Chapter 1: Fur
AGHGH, I can't help it. Even thought it really should have stopped, haha. URGHGH. Here's the first one.
NOTE TO NEW READERS: probably worth reading earlier parts of the series to get the hang of this!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sansa was prodding him in the side, a tiny gentle dig that nevertheless would not go away. Her voice, tugging him out of his dream of slaying a load of cunts with a massive fucking sword.
Sandor rolled over onto his back. ‘What is it? What’s the matter? Is it time to get up?’ he said, except that to the outside world it sounded like a stream-of-consciousness monologue by the Honey Monster. And then Sandor knew. Because he could hear it. ‘Oh Christ,’ he said. ‘For fuck’s sake.’
‘Why is he always making so much noise?’ said Sansa, in little more than a whimper. ‘We never get any sleep anymore.’
‘This is your fault.’
Neither of them could really be bothered to fight. Sandor lay looking at the ceiling, listening to the whimpering coming from the next room. ‘I’ll get him,’ he said, rising at the same time, half of the duvet moving with him. Sansa pulled it back and rolled over with a groan.
He went next door, naked, scratching his bollocks. Picked the little critter up with one hand. ‘Right, you little bastard,’ he said. ‘This is the last fucking time.’
He brought him back and plopped him in the middle of the bed, by Sansa’s cheek, on top of the duvet. She stroked his face. ‘You are a very bad boy,’ she said, in that sexy, semi-comatose voice. Time was that she was saying that sort of thing to him.
The little one licked her nose. He’d stopped whimpering, obviously.
It had definitely been her fault. She’d been the one blinking her eyelashes at Sandor for the last few months, until he’d caved and got her the damn puppy.
He stared at the ceiling. His hand, which had been straying furtively downwards underneath his duvet, came back up. The same sounds from next door got louder. A hallway light came on.
‘This,’ he said, to no one at all, because there was no one to receive and sympathise with his utter despair. ‘Is insufferable.’
More noise. A noise like – he should be able to compare it to someone. To the string sounds in Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, but that wasn’t quite right. Lutosławski? His new goal was to think of music by female composers because he was an ardent feminist, but no divine inspiration came. Robin sighed. He would not be able to think. To express his art. Not like this.
He pulled his pyjama bottoms up properly and rolled over. He would not be able to express anything.
‘What do you think?’
‘Savage. Awesome. Always. Even in that,’ Arya said, reaching up to flick at Pod’s graduation cap. Pod grinned and blushed, two things that almost always appeared simultaneously. They were inside the Royal Fucking Albert Hall, where Imperial students got to do their thing. ‘Dang,’ she said. ‘You are the straight-up clever one in this relationship.’ She pulled him closer by the edges of his not-quite-grey, not-quite-brown gown.
‘That’s not true,’ said Pod, letting her tug him down towards her face. ‘You’re very clever.’
‘Clever at drawing. That is the only thing. I am University Bloody Challenged.’
He kissed her.
She checked her phone for anything from Missy.
Bare rain blah x
Missy had been pretty nervous about her trip north, even though she was hotter-than-hot and any dickhead in his right mind would be getting on his knees and letting her whip them or whatever.
Arya messaged back. Ur so in there bb
Yeah? He makes it sound like a work/study ting…
hard 2 tell
No way hose
Dat soldier boy wants 2 bang u
He is just a bit shy
backwards in coming forwards
IF U KNOW WOT I MEAN BRB LMAO xxxx
‘I’m super-proud of your badass self,’ she said to Pod, putting her phone away and reaching inside his gown to grab his arse, which was better than ever due to him having been the captain of the college badminton team this year. ‘Go get your certificate, you sexy fucking engineering brainbox.’
She watched him go and join the other 4th years in the rows, and waved to Uncle Ilyn, who had saved a seat for her. As she squeezed past the knees of many proud parents, she let the smile that she’d been working so hard to keep finally collapse. Because there was only so shiny she could pretend to be when she had such a totally serious, oh-fuck-my-life-is-over secret on her hands.
She’d let him graduate first.
Raining. Of course it was bloody raining. Because this was Northumberland.
Edd wiped the windscreen, which had fogged, because the heating was on the blink again in this godforsaken car, even though he’d not long ago had it MOT’ed. There were bloody cows in the road, and a line of cars waiting.
He looked at his phone again in the faint chance that by some miracle it had found a new battery and turned itself on, which by Edd’s standards was very optimistic thinking.
He was thirty-five minutes late to meet her and his phone had kicked the bucket and she was outside in the rain and he was still at least five minutes away, if he put his foot down. Once these cows got moving. They were ambling along like they were window-shopping. She’d probably given up and had got on the train back down south.
A fit of madness (and a couple of brandies one night) had got him into this. After Sandor’s wedding, and the dream-like night that had condensed down mostly to elderflower cordial and the curve of her hip in his memory, he’d stayed in touch with Missy. On and off. He didn’t think it best to get too close, what with Afghanistan round the corner, as it always was. The next tour had come round too quickly, nine months that could be summarised as sand, cold, heat, seeing some kid lose his forearm, and too much tinned food. Not much else to report.
The best thing had been the odd message she’d sent him, photos of her in London that he couldn’t help staring at for far too long, even though she had all her clothes on. Pouting with an umbrella over her head in front of a museum. At a festival with Sansa’s younger sister and her boyfriend, the three of them in wellies and face paint. The one of her with glasses on the end of her nose, holding up a book about ancient languages, had sent him over the edge, and he’d invited her to come up. All with a good pretence, mind – Edd had suggested she meet Grenn, who could tell her more about translating in the field than he could. She’d said yes dead quickly, booked trains, and whilst the next two weeks moved as slowly as these cows, the day was finally here and now he was so bloody late that he slightly wanted to cry.
Instead, he beeped, ineffectually. A cow mooed.
‘We’re going to miss it,’ said Sandor.
‘We’re not. We’re totally not. Come on baby, you can do it.’
They were standing over Bowie, who was currently shitting, or attempting to shit, his little legs trembling, onto the recently pedestrianised road from South Kensington tube, whilst Sansa crouched over him with a bag already inside out over her hand. He was still very nervous about being out and about and had effected a minor yelpy meltdown in Sandor’s arms on the District Line, which caused everyone around them to cock their head to one side and coo. He really was very cute – Bowie, but also Sandor, even moreso with his dog accessory. Sansa had only begged for the puppy after he’d picked up one in the park – its owner had dropped its lead and the dog was making a run for it. Her ovaries had near spontaneously-combusted over the sight of him cradling the blonde Labrador puppy in his arms and that, as she’d told Missy later, was that.
‘He’ll have graduated and popped the champagne by the time we get there,’ said Sandor, staring down at the puppy. ‘Come on, you wee bastard. We should have left him at home.’
‘He’d get lonely without anyone there. Missy’s away tonight, remember? There you go.’ She grabbed the poo quickly, turned the bag over her hand, and deftly popped it in the nearest bin. ‘Done.’
Bowie was a beagle from Battersea, with the biggest brown eyes of any dog ever. Sansa had taken one look at him and died. Contrary to Sandor’s recent grumbling, they’d decided really rather mutually that between all three of their schedules – Missy was lodging with them – that they could take him.
They arrived at the Royal Albert Hall just in time to see Pod go up to get his ribboned scroll, casting a sheepish grin towards the left of the audience, where Sansa could see Arya fist-pumping and giving a fiercely loud wolf-whistle.
Afterwards, they found them over the road in Kensington Gardens, Arya taking pictures on her phone of Pod and his uncle.
‘Hey sis.’ Arya came over and bent down. ‘Hey to the second cutest living thing on earth after my 1st-class degree-smashing boyfriend.’ She stuck her fingers around the back of Bowie’s ears. He licked her.
‘Congratulations, pal,’ said Sandor, shaking Pod’s hand. Sansa hugged him.
‘Thanks guys,’ Pod said, doing his customarily humble, wide-cheeked grin.
Sansa dug in her bag. ‘I got champagne.’ She brought out little plastic cups as Pod popped it open, the foam going everywhere, Bowie jumping about in a puddle of it.
‘Mmm, champagne dog,’ said Arya. ‘My fave.’ But she declined Sansa’s cup, oddly. ‘Nah. Don’t feel like it.’
‘Since when did you not feel like a drink?’
Arya gave her an odd glare. ‘Fine. Fuck it.’ She took Sansa’s cup, and drank it all in one. Then poured another.
Sansa’s phone buzzed in her bag. A text from Missy.
Still no sign ☹
Arya was looking over her shoulder. ‘Tell me Captain Chickenshit hasn’t stood her up.’
Sandor was trying to keep his champagne cup away from Bowie, now propped in his elbow, and Sansa managed to resist the urge to take yet another picture of the two of them for Instagram (hashtag: #onesexymanandhisdog).
‘He won’t have,’ Sandor said. ‘No chance in hell.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ Edd said, keys in his hand, out of breath.
Missy was sitting on a wall, wearing dungarees and a little denim jacket, completely the wrong clothes for this climate (the month of July was not, as other parts the world might assume, necessarily compatible with clement weather in Northumberland). Being rained on.
She hopped off the wall. Her hair was different, he thought, almost with disappointment, which was ridiculous, as she was still the most beautiful girl in the county, the country, continent, world, universe. It was in tight plaits against the crown of her head, and he could see the raindrops clinging to each braid.
‘Oh, that’s ok,’ she said, her voice softer than the rain, as if she hadn’t been waiting for forty-five minutes. ‘Hi Edd.’
‘The car wouldn’t start. And there was a level crossing queue. Not this one. And cows. And my phone –’ he looked at her. He sounded mental. ‘I’m not normally late. I hate being late. I’m sorry.’ His whole professional being depended on precision timing. Down to the second. His body wasn’t reacting well. ‘Hello,’ he said, taking a deep breath.
‘I was starting to think you’d had second thoughts,’ she said, giving a slight shiver. Gave him a smile that made him think of marshmallows.
‘No,’ he said, over-emphatically. ‘God, no.’
Missy sneezed. A sheep baa-ed behind them and she half-turned. ‘You and me both, bred.’ She glanced back at Edd. ‘Not feeling too sharp.’ She sneezed again and held her hand to her nose. ‘Oh,’ she said, looking at the liquid on her thumb. ‘Shame.’
Wonderful. He’d left a goddess to die of influenza in the rain. Edd took off his coat, made her put it on. ‘There’s probably a tissue in the pocket. Or use the sleeve.’
It felt awkward, he thought, as she climbed into the car next to him, giving a little wet, coldy hum. Odd. Horrible. But then he had left her here for practically an hour. They hadn’t hugged. Or kissed. Or anything. Perhaps she really had just come up for the chat with Grenn; a sort of work experience, in which he was simply the messenger, the driver, the soft bloody loser. She’d probably like Grenn. They’d probably get married.
Twenty minutes later, they were in a village pub, horse racing on in the background. The sight of Missy eating steak and kidney pie and chips was very discombobulating.
‘So this is all new for me,’ she said, sawing at a bit of kidney and looking a bit healthier.
‘Pie and chips?’
She gave him a sweetly confused look. ‘Northumberland. It’s well north. Basically Scotland.’
‘Sorry it’s not the greatest day for it.’
‘You did warn me,’ she said. Another warm, tentative smile as she dipped a chip into the garlic mayo pot. ‘So how far are we from your barracks?’
‘Not so far. Fifteen miles or so. I’ve booked you a hotel. A guest house.’
Her face fell, just a little. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Ok. Safe.’ She picked up a chip.
A large, ruddy-faced man at the bar shouted loudly at the telly in the corner.
He found her gazing at him in the way of a beautiful, Crufts-winning puppy. ‘You know that I came up to see you. I mean, the translation bit will be really cool, but it’s a bonus. To the seeing you bit.’ She gave him a more careful, searching smile, a low wattage torch.
‘Right,’ he said, his voice scratchy, his heart celebratory.
He had never done anything bad. There was the time that he rewrote Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of ‘Quand j’étais chez mon père’ in music class with lots of minor ninth chords; or when he secretly put extra chilli in Thoros’ food (he didn’t notice); but apart from that, Robin was peerless in his adherence to rules.
Which made his current whereabouts – Bristol Temple Meads Platform 1, clutching a ticket in his hand, at 2.47pm on a school day – feel both terrifying and utterly exhilarating. For he knew exactly what to do to solve his current malaise.
It would be sick.
The green fields and occasional houses of the south Midlands smeared past the window. Arya sighed and put her head on Pod’s newly-graduated shoulder.
It being the holidays, they were heading back to Bristol following a celebration dinner in London with Ilyn and his terrifying girlfriend Chella, who was now a few seats in front on the train, licking Ilyn’s ear. Sansa and Sandor were supposed to come out with them, except their stupid-cute, dopey puppy was freaking out and they had taken him home instead. Arya had clung onto Sansa for a little longer than normal when they’d hugged goodbye.
Pod put his arm around her. ‘Is everything ok? Are you not feeling so good?’ The whole afternoon and early evening Pod had kept looking at her with a mildly concerned expression, even though she was doing her best to be completely and utterly normal.
She couldn’t hide it any longer. ‘Problem,’ she said, quietly, to the window, before looking up at him.
He looked wary for a second, before banishing it, but she still knew what that thought had been, however fleeting. Gendry. ‘Not that,’ she said. ‘Never that.’ She would never cheat on him for as long as she fucking lived. Never again.
‘What is it?’
She would have to just tell him. A glance over towards Ilyn, who wouldn’t be able to hear them due to Chella’s tongue against his eardrum (she seemed to have a thing about ears). ‘I haven’t had my period yet,’ Arya said, watching Pod’s eyebrows lift, the graceful flight of a very heavy bird.
‘OK,’ he said, just as quietly. ‘How long? Sorry I didn’t notice.’
‘Like, nine days.’
‘Wow. OK.’ He looked like he was trying to solve a very hard logistical engineering problem. ‘Did that ever happen before?’
‘Nope. Not since I was fifteen, anyway.’
‘OK. Shall we get a test?’
Pod didn’t move.
‘Says I’m pregnant.’
‘OK,’ he said, swallowed and looked out of the window.
Ages: Sansa is 24; Sandor is 41; Arya is 20; Podrick is 22; Robin is 14; Edd is 36; Missandei is 21.
Bare = UK slang for lots/loads/many.
DOCTOR SWIMMINGFOX’S CONTEMPORARY MUSIC CORNER:
Penderecki’s ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’ is a renowned 20th-century work.
Obscure GoT Character Corner
Arya was standing by her bedroom window at home in Bristol. Pod had now said ‘OK’ 25 times. His usually cutely-implacable face had seized into a sort of blank bewilderment. They had been back together for over a year, and everything had been great. More than great. In each other’s pockets, basically thinking the same thoughts half the time, or at least knowing what the other was about to say. It was like some dance, the two of them. Even the fact that he was going to Chicago for a three-month internship in two weeks didn’t shake her like his absence to uni in London had before. She knew that they were solid as a fucking rock.
‘Sorry,’ said Pod, who was now sitting on the bed. ‘But – when?’
‘I don’t know. The fucking Pill is supposed to fucking work,’ she said, crossing her arms, although she faintly remembered missing a couple of days and then taking three at once, blithely assuming that would sort it. She wouldn’t tell him that bit.
‘What do you want to do?’ he said.
‘I can’t have it,’ she said, her voice very tiny. The idea of some little alien thing germinating inside her was like a horror movie. It felt extremely close and extremely far away at the same time, like her stomach – her womb – were miles away, in a different country. ‘I’m – I’m too young.’
‘OK,’ said Pod. Again.
‘I can’t,’ she said, feeling hopeless.
He seemed to come to, as if someone had just slapped him awake. Blinked, and practical Pod was there again. Thank fuck. ‘I know. Of course. We’ll – go to the doctor’s.’
She nodded. The doctor. The doc would refer them to some clinic and they’d sort it. End of.
‘I’ll help with everything,’ Pod said. ‘I’ll be here.’
It would be fine.
‘I thought it would be a bit higher.’
Missy was standing one and a half metres above Edd, in his coat, looking glorious in the rain.
After the pub, Edd had relaxed a bit. The glass of red wine probably hadn’t hurt in that regard. And it seemed to have warmed Missy up – she wasn’t sneezing any more at least. He’d driven them to Corbridge, a ruined Roman village with rusting armour in the museum part and rubbled dwellings outside. And what was left of Hadrian’s Wall.
‘I don’t think it was ever that high,’ he said. ‘Just full of pesky Romans.’
‘Togas and all that,’ Missy said thoughtfully. ‘Quae Romani umquam nobis - fecerint,’ she said, with only a little hesitation.
Bloody hell, she was clever. ‘You know Latin as well, do you?’
‘Just a bit,’ she said, still looking over his head at the soggy fields. ‘Helps with the Romance languages.’
Romance. Definitely a foreign word. Did pie and chips and a slippery northern wall count as romance?
‘You should come up here,’ Missy said. ‘See England how the Romans did.’ She pretended to hold a spear with a mock-ferocious face and Edd tried very hard not to faint.
You really weren’t supposed to stand on this wall. It was centuries of history, one of Britain’s most famous moments. He swallowed, and climbed up to join her, still pretending that he was a stout northerner and didn’t need his coat.
‘It’s nice, Edd,’ Missy said.
He shivered, subtly. Tried to imagine marauding Scots coming at him hell for leather. They’d be less terrifying than his current situation.
‘No,’ said Edd. ‘I’m fine.’
‘I’m telling Ygritte on you,’ Missy said, giving him a gently flirtatious grin. At Sandor’s stag weekend last year, the mad Hull woman Ygritte who’d goosed him in the karaoke bar kept telling everyone that Yorkshire lads and lasses basically just wore their underwear on New Year’s, shouting top that to Edd and giving him two fingers.
‘Quiet, you,’ Edd said, putting his hands in his pockets, looking at the stones at his feet, and back at her. At her mouth. Up at the rain. Dear God, he wanted to kiss her. It was horrible.
‘Mamihlapinatapei,’ she said, in a drifting voice, gazing at him.
‘Sorry?’ he said, feeling increasingly out of his depth.
‘Never mind,’ she said, and took a breath, put a hand on his shoulder and kissed him. She tasted of spearmint chewing gum.
Several more small kisses, causing the blood to rush to Edd’s ears, the sound of raucous Scots roaring. Kissing. On Hadrian’s bloody Wall.
‘I reckon Roman soldiers might have been a bit told off for that,’ he said, straightening, his voice horrendously scratchy.
‘I bet you’d totally rock a toga,’ Missy said, looking at his knees. Sweetly grinning.
‘That’s wishful thinking,’ he said, and glanced at her mouth again.
There was a call from someone in a luminous yellow bib. A rather purposeful stride towards them, and a violent waving to get them off the wall.
‘Busted,’ said Missy.
‘Do you think Arya’s OK with Pod going to America?’
Sansa was curled into Sandor’s oven-warm side, and Bowie was curled asleep in her arms, with Planet Earth IV on their big telly in their little living room in South London.
‘Dunno,’ said Sandor, his eyes fixed on the screen, upon which a duck-billed platypus was attacking a rival male with the poisonous spur on its foot.
‘Don’t you think she was a little weird today?’
‘No more than usual,’ he said, before glancing over and sighing. ‘What did I miss?’
Sansa gazed at the screen. ‘I don’t know. She just didn’t seem – herself.’
‘She’ll be alright,’ Sandor said, in that casually confident way that he said a lot of things these days, such as when he declared he was going to make meatballs from scratch, or the way he talked about one problem pupil who was improving under his watchful eye, or how he would tell her that she was the sexiest fucking woman in the world and he’d kill anyone who said any different. He was really turning out to be a very marvellous husband indeed.
‘I love you,’ Sansa said.
‘You talking to me or the dog?’ he said to the TV, but he still slid his hand under her hair and put his fingers on her neck in a way that made her shiver.
‘Both of you, obviously,’ she said. Bowie woke up, at the exact moment a small pygmy marmoset was being graphically eaten by an ocelot on the screen. Sansa put her hand over the puppy’s eyes. ‘No looking, baby.’
Bowie licked her palm.
Sansa leant further into Sandor. He smelt like a mixture of mint choc chip ice cream and brown bear. ‘It’s nice having the house to ourselves,’ she said. ‘Do you think Missy’s OK?’
‘I’m more worried about him.’
They hadn’t heard anything for hours, before Missy sent through a selfie of her and Edd standing on a wall, she smiling angelically and Edd rather more uncomfortably.
‘It’s OK with her here, isn’t it?’ Sansa said. Missy had moved into the spare room two months ago, having finished her double language course at SOAS and temping whilst looking for a proper job. The extra money didn’t hurt. And Missy was, after all, the best sort of lodger – extremely quiet, did more than her share of washing up and was Sansa’s sofa companion for First Dates, which Sandor refused to watch on the grounds of it being a load of fucking crap.
‘Aye. It’s fine,’ he said.
The screen was now showing an alarming close-up of snails mating. Sandor turned and moved his hand down to the base of her spine, managing to dollop Bowie to the floor with his other hand as he leant over her.
‘Please tell me you’re not turned on by snail sex,’ she said, wiggling down underneath him.
‘Turned on by you being right next to me,’ he said, his voice darkening, his hand deftly moving underneath the waistband of her jeans to grasp one buttock. She lifted herself up a little so his fingers could move further down. Around.
Some of his hair fell into her eyes. ‘Christ,’ he said. ‘You’re so fucking –’
The front door buzzer went.
Sandor froze above her. ‘Is she back already?’
She tucked his hair behind his ear. ‘She has a key. It can’t be her.’
An almost-indistinct grumble low in his throat. ‘I’ll go,’ he said, removing his hand, and lifting himself off her. He wiped his hand on the underside of his T-shirt and took a last, reluctant look at the bare skin of her stomach.
Sansa lay on the sofa, pulling her top down and the mint ice cream carton over. It was probably someone selling something, and in that case Sandor was definitely the right person for the job. She was just taking her finger out of her mouth when Sandor came back, with a face like a skyful of thunderclouds.
‘Jehovah’s Witnesses?’ she said.
He shook his head. ‘Worse.’
‘Cousin Sansa!’ said Robin, before bouncing past Sandor into the room.
Missy had said, in a voice that was like the feathers of a bird of paradise brushing up against his ear, that she didn’t need the hotel and that she could come back to his. Edd had said, in a voice that was probably like a guttering drain after three days of bastard rain, that his place wasn’t all that and if she wanted he’d come with her to the place he’d booked.
Now she was taking his coat off as if she was on a catwalk, draping it on a chair and looking around her. ‘It’s classy, Edd. You didn’t have to.’
It was decent, a Georgian inn, all pale brick and fancy pillowcases. Wallpaper with horses on them and views out to the hills, ludicrously green with the rain.
‘It’s fine. I don’t spend much money.’ Some of the boys blew their earnings on cars, at St James’ Park, clothes, on their lasses. He owned a Ford Fiesta, bought clothes once a year if he could help it, watched sport on the telly. Not so many lasses to speak of, at least not since Val, the staff sergeant who’d mostly terrified him. ‘Do you want to go and get some dinner?’
‘Maybe in a bit,’ Missy said, and pulled him towards her. Fingers on his collar. ‘You’re wet, you know.’
‘Right,’ he said, between being kissed by her, hoping she didn’t mean wet in the way that Val used to. Wet, drippy, hopeless.
‘We should probably get you dry,’ Missy said, hands underneath his shirt, making him flinch.
‘Right,’ he said, around her tongue. ‘Bloody hell, you’re cold.’
‘I am telling Ygritte on you,’ she said, and slid her icy fingers up his back.
‘Can I undress you?’ he said, rather unnecessarily and with a sudden need for urgency.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Please.’
Rather a while later, Edd was lying on the bed waiting for his heart to get back to normal, which would probably be in about three days. God in heaven.
Missy was standing by the window draped in the sheet, Roman toga-style. ‘Well, if you’re not going to wear it, then I will.’ She did a little hips-wiggle that made his entire being want to explode, even though he’d pretty much only just finished exploding. ‘What do you reckon? New look?’
‘You could be dressed in a sack and pull it off,’ he said.
‘Pull what off?’ Missy said, sweetly and devilishly.
They’d made the room smell of sweat and various other liquids. He imagined the maid coming up to clean it in the morning and having to use industrial strength products with a horrified expression on her face and possibly a peg on her nose.
