THESE TWO MEN DON’T KNOW EACH OTHER well enough to be half-naked together, and yet here they are, in the attic, inflating balloons. Up here, the heat of the day is assembled. It climbs on their backs and kneads sweat from their skin.
Sam is the younger of the two by a couple of years, but he is the one in charge of the helium pump. Ingram takes each of the metallic balloons from him, knots its windpipe, then ties it to the net. Ingram was the first to remove his damp shirt, unpacking his big drum of a stomach. Sam tries not to be fascinated by the hedgerows of hair that tumble into his belly button.
The sound of a child punishing a violin comes crawling up the stairs. It slips into Sam’s attic, peeling paint and blinding moths. It turns the surface of the balloons into cymbals.
‘She’s getting better,’ Ingram says.
‘Don’t,’ Sam says, handing Ingram the last balloon. As he closes the attic door, wedging it tight with a piece of folded up newspaper, a family of swifts whips over the house, taunting the roof tiles. ‘Quickly now,’ Sam says.
The only place both men can stand in the attic is under the open skylight, which puts their bodies close enough to share radiation. Ingram is a habitual milk-drinker who guzzles medicinal pints three times a day, and to Sam’s nose, there is something buttery about his aura. Up in the attic, holding one end of the net, Ingram smells like a saturated crumpet.
Sam is the first to climb up the ladder to the roof, clutching a fistful of balloons, which jostle against each other, anticipating their freedom. Ingram follows with half a mile of netting folded in the crook of his arm.
The platform onto which the two men climb looks arthritic. In some places, the screw heads do not rest comfortably in their beds, but jut out on bent necks. The feet of the tall stilts which support the platform sink into the sunsoftened tarmac on the kitchen’s flat roof.
When Sam built this platform out of the decking which used to be on the lawn, Justine, his wife, had sworn at him enough to open their neighbours’ windows. With her hands on her hips and her curls full of static, she had made the hairs inside Sam’s nose stand on end so quickly he sneezed. But from the rooftop her fearsome proportions were foreshortened and distance concealed the worst of her. And so Sam had continued, making blisters at the top of the town, enjoying the pleasures of creating something useful.
Ingram keeps to the middle of the platform, shuffling without lifting his feet from the boards. His arms and feet are wide, like he’s straddling an invisible ball. ‘Are you going to be able to do this?’ Sam asks. He stands with his toes peeping over the edge and looks down at the bald square of lawn where the decking used to be, a barren landscape for brave worms and swingball.
‘I’ll be fine,’ Ingram says. ‘I might just need to lose a pound or two.’
A breeze shakes the balloons, and Ingram seems to read this as the platform shaking, because he bends his knees and drops his body weight, reaching out for Sam’s arm. Ingram’s face is leaking like a nipple.
‘You can sit down,’ Sam says.
The men kneel, bare-chested, pinning the net to the platform with their knees. They are aliens in this dominion of starlings and lost tennis balls. The balloons ache for escape. On the outer edge of the platform is a line of six eyehooks, and through these, Ingram and Sam tie the impossibly long strings at one end of the net. Sam has tied four by the time Ingram has tied one. They both reach for the last eyehook at the same time, but Sam defers. ‘You’ll have to do this by yourself next week,’ he says.
Ingram blinks against the bulge of his eyes, tying the last string. ‘So now, we just let it go?’ he asks.
Both men stand up together, and at last the balloons are free, swimming skyward, the setting sun flashing on their scales. Chasing their tails, the net rises, misty-thin. Sam slaps a mosquito at his throat. Below their feet, Feebee’s bedroom window is open, and out of it spills the discordant snoring of horse hair on nylon.
Feebee’s fingers blunder across the strings leaving trampled notes in their wake. As she plays, her toes take turns to rise in concentration, then sink down into a carpet speckled with playdough and spilled orange juice. Her little finger leaps for a high note, misses it, then tip-toes into place, blushing beneath the nail.
‘You nearly had it there,’ Justine tells her.
Feebee gives a confident nod. ‘Go away,’ she says. ‘I can’t concentrate with you.’
‘You’ll have to play in front of people at violin camp.’
