Adam waits for the bus in the cold. He checks his watch and skips from foot to foot, counting beats, trying to keep warm. He breathes deeply into layers of his scarf, patterned with regulation black and navy squares, and lets heated air circulate around his chin and neck. Adam’s hands - his precious hands! - are balled in his pockets, curled loosely around the stigmata that always seems to ache when the weather turns colder. He wears white cotton gloves to protect them, to keep them safe; it was, after all, the marks on his palms that earned him a place at the Seminary.
But Adam's gloves don't guard against the cold, and he removes his hands from his pockets to rub them together. An elderly man, the only other occupant of the bus shelter says: ‘Who are you meant to be then, eh? Michael Jackson?’ The question catches Adam by surprise; hurriedly, he folds his arms, tucking his hands into his armpits. The old man moves a little closer. The sleeves of his jacket are pushed to his elbows, and Adam sees that the old man's forearms are heavily tattooed with pictures from another era, fading on skin that stretches paper-blue over his veins. Adam traces the pattern up the stem of a rose and into a mermaid’s tail before the lines disappear into the old man’s sleeve.
‘Like it?’ asks the old man. Adam pretends not to hear. The old man has a curious accent, vowels cracking between his teeth.
‘Wanna feel it?’ Adam shakes his head, no, and looks anxiously for the bus. The old man’s slack, discoloured skin looks delicate; it may peel beneath his fingers. Besides, he doesn't know this man.
‘Not many tattoos like this around these days,’ he continues. ‘Do you know who Michael Jackson is, kid?’ Adam is absorbed by the tattooed mermaid. Beneath the old man’s sleeve he perceives the outline of a breast, the ink of a nipple.
'No,' he says, reluctantly. The old man laughs, and wipes his mouth. 'Ask your grandma,' he says. 'Your great-grandma. He wore white gloves like you.' The old man looks down at Adam’s hands.
‘What’s wrong with them anyway?’ he asks. ‘You get caught in a fire or something?’ Adam balls his fists and puts them behind his back.
‘Not gonna tell me?’ says the old man. ‘I tell you what. We’ll make a deal. You show me your hands and I’ll show you the rest of this mermaid.’ Adam looks at the mermaid’s tail, and the translucent skin of the old man’s upper arm. He wishes he could see the rest of the mermaid without getting too close to the old man she is inked upon: her canvas.
The old man inches his sleeve a little higher; unwillingly, Adam starts to peel off his gloves. He sees the mermaid’s hips, her belly-button, her topmost row of scales.
‘Both of them,’ says the man. ‘Take both your gloves off. I want to see your hands properly.’ Adam holds them out to the old man, palms to the ground, fingers splayed.
‘I don’t understand,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing wrong with them.’ Adam lets the old man turn his hands over. The old man’s fingers are cool against his skin, and Adam feels the flutter of a heartbeat in his palms: weak, the heartbeat of an insect.
‘That,’ says the old man. ‘Is that it?’ In the centre of each of Adam’s palms is a mark, perfectly circular and almost the width of his thumb nail. The marks are the colour of uncooked meat; their texture a blister. The old man’s fingers hover above them.
‘Are they scars?’ It's too much. Adam snatches his hands away, abruptly defensive.
‘Can I see the rest of the mermaid?’ The old man’s arms are thin, and he rolls the sleeve of his jacket without difficulty all the way to his shoulder. The mermaid’s anatomy is rendered flawlessly, each curve, each scale, but her face is crooked. The perspective is wrong; instead of gazing out to sea, the mermaid squints into the old man’s armpit.
‘The artist died,’ says the old man. ‘I finished her myself.’ Adam looks down at his hands. They are strange, disembodied; they do not belong to him any more
‘It’s good,’ he says, not meaning it. 'It's really good.' Something about the old man's tattoo makes Adam want to destroy his gloves. What it is, he realises, is that he is as disappointed by the crooked mermaid as the old man was by his hands. Adam's precious hands are as disappointing as a botched tattoo.
