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Recently he’d gone to see Thom’s new son, timing the visit between court sessions. He’d brought the right gift, said the right words, but Kate was testy and Thom had to give her a look before she dragged herself up from the lumpy sofa and led them to the nursery. Julian knew better than to lay a finger on Tristan. To women like Kate, tragedy was communicable. As he neared the cot, the sharp smell of urine grabbed him and he glanced at her, noting again how exhausted she looked, how sallow her skin, how limp and greasy her hair, and the suspicion of postpartum depression crossed his mind. He’d have to have a word with Thom.
The smell grew stronger and Julian steeled himself to move close enough for the obligatory murmur of admiration when the light began to growl and hiss and he heard, “Yuck, it stinks in here, Daddy. Why haven’t they cleaned the cages?” Tears quick to gather, he jammed his hands into his pockets and turned away. With some boys it was dinosaurs; Danny had loved the big cats, had several books about them, had even saved up to adopt a cub from the Snow Leopard Trust. It had been a favorite outing, just the two of them to the zoo of a Saturday afternoon. If it hadn’t been for one of Thom’s panicky phone calls, he’d also have gone that day instead of Marion. At the funeral she’d given Thom a single stiff glance — not rude precisely, but cold and distant as only Marion could be, and when it was Thom’s turn to add a handful of dirt to the grave, she’d briefly clenched her hands. The next morning, Thom and Kate’s fruit basket had disappeared from the house.
His right hand began to tremble, a familiar sign, and just before the watery light broke into concentric rings, rippling outward from the pain that struck the center of his forehead, he glimpsed through the hellish rift a small body wrapped in a blood-soaked shawl which fluttered and rippled, fluttered and rippled and spread so that, retching, he spun and ran from the room.
“How dare he come here like that, with a tiny baby who might catch God knows what from him.”
“Maybe it was something he ate.”
“Yeah, maybe someone slipped him some pork for lunch,” Kate said viciously. “Good for them.”
“It’s not one of your migraines, is it?”
“Probably just the heat.” Julian handed the wet flannel back to Thom and rinsed his mouth with a handful of cold water from the tap. “Thanks. Will you ring for a taxi? I’m due back in court.”
Thom glanced toward the open bathroom door, then began to apologize. Julian interrupted, his voice curt. “Get her some help — and not just domestic.” He closed his eyes for a moment, lines raying their corners like a child’s crude drawing of the sun. “You’d best keep a close watch on Tristan.”
“Kate may be a bit stressed right now, sleepless nights will do that to you, but she’d never harm Tris.”
Julian regarded his friend with a weariness beyond fatigue; at times like this he thought that the neuroscientists had got it right about free will. “I’ve seen too many things over the years.”
Thom tried to make a joke of it. “Well, I know where to go if we need a good solicitor.”
There was a short silence. How do you make someone understand what losing a child does to you? Hatred was the least of it, though it was difficult to picture Thom feeling anything as strong-minded as hatred. Mild, amiable Thom, who’d apologize to a ghost for disturbing it.
Or summoning it. If Julian could only be sure, for once really sure, that his ghosts weren’t the product of a neurophysiological hiccup. Briefly, he massaged his temples with his fingertips. A hefty dose of caffeine sometimes helped, but he couldn’t bear to watch Thom fiddling with kettle and coffee mill, the bungle and clatter of beans, couldn’t bear to remain a minute longer inside these oozing walls. He’d stop for an espresso. No one wanted to be defended by an advocate whose mental circuitry kept shorting under a barrage of thunderbolts, however dazzling. He swallowed, the taste of honey already cloying. A double espresso.
“Want me to go with you?” Thom asked.
“I’ll be fine. Look after your family.” Thom didn’t know it yet, but their store of friendship was crumbling, eaten away at the heart like grain attacked by weevils. Schadenfreude — leave it to the Germans to come up with that one. Julian disliked himself for the nastiness of his thoughts, but he thought them anyway. Why shouldn’t Thom suffer too, instead of exuding his sticky, sickening, guilt-ridden sympathy? “Have you still got the baby shawl Marion gave you for Lizzie?”
“It must be in the front room. Kate uses it all the time for Tris.” That was another thing about Thom, the way he still blushed like an adolescent. “It’s beautiful…exquisite, she takes very good care of it.” For a while, in his late teens, Julian had considered training for the stage. The courtroom suited him, however, and he was particularly adept at guiding a witness. Thom didn’t even notice the oddity of the question. “I’ll show it to you on the way out. It’s not stained or anything.”
“Don’t go on about it so. It’s only a shawl.”
But Thom was Thom, and insisted on tossing aside the babygro and baby towel and baby rattle and baby wipes and turning over all the cushions, on shifting the massed newspapers and helter-skelter of Lizzie’s drawings — she seemed to fancy fierce, bright blue dragons — while Julian fought down another wave of déjà vu or prescience or sheer bloody brain boggle as though it were nausea. Thom apologized. And apologized and apologized, his excuses ever more demeaning. Julian left; there were worse things than rudeness.
It was peculiar, the way people had come to speak of love: either they rattled on about loving everything from asparagus to chocolate to oysters, from Anna Karenina to Middlemarch, or they mentioned love furtively, defensively, as though admitting to impotence or a small prick. Thom had been married long enough to love his children with a passion Kate could no longer arouse in him. Could she ever? was a question Julian might have asked. And now, he, Thom, had gone and said exactly the wrong thing. You only had to read Julian’s poetry to understand the cut of the man, his intelligence and torment and obsessions; his severe persona. Suited in cynicism, impeccably tailored in the talismans of his age and class. But tenderness, far more than love, couldn’t be faked.
“Don’t be a fool,” Julian said brusquely. He moved back, tucking himself away.
Thom hated that he still blushed like a teenager. Maybe he ought to apologize. But for what? Saying what he felt? Or feeling it in the first place?
“We’ll talk about it when you’re older,” Gia had said. “I promise.”
Julian opened the stove and shoved a couple of pieces of wood into the embers. There was no bellows, so he bent close and blew short, angry puffs till the flames caught at the bark, the roughened, exposed heart of the split logs. Anything will burn if the temperature is hot enough. Marion had wanted to cremate Danny and Julian refused, but tradition had merely been his excuse. He knew he wouldn’t have been able to keep from opening the urn. Teeth were left, they said, sometimes fragments of bone.