The Subtle Knife Chapter One
The Cat And The Hornbeam Trees
Will tugged at his mother’s hand and said, “Come on, come on…”
But his mother hung back. She was still afraid. Will looked up and down the narrow street in the evening light, along the little terrace of houses, each behind its tiny garden and its box hedge, with the sun glaring off the windows of one side and leaving the other in shadow.
There wasn’t much time. People would be having their meal about now, and soon there would be other children around, to stare and comment and notice. It was dangerous to wait, but all he could do was persuade her, as usual…
“Mum, let’s go in and see Mrs. Cooper,” he said. “Look, we’re nearly there.”
“Mrs. Cooper?” she said doubtfully.
But he was already ringing the bell. He had to put down the bag to do it, because his other hand still held his mother’s. It might have bothered him at twelve years of age to be seen holding his mother’s hand, but he knew what would happen to her if he didn’t.
The door opened, and there was the stooped elderly figure of the piano teacher, with the scent of lavender water about her as he remembered.
“Who’s that? Is that William?” the old lady said. “I haven’t seen you for over a year. What do you want, dear?”
“I want to come in, please, and bring my mother,” he said firmly.
Mrs. Cooper looked at the woman with the untidy hair and the distracted half-smile, and at the boy with the fierce, unhappy glare in his eyes, the tight-set lips, the jutting jaw. And then she saw that Mrs. Parry, Will’s mother, had put makeup on one eye but not on the other. And she hadn’t noticed. And neither had Will. Something was wrong.
“Well…” she said, and stepped aside to make room in the narrow hall.
Will looked up and down the road before closing the door, and Mrs. Cooper saw how tightly Mrs. Parry was clinging to her son’s hand, and how tenderly he guided her into the sitting room where the piano was (of course, that was the only room he knew); and she noticed that Mrs. Parry’s clothes smelled slightly musty, as if they’d been too long in the washing machine before drying; and how similar the two of them looked as they sat on the sofa with the evening sun full on their faces, their broad cheekbones, their wide eyes, their straight black brows.
“What is it, William?” the old lady said. “What’s the matter?”
“My mother needs somewhere to stay for a few days,” he said. “It’s too difficult to look after her at home just now. I don’t mean she’s ill. She’s just kind of confused and muddled, and she gets a bit worried. She won’t be hard to look after. She just needs someone to be kind to her, and I think you could do that quite easily, probably.”
The woman was looking at her son without seeming to understand, and Mrs. Cooper saw a bruise on her cheek. Will hadn’t taken his eyes off Mrs. Cooper, and his expression was desperate.
“She won’t be expensive,” he went on. “I’ve brought some packets of food, enough to last, I should think. You could have some of it too. She won’t mind sharing.”
“But… I don’t know if I should… Doesn’t she need a doctor?”
“No! She’s not ill.”
“But there must be someone who can… I mean, isn’t there a neighbor or someone in the family – “
“We haven’t got any family. Only us. And the neighbors are too busy.”
“What about the social services? I don’t mean to put you off, dear, but – “
“No! No. She just needs a bit of help. I can’t do it myself for a little while, but I won’t be long. I’m going to… I’ve got things to do. But I’ll be back soon, and I’ll take her home again, I promise. You won’t have to do it for long.”
The mother was looking at her son with such trust, and he turned and smiled at her with such love and reassurance, that Mrs. Cooper couldn’t say no.
“Well,” she said, turning to Mrs. Parry, “I’m sure it won’t matter for a day or so. You can have my daughter’s room, dear. She’s in Australia. She won’t be needing it again.”
“Thank you,” said Will, and stood up as if he were in a hurry to leave.
“But where are you going to be?” said Mrs. Cooper.
“I’m going to be staying with a friend,” he said. “I’ll phone up as often as I can. I’ve got your number. It’ll be all right”
His mother was looking at him, bewildered. He bent over and kissed her clumsily.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Mrs. Cooper will look after you better than me, honest. And I’ll phone up and talk to you tomorrow.”
They hugged tightly, and then Will kissed her again and gently unfastened her arms from his neck before going to the front door. Mrs. Cooper could see he was upset, because his eyes were glistening, but he turned, remembering his manners, and held out his hand.
“Good-bye,” he said, “and thank you very much.”
“William,” she said, “I wish you’d tell me what the matter is – “
“It’s a bit complicated,” he said, “but she won’t be any trouble, honestly.”
That wasn’t what she meant, and both of them knew it; but somehow Will was in charge of this business, whatever it was. The old lady thought she’d never seen a child so implacable.
He turned away, already thinking about the empty house.
The close where Will and his mother lived was a loop of road in a modern estate with a dozen identical houses, of which theirs was by far the shabbiest. The front garden was just a patch of weedy grass; his mother had planted some shrubs earlier in the year, but they’d shriveled and died for lack of watering. As Will came around the corner, his cat, Moxie, rose up from her favorite spot under the still-living hydrangea and stretched before greeting him with a soft meow and butting her head against his leg.
