I never do go on to art college. Instead, I paint everything I remember from that time – even the parts that hurt me. Well, especially the parts that hurt me.
A year later and it’s my first exhibition and I’m trying to stand around looking nonchalant while strangers sift through my work, faces frowning. Dale is trying to be encouraging in his best idiot-brother way. “They don’t hate you, Irene, it’s still early. This is the fashionably late crowd we’re talking about.” He shoves a glass of red wine into my hands. “When have you ever known anyone in Joburg to come to anything when it opens?”
“There are two people here.” I swallow down the wine, it’s bitter and smoky and hits my jittery stomach with a fire cracker punch. “And they look like they’ve wandered in by mistake.”
“They’re here for the wine,” he says.
“I hate you.” A small group of people are pushing in out of the drizzle, rain like stars. Memory is with them, and my heart does a little double-jump as he waves at me. At least we’re still friends, even if he’s busy with his band all the time. I sometimes make it to their gigs, and pretend to be a groupie and tell random strangers to buy their CD. Guess it’s kinda sweet that he’s brought his crew round to look at my paintings.
The pictures look different up here, somehow. Maybe being up on a wall is what turns them from just paintings I made to the art of I. Kerry. Caleb’s portrait is up there, even thought there’s a sign next to it stating that it’s not for sale. My dad convinced me to put it up, but no amount of arguing would get me to agree to putting Rain’s portrait up too.
More people are coming in now, shaking raindrops from their hair, laughing, talking. No one is going to buy anything. Dale heads straight for the wine table. I roll my eyes, and a few minutes later he bounds back, drink in hand. “Neat,” he says. “Though I still can’t believe you actually did it.”
“Your faith in me is astounding, brother dearest.” Dale and I start getting into a typical Kerry argument about the usual Kerry crap, when I catch a flash of pale hair at the door, and my heart feels like it skids off track, hits the barriers and flips.
Dale catches my look, follows my gaze over to where Rain has just walked in, a dark shadow behind him.
He doesn’t see me in the crowd, and I shift so that I’m hidden, so I can watch him without being noticed. I haven’t seen him for most of this year. At least he’s easy to follow, his pale hair always a beacon. He’s walking with a casual grace, and he looks different, and it takes me a moment to realise that he’s without the jersey. Although I’m relieved, a small twinge of disappointment tweaks my insides. Stupid. To feel like I’ve been discarded along with it.
I’ve barely spoken to him this year. Last I heard, he’d moved out of Lily’s house into a flat in Edenvale with some new boyfriend. After that, I tried my best not to think about him.
It’s Caleb’s picture he’s stopped in front of. The cowboy hat is tilted low, but you can still see the slow curl of his cocky sneer. Rain’s mouth twitches, then he moves on, like it was just another image.
I want a drink, and Dale, who is a veritable mind reader, grabs me another glass of red wine.
And then Rain sees me, and he smiles, wide and innocent. He weaves through the small crowd, his shadow tagging him. “Hi,” he says, when he stops in front of me. Somewhere along the line he’s snagged himself a white wine, and he holds the glass high. ”Chin chin and all that shit.”
Tell me how someone can not be in your life for a year, and you think you’re finally over him, and then when you do see him, everything just falls down. I am so weak. The glasses kiss. “Chin chin,” I echo. “Nice to see you out and about.”
“Yeah.” We shift, awkwardly, and Dale, who tends to be purposely thick, shrugs and wanders off back toward the wine table.
“Hi,” Rain says again. “Have you met Daniel?” He knows I haven’t. So now I’m forced to confront the shadow, put a face to him, a name. The boyfriend-rumour is real, it seems.
I look up. He’s not much taller than Rain, with a shaggy mop of black curls, an even tan, and a smile that’s all white teeth and easy open charm. He holds out his hand. “Hey,” he says. “Heard a fair bit about you. Nice to finally be able to put a face to the legend.” Somehow, he doesn’t make it sound mocking.
“Only good things, I hope.”
“Oh yeah. Was wondering if I shouldn’t be jealous.” He flashes that easy, comfortable-in-his-skin grin. “You’re a talented artist,” he says, and scans the room. “Rain said so, but you never know until you actually see.”
“Thanks.” I’ve learnt to accept praise with a kind of grace, difficult as it is.
“You should come see us sometime,” Rain says. And that tells me all I need to know. Us. I wonder if this means he’s forgiven me, if somehow he’s forgotten everything that happened.
“Or you could come see me at work.”
“What. You have a job?” I laugh, but it’s nervous. I’m trying to think what exactly Rain could do for work.
