‘So how is it?’ I asked, while Mum walked Thomas around the garden, showing him the frogs in the tiny pond. Dad was watching football with Granddad, exclaiming in mild frustration at another supposed missed opportunity.
‘Great. Really good. I mean, it’s hard not having any help with Thomas, and it did take him a while to settle in at the crèche.’ She leant forwards. ‘Although you mustn’t tell Mum – I told her he was fine.’
‘But you like the course.’
Treena’s face broke out into a smile. ‘It’s the best. I can’t tell you, Lou, the joy of just using my brain again. I feel like there’s been this big chunk of me missing for ages … and it’s like I’ve found it again. Does that sound wanky?’
I shook my head. I was actually glad for her. I wanted to tell her about the library, and the computers, and what I had done for Will. But I thought this should probably be her moment. We sat on the foldaway chairs, under the tattered sunshade, and sipped at our mugs of tea. Her fingers, I noticed, were all the right colours.
‘She misses you,’ I said.
‘We’ll be back most weekends from now on. I just needed … Lou, it wasn’t just about settling Thomas in. I just needed a bit of time to be away from it all. I just wanted time to be a different person.’
She looked a bit like a different person. It was weird. Just a few weeks away from home could rub the familiarity right off someone. I felt like she was on the path to being someone I wasn’t quite sure of. I felt, weirdly, as if I were being left behind.
‘Mum told me your disabled bloke came to dinner.’
‘He’s not my disabled bloke. His name’s Will.’
‘Sorry. Will. So it’s going well, then, the old anti-bucket list?’
‘So-so. Some trips have been more successful than others.’ I told her about the horse racing disaster, and the unexpected triumph of the violin concert. I told her about our picnics, and she laughed when I told her about my birthday dinner.
‘Do you think … ?’ I could see her working out the best way to put it. ‘Do you think you’ll win?’
Like it was some kind of contest.
I pulled a tendril from the honeysuckle and began picking off its leaves. ‘I don’t know. I think I’m going to need to up my game.’ I told her what Mrs Traynor had said to me about going abroad.
‘I can’t believe you went to a violin concert, though. You, of all people!’
‘I liked it.’
She raised an eyebrow.
‘No. Really, I did. It was … emotional.’
She looked at me carefully. ‘Mum says he’s really nice.’
‘He is really nice.’
‘A spinal injury doesn’t mean you turn into Quasimodo.’ Please don’t say anything about it being a tragic waste, I told her silently.
But perhaps my sister was smarter than that. ‘Anyway. She was definitely surprised. I think she was prepared for Quasimodo.’
‘That’s the problem, Treen,’ I said, and threw the rest of my tea into the flower bed. ‘People always are.’
Mum was cheerful over supper that night. She had cooked lasagne, Treena’s favourite, and Thomas was allowed to stay up as a treat. We ate and talked and laughed and talked about safe things, like the football team, and my job, and what Treena’s fellow students were like. Mum must have asked Treena a hundred times if she was sure she was managing okay on her own, whether there was anything she needed for Thomas – as if they had anything spare they could have given her. I was glad I had warned Treena about how broke they were. She said no, gracefully and with conviction. It was only afterwards I thought to ask if it was the truth.
That night I was woken at midnight by the sound of crying. It was Thomas, in the box room. I could hear Treena trying to comfort him, to reassure him, the sound of the light going on and off, a bed being rearranged. I lay in the dark, watching the sodium light filter through my blinds on to my newly painted ceiling, and waited for it to stop. But the same thin wail began again at two. This time, I heard Mum padding across the hallway, and murmured conversation. Then, finally, Thomas was silent again.
At four I woke to the sound of my door creaking open. I blinked groggily, turning towards the light. Thomas stood silhouetted against the doorway, his oversized pyjamas loose around his legs, his comfort blanket half spooled on the floor. I couldn’t see his face, but he stood there uncertainly, as if unsure what to do next.
‘Come here, Thomas,’ I whispered. As he padded towards me, I could see he was still half asleep. His steps were halting, his thumb thrust into his mouth, his treasured blanket clutched to his side. I held the duvet open and he climbed into bed beside me, his tufty head burrowing into the other pillow, and curled up into a foetal ball. I pulled the duvet over him and lay there, gazing at him, marvelling at the certainty and immediacy of his sleep.
‘Night, night, sweetheart,’ I whispered, and kissed his forehead, and a fat little hand crept out and took a chunk of my T-shirt in its grasp, as if to reassure itself that I couldn’t move away.
‘What was the best place you’ve ever visited?’
We were sitting in the shelter, waiting for a sudden squall to stop so that we could walk around the rear gardens of the castle. Will didn’t like going to the main area – too many people to gawp at him. But the vegetable gardens were one of its hidden treasures, visited by few. Its secluded orchards and fruit gardens were separated by honeyed pea-shingle paths that Will’s chair could negotiate quite happily.
‘In terms of what? And what’s that?’
I poured some soup from a flask and held it up to his lips. ‘Tomato.’
‘Okay. Jesus, that’s hot. Give me a minute.’ He squinted into the distance. ‘I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro when I hit thirty. That was pretty incredible.’