‘Shall we go and get some dinner?’ she said.
‘They’ve probably stopped serving. It’s not a heaving metropolis out here, you know. I did try to say but you kept putting your tongue in my mouth.’ And elsewhere. Her tongue had gone everywhere and Edd’s mind had blown like a GMLRS rocket launcher.
‘Oh. Seriously? Shit. I suppose I did have pie earlier.’ There was not much that made Edd happier than the sight of a girl eating a pie. ‘Still hungry though. They’ll do us a dessert, won’t they? Down at the restaurant? I bet they do proper English ones. Sherry trifle. Apple crumble and custard. Spotted dick,’ she said, raising her eyebrows.
He’d never normally go and ask. In this sort of situation, he’d listen to the gloomy poetry of his stomach grumbling and count the hours ’til breakfast, which he’d probably sleep through due to hunger and exhaustion.
But for her, he would. ‘Right then,’ he said, getting up, and rather boldly standing there with not a stitch on, hoping his cock didn’t look too traumatised. ‘Let’s get you pudding.’
Fucking perfect. Wee Missy staying here wasn’t a problem, but with her probably freaking the shit out of Edd up north, he’d been looking forward to some quiet Sansa-time. A quiet to be filled with his favourite sound in the world (Sansa sighing and saying his name and swearing more than she’d ever do normally).
Instead it was being punctured by the irritating-as-shite little cousin who was currently flouncing around their living room as if it was the Royal Fucking Shakespeare Company. A boy with an ego so huge it was a wonder he’d got up their tiny staircase.
‘I simply cannot work with this – thing,’ Robin was saying, waving his hand desultorily in the air, ‘in the house.’ He was still in his school uniform, albeit accessorised with heavily buckled boots and the sort of hat a circus master would wear.
‘Robin,’ said Sansa, far too gently, looking confusedly over at Sandor. ‘Do you mean – your new brother?’
Robin sat down heavily on the sofa as if he had been stung, the wee pup scooting out of his way. ‘You can’t call him that. I am – one. The only. That’s what Mummy always used to say. That I am the one and only.’
Great. They had fucking Chesney Hawkes in the house. ‘How the fuck did you get over here?’ Sandor said.
‘Britain’s great railway system,’ said Robin, more brightly. ‘Then I got quite lost on the Tube, but I busked for a while and earned some extra money, and talked to some people who tried to sell me drugs, and then walked along the river for a bit and squawked at the seagulls, and then I finally found you!’ He looked pleased. ‘Do you have any food I can eat?’
‘It’s a bloody Wednesday,’ said Sandor. ‘Do you mean to tell me you skipped out of school?’
‘Um,’ said Robin. ‘Maybe?’
‘Does Aunt Lysa know where you are, Robin?’ said Sansa, who had far too much patience.
‘Um,’ said Robin. ‘No.’
‘You’re ringing her right now,’ said Sandor, taking his phone out of his back pocket.
‘She doesn’t care about me any more,’ said Robin. ‘She won’t have even noticed I’ve gone. It’s all about –’ he dropped his voice to a stage whisper and glared at the carpet. ‘Ivan.’
Sweet Jesus. Sandor went to the kitchen and got the bread out. Slapped butter on with the force of a flat axe-blade. Fucking Robin. The boy had a complex because he was finally not the only apple of his mother’s eye, Lysa having miraculously got pregnant again at the age of 47. Well, get out the bloody funeral violins. The teenagers at the EBD schools and all the shit they saw – Sandor found it hard to have real sympathy for the little squirt. He put the kettle on.
When he came back in, Robin was waving his arms around again. ‘I want to be a performer,’ he was saying to Sansa, who was sitting cross-legged on the sofa. ‘I can’t do that in Bristol. It’s not international enough.’
‘You’re not Dick fucking Whittington,’ said Sandor, crashing the plate down. ‘And the streets aren’t bloody well paved with gold.’
Robin peeled the bread away and gazed beatifically up at Sandor. ‘Um. I don’t eat dairy?’
Sandor folded his arms, the few threads of sanity left in him fast winnowing to nothing. ‘All you used to drink was milk.’
Even Robin’s shrug was going for an Oscar. ‘Not any more,’ he said.
She stared upwards, looking at the diagonal pattern that the streetlights made on the ceiling through the curtains. Like lightsabers, fighting it out.
They had gone to bed early, following a celebration dinner thrown by her parents, she and Pod smiling and pretending all was totally cool and not catastrophic. Didn’t have sex. It would have felt weird. Like having sex with someone watching.
It was fucked. Pod was on the way up, engineering genius, winner of an extra prize for being the best in his year. She had a year to go at uni in Brighton, and was actually doing well, mixing up photography and big canvases for her course and a bit of street art at the weekends. The thing in her: it was the size of a poppy seed and yet it loomed like the mothership in Independence Day 2. She had managed to get an appointment at the doc’s tomorrow.
Arya turned her head to find Pod looking at her, the two bright drops of his eyes.
‘You OK?’ he said, quietly.
‘Yeah.’ No. ‘I’m glad you’re here.’
‘Me too,’ he said, and unselfconsciously put a hand on her stomach, as he often did. Arya lay very still, but she couldn’t help taking the tiniest breath.
Pod very carefully removed his hand.
‘You really won’t talk to her, Robin?’ Sansa was holding her phone out. His mother on the other end.
‘No thanks,’ Robin said, very politely, drumming in 5/8 on his knees, as Sansa went back out into the hallway. Sandor was glaring at him, but holding the little puppy dog named after David Bowie made him look quite a lot less scary.
The last nine months had been a very traumatic period for Robin. He had really been fine with the appearance of Thoros four years ago, for he was far nicer than his mother’s previous boyfriends (the one with the leeches had been especially frightening). Thoros taught Robin how to play chess with his own hand-carved set, encouraged all his artistic endeavours and was even a happy audience member (he had fallen asleep once, but then it had been a four-act solo monologue). Robin had merrily adapted to a quiet soundtrack of yogic chanting and 90s acid house, yellow lentil stew and the sight of Thoros’ bare, exceptionally hairy feet.
When Lysa had sat Robin down with important news, he thought that they were putting him in music-theatre school, most welcome when the only reason he was not pulverised on a daily basis by large teenage girls at his state school was the occasional presence and credibility of his cousin (Rickon had a wild and intimidating veneer all of his own).
Instead, Lysa had said that she and Thoros were expecting a baby, words that Robin had not really digested for several days. He was the baby. He had always been the baby. There couldn’t be another one.
He had watched Lysa’s stomach grow and her eating habits veer from vegan to bloody steaks. Watched Thoros paint his own music and drama room with a woodland mural. Listened, quaking in his bedroom, to the sounds of the water birth downstairs, tortured screams alongside droney folk-rock music. It was hard to tell what was Lysa and what was the hurdy-gurdy.
The small child in the homemade cot didn’t look too bad. Small and quite long-nosed. But Robin knew that it had nothing to do with him. Ivan had taken over the music and drama room and swarmed over Lysa’s heart, just by lying there and wailing.
Robin’s old life was over. This would be the end of a section in his future autobiography. He solemnly ate his butter sandwich (Sandor having unceremoniously peeled off the cheese and folded it into his mouth, saying he wasn’t going to make him anything else) and listened to Cousin Sansa say her goodbyes to his mother.
‘You’re staying one night,’ said Sandor, after Sansa had put her phone away. ‘One.’ He held up a single digit, one that had the solidity and utter immovability of the plinth in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, the film featuring Richard Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ and one of Robin’s favourite pieces of music ever, Ligeti’s ‘Lux Aeterna.’
‘You guys are so peng,’ said Robin.
Maybe she’d got it wrong. Sometimes tests were wrong, and the second one came back negative and you’d have to do best of three. Maybe it would all be totally fine. Stupid scare over and they could go back to their normal life, ie Pod would go to America and come back in the blink of an eye, she’d finish her course and they’d go travelling, like they’d talked about.
The door opened and Doctor Seaworth (the Geordie family doctor who Sansa had lusted after aged 15, because she was entirely gross) came back in.
‘I’m not sure it’s the news you wanted to hear,’ he said, sitting down. ‘But you’re certainly pregnant.’
Pod’s hand tightened around hers.
‘OK,’ said Arya.
The doc was talking about folic acid and taking leaflets out of a drawer. ‘But of course,’ he said, because he wasn’t an idiot and could see that Arya wasn’t jumping for joy. ‘I suppose you need to decide how to proceed.’
‘OK,’ said Arya.
He was getting out another set of leaflets. Pod was looking at Arya.
‘Um. Yeah. I can’t. I’m not going to have it.’
Doctor Seaworth didn’t even blink. ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘Well, it’s a big decision, so I recommend you look through these –’ he handed over the wad of paper. Pastel drawings on the front. ‘I’ll put you in touch with a counsellor. And there’s a good advisory service for the under-25s.’
‘OK,’ said Arya. ‘But can you – I mean, how do I? Um.’ She looked at Pod.
‘I’d refer you to a clinic.’
‘Can I get it done straightaway?’ she said.
‘Not right this minute,’ said the doc. ‘It’ll take up to two weeks to get an appointment. But you’ve come in very early, so it will be fine. Do you think you’ll be talking to your folks first? Your parents?’
Arya’s thoughts were being wiped from her brain the minute they began to form. ‘It’s cool. If you could just refer me.’
Doctor Seaworth turned back round and began typing into his computer.
Pod’s hand hadn’t really loosened around her knuckles.
‘Two weeks,’ he whispered to her, and she remembered. Pod was off to Chicago in ten days. She’d have to do it on her own.
NOTES AND TING:
Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan language from the Tierro del Fuego) – one of those brilliant words that doesn’t have an English equivalent. It means ‘a wordless yet meaningful look between two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.’
EBD school – a school for pupils with emotional behavioural disorders.
peng - British yoof slang for cool, great, also hot, fit
DOCTOR FOX’S CONTEMPORARY MUSIC CORNER:
Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna. Well worth a look at this brilliant animated version which enables you to see how all the lines work.
Sandor woke up to Bowie licking his ear and the smell of something burning. He swore, sat bolt upright and pulled his dressing gown on.
Robin was in the kitchen, waving a tea towel around. The room looked like it was filled with dry ice.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’
‘Making you guys breakfast to show my appreciation for your utter sickness,’ Robin said. ‘Except it went a bit wrong.’
Bacon, rigid. Scrambled eggs, stuck to the pan for life. Pancakes, like Sandor’s face after Gregor had torched him.
‘Cereal,’ said Sandor, reaching over Robin to a cupboard. ‘Cereal doesn’t burn.’
By the time Sansa was up, Robin had eaten two bowls of dry Shreddies whilst yabbering on about some opera he was going to write and Sandor was losing the will to live.
She leant against the doorframe in her pajama bottoms and Sandor’s Soundgarden T-shirt, looking like the sexiest thing in the entire universe, as usual. Yawning and looking a bit perplexed at the state of the kitchen.
‘I’ve got to go to work,’ he said to her, before jabbing a finger at Robin. ‘And you have got to go bloody home.’
Sansa looked at the kitchen clock. ‘Me too. I’ve got a meeting first thing.’
‘It’s cool,’ said Robin. ‘I can go on my own.’
Sandor glared at him. ‘Chance’ll be a fine fucking thing.’
‘I’ll get you to Paddington,’ Sansa said. ‘I can be a bit late.’
‘Safe, Cousin Sansa. Do you have an espresso maker?’ said Robin, merrily ignorant of Sandor’s death-stare.
He woke to find Missy standing by the window in her T-shirt, and absolutely nothing else. Sunlight making one side of her glow. For a while, he watched her there, not moving a muscle – he was professionally very good at that – wondering what she was looking at. The blurry sound of sheep in far fields.
Finally he shifted, and she turned around. ‘Morning, soldier.’
‘You look nice,’ he said. Poetically.
A gentle smile. She blinked. ‘Far From The Madding Crowd.’
She leant against the window frame. Her T-shirt came down to the tops of her thighs. Just. ‘I was trying to remember. The one with the sexy sheep farmer in it. Ms. Tarth’s lessons back in the day.’
His heart sagged a little. She’d probably forgotten that his family were bloody shepherds. He was the exact opposite of some swarthy literary hero.
‘Did you ever hold a lamb?’ she said, clearly not having forgotten.
‘Plenty,’ he said, and began telling her about the long nights delivering them, wiping their mouths clean of mucus, helping them stand. Missy came and sat down next to him on top of the duvet, one leg folded. He tried not to stare.
‘Cutes,’ she said.
There was a loud bleat from outside, a lot nearer than the others.
‘Don’t speak sheep yet, babe,’ she said towards the window. ‘Give me time, though.’ She looked back at Edd, and there was the merest hint of a wink.
‘Something is different about you,’ said Chella, folding her arms behind Arya in Pod’s kitchen.
Ilyn’s girlfriend was a fierce-looking lady with two very pronounced front teeth and a penchant for low-cut tops and ferociously spiky necklaces. She was also currently wearing dangling earrings with black metal ears on them. Pod’s uncle had met her at a Northern Soul night a year ago and seemed more than happy for her to do the talking. They would usually be found listening to Norwegian troll metal in the living room, Ilyn’s face smothered by Chella’s monumental bosom.
‘The hair,’ said Arya, who had responded to her current situation in an understandable fashion by dyeing her hair blue.
‘Something else,’ said Chella, pursing her lips.
‘Nope,’ said Arya, attempting her best blank face. Pod had said he would bake her whatever she wanted, and she’d requested a blueberry and white chocolate cheesecake. Cake would make everything better.
Chella, who didn’t totally get the idea of personal space, came over to Arya’s side and pressed up way too close. She inhaled deeply. ‘You smell different.’
‘Probably hazelnut butter,’ said Arya, holding up the jar.
Pod came into the kitchen, a canvas shopping bag in his hand, red-cheeked from the sun.
‘Buns going in the oven?’ said Chella.
‘It’s a cheesecake,’ said Pod, looking a little alarmed.
Chella gave Arya a pertinent, totally unsubtle look and sashayed heftily out of the room.
‘She said I smell different,’ said Arya.
‘You smell lovely,’ said Pod, giving her a kiss. ‘Just like normal.’
Sansa was on her lunch break, taking Bowie for the gentlest of walks around the yard of St Mark’s Church, juggling dog lead, a tofu wrap and her phone, which had started ringing.
She hadn’t quite got to her ambition of being the head of everything at the UN, but she was at least working faintly in global justice at a charity in South London. Sansa told people that she was tackling corporate power single-handedly, the multinationals with terrible human rights and environmental records, but in truth her position as Executive Communications Assistant meant buttering up possible funders, correcting incorrect punctuation on marketing copy, and a lot of mailing list spreadsheets.
Still, her line manager was eggy bread, as Arys had miraculously let Sansa bring Bowie into the office, curled up mostly in a little basket by her feet, with her colleagues stopping by frequently to pet him. Dog therapy, Arys had said. He had once taken the entire floor to a jousting tournament as a (rather unsuccessful) team-building exercise, so this was probably rather cheaper.
She answered her phone. ‘Oh, hi Aunt Lysa! Is –’ She was interrupted. ‘But that’s –’ She stared at the two drunks on the bench, one leaning so far over he would surely fall off. ‘But Aunt Lysa, I saw –’ She dropped her wrap, the tofu spilling out onto her shoes. ‘But he was –’ Sansa listened for one more minute, before the call was abruptly ended, leaving her staring at her phone. Baffled.
‘Shit,’ she whispered to Bowie, who was looking up at her with his gooey chocolate pot eyes. ‘Shitshitshit.’
People in South Tottenham liked to think of themselves as actually living in Upper Clapton, which had the sheen of outer East London cool about it, what with its mix of cupcake cafes and bookies. A few roads further north, however, felt a little more real. A man with a very large status dog, its collar studded with things looking like shark teeth. A great deal of fried chicken shops. An old, almost-bald lady shouting about Neptune whilst waving a handful of soggy local newspapers.
The particular resident of the flat whose door Robin currently stood outside didn’t care one bit about what anyone thought of his ‘hood. Robin, who had miraculously made it here via five different buses, pressed the bell for the second time.
He had cheerfully waved goodbye to Cousin Sansa on the Paddington platform from his train seat, giving her an exaggerated thumbs-up when she pointed to her watch and mouthed ‘sorry.’ Waiting until she had dashed off to get to work, he put his satchel back over his shoulder and disembarked, walking very deliberately back to the ticket barriers and speaking in French (he was one of the best in his year) with lots of confused gestures until they let him through. He was masterful. Like a Young James Bond. And now he was in an extremely edgy part of North London, being an utter hipster.
After a minute and a half, there was blurry movement behind the door, and a girl opened it.
She was the most beautiful girl that Robin had ever seen. Big, sleepy eyes, green hair and tattoos on her neck. ‘Um. Wow,’ he said (his days of blurting out enthusiasms slowly curbed with increasing teenagedom). ‘Hello. Um. Is Jojen here?’
‘Sure is,’ she said, turning and walking back up the stairs, leaving the door open. There was a huge tattoo of a fish on her back, which he could see quite a lot of, what with the oversized mesh vest and bra she was wearing.
‘Wow,’ said Robin again, and followed her.
It was seeing Missy in the company of someone else that made him realise how unreal this whole situation was. They’d met in another inn – at least Edd was giving her the Northumberland country pub tour – and Grenn’s jaw had dropped about three feet as Missy had shaken his hand and given him one of her lovely, sunshine-filled beams. They’d ordered giant Yorkshire puddings and Missy had plied Grenn for information on his translation duties during the two tours he’d done with Edd.
‘Bleedin’ hell, mate,’ Grenn said through a mouthful of sausage after Missy had excused herself and wandered to the Ladies. ‘She is absolutely bloody corking. Is she – are you seeing her?’
‘I’m not sure,’ said Edd.
‘I mean, because if you’re not,’ said Grenn, picking up the last pudding crust from his plate and crunching into it. ‘I wouldn’t mind giving her a bit of a go. She’s like something off Britain’s Next Top Model. Except with brains. She’s gleaming. Tell me you’re recruiting her.’
‘Actually,’ said Edd, surprised to hear himself speaking in a rather surer voice. ‘I am seeing her. And it’s your day off, but I’m still your superior.’
‘Right, said Grenn, sitting up a bit straighter. ‘Sorry sir. No offence meant. Sharab akhar?’ he said, more brightly, as Missy returned.
‘I bet you don’t get to say that very often,’ Missy said, sitting down again and giving Edd the sort of warm embrace with her eyes that made him want to slide off his chair. ‘I’ll have a Diet Coke, please, Grenn.’
Robin had followed the beautiful green-haired girl into the upstairs flat and into a very smoky living room. There was a large projector screen upon currently displaying a rather disturbing black and white image of ants crawling out of a man’s hand, with some dolorous, twangy music (Robin correctly identifying it as the koto) playing loudly from a single speaker. On the centre of an ancient, sagging sofa sprawled Jojen, with the green-haired girl folding herself up next to him, and a black-haired, copper-skinned girl lounging against his other side. She was probably the most beautiful girl that Robin had ever seen.
All three of them were staring at the screen. It was like an incredible, woozy dream.
‘Bro,’ said Jojen, not looking the slightest bit surprised that a fourteen-year-old boy had turned up at his flat unannounced. He looked quite sleepy. He sat up, disentangling himself from one girl at a time, and walked through the fog. Put a hand on Robin’s shoulder.
‘Hello,’ said Robin, coughing just a little. It smelt quite – tangy in here.
‘This was unforeseen,’ said Jojen, unruffled.
‘Yeah, I was, um, just passing?’
Jojen gave him a mildly shrewd look, as if Robin was a painting he was scrutinising in a gallery. ‘OK.’
‘Are you –’ Robin didn’t dare say any of the words, even though he was quite aware of the act itself via Lysa’s alarmingly vocal evenings with Thoros after lights-out, and some half-terrified explorations on YouTube. ‘Do you like girls now?’ he almost whispered.
Jojen glanced back at the two girls, still watching the screen. ‘Nope. Boys only for me,’ he said. ‘One in particular.’ He stared hazily into the middle distance, before winking at Robin. ‘These are my housemates. Wylla and Irri.’
Irri lifted her head up. Her eyes were shaped like almonds. ‘Hello.’
‘Adorable,’ said Wylla, briefly slinging her eyes across to Robin.
‘Meet an old mate from Brizzle. Robin.’ Jojen put an arm around his shoulder. ‘Jesus, you’ve got tall. This boy’s a musical wunderkind. And an actor.’
‘Straight-up fucking adorable,’ said Wylla.
‘It is known,’ said Irri, who had some sort of Mediterranean accent.
‘Tea?’ said Jojen, and wandered to the kitchen, which was roughly the size of a small cupboard and covered in detritus of various sorts. Everything Jojen did looked like art to Robin – even the toast crusts were like frames. He was studying three-dimensional Fine Art at Central St Martins and largely working on site-specific installations in Seven Sisters, which didn’t necessarily go down well with the residents of Seven Sisters.
‘Sick,’ said Robin, with reference to everything in Jojen’s world. Something small and furry suddenly rubbed against his ankle and disappeared, making him yelp. ‘Um, I think you’ve got a giant mouse in here?’
‘Kitten,’ said Jojen, opening a cupboard.
‘Three, actually, mate. Old lady next door died, and her cat had just gone into labour. I rescued them. Ergo kittenfest. Keep an eye out. Don’t tread on any.’
‘Awesome,’ said Robin.
‘Anyway,’ said Jojen, turning and giving Robin another canny look. ‘What gives? What’re you doing here?’
Robin put his hand on the kitchen counter, and swiftly (and correctly) removed it again before germs could colonise. ‘It’s gone a bit crap at home. There’s like, another – child.’
Jojen was putting teabags into two rather unwashed-looking mugs. ‘Your new brother? Yeah, Bran said. Nice one.’
‘No,’ said Robin. ‘It’s not nice. Not nice at all.’
‘They converted my music room into his bedroom.’
‘Harsh,’ said Jojen.
‘I can’t, like, work,’ said Robin. ‘I’m supposed to be working on my prog-rock oratorio, but it’s impossible.’
‘You have my every sympathy,’ said Jojen, putting three sugars into his own tea.
‘Can I –’ Robin peeked back round at the gauzy fug of beautiful sofa-girls and weed-smoke. ‘Can I stay here for a couple of days?’
‘’Course,’ said Jojen, benignly, leading him back into the living room. Wylla shifted over and patted the sofa.
‘Wow,’ said Robin.
‘So,’ said Missy.
‘So,’ said Edd.
They were standing on the small train platform. The rain had stopped, just as Missy was about to leave. Obviously. The train was in two minutes, and Edd had no idea what to say next.
‘So when are you going off on your next tour?’ she said. There was a faint squeak of sound from the rail tracks and the train became visible.
Tour. He hated that word. It was hardly as if he was in a rock band, trashing hotel rooms. Trashing something else, maybe. In the hope that the intel was right, which it usually was. Usually.
‘Three and a bit months.’ A shorter time at home than usual, but he’d said yes to this one as it would be his last in Afghanistan, and better to get it over with sooner rather than later.
Missy had her arms around herself and was gazing at the ground. ‘Do you want to come to London sometime? I can’t promise a hotel, but – at least you know my housemates.’ She looked up at him, a tiny swirl of a grin.
He wanted to say no. He should say no. It was impossible, the idea of her and him. But – the train was rolling in, people getting off.
He hesitated. Missy stood her ground, her eyebrows coming up in two dancerly points. Beginning to look a little worried.
‘You’ll miss your train,’ he said.
‘I’ll miss you,’ she said, and a little piece of his heart chipped off and was left forever on the train platform.
It was impossible to refuse her. She was like ice cream and custard. She was like fine wine, not that Edd had ever had much of that. She was the Tower of Babylon in exquisite female form.
‘I’ll see you soon, then,’ he said.
She smiled. ‘Bye, deliciae,’ she said.
He looked up the word when he got into the car, and spent rather a while after that staring through the windscreen at the winnowing clouds in the early evening sky.
It had been an utterly awful two days. After several increasingly hysterical phone calls from Aunt Lysa, it was confirmed that Robin absolutely had not returned to Bristol, or at least to his own home. He was thoroughly missing.
‘It’s my fault,’ she said to Sandor, who had come in to find her hiding under a duvet on the sofa. In July.
