When he lost his eye, half of Eric Jessop's field of vision became a black sadness that seeped into everything from football to faces. Only skating was strong enough to resist the stain. When Eric skated, sound and speed surrounded him in a dazzling whirl and he felt alive again, almost whole. If he spun fast enough no-one could see his face, make out the jagged purple blotch replacing forehead and scalp. As he slowed down the world came back into focus and its light faded.
Waking in hospital he'd thought he was OK and after checking that he could wiggle his fingers and his toes he'd asked about Sandy; Sandy was dead, at twenty. Eric had realised he was lucky even after his dad told him about his eye, even when he'd overheard his girlfriend, Chrissie, on the phone to her friend. She'd thought he was asleep. 'I can't bring myself to kiss him,' she'd whispered. 'I feel so mean, but it's beyond gross.' Chrissie had visited him every day. When he was first back home she'd dropped round a couple of evenings a week, watching TV with him and his parents. But she'd left a bit earlier each time. Then she'd vanished from his life like April snow. She needn't have gone to all that trouble; she could just have said. Eric's mum was furious but he'd felt sorry for Chrissie. One morning he'd seen her at the end of the high street, escaping down the side alley past Oxfam. Her face was pink and averted and she was practically running. Soon after that he went back to university and he had never seen her since.
After Uni he'd moved to the drizzle and grime of this northern city and his first job, in a drawing office, full of middle-aged men. Every morning his bus trundled past derelict factory sites. Every evening he returned to the steep cobbled street whose Victorian villas were now flats and whose once-elegant railings might have been designed to collect fast-food litter. He joined the local ice-hockey club, skated a lot and read a lot. His disorderly mass of white-blond hair disguised the shallow indentation on his skull but his scar and his permanently sealed eyelid remained noticeable. Children and old people still stared. Middle-aged ladies smiled too much and said, 'Nice day,' too brightly.
When the new university year started, some students moved into the flat next-door. They were friendly lads and he became "Eric the Viking" and started to get a social life. Naturally, never having met anyone like him before, girls were wary of him. He couldn't expect strangers to be less stand-offish than his old classmates. Still, there were some places he felt less self-conscious in. Cobwebs was a favourite student hang-out and attractively murky. If you looked closely its fake glamour evaporated but Eric liked the shabby, colourless sofas and dim corners. One evening, at the bar, he felt eyes running down his back and knew it was a girl. Forcing himself to face a stranger, perhaps one who'd been fooled by his untameable hair and well-muscled shoulders, was excruciating but he'd learned to mimic ease. Picking up three Cobras, he turned, trying to forget the piercing blue solitariness of his eye. A gentle face, framed by long dark hair, stifled a flinch and perplexed greeny-gold eyes returned his gaze. Slowly, deliberately, Eric winked his good eye. The girl looked down, half-smiling, and stepped aside. In her sparkly blue heels she was as tall as him.
'Thanks,' he said. 'Busy tonight isn't it?'
'Yes. Yes it is. Hot too.'
'My name's Eric. What's yours?'
She looked confused and he repeated his question. 'Mar,' she said and squeezed past him, trying to get the barman's attention.
Next week he saw her again and made his way over but after a few minutes she gave him a funny little parting nod and moved away. Most weeks after that they exchanged greetings. Once or twice they danced briefly and sometimes he offered her a drink which she always refused. After one of these encounters he overheard her friend telling her off. 'Don't be such a big softy, Mar. Or you'll never get rid of him.' Eric decided he wouldn't give up unless, until, she told him to sod off. He'd treat this like the rest of his life; even if it feels hopeless keep on going, you never know.