He picked her up and whispered, “Have they come back, Moxie? Have you seen them?”
The house was silent. In the last of the evening light the man across the road was washing his car, but he took no notice of Will, and Will didn’t look at him. The less notice people took, the better.
Holding Moxie against his chest, he unlocked the door and went in quickly. Then he listened very carefully before putting her down. There was nothing to hear; the house was empty.
He opened a tin for Moxie and left her to eat in the kitchen. How long before the men came back? There was no way of telling, so he’d better move quickly. He went upstairs and began to search.
He was looking for a battered green leather writing case. There are a surprising number of places to hide something that size even in any ordinary modern house; you don’t need secret panels and extensive cellars in order to make something hard to find. Will searched his mother’s bedroom first, ashamed to be looking through the drawers where she kept her underclothes, and then he worked systematically through the rest of the rooms upstairs, even his own. Moxie came to see what he was doing and sat and cleaned herself nearby, for company.
But he didn’t find it.
By that time it was dark, and he was hungry. He made himself baked beans on toast and sat at the kitchen table wondering about the best order to look through the downstairs rooms.
As he was finishing his meal, the phone rang.
He sat absolutely still, his heart thumping. He counted: twenty-six rings, and then it stopped. He put his plate in the sink and started to search again.
Four hours later he still hadn’t found the green leather case. It was half past one, and he was exhausted. He lay on his bed fully clothed and fell asleep at once, his dreams tense and crowded, his mother’s unhappy, frightened face always there just out of reach.
And almost at once, it seemed (though he’d been asleep for nearly three hours), he woke up knowing two things simultaneously.
First, he knew where the case was. And second, he knew that the men were downstairs, opening the kitchen door.
He lifted Moxie out of the way and softly hushed her sleepy protest. Then he swung his legs over the side of the bed and put on his shoes, straining every nerve to hear the sounds from downstairs. They were very quiet sounds: a chair being lifted and replaced, a short whisper, the creak of a floorboard.
Moving more silently than the men were, he left his bedroom and tiptoed to the spare room at the top of the stairs. It wasn’t quite pitch-dark, and in the ghostly gray predawn light he could see the old treadle sewing machine. He’d been through the room thoroughly only hours before, but he’d forgotten the compartment at the side of the sewing machine, where all the patterns and bobbins were kept.
He felt for it delicately, listening all the while. The men were moving about downstairs, and Will could see a dim flicker of light that might have been a flashlight at the edge of the door.
Then he found the catch of the compartment and clicked it open, and there, just as he’d known it would be, was the leather writing case.
And now what could he do? He crouched in the dimness, heart pounding, listening hard.
The two men were in the hall downstairs. He heard one of them say quietly, “Come on. I can hear the milkman down the road.”
“It’s not here, though,” said the other voice. “We’ll have to look upstairs.”
“Go on, then. Don’t hang about.”
Will braced himself as he heard the quiet creak of the top step. The man was making no noise at all, but he couldn’t help the creak if he wasn’t expecting it. Then there was a pause. A very thin beam of flashlight swept along the floor outside. Will saw it through the crack.
Then the door began to move. Will waited till the man was framed in the open doorway, and then exploded up out of the dark and crashed into the intruder’s belly.
But neither of them saw the cat.
As the man had reached the top step, Moxie had come silently out of the bedroom and stood with raised tail just behind the man’s legs, ready to rub herself against them. The man, who was trained and fit and hard, could have dealt with Will, but the cat was in the way, and as the man tried to move back, he tripped over her. With a sharp gasp he fell backward down the stairs and crashed his head brutally against the hall table.
Will heard a hideous crack, and didn’t stop to wonder about it. Clutching the writing case, he swung himself down the banister, leaping over the man’s body that lay twitching and crumpled at the foot of the flight, seized the tattered tote bag from the table, and was out of the front door and away before the other man could do more than come out of the living room and stare.
Even in his fear and haste Will wondered why the other man didn’t shout after him, or chase him. They’d be after him soon, though, with their cars and their cell phones. The only thing to do was run.
He saw the milkman turning into the close, the lights of his electric cart pallid in the dawn glimmer that was already filling the sky. Will jumped over the fence into the next-door garden, down the passage beside the house, over the next garden wall, across a dew-wet lawn, through the hedge, and into the tangle of shrubs and trees between the housing estate and the main road. There he crawled under a bush and lay panting and trembling. It was too early to be out on the road: wait till later, when the rush hour started.
He couldn’t get out of his mind the crack as the man’s head struck the table, and the way his neck was bent so far and in such a wrong way, and the dreadful twitching of his limbs. The man was dead. He’d killed him.
