(from Chapter Two Castles Made Of Sand)


The backstage bar called Bartoli's Hideout was deserted; everyone was in the tent. Fiorinda sat on a stool at the bar, a pint of lager in front of her, Sage's arm around her. She played with his right hand, biting gently at the web between the surviving joint of his thumb and his palm, folding the two crooked fingers and rubbing them against her cheek. From the mirror below the optics his natural face looked on (the blunt nose, wide high cheekbones and big mouth: a blue-eyed faun, an elemental, definitely odd) with a tender, possessive, fuck tomorrow smile. She wondered if it was late or early. She'd lost track.

'You coming back to the van?'


'How about now?'

'Sounds good to me.'
'Okay . . . Okay, stay there. Don't move. Got to talk to George.'
And he's gone.
'Aw, Sage,' wailed Fiorinda, banging her head on the counter, 'how can you do this to me? How can you!' But he was back almost at once. She jumped down from her stool, bristling. 'What the fuck did you have to go and talk to George for?'
'I had to tell him,' Sage explained, distinctly, as they left the bar, 'that if anyone asks, he doesn't know where I went, and no one is to come near the van tonight. That's no one,' he repeated, stopping to look into her face. Sage is being gallant, making sure she's not too smashed to know what they are doing.
Fiorinda nodded, and laid a finger across his lips. No
more of that.
The night was dark, overcast and warm. He noticed, as they began to walk, that the top of her head had reverted to its normal position, about level with his breastbone. Wonder when that happened? It must have been long ago. Sometimes she has delusions of being a supermodel, but this brat can't hardly walk across a room in high heels.
'Fiorinda, where are your shoes?'
'I don't know. Somewhere. I'll find them in the morning.'
'I'm gonna have to carry you.'
'No you are not.'
'Fee, you can't cross Reading arena barefoot, at this time of night. Think what you'll be treading in. Broken glass, bloody sharps, knocked-out teeth, pools of piss, vomit, turds, steaming diarrhoea, dead rats, dead cats, discarded body parts, oozing viscera-'
'Nonsense. That was years ago.'
'But this is years ago. Didn't you realise? It's Dissolution Summer. We went dancing, my brat, I'm takin' you home: an' look there's a fucking lake of vomit, right now-'
'Carry me.'
He carried her to the west entrance, at first trying to kiss her as he walked, but that didn't work, too much, he couldn't do both. Out into the township, and why stop here, why not keep hold of this sweet burden, she isn't complaining, all the way to Travellers' Meadow? There was no one about when they reached the gate in the trees, not a sign of the hippy watchmen. Fiorinda, stirring out of a tranced stillness, reached down and lifted the latch. Sage carried her through, set her on her feet, and shut the gate.
'Kissable,' he whispered, stooping, mouth against hers, as she stood on tiptoe-
They slipped down, kissing, into the scent of honeysuckle and heavy elderflowers, into the cool embrace of the meadow grass. He meant to take her there, Fiorinda very much consenting: but just when he couldn't hold back any longer, when he must have her, she pulled away, jumped to her feet and ran-
He had to give chase, cursing and laughing. She was waiting at the door of the van. She slapped the lock, they fell into the kitchen and she leapt into his arms, legs around his waist, all he could do to get his cock free and safe inside. Instantly they were fucking like hammer and tongs, her skirts crushed between them, her heels in his back, gasping, babbling, stumbling all over the place, seemed to go on forever, sorely unromantic (you horrible brat-) but wonderful, flat out, total discharge-
Yeah, she's nodding her head, teeth and claws relaxing; the little vixen is finished for a while. He slid to the floor, back against a cupboard door, hugging her on top of him. 'Fiorinda,' he said, 'Sweetheart-' the words coming out slow and spent, his left hand gently massaging her spine, 'what was wrong with the meadow, hmm? Why did I have to get up and run, an' be in real danger of putting come stains on my beautiful new trousers, probably ruining them forever?'
'I hate al fresco sex.'