‘Do I know you?’ asks the old man, examining Adam’s face. ‘Have I met you somewhere before?’ Adam avoids the old man’s gaze and shrugs, no, he can’t remember. He is relieved when the bus turns the corner into the road.
As the bus approaches, Adam folds the cotton gloves into his pocket. His hands, unused to the icy air, flutter hesitantly by his sides. When he pays for a bus ticket, counting out coins with naked fingers, he expects the driver to comment and is surprised to be waved forward as usual. Without his gloves Adam feels uncertain, exposed. He waves goodbye to the tattooed man and stretches his fingers, resolving to leave the gloves on the bus.
Adam wonders what Jonah will say when he realises that his brother is no longer wearing gloves. He wonders what Jonah will look like; he wonders if the years away have changed him. Will they look as much alike as they used to?
Adam dismounts the bus without the cotton gloves. He waits a moment before patting down the sides of his jeans, turning to check the floor behind him and feverishly upending the pockets of his jacket. He takes a step or two down the road after the departing bus, hand raised - not too high, he doesn't really want the bus to stop - and turns back, shaking his head for good measure. Adam's gloves are laid out neatly on a seat at the back; when the bus reaches the depot he presumes that someone will throw them away. These amateur dramatics are for the sake of his mother, who may well be watching from across the road.
Adam's family live directly opposite the bus stop. This is a choice made purposefully by his mother, who does not want her younger son to walk far from the house in bad weather. She does not want Adam to leave the house unaccompanied; she waits for him at the bus stop. On a day like today, bitter, wintry, conducive to throat infections, she drives to the Seminary gates to collect him. But today she has more pressing things on her mind.
Jonah - who is now Kurt - will be sitting at the kitchen table. Later he and Adam may sleep upstairs; perhaps they'll brush their teeth together. It might even be that they'll share the same room.
It will be difficult for Adam to call his brother Kurt, and he thinks it likely that his mother will refuse. It means little to Adam, this name-change, this switch of identity, save the practical considerations of re-labelling memories, retraining his instincts, learning to call for “Kurt” up the stairs.
“Jonah” didn't suit his brother, but that is not his mother’s fault. Jonah is a name she selected with care for her first-born son: a biblical name, nothing too obvious. There are far too many Matthews, Marks, Lukes and Johns these days, and this annoys her.
‘It’s pathetic,’ she says. ‘The gospels? They’re so blatant about it!’
Adam is a curious name, an old-fashioned name, but he knows the reasons why his mother chose it. Nobody christens their son Adam these days without considering the implications: the apple, Eve, the fall of Eden. It is widely considered to have been a good decision, and Adam is proud of his name.
Names are important. Names alone cannot get you a place at the Seminary, but there's no denying they help. Anyone can apply to attend, except for Mexicans and others from South America. This is not xenophobia on the part of the Seminary board, merely the belief that native South Americans are at an unfair advantage; there is no cultural objection to parents naming their offspring Jesus. Though the Mexicans pronounce Jesus like this, Hay-zoose, the Seminary governors have decreed that all South Americans are to be excluded on the grounds of blasphemy. No country, they declare, capable of producing the second Messiah, would allow its people to appropriate the first one’s name.
Women called Mary are no longer allowed to have children. This is unfortunate for women who grew up twenty or thirty years ago, women who changed their names to Mary when the criteria for attending the Seminary was announced. Now there are too many Marys, and almost all of them are childless. Eve, too, has become a popular name, and Adam recalls that this is the name of Jonah’s girlfriend.
In class Adam sits next to a boy called Joseph, whose parents don't allow his friends to call him Joe. Joseph eats meals out of plastic boxes that have been specially prepared, and leaves the Seminary every afternoon in an armoured car. Adam’s mother rolls her eyes when Adam tells her this, but still she tracks his path from the bus stop to the house, watching behind the curtains, phone in hand and the police on speed-dial.
Thanks to his hands, Adam is top of his class. If anyone is likely to be the next Messiah, it's him; if anyone is at risk, it’s him. He is thirteen, too young to be included in his mother's whispered conversations, not too young to understand. He knows that there are protest groups who object to the Seminary’s agenda, who oppose the criteria by which they accept pupils; he has heard that there are religious fundamentalists who denounce the program as a sham. He has seen a pamphlet accusing the Seminary board of making the search for the new Messiah into a lucrative business; he has heard that the hunt for the Messiah is a charade.