Lysa, waiting for Robin on the platform at Bristol, had initially thought she must have got the time wrong. It seemed only possible that Robin, unless he’d somehow been murdered in transit and his dismembered parts thrown out of the window, had not been on that train.
‘It’s not,’ said Sandor, sitting down next to her.
‘Urgh,’ said Sansa.
Great Western Trains had been no help at all. Nor the British Transport Police. Sansa had phoned his school, just in case he’d somehow leapt off the train for some reason and got a later one. Called Rickon. Got him to put Lyanna on. Tried to Facetime Shireen, who helpfully now lived in the Isle of Man. Phoned Arya, who seemed utterly uninterested in the fact that their cousin had disappeared.
If he was in London, he could be anywhere. Sansa had even wandered around the West End and loitered outside the Royal Opera House one evening, until Sandor had called her and told her to come home.
‘I am literally the worst person in the world,’ she said.
He wasn’t dead. On one of the many times that Sansa had called Robin’s number, there’d been a girl’s voice on the end of the line, and she had sworn she had heard Robin’s voice, just for a second. She’d thought he sounded – happy.
‘Ignore her,’ said Sandor. ‘It’s not your fucking fault Lysa’s brought up an attention-seeking bloody egomaniac.’
‘She said –’ Sansa could hardly repeat it. A shuddering breath. The sound of her aunt telling her that Thoros was on his way over from Bristol to help look for him, before screeching down the phone like a wicked fairy armed with eternity curses.
Sandor’s hand, sliding under the duvet to find hers. ‘What did she say?’
‘She said I couldn’t be trusted with anything. That I would never be a responsible person if I couldn’t even put my own relation on the train. That I’d never be a – good mother.’
There was the smallest pause. They didn’t talk much about kids. Only mostly when Sansa was drunk, and started rhapsodising flagrantly about babies’ names, which were ideally Raven and Florian. Sandor was always a little more reticent, but it still seemed so far off, the baby-thing, that she didn’t mind too much.
‘Bollocks,’ said Sandor, eventually.
‘Maybe she’s right,’ said Sansa in not much more than a whisper, thinking say I will be a wonderful mother. Breathing the now very stale air under the duvet.
Another pause. ‘She’s fucking hysterical,’ he said, ‘and taking it out on you.’
Her heart felt like squashed, limp tofu all of a sudden.
‘Come out of there,’ he said. ‘I’ll do your feet.’
Sandor’s foot massages were almost better than sex. Almost. He’d rub her soles with a very definite grasp and she would have to put her fist in her mouth.
‘No thank you,’ she said, from under the duvet.
There was the sound of Sansa’s phone. Sandor slid it under the covers for her, and moved her over so he could squash next to her. ‘Your brother.’
Bran. Sansa croaked a hello and listened, before carefully putting her phone away and pushing the duvet off her face. Her cheeks felt like they had been microwaved. She stared wide-eyed at Sandor.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘News?’
‘Robin,’ she said, her heart beginning its comedown after 48 hours of utter panic. ‘He’s at Jojen’s.’
She listened to the stream of curses that creatively poured forth from her husband’s lips.
‘Thanks for this, man,’ said Thoros, currently in the passenger seat of Sandor’s car, because obviously the crusty old bastard didn’t have his own. In Bristol, he wheeled around on an ancient bike with a basket of bloody flowers on the front. ‘Lysa would have come but, you know, with the little one and all that.’
‘Yep,’ said Sandor, wishing he was playing five-a-side on Peckham Rye (in goal, obviously), as he would usually on a Saturday morning, often with Sansa on the sidelines, enthusiastically yelling ‘man on!’ and ‘offside!’ in mostly the correct way. Instead, fucking Lysa had left her wet-eyed on the sofa in front of Bridesmaids.
‘It’s beautiful, man. Just beautiful. Lysa was like a bloody mermaid in that pool.’
That’s not what Sandor had heard. Robin had given he and Sansa a near-operatic rendition of Lysa’s birth-screams, enough to make the neighbour bang on the wall. ‘This is it,’ he said, yanking up the handbrake outside a row of shitty-looking terraces.
Jojen answered the door, black jeans and t-shirt, looking like he’d just fallen out of bed. ‘Yo.’
‘Is he here?’ said Sandor.
The boy nodded. ‘Yup. Sorry man, he told me you guys knew.’
‘Well, you should have bloody well known better,’ said Sandor.
Jojen shrugged, curled a finger and led them up the stairs.
Jesus fucking Christ. The whole place stank of weed. Weed and burnt toast. Robin was on the sofa in the half-dark with two totally stoned girls. His legs were draped over the lap of a dark-haired one, and a green-haired one had her hand in his hair. There was a small kitten on his lap.
Robin’s face went from beatifically happy to guilty in the space of one millisecond. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Hey.’
‘Don’t you even fucking dare,’ said Sandor. ‘What the fuck.’
‘Jesus man, you gave us all a bit of a heart attack there,’ said Thoros. ‘Your mum’s been pretty worried.’
‘Tell me you haven’t been smoking weed,’ said Sandor.
‘Jojen didn’t let me,’ said Robin, a little disappointedly.
Sandor didn’t give himself time to allow Jojen any credit whatsoever. ‘You told us you were going home. Sansa put you on that bloody train.’
‘Yeah. Um. Sorry.’
‘Tea?’ said Jojen, coming out with mugs, as if that would make everything better.
‘Great, thanks man,’ said Thoros, taking one. No fucking help at all.
‘This is Wylla and Irri,’ said Robin, quite brightly. ‘Wylla is studying video art and Irri is studying textiles at Jojen’s college. Sandor is my cousin’s husband and Thoros is my stepdad.’
‘How’s it going,’ said Thoros, giving them one of usual, stupid-hippie fucking smiles.
‘Alright,’ said Sandor, not really knowing exactly where to look.
‘Adorable,’ said Wylla, seemingly assessing them both. ‘Nice to meet you. Your son is just the best. He is sensational in every way.’
‘It is known,’ said Irri.
‘Wylla has been helping me develop my treatment for my oratorio,’ said Robin. ‘And Irri is designing me an all-weather outdoor stage cloak. And she let me stay in her bed.’
Sandor took a deep breath.
‘I shared with Wylla,’ said Irri.
Wylla winked. Sandor took a deeper breath.
‘Right on,’ said Thoros.
‘Oh, and this is Benjamin Kitten,’ said Robin, lifting up the small, ginger cat. ‘I helped Jojen name them. The others are called Pablo Picatso and Robert Miaowschenberg, but he let me call one after a composer.’
‘Sweet Jesus,’ said Sandor. ‘Get your coat. Or your fucking cloak. We’re off.’
Robin’s face fell. ‘Can I maybe stay one more day? Wylla was going to do some life drawing modelling for me.’
‘No,’ said Sandor, waving some of the smoke out of his face, and needing to be out of this place really goddamned quickly. ‘Get.’
‘Seriously, man, let’s get back to your mum,’ said Thoros. ‘She’s really missed you.’
Robin sighed. ‘OK. I’ve got to go,’ he said to the girls, whose focus seemed to move very slowly from him to Sandor and Thoros and back again. ‘Adios, my ladies.’ He actually bowed.
‘Breaking my heart,’ said Wylla. ‘Come again, my little genius.’
‘Any time,’ said Irri.
‘Totes,’ said Robin.
The girls just about managed to lift their hands to wave goodbye.
‘Can I get a tattoo?’ Robin said to Thoros as they got back out onto the street.
‘Um, sure man, maybe, let’s see what your mum says, yeah?’ said Thoros.
Sandor worked very hard not to let the several blasphemous expletives blast free and fished out his car keys. His job was done. He needed to get back to the safety and sanity of Sansa very quickly.
‘Mate,’ said Jojen, behind them at the door, a stub of a joint in his mouth. He had the ginger kitten in his hands. Held it out.
‘For real?’ said Robin.
‘Yup,’ said Jojen. ‘Benjamin’s yours.’
Sandor raised his eyes very carefully to the dour London sky.
‘Hey.’ There was a lazy call from the upstairs window, where Wylla was now half-hanging from the sash-frame. ‘Can I use your face for a piece?’ she said, towards Sandor. ‘You’d look amazing on video.’ She grinned, half-dreamy and half-piranha. ‘A whole room full of screens.’
‘No chance in hell,’ said Sandor, and got into the car, shutting the door not quite quickly enough to avoid hearing Wylla say ‘adorable.’
‘So,’ said Arya, as tourists moved around them and flight announcements peppered the air.
‘So,’ said Pod, before putting his shoulder bag down and taking her hands. ‘I should be staying.’
Pod’s leaving day. He had said he’d change his flights so that he could stay for her clinic visit, but she knew that he had all sorts of inductions in his first few days, all arranged months ago. He’d been selected from students all over the damned world. She told him to go. They had spent the last ten days eating a lot of cake.
‘It’s fine,’ she said, for the thousandth time. ‘We’ve read all the stuff. It’ll be painless. You know I’ll update you on everything.’
Pod took a massive breath. ‘Please tell Sansa. Or your mum. Or both.’
She still hadn’t told anyone. Telling anyone else would make it more real, and she didn’t want to think of it as real. She would tell Sansa afterwards. Maybe.
‘OK,’ she said, and his searching look meant that he didn’t believe her. ‘You know,’ she said. ‘That’s the main thing.’
‘Promise you’ll call me.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Your gate’s going to close.’
Pod hated being late for anything and yet he was still here. ‘I love you,’ he said, and his hug was tight and warm and all that she ever wanted.
‘Fuck. I love you too,’ she said, trying not to cry, because three months without Pod was insane and it was suddenly here.
He was blinking away tears. ‘Let me know everything. When you’re there, and afterwards, and –’
‘I will,’ she said. ‘Go, or you’ll miss becoming engineering god of the year.’ She turned him round and gently pushed him in the direction of Security. Sat down in a corner and cried.
NOTES AND TING:
Sharab akhar = my attempt at saying ‘another drink?’ in Arabic via Google Translate. Apologies if it is well wrong!
Deliciae = Latin for delight, darling, pleasure, pet, favourite
Benjamin Britten is one of my favourite composers. Here’s one of his best-loved pieces, Four Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’.
DOCTOR SWIMMINGFOX’S BONUS JAPANESE MUSIC CORNER:
Chapter 4: Talk
Urgh, too much worklife getting all up in my face. Here's a bumper chapter (by my standards, anyway, ha) to make up for it!
THREE MONTHS LATER
There he was. Already looking for her. You could spot those eyebrows a mile off.
They didn’t even say anything. Pod just walked straight from the arrivals gate towards her, and in one swift movement had put his bag down and his arms around her shoulders, his nose in her neck. Warmth and the slight stickiness of him having been on a translantic flight.
‘Hey,’ she said eventually, into his hair. There was a flake of croissant on his shoulder.
‘Hey.’ Pod pulled back. He looked knackered, but then nine hours on a plane would do that. Red cheeks. ‘I missed you.’ Everything always sounded so simple coming from him, the words unvarnished. Like they had only spent a few days apart, not a quarter of a goddamned year.
‘I missed you too,’ she said, as his arms slid around her waist.
She saw the exact moment that he knew. His palms had squeezed her sides very gently, and he’d had an amused, slightly puzzled look on his face – the fleeting thought that she’d put on tons of weight, had only been eating burgers for three months – before he glanced back up and saw her expression. The quiet, careful terror of anticipation.
Pod looked back down at her stomach.
‘Woah,’ said Sansa, to her phone screen, whilst simultaneously opening a can of dog food.
Jesus, she looked at her phone a lot. It was her only bad feature, apart from never putting the bin out, and all that red hair in the plughole. But she also lip-synched to all his favourite Led Zeppelin songs wearing nothing but pants, now made better coffee than him and brought it with a wake-up kiss before school, and took him to a series of philosophy and politics lectures which they would enjoyably argue over all the way home before fucking on the sofa/stairs/kitchen counter/edge of the bathroom sink.
‘What?’ said Sandor.
‘Family drama and then some,’ said Sansa, first looking at Sandor and then gazing into the distance.
Sandor tried to imagine what it was. Bran and Jojen had got so stoned they’d ended up in hospital with panic attacks, then turning the whole emergency ward into some sort of installation. Robin had performed some fucking street-mime in a high street and been beaten up for his trouble. Rickon had gone awol and tried to start his own nation state from a treehouse (again). Arya – it could be anything with her.
‘Robb’s getting married,’ said Sansa.
That was a surprise. The older brother had been seeing Ygritte, the fucking mad Humberside lass with a mouth like a sewer, on and off since Sandor’s own wedding. It had never seemed that serious but you could never tell with Robb – he was a breezy lad, an easy laugh and handshake, starting his own beer brewing company.
‘Didn’t see that coming,’ he said, lowering the pup down towards his dog bowl.
‘Nor did I,’ said Sansa. ‘Seeing as it’s to someone I’ve never heard of.’
She had always meant to do it. The abortion. She had made the appointment, and then not gone. Made another one. Not gone. Lain on her bed with her hand on her belly, telling it to fuck off, to disappear, to never have been there. And yet.
It was Pod’s. It was hers. It was theirs.
She’d read all the leaflets. Imagined inserting coat hangers up herself. Taken folic acid. She’d Skyped Pod in Chicago every other day and made sure her screen was only tilted up towards her face. Thought about throwing herself down the stairs. Punching herself in the stomach. She’d worn a variety of baggy metal band T-shirts and told everyone it was her new style. Made a show of eating a lot. And not told a soul.
Pod was still standing in front of her, his hands still lightly around her waist. He didn’t look like he was breathing.
I’m sorry, she wanted to say, and didn’t dare. She had ruined both of their lives. Without asking.
She was at the end of the platform, a big beam and hair fizzing out all over the place. Mirrored sunglasses like John Lennon. His heart jumped the barriers ahead of him.
‘Hello you,’ she said, and put her arms round his shoulders.
She did it all so easily. It was impossible not to follow in her lead. ‘Hello,’ he said, and bent down for a kiss. Her lipgloss made him think of the penny sweets he bought when he was a child.
‘How was your journey?’
‘Fine,’ Edd said, with incredible effort. He was working on being more positive, and therefore did not need to mention being squashed next to an overweight man eating an egg sandwich, with two hen party lasses opposite him making loudly obscene jokes about genitalia, and the wailing baby behind him perforating his eardrum.
‘Ready for London?’ she said.
Just about, he thought. She’d come up and seen him again since that first time, Hadrian’s Wall and all that, and eventually he’d agreed to coming down here. The capital wasn’t exactly his favourite place. The aggressive traffic and even more aggressive people alarmed him.
‘Lead the way,’ he said.
Pod had both of his hands round his coffee mug in the airport Starbucks, looking like someone who had flown twice round the world on a solo mission and not from Chicago on a 747.
‘I’m sorry,’ Arya eventually managed to say. The café was playing 'Be My Baby' from a speaker above their heads. ‘You don’t have to do anything.’
He looked up at her, his eyebrows furrowed, more confused than ever. There was a muffin untouched on the table in front of them.
‘I mean, I didn’t give you a choice. You don’t have to –’ She gave an involuntary shiver.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I don’t know. Too scared. I’m sorry.’ She needed to say it. ‘I made the decision. I’ll have to deal with it.’
‘Don’t say that.’ He was speaking to his cup.
‘But it’s my fault.’
‘We’ll deal with it together.’
‘Arya.’ He took a very deep breath, and there was finally some colour in his cheeks. ‘It’s OK. I think –’ He drank deeply from his coffee. There was foam on his lip. ‘I think I’m glad.’
‘I’ve been calling.’ Lysa had yelled him down from his room, where Robin had been deeply into working out two bars of very complex polyphonic music.
Lysa never called him Sweetrobin any more. She was now breast-feeding Ivan in the living room. Robin could see his mouth around her actual breast.
‘Your cousin is getting married,’ she said.
‘Arya?’ he said, his heart already bubbling over with the idea of a super-cool festival-style wedding for which he could write a new set of songs dedicated to his cool cousin and her unbelievably awesome fiancé.
‘Bran?’ This would even better. He and Jojen would probably get married in a sculpture gallery and the dress code would be future goth.
‘Robb. Whirlwind romance, Aunt Cat says.’
‘Safe,’ said Robin.
Lysa looked up. ‘Can you hold him for me in a second? I’ve got to soak some chickpeas.’
‘Um, I’m a bit busy.’ He had set up his new home studio in his bedroom, which roughly left 3mm of carpet space, and had been developing his play/oratorio/site-specific installation, leaving post-it notes and sketches all over the walls. It was basically his brain, exploded, and he would much rather get back to it than touch his – the child. He tended to hear Bernard Herrmann’s high glissandoing strings from the film ‘Psycho’ (which he had watched secretly, and horrified, having pilfered it from his mother’s DVD collection) every time he set eyes upon him.
She kept trying to get Robin to play with the child. All he did was dribble and scream, and occasionally vomit milky gruel onto Thoros’ shoulder.
‘He’d love to have his brother sing him a song sometime.’
Half-brother. ‘OK,’ said Robin, non-committally.
‘And we need to talk about that cat,’ Lysa said as Robin went to leave the room. Thoros, it turned out, was allergic to pet hair, and had been smiling benignly though red, weeping eyes for the last three months.
‘Oh, I’ve got someone coming over tomorrow,’ he said, turning at the door.
‘And that someone is…?’ said Lysa, utterly absorbed with the baby again. The baby who was literally drinking milk from his mother’s actual breast.
‘A girl,’ he said, offhandedly, beginning to walk up the stairs, listening very carefully for the sharp intake of breath that came from Lysa.
‘I looked her up. She’s on Facebook.’
‘She is seriously glamorous.’
They were sitting on the bed in Sansa and Sandor’s room, Arya flicking the corners of the pages of Sandor’s bedside book as if it was a percussion instrument. ‘Arya. How do you not even care? Robb is getting married to a stranger who we have not given our seal of approval to.’
‘I do care.’
‘What’s going on? Is it you and Pod?’ She lowered her voice. Pod was asleep on the sofa in the living room, catching up on jetlag before they headed to Bristol. He had looked especially spaced-out, Sansa had thought, when they’d arrived. ‘Has something happened? Or your course?’ Arya had always had her head down when it came to uni work – she was aceing it and her lecturers said that she already had half a portfolio for her overall submission.
Her sister shook her head, and gave a massive sigh.
Sansa put her phone down properly and moved closer to Arya. ‘Tell me. I’m sure it will help to talk about it.’
Arya’s eyes were the colour of cement.
Sansa worked hard to exercise her most patient big sisterly vibes. Waited.
‘Pregnant,’ Arya said.
Sansa looked over at her phone. ‘Do you think? That’s why he’s marrying her? I mean, that would be seriously noble and everything, but it’s not like we’re living in the Reformation or anything.’
‘No,’ Arya said. ‘Me.’
Me what? Sansa almost said, before she realised what Arya’s glum face could only mean. ‘Wait. What? For – for real?’
Her sister nodded. ‘So real it’s not even fair.’ She described the probable Pill fuck-up, and Sansa’s heart broke. For every brilliant thing that Arya did, pulling herself out of every mistake she made, glueing fastidiously over the cracks, there was always something tugging her back down.
‘Oh my god,’ Sansa said, and took a closer, surreptitious eye on Arya’s stomach. ‘Are you – what are you going to do? Are you going to have an abortion?’
‘Bit late for that,’ Arya said.
‘Four and a half months. I mean, I could just about, still, but –’ she stared at the wall.
‘Arya,’ Sansa’s voice softened. ‘Do you want it?’
A shrug that was hard to read. ‘I don’t know. I just couldn’t – not when it’s his.’
‘Did Pod know?’
Arya shook her head. ‘That I was pregnant, yeah. Not that I’d kept it. I told him at the airport. Surprise,’ she said in a weak mock-celebratory voice. ‘Nice welcome back. Classic me.’
‘But – what does he think? Is he – OK with it?’
‘Have you been going to the doctor’s? Getting scans and things?’
‘I haven’t done anything,’ Arya said, her voice finely cracking.
‘Right,’ said Sansa, and picked up her phone. ‘First things first,’ she said, and typed pregnancy NHS into her phone, before lying down next to her sister.
Arya rolled her head so that it touched hers.
‘Alright pal, long time no see.’ Sandor’s handshake turned into a hug, of sorts.
‘Aye, good to see you, mate.’ It was more than a little mortifying, Missy lodging with his old colleague. Bunking up in rather a different style, both of them with women far too intelligent and beautiful for them, though at least Sandor had clearly got over the whole being-too-old thing. Their flat was nice, lived-in, homely. And full. Sansa had come out and made some strange faces at Sandor, saying Arya was in her room. Her sister’s boyfriend, Pod, was sitting up on the sofa, half-awake, rubbing his forehead and smiling politely at everyone.
Missy picked up a small dog and kissed it, whispering in – who knew what language she was speaking in now. The puppy gazed up with ginormous eyes and Edd tried to decide which was the cuter (concluding rather swiftly that it was Missy).
‘Can I steal this one for a pint?’ Sandor said, a hand still on his shoulder.
‘One pint and then I’m coming for him,’ Missy said, and gave Edd the most subtle of looks that suggested she only meant one thing and that didn’t mean collecting him from the pub.
In a noisy beer garden, Edd filled Sandor in his afternoon. Missy had apologised for everything being free what with her current lack of funds, but had still managed to take him for a walk along the Thames on the south side, tons of free samples of food at a big posh market near London Bridge and some free jazz music in an amphitheatre. The latter hadn’t really been his thing but he’d watched her out of the corner of his eye, and the way her tongue tipped around her cone to catch the dribble of ice cream, which almost caused a very public cardiac arrest. They had subsequently snogged against a statue of Laurence Olivier as Hamlet and Missy had recited a bit of mad Ophelia to him. In French. He gave Sandor a rather more understated rendition of events.
‘So, all going well on that front?’ Sandor said.
‘I don’t know. I guess so.’
‘Bloody hell, you’re worse than me. Just go with it, for fuck’s sake. Count your lucky stars.’ He drank up his pint, and held it up.
‘Just a half, mate.’ He wasn’t going to next see Missy reeking of ale. ‘How about you? All well?’
‘Aye. Mostly, aye.’
Edd wasn’t the sort of guy to pry. Sandor wasn’t the kind to elucidate.
‘When are you off?’ Sandor said, when he came back with two halves: a London Porter for himself (dark, complex) and a Centurion’s Ghost for Edd (mild, light bitterness).
‘Week and a half.’ Hardly anything more needed to be said. Edd had ended up being so much more of a career soldier than he’d ever expected. Now he couldn’t really imagine doing anything else, no matter how worried he got on the mornings before he had to train a whole new round of crows.
‘Well,’ Sandor said. He had got out while he could. ‘Fuck luck, and all that.’
Another saying. You never wanted anyone to wish you luck.
They clinked their glasses together.
The south Midlands rattled past the train window, long streaks of green fields and boring houses. Sansa had given her hugs tight enough to cut off her air supply, Sandor looking at them with faint suspicion. Arya had told Sansa not to tell him yet, but she knew she would.
Pod was asleep on her shoulder. There was a baby inside her. Their baby.
Her phone buzzed. She looked at it. ‘What the fuck,’ she said.
Pod shifted, his eyebrows coming up. ‘Sansa?’ he said.
‘Nope.’ She put the screen in front of his face so he didn’t have to lift his head.
Dear Cousin Arya, if you were being taken out by someone (a boy) (not Pod, if you and Pod were not together) (but I know you are and always will be because you guys are the best) *heart emojis* but if you were, what would you want to do on your date?
Lots of love Your Cousin Robin xxx
PS Awesome news about Cousin Robb! Xxxxx
‘It’s like a fucking essay,’ she said.
Pod grinned, and his eyelids grew heavier again.
She rested her head against his. ‘You’re jet-lagged out of your mind.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ he said, eyes closed.
She watched the countryside sweep by. Sansa had given Pod a massive hug and said she would help in anyway she could. You could totally tell she was excited, however much she was trying to keep it in.
‘I’ll look after you,’ he said, his eyebrows shrugging up again.
‘I know,’ she said.
‘Trust me now?’
