an extract from the novel
by Graham Joyce
'Look through the face, Jessie. Through the face and beyond. Then you will really begin to see.'
With no idea of what it was she was supposed to see there, Jessie stared into the oval mirror. The dressing table in which the mirror was framed, a heavy, mellowed mahogany piece of bedroom furniture, was over a hundred years old, and the silver of the glass was mottled-yellow. The metal amalgam was failing and the mirror was foxed. Too many people, Jessie thought, have looked hard into this mirror.
'See what? What will I see?'
Jessie's self-appointed tutor stepped behind her, a shadow in the poor light of a dark room in a failing mirror, placing a cool pair of hands over Jessie's eyes. 'That's for you to find out. If I told you, it would spoil the surprise.'
Adults are strange, Jessie thought. The hands fell to her shoulders and she shifted her head slightly. Instantly her eleven-year-old face winced in anticipation of the reproach.
'I've told you that you mustn't move! Not an inch. Not even a flicker. It won't work if you fidget and move about.'
The rebuke, floating to Jessie on sour breath, felt unnecessarily sharp. Truth was she was getting a little bored with staring into the mirror, and so was relieved when the call to supper came from the kitchen directly below. She turned to look up at her instructor. The hands fell away from her shoulders, and a brief nod gave her permission to get down from the stool in order to go downstairs to join the others.
But her instructor pressed an elegant and manicured white hand on Jessie's breastbone before allowing her to escape. 'Remember, it's our secret Jess. Telling is undoing. Remember?'
Jessie nodded before slipping away. She didn't need reminding. When she took her place downstairs only her younger sister Beth had beaten her to the table.
'This all looks beautiful!' Matt enthused as he sat down and tore a chunk of baguette for himself.
'Then wait for everyone else to get seated,' said Chrissie, trying to find room on the table to place an enormous wooden bowl of salad.
'Sorry.' Matt pulled the half-chewed hunk of bread from his mouth, offering it to the kids, who both said, 'Ugh!'
'Don't worry,' said Sabine, whom everyone knew preferred to stand on ceremony. 'We can't wait all night.' There was a certain rigid order in which she liked things to be done, and they were all having to learn it. One, candles to be lit in advance of the first bottom brushing the first seat; two, breadbasket to be shared round before anyone lifted a knife or deranged the cutlery; whereupon, three, someone, preferably one of the men, might then pour the wine. Then, and only then, could one cheerfully, and with a compulsory sparkle in the eye, wish the company bon appetit and since Sabine was the only French person among them, she should not be the one to do so. Nothing had ever been said about this definitive ritual sequence, but then Sabine had an extraordinary ability to make her wishes known without using words to secure them. Now here she was, as James took the last but one place at the table, saying that it all didn't matter.
'Grace,' said Beth, who was seven and enjoying it. She looked disapprovingly round the table. 'Someone should say grace.'
'Quite right.' Rachel, arriving last at the table, sat down and folded her hands together. Her dark hair gleamed wet, and her skin, pink from the hot shower, seemed to advertise the jewel-bright blue-green tattoo she sported on either biceps. 'You say grace for us, Beth.'
Sabine straightened her back and James scratched his head. Chrissie bit a fingernail, while Matt looked wholly vacant. 'We thank thee Lord, ' Beth whispered proudly, eyelids fluttering, 'for these thy wholesome gifts and pray that we might STOP KICKING ME JESS! MUM TELL HER TO STOP KICKING ME!'
'Jessie!' Sabine warned her daughter.
'I'm not,' Jessie lied pointlessly.
'-for these thy wholesome gifts and pray that we might come to know thee more with every passing day.' Beth opened her eyes and looked shyly from one to other of the adult company.
'It's the Christadelphians,' Sabine said by way of apology. 'She's been going to their Friday night youth club.'
Matt thought the Christadelphians, whatever they were, sounded creepy and said so. Chrissie asked him what he would know about any of it.
'Anyway,' Jessie said. 'I'm hungry so bon appetit.'
