Meggie opened the book of poems. She had to narrow her eyes because the sun was shining in her face so brightly, and before beginning to read she looked over her shoulder to make quite sure Mo hadn’t followed her down. She didn’t want him to catch her at what she was planning to do. She was ashamed of it, but the temptation was just too great.
When she was perfectly sure no one was coming she took a deep breath, cleared her throat – and began. She shaped every word with her lips the way she had seen Mo do it, almost tenderly, as if every letter were a musical note and any words spoken without love were a discord in the melody. But she soon realised that if she paid too much attention to every separate word the sentence didn’t sound right any more, and the pictures behind it were lost if she concentrated on the sound alone and not the sense. It was difficult. So difficult. And the sun was making her drowsy, until at last she closed the book and held her face up to its warm rays. It was silly of her to try anyway. Very silly …
Later that afternoon Pippo, Paula and Rico came back and Meggie walked round the village with them. They bought things in the shop where Mo had gone in the morning, sat on a wall on the outskirts of the village, watched ants carrying pine needles and flower seeds over the rough stones, and counted the ships sailing by on the distant sea.
A second day passed like this. Now and then Meggie wondered where Dustfinger could be, and whether Farid was still with him, how Elinor was, and if she was beginning to wonder where they were.
There was no answer to any of these questions, and Meggie didn’t find out what Fenoglio was doing behind his study door either. ‘Chewing his pencil,’ Paula told her when she had managed to hide under her grandfather’s desk. ‘Just chewing the end of his pencil and walking up and down.’
‘Mo, when are we going to Elinor’s house?’ Meggie asked on their second night, when she sensed that, yet again, he couldn’t sleep. She perched on the edge of his bed. The bed creaked just like hers.
‘Soon,’ he said. ‘Go to sleep again now, OK?’
‘Do you miss her – my mother, I mean?’ Meggie herself didn’t know why she asked that question out of the blue. All of a sudden it was there, on the tip of her tongue, and had to be spoken aloud.
It was a long time before Mo answered.
‘Sometimes,’ he said at last. ‘In the morning, at midday, in the evening, at night. Almost all the time.’
Meggie felt jealousy digging its little claws into her heart. She knew that feeling; she felt it every time Mo had a new girlfriend. But how could she be jealous of her own mother? ‘Tell me about her,’ she said quietly. ‘I don’t mean the made-up stories you used to tell.’
She used to search her books for a suitable mother, but there were hardly any mothers in her favourite stories. Tom Sawyer? No mother. Huck Finn? Ditto. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys? Not a mother in sight. Jim Button was motherless too – and all you found in fairy tales were wicked stepmothers, heartless, jealous stepmothers … the list could go on for ever. That had often comforted Meggie in the past. It didn’t seem particularly unusual not to have a mother, or at least not in the books she liked best.
‘What do you want me to tell you?’ Mo looked at the window. The tom cats were fighting outside again. Their yowls sounded like babies crying. ‘You look more like her than me, I’m glad to say. She laughs like you, and she chews a strand of hair while she’s reading exactly the way you do. She’s shortsighted, but too vain to wear glasses—’
‘I can understand that.’ Meggie sat down beside him. His arm hardly hurt him now. The bite from Basta’s dog had almost healed up, but there would always be a scar, pale as the scar Basta’s knife had left nine years ago.
‘What do you mean? I like glasses,’ said Mo.
‘I don’t. Go on.’
‘She loves stones, flat, smooth stones that fit comfortably into the hand. She always has one or two of them in her pocket, and she weights down books with them, specially paperbacks. She doesn’t like the covers to stick up in the air, but you were always taking the stones away and rolling them over the wooden floor.’
‘And then she was cross.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. She tickled your fat little neck until you let go of the stones.’ Mo turned round to look at her. ‘Do you really not miss her, Meggie?’
‘I don’t know. Well, only if I’m feeling angry with you.’
‘About a dozen times a day, then?’
‘Don’t be so silly!’ Meggie dug her elbow into his ribs.
They both listened for any sounds in the night. The window was open just a crack, and it was quiet outside. The tom cats had fallen silent, probably licking their wounds For a moment Meggie thought she could hear the sea breaking in the distance, but perhaps it was only the traffic on the nearby motorway.
‘Where do you think Dustfinger has gone?’ The darkness enveloped them like a soft cloth. I’ll miss this warmth, she thought, I really will.
‘I don’t know,’ said Mo. His voice sounded absent. ‘A long way off, I hope, but I’m not sure.’
Nor was Meggie. ‘Do you think that boy’s still with him?’ Farid. She liked his name.
‘I expect so. He was running after Dustfinger like a dog.’
‘He likes Dustfinger. Do you think Dustfinger likes him?’
Mo shrugged his shoulders. ‘I don’t know who or what Dustfinger likes.’
Meggie rested her head against his chest, the way she always used to at home when he was telling her a story. ‘He still wants the book, doesn’t he?’ she whispered. ‘Basta will make mincemeat of him if he catches him. He must have got a new knife by now.’
Someone was coming along the narrow alley. A door opened and was closed again, a dog barked.
‘If it wasn’t for you,’ said Mo, ‘I’d go back too.’
‘We were told there was a village nearby that might enjoy our skills.’
‘You were misinformed,’ Buttercup told him. ‘There is no one, not for many miles.’
‘Then there will be no one to hear you scream,’ the Sicilian said, and he jumped with frightening agility toward her face.
The Princess Bride
Next morning, at around ten o’clock, Elinor rang Fenoglio’s house. Meggie was sitting upstairs with Mo, watching him remove a book from its mildewed binding as carefully as if he were releasing an injured animal from a trap.
‘Mortimer!’ Fenoglio called up the stairs. ‘Come down at once, will you? There’s some hysterical female on the phone, shouting in my ear. I can’t make head nor tail of it. Says she’s a friend of yours.’
Mo put the book to one side, minus its cover, and went downstairs. Fenoglio handed him the receiver with a gloomy expression on his face. Elinor’s voice was pouring rage and despair into the peaceful study. Mo himself had some difficulty in making sense of what she was saying.
‘But how did he know … oh, of course …’ Meggie heard him saying. ‘Burnt? All of them?’ He passed a hand over his face and glanced in Meggie’s direction, but she had a feeling that he was looking straight through her. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Yes, of course, though I’m afraid they won’t believe a word of it. And the police down here aren’t responsible for what’s happened to your books … yes, of course. Naturally … I’ll pick you up. Yes.’