He couldn’t get it out of his mind, but he had to. There was quite enough to think about. His mother: would she really be safe where she was? Mrs. Cooper wouldn’t tell, would she? Even if Will didn’t turn up as he’d said he would? Because he couldn’t, now that he’d killed someone.
And Moxie. Who’d feed Moxie? Would Moxie worry about where they were? Would she try to follow them?
It was getting lighter by the minute. It was light enough already to check through the things in the tote bag: his mother’s purse, the latest letter from the lawyer, the road map of southern England, chocolate bars, toothpaste, spare socks and pants. And the green leather writing case.
Everything was there. Everything was going according to plan, really.
Except that he’d killed someone.
Will had first realized his mother was different from other people, and that he had to look after her, when he was seven. They were in a supermarket, and they were playing a game: they were allowed to put an item in the cart only when no one was looking. It was Will’s job to look all around and whisper “Now,” and she would snatch a tin or a packet from the shelf and put it silently into the cart. When things were in there they were safe, because they became invisible.
It was a good game, and it went on for a long time, because this was a Saturday morning and the shop was full, but they were good at it and worked well together. They trusted each other. Will loved his mother very much and often told her so, and she told him the same.
So when they reached the checkout Will was excited and happy because they’d nearly won. And when his mother couldn’t find her purse, that was part of the game too, even when she said the enemies must have stolen it; but Will was getting tired by this time, and hungry too, and Mummy wasn’t so happy anymore. She was really frightened, and they went around and around putting things back on the shelves, but this time they had to be extra careful because the enemies were tracking them down by means of her credit card numbers, which they knew because they had her purse…
And Will got more and more frightened himself. He realized how clever his mother had been to make this real danger into a game so that he wouldn’t be alarmed, and how, now that he knew the truth, he had to pretend not to be frightened, so as to reassure her.
So the little boy pretended it was a game still, so she didn’t have to worry that he was frightened, and they went home without any shopping, but safe from the enemies; and then Will found the purse on the hall table anyway. On Monday they went to the bank and closed her account, and opened another somewhere else, just to be sure. Thus the danger passed.
But sometime during the next few months, Will realized slowly and unwillingly that those enemies of his mother’s were not in the world out there, but in her mind. That made them no less real, no less frightening and dangerous; it just meant he had to protect her even more carefully. And from the moment in the supermarket when he had realized he must pretend in order not to worry his mother, part of Will’s mind was always alert to her anxieties. He loved her so much he would have died to protect her.
As for Will’s father, he had vanished long before Will was able to remember him. Will was passionately curious about his father, and he used to plague his mother with questions, most of which she couldn’t answer.
“Was he a rich man?”
“Where did he go?”
“Why did he go?”
“Is he dead?”
“Will he come back?”
“What was he like?”
The last question was the only one she could help him with. John Parry had been a handsome man, a brave and clever officer in the Royal Marines, who had left the army to become an explorer and lead expeditions to remote parts of the world. Will thrilled to hear about this. No father could be more exciting than an explorer. From then on, in all his games he had an invisible companion: he and his father were together hacking through the jungle, shading their eyes to gaze out across stormy seas from the deck of their schooner, holding up a torch to decipher mysterious inscriptions in a bat-infested cave… They were the best of friends, they saved each other’s life countless times, they laughed and talked together over campfires long into the night.
But the older he got, the more Will began to wonder. Why were there no pictures of his father in this part of the world or that, riding with frost-bearded men on Arctic sledges or examining creeper-covered ruins in the jungle? Had nothing survived of the trophies and curiosities he must have brought home? Was nothing written about him in a book?
His mother didn’t know. But one thing she had said stuck in his mind.
She said, “One day, you’ll follow in your father’s footsteps. You’re going to be a great man too. You’ll take up his mantle.”
And though Will didn’t know what that meant, he understood the sense of it, and felt uplifted with pride and purpose. All his games were going to come true. His father was alive, lost somewhere in the wild, and he was going to rescue him and take up his mantle… It was worth living a difficult life, if you had a great aim like that.
So he kept his mother’s trouble secret. There were times when she was calmer and clearer than others, and he took care to learn from her then how to shop and cook and keep the house clean, so that he could do it when she was confused and frightened. And he learned how to conceal himself, too, how to remain unnoticed at school, how not to attract attention from the neighbors, even when his mother was in such a state of fear and madness that she could barely speak. What Will himself feared more than anything was that the authorities would find out about her, and take her away, and put him in a home among strangers. Any difficulty was better than that. Because there came times when the darkness cleared from her mind, and she was happy again, and she laughed at her fears and blessed him for looking after her so well; and she was so full of love and sweetness then that he could think of no better companion, and wanted nothing more than to live with her alone forever.
But then the men came.
