Elinor remembered that feeling too. Sometimes you wanted to lash out at the whole world, but it did no good, none at all. The grief remained. ‘Don’t talk such nonsense!’ she said bluntly. ‘How could we have helped him? They’d just have taken you too, and how would your father have liked that? Would it have done him any good? No. So don’t stand around out here any longer – come indoors.’
But Meggie didn’t move. ‘They’re taking him to Capricorn!’ she whispered, so softly that Elinor could hardly make out what she was saying.
‘Taking him where?’
Meggie just shook her head and wiped her sleeve over her tear-stained face.
‘The police will be here any minute,’ said Elinor. ‘I called them on your father’s mobile. I never wanted one of those, but now I think I’d better get one after all. They simply cut my phone line.’
Meggie still hadn’t moved. She was trembling. ‘They’ll be well away by now anyway,’ she said.
‘Good heavens, I’m sure no harm will come to him!’ Elinor wrapped her coat more closely around her. The wind was getting up. There would be rain soon, she felt sure.
‘How do you know?’ Meggie’s voice was trembling with anger.
Heavens, thought Elinor, if looks could kill I’d be pushing up the daisies. ‘Because he went with them of his own free will,’ she said crossly. ‘You heard him too, didn’t you?’
Meggie bowed her head. Of course she’d heard him.
‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘He was more worried about the book than me.’
Elinor had no answer to that. Her own father had been firmly convinced that books deserved more attention than children, and when he suddenly died she and her two sisters had barely noticed his absence. It was as if he was just sitting in the library as usual, dusting his books. But Meggie’s father wasn’t like that.
‘Nonsense, of course he was worried about you!’ she said. ‘I don’t know any father who’s more besotted with his daughter than yours. You wait and see, he’ll soon be back. Now, do come in!’ She reached out her hand to Meggie. ‘I’ll make you some hot milk with honey. Isn’t that what children get when they’re really miserable?’
But Meggie ignored the hand. She turned suddenly and ran away as if something had occurred to her.
‘Here, wait a minute!’ Muttering crossly, Elinor slipped her feet into her gardening shoes and stumbled after her. The silly girl was running round behind the house to the place where the fire-eater had given his performance. But of course there was no one on the lawn now, just the burnt-out torches still stuck in the ground.
‘Well, well, so Master Matchstick-Swallower seems to be gone too,’ said Elinor. ‘At least, he’s not in the house.’
‘Perhaps he followed them!’ The girl went up to one of the burnt-out torches and touched its charred head. ‘That’s it! He saw what happened and followed them!’ She looked hopefully at Elinor.
‘Of course. That’s what must have happened.’ Elinor really did try hard not to sound sarcastic. How do you think he followed them she added silently in her mind. On foot? But instead of saying so out loud she put a hand on Meggie’s shoulder. Heavens above, the girl was still shaking. ‘Come on!’ she said. ‘The police will soon be here, and there’s nothing we can do just now. Your father will surely turn up again in a few days’ time, and perhaps your fire-breathing friend will be with him. You’ll just have to put up with me in the meantime.’
Meggie merely nodded, and unresistingly let Elinor lead her back to the house.
‘On one condition, though,’ said Elinor, as they reached the front door.
Meggie looked at her suspiciously.
‘While we’re here on our own, do you think you could stop looking at me as if you wanted to poison me all the time? Could that be arranged?’
A small, sad little smile stole over Meggie’s face. ‘I should think so,’ she said.
The two policemen whose car drew up on the gravel forecourt a little later asked a lot of questions, to which neither Elinor nor Meggie had many answers. No, they had never seen the men before. No, they hadn’t stolen money or anything else of value, just a book. The two men exchanged amused glances when Elinor said that. She immediately gave them an angry lecture on the value of rare books, but that only made things worse. When Meggie finally said they’d be sure to find her father if they tracked down a bad man called Capricorn, they looked at each other as if she had seriously claimed that Mo had been carried off by the big bad wolf. Then they drove away again, and Elinor took Meggie to her room. The silly child had tears in her eyes once more, and Elinor hadn’t the faintest idea how you set about comforting a girl of twelve, so she just told her, ‘Your mother always slept in this room,’ which was probably the worst thing she could have said. She quickly added, ‘Read a story if you can’t get to sleep,’ cleared her throat twice, and then went back through the dark, empty house to her own room.
Why did it suddenly strike her as so big and so empty? In all the years she had lived alone here it had never troubled her to know that only her books awaited her behind all the doors. It was a long time since she and her sisters had played hide-and-seek in the many rooms. How quietly they always had to slip past the library door …
Outside, the wind rattled the shutters of the windows. Heavens, I won’t be able to sleep a wink, thought Elinor. And then she thought of the book waiting beside her bed, and with a mixture of anticipation and a very guilty conscience she disappeared into her bedroom.
A Poor Exchange
A strong and bitter book-sickness floods one’s soul. How ignominious to be strapped to this ponderous mass of paper, print and dead man’s sentiment. Would it not be better, finer, braver to leave the rubbish where it lies and walk out into the world a free untrammelled illiterate Superman?
Meggie didn’t sleep in her own bed that night. As soon as Elinor’s footsteps had died away she ran to Mo’s room. He hadn’t unpacked yet, and his bag stood open beside the bed. Only his books were on the bedside table, and a partly eaten chocolate bar. Mo loved chocolate. Even the mustiest old chocolate Santa Claus wasn’t safe from him. Meggie broke a square off the bar and put it in her mouth, but it tasted of nothing. Nothing but sadness.
Mo’s quilt was cold when she crept under it, and the pillow didn’t yet smell of him either, only of washing powder. Meggie put her hand under the pillow. Yes, there it was: not a book, a photograph. Meggie drew it out. It was a picture of her mother; Mo always kept it under his pillow. When she was little she believed that Mo had simply invented a mother for her one day because he thought she’d have liked to have one. He told wonderful stories about her. ‘Did I like her?’ Meggie always asked. ‘Yes, very much.’ – ‘Where is she?’ – ‘She had to go away when you were just three.’ – ‘Why?’ – ‘She just had to go away.’ – ‘A long way away?’ – ‘Yes, a very long way.’ – ‘Is she dead?’ – ‘No, I’m sure she isn’t.’ Meggie was used to the strange answers Mo gave to many of her questions. By the time she was ten she no longer believed in a mother made up by Mo, she believed in one who had simply gone away. These things happened. And as long as Mo was there she hadn’t particularly missed having a mother.