Dustfinger shook his head. ‘These are particularly bad.’
‘No, not particularly.’
The defiance in Farid’s voice made Dustfinger laugh; he himself didn’t know why.
‘We could go somewhere else,’ said the boy.
‘No, we couldn’t.’
‘Why not? What are you planning to do in that village?’
‘Steal something,’ said Dustfinger.
The boy nodded, as if stealing were the most natural plan in the world, and carefully put the orchid in his trouser pocket. ‘Will you teach me a little more about fire first? Before we go there.’
‘Before?’ Dustfinger couldn’t help smiling. The boy was a clever lad, and no doubt he knew there wouldn’t be any after.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I’ll teach you everything I know. Before we go there.’
A Good Place To Stay
I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
and How and Where and Who.
The Elephant’s Child
They did not set off to join Elinor after Dustfinger had left them. ‘Meggie, I know I promised we would,’ said Mo, as they stood in the square in front of the war memorial, feeling rather at a loss. ‘But I’d like to leave the journey until tomorrow. As I told you before, there’s something else I have to discuss with Fenoglio.’
The old man was still standing where he had been when he spoke to Dustfinger, staring down the road. His grandchildren were pulling at him and talking to him, but he didn’t seem to notice them.
‘What exactly do you want to discuss with him?’
Mo sat on the steps in front of the memorial and made Meggie sit down beside him. ‘Do you see those names?’ he asked, pointing up at the chiselled letters listing people no longer alive. ‘There’s a family behind every name – a mother or father, brothers and sisters, perhaps a wife. If one of them were to find out that letters can be brought to life, that someone who’s only a name now could become flesh and blood again, don’t you think he or she would do anything, anything at all, to make it happen?’
Meggie looked at the long list. Someone had painted a heart next to the name at the top, and there was a bunch of dried flowers on the stone steps in front of the memorial.
‘No one can bring back the dead, Meggie,’ Mo went on. ‘Perhaps it’s true that death is only the beginning of a new story, but no one has ever read the book in which it’s written, and the writer of that book certainly doesn’t live in a little village on the coast playing football with his grandchildren. Your mother’s name isn’t on a stone like this but hidden somewhere in a book, and I have an idea which just might make it possible to alter what happened nine years ago.’
‘You’re going back!’
‘No, I’m not. I gave you my word. Have I ever broken it?’
Meggie shook her head. You broke your word to Dustfinger, she thought, but she didn’t say so out loud.
‘There you are, then,’ said Mo. ‘I want to talk to Fenoglio. That’s the only reason why I want to stay.’
Meggie looked at the sea. The sun had broken through the clouds, and all of a sudden the water was glistening and shining as if someone had poured paint into it.
‘It’s not far from here,’ she murmured.
Mo looked eastward. ‘Yes, it’s odd that he felt drawn here of all places, don’t you think? As if he were looking for somewhere resembling the countryside of his own story.’
‘Suppose he finds us?’
‘Nonsense. Do you know how many villages there are along this coast?’
Meggie shrugged her shoulders. ‘He found you before, even when you were far, far away.’
‘He found me with Dustfinger’s help, and you can be sure Dustfinger isn’t going to help him again.’ Mo rose and drew Meggie to her feet. ‘Come on, let’s go and ask Fenoglio where we can stay the night. He looks as if he could do with some company.’
Fenoglio did not tell them whether Dustfinger looked as he had imagined him. He said very little as they walked back to his house. But when Mo told him that he and Meggie would like to stay there another day his face brightened slightly. He even offered them a place to spend the night: an apartment he sometimes rented out to tourists. Mo gratefully accepted.
He and the old man talked far into the evening, while Fenoglio’s grandchildren chased Meggie all over the nooks and crannies of the house. The two men sat in Fenoglio’s study. It was next to the kitchen, and Meggie kept trying to listen at the closed door, but Pippo and Rico always caught her in the act and dragged her away to the next flight of stairs before she had heard more than a few words. Finally, she gave up. She let Paula show her the kittens scampering about with their mother in the tiny garden behind the house, and followed the three children to the house where they lived with their parents. They didn’t stay long, just long enough to persuade their mother to let them stay at their grandfather’s for supper.
Supper was pasta with sage. Pippo and Rico picked the bitter-tasting green bits out of their sauce with disgusted expressions on their faces, but Meggie and Paula enjoyed the flavour of the leaves. After the meal Mo and Fenoglio drank a whole bottle of red wine between them, and when the old man finally saw Mo and Meggie to the door he said goodnight and added, ‘So you’ll look at my books as we agreed, Mortimer, and I’ll get down to work first thing tomorrow.’
‘What kind of work, Mo?’ asked Meggie as they walked along the dimly lit alleys together. Night had hardly cooled the air at all; a strangely foreign wind blew through the village, hot and sandy, as if it were carrying the desert itself across the sea.
‘I’d rather you didn’t ask me that,’ said Mo. ‘Let’s just act as if we were on holiday for a few days. This looks a good place for a holiday, don’t you think?’
Meggie answered only with a nod. Mo really knew her very well – he could often tell what she was thinking before she put it into words – but he sometimes forgot she wasn’t five years old any more, and these days it took rather more than a few kind words to distract her from her worries. Very well, she thought as she silently followed Mo through the sleeping village, if he doesn’t want to tell me what Fenoglio’s supposed to do for him I’ll ask old turtle-face himself. And if he won’t say either, then one of his grandchildren can find out for me! Paula was just the right size for a spy. It didn’t seem all that long ago since Meggie herself had been able to hide unnoticed under a table.
My library was dukedom large enough.
It was almost midnight by the time Elinor finally saw her garden gate beside the road. The lights down by the banks of the lake stood side by side like a caravan of glow-worms, trembling as they were reflected in the black water. It was good to be home again. Even the wind that blew on Elinor’s face as she got out to open the gate felt familiar. It was all familiar, the scent of the hedges and the earth and the air, so much cooler and moister than in the south. It didn’t taste of salt any more either. I might even miss that saltiness, thought Elinor. The sea always filled her with longing, though for what she was never sure.