They weren’t police, and they weren’t social services, and they weren’t criminals – at least as far as Will could judge. They wouldn’t tell him what they wanted, in spite of his efforts to keep them away; they’d speak only to his mother. And her state was fragile just then.
But he listened outside the door, and heard them ask about his father, and felt his breath come more quickly.
The men wanted to know where John Parry had gone, and whether he’d sent anything back to her, and when she’d last heard from him, and whether he’d had contact with any foreign embassies. Will heard his mother getting more and more distressed, and finally he ran into the room and told them to go.
He looked so fierce that neither of the men laughed, though he was so young. They could easily have knocked him down, or held him off the floor with one hand, but he was fearless, and his anger was hot and deadly.
So they left. Naturally, this episode strengthened Will’s conviction: his father was in trouble somewhere, and only he could help. His games weren’t childish anymore, and he didn’t play so openly. It was coming true, and he had to be worthy of it.
And not long afterward the men came back, insisting that Will’s mother had something to tell them. They came when Will was at school, and one of them kept her talking downstairs while the other searched the bedrooms. She didn’t realize what they were doing. But Will came home early and found them, and once again he blazed at them, and once again they left.
They seemed to know that he wouldn’t go to the police, for fear of losing his mother to the authorities, and they got more and more persistent. Finally they broke into the house when Will had gone to fetch his mother home from the park. It was getting worse for her now, and she believed that she had to touch every separate slat in every separate bench beside the pond. Will would help her, to get it done quicker. When they got home that day they saw the back of the men’s car disappearing out of the close, and he got inside to find that they’d been through the house and searched most of the drawers and cupboards.
He knew what they were after. The green leather case was his mother’s most precious possession; he would never dream of looking through it, and he didn’t even know where she kept it. But he knew it contained letters, and he knew she read them sometimes, and cried, and it was then that she talked about his father. So Will supposed that this was what the men were after, and knew he had to do something about it.
He decided first to find somewhere safe for his mother to stay. He thought and thought, but he had no friends to ask, and the neighbors were already suspicious, and the only person he thought he could trust was Mrs. Cooper. Once his mother was safely there, he was going to find the green leather case and look at what was in it, and then he was going to go to Oxford, where he’d find the answer to some of his questions. But the men came too soon.
And now he’d killed one of them.
So the police would be after him too.
Well, he was good at not being noticed. He’d have to not be noticed harder than he’d ever done in his life before, and keep it up as long as he could, till either he found his father or they found him. And if they found him first, he didn’t care how many more of them he killed.
Later that day, toward midnight in fact, Will was walking out of the city of Oxford, forty miles away. He was tired to his very bones. He had hitchhiked, and ridden on two buses, and walked, and reached Oxford at six in the evening, too late to do what he needed to do. He’d eaten at a Burger King and gone to a cinema to hide (though what the film was, he forgot even as he was watching it), and now he was walking along an endless road through the suburbs, heading north.
No one had noticed him so far. But he was aware that he’d better find somewhere to sleep before long, because the later it got, the more noticeable he’d be. The trouble was that there was nowhere to hide in the gardens of the comfortable houses along this road, and there was still no sign of open country.
He came to a large traffic circle where the road going north crossed the Oxford ring road going east and west. At this time of night there was very little traffic, and the road where he stood was quiet, with comfortable houses set back behind a wide expanse of grass on either side. Planted along the grass at the road’s edge were two lines of hornbeam trees, odd-looking things with perfectly symmetrical close-leafed crowns, more like children’s drawings than like real trees. The streetlights made the scene look artificial, like a stage set. Will was stupefied with exhaustion, and he might have gone on to the north, or he might have laid his head on the grass under one of those trees and slept; but as he stood trying to clear his head, he saw a cat.
She was a tabby, like Moxie. She padded out of a garden on the Oxford side of the road, where Will was standing. Will put down his tote bag and held out his hand, and the cat came up to rub her head against his knuckles, just as Moxie did. Of course, every cat behaved like that, but all the same Will felt such a longing for home that tears scalded his eyes.
Eventually the cat turned away. This was night, and there was a territory to patrol, there were mice to hunt. She padded across the road and toward the bushes just beyond the hornbeam trees, and there she stopped.
Will, still watching, saw the cat behave curiously.
She reached out a paw to pat something in the air in front of her, something quite invisible to Will. Then she leaped backward, back arched and fur on end, tail held out stiffly. Will knew cat behavior. He watched more alertly as the cat approached the spot again, just an empty patch of grass between the hornbeams and the bushes of a garden hedge, and patted the air once more.
Again she leaped back, but less far and with less alarm this time. After another few seconds of sniffing, touching, and whisker twitching, curiosity overcame wariness.
The cat stepped forward – and vanished.
Will blinked. Then he stood still, close to the trunk of the nearest tree, as a truck came around the circle and swept its lights over him. When it had gone past, he crossed the road, keeping his eyes on the spot where the cat had been investigating. It wasn’t easy, because there was nothing to fix on, but when he came to the place and cast about to look closely, he saw it.