Through Feebee’s window, Justine sees the platform stilts shimmy as the men move about. She pinches the bridge of her nose and exhales. The hay fever is violent this year, and she wishes she could flush herself out.
‘Are you coming to the camp?’ Feebee says, looking down the length of the fingerboard. Her face is sticky against the chin rest.
‘Of course. And daddy too.’
Feebee looks at her mother for the first time. ‘Why is he coming?’
‘Because I asked him too.’ And as she says it, she realises that out of all the possible answers she could have given, this was the least appropriate, but the most honest.
Feebee draws the bow across the top string in such a way that it sets all the dust in the air resonating. Up inside Justine’s sinuses, the soundwaves tickle the pollen biting her.
‘That’s good, honey,’ she says. ‘That’s really good.’
In the kitchen, while the whole country is asleep, Sam watches the tenacious fly he has failed to swat land on the rim of his cereal bowl. He sets his index finger against the inside of his thumb, preparing to flick, but as soon as he moves this weapon in the fly’s direction, it is in the air about his head, its wings sniggering.
At this hour, footsteps are unknown, but here they come. Sam can read the pace of Justine’s steps, and something about them makes him sit up straight.
‘What’s wrong?’ he says as she lumbers into the kitchen. Her knees do not bend this late at night.
‘When else am I going to see you?’ she says.
‘Do you want some coffee?’
Justine sits down. Her night-breath sours the milk. Sam parks his spoon in the bowl.
‘Did you have a good day?’ he asks.
‘I was too busy to notice,’ she says. ‘Did you have a productive night?’
Justine’s fingers are in her hair, supporting her head which has grown heavy from lying down.
‘I’m not sure your cousin’s going to work out,’ Sam says.
Justine dumps both palms flat on the table.
‘Don’t,’ she says.
‘He nearly broke one of their necks tonight.’
‘So teach him better. Feeb is so happy that you’re coming.’
‘Are you really sure she’s ready for…?’
Justine’s chin does something subtle, dimpling the skin just enough to make Sam flinch.
‘If you ever spent any time with her, you’d see how good she’s got.’
‘Even if she was improving… is she going to be able to keep up with the other kids at violin camp? Some of them can be right little monsters. I’m just worried for her. I don’t want her to be embarrassed.’
‘This isn’t about her,’ Justine says.
Sam rubs his face with the palms of his hands and blows through his fingers. ‘I’m doing important work.’
‘If it’s so important, why doesn’t anyone else do it?’
Sam lifts a spoonful of milk and honeyloops and tips it back into the bowl. ‘I’m not going to justify myself to you again.’
‘It’s just four days,’ Justine says, her voice changing to a warmer tone. She puts her hand on Sam’s arm.
‘Ingram could do a lot of damage in four days.’
‘So don’t use him. What’s the worst that could happen if you don’t work for four days?’
‘I’m coming, just don’t expect me to be happy about it,’ Sam says, and then, ‘I didn’t mean that.’
Justine stares at him. He can tell her teeth are bit together even though her lips are closed. She gets up, and as she leaves the kitchen, says, ‘If you’re still awake when she gets up, show some interest. Get her to play something for you.’ Sam has only been awake for an hour, but he is eating dinner.
Ingram’s mouth chews without relent. Sam watches raw mushrooms popped in and broken apart and swallowed as new food items are introduced. In go chunks of avocado and slurps of red wine, great hunks of ciabatta. Ingram eats his lasagne with a spoon, which fascinates Feebee.
‘Eat your dinner, Feebs,’ Sam says.
‘Can I eat with my spoon?’ she says.
For the first time, Ingram’s mouth stops working. Justine looks at Sam. He is just about to untie himself from this silence and say ‘yes’, when Justine cuts in, ‘of course you can.’
‘This way, you don’t lose any of the sauce,’ Ingram says.
Sam looks at his lonely fork, now the only one in use on the table.
Ingram has a long way to go before he becomes accustomed to the nocturnal hours that Sam keeps. This is only his fourth night. On the platform, his blinks are slow and frequent. Yawns creep up his throat and stretch his mouth wide enough to make his jaw click as they escape. He wears a sweatshirt with the hood up, but the hood is small, only just big enough to fit round his head.
