HERE IS WHAT happened one Monday in the month of September, in the last year of the last century. Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan Lang were on their way home from school. Usually they took the bus from the larger town, where they attended secondary school, to the smaller town, where they lived, but that morning their father had said he had an errand to run and would collect them. So they waited beside the school gates, and watched the bus depart. After fifteen minutes, with no sign of the familiar car, they began to walk along the road that led to their town. They each wore a version of the school uniform: a white shirt, black trousers, and a black pullover. Expecting their father to appear at any moment, they walked fast, making it a game to see how far they could get before he pulled up beside them. They left the last houses behind. Hawthorn hedges and an occasional ash tree hid the fields that bordered the road. Through one gate they saw a herd of cows; through another, rows of barley. The afternoon was warm and still; only a few leaves fringed with brown hinted at autumn. Gnats hung in listless clouds above the tarmac. Zoe was the one who spotted something through the hedge. She had a gift for finding things: birds’ nests, their mother’s calculator, a missing book, a secret.
“What’s that?” she demanded, stooping to peer through the tangled branches. The flash of red could have been poppies bordering the field, but the poppies had already lost their petals. Before her brothers could answer, she turned and ran back to the gate they had just passed.
Matthew and Duncan watched her go. Zoe brought her knees high and pumped her arms. Last sports day she had won the quarter mile by almost three seconds. As she reached the gate, Duncan, without a word, took off after her. A car sped by, the smooth engine noise undercut by a harsh rattle. Matthew looked at the sky, mostly blue with a fortress of cumulus clouds in the east, and gave up on being the responsible one who waited for their father. The two bags, his and Zoe’s, banged against the metal bars of the gate as he climbed over and jumped down onto the rutted ground. The field had recently been harvested, and circular bales of straw lay randomly across the dull gold stubble. In the middle of the field stood a magnificent oak tree in full leaf. He caught up with first Duncan, then Zoe.
From a distance it was still possible to believe that the boy was asleep, lying on the grassy border between hedge and stubble. “Christ,” whispered Zoe.
The closer they got to him, the slower they walked. None of them spoke. Glinting bluebottles and smaller flies circled the boy. His hair was dark, his skin very pale. He wore a deep blue shirt, a color Duncan would later call cobalt, black shorts, and what appeared to be long red socks. At the local private school, the younger boys wore bright red knee socks, and for the briefest instant, Zoe thought Oh, he’s in uniform. A few steps closer, and she grasped the nature of the red. His eyelids were pale with a delicate tracery of veins. Everything that happened, they all three later agreed, was only possible because of those closed lids.
His chest rose, fractionally, and fell, fractionally. With no one to tell them what to feel, they did not cry out, or exclaim.
Zoe tiptoed forward, knelt down at a cautious distance, and leaned over to touch his bare arm where it emerged below his shirtsleeve. His skin was reassuringly warm. He was a little older than her. Eighteen. Perhaps nineteen. “We need to get help,” she said.
But she was not going anywhere. She was gently stroking his bare arm.
Except for his clothes and his scarlet legs, Matthew thought, the boy could have been an illustration in a Victorian novel: The Weary Harvester. Rest after Toil. The Dreaming Poet. He told Duncan to go back to the road and stop a car. “Tell the driver someone’s hurt,” he said. “He needs an ambulance.”
Duncan had been staring at the boy, committing him detail by detail, color by color, to memory. Now, reluctantly, he acknowledged the inevitability of being the youngest. He ran back along the edge of the field, scrambled over the gate again, and stood by the side of the road. In a well-organized world this would have been the moment for their father to arrive, driving, as usual, a little too fast.
The first car, black, sleek, ignored his frantic waving. So did the second. The third car, baby blue, the antenna bent at an awkward angle, slowed. Duncan stepped into the road, ready to explain. The man behind the wheel—he too was wearing a white shirt—was staring at him through the dull windscreen. And then, just as the car seemed about to stop, it accelerated, swerved around him—he glimpsed the number plate and a dent in the rear bumper—and disappeared. It would have stopped for Zoe, he thought. Or even for Matthew. He shouldn’t have let them send him to do this. But he had, and the beautiful boy was depending on him. At the sound of another car approaching, he planted himself in the middle of the road.
For a few scary seconds the car hurtled toward him. When the driver braked, he bent down at the window. “We found a boy in the field.” He pointed behind him. “He’s hurt.”
“Hurt how?” The woman pushed up her sunglasses as if the emergency demanded naked sight. Her eyes were a color Duncan could only call colorless.
“I don’t know. My brother says he needs an ambulance.”
“Don’t move him. I’ll phone 999. Leave the gate of the field open so they’ll know which one.”
She did a U-turn in the gateway, and headed in the direction of the town.
Back in the field his sister was still stroking the boy’s arm, his brother kneeling on the other side of him, fanning away the flies with a blue school notebook. They did not speak as he approached; he sensed they had not spoken during his absence.
“A woman’s gone for help,” he said, and knelt beside Zoe. His shirt had pulled loose as he ran, and the hem grazed the grass. “What’s the matter with him? Did he fall?”