At least, he saw it from some angles. It looked as if someone had cut a patch out of the air, about two yards from the edge of the road, a patch roughly square in shape and less than a yard across. If you were level with the patch so that it was edge-on, it was nearly invisible, and it was completely invisible from behind. You could see it only from the side nearest the road, and you couldn’t see it easily even from there, because all you could see through it was exactly the same kind of thing that lay in front of it on this side: a patch of grass lit by a streetlight.
But Will knew without the slightest doubt that that patch of grass on the other side was in a different world.
He couldn’t possibly have said why. He knew it at once, as strongly as he knew that fire burned and kindness was good. He was looking at something profoundly alien.
And for that reason alone, it enticed him to stoop and look further. What he saw made his head swim and his heart thump harder, but he didn’t hesitate: he pushed his tote bag through, and then scrambled through himself, through the hole in the fabric of this world and into another.
He found himself standing under a row of trees. But not hornbeam trees: these were tall palms, and they were growing, like the trees in Oxford, in a row along the grass. But this was the center of a broad boulevard, and at the side of the boulevard was a line of caf?¦s and small shops, all brightly lit, all open, and all utterly silent and empty beneath a sky thick with stars. The hot night was laden with the scent of flowers and with the salt smell of the sea.
Will looked around carefully. Behind him the full moon shone down over a distant prospect of great green hills, and on the slopes at the foot of the hills there were houses with rich gardens, and an open parkland with groves of trees and the white gleam of a classical temple.
Just beside him was that bare patch in the air, as hard to see from this side as from the other, but definitely there. He bent to look through and saw the road in Oxford, his own world. He turned away with a shudder: whatever this new world was, it had to be better than what he’d just left. With a dawning lightheadedness, the feeling that he was dreaming but awake at the same time, he stood up and looked around for the cat, his guide.
She was nowhere in sight. No doubt she was already exploring those narrow streets and gardens beyond the caf?¦s whose lights were so inviting. Will lifted up his tattered tote bag and walked slowly across the road toward them, moving very carefully in case it all disappeared.
The air of the place had something Mediterranean or maybe Caribbean about it. Will had never been out of England, so he couldn’t compare it with anywhere he knew, but it was the kind of place where people came out late at night to eat and drink, to dance and enjoy music. Except that there was no one here, and the silence was immense.
On the first corner he reached there stood a caf?¦, with little green tables on the pavement and a zinc-topped bar and an espresso machine. On some of the tables glasses stood half-empty; in one ashtray a cigarette had burned down to the butt; a plate of risotto stood next to a basket of stale rolls as hard as cardboard.
He took a bottle of lemonade from the cooler behind the bar and then thought for a moment before dropping a pound coin in the till. As soon as he’d shut the till, he opened it again, realizing that the money in there might say what this place was called. The currency was called the corona, but he couldn’t tell any more than that.
He put the money back and opened the bottle on the opener fixed to the counter before leaving the caf?¦ and wandering down the street going away from the boulevard. Little grocery shops and bakeries stood between jewelers and florists and bead-curtained doors opening into private houses, where wrought-iron balconies thick with flowers overhung the narrow pavement, and where the silence, being enclosed, was even more profound.
The streets were leading downward, and before very long they opened out onto a broad avenue where more palm trees reached high into the air, the underside of their leaves glowing in the streetlights.
On the other side of the avenue was the sea.
Will found himself facing a harbor enclosed from the left by a stone breakwater and from the right by a headland on which a large building with stone columns and wide steps and ornate balconies stood floodlit among flowering trees and bushes. In the harbor one or two rowboats lay still at anchor, and beyond the breakwater the starlight glittered on a calm sea.
By now Will’s exhaustion had been wiped out. He was wide-awake and possessed by wonder. From time to time, on his way through the narrow streets, he’d put out a hand to touch a wall or a doorway or the flowers in a window box, and found them solid and convincing. Now he wanted to touch the whole landscape in front of him, because it was too wide to take in through his eyes alone. He stood still, breathing deeply, almost afraid.
He discovered that he was still holding the bottle he’d taken from the caf?¦. He drank from it, and it tasted like what it was, ice-cold lemonade; and welcome, too, because the night air was hot.
He wandered along to the right, past hotels with awnings over brightly lit entrances and bougainvillea flowering beside them, until he came to the gardens on the little headland. The building in the trees with its ornate façade lit by floodlights might have been an opera house. There were paths leading here and there among the lamp-hung oleander trees, but not a sound of life could be heard: no night birds singing, no insects, nothing but Will’s own footsteps.
