‘Meggie, put one of your feet out of bed,’ he told her. Reluctantly, she stuck her toes out from under the blanket and laid them in Mo’s warm hand. They were still cold.
‘I knew it!’ he said. ‘You’ve been spying. Can’t you do as I tell you, just for once?’ Sighing, he tucked her foot back underneath the nice warm blankets. Then he sat down on her bed, passed his hands over his tired face and looked out of the window. His hair was as dark as moleskin. Meggie had fair hair like her mother, who she knew only from a few faded photographs. ‘You should be glad you look more like her than me,’ Mo always said. ‘My head wouldn’t look at all good on a girl’s neck.’ But Meggie wished she did look more like him. There wasn’t a face in the world she loved more.
‘I didn’t hear what you were saying anyway,’ she murmured.
‘Good.’ Mo stared out of the window as if Dustfinger were still standing in the yard. Then he rose and went to the door. ‘Try to get some sleep,’ he said.
But Meggie didn’t want to sleep. ‘Dustfinger! What sort of a name is that?’ she asked. ‘And why does he call you Silvertongue?’
Mo did not reply.
‘And this person who’s looking for you – I heard what Dustfinger called him. Capricorn. Who is he?’
‘No one you want to meet.’ Her father didn’t turn round. ‘I thought you didn’t hear anything. Goodnight, Meggie.’
This time he left her door open. The light from the passage fell on her bed, mingling with the darkness of the night that seeped in through the window, and Meggie lay there waiting for the dark to disappear and take her fear of some evil menace away with it. Only later did she understand that the evil had not appeared for the first time that night. It had just slunk back in again.
‘What do these children do without storybooks?’ Naftali asked.
And Reb Zebulun replied: ‘They have to make do. Storybooks aren’t bread. You can live without them.’
‘I couldn’t live without them,’ Naftali said.
Isaac Bashevis Singer,
Naftali the Storyteller and his Horse Sus
It was early dawn when Meggie woke up. Night was fading over the fields as if the rain had washed the darkness out of the hem of its garment. The alarm clock said just before five, and Meggie was going to turn over and go back to sleep when she suddenly sensed someone else in the room. Startled, she sat up and saw Mo standing by her open wardrobe.
‘Hello,’ he said, putting her favourite sweater in a case. ‘I’m sorry, I know it’s very early, but we have to leave. How about cocoa for breakfast?’
Still drowsy with sleep, Meggie nodded. Outside, the birds were twittering loudly as if they’d been awake for hours. Mo put two more pairs of jeans in her case, closed it and carried it to the door. ‘Wear something warm,’ he said. ‘It’s chilly outside.’
‘Where are we going?’ asked Meggie, but he had already disappeared. She looked out of the window, feeling confused. She almost expected to see Dustfinger, but there was only a blackbird in the yard hopping over the stones, which were wet after the rain. Meggie put on her jeans and stumbled into the kitchen. Two suitcases, a travelling bag and Mo’s toolbox stood out in the hall.
Her father was sitting at the kitchen table making sandwiches for the journey. When she came into the kitchen he looked up briefly and smiled at her, but Meggie could see he was worried about something. ‘Mo, we can’t go away now!’ she said. ‘The school holidays don’t start for another week!’
‘Well, it won’t be the first time I’ve had to go away on business in your term-time.’
He was right about that. In fact, he went away quite often, whenever an antique dealer, a book collector or a library needed a bookbinder and commissioned Mo to restore a few valuable old books, freeing them of dust and mould or dressing them in new clothes, as he put it. Meggie didn’t think the word ‘bookbinder’ described Mo’s work particularly well, and a few years ago she had made him a notice to hang on his workshop door saying ‘Mortimer Folchart, Book Doctor’. And the book doctor never called on his patients without taking his daughter too. They had always done that and they always would, never mind what Meggie’s teachers said.
‘How about chicken-pox? Have I used that excuse already?’
‘Yes, last time. When we had to go and see that dreary man with the Bibles.’ Meggie scrutinised her father’s face. ‘Mo. Is it … is it because of last night we have to leave?’
For a moment she thought he was going to tell her everything – whatever there was to tell. But then he shook his head. ‘No, of course not,’ he said, putting the sandwiches he had made in a plastic bag. ‘Your mother has an aunt called Elinor. We visited her once, when you were very small. She’s been wanting me to come and put her books in order for a long time. She lives beside a lake in the north of Italy, I always forget which lake, but it’s a lovely place, a day’s drive away.’ He did not look at her as he spoke.
Meggie wanted to ask: but why do we have to go now? But she didn’t. Nor did she ask if he had forgotten that he was meeting someone at midday. She was too afraid of the answers – and she didn’t want Mo to lie to her again.
‘Is this aunt as peculiar as the others?’ was all she said. Mo had already taken her to visit various relations. Both he and Meggie’s mother had large families whose homes, so far as Meggie could see, were scattered over half of Europe.
Mo smiled. ‘Yes, she is a bit peculiar, but you’ll get on with her all right. She has some really wonderful books.’
‘So how long are we going to be away?’
‘It could be quite some time.’
Meggie sipped her cocoa. It was so hot that she burned her lips, and had to quickly press the cold blade of a knife to her mouth.
Mo pushed his chair back. ‘I have to pack a few more things from the workshop,’ he said. ‘It won’t take long. You must be very tired, but you can sleep once we’re in the van.’
Meggie just nodded and looked out of the kitchen window. It was a grey morning. Mist drifted over the fields at the foot of the nearby hills, and Meggie felt as if the shadows of the night were still hiding among the trees.
‘Pack up the food and take plenty to read!’ Mo called from the hall. As if she didn’t always! Years ago he had made her a box to hold her favourite books on all their journeys, short and long, near and far. ‘It’s a good idea to have your own books with you in a strange place,’ Mo always said. He himself always took at least a dozen.
Mo had painted the box poppy-red. Poppies were Meggie’s favourite flower. They pressed well between the pages of a book, and you could stamp a star-shaped pattern on your skin with their pepper-pot seed capsules. He had decorated the box and painted Meggie’s Treasure Chest in lovely curly lettering on the lid. The box was lined with shiny black taffeta, but you could hardly see any of the fabric because Meggie had a great many favourite books, and she always added another whenever they travelled anywhere. ‘If you take a book with you on a journey,’ Mo had said when he put the first one in her box, ‘an odd thing happens: the book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice-cream you ate while you were reading it … yes, books are like flypapers. Memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.’