'C'mon, you weren't going to be the one getting rocks in your back. You know that.'
'Well, all right. I wanted it to be in here, because I love this place.'
'Ah, she likes my van! . . . Don't you like my cottage?'
'The cottage was different. Anyway, what are you whining about? You're happy now, aren't you?'
'Oh yeah. I'm happy now.' He sighed. 'I'm happy, but . . . I'm not comfortable. How about you let me get up, hm? Lemme get out of these clothes, let's get to bed-'
He stripped off. Fiorinda, a warm, shadow-girl in the darkness, was having trouble locating her side zip. 'Oh no. We keep the dress. I love it, it's like fucking a Barbie doll-'
'Oooh, you shouldn't have said that! Off with the dress. There-'
'Ah, Fiorinda, please. Let me have you in the frilly dress, please please, please-'
'Fucking pervert. Oh, all right. You can have Barbie in her underwear. It's a very pretty outfit, except, I don't know what happened to the knickers-'
'They're in my pocket. Okay, let's see this-'
He touched the wall. ATP light rose, pearly-white, and there was Fiorinda, sweat-blackened curls plastered to her brow, smiling up at him, her eyes like stars. He forgot to clock the lingerie because he just had to hold her; it felt as if he was folding something bigger than the whole world into himself, this fragile girl, wriggling like a fish now to get her arms free and fling them round his neck-
'Let's get to bed. I want you in my bed, where you belong.'

But when they lay together on Sage's silver-grey quilt, in the room with the walls of hardware, their mood had changed. He'd been showering her face with such kisses as they stumbled through the van, she'd wanted to tell him, I'm not a doll, Sage. I can kiss back. I have as much loving as you to fit into this one night. She hadn't had the heart, because he was crying: tears on thick golden lashes, salt tears on her mouth when she managed to get a kiss in edgeways.
'Sage,' she whispered, 'I want to tell you something.'
He smiled, wiping his eyes. 'Shoot.'
'This goes back a long way,' she said, wiping tears from her own eyes with her fingers. 'Back to the day you and Ax came home from the war in Yorkshire. Do you remember? I met you on the platform at St Pancras, and told you about Pigsty getting arrested.'
'Yeah. I remember.'
The first Countercultural President had turned out to be a child killer: a revelation that had been the downfall of his brutal hippy régime.
'I was telling that story. You were both terribly shocked that I'd had to be involved, and I was thinking, you are so wrong, because I'm not the delicate flower you two think I am. I'm just what people say Fiorinda is. I'm hard as nails, and my world is very small. As long as I had you two back safe, nothing could hurt me, not poor Pigsty or anyone. But my best friend Sage was looking at me . . .You were looking at me, I don't know, in a different way. My eyes were opened. I knew that you were in love with me, and I was in love with you too, and I had been for a long time, only I hadn't known it. But it was too late. It's too late, Sage. It didn't happen. It can't happen, because I love Ax now. I love him with all my heart, and I could never, ever hurt him.'
'I think I loved you the first night I met you,' said Sage. 'I know I've loved you more every night and day since. And I love Ax - oh, differently - as much as I love you. But I can't do the threesome thing. I need you to be only mine. Nothing else will do.'
She stroked his hair, combing her fingers through the lamb's fleece. 'I know, my sweetheart. I understand.'
'Oh Fiorinda, how can you forgive me?'
'What's to forgive? I'm the one who fucked up. I'm the one who ruined-'
'Ah, no-'
He kissed her to silence her and they lay quiet, looking into each other's eyes, for so long that Fiorinda felt herself slipping into the place or state that she had discovered in the terrible year - the year when she'd got pregnant, and her baby had been born, and he had died. She had that Escher feeling, the impossible perspective, the world and Fiorinda moving into phase, becoming one. Aeons passed. Then she was back, and nothing had changed, except for a faint, extraordinary smile at the corner of his beautiful mouth. But wherever she had been, and for what immeasurable time, she knew that Sage had been with her there.