The only sound he could hear came from the regular, quiet breaking of delicate waves from the beach beyond the palm trees at the edge of the garden. Will made his way there. The tide was halfway in, or halfway out, and a row of pedal boats was drawn up on the soft white sand above the high-water line. Every few seconds a tiny wave folded itself over at the sea’s edge before sliding back neatly under the next. Fifty yards or so out on the calm water was a diving platform.
Will sat on the side of one of the pedal boats and kicked off his shoes, his cheap sneakers that were coming apart and cramping his hot feet. He dropped his socks beside them and pushed his toes deep into the sand. A few seconds later he had thrown off the rest of his clothes and was walking into the sea.
The water was deliciously between cool and warm. He splashed out to the diving platform and pulled himself up to sit on its weather-softened planking and look back at the city.
To his right the harbor lay enclosed by its breakwater. Beyond it a mile or so away stood a red-and-white-striped lighthouse. And beyond the lighthouse, distant cliffs rose dimly, and beyond them, those great wide rolling hills he’d seen from the place he’d first come through.
Closer at hand were the light-bearing trees of the casino gardens, and the streets of the city, and the waterfront with its hotels and caf?¦s and warm-lit shops, all silent, all empty.
And all safe. No one could follow him here; the men who’d searched the house would never know; the police would never find him. He had a whole world to hide in.
For the first time since he’d run out of his front door that morning, Will began to feel secure.
He was thirsty again, and hungry too, because he’d last eaten in another world, after all. He slipped into the water and swam back more slowly to the beach, where he put on his underpants and carried the rest of his clothes and the tote bag. He dropped the empty bottle into the first rubbish bin he found and walked barefoot along the pavement toward the harbor.
When his skin had dried a little, he pulled on his jeans and looked for somewhere he’d be likely to find food. The hotels were too grand. He looked inside the first hotel, but it was so large that he felt uncomfortable, and he kept moving down the waterfront until he found a little caf?¦ that looked like the right place. He couldn’t have said why; it was very similar to a dozen others, with its first-floor balcony laden with flowerpots and its tables and chairs on the pavement outside, but it welcomed him.
There was a bar with photographs of boxers on the wall, and a signed poster of a broadly smiling accordion player. There was a kitchen, and a door beside it that opened on to a narrow flight of stairs, carpeted in a bright floral pattern.
He climbed quietly up to the narrow landing and opened the first door he came to. It was the room at the front. The air was hot and stuffy, and Will opened the glass door onto the balcony to let in the night air. The room itself was small and furnished with things that were too big for it, and shabby, but it was clean and comfortable. Hospitable people lived here. There was a little shelf of books, a magazine on the table, a couple of photographs in frames.
Will left and looked in the other rooms: a little bathroom, a bedroom with a double bed.
Something made his skin prickle before he opened the last door. His heart raced. He wasn’t sure if he’d heard a sound from inside, but something told him that the room wasn’t empty. He thought how odd it was that this day had begun with someone outside a darkened room, and himself waiting inside; and now the positions were reversed –
And as he stood wondering, the door burst open and something came hurtling at him like a wild beast.
But his memory had warned him, and he wasn’t standing quite close enough to be knocked over. He fought hard: knee, head, fist, and the strength of his arms against it, him, her –
A girl about his own age, ferocious, snarling, with ragged dirty clothes and thin bare limbs.
She realized what he was at the same moment, and snatched herself away from his bare chest to crouch in the corner of the dark landing like a cat at bay. And there was a cat beside her, to his astonishment: a large wildcat, as tall as his knee, fur on end, teeth bared, tail erect.
She put her hand on the cat’s back and licked her dry lips, watching his every movement.
Will stood up slowly.
“Who are you?”
“Lyra Silvertongue,” she said.
“Do you live here?”
“No,” she said vehemently.
“Then what is this place? This city?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where do you come from?”
“From my world. It’s joined on. Where’s your daemon?”
His eyes widened. Then he saw something extraordinary happen to the cat: it leaped into her arms, and when it got there, it changed shape. Now it was a red-brown stoat with a cream throat and belly, and it glared at him as ferociously as the girl herself. But then another shift in things took place, because he realized that they, both girl and stoat, were profoundly afraid of him, as much as if he’d been a ghost.
“I haven’t got a demon,” he said. “I don’t know what you mean.” Then, “Oh! Is that your demon?”
She stood up slowly. The stoat curled himself around her neck, and his dark eyes never left Will’s face.
“But you’re alive,” she said, half-disbelievingly. “You en’t… You en’t been…”
“My name’s Will Parry,” he said. “I don’t know what you mean about demons. In my world demon means… it means devil, something evil.”
“In your world? You mean this en’t your world?”
“No. I just found… a way in. Like your world, I suppose. It must be joined on.”
She relaxed a little, but she still watched him intently, and he stayed calm and quiet as if she were a strange cat he was making friends with.
“Have you seen anyone else in this city?” he went on.