Everyone responded with a breezy chorus, the breadbasket was passed, wine glasses clinked pleasingly in the still, chalk-dusted early-evening air. From the villa's vine-canopied terrace, the land rolled away in a grassy incline until it levelled at a field of almost house-high corn. Beyond the corn sprawled a hag-toothed outcrop of powdery, weathered limestone, and beyond that the hills climbed again into the distance. Dusk took on an ultraviolet tone, so that the white rocks stood out like faintly illuminated headstones. Twilight roosted on the tower of the dove-cote and over the outbuildings of the converted farmhouse, bringing with it the muddy and dimly narcotic odours of the nearby river Lot. In this light a glass of wine raised in toast looked blue-red, and the bright silverware reflected back a plane of mercurial shadow. Anyone watching in secret from behind the limestone crags would have seen a single halo of candlelight struggling to hold back the mustered forms of the encroaching evening, within which protection five adults and two children bent over their meal.
'I'm relaxed,' said Matt. 'I feel relaxed.'
'It's only the second day,' said Chrissie. 'Don't feel too relaxed.'
'Better to be relaxed after the second day than only on the second-to-last day,' Sabine observed.
'That's obvious.' James refilled his glass. 'You always like to state the obvious.'
'And you might fill other people's glasses before you fill your own.' Sabine looked to Chrissie. 'My husband would rather keep silent for a week rather than say something which is less than blindingly original.'
'Sometimes I wish Matt would keep quiet for a week.'
'Stop arguing children,' said Rachel, who had no partner to fault.
Beth suddenly laid down her knife and fork. 'I don't like the room we're in. It's creepy,' she said, borrowing Matt's word.
'What's creepy about it?' Rachel wanted to know.
'Noises,' said Jessie, 'It's got noises.'
Jessie and Beth had been given the room under the converted barn. The ancient, beeswaxed floorboards were bowed precariously and creaked mightily. If a breeze picked up the heavy wooden window shutters rattled hard. The room had a cold spot.
'It's the owl,' Sabine explained to the others. 'A barn owl nests above them. When it comes back from its night flights it clatters over their heads.'
'An owl!' said Rachel. 'I wish I had an owl above my room.'
Jessie's eyes opened with admiration at Rachel, who seemed unafraid of anything. But Beth, disgusted, added, 'And there are mice under the floorboards.'
'You can change with me if you like,' Rachel offered.
'Don't spoil them,' James said severely.
'We are here for a fortnight, James. If they're not comfortable.'
'We already let them choose the damn rooms. If they have another, they'll find something wrong with that in two days. You don't dance round 'em.'
But it was all bluster, and everyone knew the decision had already been made. Tomorrow Jessie and Beth would swap rooms with Rachel.
'We could have an owl watch!' shouted Matt.
Rachel was in. 'Yes. Oh yes.'
'What's an owl watch?' Jessie wanted to know.
'Where you stay up late. Really late. Sitting under the stars. And you drink lots of wine - but not in your case. And you watch for the owl. It's white, and soundless, and it moves through the night like a ghost.'
'What do you do after you've seen it?'
Matt considered for a moment. 'You become a one-feather owl watcher. Then if you see another one you become a two-feather owl watcher. And you go through life counting, until you become a seventy-feather watcher.'
He's making it up, thought Jessie. Making it up. How much is made up, and how much is not? 'And then?'
'I don't know. Only a seventy-feather owl watcher knows what happens. And they won't tell anyone.'
'Ignore him,' said Chrissie.
'Believe what you want. It's true.'
Sabine, Matt and James were old friends, but Sabine still had to ask, 'Where does he dream up all this stuff?'
'He's still a child,' Chrissie said. 'That's where he gets it from.'
But Jessie and Beth were persuaded. Beth was already a true believer, and Jessie needed to be. 'Can we have an owl watch, Dad?'
James sank a measure of wine in one swallow, setting his glass back on the table before leaning towards his children. He regarded them with a rheumy, alcoholic eye. 'Maybe. Now, if you've finished, it's bedtime for both of you.'
Beth went round the table, kissing the adults goodnight in turn. Jessie remained in her seat, pretending to be mesmerised by a candle flame. She was fixed, an effigy, staring dead ahead at the flickering light.
'Jessie, ' said Sabine
'Come on Jess,' said her father.
The other adults became paralysed, faces averted from Jessie, not wanting to be recruited into the challenge. But each of them was wondering: is this how it starts? Though none of them had ever actually experienced any of Jessie's displays, each of them had heard distressing tales either from James or Sabine or from both. The silence at the table was invaded by the sound of cicadas swarming in the grass.
'Are you going to bed?' James asked in a reasonable voice.
