Olivia stares at him. She probably believes that he’s lost his mind. “What are you saying?”
“The buyer I talked about – she wasn’t really a she. I mean, quite frankly, she wasn’t even human, she said she was simply wearing a convenient face with which to speak to me, and that does rather seem to be the case…”
As he’s been talking, Olivia has slowly been going pale – well, paler, seeing as they’ve both inherited their mother’s distinctly Irish complexion. “You’re saying your buyer was an angel?”
Adrian swallows, his throat suddenly dry. “Yes.”
“An angel as in wings, halo, holy light?”
“And she told you this?”
“Eventually. After she’d done this thing.”
“A ‘thing’?” Olivia is sounding more worried by the second.
“It’s, it’s like she spoke to me, and I couldn’t help but obey. She had about a million voices at once.”
“That’s… You know how crazy that sounds, don’t you?”
“Believe me, I do, but it’s the truth. I didn’t believe her either at first, and then she said that the book…” How can he even begin to explain? “If I didn’t acquire the book for her, every Scholar on the register would die.”
Olivia stares at him, looking appalled. “She threatened every Scholar?”
“No,” he protests, with a vehement shake of her head. “She seemed to be trying to stop the killings, and she seemed to think that the book would be instrumental in that process.”
Silence descends. Olivia gulps a mouthful of tea and seems to debate with herself about saying whatever she’s going to next. “I dearly want to believe you, because you’re my little brother and I know you too well to think that you’ve truly gone round the bend, but this – this bothers me. Are you sure you were awake?”
“And no offence, but had you, uh, taken anything?”
He glares at her. “You know perfectly well I don’t indulge in that sort of crap…”
“Fine. OK. Then what happened?”
“Exactly what I told you. An angel visited me, and she said I had to get the book for her. I didn’t exactly have much choice.”
The silence returns with a vengeance. Olivia, saying nothing, instead gives him a Look, her eyes saying clearly, Are you kidding me?
“That’s the truth. Take it or leave it.”
She scowls down at her mug, but after a moment, it’s replaced by a smile. “I’m going to leave it, if you don’t mind.”
He shrugs, staring into the kitchen so that he won’t have to look at her. It’s a little crushing, he has to admit. It isn’t as if he was expecting to be believed – well no, perhaps part of him was. Olivia has always been so resolutely on his side that he expected her support in this as well.
He tries to bat the accusation away, shaking his head and still not looking at her.
“I recognise this, Adrian. You are sulking, and you’re making a really bad job at pretending otherwise. I’m sorry, it just sounds a little… You don’t want to be shouting this stuff around.”
“I wasn’t about to. If I recall, I didn’t even want to tell you. I’m certainly regretting it now.”
“No, I didn’t mean…” She sighs. “Some people already think you have a target painted on your chest.” She waves a hand at his watch, and he grits his teeth. (He knows that, goddammit. He’s found out the hard way.) “I just… think you don’t need any more undue attention. If you know what I mean.”
“I’m not sure I do.”
He drains his mug and heads through to the kitchen, putting his back to her before she can try and protest. He starts washing it up, placing it to dry with a distinct clang. The sound makes him wince. God, he’s behaving like his mother – all passive-aggressive silences and slamming things around. He knows that alone will drive Olivia nuts, but right now he isn’t kind enough to stop. He knows she’s right; he knows how it sounds. Even so…
“Little brother.” It’s a sigh more than anything – her tone is wrapped in reconciliation; she’s about to try and apologise, to try and make it up to him. From the sound of her voice, she’s leaning in the doorway.
He isn’t entirely sure she should have to, really. He’s being incredibly unreasonable. Still, he draws it out somewhat longer, drying his hands and pointedly keeping his back to her.
“Adrian, I’m sorry.”
His hands seem to need an awful lot of drying. “I know.”
“Look, just – just sleep on it. It’ll make sense in the morning.”
“I’ve had four days, Olivia. Three nights of sleep. Funnily enough, it still isn’t making any more sense. I don’t know why it happened, but an angel’s started ordering me around, and truth be told, I’m rather frightened.”
She approaches him slowly, as if he’s an animal she’s afraid to spook. Somewhere in his rant, he must have turned around. “OK. Look, I can’t say it makes any sense…”
“I don’t expect you to believe me. I know it sounds…” He steps forwards, squares his shoulders, tries. “I know it sounds insane. I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t.” Olivia straightens, takes a step, and then hesitates. “Well actually yes, it does, but maybe you just need some more time.” He shrugs, and she says, “Y’know, I’m thinking of getting a piercing.”
He raises a worried eyebrow. “Where?” he asks, after a moment. Perhaps he should be wary of the answer.
She gives him a shrug of her own. “My eyebrow. Or my ear. It’d make a change, being allowed to wear them at work.”