He saw the picket lines outside the Seminary gates; he helped sweep up the pieces of the broken windows. He does not know exactly what the envelope contained when it fell, sodden, on the doormat, but he knows that there are people who believe in the Seminary whole-heartedly. These people believe in Adam. People have knelt before him in the supermarket; his hands have been kissed in the street. His photograph has been in all the newspapers; his mother gets her petrol free of charge. At thirteen, he is a celebrity.
A red car is parked at an angle across the drive. The car is old, battered, sinking on its tyres. It's exactly the kind of car Adam expects his brother to drive. He looks at the car, temporarily abandoned in the driveway, and thinks back to the morning that Jonah was taken away.
He has thought back to this day countless times; he remembers it all, every detail. How old was Jonah? Fourteen, almost fifteen: older than Adam is now. He remembers the date without difficulty because it was Pilgrimage Day, a day that Adam’s mother plans like a battle campaign. She sweeps the drive and polishes the letter box, washes the car and scrubs the hallway carpet on her hands and knees; she cleans the kitchen windows and removes the curtains so visitors to the house will be able to look in and see the new Messiah at table with his family. On Pilgrimage Day, Adam and his family eat bread and tinned tomato soup, because bread and tinned tomato soup is the kind of sparing meal that Adam's mother thinks the Messiah should be seen to eat. Adam's fluid intake is controlled because his mother doesn't want the Messiah to be upstairs on the toilet when there are pilgrims at the door.
On the day that Jonah was removed by the Seminary, Adam sat at the head of the table. This was nothing new: Adam always sits at the head of the table. His mother sat to the right, and Jonah sat at the end of the table nearest the door. Because it was Pilgrimage Day a constant stream of visitors wavered on the doorstep, wanting to speak to Adam, to touch his hands.
Adam's mother ladled tomato soup into bowls, pretending not to notice the pilgrims at the window.
'Get the door, Jonah,' she said, each time the doorbell rang. 'Drink your milk, Adam. That's enough salt, Jonah.' A knock on the door, but Jonah didn't get up. 'Get the door, Jonah,' she repeated. ‘Open the door for your brother. These people have travelled a long way to see him.’
Jonah held the salt shaker upside-down over his tomato soup until the lid fell into the bowl. The doorbell rang again.
'Make him do it,’ said Jonah.
‘Jonah!’ snapped his mother. ‘Adam is eating.’ Adam remembers that at this point he stopped, quietly positioning his knife and fork together in the centre of his plate.
‘I’m not doing it,’ said Jonah, folding his arms.
'I’m not asking you again,’ said their mother.
'Fuck you,’ said Jonah. 'No.' Adam's mother hit the table with a fist, and a napkin fluttered to the ground. She reached over the table for Jonah, pinching at him, trying to get him out of his seat.
'Get off me!' shouted Jonah, scraping his chair back. 'Stupid bitch!' Adam looked away from his family and out of the window. Two elderly women, cramped from a long morning in the car, were helping each other up the drive. At the sound of Jonah's voice, they paused; the taller of the two, balding at the temples, squinted at the address on the letterbox. Adam slid off his chair and went to open the door. A young man in a suit took his finger abruptly off the doorbell and stepped backwards into the drive; wordlessly, the taller woman took hold of Adam's hands. The shorter of the two smiled at Adam and shook open a map provided by the Seminary board.
'It's lovely to meet you,' she said. 'You're the sixteenth we've been to visit today.' The old woman lowered her glasses and peered at the map.
'The next one's over there,' said Adam, pointing back across the road. 'Turn left at the lights.' The woman thanked him and folded the map back into the plastic pouch that hung around her neck from a string; the young man in the suit drew a line through a name on a list. The three pilgrims turned back to the road, and were just out of earshot when Jonah jumped to his feet.