Jessie wet her thumb and forefinger with her tongue and snuffed out a candle flame. 'OK.' She rose from her seat like a sleepwalker, kissed her mother and father, and followed Beth to bed.
Matt lit a cigarette. 'I thought we were going to have one of Jessie's moments there.'
'We all did.' James filched one of Matt's cigarettes.
Chrissie observed that Jessie had been good as gold since they'd arrived, and Matt agreed. Sabine pointed out that they were only on Day Two, whereupon James made the word 'fuck' sound only like a sharp exhalation of breath. Rachel expressed the view that while they were here they should all take responsibility for Jessie - and Beth, come to that - and take some of the load from James and Sabine.
'I wouldn't wish that on any of you,' James said, managing to make it sound as if he wasn't joking.
'We can take the kids off your hands a bit,' Matt said, being the least likely of the available adults to actually do so, 'to give you and Sabine a bit more time together.'
James startled everyone by standing up. 'I'm off to bed. I don't feel too good.'
After he'd gone, the cicadas thrashed in the grass, the candle flame guttered but stayed alight. 'Is James all right?' Chrissie asked Sabine.
'You mean when he's not drunk, or stoned?' Sabine suddenly let tiredness collapse her face. Mauve shadows stuck to the small pouches under her eyes. 'He's been complaining about feeling unwell for months now. He won't talk to me about it, or see anyone. He just complains and goes to bed. Like that. You know something? We all really need this holiday.'
It had been James' idea, originally, to make this holiday together. In truth, he had his own agenda for wanting other people around him, in that the presence of others reduced the simmering heat of the family cauldron. Sabine in turn had leapt at the opportunity. She welcomed the idea of others helping her not with the burden of Jessie, but with the burden of James. Then James had changed his mind, dragged his feet; and then was ebullient about the idea all over again, suggesting that Rachel be added to the company. A former employee at James' agency, she'd recently been giving Jessie and Beth piano lessons. The lessons need not be interrupted, James pointed out, if they could find a gite with a piano. Sabine wasn't sure, in the same way she'd never been sure about Rachel's suitability as a music teacher for her girls. But, James pointed out, she was recovering from yet another relationship which had exploded in her face, and the charitable thing to do would be to invite her; and apart from that everyone, meaning Matt and Chrissie who in truth had never expressed an opinion about Rachel either way, thought well of her.
'So, Sabine,' said Matt patently changing the subject, 'how does it feel to be back in your own country?'
'It feels good. And especially to be here with all of you.'
'God it's hot,' Chrissie said, fanning herself with a place-mat. 'How about a swim? Let's all take our clothes off and jump in the pool.'
'What, me on my own with three women?' said Matt.
'We won't look,' said Rachel, peeling off her white vest; and she was first in.
Every morning a mist. A dense, damp mist hanging like thick muslin drawn across the landscape, penetrated only by the outline forms of the strongest trees and the sharpest limestone crags. And yet the foreground remained clear and sunny and bright as if the mist unrolling towards them like a bolt of draper's cloth had stopped thirty metres from the house. But despite the heat of the morning, the damp invaded the house. It swelled and cracked the timber shutters; it glued wooden drawers and made them stick tight; it dampened sheets; it teased knee and elbow joints and tormented old bone fractures.
'Is this normal for the Dordogne?' Jessie heard Rachel ask. And Chrissie ask. And Matt ask. 'This mist. Is it normal?'
Her mother was expected to be an expert on all matters French, from folk customs to meteorology, but her answer every time was, 'Don't ask me. I'm from the North.'
'Perfectly normal.' James knew no more about it than any of the others; though he had been to the region before, twice. Any idle comment about the weather might be interpreted by James as a criticism of his choice of holiday venue.
And indeed the mist was not at all unusual for that district of the Perigord - or the Dordogne as the British persist in calling it - lying as it did between the wide banks of the Lot and the meanders of the Dordogne itself. Every morning the engine-like progress of the yellow sun rolled the moisture of the land into a ball of grey floss; and by mid-morning the job was done and all mist burned off. The sky once again was the blue of heraldry. It was August, and the land had already delivered before these holidaymakers had arrived. Nuggets of corn had ripened and gleamed on the cob; figs plumped and split on the branch; plums fell and burst open on the ground. It made them feel somehow posthumous.
It was into these blue skies that Jessie gazed, watching the last of the disappearing mists. Her eyes seemed to reflect the pattern of the skies.
