‘Miss? Can we touch the fish?’
‘No. No touching, I’m afraid. Have we got everyone?’ She waited as Abiola did a quick head count.
‘Okay. We’ll start here. I just want you all to stand still for ten seconds and tell me how this space makes you feel.’
‘Peaceful,’ said one, after the laughter stopped.
‘Dunno. It’s the water. And the sound of that waterfall thing. It’s peaceful.’
‘What else makes you feel peaceful?’
‘The sky. It’s got no roof, innit?’
‘That’s right. Why do you think this bit has no roof?’
‘They run out of money.’ More laughter.
‘And when you get outside, what’s the first thing you do? No, Dean, I know what you’re about to say. And not that.’
‘Take a deep breath. Breathe.’
‘Except our air is full of shit. This air they probably pump through a filter and stuff.’
‘It’s open. They can’t filter this.’
‘I do breathe, though. Like a big breath. I hate being shut in small places. My room’s got no windows and I have to sleep with the door open or I feel like I’m in a coffin.’
‘My brother’s room’s got no windows so my mum got him this poster with a window on it.’
They begin comparing bedrooms. She likes them, these kids, and she fears for them, the casual deprivations they toss into her path, the way they reveal that 99 per cent of their lives are spent within a square mile or two, locked in by physical constraints or the genuine fear of rival gangs and illegal trespass.
It’s a small thing, this charity. A chance to make her feel as if David’s life was not wasted; that his ideas continue. Sometimes a really bright kid emerges – one who immediately locks on to David’s ideas – and she tries to help them in some way, to talk to their teachers or organize scholarships. A couple of times she has even met their parents. One of David’s early protégés is now doing an architecture degree, his fees paid by the foundation.
But for most of them it’s just a brief window on to a different world, an hour or two in which to practise their parkour skills on someone else’s stairs and rails and marble foyers, a chance to see inside Mammon, albeit under the bemused eye of the rich people she has persuaded to let them in.
‘There was a study done a few years back, which showed that if you reduce the amount of space per child from twenty-five to fifteen square feet, they become more aggressive and less inclined to interact with each other. What do you think of that?’
Cam is swinging around an end rail. ‘I have to share a bedroom with my brother and I want to batter him half the time. He’s always putting his stuff over my side.’
‘So what places make you feel good? Does this place make you feel good?’
‘It makes me feel like I got no worries.’
‘I like the plants. Them with the big leaves.’
‘Oh, man. I’d just sit here and stare at the fish. This place is restful.’
There is a murmur of agreement.
‘And then I’d catch one and make my mum cook some chips for it, innit?’
They all laugh. Liv looks at Abiola and, despite herself, she starts to laugh too.
‘Did it go well?’ Sven rises from his desk to meet her. She kisses his cheek, puts down her bag and sits in the white leather Eames chair opposite. It is routine now that she will come to Solberg Halston Associates after each outing, to drink coffee and report back. She is always more tired than she expects.
‘Great. Once Mr Conaghy realized they weren’t about to dive into his atrium pools, he was quite inspired, I think. He stuck around to speak to them. I think I might even be able to persuade him to provide some sponsorship.’
‘Good. That’s good news. Sit down, and I’ll get some coffee. How are you? How’s your dangerously ill relative?’
She looks blankly at him.
The blush creeps above her collar. ‘Oh. Oh, yes, not too bad, thanks. Better.’
Sven hands her a coffee and his eyes rest on hers just a moment too long. His chair squeaks softly as he sits down. ‘You’ll have to forgive Kristen. She just gets carried away. I did tell her I thought that man was an idiot.’
‘Oh.’ She winces. ‘Was it that transparent?’
‘Not to Kristen. She doesn’t know that Ebola isn’t generally fixed by surgery.’ And then, as Liv groans, he smiles. ‘Don’t give it a thought. Roger Folds is an ass. And, if nothing else, it was just nice to see you out and about again.’ He takes off his glasses. ‘Really. You should do it more often.’
‘Well, um, I have a bit lately.’
She blushes, thinking of her night with Paul McCafferty. She has found herself returning to it relentlessly over the days since, worrying at the night’s events, like a tongue at a loose tooth. What had made her behave in that way? What had he thought of her? And then, the mercurial shiver, the imprint of that kiss. She is cold with embarrassment, yet burns gently, the residue of it on her lips. She feels as if some long-distant part of her has been sparked back to life. It’s a little disconcerting.
‘So, how’s Goldstein?’
‘Not far off now. We had some problems with the new building regs, but we’re nearly there. The Goldsteins are happy, anyway.’
‘Do you have any pictures?’
The Goldstein Building had been David’s dream commission: a vast organic glass structure stretching halfway around a square on the edge of the City. He had been working on it for two years of their marriage, persuading the wealthy Goldstein brothers to share his bold vision, to create something far from the angular concrete castles around them, and he had still been working on it when he died. Sven had taken over the blueprint and overseen it through the planning stages, and was now managing its actual construction. It had been a problematic build, the materials delayed in their shipping from China, the wrong glass, the foundations proving inadequate in London’s clay. But now, finally, it is rising exactly as planned, each glass panel shining like the scales of some giant serpent.
Sven rifles through some documents on his desk, picks out a photograph and hands it over. She gazes at the vast structure, surrounded by blue hoardings, but somehow, indefinably, David’s work. ‘It’s going to be glorious.’ She can’t help but smile.
‘I wanted to tell you – they’ve agreed to put a little plaque in the foyer in his memory.’
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