‘He’s not the Messiah, for fuck’s sake!’ roared Jonah, hurling a bowl of tomato soup at the wall. ‘You moron!’
‘Jonah!’ screamed his mother. Adam hid in the doorway and watched in amazement as Jonah swept the contents of the table onto the floor. A plastic glass rolled under the dresser; another came to a halt and split at Adam’s feet. Soup spilled onto the floorboards; broken crockery caught the light from the pristine kitchen windows. Adam's mother hurried across the room and yanked the curtains shut.
Jonah turned to Adam, motionless in the doorway.
‘Are you?’ he asked, glaring, panting, out of breath. Adam was frightened to answer. What could he say? Jonah spun round and kicked over a chair. In the centre of the kitchen ceiling, a small red light blinked above his head; somewhere, Adam knew, an alarm bell would be ringing.
‘Fucking idiots!' he shouted.
‘Still wearing those gloves?’ asks Jonah. He sits at the table, relaxed, arms folded. His tone is that of amusement; he implies that the gloves are a joke. Next to him, Eve taps a packet of cigarettes on her thigh. She greets Adam with a smile, but he sees that she is wary, watchful.
The table is sturdy, rectangular, stained with pale ring-marks: some the size and shape of a tumbler, some of a wine glass. These circles are the bane of his mother’s life. She fusses over the table with almost as much care and attention as she gives to Adam; she wipes it, she polishes it, she has even been known to talk to it. Adam’s mother can slip a coaster under a glass from the other side of the room, yet despite her vigilance the circles are multiplying. Adam has suggested a table-cloth; his mother does not want to let the table out of her sight. Unthinkingly, Eve sips her coffee and replaces the mug on the wood. Adam’s mother looks at the mug, but does not move it; instead, she folds her hands in her lap.
‘On the coaster,’ says Jonah, with a sideways glance at his mother. He reaches over and slides a cork square under the mug. Adam’s mother smiles, tightly.
‘Oops,’ says Eve. ‘Sorry.’
‘Sit down, Adam,’ says his mother. ‘Say hello to Jonah.’
‘Kurt,' says Jonah, patting a chair. 'Sit down, little bro.’ Adam hesitates. Jonah is different; he is older, an adult. He would no longer throw a bowl of soup against a wall. Adam doubts that he would call their mother a moron. This is a Jonah - a Kurt - who cares about coasters, and marking the table. Adam makes his way around the table and sits down next to his brother.
‘Hi, Kurt,’ he says, and immediately bursts into tears. Jonah looks at Eve and cannot help but laugh in surprise; Eve covers her mouth and goes ‘Awww!’ Jonah puts an arm around Adam’s shoulders, and draws him into a hug.
He buries his face in Jonah’s shoulder, and tries to forget that there is anyone else in the room. He cries for his brother, and he cries because he is embarrassed: embarrassed at himself for crying. Adam’s nose runs, and he wipes it on his sleeve
‘Did you miss me?’ asks Jonah. Adam nods. He has missed everything about Jonah. He has missed Jonah more than he can ever possibly tell him.
‘Look,' he mumbles into Jonah’s sweater. 'No gloves.' His words are muffled, and Jonah bends his head to hear better.
‘What?’ he says. Adam shows Jonah his hands.
‘No gloves?’ repeats Jonah. ‘Is that what you said?’ Adam nods, and sits back up again, drying his face with his sleeve. He starts to count the circles on the table, avoiding his mother’s eye.
‘Well!’ says Jonah, leaning back in his chair. He laces his fingers together and stretches them out with a crack in front of his chest.
‘Adam!’ snaps his mother. ‘What have you done with your gloves?’ Adam shrugs, and Jonah laughs in delight.
‘Got rid of them,’ says Jonah. ‘Good lad!’
‘Tell me where your gloves are right this minute, Adam’ says his mother.
‘He doesn’t know,’ says Jonah.
'Did you lose them?' asks his mother. Adam shakes his head, but does not tell her where they are. Adam's mother tells him to go upstairs and find another pair of cotton gloves. He doesn't want to, but he never disobeys his mother; he wouldn't know how. Leaving the gloves on the bus is Adam's first attempt at defiance, an act of minor mutiny that he knows is somehow connected with Jonah's return. Adam begins to get down from the table.