'That's a good trick,' said her instructor. 'How do you do that?'
Trick? 'Do what?'
'Make your eyes change colour like that. A moment ago they were grey like a sticky paste. Now they're like cornflowers.'
'I was just looking at the sky.'
'That's not what I meant, Jess. I meant where do you go, when your eyes glaze over like that. In your mind, where do you go and what do you see?'
Jessie shrugged. 'Nowhere. Nothing.'
'You were going to be wicked at the table last night, weren't you? When your father told you to go to bed. You decided not to. Can you always decide?'
Jessie looked pained. 'Can I go and swim now?'
Jessie's instructor regarded her steadily. 'Yes. But first let me ask if you looked in the mirror this morning.'
'A full twenty minutes?'
'It was difficult. Beth kept coming in and out and asking me what I was doing.' It was true. The simple task was harder than it seemed. Just finding a few moments alone was difficult in a house full of people.
'You'll just have to ignore Beth. It's not going to work if you don't do it properly. You won't see anything. Try again this evening, when everyone is busy. I'll try to keep Beth away from you. Now go and swim.'
Jessie peeled away, paused briefly on the edge of the pool, dived and shrieked as she hit the cold water. A keen swimmer, she had already developed a fine style and an impressive speed. After a moment she was joined in the water by Matt and then by Rachel. Sabine and Chrissie came down to relax on sun loungers. James was still in bed.
Everyone was concerned about Jessie. Jessie the golden child, Jessie the starred one, physically mature beyond her eleven years, clever beyond reproach, poised on the brink of womanhood. Jessie with her father's blue eyes and her mother's flawless, sallow skin; Jessie with her hair the colour of honey and fire and a careless, almost dirty laugh that came from neither parent; Jessie with a wayward streak, a dropped stitch in what should have been the flawless weave, the bug in the otherwise perfect programme.
What a flaw. What a bug. Jessie was inclined to take walks. She could go missing for hours at a time, and had done since she was three years old. She was disposed to take swims in places not designated for bathing, such as dangerous reservoirs, and lethal quarry pits and in the spaces between canal locks. She was inclined to take off her clothes in inappropriate places, such as in supermarkets near the bakery section, or in the High Street on the town's Carnival Day, or in the churchyard at a cousin's wedding.
'Why did you do it Jessie? Tell us why?'
'It was the smell of the fresh-baked bread.'
'Why, Jessie, why?'
'It was when they started throwing confetti.'
She also had a bizarre and frustrating trait of asking people their name, even though she knew the answer, even though she might have known the person in question for several years, and even though, at occasional times of stress, that person was her schoolteacher, or even her mother or her father. The trait might exhibit itself several times a day or not for a month or two. It always seem to arrive apropos of nothing:
'Goodnight, Godbless, and what's your name?'
'Well, as I told you last night and last week and the week before last week, I'm your father.'
'Can I stay up and watch television and what's your name?'
'For Christ's sake Jessie! I mean for Christ's sake!'
Naturally, Jessie had been looked at. She'd been looked at on the National Health by a child psychologist who made James angry by refusing to tell James what he wanted to hear. The psychologist said that, on the face of it, there was nothing wrong with Jessie.
'What do you mean "on the face of it"? For Christ's sake, either there is something wrong with her or there isn't.'
'Do you always get angry so easily at home?'
'Oh clever! Very clever! And I thought this was about Jessie's behaviour. Silly me.'
'My husband doesn't mean to be rude.' Sabine was accustomed, in her dealings with doctors, tax inspectors, council officials, bankers and hi-fi salesmen, to smoothing feathers behind him.
'All I mean is that there is a context for these things. I've given her a battery of tests. Jessie's response to all the standard questions and stimuli are perfectly normal. In fact she's well above average intelligence and shows a surprising degree of emotional maturity. What I haven't been able to detect are the trigger points for these examples of disturbing behaviour.'
But James didn't want context, and he didn't want trigger points. He wanted to know what was wrong with Jessie. He wanted someone to identify for him, clearly, that the blue wire had inadvertently been connected to the green fuse, and he was prepared to pay privately and handsomely for someone who could.
'The problem is neuro-physiological,' he was reassured by a much older and uncommonly genial specialist, who poured a fine malt into heavy lead crystal tumblers. 'It's caused by a chemical imbalance exacerbated by the hormonal rush the poor thing is experiencing just now-'
'This started long before puberty-' Sabine put in.
