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.