'Stay there, Adam,' says Jonah. Adam hesitates; he decides to remain seated.
'Adam!' says his mother. 'Upstairs!'
'Don't move,' says Jonah. 'You're fine.' His tone is calm, re-assuring, but there is something in his eyes and the considered way he sits and folds his arms - so relaxed, so deliberately casual - that worries Adam, that warns him something is wrong. Jonah's manner is as much a front as the name Kurt is for a small boy who does not believe his younger brother is the Messiah. Why is Jonah here?
'This is your fault, Jonah,' says his mother. 'Kurt.' This last word, this Kurt, begins with a sneer and ends in a tremor. Jonah shifts in his chair, and Eve places a soothing hand on his thigh. Her expression is non-committal; she sits with studied ambivalence.
'Okay?' she asks him. Adam watches his brother's fist tighten, pause and relax; he nods, but he is not okay. Jonah may sit, fold his arms, and slide coasters under his girlfriend's mugs to protect his mother's table, but he is by no means okay. Jonah is angry. Jonah is as angry as he was on Christmas Day - but this is a different type of anger. Jonah, an adult, is angry at his mother who is also an adult. If there is to be a confrontation, it will be between equals.
What was it like for Jonah, Adam wonders, being sent away from home? As the three pilgrims turned the corner into the road, the wing mirror of an unmarked Seminary van narrowly missed toppling the young man in the suit into the gutter. For the first Pilgrimage Day in years, it began to rain. As the Seminary van pulled up outside Adam's house, Jonah locked himself in the upstairs bathroom, listening to water fall on the skylight as Adam's mother packed up his belongings. Two men with Seminary ID tramped wet footprints up the stairs, took the hinges off the bathroom door and brought a struggling Jonah down, pinned between them by the elbows.
'He can't stay here,' said Adam's mother to the men. Was she crying? Adam can't remember. 'He's a bad influence on the boy.'
'Your house is bugged for a reason, ma'am,' replied the more authoritative of the men. 'We'll be in touch.' Bugged, thinks Adam, picturing a network of insects telling tales to the Seminary. Adam remembers watching Jonah leave through the window, watching the window blur with rain. He sat where his mother sits now, facing the road, and as Adam thinks about this he wonders if every significant moment of his life is destined to take place around the kitchen table.
By early evening the rain had cleared up. Adam and his mother took the rest of Jonah's clothes to the church.
Adam is lost in memories, and does not hear what his mother is saying. Lengthy seminars in religious history and trips to visit the old people's home have helped him develop the practical ability of being able to switch off completely, to blank out his surroundings.
'Don't talk like that, Jonah,' says Adam's mother.
'Why not?' asks Jonah. He is cool again; he has collected himself.
'Not in front of your brother,' she says. Adam hears the tension in her voice; he sees it in her jaw. When Adam's mother is angry she clamps her teeth together, tightening the corners of her mouth. 'Not in front of Eve.'
'Don't mind me,' says Eve. This isn't what Adam's mother wants to hear.
'Adam?' she says. It's an order, but she says it sweetly. 'Leave the table, darling. Go upstairs.' Adam looks at his brother, who shakes his head, no.
'Why?' says Jonah. 'What don't you want him to hear?'
'Adam,' repeats his mother. She ignores Jonah, and focuses upon Adam instead. 'Leave the table.'
'Don't go anywhere,' says Jonah. 'Don't move an inch.'
'Fine,' says Adam's mother. 'Then I'll go.' She makes as if to stand up, but Jonah is too quick, out of his seat, leaning forward and seizing her wrist across the table.
'No-one's leaving,' he tells her. His fingers squeeze until she sits back down. Adam can see that his mother is upset and awkward, resentful. She doesn't want to be forced to her seat in front of Eve. Adam's mother settles into her seat with a little laugh. She means it to imply that Jonah's behaviour is ridiculous, that she is humouring him, but instead she sounds nervous, edgy: afraid. Adam's mother directs her laugh at Eve, who looks away.