“You wouldn’t be allowed to in a lot of places anyway.”
He hears her exhale a quiet breath as she walks past him, placing her mug on the counter and opening the back door.
There’s a scuffing noise, the scrape of shoe-soles on the ground. When Adrian finally looks, he finds out that she’s sitting on the doorstep, her arms folded round her chest as if she’s hugging herself. Autumn’s beginning to creep up on them; there’s the slightest bite in the air, the bare beginnings of a chill that will eventually turn to a proper, steam-breath winter frost. Still, the leather, the plaid and the probable two more layers she’s wearing seem sturdy enough; she isn’t shivering. “Thanks, by the way. I’d been dying for a cup of tea.”
“No problem.” He comes to lean against the open door, listening to the comfortable silence that only comes of years in each other’s company. He’s tried for years to find that deep, reassuring kind of silence – one where you don’t have to speak or make awkward attempts to fill it – and though he’s found a few pleasant ones that almost match up, none are as good as the sort Olivia bestows. There are days when he needs this. A lot of the time, she doesn’t even have to say anything. However she does it, the fact that she seeks him out to be a supportive presence and talk about inconsequential shit for an hour or two? It makes his life better. Even when she’s saying he’s nuts.
There are still birds singing. His is a nice little garden, small as it is, with a simple lawn, the Nerd Bench and a few flowers. It’s homely.
“Think I’ll wait for a while on this one,” Olivia says after a while. “You’re the most sceptical person I know – I mean, you figured out the whole tooth fairy thing before I did, and I’ve got five years on you, so…” She rubs a hand across her mouth, frowning at nothing. If she smoked, it seems as if this would be the moment she’d take a drag. “I don’t think you’re nuts. That’s not what I mean. You’re always, you’re so good with words, and then I’m just – I’m me.”
“You is a lovely thing to be,” he tells her. It’s genuine, something he’s always believed – ever since he was a kid suffused with the joy of certainty, the knowledge that his big sis could do no wrong, and even now.
There’s a shaky laugh contained in her reply. “You ought to take a look at your grammar.”
It’s infectious; he finds himself laughing too before he’s really aware of it. “You’re probably right, yeah. But I was making a point. Can we take the bench? That way I can look at you sympathetically and make the right noises.”
“Shut up,” she scoffs, turning to mock-glare at him. He just grins.
They take the bench. The “Nerd Bench,” as Olivia and then everyone else took to calling it – the name never quite wore off – has intricate flower designs in wrought iron on the back of it, and on one of the arms, in small, curving letters, is carved, Not all those who wander are lost. Yes, a man who quotes Tolkien on his garden furniture can most definitely be called a nerd, but honestly, it was as much Paul’s idea as Adrian’s. Also, they are in a damn bookshop. There are far worse places for this sort of thing.
“Speaking of which, aren’t you meant to be the one with the fancy English degree?”
He turns the abrupt tensing of his shoulders into a shrug. “Half an English degree, and I’m not even sure that counts,” he corrects her. “And it was Literature, not Language. Besides, it’s not like you’re dumb.”
“Mum’d say otherwise.” Olivia says it with a smile, though, and Adrian’s glad this isn’t going to turn into one of Those Conversations. Olivia is rarely one to be downbeat, though she is an excellent ranter when she has the opportunity to be.
“No she wouldn’t. She knows you’re smart. If anything, that’s part of the problem.”
She looks around the garden, tapping her foot to a beat only she can hear. She’s probably got a song stuck in her head again; she seems to fall victim to it more than most. “I think it’d look nice if you got some begonias in here. Or if you had a proper little-old-pensioner flowerbed.”
“Truthfully, doubt I could find the time.”
“Y’know, some bloke down at the pub was trying to tell me Lou Reed was punk.” Her lips form a moue, as if the very thought bothers her. “It’s not as if he’s bad – c’mon, Transformer happened, that album almost made me believe in God again – but punk?”
He thinks it over. “I don’t know, actually. You could say he laid the blueprints for it.”
“Point.” She’s never made explicit what she actually means by that – whether it’s one point for a good answer, or you have a point, or I concede the point. Still, he understands it well enough for them to settle back into their familiar silence.
Then she breaks it with, “But Bowie, though.” She grimaces disbelievingly.
He shakes his head, playing at being vehement and appalled. “Definitely glam-rock. I don’t know what the guy was thinking.”
She pauses, regarding him as seriously as if he’s just given her the secret of the universe, then nods her approval. “That’s what I said.”
The birds sing, and Adrian thinks, Actually, perhaps some begonias would brighten up the place a bit. The flowers are always a relief after the small, dark back room. The cold metalwork of the Nerd Bench grows steadily more uncomfortable and he has the distant thought that his arse might be going numb, but in truth, there’s nowhere Adrian would rather be.