Missy had told Edd that they were going for dinner on the top floor of a car park, which had slightly baffled him. It had turned out to be a bar and restaurant on the roof of a multi-storey, posh cocktails and small plates of grub, with a view of London that even Edd had to admit to being impressive. All the landmarks had been spread across the horizon with their daft names, the Gherkin and the Cheese Grater, the Walkie Talkie and the Shard.
‘I do,’ he said, as they crossed the road, heading back towards Sandor’s flat.
‘Like my ends, then?’ she said, putting her arm in his.
‘Very nice,’ he said, ignoring the fact that the main road smelt of rotting fish, was littered with McDonald’s wrappers, and that drunken arty students were teetering about all over the place. A rather suspect-looking layabout leaning against the wall.
‘Yeah, it’s nice. I should look for my own digs, but – got to get me a proper job, and everything’s mad expensive –’
‘She’s a bit much for you, bruv, in’t she?’ The voice had come from behind them. That man who’d been against the wall.
Edd stopped. ‘Excuse me?’
He was in his forties, paunchy. Black patches under his eyes. His clothes were filthy. ‘It’s a bit imbalanced, you and her. I bet she’s a right goer. Aren’t you, love?’ He lurched slightly.
Missy looked unutterably hurt.
‘Don’t say that.’ Edd spoke in the same calm, subtly abrasive tone that he used for absolutely everyone.
‘Or what?’ The man was definitely on something or other. Not quite in control.
‘Or nothing. You just don’t say that.’
The man gazed at him for a second, before his expression changed. ‘Give me all your money. Now. And your phone.’
In any dangerous scenario, you were taught to assess it, in seconds. Less than seconds. The situation, the threat, the chance of casualties. He’d done enough operational risk management to be able to recite all ten points backwards.
‘Or what?’ Edd said.
‘Edd,’ said Missy, in nothing more than a tiny, panicked whisper.
The man leaned in. The smell of rancid sweat. ‘Like you said. There is no ‘or what.’’ He’d put a hand in his pocket.
There was no weapon. Edd knew it. He was making it up as he went along.
‘Not happening, mate.’ He took Missy’s hand and walked very swiftly on, the hairs on his neck prickling, ready to turn if necessary. Hand-to-hand wasn’t exactly his greatest skill, but he’d be able to do enough.
‘Cunt!’ the man shouted, and kept shouting, over and over, as they walked away.
‘Fucking hell,’ said Sandor.
‘I know,’ said Sansa, having just told him that Arya was four and a half months pregnant.
They were sitting on the sofa in the living room, Sansa nestled into Sandor’s torso. She craned round again. ‘Yeah. Mum and Dad don’t know. She’s sworn me to secrecy, for now, anyway. Don’t tell her you know.’
He shook his head, his chin rubbing the top of her skull. Sighed. ‘Jesus.’
‘I thought she was making up for lack of Pod by eating loads of cake.’
‘Didn’t she want to get rid of it?’
The words smarted. ‘Really?’ she said, sitting up away from the warmth of him and turning round.
He looked over. ‘What?’
‘That’s the first thing you say?’ She wouldn’t admit to him that she’d already been dreaming of baby names and imagining their first words being ‘Auntie Sansa.’
Sandor shrugged. ‘I just would have thought that’s what she’d do.’
‘Is that what you’d want me to do?’ she said, knowing it was petulant.
‘I didn’t say that.’ He was frowning, chewing on his cheek, staring past her at the wall. Doing that only-now-very-occasional impenetrable thing.
Sansa turned round and stared too, at a different bit of wall. She didn’t know why it was so hard, to talk about babies. It was a logical step – not yet, not now, but – at some point. Men had babies in their forties. Sandor was fitter than he’d been when she’d first met him, playing football at weekends, helping with sport at school, coming back still from a run and dripping sexily all over her.
The door. Missy and Edd coming into the living room.
‘Hey guys,’ Sansa said to them, pretending everything was absolutely normal. Which now it wasn’t, quite.
Edd nodded a polite, faintly anguished greeting. He was the most uncomfortable man she had probably ever met, but the two of them were pretty adorable.
‘We just had a total run-in,’ Missy said. ‘On Holly Grove. Almost got messy.’
‘You both alright?’ said Sandor, sitting up. Sounding absolutely, totally normal.
Missy’s took Edd’s arm. ‘He’s my hero,’ she said. ‘’Night’ night.’ And she pulled him down the corridor.
‘Thank you,’ Missy said, sitting next to him on her bed. She’d made him a cup of tea, extra sugar. ‘For back there. Oh my days, man, that was freaky.’
‘I wouldn’t have done it like that if I’d thought for a second he could actually hurt you.’
‘Or hurt you,’ she said. He looked at her. ‘He could have hurt you.’
The thought of that had never crossed his mind. He could be pulverised to a bloody pulp and it wouldn’t mean a thing as long as she was OK. ‘Didn’t really think about me.’ He put a hand in her hair. ‘Though I didn’t mean to be taking over, there. I’m sure you’re perfectly good at defending yourself.’
‘In my head, maybe. I did do some ju-jitsu back in school.’ She sat on top of him, hands either side of his ears. ‘Show you a front naked choke if you like.’
‘That sounds fine to me.’
‘You’re not like, going to be intimidated by my sick moves?’
‘I’m turned on by strong women,’ he said, rather alarmed at his own words.
Missy gazed at him. ‘Such a woke bae,’ she said, bafflingly, and before he could ask what language that was, she was leaning down and kissing him with not a hint of ju-jitsu, the kissing turning into a whole new language altogether.
Edd didn’t think he’d ever been kissed quite like this. It hardly had to progress on to anything else, given how lovely it was all on its own. Lips and tongue near-bruised with it all. But progress it did, and soon enough Edd had his face between her legs, her bottom tilted upwards at the edge of the bed, with only a wall between them and his ex-army pal and his wife. He listened to her breaths rise and fall, the increase in them, as he worked harder.
‘Hot,’ she said, sometime later, a dark cherry-coloured flush on her cheeks, her arms outstretched on the bed.
Edd tried to will the feeling back into his knees. ‘Shall I open the window?’
‘No. You’re hot. It was. All of it.’ She made a long, summery sigh.
Edd tried not to think about what that idiot had said back on the road. Imbalanced. A bit much for you. He lay down next to her, and looked at the underside of her arm, how it was a paler version of the rest of her. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Bristol,’ she said, driftingly, to the ceiling.
‘No, I mean –’ Missy rolled her head over towards him, her gaze simple. ‘I don’t mean to sound like a dickhead,’ he said. ‘I’m just interested. I mean, my background is just the North West, going way back.’ A forking family tree done by his cousin, generations stretching back into Lancashire’s glowering past. Farmers and mill-workers the lot of them.
‘Oh,’ she said, and looked back at the ceiling. Drew her arms in on top of her stomach. ‘I don’t know. Adopted.’
‘Oh.’ She’d spoken of her parents a few times, and had never mentioned it. ‘Right. Did you never – want to know?’
There was the hum of a car outside. The slam of a door. Missy lay looking upwards, and he swore he could hear her heart. He knew he’d overstepped, from the way that the curl of her smile had faded, and the two little frown marks appeared in between her eyebrows, as if made with a penknife.
‘You don’t have to tell me anything,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry I asked.’
For a minute more, she didn’t move. When she did speak, her words were quiet, pared-down. ‘I was abused. Neglected. Social services picked me up when I was two. I don’t remember anything but – it’s enough to know that I don’t want anything to do with – what came before my real family.’
The idea of Missy being hurt was enough to make him want to bite his own hand off. Or, as he would have done if he’d had to an hour ago, fight by any means necessary. The idea of her as a tiny thing, not much bigger than that puppy, and something being done to her, was darker, more distant. ‘I’m sorry.’
She swallowed. ‘I know. It’s not – I don’t really like to think about it.’
He lay next to her, careful not to touch. Trying not to think of her as a small lass. A confused image of him picking her toddler self up and putting his coat round her, taking her away from wherever she had been.
A light finger along his shoulder. ‘Fancy making me not think about it?’ she said, softly.
Edd knew an order when he was given one. ‘I do,’ he said, and carefully moved on top of her.
For fuck’s sake. It had gone all weird. Sansa had grown quiet, making her way to the kitchen after Missy and Edd had vacated it, putting the kettle on again. The squeak of the top cupboard, which meant biscuits, and her eating them in there, not coming out to post one into his mouth as she’d usually do.
In another world, he’d have left the house, gone for a walk, come back very late. Not talked about it. But this was a new world, this married one. They were always honest with each other. Had only argued about twice since getting married last year. So he would be honest with her. Tell her that he’d be no good as a father. Not good enough.
Sandor got up, went to the kitchen door and leant against it. Sansa was sitting on the kitchen top, the packet of custard creams on her lap, her hair hanging down in front of her chest on one side. Looking as fucking cute as always.
‘I’m not supposed to be eating these after 4pm,’ she said, glumly. Peeking up at him.
‘You could eat all the biscuits in the country and I’d still fancy the fuck out of you,’ he said.
Sansa gave a smile. A small one, but a real one.
He came over to her. ‘Got one for me?’
She gazed at him and her shoulders came down. She wedged out a biscuit and put the whole thing in his mouth. Watched him crunch. Her eyes still just a little paler blue than normal.
‘Look,’ he said, still chewing. ‘Sansa.’ Put hands on her thighs.
A dull knocking from downstairs. He looked at the clock and back at Sansa. 11pm. ‘If that’s Robin, I’ll fucking eat that boy alive. Even the bones.’
He jogged downstairs, still trying to digest the news about Arya. The poor kid. She didn’t exactly sound made up about it, and why would you at that age?
Two people at the door. A redheaded woman, with her arm round the shoulders of a boy, aged maybe eight or nine.
‘I don’t believe in Jesus or fairies or any damned thing and you’re not about to make me start,’ he said, ready to shut the door again.
The woman didn’t change her expression, which was weirdly confident. ‘You do not remember me.’
Christ. She was going to start going on about past lives. Using a bloody kid as a prop was pretty fucking low. ‘Should I?’ He folded his arms. ‘And it’s fucking late.’
There was the slightest smile, like the curl of a snake mostly hidden under a rock. ‘Birmingham,’ she said, with casual significance.
‘Birmingham,’ he said, and there was a tang of a distant memory, a long while ago. A slight sense of dread. ‘OK,’ he said, warily.
‘Melisandre,’ she said.
‘OK,’ he said. A faint image of that hair, draped over a boob. ‘And –?’ He looked down at the boy, who was staring wide-eyed up at his scarred cheek, and suddenly thought, do not say what I think you’re going to say.
She said exactly that. ‘This is Jaden. Your son.’
woke bae = an enlightened boyfriend
‘Crows’: upon browing some UK military slang, I found that ‘Crow’ = Can’t Read Or Write. Derived from a term used with WW1 recruits, now refers to a new recruit or inexperienced soldier.
Chapter 5: Maybe
The chapter was getting a bit long, so have chopped it in half. Next one coming relatively soon too!
(Sorry for anyone who couldn't access this chapter straightaway - had to delete it and get it back in. Had some formatting issues).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Son. Our son.
The woman standing in their living room had said these two, strange words again. She was creamy of skin and wearing a long brocade coat that could have upholstered an 18th-century sofa. Deep red hair. A boy with her, in a T-shirt and hooded top.
Son. The word was huge, inflatable, growing bigger.
‘Since when?’ said Sandor, standing by the coffee table, folding his arms and unfolding them again. He looked shaken.
‘As I said, Birmingham.’
Sansa’s heart was welding together with all the other organs in her body.
‘He’s not,’ he said. ‘He’s bloody not. You mean to tell me you’ve just decided to tell me about it? After what, nine years?’
‘I have my reasons.’ The woman spoke very calmly, an odd, imperious almost-smile on her face. A trace of an accent.
‘Give me one fucking reason.’ His voice was getting darker, near-vicious.
Sansa snapped out of it. ‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘Not in front of him.’ She stood, put her hand on the boy’s shoulder, and took him to the kitchen.
Missy’s limbs stilled around him. ‘That doesn’t sound so good,’ she said, heels on the spine of his back.
Edd stopped, trying his damndest not to come inside her. The sound of Sandor and Sansa arguing filtered in. Or perhaps that wasn’t Sansa – the female voice was lower. ‘Want me to see if everything’s OK?’
‘I will,’ said Missy, patting his hips. ‘Don’t go anywhere.’
The boy hadn’t said a word yet, just nodded when she’d asked if he wanted juice. She watched him drinking it now, floppy brown hair in his eyes, looking at the fridge magnets and post-it notes. Sandor and the woman, who he hadn’t introduced, were talking in mostly low voices in the living room, Sandor’s occasionally rising into jabbing words.
Sandor’s son. His son. She looked for him in the boy’s face, in his nose, the way he held himself.
‘Everything all right, babe?’ Missy was there, a T-shirt on and bare legs, whispering, looking curiously at the boy. Jaden.
‘Um, no, not really.’ Her stomach was putty. ‘Sorry for disturbing you.’
‘Ain’t no thing. Who’s this little man?’ she said, softly. ‘Hello.’
‘Hello,’ he said back, in a small, slightly croaking voice. No one could resist a Missy greeting.
‘Do you need me to stick around, hon?’ said Missy, glancing towards the living room door, which was shut. Voices behind it, and Sandor’s rather louder.
Sansa wondered if she might throw up. ‘No. It’s OK. Go back to bed.’
‘Bed with a double ‘d’,’ Missy said, and gently winked. ‘Give me a shout, yeah?’ She drifted away again.
The boy was putting his empty glass by the sink, and stood then in the middle of the kitchen.
‘How old are you, Jaden?’ Sansa said, though the words hurt.
‘Eight and a half,’ he said, and rubbed his eye. It was far too late for him to be up. Bowie came in and he knelt down.
‘Where are you staying? Do you live in London?’
‘We’ve been on trains a lot,’ he said, stroking Bowie’s back. He seemed exhausted, and disorientated.
‘OK,’ said Sandor, who was suddenly at the door. ‘Time to go.’
The boy looked up at him. Swallowed. The huge difference in height.
Sansa shot Sandor a look. He sounded like he was security chucking someone out of a pub.
She saw him register it and blink. ‘Your mother’s –’ he said, his voice becoming a little less rough. ‘Your mother’s ready to go.’
The boy straightened. ‘Thank you very much for the juice,’ he said to Sansa, staring wide-eyed up at Sandor again, and walking out of the kitchen.
‘He’s not mine.’
‘So you keep saying,’ said Sansa, leaning against the kitchen counter. Her voice was taut. The voice he almost never heard, and hated to hear.
‘Well, he’s fucking not,’ he said. His guts were churning. That fucking woman – Mel, Melis-whatever, turning up out of nowhere. Making Sansa look at him like she was right now.
‘You never said –’ Sansa started. ‘You said you’d never had a girlfriend. Before me.’
‘So – what was she?’
‘Just some one-time thing. I can hardly fucking remember.’
‘Oh my God.’ Sansa turned her head to the side, looked steadfastly at the cooker.
‘What, you’d sooner I’d gone out with her and then lied to you about that?’ Sansa’s arms were tightening around herself. ‘Look, it was after my second last tour. I was in Birmingham with a couple of others, a break from some training week, letting off steam, that was all. She approached me.’
Pub. Toilet. The faint memory of a dress that she opened in one move, and absolutely nothing underneath.
‘And you used a condom? That’s why you know?’
‘I always do. Did.’ There’d been some shite music blaring, Bryan Adams or some such.
‘And you did then?’
He went to lie. Couldn’t. ‘I can’t remember, OK? I was off my face.’
‘Brilliant,’ said Sansa, in an understated voice.
‘But I always fucking did.’ It was automatic, the few times he’d actually shagged a woman, hand going to wallet. He swore he would have done it. ‘I’m not a fucking idiot.’
‘But you don’t remember.’
The thought of the woman perhaps stealing it afterwards, sticking it in a pocket for safekeeping. No, that was bollocks, your sperm didn’t fucking last outside the body. He shook his head. ‘It was a long time ago.’
‘Why is she only telling you now?’ she said.
‘Aye, well, exactly. Why do you think that is?’ Sansa just gazed back at him blankly. An odd, tight shake of her head. ‘Because she’s trying to get money out of me.’
‘Is that what she said?’
‘She might as well have. She said it was time that I supported my son.’ That infuriating voice, half bolshy and half smooth-talking politician. If he’d spent any proper time with her he’d never have shagged her. ‘I can guarantee you that by support she doesn’t mean testing him on his spelling and taking him on bike rides.’
Sansa stared at the floor. He could feel her sadness, the love draining away from him, into the fucking kitchen sink plughole. Everything going more wrong than he’d ever have believed.
He’d felt no connection to the kid. Big brown eyes blinking up at him. A mole on his cheekbone. Would he have? Should he have? ‘I’m getting a paternity test,’ he said.
‘Did she agree?’
‘She had his birth certificate, said that’d be enough.’ Jaden Asshai. The rest had been in Dutch but he could see the date clearly enough.
Sansa was looking at him. Waiting. Fuck. ‘I’d have to look up the tour dates. I can’t remember. It’s in the same ballpark.’
Her face, carefully dismantling all hope.
‘The certificate’s not enough,’ he said. Everything was feeling horribly out of control. ‘I told her we’d do it through the courts if she wanted, or we could both save a lot of money and do it from a kit. She said she didn’t trust them to be right and I said it was that or nothing.’
She was still looking at the floor as if it was a work of art.
‘Sansa.’ Pale blue eyes, hurt, gently accusing. ‘He’s not mine.’
‘Well, you’ll know, won’t you? One way or the other.’ And she turned from him.
After his brief but exceptionally formative sojourn chez Jojen in South Tottenham, Robin had been working ardently on his artwork, which was morphing from a prog-rock oratorio into an indefinable beast that currently incorporated installation, Noh theatre and euphonium solos (Robin had passed his Grade 7 with a distinction). He had also gained rather a lot of confidence in talking to girls, having been near-adopted by Wylla and Irri in his two days there, and with whom he occasionally chatted to on WhatsApp.
sup lil boyfriend
hey Wylla! xxx
hows the opera shit
it progresses! xxx
safe as houses my sweet man
His newly-found élan was the reason that he now, feeling less confident by the second, was standing in his room next to Lyanna Mormont, who had her arms folded and was staring at his cat.
‘Yeah. He’s called Benjamin Kitten.’
‘Weird,’ said Lyanna.
‘After Benjamin Britten. He’s a composer?’ Like me, Robin wanted to say. One day I’ll be like him. Mixed with Brian Eno.
‘Don’t like cats,’ said Lyanna, eyeballing Benjamin, who mewed extremely quietly and hid under the bed.
‘Um. Yeah. They’re just OK, I guess,’ said Robin, wondering why he couldn’t just speak his mind like he used to, and therefore tell her that Benjamin Kitten was literally the best thing that had ever happened to him.
He hadn’t had much, or indeed any, luck with girls. Apart from Shireen, who, if Robin admitted it to himself, had never done anything more than hang around with him a bit and play Celtic harp in some of his compositions, before her dad had moved the family to the Isle of Man, where it rained and everyone was moody and puritanical.
Lyanna had been in Robin’s form class for three years, along with Cousin Rickon. She was fiercely excellent at history, hockey, football and science. She was the regional champion over all age categories in Debating, because for some reason everyone always gave in to her. And even though anyone else would have been branded a total geekoid and had their head flushed in the school toilets, Lyanna was respected, and slightly feared, by everyone, mostly because she played drums in her own all-girl punk-rock band, Bear Island.
Robin had never been able to see past his terror of Lyanna to decide whether he liked her or not. But, following the encouragement from his artgirlz (as he had wildly named his WhatsApp chatgroup) in all affairs of the heart, he had decided to throw caution to the wind.
Ask her to ur room lil babylove, Wylla had texted. Show her ur cat play her ur music nuff said in the bag
Irri had designed her own emoji to express the words ‘it is known’.
Lyanna was still standing stock-still in the centre of his room.
Robin felt a little tremulous. ‘Um. Want to listen to some music?’
‘No,’ said Lyanna.
He began feeling rather desperate. ‘Would you like a drink?’
‘Of what?’ Her piercing, bird-of-prey eyes.
Robin prayed not to get it wrong. ‘Um, Ribena, Dr Pepper, homemade mango, kale and bell pepper smoothie.’ Lysa had got a blender, and was now usually found obliterating the contents of the fridge into increasingly frightening combinations.
Robin was relieved to get out of his room, if only for one and half minutes. His heart was beating in two rhythms, like in Steve Reich’s Clapping Music (which he had recorded on Garageband so that he could do the hard part). There was literally an actual girl in his room.
‘Um, so I was wondering,’ he said, upon returning. Ask her 2 a film, Wylla had texted. Take her for a MaccyDs
Lyanna turned and stared at Robin.
‘So I wondered if you might –’
& then kiss her obvs
Her right eye narrowed to a knife-point.
‘Play drums in my new theatrical prog-rock oratorio?’
The other eye joined it. ‘Why?’
‘Because – because I think you’d be sick.’
Robin babbled on for a while about his plans, skipping the water feature part and the spotlit contemporary dance, convincing even himself that he had not been about to ask her out on A Date.
Lyanna kicked the bedpost with her purple DM. ‘I’ll do it on one condition.’
‘Sure,’ said Robin. ‘Totes.’ Hoping that the next words would be that you come out horse riding/dirt bike riding/Go Apeing/to a concert at Bristol University Concert Hall with me because actually secretly I love classical music. And you.
‘That Rickon’s in it,’ she said.
His heart did a small, limpid collapse, as if to the soundtrack of Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel. She was in love with Rickon, the boy who made Mowgli look like Little Lord Fauntleroy. ‘Um, I don’t think he plays an instrument I’m writing for.’
‘So write him something.’
‘Then ask him to be in it.’
‘OK,’ said Robin, wondering how the visit had turned from a dreamy rom-com into an epic tragedy in about ten seconds.
were u at?
queer art exhibition
lots of arses
got some news
so many arses
having a baby
pretty fuckin crazy shit
please dont tell M&D am telling them later
only sans knows
Arya stared at her phone. No one was typing. Nothing. Great. If her brother and her best mate freaked out, that wasn’t going to bode well for two hours’ time. She’d been working up to it. Baggiest T-shirts yet. Hiding round at Pod’s. Telling Bran and Jojen first.
A photo. The two of them in front of a piece of paper, which they’d scribbled on.
YOU ARE A WONDERWOMAN
Love Uncles Bran and Jojen x x
There was a drawing of a hipster baby with a beard, big glasses and a pipe.
Arya’s sigh of relief was almost a sob. All she felt like doing these days was crying. Crying or hurling things. Her work for uni had got quite dramatic.
Another photo came through, this time of Jojen’s tongue very close to a sculpture of some very fine buttocks.
Her sob became a laugh.
‘Men,’ said Ygritte. ‘Fucking bastards.’
It had been a horrible day. Sansa had gone out running, but no matter how many miles she pounded through, no matter how much loud running playlist tunes she blasted, she couldn’t shake it off. The horrible, horrible feeling of Sandor having a son and it not being hers. And the poor boy, too, who had been standing right there in front of them all, hearing them talk about him. That was almost the worst thing – what sort of person would do that? The sort that Sandor, drunk, would decide to sleep with.
‘Literally the worst fucking bastards on earth.’
She’d had a shower and gone out again, walking around the Rye, ending up all the way over at Brockley Market, buying a big loaf of seeded bread and miserably tearing chunks off it, sitting on a wall. Ignoring Sandor’s messages.
He’d arranged to meet – her, Melisandre, to get the swab. This afternoon. He’d insisted they were going to do it in front of each other, seal it and post it off, so there could no tampering. Which was all fine, unless it turned out to be his, in which case he was just proving it, irrefutably.
She’d stopped herself messaging Arya. Her sister had enough on her plate right now. Instead, she’d met Ygritte for a drink in a Camberwell pub, and listened to her reel off a lot of things about her older brother that she really would rather not have heard.
‘He liked having a vibrator in the mix, you know,’ she was saying. ‘Bit of extra. And then he rang me up and said he was breaking up with me. Oh yeah, and that he was getting fucking married. To some Sloaney Ranger fucking bitch.’ She downed her pint. ‘Couldn’t even say it to my face. I’m going to fucking have him. That man is going to get got.’
‘Um, please don’t,’ said Sansa glumly. ‘He’s still my brother.’
