By Blood We Live Page 4

Huge relief when I got the power symbol, the AT&T bars, the home screen (Botticelli’s Primavera, which in spite of everything—things of beauty, joys forever—still stole a vivid second to beguile my 24/7 aesthete). I called her cell.

Voicemail. She’d changed her greeting. Gone was Bette Davis saying: I’ve been drinking all the way from California—and I’m drunk! Replaced by Justine herself, sounding remote: “You’ve reached Justine Cavell. Leave a message.”

It occurred to me, as it has countless times before, that you can’t take your eye off this world for a moment. Smoke signals. You blink. Cellphones. Six thousand years of foot messengers—now this: instant access, everywhere. FaceTime. I wish they hadn’t called it that. Face Time. I can’t help seeing it as an implacable instruction.

“For fuck’s sake, Justine,” I said. “Call me, will you? It’s important. Something’s going on. I’m a bit … Just call me as soon as you get this.”

It calmed me, slightly, to be under my own roof, but the house felt subtly altered. I’d left in such a rush three hours ago I hadn’t noticed. Now here were my sweet walnut floors and high ceilings, the study’s amber lamps and red velvet drapes and twenty thousand books (one for each year of my life, I quip to after-dark guests) the hallway’s green and gold Persian runner and the kitchen’s copper splash-backs and black slate tops—but all possessed of a taut sentience, as if they didn’t know whether to let me in on what they knew, whatever the hell it was they did know. Justine had tidied the TV room since our movie double bill. She’d washed and put away the glasses, got rid of the spent bottles, emptied the ashtrays, plumped up the cushions. Incredibly, it looked as if she might have vacuumed. My nostrils said recent frangipani incense and Pledge floor-wax. Why? Had she thrown up somewhere? Were it anyone else I might have supposed a lover’s visit, room-hopping sex, stains to mop, odours to expunge. But this was Justine, therefore that wasn’t a possibility.

There was nothing to do but wait for her. I took a consolation shower in the vault. Not very consoling, since the dream leftovers wouldn’t stop burgeoning and vanishing in my head, with a little more—but no less maddening—detail. On the empty beach we’d walked until we’d found a small wooden rowing boat in the shadow of a wall of black rocks, blistered and barnacled and half-covered in sand and sun-dried seaweed. (We? Me and whoever was with me. The liar in every word, presumably.) When we found the boat I said: “It’s happening. Just as in the dream. I know what it means. Of course. I know now what it means.”

Yes, well, I didn’t know now what it meant.

Naked, towelled dry, I stood in front of the full-length mirror. (Reflections? Yes. We show up on film, too, don’t let anyone tell you different.) Courtesy of the blood booze-up on Randolf’s tab I looked ludicrously healthy. My skin, currently the colour of a double-shot latte, was tight and smooth. I used to be darker. Much darker, long ago. I reached up to touch the little carved stone Oa that hung on a chain around my neck. Its small weight was a comfort, as was the image it conjured, of my father’s hands working it in the light of the cooking fire, his dark eyes full of calm knowledge, the smell of roasting meat, my mother digging a hole nearby for the offering …

It’s a terrible thing to see yourself start to cry, as I did, just then. Not least because in spite of your misery there’s how funny your face looks. But here were the tears—dear God—again, and the feeling of something big and obvious infuriatingly just out of view—

At which point I heard the door upstairs open and close. Justine was back.

4

IT’S MY NATURE to move silently. Therefore she got an almighty fright. She was standing in the study by the desk with her cellphone in her hand, staring into space with the look of someone trying to assimilate a shock. She was dressed in a short black suede jacket, red t-shirt, tight white jeans and red suede clogs. It’s taken her years to wear anything on her feet other than running shoes. Naturally. Her world being for so long a place where she had to be ready to run.

“Jesus Christ.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. You’ve had your hair cut.” The centre-parted jaw-length bob had been replaced by something short and snazzily chopped. She looked like the world’s prettiest schoolboy.

“Oh my God,” she said. “Fuck.”

“What’s wrong?”

She sat down in the desk’s swivel chair, a cream leather ergonomic thing that would’ve been at home in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. The room was lit only by the Tiffany desk lamp, a delicate trapezoid of stained glass in green, gold and peach that threw a soft light on her pale hands and face. Turquoise nail polish. A big amber ring I didn’t recognise. She smelled, deliciously, of cigarette smoke and booze and dry ice. She’d been to the club, TCOS, three floors on Sunset Boulevard, which I’d given her as a twenty-third birthday present five years ago. The world having nothing better to do, there was endless online speculation about what TCOS stood for. Only Justine and I knew. The Comfort Of Strangers. Her choice.

“You look different,” I said to her. “It’s not just the hair.”

She let out the breath she’d been holding. “Yeah,” she said. “I would … Fuck.”

“Will you for the love of Thoth tell me what is going on?”

Pause.

“Have you fed?” she asked.

“Yes. Something’s wrong with me. I don’t … How come you vacuumed?”

“What?”

“The place has been cleaned since last night. How come?”

She sat back in the chair, which received her with a maidenly sigh. Three floor-to-ceiling walls of books attended in silence. A little bubble of Randolf burst in me: him six years old, falling for the tenth time off a bike he was trying to learn to ride in the yard. His father’s big beer-flavoured mouth laughing. I had a feeling of something catching up with me.

“That wasn’t last night,” Justine said. “That was two years ago.”

5

A CONFESSION: MY memory isn’t exactly the Rolls-Royce of memories. Memory full, the computers say, managing with machine pathos to make you feel you’ve force fed them, like those poor foie gras geese. But my memory’s never full. My memory goes in for violent clear-outs. My memory self-harms. It also makes wild boasts and risible claims, sends me absurd snapshots and improbable clips: the bodies of Amenhotep’s murdered tomb builders in a moonlit heap, for example, a poignant assembly of nipples and feet and grinning faces, covered in dust. Or Niccolo Linario on a red damask couch looking up at me and saying in Latin: They’ve arrested Machiavelli. Did you hear? Or my own hands, darker-skinned, thicker-fingernailed, winding gut around a worked flint. Oh yes, flint. I don’t expect you to believe it. For myself I’m beyond believing or not believing. For myself I just—as my darling and religiously commercial Americans say—deal. I decided long ago that the far from total recall is a coping mechanism. Who, after all, is built to carry twenty thousand years’ worth of recollections? Too much luggage for the hold. Therefore bags and cases must be continually jettisoned and replaced, jettisoned and replaced. Otherwise flight would be impossible. Otherwise we’d crash. Only yesterday I’d said to Justine: You know, Juss, I sometimes think that if I remembered everything that’s happened to me, I’d simply die. And she’d looked at me with disturbing gentle exhaustion and said: I know, Fluff. You’ve told me.

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