Adam is ashamed for her, for his mother, and suddenly frightened of Jonah, who should not be able to force their mother back to the table. Eve lights a cigarette from the packet she has been holding, and passes it to Jonah. Jonah takes it in silence, inhales, and looks at his mother through the smoke.
Adam's mother opens her mouth to speak, and decides not to say anything. Adam knows that she would like to tell Jonah to stub out his cigarette, to smoke it outside, but in this kitchen, at this particular moment in time, she has no authority. She cannot ask Jonah not to smoke, and, in an attempt to make redress, Adam gets down from his chair and opens the window. He can't help but feel guilty; he wants to make something up to her.
Adam's mother does not notice. She is watching Jonah smoke. As Adam sits back down, Jonah takes the cigarette from his mouth and looks at it closely, holding it up to his face.
‘I know what you did,’ says Jonah. ‘I know what you did to his hands.’ Jonah twists the nub of the cigarette into the table, stubbing it out on the wood. Adam, his mother and Eve watch the cigarette burn. They look at the mark it leaves on the table: a hole, perfectly circular, and almost the width of a thumb nail.
‘I’m sorry, Adam,’ says Jonah. He extends a hand to his brother; an apology that Adam is unaware of. He looks at his palms, unable - unwilling - to make the connection. Jonah's hand falls in an ineffectual pat on Adam's knee.
'Adam,' says his mother. 'Don't listen to him.' She is angry, reddening; she would like to hurt Jonah, to attack him, to eject him from the house - but her priority now is to keep calm, to distract her younger son.
'Are you OK, sweetie?' asks Eve.
'Don't say a word to my son, young lady,' snaps Adam's mother. 'I want you both to leave my house.'
'Don't worry,' says Jonah. 'We're not staying. And when we go, we're taking Adam with us.'
'I'll call the police,' says Adam's mother. 'I'll call them right now.'
'Please,' says Jonah. 'Please do. And then I'll tell them what you did.'
'No-one will believe you,' she says. 'Because it isn't true.' She turns to her younger son, and says: 'You were born like that, Adam.' Adam does not know what to think. He knows that there is some dispute over the marks on his palms, but he cannot quite grasp the link between the cigarette and his mother.
'Like what?' he asks.
'Special,' says his mother. 'Your hands.'
'It's bullshit, Adam,' says Jonah. 'She's lying. None of it is true.' Adam has heard this before from his brother, but this time Jonah is a an adult and knows as much as Adam's mother, maybe more. He certainly knows how to handle Adam's mother when she stands up so fast that her chair tips over, taking hold of Jonah by his collar and his hair, attempting to haul him to his feet.
'Out!' she screams. She slaps at Jonah's face and head but he bats her away, jumping to his feet to restrain her. He is considerably taller than their mother, and it is not difficult for him to hold her still. Adam's mother struggles hopelessly in Jonah's arms.
'Let me go!' she shrieks. 'Adam! He's hurting me! Call the police!'
'It isn't true,' repeats Jonah. 'Do you understand me, Adam?' He is angry now, not at Adam but at his mother, at the situation.
'He's jealous!' shrieks his mother. 'Don't listen to him! Call 999!'
'You're not the Messiah,' says Jonah. 'You're a kid. Tell him, Eve.'
'You're not the Messiah, Adam,' says Eve. She turns in her chair to face him, but Adam's head is bent; he refuses to look at her. When Eve reaches for his hand, he jerks it away.
'You're a good kid,' says Eve. 'You are. But those marks aren't real.' Adam's mother wilts in Jonah's arms; he does not let her go. Adam is panicked, distressed; he has wet the seat of his trousers and does not want Eve to come any closer. He does not know who to listen to, what to believe, but what he does know is that one thing Eve has said is wrong.
'They are real,' he tells her. How could they not be? He has grown up with them; he has studied them; the marks are part of his hands. Adam's mother breathes out noisily in relief.
'Good boy,' she says. 'Don't listen to them.'
'OK,' says Eve. 'They're real - the marks are real - but they don't mean anything. They don't mean you can do anything.'