Just before Easter he arrived at a party to find her alone on a couch. He poured himself a glass of sour red wine and topped hers up with the same. She asked about the accident and he told her about Sandy. 'We were friends right through school,' he said. 'We thought the same way so I could be as daft as I liked with him. Once, when we were about nine, we dumped our bikes on a road verge and chased a rainbow across three fields. I don't think either of us really believed in leprechauns. The rainbow faded but we kept running, to where we'd seen it, and there was a pond. A heron flew up, right over our heads, and there was this clump of brilliant gold at the water's edge. When we reached it Sandy said, "Just some marsh-marigolds." He was trying to look nonchalant but we'd definitely been thinking the same thing.' Eric tried to laugh. 'If Sandy was alive he'd still be looking for that pot of gold,' he said. 'Anyway,' he went on, 'Sandy's mum used to let him use her car and that day we were driving fast, blasting out his mum's Meatloaf album. I was mucking about, playing air-guitar, and he was laughing at me. That's the last thing I saw, his face laughing. It was just us, no other car, no alcohol, no drugs. Us and an oak tree.' He didn't tell her how grey the flowers on the grave had seemed, how that marigold-brightness had been lost forever.
'My dad won't pay for driving lessons till I'm twenty-one,' she said. Eric didn't reply and she wondered if he'd heard. She waited, sipping wine, then broke the silence. 'That first time we met,' she said. 'You winked at me. Remember? That was so weird. It must be weird doing it too, winking at someone and not being able to see them.'
Very slowly, he winked and his good eye wrinkled shut while the other eyelid remained smooth, closed as always. 'I don't know what made me do it that night,' he said. 'It was a first. But it doesn't feel odd. Quite peaceful actually.' Eric opened his eye. She was so close he could smell her hair and he could almost imagine kissing her. Honeyed light surrounded her. Looking straight at him she slowly and deliberately closed both eyes and he leaned forward. Then her eyes scrunched tight and, just in time, he realised. When she opened them and laughed, briefly looking about twelve, he'd sat well back.
'Interesting,' she said. 'I know what you mean it was...restful. Maybe it'll catch on.'
He smiled and raised his wine to the light. 'Lovely vibrant colour,' he said, then inhaled like a TV chef, before sipping. 'No, it's still shit,' he said and she laughed. Two guys plonked themselves down beside them and she moved through to the kitchen, where the main party was.
A couple of weeks later someone told him she was with Nat Adams now. Eric only knew Nat by sight but he was good looking, like she deserved. Summer arrived, dismal but with warmer rain, and all the students disappeared. Eric's flat became ridiculously quiet and he spent three months skating, working and re-reading Ian Rankin. He got a promotion and went home for a fortnight to convince his parents he was fine, which he was.
The grubby leaves outside his office window turned bronze, like her eyes, and his neighbours arrived back. He hung around Cobwebs every night it was open but she didn't appear, though he saw Nat once. Then, one evening, he went down to Burger King and there she was shovelling chips into paper bags. After she'd dealt with the six o'clock rush he ordered his Double Whopper. 'Hi,' he said. 'Have you been working here long?'
'A month,' she said, wiping the counter. 'I want to get through second year without increasing my overdraft.'
'Good plan,' he said. 'I'll be paying off the loan forever.'
'I thought you worked. In an office?'
He grinned at her. 'I do,' he said. 'But I used to be a student just like you. Well not quite like you.'
Now she smiled back. 'What subject?' she asked.
'Engineering. I know. Boring.'
'No it isn't. Employable more like. Unlike psychology. We're coming out of the woodwork.'
He decided to go for it. 'When do you finish?' he heard himself blurt.
'Seven,' she said. 'But my Gran will have my dinner ready for half-seven.'
'You live with your granny?'
She had bridled and he spoke quickly. 'I don't mean. I mean there's nothing wrong with living with your grandmother. Must save money. Does she live with your family then?'
'No.' She laughed. 'She and my mum wouldn't last twenty-four hours in the same kitchen! No, I came here because it's a good course. Gran just happens to live close enough. It's convenient. And cheap.'
Several customers came in and Eric left. When she found him waiting outside, she looked surprised but let him walk alongside her. In flat shoes, their steps matched and he wondered if she'd noticed, but she was rummaging through a pink shiny handbag, big enough for a weekend trip.
'Got it,' she said, waving a battered season ticket.
'Where does your grandmother live?' he asked.
. 'Opposite Tesco's,' she said. 'Round from the ice-rink. Do you know that area?'