Nothing was spoken. There was nothing to be said. Such a moment just is.
He moved in closer.
'Hey. Want some more?'

Shortly before dawn three Heads came quietly into the room, deposited Fiorinda's shoes and her bag, and stood looking at their boss and the babe. 'If the length of courtship is related to the length of his sexual relationships,' remarked Bill, 'they should be together for about a thousand years.'
'I told him to do that five years ago,' sighed George. 'The kid's wearing the yellow ribbon, she's not interested in sex, which does not stop other blokes doing her. He says he can wait, she's too young and too hurt. I say don't be a fuckin' idiot. Be nice to her, romance her a bit and take 'er down. Do it now or you'll miss your chance. You'll be forgiven, any fool can see. But would he lissen? He never lissens.'
'Hell to pay when Ax finds out,' said Bill.
'Yeah. Well, at least they had their big night out. Can't honestly grudge 'im that.'
'Sometimes the cards aren't worth a dime,' said Peter, 'If you don't lay them-'
The other Heads groaned softly and hauled him away.
Fiorinda didn't mind them coming in. If things had turned out the way maybe they should have turned out, no doubt she'd often have opened her eyes in this bed, in these arms, to find three brother Heads looking kindly down. She pressed herself closer against Sage's side: so happy in this moment, so completely, hopelessly without any solution for the morning, that really, now would be a good time to go to sleep and never wake up.

But if you have to wake up, in a disaster movie on the wrong side of the end of the world, and with a bone-crushing hangover, it helps, it certainly helps if you can arrange to do so with the Minister for Gigs wrapped around your back, his lovely mouth nuzzling your spine. Eyes closed, without leaving the soft chemistry of sleep, she turned in his arms, skin warm against skin (she'd been allowed to take off her underwear eventually), and slid her knees up around his ribs, so she could take his cock inside in one smooth rush-
The spurt of a struck match.
Ax was sitting on the end of the bed.
'How did you get in here?' gasped Sage.
'Talked to George. He wasn't happy about it, but I persuaded him.'
'Oh bugger,' said Fiorinda. 'We forgot you would be able to do that.'
She had grasped in one icy, drowning instant that the only possible way to handle this was to see the funny side. But no. Not a chance. The two men stared at each other, sheer murder on the one side, sheer horror on the other.
'I suppose I have only myself to blame,' said Ax. He stubbed out his newly lit cigarette in the ashtray he had carefully provided for himself, jumped off the bed and slammed out of the room.
Sage was dressed in twenty seconds, and about to fly out of the door before he spun around. Fiorinda was hunting for her clothes, set mouth and averted eyes saying she'd always known it would be like this. Always known it, and now she's finally been added to Aoxomoxoa's mille e tre of course he's going to leap up and run. No big deal.
'Ah, shit.' He flew back, grabbed her, hugged her tight, 'God. Fee, darling, it'll be all right. Stay here. Don't be frightened. I'll talk to him, I will sort it. I will.'

It was raining. When Sage caught up, Ax was storming along a staybehinds' footpath through the fields that bordered Travellers' Meadow, head down, hair flying in dark wings around his jaw. He gave Sage one savage, naked glance and kept going.
'Ax, hey Ax, listen to me. Look, we were drunk, these things happen-'
'Fuck off.'
'Please, Ax. It was a drunken night, nothing serious. Talk to me-'
'Talk to you? Where the fuck have you been since March, you bastard?'
The path led through pasture where cows were grazing, indifferent to the weather, among the unburied corpses of cars that had been trashed in Dissolution Summer, awash now in grass and flowers, and then swerved into the back lot of a scrapyard on Richfield Avenue, where pieces of Rivermead Leisure Centre were lying around, waiting to be recycled. No way to go except onto the road. Betrayed, Ax turned in fury and sat on a lump of concrete, staring ahead of him.
'I couldn't help that.'