‘A little over nineteen thousand feet to Uhuru Peak. That said, I pretty much crawled the last thousand or so. The altitude hits you pretty hard.’
‘Was it cold?’
‘No … ’ he smiled at me. ‘It’s not like Everest. Not the time of year that I went, anyway.’ He gazed off into the distance, briefly lost in his remembrance. ‘It was beautiful. The roof of Africa, they call it. When you’re up there, it’s like you can actually see to the end of the world.’
Will was silent for a moment. I watched him, wondering where he really was. When we had these conversations he became like the boy in my class, the boy who had distanced himself from us by venturing away.
‘So where else have you liked?’
‘Trou d’Eau Douce bay, Mauritius. Lovely people, beautiful beaches, great diving. Um … Tsavo National Park, Kenya, all red earth and wild animals. Yosemite. That’s California. Rock faces so tall your brain can’t quite process the scale of them.’
He told me of a night he’d spent rock climbing, perched on a ledge several hundred feet up, how he’d had to pin himself into his sleeping bag, and attach it to the rock face, because to roll over in his sleep would have been disastrous.
‘You’ve actually just described my worst nightmare, right there.’
‘I like more metropolitan places too. Sydney, I loved. The Northern Territories. Iceland. There’s a place not far from the airport where you can bathe in the volcanic springs. It’s like a strange, nuclear landscape. Oh, and riding across Central China. I went to this place about two days’ ride from the Capital of Sichuan province, and the locals spat at me because they hadn’t seen a white person before.’
‘Is there anywhere you haven’t been?’
He took another sip of soup. ‘North Korea?’ He pondered. ‘Oh, I’ve never been to Disneyland. Will that do? Not even Eurodisney.’
‘I once booked a ticket to Australia. Never went, though.’
He turned to me in surprise.
‘Stuff happened. It’s fine. Perhaps I will go one day.’
‘Not “perhaps”. You’ve got to get away from here, Clark. Promise me you won’t spend the rest of your life stuck around this bloody parody of a place mat.’
‘Promise me? Why?’ I tried to make my voice light. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I just … can’t bear the thought of you staying around here forever.’ He swallowed. ‘You’re too bright. Too interesting.’ He looked away from me. ‘You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible.’
‘Okay,’ I said, carefully. ‘Then tell me where I should go. Where would you go, if you could go anywhere?’
‘Right now. And you’re not allowed to say Kilimanjaro. It has to be somewhere I can imagine going myself.’
When Will’s face relaxed, he looked like someone quite different. A smile settled across his face now, his eyes creasing with pleasure. ‘Paris. I would sit outside a cafe in Le Marais and drink coffee and eat a plate of warm croissants with unsalted butter and strawberry jam.’
‘It’s a little district in the centre of Paris. It is full of cobbled streets and teetering apartment blocks and g*y men and orthodox Jews and women of a certain age who once looked like Brigitte Bardot. It’s the only place to stay.’
I turned to face him, lowering my voice. ‘We could go,’ I said. ‘We could do it on the Eurostar. It would be easy. I don’t think we’d even need to ask Nathan to come. I’ve never been to Paris. I’d love to go. Really love to go. Especially with someone who knows his way around. What do you say, Will?’
I could see myself in that cafe. I was there, at that table, maybe admiring a new pair of French shoes, purchased in a chic little boutique, or picking at a pastry with Parisian red fingernails. I could taste the coffee, smell the smoke from the next table’s Gauloises.
‘What?’ It took me a moment to drag myself away from that roadside table.
‘But you just told me –’
‘You don’t get it, Clark. I don’t want to go there in this – this thing.’ He gestured at the chair, his voice dropping. ‘I want to be in Paris as me, the old me. I want to sit in a chair, leaning back, my favourite clothes on, with pretty French girls who pass by giving me the eye just as they would any other man sitting there. Not looking away hurriedly when they realize I’m a man in an overgrown bloody pram.’
‘But we could try,’ I ventured. ‘It needn’t be –’
‘No. No, we couldn’t. Because at the moment I can shut my eyes and know exactly how it feels to be in the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, cigarette in hand, clementine juice in a tall, cold glass in front of me, the smell of someone’s steak frites cooking, the sound of a moped in the distance. I know every sensation of it.’
He swallowed. ‘The day we go and I’m in this bloody contraption, all those memories, those sensations will be wiped out, erased by the struggle to get behind the table, up and down Parisian kerbs, the taxi drivers who refuse to take us, and the wheelchair bloody power pack that wouldn’t charge in a French socket. Okay?’
His voice had hardened. I screwed the top back on the vacuum flask. I examined my shoes quite carefully as I did it, because I didn’t want him to see my face.
‘Okay,’ I said.
‘Okay.’ Will took a deep breath.
Below us a coach stopped to disgorge another load of visitors outside the castle gates. We watched in silence as they filed out of the vehicle and into the old fortress in a single, obedient line, primed to stare at the ruins of another age.
It’s possible he realized I was a bit subdued, because he leant into me a little. And his face softened. ‘So, Clark. The rain seems to have stopped. Where shall we go this afternoon. The maze?’