'I go there all the time. Ice-hockey.'
'I loved the rink when I was little. I went whenever we visited Gran.'
'Hey, you can skate! D'you fancy going sometime?'
She peered down the road as if a number eighty-five bus might be hiding behind a hedge. 'I don't think so,' she said.
'Sorry,' he said quickly, remembering the boyfriend.
Two Fridays later, at Cobwebs, that very boyfriend had his arm round a dark-haired girl who wasn't her. The friend handing Eric a bottle of Corona, followed his gaze. 'Ah,' he said. 'Still looking out for your friend, are you? The lovely Mar Foster?'
'Isn't that her boyfriend?' Eric said.
'Ex-boyfriend. Could be a good time for a Viking raid.'
Next day, three number eighty-fives went past before she turned up. 'Hi,' she said, seeming neither surprised nor pleased to see him.
'Off to the rink,' he said, waving his skates as corroborative evidence.
'So I see.'
The bus's arrival rescued him from his desperate search for something sensible to say, and she followed him aboard and sat beside him. 'I'm knackered,' she said. 'All those stats. I'm going to fail.'
'Is that why you never come to Cobwebs nowadays? Too much work?'
'Partly. But you might see me on Friday.'
'I'll buy you a drink.'
'Hey,' she said. 'Nearly missed our stop.'
On the pavement, both hesitated. 'I'll only be an hour,' he said. 'D'you fancy a quick drink, around nine o'clock? In the Queen Alice?'
On the ice, he felt as if he were flying and his world was still whirling as he unlaced his boots and headed for the pub where he bought a pint and watched the door. At exactly nine o'clock it opened. Not her of course. Then someone sat down beside him.
'Where's this drink you promised me?' she said and he bought her a Leffe. They talked about Japanese food and Belgian beers. They discussed nature versus nurture and she offered to lend him Pinker's Blank Slate. He heard himself going on and on about his favourite bridges, especially the Clifton suspension bridge, which she'd never heard of. But she seemed quite interested and she liked the Forth railway bridge and recognised its superiority to the road bridge. As they were leaving, she agreed to visit his favourite restaurant, Oishi, on Friday, to eat sushi, provided they went to Tanoshi afterwards for the soba noodles. Just after eleven he left her, by the gate of a small front garden full of wet lavender. As he walked to the bus stop, the new moon was gilding the rain-washed tiles of the terraced houses. Below its crescent, a star was hanging like a jewel in a goddess's ear.
The following Saturday, Jane Foster went shopping as usual. As she pushed open her front door, she was surprised to hear singing and to smell toast. After clubbing, her granddaughter didn't usually surface this early. Jane wasn't sure what "clubbing" meant, but she always pictured cave-men in furs. Last night, when the front door closed, Jane had glanced at the clock and it had been after three. Yet there was Marigold, not only dressed, but doing the ironing.
'Hi, Gran,' she said. 'Did you remember my hair-conditioner?'
'Yes. You're looking very perky this afternoon. Did you have a good time?'
'Amazing,' said Mar. 'Fabulous.' She never learned.
'Fabulous?' said the retired head-of-English, who still thought gay meant light-hearted. 'I expect you swam with mermaids? Or did you dance with a Cyclops perhaps?'
Mar froze. 'How did you know?' she asked, her round eyes recalling long-ago bedtimes when Gorgons and sea-serpents had still been possibilities.
'Sarcasm,' said Jane, 'really is the lowest form of wit.' And she headed for the kitchen muttering about "no respect for the English language".
Mar followed her. 'Sorry, Gran,' she said. 'But I wasn't being sarcastic. You see you were kind of right. I mean, obviously nothing mythical but... Anyway, I've met someone. Someone really wicked...'
Jane couldn't resist. 'I'm sorry to hear that, Marigold,' she said. 'Wickedness is a terrible thing.'
'Gran! Be serious. Honestly, I've met someone really nice. Not at all wicked. Someone you'll like, I think. D'you fancy some tea and I'll tell you about him.'