‘Yeah, well,’ said Ygritte, casting a drunkenly dark look over. ‘We’ll fucking see. And your man. Got a fucking thing for redheads, eh?’
‘She’s not a real redhead,’ said Sansa. Deep, ruby-red hair, probably L’Oreal. Not that had bothered Sandor one bit nine years ago, clearly.
‘Fucking love-child fucking Jeremy Kyle bollocks,’ said Ygritte, standing up. ‘Let’s have another.’
‘No,’ said Sansa, sighing, and already feeling a little tipsy. ‘I’d better get back.’
‘Don’t take any fucking shit.’ Ygritte jabbed a finger alarmingly close to Sansa’s cheek. ‘You’re not going to be some fucking fairy stepmother to his one-night smash and dash.’
Sansa had slowly gone home, to find Sandor sitting on the sofa, watching football, Bowie on his lap.
‘Did you do it?’ she said, making only the briefest of eye contact.
‘Aye,’ he said, and didn’t say anything else. She went to the kitchen and spent a very long time making a cup of peppermint tea.
He turned the TV off when she finally sat down. ‘Will you stop?’
‘Doing what you’re doing,’ he said. ‘I can’t – I can’t fucking bear it.’ It wasn’t said aggressively. ‘You’re blaming me for something I haven’t done.’
‘That you think you haven’t done. Because you can’t remember.’ She’d asked him once or twice before whom he had slept with. He’d always brushed it off, mentioned a few very short-lived things that hardly counted as dates. Now all she could think about was him having unprotected sex with that woman against a wall somewhere off the Curry Mile.
Sandor sighed, sharp and violently, before looking more closely at her. ‘Have you been drinking?’
‘I had one gin.’ Two, and a glass of wine, but he didn’t need to know that. ‘What if he is yours?’
Bowie snuffled towards Sansa, and attempted to jump on to her knees.
‘What if he is?’ she said. Sandor went to speak, didn’t. He didn’t care about the boy. Not one bit. ‘When’s it coming back?’
‘I asked them not to come back again.’
‘Not him.’ She picked Bowie up. ‘Jaden, by the way. He has a name. When’s the test coming back?’
‘Couple of days.’ He turned, put an arm on the back of the sofa, didn’t touch her. She wanted him to touch her so badly. And she could hardly look at him. ‘Look. Sansa. You’re all I’ve ever fucking wanted. We’ll sort this. OK?’
‘OK,’ she said, feeling not very much at all, apart from the need for more gin.
Sloane Ranger = slightly old-school term (1980s/90s) for the sort of well-bred people who live in West London and have lots of money. Sloane Square is part of Chelsea.
Jeremy Kyle = a trashy British tabloid TV show where people come on to air family feuds, take lie detector tests, get DNA results, have reconciliations and indeed fights. YUK.
‘Bloody hell, mate,’ said Bronn, at the other end of the phone. ‘That’s got to be a bit of shock.’
Sandor had been checking emails on his phone every few minutes, just in case the results came early. Which they wouldn’t, because it was a fucking Sunday. Instead, he’d seen more photos of Bronn’s one-year-old, a massive thing, drooling. More from the child-potato mutant, Bronn had put. But he’s OUR child-potato mutant, Brienne had written underneath.
‘You’re fucking telling me,’ said Sandor, who hated phoning anyone to talk about anything. ‘And Sansa is giving me the cold shoulder.’
She’d been gone most of the day, leaving a note saying she was off to the gym and to see a friend. She never wrote notes. She'd just text him, her messages so obliterated with flowers and hearts he’d hardly know what she was on about. There was a solitary kiss on the post-it, which was as good as a punch in the face.
‘Women never want you to have slept with anyone else,’ said Bronn. ‘Except that they’re happy for you to be experienced. But she’s a sound lass. It’s just a shock for her, that’s all. It’s not like that will have been in her grand plan.’
Planning. Because that’s what couples did. They talked about stuff, and they didn’t avoid things. But then most couples didn’t have some Dutch witch turning up out of nowhere claiming your sudden paternity of her son.
‘But you don’t think the lad’s yours?’
‘No,’ Sandor said. Because he couldn’t be. Because it would change everything, and Sansa would never look at him the same way again, and probably ditch him for someone much younger, leave him paying alimony to a kid he didn’t know.
‘Well, pal, just sit it out until the results come back. Hang in there.’
‘Aye. Guess I’ll have to,’ he said.
There was the sound of screeching in the background. ‘Jesus Christ,’ said Bronn. ‘I swear this one’s shaved several decibels off my ears.’ There was a groan, the sound of him lifting his kid up. ‘Say howdy to your Uncle Sandor, Oscar.’
Another wet scream. He never knew what to say, seeing as the baby couldn’t exactly talk back. Instead, Sandor waited until Bronn came back on to say his farewells, and then went back to sitting on the sofa, phone in hand.
Just in case.
Another surreally nice half-day. They’d got out pretty early, what with the atmosphere being a little odd in the flat – Missy had mentioned some mystery boy in the kitchen who didn’t seem to be there any more – and had breakfast in a café round the corner. Then a long walk and a couple of hours in the National Gallery, though it was busy and Edd spent most of it staring at Missy’s profile, for she was a far better work of art than anything in here. Unlike him.
Now he watched her on the tube, standing next to her as she read the notices. Seeing how everyone checked her out, just a bit. Imbalanced, you and her, that poor attempt at a mugger had said. It wasn’t untrue. He couldn’t help thinking of it, and of the long months of his last tour ahead.
When they got to his platform, he turned to her.
‘So,’ she said, as she had done before in Northumberland. A sweet, confident beam.
This time he didn’t say it back. Took a deep breath. ‘Listen, Missy, I –’ he glanced over her head at the tourists looking around for Platform 9 and a half or whatever it was. And down again at her. ‘I’m not sure what this is.’
Her beam dissolved, and she looked slightly pained. Clearly not what she’d expected. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘It’s –’ she seemed not to have any words, in any languages. ‘It’s just what it is.’
‘It’s just – I’m off now, for six months, and that’s a long time. For you to –’ it was ludicrous to even suggest that she might want to wait to see him again, when all they’d done was see each other three times. Four times, if you counted the wedding. Five, if you counted the stag weekend. ‘It’s maybe best to knock this on the head.' Because he could die, or she could hook up with someone else whilst he was away, which was obviously worse.
‘Oh.’ Her shoulders came down, subtly. Lips open just a little.
It was like torturing a small puppy. ‘I just mean it’s – if you were wanting to start something, then – it’s just not something I’ve done before. Being away.’ His two longer-term girlfriends had been in the army. Val, and the girl who’d shaved her head after they split up and glared at him from the other end of the meeting room, kicking the table leg violently. The only other one before that was from home, and was before these long stints of his.
She was looking at the ground. Up at him.
Out with it. ‘I’m not sure what you see in me, Missy.’
She took a step closer. Tugged her teeth into her lip as she gazed at him. ‘You’re sweet and kind, and funny. You like that I’m clever. Some boys don’t. They just tell me how bangable how I am, how they’d give me what I’d never had.’ She rolled her eyes, an action meant to be scathing but was nevertheless adorable. He decided it was best never to reveal how often he’d thought of her every curve, like contours on a field map. ‘Most of them aren’t so into me reading them poems in Ancient North Arabian.’
I’d listen to you saying anything, Edd thought, but it was true that he’d liked it. She’d sat next to him on her bed first thing this morning reading it off her phone, the words curling off her tongue like little bits of burnt paper. He’d made a joke about Riyading books, which somehow Missy had giggled at, her hand on her chest, saying bare jokes or oh my days.
‘And you with no clothes on is my new aesthetic,’ she said.
He blushed and looked at his feet. It couldn’t possibly be true. He was not calendar material. At best he’d pass for an extra in The Full Monty.
‘We all have our hang-ups, Edd,’ she said, and her face was softer and more vulnerable. ‘It’s sometimes pretty hard to believe anyone could value me after what they – after what my biological parents did.’
I value you, he thought, recklessly, and he knew that she could read him like a badly-coded message.
‘We could Skype?’ she said, a tiny little jewel of hope in the question. Collected his fingers in hers.
Cat and Ned were staring at her. They’d totally thought she was going to announce that they were going travelling, which she’d been talking about for ages. Instead she’d informed them of impending grandparenthood way earlier than they expected, the wrong child making it happen.
Pod was sitting on the sofa next to her, looking politely terrified.
‘Oh my darling girl,’ said Cat. Arya could hear the subtle shade of disappointment, underneath it all. Catelyn was built to deal with all manner of shitstorms over the environment, lobbying insane meglomaniac global leaders not to burn shit, to take everything in her stride, but here was her daughter failing at birth control and being useless. Again.
‘Well,’ said Ned, and clasped his fingers together. ‘How are you doing, love? Have you been looking after yourself?’
No, she thought. ‘Going to get a few things sorted now that Pod’s back.’ She glanced over at him as he took her hand, before looking back at her parents. ‘Bit of catching up to do.’
Catelyn got up and sat between them both, Pod shifting over. ‘We’re not going away for a while now.’ Usually they were hot-tailing it around the world on conferences. She looked at Ned. ‘We’re here to help.’ She put an arm around her daughter and Arya put her head on her shoulder. Tried not to cry.
‘Well. We always did have a big family,’ said Ned.
‘Are you saying there’s going to be loads of grandkids?’
He smiled. ‘Come on. Between the five of you there’s going to be a pack.’ He got up. ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’
The doorbell rang.
Rickon nodded. He was currently engrossed in a computer game in which he seemed to be chopping off a lot of heads. There were wolves.
Robin sat down next to him, Cat having let him in. Arya and Pod had seemed a bit too tired to say a proper hello.
Rickon passed him a console.
‘Oh. Um.’ Robin wasn’t very good at computer games. He didn’t know why there weren’t any in which you could be an amazing professional composer and travel the world conducting international orchestras. Maybe he would have to design one. Instead, he attempted to wrench a part-man, part-sabretooth’s head off using large metal tools. The person he was playing lay down and put his hands over his ears.
‘So. Yeah.’ Robin didn’t address him as Cousin. The one time he had at school, Rickon had silently promised him many forms of death, so it was best not to go there. ‘I’m making this thing. A big show.’
There was a sound from Rickon that may have been in response to this, or may have been the fact that his wolf was disemboweling the sabretooth-man.
The child made noises like some of these creatures. You would hear Thoros yawning and shuffling down the corridor in the middle of the night, singing songs from the 1990s, sometimes with ukelele accompaniment. Ivan didn’t really do it when Robin was around. He mostly just stared, with very, very big blue eyes.
The sabretooth man was now thoroughly dismembered. ‘So, yeah,’ Robin said again. It was probably advisable not to mention the word ‘opera’, or ‘installation’ at this point. ‘It’s like an epic prog-metal-punk thing,’ Robin said, lying flagrantly. ‘And I was sort of hoping you might be in it?’
Rickon turned. An ice-green gaze. Shook his head and went back to his wolf.
‘Lyanna’s going to be in it,’ Robin said. ‘Playing percussion.’
He thought he detected the slightest stiffening of Rickon’s left shoulder, though that may have been because Rickon’s wolf was now eating the foot of Robin’s avatar.
‘’Kay,’ Rickon said, not looking away from the screen.
Pod was lying between her legs, gazing at her stomach.
‘You can’t see it growing by the second, you know,’ she said.
He smiled up at her. ‘I know.’ He went back to staring at it.
They had gone over to Ilyn’s to tell him the news. He hadn’t said very much. Obviously. But his eyes had gone soft and he’d put on a song called The Blues Had A Baby And They Called It Rock And Roll and turned it up, and Chella made Pod dance with her around the living room. She later pulled Arya aside to tell her she had a special test involving garlic that would tell them whether it was a boy or a girl. Arya pointed out that she was having a scan in a few days and that she reckoned that would probably do the trick, if they decided they wanted to know.
‘I haven’t been drinking, just so you know,’ she said. ‘I mean, this whole time.’ It hadn’t even been that hard.
‘I know.’ He kissed her hip. ‘I won’t either. Wait – have you been sick? I mean, morning sickness?’
She shook her head. ‘Not really. Felt a bit gross early on, but – guess I skipped that part.’
He kissed her other hip.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘About fucking up your career.’
‘Yeah, but you didn’t plan for this.’
‘People don’t plan for lots of things. We’ll work it out.’
‘But you didn’t want to be in Bristol forever.’ She didn’t even know if being in Bristol was best. She supposed so, what with both families being here. She had no idea what would happen to her degree. How could she finish it with a fucking baby in tow?
‘It won’t be forever. There are jobs here I can get for now.’
‘Will we get a house?’ She couldn’t bear the idea of being back home. She’d go mental.
He nodded. Maybe they could live in Southville. It was cheaper there. She would worry about how to pay rent later. Think about making murals on the walls instead.
‘I can’t wait to live with you properly,’ he said, and put his chin on her hip, and looked up at her.
Those eyes would never stop killing her. Maybe it would have those eyes. ‘We can still have sex, you know,’ she said.
‘You didn’t want to before.’
‘Yeah, well, gonna have to get over that at some point, aren’t I?’ Sex overrides baby freak-out. That was probably written down in a rulebook somewhere.
Pod gently pulled her onto her side, facing him. Kissed her ear.
Sansa climbed the stairs, Bowie in her arms, after another long day during which she had mostly been on the phone to the printer company trying to get a repairman to come in to sort out the mess that the last repairman had left it in. The hours were also spent checking her phone, because surely Sandor would tell her when the results had come back.
Or maybe not. The fact that she hadn’t heard anything could only mean the worst. He was a father. She wasn’t a mother.
Sandor was sitting on the sofa hands clasped. No TV on, no radio. Laptop on the coffee table in front of him. Oh God.
She took Bowie's lead off and he lolloped towards the kitchen. Her stomach was a tiny ball. She sat down on the table, her knees not touching his. Took a deep breath. ‘Just tell me.’
After a moment, he lifted his eyes. ‘It’s fine.’
‘Fine?’ Fine, as in Jaden was his and he would deal with it.
‘It’s –’ He dragged in a long breath. ‘He’s not mine.’ His words were simple, as if the news wasn’t life-changing.
‘Really?’ Her voice was tiny.
‘Aye. That’s what it says.’
‘Wow,’ she said. ‘OK.’ The relief was coming slowly, one small dose at a time.
They stared at each other. Jaden wasn’t his. It had been a lie.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
His hands remained clasped. ‘It’s OK.’
‘No. I was – I was bad.’ Gin. Running. Avoiding having to talk about anything very much over the last two days. Imagining various scenarios in which Jaden had to come and sleep on the sofa at weekends. Having to see that woman when she picked him up. None of that was going to happen. ‘I should have been more supportive.’
He was looking at the table. ‘It’s understandable.’
‘I just – I was jealous.’ He was beginning to look more relieved, it sinking in, and something about that made her still feel utterly sad, despite everything. ‘You’re glad you haven’t got a kid, aren’t you?’
‘Aye.’ He looked up. ‘I’m glad I haven’t got him.’ He quickly rubbed a hand over his face. ‘Christ, I don’t mean that. I feel for the poor fucking lad. She’s probably dragging him round the whole country, seeing who she can bleed for money, proclaiming who knows how many guys to be her saviour.’
‘Oh my God.’ The boy’s tired eyes, his polite thanks. Her heart broke a little for him. ‘Have you told her?’
‘She got mailed the results as well. Called me.’
‘What did she say?’
‘That science didn’t know all the answers. That it wasn’t to be believed. And I told her that we weren’t living in the fucking Dark Ages, so yes it was, and that I never wanted to hear from her again, unless she wanted to see me in court.’
Sansa would never have to see her again. She was just a woman he had slept with, a long time ago. Before them, and what they had together. She moved, sitting carefully down next to him.
Sandor opened his arm up and she settled in, feeling his warmth seep into her. They sat curled up together, her legs slowly slotting in between his. Listening to the heave of a bus as it went down the road outside.
His chin was on her temple. ‘Jealous, huh?’
‘I want to be the only one having your child. Children. Child.’ She lifted her head up. ‘We haven’t really talked about it.’
‘I know.’ He gave a sigh. ‘It’s not just the age thing. It’s not really that. You keep showing me articles about George bloody Clooney and Mick Jagger to prove that I’ll still be young enough.’ She watched his ribs rise and fall. ‘I just don’t think I’ll be any good. I’m no good with kids.’
She put the flat of her palm against his chest to push herself up and look at him properly. ‘Sandor. You work with them. You’re amazing with them. That school would knight you if it could.’
‘They’re teenagers. It’s different.’
‘Why do you think you’ll not be any good?'
He looked at the coffee table. She felt his heart under her hand. ‘I know it’s not quite the same, but –’ his eyes were wounded. ‘I didn’t look after my sister enough, did I?’
His sister. He hardly talked of her. In the first few months of their relationship, she’d slowly coaxed it out of him. The accident, when his sister was only six. A river. The bicycle. ‘Baby,’ she said. ‘That wasn’t your fault. You were a kid too.’
‘Older than her, though.’ He’d said that he usually went out with her, but that Gregor had done that day, or said he was going to, before buggering off with some girl he was trying to shag.
‘That doesn’t matter. You can’t be thinking that. You mustn’t. That’s crazy.’
His face was shadowed, the memory hovering.
She listened to his slow breaths. ‘I wish I’d met her.’ He nodded, but couldn’t seem to speak. One of those times when the words had to stay in. She put her arms around his neck, and kissed his scarred brow. Kept her lips there. ‘I love you. I’m so sorry I was such a shithead.’
‘I love you too. And I was a shithead.’ He looked at her. ‘I don’t like arguing.’
He gave a gentle, almost-smiling blink, the sort she knew from their four years together meant he wanted her there, now, kissing him.
And kissing him was still as good as it ever was, the way he breathed into her, his hands around her sides as she moved on top of him.
‘You’re not wanting one yet, though, are you?’ Sandor said, in not more than a whisper. ‘I always thought you’d want to get up the ladder a bit first, get established.’
‘Yeah, I guess,’ she said, her hands on his beard. Looked at him sheepishly. ‘Not really enjoying my job.’ Too much admin, not very much smacking corporations around, as she’d imagined. Too many bloody printer repairs. It was so – officey.
‘You’ll get there. You’ll be running the bloody country soon enough.’
‘Hmm,’ said Sansa, and kissed him again. ‘Well, come here then, Husband of the Prime Minister.’
‘You come here,’ said Sandor, and gently bit her collarbone.
A FEW DAYS LATER
‘Mate,’ said Jojen, who was slouched on the sofa with his arm around Bran at the Stark residence.
‘Hi, Robin,’ said Bran. His feet were intertwined with Jojen's on the coffee table.
Robin sat down next to them. They were watching a black and white film made up of old photos rather than moving images, with French subtitles. These days, he tried to find as many excuses as possible to not have to return straight home after school, what with then having to face the screaming soundtrack of Ivan. Although actually, he did totally stop his screaming when Robin played him one of his newest euphonium studies.
‘How’s the project coming along?’ said Jojen.
‘Oh, it’s OK. Sort of challenging, now that Rickon’s in it.’
‘Rickon’s in it?’ said Bran. ‘My little brother Rickon?’
‘Oh. Yeah. I wanted Lyanna to be in it and she said she’d only be in it if Rickon was too.’
‘Lyanna?’ Jojen said. ‘The vicious one?’
‘Yeah,’ said Robin, shrugging. ‘It’s cool, I guess. I mean, I had been planning to like, ask her out, but I guess she doesn’t really think of me that way.’ He often wondered if it might be far better if he were gay. Boys were probably less confusing.
Jojen and Bran looked at each other. ‘Noble, man,’ said Jojen. ‘You are a fucking bro.’
‘Yeah. Back in the day I would have been, like, a knight.’
‘Arise, Sir Robin.’ Jojen did a faint, medieval wave.
Before he could stand and bow, Robin’s phone went, a musical notification of his own design, made up of a tetrachord multitracked on tenor recorder. He looked at it, and sighed. ‘I’d better go.’
Bran was watching him. ‘Aunt Lysa?’
‘She wants me to look after the – Ivan for half an hour while she does yoga.’ He had been forced to read the child bedtime stories in the last few days. As Ivan could not understand a word he said, Robin elected to read him The Catcher In The Rye, although he whispered the swearwords. Ivan gurgled and went to sleep every time. It was sort of quite cute, he supposed.
‘It’s not so bad, you know,’ Bran said. ‘Having siblings. You’ll get used to it.’ He smiled.
‘Yeah, I guess. Later,’ said Robin, knowing full well that throughout his whole life, from now until the end of his days, he would always consider Ivan an utterly sworn enemy.
A FEW DAYS LATER
Back here again. On the TriStar in desert fatigues, flying to Afghanistan, stopping to refuel in Cyprus. Normally he’d read a book, count his family’s sheep, sleep a bit. Now all he could think about was the most beautiful woman who had ever lived. His phone buzzed in his lap.
Safe flying habibi x
Will do my best x
‘Got any nice snaps of your lass on there, sir?’ Grenn was next to him, glancing over, unwinding in-ear headphones.
‘No,’ said Edd, picturing one extremely sexy photo that Missy had sent him.
Am picturing u in uniform ☺ ☺ xox
‘Lucky bastard,’ said Grenn.
‘So we’re a little bit late with this scan, is that right?’
Arya was lying on the thin hospital mattress of a hospital bed, with her top hiked up. She’d got quite into her oversized old metal band T-shirts. Had nicked one from Sandor’s cupboard before she left last time.
The sonographer didn’t seem too bothered. He was a big man with a thick African accent. ‘No worries, my love. We’ll have a look now and see what’s what.’
They were smearing something that seemed like Lidl marmalade on her stomach. A machine next to her that made her think of all of Pod’s musical gadgets. A screen. Pod was next to her, holding her hand. Giving her that small smile that meant he would rescue her from anything, ever.
‘So this is going to act both as your dating scan and your anomaly scan, OK?’
‘OK.’ Anomaly. She hadn’t even thought of that. Well, this would be it. The time to find out whether she really was carrying a part-alien, part-dragon around in there. Fuck.
She lay back, looking at the spots on the ceiling tiles. Trying to ignore the slight pressure of his hands. The ultrasound probe moving over her skin. Wondering if it was going to burst out of her, bloody and ravenous, like from the dude in Alien.
‘Arya.’ Pod was nodding over at the screen, his eyes wide.
She turned her head.
There it was. In black and white. Blurry and charcoal-drawn. A stop-frame animation.
A head. A hand.
habibi = 'my dear' in Arabic
Lidl – a cheap-as-chips supermarket
Oscar means ‘god-spear’ – I thought it would be nice to have a warrior-name for Bronn and Brienne’s little (big) one.
No contempo music this week, but I can totally hear Thoros singing a quiet version of this to his squalling baby in the middle of the night.
Chapter 7: Face
Right! I'm off for a couple of weeks, so it'll be a little wait 'til the next one...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
FOUR MONTHS LATER
It wasn’t quite the same as seeing Missy in the flesh, but Skype wasn’t so bad, even if you couldn’t make eye contact. Edd could hear her, and see her.
‘Hello,’ he said back. He wasn’t very good at using the same language as her, and anyway, someone next door might be eavesdropping. ‘You look very nice.’ By which he meant divine, goddess-like, to be worshipped, even with this erratic connection.
‘Off to the wedding today, you know, Sansa’s big bro? I’m on bridesmaids’ hair and make-up duty. Call me the Lieutenant Colonel of Beauty, bruv.’ She winked, and he let her talk about the church they were going to, some little village place in Dorset, where the bride’s family was from.
He couldn’t always say as much back. You were a bit restricted on what you could say online, with reason. So mostly they had settled into Missy rattling off what she’d been up to for the last couple of weeks since they’d last talked, while he watched her stick her hands in her hair, and cross and re-cross her legs on her bed. She’d got a job now, a proper one starting in a while, working for a company that provided translation services for the Metropolitan Police, so she could jack in the temping soon enough.
‘So hey, Edd, um, I was wondering,’ she said now. ‘Would you like to go on a holiday with me? When you’re back?’
‘Yeah. I mean, I thought I’d take myself off somewhere before I start work. Before it all gets serious.’
‘Would you like me to?’
‘Yes.’ She gave the camera a thumbs-up.
