It began the night Rusby was released. Word got round that Jules was having a few bevvies at her squat and, by the time I got there, it was crammed with half the homeless of Nottingham.
It was kind of electric, the air that night. I could see it as soon as I stepped in; bundles of energy hanging from the ceiling, little sparks flickering from the living room doorway and onto the stained carpet in the hall. I decided to hover near the entrance, hanging up coats that had been dropped on the floor; I’m not a large-groups type of person. But then Big Tony craned his neck into the hallway. His bald head was shining with sweat, eyes so wide you could see the whites circling his irises.
“Molls,” he hissed.
I smoothed down the back of a sheepskin coat and hooked it over a peg.
“Hi Tony,” I said.
He reached for my arm, nodding back towards the party.
He’s a strong, beefy man is Big Tony, neck thick as an ox. But his grip was gentle as he led me through the dancing bodies and past those slumped against walls peppered with graffiti. Sweat and alcohol soured the air, lights low, music thumping through boxy speakers. I walked on tip toes to avoid the debris and then spotted Jules by the boarded-up windows. She was jumping up and down with a can in her hand, her other hand slicing backwards and forwards to the beat. Her chestnut hair, usually pulled tight in a ponytail, had come loose on the sides. Ash fell down her camouflage jacket as she puffed away on a cigarette. She didn’t seem bothered by it. That’s the thing with Jules; when she’s in the zone, she’s not bothered by anything.
I wanted to get her attention so we could talk about the whole Rusby situation but Big Tony was taking me over to the corner of the room where a lava lamp, purple with red wax, sat crooked on a beer carton.
“Speak to this fella, Molls,” he said. “I can’t handle him.”
I looked down at the lad sitting cross-legged on the floor. He can’t have been much older than me – early to mid-twenties – and was wiry, like one of those dolls with legs and arms that stretch into spaghetti. His skin was a pale caramel brown, his afro square like Lego. LOGIC was stencilled in bold letters on his canary yellow t-shirt. I looked at Big Tony; mid-forties, six-foot-four, convicted of grievous bodily harm at least four times in his youth. He looked back at me, dabbing the sweat from his head.
“Bloody teetotallers,” he said, sticking a cider can in my hand before stumbling off to the bathroom.
I sat down next to the lad and crossed my legs, feeling my phone vibrate against my thigh. I knew it was a text because of the short single buzz but I didn’t want to read it. Not then. Instead I asked the lad his name. He stuffed a red jelly baby in his mouth and looked at me with narrowed eyes.
“Why?” he said.
His face was dead straight but I smiled anyway.
“Why do you want to know my name?”
His voice was airy and light like a BBC news reporter. I tried not to let it distract me.
“So I know what to call you,” I said.
I stretched my neck high and grinned, happy with my answer. He carried on staring at me, afro glowing lavender in the lamplight, then stuffed a green jelly baby in his mouth. When I looked down I saw he was barefoot, a line of socks laid out across the floor in front of him. They’d been flattened into j-shapes, spaced out equally, each sock a different colour and pattern from the rest. One of them had little scurrying turtles, another pineapples.
It didn’t seem like the lad was going to say much else so I looked back at Jules who was still dancing like she’d been possessed. The cuffs of her oversized jacket were flapping as she swung her arms, the too-full pockets of her cargo pants threatening to empty with each jump. I wanted to talk to her about the whole Rusby situation; I’d heard nothing from him for three years and now he was messaging me non-stop. His words had an intensity that made it hard to breathe. I sipped my cider as the music pounded. It was a throbbing track that made me want to get up and dance with Jules, to dance so hard that I’d forget Rusby, to dance so hard that I’d forget everything.
“Luca,” the lad said.
His back was still straight but his shoulders had slackened, eyes looking square into mine. It was like he could see right inside to the wires feeding round my body, the lump of my heart pounding in my chest, the ball of my mind rippling with activity.
I licked my lips.
“Luca’s a nice name,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said. “Do you like jazz?”
“I don’t think I’ve heard much jazz.”
His lips curled as if I were twisting his fingers back.
“But yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”
His face relaxed.
“Do you have any special skills?” he said.
His expression flickered with irritation.
“No, not like qualifications.”
I fiddled with the ring-pull on my can.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
He sighed and looked away; whatever test he’d put me through I’d failed. I stretched my legs ready to push myself up.
“Do you believe in fate?” he asked.
The lavender light illuminated the side of his face as he waited for my answer.
“No,” I said.
His face relaxed, lips pursing into a ‘oh’.
“Do you?” I said.
His expression became serious again.
“Belief is an illusion created by humans to legitimise a totally meaningless existence,” he said.
Bundles of energy crackled around us. I could see why Big Tony couldn’t handle this but I was finding it funny. Not funny ha-ha or funny strange, but funny interesting, funny surprising.
The skin between Luca’s brows shrivelled up like a popped balloon.
“Sorry,” he said.
He fiddled with a rainbow striped sock.
“Why are you sorry?” I asked.
“For being weird.”
I looked down at the socks; there were eight in total, all of them the same size but none of them matching.
“It’s not weird,” I said. “It’s interesting.”
He laughed. Not a nice laugh, sort of mocking.
“No,” he said. “It isn’t.”
He stared straight ahead as though I wasn’t there anymore, as though he was in an empty forest on a winter’s day and not a room full of sweaty bodies.
I felt another buzz in my pocket. When I pulled my phone out I had twelve messages from Rusby. The last one rolled across the top bar of the screen.
Remember what we’ve been thru darlin x
I put the phone away hoping that, if I ignored the messages, Rusby would figure I’d lost my phone or had it nicked or that it was just plain broken. That he’d give up. But I also knew that, when Rusby really wanted something, he never gave up.