James held up his hand to her. 'Let the doctor finish, darling.'
'Your wife is correct but I'd expect the condition to stabilise. There are drugs we can prescribe in the short-term. I mean, we wouldn't want to be surprised in Sainsbury's again, now would we?'
Sabine didn't like the idea of drugs, and said so. James argued science, progress and the chemical solution, characterising Sabine's objections as superstitious.
'It's nothing to do with superstition, it's just that-'
'A.D.D.,' the specialist interrupted. 'Your daughter suffers from a variant of what we've come to call Attention Deficit Disorder.'
'The National Health doctor dismissed that diagnosis,' said Sabine.
'Well,' the specialist smiled, 'they do tend to skimp on the tests.'
So the drug Ritalin was prescribed, and seemed to work. It also seemed to incline Jessie towards apathy, to banish the sheen from her eye, to inflict her with constipation and to give her nightmares. Sabine felt that the visit to the specialist had done little more than equip them with an obscure phrase, and the only person who felt better after the consultation was James. She reduced the dose without telling her husband.
This covert action caused no problem for Jessie, for three months. Then one Saturday afternoon she returned from swimming in a highly excitable state, asking if it was all right to go to Brighton with her boyfriend.
'With who?' said James.
'My boyfriend. I met him at the swimming baths.'
Flustered, James called Sabine. He'd hoped for at least another two or three years before this question raised its inevitable head. 'You mean his parents want to take you to Brighton?'
'No, he wants to take me.'
'To Brighton? How?'
'On his bike.'
'Motorbike. He's waiting outside.'
James hurried to the window. Through the leaded glass he saw, at the bottom of their driveway, a young motorcyclist in racing leathers sitting astride his idling machine and smoking a cigarette. The motorcyclist held a crash helmet under one arm and was staring moodily into the gutter. James stormed to the door, almost wrenching it from its hinges, and marched down the driveway. The young man had one earring and a severe case of acne. He stamped out his cigarette in the road when he saw James approaching.
'She's eleven.' James barked. 'ELEVEN!'
Without a word, the young biker refitted his helmet and accelerated away. When James returned to the house Jessie was thrashing, kicking and screaming, fighting to break free of Sabine's grip. A tea-plate, a cup and a wine glass lay broken on the kitchen floor. James had to help Sabine restrain his daughter. He pushed her onto the sofa and held her until he felt the fit subside. Unnoticed, Beth cleared up the breakages with a dustpan and brush. Eventually Jessie pulled away and went to her room.
'That talk,' James said to Sabine. 'The talk. It's time you had that talk with your daughter. In fact it's clearly long overdue.'
Sabine took a deep breath. 'Come on Beth. You may as well hear all this stuff, too.'
Sabine knocked quietly on Jessie's bedroom door. Jessie, snuffling, let them in. James brought up a tray of tea and biscuits and left them to it. Beth listened with wide, appalled eyes. Jessie wore the expression of someone who was being ticked off. Sabine laid out the facts of life as honestly and plainly as she could, avoiding moral censure but arguing for the sanctity of and special place for sexuality in a loving relationship. Then she asked if there were any questions.
'What's necrophilia,' Jessie wanted to know.
Sabine had put her hands together under her chin, began to speak, and then said, 'Beth, will you go and fetch your Father?'
Matt came dripping from the swimming pool, beads of moisture gleaming on his hirsute body. He flopped like a seal onto one of the sunloungers.
'And then,' Sabine was telling Chrissie. 'She wanted to know about anal sex, oral sex, bondage, God knows what. I couldn't believe it.'
'Did you tell her,' Chrissie asked.
'Some things, some no.'
'I think,' Rachel said, also dripping pool water, 'the best policy is to be honest about everything.'
'Everything?' Sabine asked. 'You can't be candid with an eleven year old about Golden Rain.'
'Surely we have to,' Rachel argued, going unheard.
'What's Golden Rain?' said Matt. 'Second thoughts, I think I know.'
'Exactly. But where is she getting all this stuff from? Who's telling her all these things?'
All eyes turned to look at Jessie, who cut a beautiful, stylish front crawl through the shimmering water of the pool.
© Graham Joyce 1998
The Stormwatcher is published in the UK by Penguin.
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