‘Where were you thinking?’ As long as she didn’t say the Middle East, or anywhere near the Middle East.
‘I don’t know. Europe. Somewhere hot where I can wear a bikini.’
Edd tried to stop himself drifting off into a reverie.
‘But with some culture, too. History to get my teeth into. Rome, maybe? You could see where the Romans started out before they started building walls up in our ends. Or Sicily? But it’ll have to be cheap, if that’s OK. Low-key.’
He didn’t need to ask if she spoke Italian. Of course she spoke Italian.
‘Sounds lovely.’ Nothing felt quite real, or possible, all the way over here. It felt easier to say yes to everything. He would worry about what he looked like in a short-sleeved shirt at a later date.
She delivered him a sun-filled beam – the English sun, not this sand-blasted, white thing torturing them all – before checking her phone. ‘OK babe, got to go.’ She could call him babe, or bae, or habibi, as easily as using conjunctives. As easily as blinking.
‘Have a nice wedding,’ he said.
She blew him a kiss. ‘Be safe,’ she said, as she always did.
‘Holy shit,’ said Arya.
‘She is so glamorous,’ said Sansa.
‘I think I could turn. For her.’
‘Yeah. I could see it.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Sandor, who was standing next to Sansa. ‘Would you stop? She’s just a woman in a dress.’
‘But look at her hair,’ said Sansa, as the bride got out of the vintage cream Daimler.
‘Nice wheels, man,’ said Thoros, next to Sandor. ‘Very slick.’
They weren’t supposed to see the bride until she walked, or probably sashayed, down the aisle, but it had been made a little more relaxed, with drinks beforehand in a super-posh marquee on the village green, which was apparently owned by the family.
There had been a meet-up over champagne at Bob Bob Ricard in Soho during which she had asked them to be her bridesmaids, what with only having brothers. Sansa and Arya would have agreed to anything, mostly because they were staring open-mouthed at her sensational face/hair/body/posture/outfit. She had said how lovely it was that she had sisters now and pressed the buzzer for another bottle (Arya made up for the lack of champagne by eating three extra mille-feuilles).
‘She’s like a fairytale princess who is also a cat,’ said Sansa.
‘I could never look like that,’ said Arya. ‘Even if I wasn’t basically a hippo in a frock right now.’
‘You both look beautiful,’ said Pod, on the other side of Arya, and kissed her cheek.
They had been sent to try on Grecian-style, one shoulder dresses, designed especially so that Arya would fit into one. They had sent pictures to Robb’s bride. You two look delicious! she had texted. SO sorry again not to be there. She had a very high-flying job that meant she had to travel around the world being fabulous.
‘That’s her grandmother,’ Sansa said, as a highly distinguished-looking elderly lady got out of the second car, a ghost-grey version of the Daimler.
‘She’s better dressed than the fricking Queen,’ said Arya.
‘She’s a lady. As in, an actual Lady in the House of Lords. Or is it a Dame? She’s a long-time Liberal Democrat backbencher.’ Sansa had read up on her, via an extremely extensive Wikipedia page. She had done loads on women’s rights in the 1970s and had published three volumes of her autobiography.
‘Our family is like the fucking Flintstones in comparison,’ said Arya.
‘Oh my god,’ said Sansa, as a curly-headed man in an exquisitely-cut suit had emerged, looking round at everyone and putting up his hand at a distant guest with a smile. You could see how finely honed his jawline was from here. ‘That’s her youngest brother. Hot.’
A low grumble from her husband. Sansa couldn’t help teasing him. Even though it was entirely true, in this case.
‘Mate. He is quite hot,’ said Arya to Sandor. ‘Doesn’t make you gay. Does it?’ she said to Pod.
‘He is pretty hot,’ said Pod, and grinned at Sandor.
‘Yep,’ said Jon, who was next to Pod, with Meera on his arm. ‘I’d say hot.’
‘I’m getting another drink,’ said Sandor.
‘I am totally hot,’ said Arya. ‘In the other sense. Like, I need to sit down or I’m going to faint.’
Pod’s face switched immediately to concern, his Pod-in-action face, and he took Arya’s arm. Sansa watched them slowly move towards a bench. It was slightly surreal to see her little sister with the shape she had now, the huge bump, though the dress did make her look amazing. A tiny almost-mother. She welled up.
But she had blossomed. Total cliché, and yet. Arya’s skin was so smooth and milky that Sansa had asked her what tinted moisturiser she was using. She seemed so much happier about everything now.
‘You’re not crying already,’ said Sandor, handing her a glass of Pimm’s. ‘You said you’d last until the bloody speeches.’
‘Arya looks so lovely,’ she said, in a cracking whisper.
‘Aye,’ said Sandor. ‘She looks grand.’
Weddings were sick. It was supremely cool to see people who were really madly in love tie the knot and become one loving being forever. Even moreso when Cousin Robb had obviously swept his almost-wife off her feet – or vice versa, because, you know, women could do that these days. Maybe a girl would sweep Robin off his feet sometime in the future.
Robin gave a small, delicate sigh as he stood amongst the milling, gossiping crowd.
He was a little sad that his offer of a free composition to open or close the ceremony (instrumental line-up of their choice) was politely rebuffed, though the bride sent him a pretty sweet thank you note, so it was OK. Anyway, he was getting used to rejection, he thought, watching Rickon loiter moodily under a yew tree, staring at a gravestone. Rehearsals had been infrequent and beset by constant negotiations and/or bribes, but slowly things had come together, and his big showing was next month. There hadn’t been very much going on between Rickon and Lyanna, except that Lyanna asked his cousin to walk her back home once recently. They had seemed exactly the same at school the next day (Rickon – diffident; Lyanna – ferociously deadpan) so probably nothing had happened.
‘Ah, Robert.’ Great-Uncle Brynden was standing with his hands clasped behind him, leaning down to him. He was dreadfully tall.
‘Robin,’ corrected Uncle Edmure, drily, holding the fist of a small toddler.
‘Hi Great Uncle Brynden! Hi Uncle Edmure! Hi Cousin Brian!’ Robin put his knuckles forward for a fist-bump.
Brynden gazed at the fist and made a small noise in his throat like a bear being punched.
‘And this must be your little brother,’ said Uncle Edmure, swiftly.
‘Oh. Yeah.’ Robin had been absent-mindedly pushing the buggy back and forth a couple of feet. ‘This is Ivan.’ His half-brother, it being Robin in charge of the vehicle’s motion, was blissfully and soundly asleep.
‘I love weddings,’ said Sansa, and squeezed his hand. They were all seated in the tiny medieval church, damned cold, wooden seats good enough for midgets but not so much for him. She leaned over and whispered, her breath on his earlobe. ‘Especially ours.’
‘You didn’t love ours,’ he said. ‘You were a mess.’
Robb was at the front, nicely togged up, and the Snow boy next to him. Matching ties.
‘I was fine,’ she said.
He gave a quiet snort and she dug him in the ribs with an elbow. Already a bit bloody tipsy on the Pimm’s.
‘Would the congregation please rise,’ said the old priest at the front, who didn’t look like he was wearing any shoes.
Behind them, Theon broke into a bit of a crap old boyband song that even Sandor recognised. ‘One for the money and the free rides it's / Two for the lies that you denied / All rise, all rise.’
The old grandmother, who looked like she didn’t take any prisoners, glanced round, giving the daft Greyjoy lad a level look. Theon snickered.
‘Shut it, you dickhead,’ Sandor said, not quite under his breath.
It was a pretty obvious fact that this family was drowning in money, old money, new money, and all the rest. The bride was bankrolling Robb’s beer-brewing business and he’d already been talking about brand mapping strategies and international exports.
A string quartet down the end started to play something classical, and Robb’s bride swept down past them on the arm of her dad, who looked like a pompous bastard.
Sansa sighed blissfully towards the back of the bride’s head. ‘Beauty goals.’
‘Thank god she’s marrying your bloody brother,’ he said. ‘Otherwise I’d be worrying about the competition.’
‘Maybe you should worry anyway,’ Sansa said, and giggled.
Shit, she was hot. She was the only one, clearly, in this dark, titchy little church, as everyone else was shivering. Her knees hurt. Her back.
The barefoot priest was saying some vaguely threatening God-stuff in a quiet, calm voice, and Robb and the stone cold fox bride were beaming at each other.
‘You OK?’ whispered Pod, putting his arm around her.
She gently shrugged it off. ‘I’m fine. Just well hot.’ Even though it had been fitted to accommodate her growing size, the dress still felt tight around her ribs. Big thanks to her brother for scheduling the shotgun wedding when she could hardly stand up.
These last few months had been surreal as fuck. She’d kept doing her degree, worked so damned hard that she’d now nearly finished her whole third year portfolio three months early. She’d been to antenatal classes, where almost everyone had been a thirty-something yummy mummy, all of them going off afterwards for soya fucking foam-free lattes while she buggered off back home to her parents. Another scan. Appointments. So much online stuff. Viewing houses until they finally found somewhere to rent, a flat not too far from the river above an Italian restaurant. They hadn’t moved in yet, but on weekends they painted the walls and Ned had got all House Doctor and brought over the wood sander that had been in the garage for about the last fifteen years.
They were saying their vows now, Robb grinning like a fool. Theon was blubbing behind them.
Pod grinned at her.
She put her hand on her stomach, a place that would have been air not that long ago. Eight and a half months pregnant. Not much getting out of it now.
It had been OK. She’d been OK, even with the gross-out smug mums. She’d got used to it. Pod had too, and got a pretty good graduate civil engineering job. Looked with amazement at her growing belly. Her boobs, which looked like real boobs for the first time ever. They were a proper pair of grown-ups.
But she couldn’t shake the feeling, still, that she was just a kid.
He watched the Afghan soldiers kneeling in the sand, laughing a bit. His sergeant telling them off, amusement in her voice.
Two months and he’d be home. No more tours, if he didn’t want to. No more Afghanistan, ever.
At least it had calmed down a bit, for now. Less rocket-firing, more training the domestic forces. He watched his men and the locals, doing another timed weapons assembly before they moved onwards to do the mock clear-out of the village. The low murmur of Aghan and English.
Missy was going to be translating for the police, but her aim was to be doing something like this. Maybe not quite so much in the line of fire, but it seemed like madness to him. He hated the idea of her out here in the dust, the slapping wind, the bite of the night-air.
‘Sir.’ Grenn was there, standing next to him.
‘Yes.’ He put thoughts of her away for now, far back.
‘Does it feel a bit odd out here to you?’
‘How do you mean?’
Grenn looked out towards the village and scratched the back of his head. ‘I don’t know, sir. Just – not right.’
‘You’re too easily spooked, Grenn,’ said Marsh, his second lieutenant.
It did feel odd. Too quiet, even for an abandoned village.
Risk management. Just to be sure. ‘Marsh. Take two and check it out, will you? Before we get properly started.’
‘Sir,’ said Marsh, and began to move towards the group of privates.
Edd looked again at the slope ahead. The white of the mud houses lining the hillside, and the trees scattered amongst them. How still everything was.
‘Wait,’ he said, calling him back. ‘I’ll go.’
Jojen and Cousin Bran were wearing matching grey-blue suits and waistcoats as everyone came out of the church at the end of the ceremony. The string quartet were playing Mozart, which was a bit obvious in Robin’s opinion, but not everyone could be as discerning as him (he was going to have Stravinsky’s Three Pieces when he got married).
Bran could walk these days, albeit a little more slowly than some. His cousin bent carefully down to Ivan, who had been given to Robin during the ceremony by his mother, who couldn’t stop him yelling. He immediately ceased upon being in Robin’s arms, of course.
‘He’s dead sweet,’ said Bran.
‘Yeah. He’s OK, I guess,’ said Robin.
Jojen was gazing at Bran tickling Ivan’s nose. Ivan, in natty tartan bow-tie and white waistcoat (matching Robin) was giggling. ‘So this is the arch rival, then?’
‘Um. Yeah,’ said Robin, who knew that the now ten month-old baby would start sneezing in a second, because he always did after approximately one to two minutes of nose-tickling.
It had actually ended up being quite difficult, keeping Ivan as his eternally sworn enemy. Because Ivan, as it turned out, was Robin’s biggest fan.
Months ago, Robin had played him a half-finished euphonium prelude, and Ivan had immediately ceased crying and stared at both his half-brother and his brass instrument with huge-eyed amazement. Robin subsequently experimented with a range of instruments. Keyboard. Tenor recorder. Triangle. ‘Cello, which Thoros had lugged home from a secondhand shop as a surprise one day. Combination of all of the above, in various genres. Ivan adored them all and Lysa often placed him on Robin’s bed as soon as he got home from school, a wild-eyed and rather desperate look in her eyes.
‘He said anything yet?’ said Jojen, still transfixed, in adoring fashion, by Bran screwing his nose up at the baby.
‘Yeah. Um. Just one word, but yeah,’ said Robin. ‘Thoros says he’s pretty advanced.’
Ivan had uttered his first word while propped up on Robin’s bed with pillows, having just been the sole audience to a premiere performance of the overture of his soon-to-be-groundbreaking operatic masterpiece. The word, mumbled just distinctly enough, was ‘Robin.’
The bride was sashaying past, beaming at everyone as they stopped to talk to her.
‘You look really incredible, if you don’t mind me saying so, Margaery,’ said Robin. She basically looked like all the best Disney brides mixed together, but that would be a lame thing to say.
‘What a perfect charmer you are,’ she said, giving a totally amazing smile and putting her hand on his arm. ‘And this one is glorious,’ she said, bending down a little to Ivan.
‘We try,’ said Robin, shrugging.
‘Nice to see you, Robin,’ said Cousin Robb, before whisking his new wife off to meet other people.
On his right, Arya was stuffing her face full of dressed crab and capers. On his left, his wife was giggling in the manner of a teenage schoolgirl at some shite joke the bride’s brother was making.
He was a fucking ex-model, obviously. Who was now writing novels about motor racing drivers. ‘You and me are dancing later,’ he was saying to her in a charming fucking smug-bollock voice.
‘Yes we are,’ said Sansa.
A wink, and the perfect man got up at last, off to make some other fucking table swoon.
Sansa was looking over at Sandor. Smiling sweetly.
‘Don’t give me that,’ he said.
She grinned. ‘How can you be jealous?’
‘Well, I bloody am,’ said Sandor.
‘You do know he’s gay. His civil partner is right there. Also hot.’ She giggled. She’d had Pimms, champagne, more Pimms and wine. A flush on her cheek.
‘You know full well I’d be jealous of a tree if you said it looked nice.’
‘You look nicest of all,’ she said. ‘Always. The hottest of the hottest. Tweed becomes you greatly.’ She leant over and whispered, not quite quietly enough, ‘let’s make babies tonight.’ A tiny hiccup.
‘Aye, because that’s the way to get things kicked off nicely, isn’t it? With you out of your mind on champagne.’ He grinned at her, a dark one.
‘I’ll be very relaxed,’ she said.
God, he loved her. She was an idiotically silly drunk, but she looked like a fucking ancient Greek mermaid and she was his goddamned wife.
‘You normally fall asleep on me at the end of a wedding,’ he said.
‘That was our wedding,’ she said. ‘This one is different.’
‘We’ll see,’ he said, knowing full well she’d taken her pill this morning.
She was absolutely not as drunk as Sandor said she was. He always thought she was more drunk than she actually was. Fact.
She was waiting in line for the loos, which were, like everything else in this wedding, absolutely perfect, and smelling quite literally of roses. Roses were everywhere at this wedding.
‘Ah,’ said a distinguished voice behind her. ‘And you must be Sansa Stark.’
‘Sansa Stark-Clegane,’ said Sansa with a beam. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dame Lady Olenna.’
‘Oh dear Lord, just Olenna, please,’ she said, though with the sort of look that seemed to mean the opposite.
‘I love your scarf,’ said Sansa, reaching out to touch it.
Olenna - Lady Olenna – glanced down indifferently. ‘Hmm? Oh yes. It’s of the Olenna rose. The rather good thing about roses is that new ones keep being bred, and then you can name them. Now tell me, dear, all about your work. Margaery’s rather impressed with you.’
‘Is she?’ Sansa tried not to look too pleased. Margaery seemed impressed with everyone. She was just so unbelievably, perfectly nice. Sansa babbled on about her job, making it sound like the job she actually wanted rather than the job she had.
Olenna was watching her with shrewd amusement. ‘And what are you aiming for, dear? Where do you see yourself in five years?’
Living with ten puppies and dogs and maybe one small and perfect child, expertly consummated tonight, thought Sansa, instead telling her about emancipating local communities from corporations and empowering economies.
‘You and I shall have tea,’ said Olenna. ‘When all this fuss has died down. You’ll call my secretary.’ She handed her a card and nodded to the cubicles. ‘Now, run along. My son will be giving a speech soon, and I need to prepare myself for the long haul.’
‘Man, I’m full.’
Pod smiled over at her.
‘I mean, on top of this bad boy. Or girl.’ Arya splayed her fingers on her stomach. ‘Ooo, speeches. Bet you one million dollars Mace Tyrell goes over half an hour.’
‘It’s a bet,’ said Pod, kissing her.
Mace had stood up, coughing for the fifth time, one hand resting on his belly. Margaery aka Fit Bird Of The Year was beaming up at him. ‘It is my great pleasure to welcome you all -’
Everyone looked round. Ygritte was hanging off the doorframe at the entrance.
‘Oh my God,’ said Arya. ‘Awesome.’
‘You’re a bit late for that, mate,’ called Theon.
Ygritte, who looked like she’d very quickly drunk all of the alcohol that Arya had missed since being pregnant, staggered a little further into the room. She put a hand on Meera’s shoulder. ‘There is a lawful im-fucking-pediment! And that is that me, I should be fucking sitting there if there’s going to be anyone fucking sitting there.’ She jabbed a finger towards the head table.
Meera stood up and whispered something in Ygritte’s ear. ‘Fuck. That,’ said Ygritte, pushing her away a little.
‘My word,’ said Olenna. ‘She’s got a dreadfully ripe tongue, hasn’t she?’
‘I’ve got this.’ Sansa stood up.
‘I brought your little friend,’ Ygritte was saying, very loudly, whilst everyone stared at her. Even the waiting staff had all stopped to watch. She was digging in her bag as Sansa approached her.
Ygritte pulled out a vibrator. Waggled it. It was pretty big. Even Pod would be a bit jealous.
Robb put his hand over his eyes, And then over Margaery’s eyes. Margaery burst out laughing.
Sansa was gently steering Ygritte out of the dining room, Meera and Missy not far behind, though Ygritte still managed to turn, lob the vibrator into the room, where everyone watched it sail and land, most triumphantly, in Great Uncle Brynden’s lap.
Arya laughed so hard she felt a little bit of wetness between her legs. Shit, that was embarrassing. When had that ever happened? Actually, there was quite a lot of wetness. Oozing out of her, into the seat of her dress. A bit down her leg.
‘Um,’ she said to Pod, who was still watching the whole thing, grinning. He looked over.
He led, the two young privates behind him, the rest of them assembled further off for now, taking the path to the village. The tiny windows in the houses, sackcloth fluttering.
He always thought the worst. It was his way, and it was his job. He had to stop being this way. Think positive, and good things happen. They had been happening, with Missy.
There’d been no reports of insurgents around here. It had been deemed a good spot for the training exercise. It’d be fine.
‘He’s never had a shag, that lad Aarif,’ said the private behind him to the other. ‘He keeps asking me what it’s like. Total MINTUA.’
‘Quiet, you two,’ Edd said, not turning round.
The improbable white of the snow on the mountain up behind the village. A tipped-up wheelbarrow and a single telegraph pole. The incessant wind, suddenly dying down.
He glanced up again at one of the windows, and this time saw a dark sliver of something that hadn’t been there before. Someone was here.
Seconds. Less than seconds. The situation, the threat, the chance of casualties. His curled thumb scratching his middle fingernail.
He turned to speak to the privates behind him. Too late. Gunfire crackled, got the taller lad in his shoulder, felled him.
More than one.
Seconds and less than seconds. The sounds of his men and women further up the path, shouting, running as he turned, a grenade already in his hand. Ready to charge, to give cover.
Less than seconds.
White, blinding pain. Heat. Sound.
‘Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck,’ said Arya, who was holding onto Pod’s arm.
‘You’d better not be about to give birth in my car,’ said Sandor. ‘I’ve just had it cleaned.’
‘Fuck fuck fuck,’ said Arya, who was being walked down the path to the car park.
OK, no dry humour for now.
Sansa was running up, Ygritte and the girls ahead of them. ‘Oh my God, is it now?’
‘Yup,’ he said, getting his keys out. Neither of them owned a car yet, so his it was.
Ned and Cat were dashing up the path behind them. ‘We’re right behind you, darling,’ said Cat.
‘Fuck,’ said Arya.
Ygritte, pissed as a newt and probably high on something too, was waving her arms around, shouting something about arses. Margaery was standing not too far away, looking genuinely concerned.
‘We got this, babe,’ said Missy to Sansa. ‘You go.’
‘Good luck Arya, we love you,’ said Meera, putting her thumbs up.
Margaery was leaning down to Ygritte. ‘Let’s get you some coffee.’ She put a hand on a passing waiter’s shoulder. ‘Could we possibly get a double espresso? And maybe a large glass of mineral water?’
‘What. A fucking. Bitch,’ said Ygritte, and threw up on Missy’s shoes.
Arya was still swearing quietly, holding her round stomach. Her bridesmaid’s dress darker at the back.
Sandor opened the door for her. Took her elbow.
‘I’m so scared,’ said Arya, very quietly, so that only he could hear.
‘I know,’ he said, just as quietly. ‘You’ll be fine.’
She looked up at him. ‘How do you know?’
‘Because you always are. In you get.’
‘SanSambulance!’ shouted Sansa, jumping into the passenger side, and off they went.
‘Sir? Stay with me, sir.’
There were things missing. Sand everywhere. In his brain. A voice, from a deep tunnel in the ground. The words spinning.
‘Sir? The chopper’s coming, Sir.’ Grenn, above him.
Pain, down there somewhere.
‘The village is clear. Stay with me, mate. Tollett?’
Sand and softness. A raging in his ears, the whirring of dirt and a high noise, like dogs whining. Like machines.
‘Tell Missy,’ he said.
‘Yes, sir. Tell Missy?’
‘Tell her I love her,’ he said, the words sailing out ahead of him, into the black.
Bumper picset, mainly because I had fun finding photos of all these lovely chaps in suits.
MINTUA = Mind In Neutral - Thumb Up Arse; British army slang for ‘not a clue’
Stravinsky’s Three Pieces For String Quartet. Ooo, I love these. Mr SF and I walked out to an avant-garde bit of free improv. Arf.
Since 2015, The British Army have mostly been involved in training the ANA (Afghan National Army) rather than operations; there are only 500 or so British troops in the country at the moment, though possibly more are moving out again. I’ve only skimmed the surface on this one, and claim full responsibility for any errors. I drew on a combination of real events involving British soldiers in Afganistan for Edd’s scenes. There have been 456 British Army deaths and many more severely injured in Afghanistan since 2001.
Chapter 8: Bomb
Sorry for the hiatus! Holiday and much work. This chapter pretty much follows straight on from the last one.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
‘Fuck.’ She was lying on a bed with starched sheets, feeling as if someone had force-fed her all the drugs in Britain, plus all the booze, and then rolled her into the path of a Spanish bull-race. The lights were very bright.
‘Hey,’ said Pod, who was holding her hand, sitting right next to her. He didn’t look brilliant, either.
‘Did –’ she looked down at her belly. Smaller. She was in a hospital room. Her throat hurt. She wanted to be sick. ‘Did it happen?’
The gentlest of squeezes on her hand. ‘You had a caesarean. The placenta was low down. Do you remember?’
Nurses. Doctors. Serious, killing amounts of pain during each later contraction, which was like someone giving her a dull electric shock with a cattle prod, except from the inside.
‘She’s next door.’
Arya’s heart clunked. ‘She?’
Pod nodded, a watchful, ruby-cheeked smile. ‘They’re bringing her in soon.’ Spoken as lightly as always, as if he was talking about the telly, or sandwiches, and not what had just happened.
She. Her. ‘Fuck.’