High above them, the balloons are barely visible in the moonlight.
Between Sam and Ingram is an iPod connected to speakers, and on it plays the sound of swifts screaming.
‘Don’t your neighbours mind this noise?’ Ingram says.
As he says it, the strings tug, only a small movement, but enough to let Sam know that something has flown into his web. The two men are on their feet, Ingram watching while Sam pulls the net down, arm over arm, fast but gentle.
‘Should I do this one alone, so you can see?’ Ingram says.
As the net comes closer, tiny pinpoints of light are visible within it, clustered together.
‘That looks like a bad one,’ Ingram says. He switches on the lamp and both men squat within its radius.
Sam’s fingers move the swift round, unhooking the net from its wings and neck and its shrunken feet. Ingram’s face is close to discern Sam’s art. Wherever shadows fall across the swift, they illuminate the parasites, little beads of bright green light clinging to the skin between the feathers.
‘How do you know which way to pass the loops without getting it more tangled?’ Ingram asks.
‘You just get a feel for it,’ Sam says.
‘Wouldn’t it be easier to do this in the daylight?’
‘Too many birds about. One fat pigeon would rip a hole in this. Swifts fly in their sleep, so at night I only catch them, maybe an occasional bat.’
Ingram holds the balloons for Sam. Here, in the lamplight, his tired face framed by his hood, Ingram looks like a child lost at the fair. ‘Can I take the bugs off?’ he asks.
Sam’s mouth is open with concentration as he takes the last loop from around the bird’s wing. ‘Get the tweezers then,’ he says.
Ingram holds a fluffy pencil case in front of the light and finds the tweezers inside. As he moves in on the bird, the tweezers shake in his fingers. Sam cups the swift in his palm, exposing its head. There is a bug at the corner of its mouth.
‘Careful,’ Sam says.
Ingram slips the tip of the tweezers either side of the louse-fly’s head.
‘If you don’t get it out in one go, the mouth parts break off and burrow in,’ Sam says.
Ingram licks his lips. ‘I know.’ He tugs at the louse. The swift, maybe sensing the relief that is coming, opens its mouth, a gape wide enough to swallow itself whole.
Sam twists his head, as if this movement could puppeteer Ingram’s hand. But it does not work, and sensing that Ingram is about to pull the bug in half, he piggy-backs his hand onto Ingram’s and guides him. Ingram’s hand is warm as dough. Together, they lever out the glowing insect in one piece and drop it into a pickle jar.
Feebee has crawled right inside her duvet. Sam has told her so many times not to do this. He worries that she will suffocate herself in there. He pulls the cover back from her head. Her body has made a steam that smells like porridge. He kisses her wet forehead, and she grumbles.
In the glow from her toadstool nightlight, Feebee’s face has no hard edges. It is formed from the coalescence of night-particles that gather just close enough to form the idea of her. At night, there is something magical about Feebee. This is when Sam loves her best. This is the only time when he feels that physical tug in his chest that he has heard other fathers talking about. Whatever stuff inside Feebee causes her to glow, it is invisible during the day.
Sam places a jar on Feebee’s bedside table. Her nightlight is not bright enough to extinguish the green backs of the louse-flies. There are twenty-five in there, crawling over each other, slipping against the inside of the glass.
Justine creaks in the doorway as she appears. ‘What are you doing?’ she asks. Her hair is all in her face, and her words waft against it. ‘For goodness sake, honey,’ she says. ‘Get those disgusting things away from her.’
Later, in bed, the smell of toothpaste forms a fog around Sam’s mouth. Already the blackbirds are singing outside. Sam curls up behind Justine, soaking up her sleepy heat. He strokes her hip, his palm tacky against her skin. ‘What do you want?’ she mumbles. ‘I’m asleep.’
Sam draws hieroglyphs across her belly with his fingertips. Listens for her breath to deepen. Waits for the kick of her hips against him.
‘It’s so late,’ she says.
‘It’s early for me.’
‘If you have to,’ she says, ‘but don’t wake me up when you’re done.’
On the rooftop platform, Ingram’s last night of apprenticeship makes him bold enough to stand up straight.