“Don’t mock, you bitch,” he says it mildly, laughing with me. “Friday nights, I do the turn-table thing at Macrovision.”
It takes me a moment to process that. “Wait, you DJ?”
“Kinda.” He shrugs. Daniel steps a little closer to him, so that their hands just touch. “I do retro nights, so they quite like seeing me with my ancient equipment on two crates. I’m also probably the only person under twenty-five who actually owns any Velvet Underground on vinyl.”
“Someone just bought that picture of the woman with the doe’s head,” Dale says as he walks towards us.
My heart stops. My first sale. “The white queen.”
“Yep.” He points surreptitiously to an elderly woman in a grey jacket suit, with her white hair cropped short, her blunt, knotted hands making harsh jerking movements as she talks to my dad. “That one.”
As he says it, she turns and stares at me with her habitual sour face. Zelda Sachs.
“I need another drink.” She’s gone, disappeared behind a group of chattering people I don’t recognise.
“So you’ll come?” Rain asks.
What? Oh, the DJ thing. “Oh yeah, definitely.” As I’m watching, their fingers meet, curl. “This Friday?”
Rain nods, smiling. His face is relaxed. “Cool, Daniel hates the noise.” He gives his boyfriend a rueful grin.
“But I go anyway,” he admits.
I want to be snarky and sarcastic, and then I remember how much I hated Caleb for taking Rain away from me. I can be all grown up this time. I can even like Daniel. At the very least, I won’t have to kill him, which always helps when it comes to friendships.
Daniel goes off, and I stare at Rain’s mouth.
“Caleb,” he says, when Daniel is out of earshot. “I think I forgot about him until I saw that painting.”
“Really?” I can’t quite keep the sarcastic disbelief out of my voice that time.
He ducks his head, knowing he’s been caught in a lie. “Do you remember him?”
“I mean, really remember him. He was real, wasn’t he?”
“Oh good.” He leans back. “Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t flip out again.” He’s looking up at the crowd rather than me. “Or if Lily magicked all the memories out of my head.”
Not that I’d put that past Lily. “He was real. You’re as sane as I am.” There’s a moment between us where neither says a word, and yet it contains whole bibles full of apologies, of all the things we never said to each other. “We were none of us mad,” I say, “but we were probably all of us stupid.”
Rain snorts in bitter amusement.
“I made a decision,” I tell him. He’s the first one to know, though I’ve been thinking about this for months. “I applied for my visa. I’m going.” All those fragile little glass prisons, filled with magic. It’s time they went home.
And Rain doesn’t even need to ask where or why, he just looks at me thoughtfully, then nods. “Good,” he says. “Caleb would have liked that.”
On my desk is a thin book of fairy tales and a cooler box full of magic. Lying next to them is a print-out of my ticket. An SAA flight direct to Heathrow from Joburg international. I’m leaving tonight. My dad and Dale have already thrown my rucksack in the boot and made me double-check that I have my passport with its single entry visa stamped in, and my traveller’s cheques.
“Unless you’re planning on swimming to London,” Dale yells from the front door, “you might wanna think about leaving.”
I look up at the portraits on the wall. Rain, still asleep, still dreaming. And watching over him with that half-sneer, half-frown, Caleb Dunning.
“Cheers,” I say and gather my mother’s book, stuff it into my shoulder bag and close my bedroom door. The evil eye pendant hanging from a brass hook rattles against the wood.
We drive to the airport while thunderclouds gather behind me. The last of the summer storms, half-hearted and drizzly.
Rain and Daniel are standing in the crowd and they both hug me good bye before I have to cross the barriers into the passenger-only area. In my arms is the cooler box, which I finally managed to convince security is perfectly safe, that the little balls inside are artworks and not tiny, rather odd bombs. They’ve made me seal it with plastic tape though.
Inside, I can feel the golden art waking. They know they’re going back to their hosts. I raise one hand and wave at my family, at the two boys standing next to them. They wave back, and I hope I’m doing the right thing, leaving.
Lily’s been calling, asking me about the last balls of trapped magic, about what I’m going to do with them. I can hear the greed in her voice and every time she calls, the golden art gets restless. It wants to be used, it’s tired of waiting for me to decide what to do. I’ve been learning to work with the little parasite that’s now a part of me. We work in harmony, and I’ve made a kind of peace with it.
The people who Heinrich stole magic from are spread out across the world, but two of the still-living magi are in England. There’s one witch in Israel. One in America. A magician in New Zealand. Of the other three, I have only names. Hopefully one of the others will point me in the right direction. All I know is that there are people out there with a hole where their magic used to be.
And that Caleb isn’t going to have died for nothing.
Thanks for joining me in my Charm serial book experiment.