Christ, he was knackered. They’d been in the waiting room for hours. Sansa had refused to go back to the B’n’B and occasionally taken not-very-furtive swigs from the bottle of champagne she’d swiped as they left. He’d made her eat three packets of crisps, and eaten four himself.
A nurse came out. ‘You can come and see them now.’
‘Thank fuck,’ he said quietly, standing up.
‘Oh my God,’ said Sansa, gazing at him with eyes as big as planets. ‘Oh my actual God.’
A few minutes later, they were in Arya’s room, and Sansa was saying it again, staring boozily at the tiny thing wrapped up in pink and cream NHS blankets.
Cat and Ned were here, too, murmuring above the cot.
Jesus, she was tiny. He’d never seen a baby so small. Come to think of it, he’d never seen a baby so close-up, really. Not since his sister. Huge, closed eyes and a tiny snub of nose. Red-cheeked, and no doubt completely freaked out by the great big slap in the face that was the world. Arya looked wiped out and pale and very young.
‘I love him,’ said Sansa. ‘I will always love him.’
‘It’s a girl,’ Sandor said.
She blinked, unfazed. ‘I will always love him or her.’
‘It’s definitely her.’ He looked over at Pod and Arya. ‘All well?’
‘All’s well,’ said Pod. ‘She’s five pounds one.’
‘She’s a bloody peach,’ he said, and leant over to kiss Arya. ‘Well done,’ he said, so that only she could hear.
A girl. A baby girl, transferred from her stomach to the plastic hospital cot and now to her arms.
An actual baby. In her arms.
There was a gentle knock on the door and Margaery put her head round, followed by Robb. ‘Is it OK to come in?’ she near-whispered.
‘Yeah,’ said Arya, as Cat gave Robb a kiss. ‘Sorry for totally babybombing your wedding.’
‘Oh my gosh, no, it’s amazing,’ said Margaery, who was in a different dress, a green bodycon number, totally über-hot. ‘It’s a wonderful thing to have happened on the same day. You absolute trooper. Look at what you’ve made.’
Arya stared down at her again. The baby’s arms seemed so skinny compared to her massive head. She stretched a little in her sleep and made a tiny sound, like a rabbit.
‘She’s awesome, Arya,’ said Robb, giving her a kiss. ‘You doing OK?’
She nodded. She wasn’t doing OK, really. Aside from how disgusting she felt, the dull pain in her stomach, the permanent thin line of nausea in her throat, it was all totally weird. She’d given birth. The human rabbit had been inside her. And now she was here, her legs bunched up against her waist, a fist curled.
‘What happened with Ygritte?’ Sansa said.
‘We put her in a taxi.’ Robb glanced at Margaery, sheepishly. ‘Meera went with her.’
‘Do you know what you are going to call her?’ said Margaery, perching lightly on the bed and stroking the baby’s cheek.
Arya shook her head. ‘Not yet.’ They’d had loads of names, for a boy or a girl, some funnier than others, and had eventually decided to wait and see what she looked like. Probably not Baby McBabyface after all.
‘You’ve plenty of time to decide,’ said Cat.
Another knock. Arya looked at Pod. Her stomach ached. Her head. ‘I don’t want anyone else to come in.’
‘OK,’ he said, and went to the door.
Arya heard Bran. ‘Apart from them,’ she said, and her brother and Jojen came in, very softly.
‘Wow,’ said Bran.
Jojen smelt very strongly of coffee. It made her want to hurl. Again. He stood next to the bed, gazing down at her and the baby.
‘Now that,’ he said after a long moment. ‘Is a proper work of art.’ Gave her a lazy smile.
‘Babe,’ Missy said, as Sansa knocked and came in. ‘How is she? I thought about coming but didn’t want cramp the whole labour style thing. Plus I had Ygritte’s sick on my shoes.’
‘It’s a girl,’ said Sansa, flopping onto the bed. ‘An amazing, unbelievable girl.’
They had booked neighbouring rooms in the same B’n’B in Dorset, so that Missy could come in the car with them.
‘That is beautiful,’ said Missy. ‘Oh my days. Is Arya OK?’
‘She is my hero.’ Sansa’s eyes were drifting shut. ‘Needs another couple of days in hospital.’
‘Man, you need a little sleep, I reckon,’ Missy said, stroking Sansa’s forehead.
‘Mmm,’ said Sansa. ‘Bit hungover. Possibly still a little drunk.’ Her head was spinning with the wedding, and Ygritte’s dramatic interlude, and Arya there on the hospital bed, exhausted. Her little sister. With a baby. It was incredible. Stark drama to the max.
Missy’s phone rang, a cooing jingle.
A knock, and Sandor popped his head round the door. ‘Shall I take this one off your hands?’
Missy waved a hello at him, her phone against her ear, as Sansa lay there, really not feeling like moving anywhere at all.
‘Hello? Oh – hi Grenn,’ said Missy, and Sansa opened her eyes to watch Missy’s face upside down. ‘I can’t hear you very well. Are you –?’ There was a long pause, Missy’s eyes growing wider.
Sandor came in, shut the door behind him. Watching.
Sansa sat up.
Missy voice was turning into a whisper. ‘OK,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’ And brought the phone away, staring at it in her hands.
‘Oh my God,’ she said, and burst into tears.
After two and a half days in hospital, they were home, home being her parents’, for now. Making her feel even weirder about everything, like a teenage mother who couldn’t look after herself.
Mother. That word still didn’t feel real.
‘Ow,’ she said again. She was trying to breastfeed for the first time at home, having been shown at the hospital, the baby clamping on, sucking, a totally surreal feeling. But now it wasn’t working. She was shoving her nipple right there, at the baby’s mouth, but she wouldn’t take it properly.
The baby looked like a tiny, ancient monkey. Her eyes were boxer’s eyes, puffy, as if she’d been punched. Her mouth, moving, but not getting it.
‘I can’t do it,’ Arya said, her voice tiny and cracking. She wanted to cry, as she did all the time. Began to. Her vagina kept leaking, thick red stuff. Her stomach ached. She couldn’t shit properly.
‘It’s OK,’ said Pod, coming and lifting the baby up. He looked as if his arms had been designed to hold her. She looked so snug, her head cradled by his hand, her little whines dissolving. He sang very quietly to her, that blues song of Ilyn’s, making stupid-cute faces.
Arya shut her eyes, tried to sleep for a bit.
Failed. The baby was mewling again.
‘Do you want another go?’ Pod said. ‘Or shall I get the pump?’
Arya gave a faint shrug.
He sat down next to her. In his arms, the baby yawned, shiny pink gums and a purple tongue and looked vaguely up at him. Put a little hand in the air towards his nose, and he leant down so that it touched her fist. She looked like him. A patch of dark hair and massive cheeks. The eyebrows would probably come later.
‘What shall we call her?’ said Pod. He’d asked once at the hospital, too.
‘Don’t know,’ Arya said, as she had then. She felt blank. She thought it would be easy, naming her, but somehow this small, tiny thing seemed impossible to know. Full of uninterpretable thoughts. How could she know what to call her?
Sandor had seen plenty of soldiers, lying in the dust, bleeding. More in field hospital beds. But it had been a while. He stood at the foot of Edd’s bed, looking at his friend’s wiry arms, his face the colour of candle wax. Not awake.
A nurse came in, checked his drips. ‘He had a long flight. He’s not quite remembering everything yet.’
‘Thanks,’ said Sandor.
The nurse noted something down on his clipboard. ‘You can wait outside if that’s better. Someone will let you know when he’s come to.’
‘It’s fine,’ said Sandor, and sat down in the too-small plastic chair.
A grenade, Grenn had said – he’d just started when Sandor had left, a young grunt who spoke Arabic and Dari, wet behind the ears, far too eager then. Sounded pretty bloody jaded all these years later, when Sandor had called him back on Missy’s phone. The insurgents shouldn’t have been there, Grenn had told him. The village had been clear for months.
There was a loud rattle from the corridor outside, a bed being shunted past. Edd shifted, and his eyes opened slowly.
It was a couple of minutes before he turned his head and saw Sandor. Another minute before he spoke, his voice coming even quieter and more scratchy than usual. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Heard it on the grapevine,’ said Sandor, pulling his chair closer. ‘Do you know where you are?’
A slow breath. ‘Back home, I guess,’ he said.
‘Aye. You’re at the Queen Elizabeth. Birmingham. Special treatment,’ he said, trying to make the joke gently come through.
Edd just nodded. Groggy from the drugs.
Sandor cleared his throat. ‘I’m sorry, mate.’
Edd blinked. ‘What for?’
Shite. Sandor took a deep breath. ‘Your leg’s gone, pal. They had to take it.’ Transfemoral amputation, it said on his chart. Above the knee.
There was a silence. The ticking of the wall clock, and the heart machine next to him. ‘Oh.’ He stared at the ceiling and then looked back at Sandor. ‘Thought it felt a bit odd down there.’ As understated as always.
Neither of them spoke for a bit. Edd moved his hand up to his face, fingers moving vaguely over his cheek and forehead, as if checking for wounds. Making Sandor think of his own face.
‘Listen,’ he said, leaning forward. ‘I know it’s not the same, what I’ve got and what you’ve got. But – they’re things to get over.’ He was talking to himself now, as a kid, as well as to Edd. ‘You’ve got to get on with things. You’ll manage.’
Edd looked back up at the ceiling for a long moment. Turned to look at Sandor. ‘Don’t tell her.’
‘You daft bastard. Who do you think told me about it? She’s outside.’
Missy had been quiet as a mouse the whole journey up here, legs tucked up on the passenger seat, staring out of the window. Kept buying Sandor coffees and never anything for herself as they drove up from Dorset, leaving Sansa with Arya and the family for now. She had fallen asleep lying on a couple of crap chairs in the hallway of the ward while they waited, and he hadn’t wanted to wake her up when the nurse came.
Edd gave a slight shake of his head, and looked more animated, too much so. Eyes bright with pain. ‘I can’t see her.’
‘’Course you can.’
‘I can’t. Please, mate. Not yet.’ He tried to move.
Sandor put a hand on his arm. ‘Alright, pal, nice and calm now. Just take a second. You’re OK.’
He watched as his friend sighed and slowly fell asleep again, before he stepped outside. Missy, curled up over the two chairs, stirred when he sat down next to her. She blinked at him, puppy dog hope in her eyes.
‘He doesn’t want any visitors just yet,’ he said.
Her eyes got bigger and more wounded. ‘But you’ve just been in.’
‘Aye, well, he didn’t have a choice there.’ Her expression didn’t change. ‘Just give him a wee while. He’s had a shock. He didn’t know. Or had forgotten.’
‘Oh,’ she said, her voice cracking a little. ‘Oh my God.’ Poor lass. He could see how much she cared for him.
He folded his fingers together. ‘His folks are coming, the nurse said. We’ll come back tomorrow. Get a Travelodge or something. Curry’s on me.’
Ivan looked at him. He obviously didn’t perform well under pressure. Stage fright maybe, something Robin could not really identify with.
‘Robin,’ Robin said again, holding his phone a little closer to his baby half-brother.
Ivan, sat between a few cushions on Robin’s bedroom floor, bunched his fists together and blinked at him.
Babies everywhere. Arya and Pod had just had a baby girl, which was so sick. She would be his second cousin, to add to his squad of awesome first cousins. He couldn’t wait to meet her.
‘You say it all the time,’ Robin said to his brother. ‘That’s, like, your only word. Say ‘Robin.’’ He had hit a wall in the development of the middle section of his opera-cum-installation-cum-performance art masterpiece, and serious distraction tactics were required.
Ivan hiccupped, and then pointed to Benjamin Kitten, who was uncurling from Robin’s pillow and leaping in sprightly fashion onto the carpet.
‘Yes, that’s Benjamin,’ Robin said. ‘But say ‘Robin.’’ He’d told Lyanna that his brother was saying his name, and she wouldn’t believe him without video evidence.
Ivan pointed more demonstrably at the cat.
A soft knock on the slightly ajar door. Robin sat back, pretending he hadn’t been videoing him – Lysa refused to put anything of him online, for fear of the internet rotting Ivan’s brain, which didn’t entirely make sense.
‘Hey man,’ Thoros said, back from work. He combined yoga instructor sessions with gardening jobs, and currently had several twigs in his hair. ‘Where’s your mum?’
‘Oh, somewhere,’ said Robin. Lysa had shoved a screaming Ivan towards Robin, as usual, before saying she was going for a lie-down. Ivan shut up immediately, as usual.
Thoros looked benignly down at his son. ‘What’s going down in here?’
‘Nothing. Just about to perform something to him.’
‘Amazing,’ said Thoros, crossing his arms, leaning against the doorframe and obviously not going anywhere.
Robin tucked his phone properly away. Video later. He pulled over his flugelhorn, and Ivan immediately let out a bubbling laugh and clapped his hands. And hiccupped, before laughing again. It was practically a solo in itself, like Berio’s Sequenza 3, performed by a toddler. He should have recorded that.
‘He loves you, man,’ said Thoros. ‘We all do.’
Robin looked at Ivan. And had an idea.
The baby was crying. Again. A tearless intermittent yowling, almost electronic. Her eyes screwed up.
Cat was jiggling her gently in her arms. ‘‘It’s the baby blues, love,’ she said. ‘It’s perfectly natural. And not surprising, given what you’ve just done.’
Arya was knackered. A void. She was exhausted all the time and yet she couldn’t sleep. She was only a milk-machine and even that wasn’t working. The baby just wouldn’t take. She’d make sucking noises and then totally ignore her nipple. She hated Arya’s nipple.
‘Oops,’ said Cat, as the baby dribbled a milky gruel from her mouth onto Cat’s shoulder. ‘There she goes.’ Said adoringly, as if she hadn’t just been puked on.
Pod came back in, having been out buying bottles and cream for Arya’s scar, which was a raised dark-red smile at the bottom of her belly.
‘You’re still OK with us being away for the next two days?’ said Cat. She and Ned were off to Scotland to talk to the First Minister about renewable energy.
‘I’m here,’ said Sansa, breezing back into the living room with a smoothie in her hand. ‘And I am Magic Auntie Sansa.’
‘It’s cool,’ said Pod. ‘We should probably get used to it anyway.’ He gave a gentle smile towards Arya.
Sansa leant down and made ridiculous smooching noises at the baby whilst Cat stroked the dark tuft of hair on the crown of her head.
Pod sat down next to Arya on the sofa, and she put her head on his shoulder. ‘I can’t do it,’ she said, quietly enough that her sister and her mum didn’t hear.
‘You can,’ he said, just as quietly. His shoulder smelt of baby.
You don’t understand, she thought. I can’t do any of it.
DOCTOR SWIMMINGFOX'S CONTEMPORARY MUSIC CORNER:
Luciano Berio's Sequenza III!
The opposite of where he’d been, the brown, the heat, the dust. It was white, cool, clean. The smell of floor detergent. The memory of his leg.
He could hardly believe it had gone. It had only just been there, not that long ago. It had always been there, holding one half of him up for thirty-six years, and he’d not given it a second thought.
‘Hey, stranger.’ Missy, there at the door. The striplight from the corridor behind her hair like a halo.
She’d said that once before. At Sandor’s wedding. Now that’s who she’d want him to be. A stranger.
‘Hello,’ he said.
She came and sat down, her eyes quickly passing over the drips he was hooked up to. The catheter coming from under the sheet near his waist. The glaring gap on one side of the bed. ‘I missed you.’ Her voice was even softer than he remembered.
‘You’ll be missing a bit more of me now.’ There it was. The old Tollett humour. Dry as an Afghan mountain top.
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘I mean –’ those two familiar thought-lines appearing inbetween her eyebrows. ‘It doesn’t matter to me.’
‘You didn’t have to come.’ She couldn’t see him like this.
‘Of course I did.’ She had her hands folded in her lap, quite formally. ‘You don’t remember, do you?’ The words were so gentle. ‘What you told Grenn?’
‘Grenn?’ Edd tried to think back to their meeting in the pub, six months ago. A different age already. One where he had a job, and two legs.
‘Edd.’ She came closer, and he could see how tired she was, the lines under her eyes, and how it didn’t make her the slightest bit less beautiful. Her lips to his ear. ‘I do, too.’
Too. I do too. He listened to his heart beating, solidly, stoutly, never bloody ending.
‘Hey hey,’ she said, flinging the keys on the hallway table and her bags down. ‘I’m back.’ Shopping was all the more fun now that it combined TopShop, Starbucks and Mothercare. She had spent ages looking unnecessarily at toys with a skinny latte in her hand, imagining she was a fabulous mother-to-be.
Pod came out with the baby. She was just Baby for now, until they decided what to call her, which Arya was being quite reticent about.
‘Hello, little angel delight,’ said Sansa. She touched her very lightly on the nose.
Baby made a little snuffling sound and shut one eye. She really was the most amazing thing. She was in the babygrow, far too big, that Sansa had bought in a pack of three about four months ago, in her extreme excitement. This one said MAMA AUNTIE ME #SQUADGOALS.
‘Did you see Arya around?’ Pod said, shifting Baby a little higher in his arms. There was a little drool on his shoulder.
‘Nope,’ said Sansa, taking her jacket off. ‘Should I have?’
‘She’s been gone a while,’ he said.
Sansa suddenly saw how concerned he was, underneath his usual affableness. ‘Oh. OK? How long? Where did she go?’
‘She said she was off for a walk. I said should we come, but she said she just wanted some air.’ He blinked. ‘I don’t think she can walk very far after everything.’
‘OK,’ said Sansa. ‘I’m sure she’ll rock up soon. Probably lost track of time.’
‘Long,’ said Missy, in a sigh.
‘Aye. Bloody typical.’
They were on the motorway, hardly moving because this was fucking Birmingham. Missy had spent a few hours with Edd whilst Sandor walked round the delights of the city (of which there were few), tried not to think about that drunken night here with Mel, and the poor kid she dragged to theirs a few months ago, thought instead about Arya and the tiny baby that he supposed he was now uncle to. Thought about Sansa in a hospital bed, a baby in her arms.
‘We’ll get home one of these days,’ he said, just as his phone rang. He pressed a couple of buttons.
‘Oh my god, baby,’ said Sansa, her voice a little distorted.
‘I’m on speaker,’ he said quickly, in case she let loose with one of her nicknames for him. Now was not the time for him to be called Grouchybear. ‘We’re stuck in traffic.’
‘OK,’ she said, and he caught the panic in her voice.
‘What’s up?’ he said.
‘Arya’s gone missing.’
Missy looked over at him.
‘What do you mean, missing? She’s at your folks with you, isn’t she?’
‘She was. She’s not now. She’s missing. Are you even listening to me?’
‘Aye, I’m listening. Where’s she gone?’
‘If I knew that I wouldn’t say that she was missing.’ There was the tight, thin sound of the baby crying in the background.
‘Well, where was she last?’
‘Here. She told Pod she was going for a walk and that was literally five and a half hours ago. We have no idea where she is. I’ve looked all over. I’m properly worried, Sandor.’ She hardly ever called him by his name.
‘Cray,’ said Missy, quite softly. ‘Drop me off at a station, Sandor. Don’t worry about me.’
He was supposed to be getting her back to London and driving back over to Bristol tomorrow. Just as well it was the Easter holidays and he wasn’t actually supposed to be working.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘Hold tight,’ he said, a bit louder, to the phone. ‘I’ll head back over. Be there soon.’ He looked ahead to the traffic. Soon was putting a positive spin on it.
Being a dirty fast food girl. People are looking at me ☺
hope u haven’t forgotten what I said xxx
‘No phones, Lieutenant Colonel,’ said the nurse as she came in. ‘Unless you want everything to stop working.’
‘Sorry,’ he said, and put it down. It didn’t matter. He already had the picture imprinted in his mind: her eating a Burger King on the train, one eyebrow raised, with some commuters behind her.
The normality of some things against the unreality of others. Burger King. The memory of the grenade, a black spot in the corner of his eye, the knowledge of what was about to happen coming at the same time as the pain. London Midland trains. His soldiers, shouting to each other, another yelling in agony. The gruel-like soup on a tray that he couldn’t face yet. His absence of leg. Missy.
His phone buzzed twice as the nurse shut the door again. He’d turn it off. Just after this message, which was ideally another picture of her stuffing a cheeseburger into her gob.
telling u again in case u have
i love u Edd xxx
She had her arms wrapped around Sandor’s neck before he’d properly come in the door of her parents’ house, keys in his hand.
‘Not back yet?’ he said.
‘No,’ she said. Pod’s face had remained a perfectly composed mixture of concerned and forlorn for hours. She had watched him try her phone several more times before Sansa had found it in the bathroom, on silent. Arya hadn’t taken her phone, and she was gone, and Baby had been crying non-stop.
‘I am totally freaking out now.’ She looked up at him, her chin propped on his chest. He smelt faintly of sweat and a bit of coffee. ‘And I missed you.’
‘I missed you too,’ he said, and kissed her forehead. ‘Now where the fuck has she gone?’
‘I’ve tried everyone.’ Her sister had been so tired since she came out of hospital, but maybe it had been more than that, and Sansa hadn’t seen it. Not just tired, but terrified.
Sandor looked at his watch, and she pre-empted his question. ‘She went for a walk at ten. In the morning.’ It was almost 8pm. Almost ten hours. She’d borrowed Robb’s old bike and cycled around a few places they used to like going to, and down into town, to the river. A couple of pubs.
After that, she’d come back and helped Pod give Baby a bath in the bathroom sink and feed her with the bottles of Arya’s expressed milk. Sansa had thought her sister’s comment about being a fucking milk machine had been pretty funny, but maybe that hadn’t been the intention.
Milk. There was one person she hadn’t phoned yet. Sansa dug her phone out from her back pocket and pulled away from Sandor a little.
‘Who are you trying?’ he said, still holding onto the belt of her jeans, a thumb tucked against her skin.
Sansa held her finger up as it began to ring.
‘Safe, cuz. On it.’ He put his phone down.
Cool. He hadn’t put on his detective hat for a while. He’d grown rather out of that about five years ago, but Cousin Sansa was in need, and immediately. There was always time to grab it back.
Think. Cousin Arya. He’d lived with her for two years, although much of that had been her shouting at him or slamming doors in his face. The odd penis drawn on his cheek in his sleep.
Still, they were both older now. Think.
He remembered how sometimes, she’d argue with Lysa for a bit over the dinner and then drift out again. Later she’d be back, smelling quite strongly of what he used to think was musty air freshener but what he now realised was weed. That usually meant she’d been with Jojen, but Cousin Sansa had phoned him already. But sometimes she had also smelt of something robustly chemical, and had smudges of colour on her clothes.
‘Bingo,’ he said, and hopped off his bed.
There was only one girl working on the side of the building now, standing on a ladder, rattling her can before spraying a long line of purple on the brick. Tinny music playing from her phone in her pocket.
Arya looked at the cigarette she’d lit. She didn’t even like smoking ordinary ones, but it made her feel normal. Like a twenty year old. Not a mother.
This is where she used to come, when she was fifteen or sixteen and pleasantly stoned, getting to know the artists, adding her own tags and work later. It was where Gendry used to hang out a bit, too.
The girl sprayed a shallow curve, exactly the same shape as the cut that the surgeon had made in her belly. A Chelsea smile, except much lower down.
‘Hey, Cousin Arya.’ A smallish, lanky shadow came closer. ‘Wow,’ Robin said, looking at the giant purple spider on the wall. ‘That is epic.’
‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ she said.
‘Oh, um, I was just passing.’ He was wearing one of Thoros’ ridiculous '90s hippie tops, far too big for him.
‘It’s almost midnight.’
‘Um, yeah. I sleepwalked?’
Her geeky cousin, somehow now a fourteen year old who snuck out of the house. ‘Whatever.’
Robin sat down next to her on the low wall. ‘Can I have some of that?’ he said, looking at the cigarette.
Arya stubbed it out. ‘No.’ She folded her arms.
‘So, did you, um, have a really long walk?’ said Robin.
‘Something like that.’ She had got a bus, and then another bus, her stomach throbbing too much to be on foot for long. She had sat in McDonald’s until she got chucked out. Stared at the stones in a graveyard for ages, thinking of dead people and looking at graves of children and even one baby, until she got too cold. A pub for a half-pint of cider, the first alcohol she’d had in months, which made her feel woozy. Another bus through town and, with her stomach beginning to really hurt, here.
‘So, like, are you OK?’ he said.