‘Okay, Sam says, ‘You’re going to do the next one all by yourself and I’m going to watch.’
Ingram’s grin bends the darkness around it.
The men wait with the lamp off because it is a homing beacon for every biting insect in the sky. Sam will only switch it on at the last minute, when he needs to be able to see the bird to unhook it from the net. This is more for Ingram’s benefit. Sam has been doing this for so long now, he could work with only the light from the louse-flies.
The silence makes Sam dig for questions. ‘So what was Justine like when she was a kid?’
‘She used to make me eat leaves,’ Ingram says, but before he can explain further, the lines from the net tug as a swift dives into it. ‘This is your one,’ Sam says.
Ingram stands up and dries his hands on his shorts. Sam flicks on the light, and the lacewings are there within seconds, like they’ve been waiting backstage for their cue.
Justine’s rage wobbles the walls of the shower cubicle. It steams up the glass and pops all the bubbles on her body. The running water oscillates her voice.
‘You are not going to do this again,’ she says.
‘But he can’t do it!’ Sam says, standing behind the sink. ‘He burst about three of the bugs last night. He had luminous blood all over his fingers.’
‘It took him twenty minutes to get one bird out of the net. He’s lucky it didn’t die of a heart attack with him mauling it about with his great big sausage fingers.’
‘You decided before you met him that you weren’t going to let him do this,’ Justine says.
‘I gave him a fair chance.’
‘Ingram’s very capable. You probably put too much pressure on him. You made him nervous.’
‘You’ve hardly seen him since you were twelve!’ Sam says. ‘Being a Connect Four champion doesn’t mean you’re a genius.’
Justine switches off the shower and bangs the door against the wall. ‘Hand me a towel,’ she says. ‘Okay, first, you don’t have to be a genius to do your work. You’re picking bugs off a damn bird. A monkey could do it. And second, he wasn’t just a champion, he was the world champion for four years running.’
‘So you’re lucky that someone with his intelligence is happy to give up his time to help you!’
‘There is no correlation between Connect Four and what I do.’
‘Just listen to yourself,’ Justine says, rubbing her hair fast enough to make sparks.
‘Just listen to yourself.’
‘Do you know what? I want you to stay here. I can’t bear to have you near me. And when I get back, you make sure you stay up in your attic until we’re asleep. I don’t want to see you.’ Justine throws the towel against the wall. ‘And I’m not telling Feebee that you’re not coming. You can do that.’
In the living room, Feebee’s ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ makes her strawberry milkshake fizz. Sam sits down on the sofa and the buckled arm leans towards him. The TV is on, something black and white, but the sound is turned off. A car is driving through New York with the siren on top flashing grey and silent.
‘What’s this?’ Sam asks.
‘I’m not watching,’ Feebee says.
‘Can I listen to you play?’
Feebee doesn’t say anything, but plays the first two bars again, making Sam’s fillings burn against the inside of his cheek.
Feebee stops and says, ‘I don’t want to go to violin camp. I want to stay here with you.’
Sam isn’t sure whether she heard his and Justine’s argument, or if she just assumed he wasn’t going to come. ‘Oh pumpkin squash,’ he says, ‘if you don’t want to go, you’ll have to talk to mummy.’
Justine calls in to Feebee as she fills the dishwasher, ‘Put your fiddle away now, and pack any toys you need.’
‘Daddy says I can stay here with him,’ Feebee says.
‘Hey, I…’ ‘Oh does he?’ Justine says. ‘Well, your Daddy talks a lot of nonsense.’
‘That’s not fair,’ Sam says. He kneels beside Feebee, wraps his arm around her and squeezes. ‘I’ll be able to come to the winter camp,’ Sam says. ‘The swifts will be in Africa then.’
In the kitchen, Justine puts cereal boxes back in the cupboard and calls out, ‘Why don’t you go with them. Maybe you’ll get eaten by a lion.’
Feebee sits in the back seat of the Volvo eating a bowl of dry cereal from her lap. Sam stands in the doorway and waves goodbye. Justine does not look at him. The car pulls away and space collapses in on the vacuum it leaves behind with a low rumble. The sound startles the postman as he cycles up and hands Sam two letters for Justine.
