s grudges into something like a low-grade fever, mostly quiescent but at an unpredictable moment erupting into a blazing row. Theirs was a family that liked to fight. Oddly enough, considering how his own parents would probably murmur a mellifluous, noble, enlightened, and altogether decorous remonstrance as a terrorist raised his machete, Thom felt right at home. He didn’t, however, tell anyone about the farmhouse ghost.
Marty swore at the jammed zipper on his parka. If it broke, he’d sue the bastards with their fucking guarantees — no one toted a spare parka when his backpack was weighed to the nearest gram, and weighed again after discarding a packet of chewing gum. (He’d been minded to leave the condoms behind, but there’d been that time five years ago when three Norwegian girls had arrived at the hut a day early, some sort of booking mixup, so you never knew.) But he worked at the zipper painstakingly, not fool enough to take out his ire on essential gear. Julian could say what he liked — a multibillion-dollar company wasn’t built on temper tantrums. Temper tantrums! If ever he’d needed a camcorder on one of their trips, it had been last year to record the way Thom had acted at the sight of a crocodile.