'You're no different from anyone else,' says Jonah. For a moment, there is something in Jonah's eyes that makes Adam suspicious. Perhaps his mother is right; perhaps Jonah is jealous. Perhaps Jonah envies the marks on Adam's palms; perhaps he is still the little boy that refused to open the door on Pilgrimage Day.
Jonah senses his brother's uncertainty.
'Fine,' he says. 'Do something. Show us something. Show us a miracle.'
'Kurt,' says Eve. 'Jonah. That isn't fair.' But Jonah holds up a finger.
'Once and for all,' he says. 'And if you can't, you come with us.' Adam's mother glances up at the red blinking light on the ceiling.
'Quick,' adds Jonah. 'Do it quickly.'
'You don't have to do anything, Adam,' says his mother. 'Why don't you just go upstairs? Leave the grown-ups to sort this out.' She does not want her younger son humiliated in the kitchen of their house; she does not think she will be able to watch Adam attempt to perform a miracle.
They are all looking at him. Adam wants to leave the table; he wants to take his mother's advice and go upstairs - but he stays and closes his eyes.
'For fuck's sake,' says Jonah. 'Adam. I was kidding. Don't.'
'Come on, Adam,' says Eve. She holds out her hand: tempting, so tempting. 'Forget it. Let's go.'
But Adam is not trying to perform a miracle. He is not even listening. He has closed his eyes to block them out, thinking of everything he can that is safe and entirely unconnected with his family: Seminary dinners, football socks, telly. He counts to fifty in his head, and starts again from the beginning.
'Oh God,' says Eve. 'Don't make him. It's embarrassing.'
'Adam?' says his mother.
Jonah says: 'Answer the door.'
'I didn't hear anything,' says his mother.
'Someone knocked,' says Eve. 'I'll get it.' They are talking quietly, as if not to disturb the thirteen-year-old boy with his eyes shut.
Eve leaves the room and goes out into the hallway, closing the door behind her. Adam, eyes still closed, is aware that his surroundings have changed; something in the air is different. He hears the front door open; he presumes his mother has left the house. Adam opens his eyes. His mother and Jonah are watching him in silence. Eve, outside, speaks to someone in the corridor.
'Any luck?' says Jonah. His tone is compassionate; his attitude wary. Adam perceives that Jonah would like him to laugh, to dismiss the attempt, to lighten the atmosphere. Perhaps Jonah does not want to consider the possibility that Adam, like his mother, believes he is truly something special.
'No,' he says. He grins at Jonah, but his cheeks tremble; he realises, too late, that he had hoped for something to happen.
'Never mind,' says Jonah. He is relieved; he runs a hand through his hair; he exhales deeply. 'Thank fuck for that. Let's go.'
'Don't,' says Adam's mother. 'Don't leave me.' She slumps on a chair; she no longer has the energy to scratch, to shriek, to claw at Jonah's face. The kitchen falls silent. In the hallway, raised voices; the door handle turns and a man in a black and navy jacket pushes past Eve into the kitchen.
'Seminary,' he says, holding up a badge. The man points at Jonah. 'You,' he says. 'Out.' Behind him are three other men; between them, they take up most of the hallway. They are out of place amongst the coat stands and the piles of post; the man at the back wipes his boots on the doormat. Eve squeezes past the man in the navy jacket and comes to stand next to Jonah.
'I'm leaving,' says Jonah. 'Don't worry.' Jonah reaches for his coat, and starts to button it slowly from the bottom. The man in the navy jacket doesn't lower his finger.
'Adam,' continues Jonah. 'Get your coat.'
'No,' says the man with the Seminary badge. He holds the flat of his palm up to Jonah's face: the universal sign for 'stop'. Adam's mother shakes her head in silence; she shakes her head in slow-motion, repeatedly as if she has an earache. 'Just you,' continues the man. 'You and the girl.' He jerks his head in Adam's direction. 'The boy stays here.'