Sam goes upstairs and changes into his favourite pyjamas.
Sam has just inflated and tied off the first balloon when the doorbell rings far below. He ignores it. Something about the sound of doorbells in an empty house has always unsettled him. The lining of his stomach shivers when the doorbell rings again.
He sits there, waiting for whoever it is to go, and when a few silent minutes have passed, he resumes his work, filling the second balloon.
Something small and hard rattles on the roof tiles.
Starlings often roll cherry stones down the roof, but it is too late in the day for starlings. The sound comes again, and as he stands, a small pebble flies through the open skylight and skitters across the floorboards.
‘Sam?’ Ingram’s voice calls from the garden.
Sam puts his hand out of the window first, signalling that he is there, so he doesn’t get a stone in the face. Next door’s security light is on, and in the glow that it throws into Sam’s garden, he sees Ingram standing on Feebee’s climbing frame.
‘What’s up?’ Sam says.
‘I’m coming up. Let me in.’
Ingram advances on the house, and Sam feels a sense of vulnerability, like something has just crawled up his trouser leg.
Ingram steps in as soon as Sam opens the door. He wipes his forehead with the back of his woolly forearm.
‘I thought…’ Sam begins, but Ingram walks straight past him into the kitchen.
‘Is it okay if I grab a glass of milk?’ he says. ‘I decided to run over here for some stupid reason.’
Sam watches Ingram fill a pint glass to the top and then the bulge of his throat bouncing up and down as he empties it into his mouth. Ingram’s Tshirt is soaked. It hangs, steaming, from his boobs.
‘So…?’ Sam says.
‘I know you said you were going to stay, but… are you working now?’
Sam looks up towards the attic. ‘Yes.’
‘I’ll join you.’
Ingram labours up the stairs, and Sam has nothing within his powers to stop him.
Ingram has only been in the attic five times, but this is enough for the men to have formed a routine. They both have their own places on the floor. Sam holds the pump. Ingram takes off his T-shirt. Sam leaves his on for a few minutes longer. Ingram ties the balloons.
‘Why didn’t you go?’ Ingram says.
‘It’s complicated.’ Sam tries to say nothing more, but Ingram’s silent stare draws words out. ‘I’m sure you would have handled things fine. It’s just… I have to do this.’
Ingram nods and rolls out the thoughtful inside of his lower lip. ‘Can I offer you some advice?’
Sam’s sense of propriety makes him nod.
‘You’re playing a losing game,’ Ingram says. ‘In Connect Four, if you just respond to the immediate threat of your opponent’s last move, you’ll always lose. You have to have a strategy. You have to think ahead, set up opportunities for yourself later in the game. Right now you’re just focusing on one threat, and you have no winning strategy.’
Sam smiles. ‘The answers to life cannot be found in a game of Connect Four.’
‘The answers to life can be found in any system, when you really know it. The whole is represented in the tiniest piece.’
Sam punctuates Ingram’s philosophising by blasting helium into a balloon. When it is full, he passes it over to Ingram, who up here, sitting cross legged with his top off, looks like the Buddha.
‘Your parasites have an excellent strategy, which is why they’ll beat you.’
‘Louse-flies cannot play Connect Four either, my friend.’
‘They understand the system. Even with their tiny neon brains they get that swifts are superior fliers and don’t even land to sleep, so they don’t waste their energy trying to fly after them. They know that the only time the swifts land is when they have chicks, so they lay their own eggs in the nests of swifts. When their larvae hatch out, they just hop straight onto the swift chicks. It’s a brilliant system that expends very little energy.’
‘If you’re saying I should be getting the parasites while they’re in the nest, I’ve already thought about that, and the chemicals you have to…’
‘I’m not talking about the swifts. I’m talking about Feebee and Justine.’
Sam rubs his forehead with his fingertips. ‘Now you’ve really lost me,’ he says.
‘I’m sorry. It’s just from where I’m sitting I can see where you’re going wrong. Should we get the net up?’
Sam looks out through the skylight. It’s dark already.
Out on the platform, Sam and Ingram tie the strings of the net to the eyehooks. This time, they meet in the middle. They stand. They watch the balloons float up. They listen to the collared doves purring in the leylandii tree.