“How long have you been here?”
“Dunno. A few days. I can’t remember.”
“So why did you come here?”
“I’m looking for Dust,” she said.
“Looking for dust? What, gold dust? What sort of dust?”
She narrowed her eyes and said nothing. He turned away to go downstairs.
“I’m hungry,” he said. “Is there any food in the kitchen?”
“I dunno,” she said, and followed, keeping her distance from him.
In the kitchen Will found the ingredients for a casserole of chicken and onions and peppers, but they hadn’t been cooked, and in the heat they were smelling bad. He swept them all into the dustbin.
“Haven’t you eaten anything?” he said, and opened the fridge.
Lyra came to look.
“I didn’t know this was here,” she said. “Oh! It’s cold.”
Her daemon had changed again, and become a huge, brightly colored butterfly, which fluttered into the fridge briefly and out again at once to settle on her shoulder. The butterfly raised and lowered his wings slowly. Will felt he shouldn’t stare, though his head was ringing with the strangeness of it.
“Haven’t you seen a fridge before?” he said.
He found a can of cola and handed it to her before taking out a tray of eggs. She pressed the can between her palms with pleasure.
“Drink it, then,” he said.
She looked at it, frowning. She didn’t know how to open it. He snapped the lid for her, and the drink frothed out. She licked it suspiciously, and then her eyes opened wide.
“This is good?” she said, her voice half hoping and half fearful.
“Yeah. They have Coke in this world, obviously. Look, I’ll drink some to prove it isn’t poison.”
He opened another can. Once she saw him drink, she followed his example. She was obviously thirsty. She drank so quickly that the bubbles got up her nose, and she snorted and belched loudly, and scowled when he looked at her.
“I’m going to make an omelette,” he said. “D’you want some?”
“I don’t know what omelette is.”
“Well, watch and you’ll see. Or there’s a can of baked beans, if you’d like.”
“I don’t know baked beans.”
He showed her the can. She looked for the snap-open top like the one on the cola can.
“No, you have to use a can opener,” he said. “Don’t they have can openers in your world?”
“In my world servants do the cooking,” she said scornfully.
“Look in the drawer over there.”
She rummaged through the kitchen cutlery while he broke six eggs into a bowl and whisked them with a fork.
“That’s it,” he said, watching. “With the red handle. Bring it here.”
He pierced the lid and showed her how to open the can.
“Now get that little saucepan off the hook and tip them in,” he told her.
She sniffed the beans, and again an expression of pleasure and suspicion entered her eyes. She tipped the can into the saucepan and licked a finger, watching as Will shook salt and pepper into the eggs and cut a knob of butter from a package in the fridge into a cast-iron pan. He went into the bar to find some matches, and when he came back she was dipping her dirty finger in the bowl of beaten eggs and licking it greedily. Her daemon, a cat again, was dipping his paw in it, too, but he backed away when Will came near.
“It’s not cooked yet,” Will said, taking it away. “When did you last have a meal?”
“At my father’s house on Svalbard,” she said. “Days and days ago. I don’t know. I found bread and stuff here and ate that.”
He lit the gas, melted the butter, poured in the eggs, and let them run all over the base of it. Her eyes followed everything greedily, watching him pull the eggs up into soft ridges in the center as they cooked and tilt the pan to let raw egg flow into the space. She watched him, too, looking at his face and his working hands and his bare shoulders and his feet.
When the omelette was cooked he folded it over and cut it in half with the spatula.
“Find a couple of plates,” he said, and Lyra obediently did so.
She seemed quite willing to take orders if she saw the sense of them, so he told her to go and clear a table in front of the caf?¦. He brought out the food and some knives and forks from a drawer, and they sat down together, a little awkwardly.
She ate hers in less than a minute, and then fidgeted, swinging back and forth on her chair and plucking at the plastic strips of the woven seat while he finished his. Her daemon changed yet again, and became a goldfinch, pecking at invisible crumbs on the tabletop.
Will ate slowly. He’d given her most of the beans, but even so he took much longer than she did. The harbor in front of them, the lights along the empty boulevard, the stars in the dark sky above, all hung in the huge silence as if nothing else existed at all.
And all the time he was intensely aware of the girl. She was small and slight, but wiry, and she’d fought like a tiger; his fist had raised a bruise on her cheek, and she was ignoring it. Her expression was a mixture of the very young – when she first tasted the cola – and a kind of deep, sad wariness. Her eyes were pale blue, and her hair would be a darkish blond once it was washed; because she was filthy, and she smelled as if she hadn’t bathed for days.
“Laura? Lara?” Will said.
“Where is your world? How did you get here?”
She shrugged. “I walked,” she said. “It was all foggy. I didn’t know where I was going. At least, I knew I was going out of my world. But I couldn’t see this one till the fog cleared. Then I found myself here.”
“What did you say about dust?”