'Oh, fuck. Not the fucking giant toddler line. You knew what you were doing. You had it all calculated. You let me give you the spiel, you pretend to go along, because you'll get to sleep with her, and then you're off. King of the one night stand, and I don't care about me, but how could you do that to her- '
'I did not! That's not! That is NOT what happened!'
'If you didn't plan to leave the next morning, what was your bike doing there?'
'What? Ax, that is fucking paranoid. Look, the bike was there because I rode the bike down when we did the filming, and then I came back in George's car. Fuck's sake-'
Ax refused to look at him. The rain fell fine and straight. Sage walked around in a caged circle, wanting to leave, unable to leave: finally sat on another chunk of concrete.
'Oh God. Ax, listen. When I said yes to you, I meant it. I desperately wanted that to work, but I . . . I love her too much. I couldn't stand it. I DID NOT plan to leave like that. I didn't plan to behave the way I've been behaving. I thought I'd be okay. But it was so fucking . . . painful. I've been trying to get back to being normal . . . Fuck, last night I-'
He didn't know why he'd come chasing after the guy. This wasn't going to help Fiorinda. The only way he could truly help Fiorinda was by bowing out, leaving them both the fuck alone. Unfortunately that's impossible, we're the Triumvirate.
'Shit. I don't feel like getting into this discussion; you don't want to know, it's useless, it leads nowhere.' He doubled over, head propped on his hands to hide the tears. 'I can't talk to you. I don't know why the fuck I'm trying.'
Ax had come to Reading straight from a very tough night, to find the whole site buzzing with the exploits of the nation's wild-cat glamour puss and the amazingly transformed Aoxomoxoa. With Ax cast, in their flashy piece of MTV, as the dull, controlling, workaholic cat who has to be away so these fabulous creatures can play. He was cruelly wounded, mortified, furious, and in no mood to be merciful.
'I suppose I should be grateful the show you put on last night wasn't being televised. At least I was only publicly humiliated in front of every single person I know.'
Sage's head came up, indignant. 'Publicly humiliated? You what? By me dancing with Fiorinda? Oh, fuck that-!'
'Yeah. When you've hardly spoken to me for six weeks. You can say what you like. Nobody who was there last night was in any doubts about what was going on.'
Sage glared at him. 'Ax, if you were even wondering, let me assure you it was a one-off. She made that very clear. The way you found out was rough, and I'm sorry for that. We were pissed, we didn't think. But don't talk to me about . . . Oh, I know she's your property. I've had that well shoved in my face. You tell me I can play with her sometimes, you let me get into bed with you, but I have to kiss her, this girl I love more than my life, for the first time, under your supervision. I can't say a word to her of my own. I have to, to m-make love to her, for the first time, with you looking on. What was that about humiliation? Tell me again?'
'One off?' Ax curled his lip. 'Oh give it up. I know how she feels about you. Of course I know, you stupid fuck. That's not an issue. What d'you take me for? D'you think I'd have ever suggested the fucking threesome if I hadn't known she loves you-? And don't tell me that night was no good, you destructive shit. I was there.'
'It felt like playing golf with the boss.'
These words sank into Ax like poison darts. He tried to tell himself Sage would say any nasty thing right at this moment, as long as it would hurt Ax. But all he could hear was the awful pain in Sage's voice, and all he could see was himself on that morning after, crouched under the frozen thorn hedge crying his eyes out, because he knew he had to share his darling and he couldn't bear it-
'Anyway,' said Sage, viciously pursuing the advantage, 'I don't know why this is all about me. What about the way your property was behaving? The Dictator's girlfriend surely must not act like that. Why aren't you blaming Fiorinda?'
'Because Fiorinda is never to blame,' said Ax, in a terrible voice.
Sage's turn to back down, defeated by the self-evident truth. 'Ah, fuck it. Last night was nothing. It's you she loves, first and last. I'm just a bit of rough trade. I know that.'
'Don't whine, Sage. It doesn't suit you. '
They fell silent. Fiorinda, in her peacock mandala frock, was coming across the field, barefoot through the rain, looking like a somewhat bedraggled fairy of the Christmas Decorations Plant. She came up, and saw the tears on both their faces.