She wanted to be that wall. Being painted over, made into something new. Not what she was. ‘I’m still a kid.’
A police car went past, its siren loud, the sound reverberating.
‘I thought I was, too,’ said Robin, kicking the wall. ‘But – turns out I’m not.’
They watched the graff artist stand back and look at her work, before taking out her phone and snapping a few pictures.
‘I just need to call a friend,’ her cousin said. ‘About an, um, important musical thing.’
He was such a shit liar. ‘OK,’ Arya said.
Jesus, he was so fucking tired. A night in a Travelodge being woken up every five minutes by some hen party banging all the room doors. Birmingham, full stop. Traffic hell. He’d shovelled half a plate of microwaved shepherd’s pie into his mouth whilst Sansa took the second phone call from Robin, her face finally lifting. He told her to stay put and keep an eye on Pod. The poor lad had probably been having the world’s quietest coronary all day.
Robin tried to high-five him as Sandor walked over.
‘Not a chance,’ said Sandor. ‘Go and wait in the car.’
‘Awesome,’ said Robin, taking the keys. ‘She’s just over there.’ He pointed. ‘She’s um, she’s feeling a bit sad.’
No shit, he thought, before her frame became visible on the wall. From the back, she could still be the schoolgirl who had slunk into his counsellor’s room about five years ago.
He sat on the wall with a quiet sigh. Arya didn’t really look over. The wind had picked up, winter not quite over. She must be freezing.
‘Brought you painkillers.’ He dug the co-codamol out of his pocket, and handed them to her with the water.
She stared at the foil packet in her palm for a moment, before popping them open and tipping the bottle up to her mouth. A tiny grumble in her stomach. Hungry too, then.
He crossed his ankles. ‘What are you doing out here? You’ve got two people who need you.’
She took a breath, though no words came straightaway. ‘It was a mistake,’ she said.
‘We all make mistakes. Then we deal with them.’
‘Nothing as big as this.’
‘I don’t know.’
She looked over then. ‘What was your mistake?’
An amused sniff. ‘Which one?’
She shrugged. ‘Your biggest one.’
He put a hand in one pocket and looked at the concrete, trying not to remember. ‘I don’t talk about it.’
‘Please tell me.’ She sounded bloody tired. Almost no emotion in the words.
Fine. He’d dredge it up. ‘My sister.’ He chewed on his lip. ‘I didn’t look after her as I should have one day.’
School holidays. Gregor had said he’d spend the afternoon with her and he should never have believed it. It was after the mess of his face, and yet he was still in the thrall of him, his bigger, older sibling. Sandor had gone off with his dirt bike, come back to find his father pale, and an ambulance arriving. His sister, her skin almost blue, clothes stuck to her, her leg awkwardly angled. Eyes closed.
Sandor used to get her to pedal like mad over the bridge across the river not far from their house, once she’d got off stabilisers and wasn’t quite so wobbly. She’d go over the bump, a second or two in the air. He’d always been there before, running just behind her. Gregor had fucked off, told their sister to do what she wanted, rather than keeping an eye out as he’d been supposed to. She was six years old.
‘She’d always wanted to go further. She said it felt like flying.’ His fault. He’d put the idea in her head. She’d broken bones, drowned in the water, alone.
Arya wasn’t saying anything. Shivered.
He tried to put the memory of his sister away again, back into that dark space. Letting the echo of her gleefully shouting his name dwindle, disperse into tiny bits. A long breath. ‘I know it’s going to be hard, but – you’ll be OK.’
‘I can’t do it.’ Her voice was small.
He shrugged his coat off and put it round her shoulders. ‘Four years ago, I might have agreed with you. But – you’ve grown up. Pod’s helped, I know that, but you’ve done a lot on your own as well. And you’ve got your massive bloody family all around you, all desperate to muck in. Babysitters for every damned day of the week.’ He glanced over. ‘Even your artwanker best pal.’
She glanced over at him and he could just see the tentative, wounded look in her eyes. ‘You?’
‘Aye, me. If you like. Sansa’s planned the baby’s whole first year.’ He folded his arms, his fists tucked under his elbows. It was a cold spring night. ‘You’ll get all the help you need. Someone to talk to about all this with, too, if you keep feeling shite. A professional who knows about this stuff, I mean. You won’t be the only one who’s ever felt like this.’
They sat. There were a couple of guys coming out of a chicken shop over the road, East European voices. Maybe he could get some more grub.
‘What was your sister called?’ Arya said.
‘Sansa told me about it all. Ages ago. I’ve just – forgotten her name.’
‘Aoife.’ He spelt it. ‘Means warrior.’ A long pause, in which maybe they were both thinking that she didn’t get to become one. ‘Come on,’ he said, quite gently. ‘People at home need you.’
Pod was asleep on the sofa with Baby lying on his chest, her fist clenched, his hand on her back.
‘Sis,’ Sansa whispered, putting her arms around her. Arya put her head on her shoulder. ‘We missed you.’
‘It’s OK. I’m just happy you’re home.’ She looked at Sandor, walking in behind her. ‘Is Robin with you?’
Sandor shook his head. ‘Dropped him off. Lysa gave him an earful.’ Arya had stayed in the car, but Sandor had told her how pleased her cousin had looked when Aunt Lysa grounded him. He’d actually whooped.
Pod was stirring, blinking up at them. At Arya.
Her feet felt glued to the floor. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s OK,’ he said quietly, still lying there. Classic Pod. How could he say that, now? Part of her wished he would shout at her. But she knew he never would. He began to try and sit up.
‘I’ll take her off your hands for a minute,’ Sansa said, cradling the baby’s head as she took her off to the kitchen, making ridiculous smooching noises as the baby woke up. Sandor followed.
Pod sat her down on the sofa so that they faced each other. Took her hand.
Arya could hardly look at him. ‘I’m such a fuck-up,’ she said.
‘You’re not,’ said Pod. ‘You’re just freaked out.’
That wasn’t even the half of it. ‘How did we even do that?’ she said, glancing up at him. ‘Make that?’
He gave a simple smile, before it vanished, quicker than normal. He swallowed. ‘If you – you still can. You come first. I mean, you might just need time, but if not – if you want to, you –’ His eyebrows knitted together tightly, his eyes great big wells of mud. He was sounding brave, and she realised what he was trying, and failing to say out loud.
Adopt. He was trying to say that she could still be adopted.
She gazed at him. He’d do that for her, even though it was obvious he was already heads over heels in love with their baby. Their baby, who was beginning to cry quietly next door, Sansa shushing and singing Justin Bieber and giggling a bit weirdly.
Arya shook her head, and shook it again. ‘No,’ she said. However horrible she felt, she couldn’t do that to him. She would fight. She would try and fight. Be a warrior.
Pod took her other hand, too. ‘You’ve done all the hard work so far. It’s my turn.’
‘That’s not how it works,’ she said, knowing she needed to get the breast-feeding sorted. To get used to the baby shitting and pissing and vomiting and crying and being hers.
‘If I had breasts I’d feed her so you didn’t have to,’ he said, a little light in his eyes.
‘I don’t want you to have breasts,’ she said. ‘Man-boobs are banned.’
He gave a careful smile.
There was a mild cough. ‘I’m really sorry to interrupt,’ said Sansa by the door, sounding breathless. ‘But check this out.’
The baby, in her arms, had a knitted hat on with bunny ears. And woollen pants over her nappy, with a pom-pom as a tail.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Arya, looking behind Sansa to Sandor.
He held his hands up. ‘Don’t bloody look at me.’
Sansa snickered. ‘I went to Mothercare.’
‘You really fucking did,’ Arya said.
‘She missed you,’ said Pod, gently.
Arya looked at him. ‘How do you know?’
‘She’s been crying. All day.’
Sansa brought her over. Looked carefully at Arya.
Arya looked at the tiny human rabbit. She did look pretty hilarious. She took a deep breath and nodded, knowing that soon enough the baby would be aimlessly gnawing at her chest and wailing.
Sansa lowered her down until she was in Arya’s arms. The baby looked up at her, steel grey eyes slightly crossed for a moment. Her cheeks puffed outwards, and Arya waited for her to either start crying, or maybe throw up.
The baby’s face suddenly contorted, a tiny frown, and she sneezed. A little rabbit sneeze, followed by another, her eyes squeezing shut, a huge shudder after each one. Sansa let out a helpless ‘aww’ and even Sandor laughed quietly through his nose.
‘Bless you,’ Arya said to her.
long = a lot of effort, or also an expression of annoyance,
cray = crazy
Chelsea smile – a charming expression for a injury made by a knife to either side of a person’s mouth.
Aoife is pronounced ‘ee-fa’.
FOUR WEEKS LATER
‘Hello, Grouchybear,’ Sansa said.
Sandor turned the TV off. ‘I was starting to think you’d booked yourself a suite.’
‘I’m sorry. Tea was really very swanky. There were three courses. And champagne.’ The Tyrells really did seem to love high teas and champagnes. Dame Olenna had known every waiter in the Wolseley by name and flirted with various degrees of subtlety with each of them.
Sandor began to get up, moving Bowie off the sofa. ‘We’d better get a move on if we’re going to make it.’
‘Soon.’ She gently pushed him back down and sat down on top of him, her hands on the softness of his stomach. He was like a very sexy and very large cushion.
He put his hands on her thighs and narrowed his eyes at her. ‘You going to tell me what went on or do I have to guess?’
‘I don’t think you would guess.’
She suddenly felt nervous. Fizzy, but nervous. ‘What do you think of Manchester?’
He frowned and gazed past her. ‘Not much. Hardly been there.’
Nor had she. She had visited Jeyne once at uni (Jeyne had studied sociology but largely spent her time clubbing with a regular turnover of boys), but that was hardly a comprehensive experience. She’d had to hold back Jeyne’s hair whilst she threw up into a drain and someone had sung ‘Let It Go’ at them from across the street. Bran was in his second year there now, but she’d never quite managed to visit him since job craziness kicked in.
‘What’s going on?’ Sandor said, looking more wary by the second.
Deep breath. ‘Olenna. Dame Olenna. It wasn’t just tea. I think it was a sort of an interview. She offered me a job.’
She nodded. ‘She’s part of the team heading up the economic and business drive in the north.’ The Northern Powerhouse, a rather ridiculous name. The government had been trying to big it up for years, to spread out the power from London. ‘She wants me to be involved.’ Olenna had said that Sansa was destined for great things, and that she could begin by being her assistant – she’d actually used the word ally, as if they were equals.
‘I know you’ve got used to London now.’ He liked his job, though he always came back exhausted from the boys and their various problems. And he had settled into the city, sanguinely accustomed to the buses and trains, enjoying his five-a-side Sunday mornings and the pubs. ‘But – can we go?’
Sandor gazed at her with those impenetrable silver-grey eyes. Even now it was occasionally sometimes hard to know what he was thinking.
She pulled her bottom lip in with a front tooth and hoped she looked cute. Cute and powerful and persuasive.
‘I’ll follow you anywhere,’ he said, without moving.
Her heart, sparkling. She put her hands on both sides of his beard. ‘You are the best.’ She leant down to kiss the scars on his neck, a hand straying down to touch one nipple over his T-shirt. ‘You are my ultimate hero.’
‘Fuck,’ he said, and spent the next hour seemingly aiming to live up to that assertion.
‘OK,’ said Robin, to his reflection in the mirror, two fingers making circular motions on each temple. ‘I am going to premiere my awesome piece. Cousin Rickon is going to remember all of his cues. Lyanna is not going to hit the drums too hard. It is going to be savage.’
Rickon had spent the last intensive rehearsals mostly staring into space, or occasionally at Lyanna, who would subsequently whack her drums as if she intended to murder them.
Benjamin Kitten, these days rather more of a cat, jumped up onto his shoulder from the chest of drawers. He was wearing a small ruff made of cardboard.
‘Yes, Benjamin,’ said Robin. ‘You shall also be brilliant.’
‘Remind me why we are here again?’
Sandor and Sansa were walking from the bus stop to Lysa’s. They’d only just made the train, what with Sansa refusing to let him lift his head from between her legs until she’d had her third orgasm.
‘Because Robin asked us to,’ Sansa said, her hand in his. ‘Because he sent us embossed invitations.’ Robin had also included a web address, which, when you typed it in, took you to a link of him singing his invitation. In four-part harmony.
‘This is priceless,’ said Wylla, just behind them. ‘Properly suburban.’
‘Not everyone can become a great artist,’ said Jojen. ‘But a great artist can come from anywhere.’
‘This is from the film Ratatouille, Jojen,’ said Irri.
‘Yup,’ said Jojen.
Sandor and Sansa had met Jojen and his two crackpot housemates on the train, the green-haired one having made several attempts at playing footsie with Sandor under the table. He’d glared at her until she’d finally stopped and moved over to drape herself over her friend, or girlfriend, or whatever was going on there. He tried not to think about it. Very much.
Sansa hadn’t noticed, too busy gazing out of the window, vibrating subtly with the excitement of the new job. Sandor had always known she would fly, and that he’d be following in her wake. It was fine. He’d be there as long as she wanted him to to. He’d always imagined it would be somewhere abroad, some country in need of foreign aid. Instead, for now at least, it was Manchester. Stone Roses, Oasis, mad for it. United and City. He didn’t know anyone up there. Though it wasn’t too far from Edd’s folks’ farm, a bit further north, where his friend planned to stay for a bit once he was out of recuperation.
‘Arya coming?’ he said.
‘And Pod. And Baby.’
The wee one still hadn’t been named. They were cutting it a bit fine before it became illegal. But it would be good to check in on her again. They’d been over every weekend, and Arya hadn’t looked too bad. Getting used to it, slowly.
‘Wylla! Irri! You came!’
Jojen had sloped out into the back garden with Robin’s two favourite ever females on each arm. Both girls kissed him twice on the cheek, like the French.
Wylla ruffled his hair, and smoothed it back into position. ‘How’s my little genius? All ready to rumble?’
‘Yeah, safe, totes,’ said Robin. Thoros had helped him set up a small stage and got two of his old bandmates to lug their PA over, as well as all their disco lights. There was currently some abrasively scratching string noises being played through the speakers, which to Robin sounded really forward-thinking, and to his neighbours like a cattery being attacked by bees.
‘Nice outfit, dude,’ said Jojen.
‘Thanks!’ Robin was currently clad in the first of his three costumes for the day, combining the vibes of a Japanese geisha girl with a streetfighting warrior. ‘It’s sick that you’re here.’
Jojen winked. ‘’Course, mate. Couldn’t let the Brizzle artistic community down, could we?’
‘Robin,’ said Lysa in a snake-hiss, having dashed up with a blubbing Ivan in his arms, glaring around at everyone. ‘Who are these – women?’
‘Oh,’ said Robin. ‘This is –’
‘We’re his harem,’ said Wylla, lazily.
‘It is known,’ said Irri, looking bored.
Lysa’s jaw dropped.
‘Right,’ said Robin, looking at his watch. ‘Got to do this.’ He took a deep breath.
‘Break a leg, bruv,’ said Jojen.
‘You’re doing really well, Lieutenant Colonel Tollett.’ The nurse was walking alongside him in the grounds of Headley Court, all landscaped gardens and woodland and soldiers who’d had bits of them blown off.
Well was a very rose-tinted way of looking at it. He was on crutches, trying carefully every now and then to put weight onto the thing that was to be his leg. Each time it hurting like hell.
‘One step at a time.’
Literally. The psychologist here had all manner of perfectly-formed phrases to help him, and everyone else here, through their injuries. Visualiations. Flowing water. Gentle hills.
The thing on the end of his thigh looked like it had been wrenched off a robot in some sci-fi film. More of it above his knee, dwindling down to the width of a large stick at the ankle. Gleaming metal. Leaving his stump red and raw when it came off, which was at any opportunity.
‘I think you might have a visitor.’
He looked up.
Missy was watching him from at the top of the path. He stopped and let her come to him. His stomach hurt, and not just from the crunches he’d had to do on his back for half the morning.
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ said the nurse, and drifted off.
‘Hey, you.’ Missy leaned up for a kiss and he gripped both crutches tightly, all the weight on his good side. He hated her seeing him so bloody weak. ‘Check you out,’ she said, and looked down below his thigh. There was no horror, or even fascination, really. It was like she was just eyeing a new pair of trousers he was wearing.
‘Meet my other half,’ he said, and nodded downwards. ‘Leg, this is Missy.’
‘Hello, Leg,’ she said to it, and together they walked very slowly to the next bench.
Someone came and brought them some tea, and they sat and watched a soldier limp along the far path in front of the big laburnam tree. A big guy in a wheelchair further down, helping with some gardening. Edd told her how he’d been doing in the hydrotherapy pool and the lower limbs treatment area. Didn’t tell her about the poor mad kid with PTSD, shaking over her breakfast each morning this week. Or the new triple amputee, blunt-faced in the gym.
Missy was saying something.
‘What’s that?’ He still had tinnitus from the explosion. Tinnitus, and the occasional black and orange dream. Dreams in which all of his limbs were floating just apart from him, like a puppet.
She moved her hand next to his. One finger, stroking his middle knuckle. ‘You’re still coming on holiday with me, you know.’
Missy had come to stay at Headley once before. Stayed overnight, carefully draped over him, a hand stroking his chest. He hadn’t been able to have sex. Everything hurt too much. Inside and out. ‘Think this leg thing might take me a while.’
‘I can wait,’ she said.
‘I’m not sure I’ll be getting about so well.’ He wouldn’t be able to drive her. Not yet. They’d have to take trains, buses. Things that required balance. It’d be ages before he’d be able to do any of that. Just hobbling down the path meant he’d need an hour-long massage later, and another dose of painkillers. ‘Not sure about how I’m going to look in a pair of trunks, either.’
‘You’re going to look like a fine piece of ass,’ said Missy. ‘Which is exactly how I like it.’
She was impossible. Gloriously impossible.
He knew it could have been a lot worse. Soldiers had lost both feet, both hands. An eye, or two eyes. Memories. Only one leg was almost a stroke of luck, considering. The AFCS were going to be putting a whacking great lump sum in his account. The insurance would be coming in soon. It wasn’t like he had to find a job straight away. Thank God.
Maybe he deserved a holiday, once he could get about without embarrassing himself. Even though it could take six, even nine months. He took Missy’s hand, and she looked up at him before leaning her head against his shoulder.
‘I love you, habibi,’ she said. ‘Promise. You and Leg.’
He kissed the top of her head, her hair as soft as lambswool. Tried to draw all the strength he’d need from her. Looked back out at the gardens. ‘I love you, too.’
‘What the fuck was that?’ said Arya.
‘It was art. It was Robin’s art and he is happy and that is all that matters,’ said Sansa, who still in a slight daze from all the last hour of singing, shouting, loud drums, keyboard (Rickon, stonily pressing an occasional key), disco lights, operatic warbling, mime and video projections of cats. He had dedicated it to Ivan, Benjamin Kitten, 'his sick cousin Arya' and his ‘awesome platonic friend’ Lyanna (who had given him a death-stare).
‘But like, what was the story?’
‘I’m not sure,’ said Sansa. ‘But it seemed to be quite a lot about mothers. And milk. And cats, and bullying, and maybe sex? I’m not sure.’
‘What was all the screaming? And all those creepy noises.’
‘Oh,’ said Sansa. ‘I know this bit. It’s Ivan. Robin told me he’d got into recording all his sounds and then did stuff to them on Cubake.’
‘CuBase,’ said Pod, who was pushing Baby’s buggy back and forth next to them.
‘Exactly,’ said Sansa.
‘Oh my God,’ said Arya. ‘Check it out.’ She nodded over towards the side of the stage, where the set was being dismantled by Thoros. The quickest of glances would have simply spied Rickon and Lyanna sitting side by side on the brick wall, both staring steadfastly outwards, not helping Thoros one bit. A more carefully examination would have spotted that, rather surreptitiously, they were holding hands.
‘Aye,’ said Sandor, outside the café. ‘That was the maddest fucking thing I have ever seen. I’m not going to get parts of my brain back.’
‘Same,’ said Arya, who was eating an ice cream.
They’d left Robin basking in the afterglow of his utter weirdness whilst holding onto Ivan’s hand. Jojen’s housemates went mental over the cuteness of his little brother, whilst Aunt Lysa glared at everyone and tried to stop them eating the food she’d made.
‘That bloody kid,’ Sandor said. ‘Someone get him a girlfriend.’ He was currently holding her baby in the crook of his arm, about as easily as he held Bowie when he’d been a puppy. She had the tip of his other little finger (still rather bigger than Arya’s thumb) in her mouth. It was a bizarre sight, but there was a little tug of warmth in Arya’s stomach.
‘I’d say Wylla, but she’s a bit old and she seems all over you, so…’ she said.
‘That girl’s even more fucking barking,’ said Sandor. ‘And shut it.’
Sansa was coming back with a tray of takeaway cups. ‘Here we go, babies,’ she said, passing them out. ‘Black coffee, skinny decaf latte for the girl who totally does not need to lose weight because she just flipping gave birth, mocha with extra chocolate. And you,’ she said to the baby. ‘Are ten times sweet enough.’ She stuck her tongue out at her as she leant down.
‘You’ve got to stop buying her babygrows,’ Arya said. Today’s one said IF YOU THINK I’M CUTE, YOU SHOULD SEE MY UNCLE.
‘I can’t help it,’ said Sansa.
‘As long as you know it’s nothing to bloody to do with me.’ Sandor put his coffee on the wall next to him and held her baby underneath both of her arms to face him. She looked like a little gloworm, and put one hand out to touch his scarred cheek. ‘Nothing to do with me,’ he said again, this time to her and in a slightly softer voice. Sansa sat down next to Sandor and pulled faces.
‘We’ve named her now, by the way,’ said Arya, glancing over at Pod, who now had a tiny bit of milk-froth on his upper lip. He gave her a smile and a tiny nod.
Sansa straightened up, alertly pleased. ‘Yeah? What have you gone with?’
‘Aoife.’ Arya stole a quick glance at Sandor, before looking back at her cup.
Sandor, holding the little girl in front of him and doing a sort of mock-snarl at her, went very still. For a long, weird moment, he stared at the baby, one side of his face smoothing out. And burst into tears.
Arya had never, ever seen Sandor cry. It was unthinkable. The tears came suddenly, a strange outrush of breath, and for a short moment, everyone simply looked at Sandor, holding the baby and crying. The baby was gazing wide-eyed back at him.
He stood, abruptly, putting Aoife in Pod’s arms rather unceremoniously. ‘Give me a minute,’ he said, and stalked off, leaving Sansa, Arya and Pod staring after him.
‘Did I fuck up?’ said Arya, feeling lean and sad. ‘Fuck.’
‘No,’ said Sansa. ‘I don’t think so.’ She unfolded her leg and leant over. ‘I love you,’ she said, kissing Arya’s cheek, and leaning over to kiss Pod’s. ‘And you. And you.’ A kiss on Aoife’s head. She went after him. ‘Back in a tick.’
He was leaning against the wall round the corner, the heel of one hand jammed in his eye, a couple of people glancing at him as they walked past.
‘I just – didn’t see that coming. Not in a million years. Fucking hell.’
Sansa slid her arms around his waist. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you lost her.’
He took in a huge breath. ‘It was a long time ago.’
‘That doesn’t stop it being real. Arya could change the name, I’m sure, if it wasn’t right for you.’
He shook his head. ‘I’ll get used to it. It’s –’ another dark, wondering head-shake. ‘It’s a nice thing she did.’ He sighed. ‘I need a fucking drink.’ His voice cracked on the last two words.
‘You deserve all the drinks,’ she said, and took his hand. ‘Come on, baby,’ she said.
I have no idea what Robin’s piece was, but I have in my head something with the ambition of the final Vietnam play in the Wes Anderson film Rushmore (actually he looks a lot like Robin!), mixed with Klaus Nomi, mixed with some of Charlotte Moorman’s performance art and maybe some Dada/Cabaret Voltaire for good measure. Hahaha.
NB I sped up Edd’s recovery probably rather inaccurately to fit with the timing of the baby needing to be named; recoveries from such injuries are of course often long. Here’s a fascinating, admirable, powerful article on the Headley Court rehabilitation centre (which I drew on for Edd’s scene) here.
Another one in the bag, phew! Thanks all for reading and much love xx