A Stranger in the Night
The moon shone in the rocking horse’s eye, and in the mouse’s eye, too, when Tolly fetched it out from under his pillow to see. The clock went tick-tock, and in the stillness he thought he heard little bare feet running across the floor, then laughter and whispering, and a sound like the pages of a big book being turned over.
The Children of Green Knowe
Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain. Many years later, Meggie had only to close her eyes and she could still hear it, like tiny fingers tapping on the windowpane. A dog barked somewhere in the darkness, and however often she tossed and turned Meggie couldn’t get to sleep.
The book she had been reading was under her pillow, pressing its cover against her ear as if to lure her back into its printed pages. ‘I’m sure it must be very comfortable sleeping with a hard, rectangular thing like that under your head,’ her father had teased, the first time he found a book under her pillow. ‘Go on, admit it, the book whispers its story to you at night.’
‘Sometimes, yes,’ Meggie had said. ‘But it only works for children.’ Which made Mo tweak her nose. Mo. Meggie had never called her father anything else.
That night – when so much began and so many things changed for ever – Meggie had one of her favourite books under her pillow, and since the rain wouldn’t let her sleep she sat up, rubbed the drowsiness from her eyes, and took it out. Its pages rustled promisingly when she opened it. Meggie thought this first whisper sounded a little different from one book to another, depending on whether or not she already knew the story it was going to tell her. But she needed light. She had a box of matches hidden in the drawer of her bedside table. Mo had forbidden her to light candles at night. He didn’t like fire. ‘Fire devours books,’ he always said, but she was twelve years old, she could surely be trusted to keep an eye on a couple of candle flames. Meggie loved to read by candlelight. She had five candlesticks on the windowsill, and she was just holding the lighted match to one of the black wicks when she heard footsteps outside. She blew out the match in alarm – oh, how well she remembered it, even many years later – and knelt to look out of the window, which was wet with rain. Then she saw him.
The rain cast a kind of pallor on the darkness, and the stranger was little more than a shadow. Only his face gleamed white as he looked up at Meggie. His hair clung to his wet forehead. The rain was falling on him, but he ignored it. He stood there motionless, arms crossed over his chest as if that might at least warm him a little. And he kept on staring at the house.
I must go and wake Mo, thought Meggie. But she stayed put, her heart thudding, and went on gazing out into the night as if the stranger’s stillness had infected her. Suddenly, he turned his head, and Meggie felt as if he were looking straight into her eyes. She shot off the bed so fast the open book fell to the floor, and she ran barefoot out into the dark corridor. This was the end of May, but it was chilly in the old house.
There was still a light on in Mo’s room. He often stayed up reading late into the night. Meggie had inherited her love of books from her father. When she took refuge from a bad dream with him, nothing could lull her to sleep better than Mo’s calm breathing beside her and the sound of the pages turning. Nothing chased nightmares away faster than the rustle of printed paper.
But the figure outside the house was no dream.
The book Mo was reading that night was bound in pale blue linen. Later, Meggie remembered that too. What unimportant little details stick in the memory.
‘Mo, there’s someone out in the yard!’
Her father raised his head and looked at her with the usual absent expression he wore when she interrupted his reading. It always took him a few moments to find his way out of that other world, the labyrinth of printed letters.
‘Someone out in the yard? Are you sure?’
‘Yes. He’s staring at our house.’
Mo put down his book. ‘So what were you reading before you went to sleep? Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?’
Meggie frowned. ‘Please, Mo! Come and look.’
He didn’t believe her, but he went anyway. Meggie tugged him along the corridor so impatiently that he stubbed his toe on a pile of books, which was hardly surprising. Stacks of books were piled high all over the house – not just arranged in neat rows on bookshelves, the way other people kept them, oh no! The books in Mo and Meggie’s house were stacked under tables, on chairs, in the corners of the rooms. There were books in the kitchen and books in the lavatory. Books on the TV set and in the wardrobe, small piles of books, tall piles of books, books thick and thin, books old and new. They welcomed Meggie down to breakfast with invitingly opened pages, they kept boredom at bay when the weather was bad. And sometimes you fell over them.
‘He’s just standing there!’ whispered Meggie, leading Mo into her room.
‘Has he got a hairy face? If so, he could be a werewolf.’
‘Oh, stop it!’ Meggie looked at him sternly, although his jokes made her feel less scared. Already, she hardly believed any more in the figure standing in the rain – until she knelt down again at the window. ‘There! Do you see him?’ she whispered.
Mo looked out through the raindrops running down the pane, and said nothing.
‘Didn’t you promise burglars would never break into our house because there’s nothing here to steal?’ whispered Meggie.
‘He’s not a burglar,’ replied Mo, but as he stepped back from the window his face was so grave that Meggie’s heart thudded faster than ever. ‘Go back to bed, Meggie,’ he said. ‘This visitor has come to see me.’
He left the room before Meggie could ask what kind of visitor, for goodness’ sake, turned up in the middle of the night? She followed him anxiously. As she crept down the corridor she heard her father taking the chain off the front door, and when she reached the hall she saw him standing in the open doorway. The night came in, dark and damp, and the rushing of the rain sounded loud and threatening.
‘Dustfinger!’ called Mo into the darkness. ‘Is that you?’
Dustfinger? What kind of a name was that? Meggie couldn’t remember ever hearing it before, yet it sounded familiar, like a distant memory that wouldn’t take shape properly.
At first, all seemed still outside except for the rain falling, murmuring as if the night had found its voice. But then footsteps approached the house, and the man emerged from the darkness of the yard, his long coat so wet with rain that it clung to his legs. For a split second, as the stranger stepped into the light spilling out of the house, Meggie thought she saw a small furry head over his shoulder, snuffling as it looked out of his rucksack and then quickly disappearing back into it.
Dustfinger wiped his wet face with his sleeve and offered Mo his hand.
‘How are you, Silvertongue?’ he asked. ‘It’s been a long time.’
Hesitantly, Mo took the outstretched hand. ‘A very long time,’ he said, looking past his visitor as if he expected to see another figure emerge from the night. ‘Come in, you’ll catch your death. Meggie says you’ve been standing out there for some time.’
‘Meggie? Ah yes, of course.’ Dustfinger let Mo lead him into the house. He scrutinised Meggie so thoroughly that she felt quite embarrassed and didn’t know where to look. In the end she just stared back.