The iron gate creaked quietly as she pushed it open, almost as if it were welcoming her home. But no other voice would greet her. ‘What a silly notion, Elinor!’ she muttered crossly as she got back into the car. ‘Your books will welcome you home. That’s good enough, surely.’
She had been in a strange mood even during the drive. She had taken her time on the way home, avoiding major roads, and had spent the night in a tiny place in the mountains, the name of which she had already forgotten. She had enjoyed being alone again, for that, after all, was what she was used to, yet the silence in her car had suddenly begun to trouble her, and she had gone into a café in a sleepy little town which didn’t even have a bookshop, just to hear other human voices. She hadn’t spent much time there, staying only long enough to gulp down a cup of coffee, because she was annoyed with herself. ‘What’s all this in aid of, Elinor?’ she had muttered when she was back in the car. ‘Since when did you long for human company? High time you were home again, before you go right round the bend.’
Her house looked so dark and deserted as she drove up to it that it seemed curiously strange to her. Only the scents of her garden made her feel a little better as she went up the steps to the front door. The light over the door which usually came on automatically at night wasn’t working, and it took Elinor a ridiculous amount of time to get her key into the lock. As she pushed the door open and stumbled into the pitch dark hall she quietly cursed the man who usually kept an eye on the house and garden whenever she went away. She had tried phoning him three times before she set out, but she supposed he’d gone to see his daughter again. Didn’t anyone realise what treasures this house contained? Of course, if they’d been made of gold … but they consisted only of paper and printer’s ink.
It was very quiet, and for a moment Elinor thought she heard Mortimer’s voice as it brought life into the church with the red walls. She could have listened to him for a hundred years. No, two hundred. At least. ‘I must get him to read aloud to me when he arrives,’ she murmured, taking the shoes off her tired feet. ‘There must be some books he can read safely.’
Why had she never before noticed how quiet her house could be? It was silent as the grave, and the pleasure Elinor had expected to feel as soon as she was back within her own four walls was slow in coming.
‘Hello, here I am again!’ she cried into the silence, as she felt along the wall for the light switch. ‘Now you shall all be dusted and tidied again, my dears!’
The ceiling light came on, very bright, and as Elinor stumbled back in alarm she fell over her own handbag, which she had put down on the floor. ‘Oh heavens!’ she whispered, getting to her feet again. ‘Oh, dear heavens! Oh no!’
The custom-made bookshelves were empty. The books that had stood on them so safely, spine beside spine, now lay in untidy heaps on the floor, crumpled, dirty, and trampled underfoot, as if heavy boots had been performing a wild dance on them. Elinor began to tremble all over. She stumbled through her desecrated treasures as if she were wading through a muddy pond, pushed them aside, picked one up and let it drop, staggered on down the long corridor that led to her library.
The corridor was no better. Great disorderly piles of books were heaped so high that Elinor could hardly make her way through the ruins. At last she reached the library door. It had not been locked. Elinor stood there for an eternity, weak at the knees, before she finally dared to open it.
Her library was empty.
Not a book in sight, not a single book, not on the shelves or beneath the broken glass of the display cases. There wasn’t a book on the floor either. They were all gone. Instead, a red rooster dangled from the ceiling, stone dead.
Elinor’s hand flew to her mouth. The rooster’s head was hanging down, its red comb flopped over its staring eyes. Its plumage was still glossy, as if all the life in it had fled there, into the fine russet breast feathers, the darkly patterned wings and the long deep-green tail feathers that shimmered like silk.
One of the windows was open. A black arrow had been drawn in soot on the white paint of the windowsill, and pointed the way to the garden outside. Elinor staggered towards the window, numb with fear. The night was not dark enough to hide what lay on the lawn outside: a shapeless mound of ashes, pale grey in the moonlight, grey as moth wings, grey as burnt paper.
There they were. Her most valuable books. Or all that was left of them.
Elinor knelt down on the floorboards, on the wood she had so carefully chosen. The wind wafted in through the open window and over her, the familiar wind, and it smelled almost like the air in Capricorn’s church. Elinor wanted to scream, she wanted to curse, rage, cry out in fury, but not a sound came out of her mouth. All she could do was weep.
Only an Idea
‘Don’t have a mother,’ he said. Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated persons.
The apartment that Fenoglio rented to tourists was only two streets away from his own house. It had two rooms plus a tiny bathroom and kitchen. Since it was on the ground floor it was rather dark, and the beds creaked when you lay down in them. All the same, Meggie slept well or, anyway, better than on Capricorn’s damp straw or in the hovel with the ruined roof.
Mo slept only fitfully. Meggie was woken twice on that first night by tom cats fighting out in the street, and both times she saw him lying there with his eyes open, arms folded behind his head, looking at the dark window.
He got up very early in the morning and went to buy food for breakfast in the little shop at the end of the street. The bread rolls were fresh and warm, and Meggie really did almost feel as if they were on holiday when Mo and she drove to the nearest town of any size to buy the basic tools of his trade: brushes, knives, fabric, stout cardboard – and truly gigantic ice-creams which they ate together in a café by the sea. Meggie still had the taste of the ice-cream in her mouth as they knocked on the door of Fenoglio’s house. The old man and Mo drank another coffee in his green kitchen before he took Mo and Meggie up to the attic where he kept his books.
‘I don’t believe it!’ said Mo, outraged, standing in front of Fenoglio’s dusty bookshelves. ‘They ought all to be removed from you on the spot! When did you last come up here? I could scrape the dust off their pages with a trowel.’
‘I had to put them up here, said Fenoglio defensively, signs of a guilty conscience lurking among his wrinkles. ‘I was getting so short of space downstairs with all those shelves, and anyway my grandchildren were always pulling them about.’
‘They could hardly have done as much damage as the damp and dirt up here,’ said Mo.
Fenoglio went downstairs again looking crestfallen. ‘You poor child. Is your father always so strict?’ he asked Meggie as they climbed down the steep staircase.
‘Only about books,’ she said.
Fenoglio disappeared into his study before she could ask him any questions, and his grandchildren were at school or playgroup, so she fetched the books that Elinor had given her and sat down with them on the flight of steps leading into Fenoglio’s tiny garden. Wild roses grew so thickly there that you could hardly take a step without feeling their shoots twine round your legs, and from the top step you could see the sea, far away yet looking very close.