“Dust, yeah. I’m going to find out about it. But this world seems to be empty. There’s no one here to ask. I’ve been here for… I dunno, three days, maybe four. And there’s no one here.”
“But why do you want to find out about dust?”
“Special Dust,” she said shortly. “Not ordinary dust, obviously.”
The daemon changed again. He did so in the flick of an eye, and from a goldfinch he became a rat, a powerful pitch-black rat with red eyes. Will looked at him with wide wary eyes, and the girl saw his glance.
“You have got a daemon,” she said decisively. “Inside you.”
He didn’t know what to say.
“You have,” she went on. “You wouldn’t be human else. You’d be… half dead. We seen a kid with his daemon cut away. You en’t like that. Even if you don’t know you’ve got a daemon, you have. We was scared at first when we saw you. Like you was a night-ghast or something. But then we saw you weren’t like that at all.”
“Me and Pantalaimon. Us. But you, your daemon en’t separate from you. It’s you. A part of you. You’re part of each other. En’t there anyone in your world like us? Are they all like you, with their daemons all hidden away?”
Will looked at the two of them, the skinny pale-eyed girl with her black-rat daemon now sitting in her arms, and felt profoundly alone.
“I’m tired. I’m going to bed,” he said. “Are you going to stay in this city?”
“Dunno. I’ve got to find out more about what I’m looking for. There must be some Scholars in this world. There must be someone who knows about it.”
“Maybe not in this world. But I came here out of a place called Oxford. There’s plenty of scholars there, if that’s what you want.”
“Oxford?” she cried. “That’s where I come from!”
“Is there an Oxford in your world, then? You never came from my world.”
“No,” she said decisively. “Different worlds. But in my world there’s an Oxford too. We’re both speaking English, en’t we? Stands to reason there’s other things the same. How did you get through? Is there a bridge, or what?”
“Just a kind of window in the air.”
“Show me,” she said.
It was a command, not a request. He shook his head.
“Not now,” he said. “I want to sleep. Anyway, it’s the middle of the night.”
“Then show me in the morning!”
“All right, I’ll show you. But I’ve got my own things to do. You’ll have to find your scholars by yourself.”
“Easy,” she said. “I know all about Scholars.”
He put the plates together and stood up.
“I cooked,” he said, “so you can wash the dishes.”
She looked incredulous. “Wash the dishes?” she scoffed. “There’s millions of clean ones lying about! Anyway, I’m not a servant. I’m not going to wash them.”
“So I won’t show you the way through.”
“I’ll find it by myself.”
“You won’t; it’s hidden. You’d never find it. Listen, I don’t know how long we can stay in this place. We’ve got to eat, so we’ll eat what’s here, but we’ll tidy up afterward and keep the place clean, because we ought to. You wash these dishes. We’ve got to treat this place right. Now I’m going to bed. I’ll have the other room. I’ll see you in the morning.”
He went inside, cleaned his teeth with a finger and some toothpaste from his tattered bag, fell on the double bed, and was asleep in a moment.
Lyra waited till she was sure he was asleep, and then took the dishes into the kitchen and ran them under the tap, rubbing hard with a cloth until they looked clean. She did the same with the knives and forks, but the procedure didn’t work with the omelette pan, so she tried a bar of yellow soap on it, and picked at it stubbornly until it looked as clean as she thought it was going to. Then she dried everything on another cloth and stacked it neatly on the drainboard.
Because she was still thirsty and because she wanted to try opening a can, she snapped open another cola and took it upstairs. She listened outside Will’s door and, hearing nothing, tiptoed into the other room and took out the alethiometer from under her pillow.
She didn’t need to be close to Will to ask about him, but she wanted to look anyway, and she turned his door handle as quietly as she could before going in.
There was a light on the sea front outside shining straight up into the room, and in the glow reflected from the ceiling she looked down at the sleeping boy. He was frowning, and his face glistened with sweat. He was strong and stocky, not as formed as a grown man, of course, because he wasn’t much older than she was, but he’d be powerful one day. How much easier if his daemon had been visible! She wondered what its form might be, and whether it was fixed yet. Whatever its form was, it would express a nature that was savage, and courteous, and unhappy.
She tiptoed to the window. In the glow from the streetlight she carefully set the hands of the alethiometer, and relaxed her mind into the shape of a question. The needle began to sweep around the dial in a series of pauses and swings almost too fast to watch.
She had asked: What is he? A friend or an enemy?
The alethiometer answered: He is a murderer.
When she saw the answer, she relaxed at once. He could find food, and show her how to reach Oxford, and those were powers that were useful, but he might still have been untrustworthy or cowardly. A murderer was a worthy companion. She felt as safe with him as she’d felt with Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear.
She swung the shutter across the open window so the morning sunlight wouldn’t strike in on his face, and tiptoed out.