IT’S THE GARDEN OF EDEN

It’s from a Flemish tapestry called The Original Sin, says Curtis. The three of us are standing halfway up his stairs looking at the picture. I look at Curtis’s face for a moment with its little moustache and twinkly blue eyes. The sound of a violin meows softly from somewhere above and I sense Grace fidgeting on the step below. I turn back to the picture. There’s two Eves, I say. Curtis explains that the first Eve in the background, watched by the serpent, takes the apple from the tree, and then in the foreground, the other Eve gives it Adam to try. It’s the Tree Of Knowledge, Curtis says, pointing to the apple tree. I ask Curtis why it’s called that. He says it’s because it grew the fruit of all knowledge, both good and evil, and anyone that ate from it had the knowledge of God. Hence, it’s the Forbidden Fruit, he says, spreading his arms wide as though to say ta-daa… I’m tempted to crack a joke about forbidden fruit in his direction but I don’t. It makes him act even gayer when I say stuff like that… What’s the bird for? I ask, pointing to a red-yellow parrot in the picture. Dunno, he says. And the lion? Dante, I think, he says, smiling. I don’t know what the fuck he’s on about but I say Oh anyway. This is the way of things between me and Curtis, him talking arty-farty bollocks and me saying Oh. It gets a bit annoying at times. Sometimes at work he calls me Eliza, like that thick cockney bint in that film, says he has to show me the way. It bugs me when he acts all queer with me in front of people at work. Funny. He thought he was telling me something I didn’t know last week when he said he was bent… We carry on up the stairs towards the violin and I wonder if all bummers are like this, all classical music and arty shit. Then for a second I travel back and see cousin Raymond’s hand turning the pages of a Batman comic, and then on the bus ride home with Nannan, a Spiderman sticker in my hand. A prize for not telling… Kerpow… Curtis takes us into the front room of his flat, where the violin snakes around the picture-covered walls like a sugared worm. Nice, says Grace, looking around the room. Why, thank a-you, says Curtis bowing theatrically, his little moustache thinning across the top of his thin grin. Grace asks him how long he’s lived here and he starts to tell her a little life story. Grace and Curtis have got to know each other quite well over the last few weeks since he started giving me lifts home from work, inviting himself in for a cup of tea, getting matey with my kids, Grace insisting he stops for something to eat, and Ooh let’s have a game of Scrabble. It’s become a regular thing. Not that I’ve had any say in it. Grace said she likes having Curtis around. She says he’s good for me. Funny. If Curtis hadn’t asked me out last week I wouldn’t be in this shit now… He disappears into his little blue kitchen, tells me and Grace to make ourselves at home. We sit on a brown leather settee and Grace looks around the room again. I put my hand on Grace’s. She smiles. Everything feels backwards. I didn’t want to do this. I told Grace as much. Left to me I’d have just said fuck it, but Grace told me we should let Curtis help sort it out, then we could forget about it and get back to normal. Funny how I always feel closer to Grace when I’ve fucked up… From the kitchen is the sound of a spoon clinking a cup, a kettle boiling then clicking off. Grace squeezes my hand as we lean back into the sofa. The violin is replaced by a flute. It sounds like something from a fairy tale. I close my eyes for a second and I imagine I’m in a wood, the moon full between bare branches above. Everywhere, red eyes peek at me from behind trees. I’m running… Here we go, sings Curtis, placing a tray of four blue mugs on the carpet. Sorry it’s instant, he says, The coffee-maker’s buggered. A door bangs shut below. My heart beats faster. Ah, just in time, says Curtis with a smile. The door swings open and there she is. Jane glances at me then hugs Curtis. She looks a little different to what I remember. She lets go of Curtis then looks to Grace. Jane looks nervous. I stand up, and for some reason I shake her hand. She looks a little surprised. We both say Hello then she turns to Grace and says, Nice to meet you. I get a sudden flashback of Jane pissing in the Crooked Spire doorway. Grace says Nice to meet you too. Curtis claps his hands together as me and Jane sit down. Sonata Number Eight in C Minor, methinks, he says, and busies himself by the stereo… Me, Grace and Jane sip our coffee, no one making eye-contact, the air between us no less the heavier for the pathetic tinkly piano now pitter-pattering the room. What the fuck am I doing here?... Curtis puts himself in an old chair with embroidered patterns swirling all over it, sighs, then says smiling, Beethoven. Beautiful, beautiful, Beethoven… Jane creaks in her leather chair as she bends to put her coffee on the floor. Curtis clears his throat. Right then, he says, Let’s get this daft little mess sorted, shall we?... He smiles and nods at each of us in turn… Okay. Jane and I have spoken about this, and we both feel it’s for the best if we get it all out into the open so we can all move on and be friends again, without any awkward atmosphere spoiling things. Sound good to everyone? Jane smiles weakly. The word friends makes my jaw tighten. The piano tinkles. Curtis looks to Jane. Jane?... Jane clears her throat then glances at Grace… Grace, I want to say I’m sorry about what happened. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I was really drunk. I’m Sorry… Grace smiles tightly, then nods… Thank you, Jane… I look at the carpet for a moment, my toes curling in my trainers. Jane says my name. I look up at her. She looks down at her lap… Billy... I know you were drunk too. And that you didn’t know what you were doing. So I want you to know that I won’t be putting any blame on you. And like Curtis said, I’d just like to move on and forget about it… My head swims a little. I feel a heat in my gut. When I speak, the words feel like they come from outside of me… What do you mean, blame?... Jane looks up, her big green witch-eyes saying something I don’t understand. I’m struck with how odd-looking she is, how big her mouth is, how her head seems too big for her body. She looks back to her lap. Curtis coughs… Look, he says. We were all drunk. Shit happens. And Jane is being good enough to let things go, so let’s take it from there Billy, and get onto fixing things… I glance at Grace. She’s frowning. Curtis raises his eyebrows to me in some gesture of encouragement. I feel the heat rise like a midge-cloud in my belly. I hear Grace say, Well, we’d like to put it behind us too… I put my coffee mug on a little table by the settee and Curtis jumps up, collecting a blue coaster from a little pile on the mantelpiece. He puts one on the table then puts my cup on it. Antique, he says. My gut is still burning. What do you mean, blame? What are you saying?... Jane blinks but doesn’t look up. Curtis says my name. He pats the air in front of him… Billy, listen. Let’s be calm about this. Okay, granted, Jane admits she was drunk, and can’t remember that much about it, but... He pauses, looking up to the ceiling as though trying to catch sight of the right words. Curtis shrugs. I stare at Jane. I feel Grace squeeze my hand. Jane won’t look at me. I say her name. It feels hot in my mouth… I don’t get it… Blame?... Jane doesn’t look up. Billy, says Curtis softly, Jane’s being good enough to let it go, so if I were you... I’ve stopped listening. On my way downstairs I pull the picture of Eden off the wall and throw it at the door. I tell Grace to watch her step as we leave, her hand tightening in mine as I pull her over the threshold, up the garden path to the roadside, where the low sun strikes white off the car bonnet, Oh Billy, she says.