‘Go on then,’ Sam says. ‘What’s my solution?’
Ingram puffs out his cheeks and folds his arms across his chest. For a moment, Sam can see exactly what he looked like at twelve.
‘Well,’ Ingram says. ‘There are four players in your game right now. You, the swifts, Justine and Feebee. You all want to win in one way or another. These are long-term games. You’ll all be playing them for years to come. But you’re playing the swift game like you can win it in just a few moves. You’ve got all your attention on it. And because your attention is always elsewhere, Feebee and Justine are always trying different strategies to get your attention back to them. This puts you in a combative position, because you’re trying to defend your time for this work. No one can survive like that. If you went to the violin camp and gave Feebee and Justine your full attention, you’d fulfil both of their needs. And you’d enjoy it once you were there. And you’d stop feeling guilty all the time. Even if I don’t do your work as efficiently as you, the swift problem is not going to be dramatically influenced one way or the other in just four days. You’ve got time in your life to meet everyone’s needs. If you ignore Feebee and Justine, they’re only going to get angrier, and the angrier they get, the harder you’ll have to defend your position just to be able to do this.’
‘It’s not that I don’t want to spend time with them,’ Sam says. ‘It sounds horrible, but I’m embarrassed for Feebee. Her playing, it’s like…’
‘What if she was just playing like that to get your attention?’
‘That’s highly unlikely. Look, I know what violin camp is going to be like. My parents made me go to the same kind of thing when I was a kid. I played trombone. You’d think kids who play brass instruments would be good kids, but it was exactly the opposite. They were savages. You see this scar on my chest? It was made by a trumpet.’
‘So go rescue her.’
‘It’s too late now.’
‘Actually, this is the perfect time to leave. Imagine if you arrive there just as they’re having breakfast. You’ll make them so much happier than if you’d gone along with them in the first place. If you feel even a little bit of excitement about the idea, it means you should go.’
Sam listens to the hum of the street lights harmonising with the buzz of the night insects. Ingram smiles at him, a smile so warm it could evaporate clouds. Flies and lacewings and mosquitoes orbit his celestial body, which glows butter-bright in the lamp light.
And then, behind him, there is something brighter in the sky.
A swift, so choked by parasites that it looks like a comet, tumbles from the sky.
Both men jump up at the same time. Ingram’s hand is above his eyes in a salute position, as if this will increase the magnification of his eyes. As the swift falls, there is a terrible creaking sound, too loud for something so tiny.
The sound comes from beneath their feet.
Ingram’s terror gives him extraordinary powers of movement as the platform tilts and pine wood splinters. He hurls himself at the open window, the force of his leap fully breaking one of the platform’s legs.
Sam spreads his arms as the platform pitches. The iPod and the speakers slide off the edge and smash on the patio below. Sam does not even have time to flap. As he falls, he lunges for the net, seeing in frightening detail the weave of the knots he tied just a few minutes ago, and on which his life now depends.
Two of the platform’s legs crumple at the knees and crash onto the kitchen roof. The house rushes past Sam. Everything comes to him in fragments. Window frame. Bricks. Guttering. The sound of astonished balloons experiencing gravity for the first time. His hip hits something hard. The net slips and burns his palms. He grips with everything he’s got. And then the world stops.
Ingram is the first to speak. His bottom and legs dangle out of the skylight far above. ‘Are you okay?’
Sam’s first breath feels like it has ignited on his tongue. He looks down. Light spills from the fallen lamp across the kitchen roof, which is within a metre of his feet. One of the platform’s legs has stayed upright with fingers of decking hanging on by their nails. The knots in the eye hooks have remained true and Sam is swinging from them.
‘I think I’m alive,’ Sam says.
‘You see, even the universe is telling you to go to the camp. You’d be a fool to ignore a sign like this.’
Hanging here, the victim of a near life-threatening disaster that has no other witnesses than the four-time Connect Four champion of the world, Sam suddenly feels an irresistible need to be with Justine and Feebee. Already he can see himself in the car, chasing his headlights between the hedgerows. And yes, there is excitement there.