'Well,' she said. 'At least you're not fighting.'
'That'd be a short contest,' said Ax bitterly.
She sat down on the wet grass. 'Listen. You two said let's be a threesome, and I agreed. I remember that. I don't remember where I signed anything saying, if I fuck Sage Ax has to be in the room, or vice versa. Correct me if I'm wrong. You both love me, I love both of you. Any fool can see you're madly in love with each other, or you wouldn't be sitting out here sobbing like broken-hearted fools. When we all had sex together it seemed to work. One of you tell me, what is the fucking problem?'
'There's a problem,' said Ax. 'There's a problem with this manipulative bastard,
rewriting history.'
'Me? Manipulative? How the fuck do you make that out?'
'Oh God. Well, I don't care. I've got a pitiful hangover, I feel sick and I can't keep
my head up. I'm going to lie down here for a while in this puddle. Wake me up when you've finished yelling at each other.'
Fiorinda suited her action to her words. The rain started getting heavier. The Dictator and his Minister sat on their lumps of concrete. 'Good sex?' said Ax at last.
'She's amazing, isn't she?' said Ax, deliberately.
Their eyes met. There's nothing either one of them can claim for himself alone. No secret thing she does, that she might not do with the other. It's horrible. Sage nodded. Yeah, brother. Got the message. They stared at each other, for once contemplating this disaster, this terrible thing that has happened to them, in the centre of their lives, without any colouration, in its naked truth. There is no way out. It can't be fixed. There is no solution. Unsmiling, but with a strange lessening of tension, they looked away.
Several minutes passed.
Sage wiped his nose with the back of his hand. 'God, Ax. I've missed you.'
'Wasn't my idea.'
'Okay,' said Ax. 'I accept that I fucked up. To some extent.'
'I shouldn't have run out. But there was provocation.'
'So what now? Are we going to try and force her to choose between us?' And break her heart, he added, by means of a glare she couldn't see.
'I don't think we can,' Sage answered, looking down at Fiorinda. Her eyes were closed, but of course she was listening to every word. 'I think she'd quit us both. I'd have tried to take her off you years ago if I hadn't spotted that.'
'Well, thanks.'
'No problem.' He wanted to draw Ax's attention to the shadow under her lashes, the lovely angle of her cheekbones, to the reckless curve of her sweet mouth, the natural rose-madder still traced in clean scarlet, pomegranate flower. 'Why stop at two?' he said fiercely. 'Every man in the world should worship her. She's a miracle.'
'Hm. Maybe we should remember this is purely a diplomatic coma.'
'Don't care.' He poked the rock and roll brat with his foot. 'Hey. You are amazing and wonderful and wise, and the best fuck in the universe.'
'Yeah,' said Ax. 'All true. Fiorinda? You can wake up now.'
But Fiorinda had grown attached to her coma, and refused to stir. They headed back to Travellers' Meadow, Sage carrying the babe. 'So where were you last night, anyway? I brought a copy of Unmasked to the party for you, er, kind of a peace offering-'
'But then, ironically, decided to nick my girlfriend instead. Makes perfect sense. I was in Hiroshima.'
'What? Oh God, you did it!'
'Yeah.' Ax grinned wearily. 'Yeah, we bust the quarantine. Using my chip, and your code, and I don't know what the difference was but this time it worked. It was fucking exhausting, and could we talk about it later? After I've had about thirty-six hours' sleep?'
'You're mad,' said Fiorinda, opening her eyes. 'You're both insane. You're going to get nicked, and then things will be a million times worse. Put me down, Sage.'
They'd reached the van. She stood looking from one to the other. 'Well, what's the verdict? Have you two decided you can handle sharing the meat?'
'Ouch,' said Ax. 'I think I deserve that. I'm sorry, little cat. I'm just a jealous guy.'
Most unexpectedly, Fiorinda burst into tears and flung herself into her boyfriend's arms crying, 'Oh, Ax. I'm sorry too.'