'OK, forget the coat,' says Jonah. 'Come on, Adam. Time to go.' Though Jonah's actions are smooth and deliberate, he has missed a button; the collar of his coat does not quite meet around the neck, and he tugs at it awkwardly. 'Adam,' he repeats. 'Now.'
'You're frightening him,' says Eve. She holds a hand out to Adam, a hand decorated with two rings and a bracelet. There is a sentence written in blue on the underside of her wrist; three words, another language. 'Don't you want to come with us, Adam?'
Adam opens his mouth, and closes it again. He keeps his eyes fixed on the kitchen table. Without looking, he knows that his mother is still shaking her head, slowly, like a cow trapped in a stall.
'No,' says the man in the Seminary jacket. 'He doesn't.' The man takes a measured step forward, and Jonah ducks back; they are dancing to the tune of Adam's mother, shaking her head.
'Adam?' says Jonah. His voice trembles. Adam continues to stare at the table. Jonah is leaving, and Adam has no way of stopping him. The man in the navy jacket reaches for Jonah's shoulder, but Jonah shrugs him off. 'Fine!' he snaps. 'Don't touch me! I'm coming!'
Jonah heads for the kitchen door. The men in the hallway breathe in and press up against the wall to let him pass; with a backwards glance at Adam, Eve follows. Jonah pauses on the threshold, and looks at his mother.
'Is this what you call a miracle?' he says. He laughs, but Adam knows that nothing is funny. Their mother doesn't reply. As the men from the Seminary follow Jonah and Eve out of the house, leaving nothing behind but boot-prints on unopened utility bills, Adam remains seated. His chest is tight, and the air in the kitchen is thin, papery; he breathes deeply, willing oxygen into his fragile lungs. He needs a glass of water.
Adam and his mother sit in the kitchen in silence, waiting to hear the Seminary van reverse out of the driveway. A door slams; an exhaust blows; something intangible drops inside his ribcage like an anchor and Adam jumps to his feet.
'Jonah!' he screams. Adam tears out of the kitchen and into the hallway, swinging round the corner with one hand on the doorframe, knocking a framed photograph of himself to the floor. The men from the Seminary have left the front door ajar and Adam yanks it open, meaning to take the concrete steps two at a time, meaning to leap down the steps and chase after Jonah, but he trips over the edge of the doormat and falls forward, flinging out his hands to take the impact and curling into a foetal position as he hits the gravel. It takes a moment for the shock to register, and, as it does, the Seminary van leaves the driveway.
Adam rolls on to his side and watches the tyres and the underside of the van as it turns into the road. Once the van is out of sight, he continues to stare at the tarmac: seeing everything, taking nothing in. Adam watches an ant stumble over the damp gravel, inches from his nose, and wonders if his mother is watching from the kitchen window. Can she see him lying in the driveway? He can't think of a worthwhile reason to move.
'Time to get up, kid,' says someone, in a voice that Adam recognises. For a brief, ecstatic moment, thinking that Jonah has stayed behind, he sits upright and turns sharply in the direction of the voice.
The old man from the bus shelter is sitting on the doorstep.
'OK, kid?' he asks. Adam nods, a gesture of habit, before he realises that Jonah is still in the Seminary van. He nods, and then he shakes his head, no.
'Remember me?' says the old man. 'The guy with the tattoos?' He extends a wrist to Adam, clenching and unclenching his fist, making the mermaid's tail move.
'Yes,' says Adam.
'I've got something for you,' says the tattooed man. He holds something out to the boy.
'Your gloves,' he says. 'You left them on the bus.' Adam looks at the cotton gloves in the old man's hand, and reaches out for them. He rubs the cotton between finger and thumb, turns the gloves inside out, touches the lining, smells the material.
'Michael Jackson would never have been so careless,' says the stranger, as he watches Adam examine the gloves.
'How did you know where I live?' asks Adam. The tattooed man shrugs; he taps his nose.
'I didn't,' he answers, and gets to his feet. 'I just walked.'
Adam watches the old man leave the driveway, following the tyre tracks of the Seminary van; he waves as he reaches the road. Adam stands at the foot of the concrete steps. He strokes the cotton gloves, and wonders what Jonah will say.