“Maybe,” Zoe said. While Duncan was summoning help, she had noticed that the boy’s shorts were torn in several places: two holes in one leg, one near the waist, one in the other leg. Last autumn her mother had lectured her and her friend Moira about how, at fifteen, they had to be careful. “Don’t walk around alone at night,” she had said. “Don’t accept lifts from strangers. If a grown-up starts behaving oddly, find an excuse to leave.”
“Oddly how?” Zoe had asked.
“Making remarks about your appearance, touching you.” Her mother waved her hand. “Making you feel weird.”
Alone, she and Moira had giggled away the warning, but now her mother’s words came back; she tried not to think about the torn fabric—what made the holes, what lay beneath. From beyond the hedge came the sounds of a car approaching, disappearing, then another. “Do we know him?” she asked.
“I don’t,” Matthew said. As he moved the notebook, the flies retreated with almost military precision and, with the same precision, returned. Everything was warm and frightening. The boy was alive, which meant he might die. He was not sure Zoe and Duncan understood that.
“Maybe he looks different?” Zoe persisted. “Perhaps we’ve seen him at the shops, or on the bus?”
Matthew was still shaking his head—that the boy’s life might have touched theirs only made the idea of his death more frightening—when Duncan spoke. If Zoe was the one who found things, their little brother was the one who noticed them: the different yellows of two egg yolks, the way a person’s lips twitched when they met him, the first snowdrops pushing up through the frosty grass, the curve of a dog’s eyebrows. Matthew had asked Zoe once if she thought Duncan was better at noticing things because he was adopted. No, she had said, because he’s Duncan.
Now Duncan said, “I’ve seen him before, but I’m not sure where.”
Looking at the boy, he too thought of a picture, a painting his art teacher had shown him of a wide-eyed, cream-colored bull climbing into the sky with a girl on his back. Zeus had courted Europa by breathing out a saffron crocus from his dark nostrils. Who could resist a flower born of such sweetness? Not Europa. She had clambered onto his back, thinking to ride him around the meadow, garland him with flowers, only to find the bull carrying her skyward toward unknown terror, or unknown bliss. Had something like that happened to the boy?
“If his eyes were open,” Zoe said, “I bet you’d remember.”
If his eyes were open, Matthew thought, we would not be kneeling here. He would be in pain, and we couldn’t bear it. How long had they been here? Ten minutes? Twenty? He glanced over his shoulder at the nearest bale. Last autumn he and his friend Benjamin had carried a ladder out to the field behind Benjamin’s house, climbed up onto a stack of bales, and shared a beer. It had been oddly satisfying, sitting on the prickly straw, watching the lights of the town appear. Now, still fanning the boy, he edged closer. His left knee landed on something soft: a spiraling strip, maybe eight inches long, of brownish apple peel. He tossed it in the direction of the oak tree.
“You’re going to be all right,” Zoe said.
The boy gave a small sigh. His lips moved. The sigh became a word.
Each of them caught it.
No more words followed.
Two swallows swooped past, skimming the air above their heads. Briefly Duncan imagined the scene as if he were riding not on a bull but on the back of one of the birds, looking down at the boy lying in the grass, his blue shirt and black shorts and red legs ending in black trainers, slightly dusty, pointing at the sky. And the three of them in their white shirts, kneeling beside him, keeping vigil. When he descended again, it was with a longing to memorize every detail of the boy. He had seldom had license to examine another person so closely. Years later he would remember him more vividly than men and women he had loved, friends he had adored.
His hair was shoulder length, wavy, the brown of soil after rain; his forehead was high; his nose straight with an almost invisible bump at the bridge; his nostrils, against his pale skin, were faintly pink; his lips were parted, the upper a little fuller; his ears, shell-like, lay close to his head; the left had a tiny dark hole in the lobe. A thin silver chain lay across the hollow between his collarbones. He wore a watch, the black leather strap faded and cracked. His hands were open, palms up, his fingers gently curved.
Duncan was still itemizing the boy when there was a commotion in the road: the sounds of a vehicle stopping, doors opening, voices, and then three men hurrying down the edge of the field, one carrying a stretcher.
NO ONE HAD MENTIONED THE children, and no provision had been made for them. One of the paramedics called “All right there?” over his shoulder as they hurried toward the gate with their burden. “Fine,” Matthew called back. By the time the three of them reached the gate, the ambulance was gone.
They half walked, half ran, the rest of the way home. Something enormous had happened. They hurried past the sign for their town, the primary school they had each attended, the church, the pub, and the corner shop, past the houses of their neighbors, past the blowsy yellow and white roses in their front garden and through their blue front door. As it closed behind them, their father, Hal, appeared from the kitchen, an apron around his waist, a dish towel dangling from one hand. He was a blacksmith or, as he sometimes joked, an artisanal metalworker, and usually got home earlier than their mother to make supper.
“Where on earth did you get to?” he said. “I waited at the school. Then the caretaker told me you were walking home. I didn’t see you on the road. Did you get a lift?” His blue eyes were more amused than annoyed, but as Zoe and Matthew took turns recounting what had happened, they darkened. “Wait a minute,” he interrupted. “This boy, he’d been taken ill? He’d had an accident?”
Zoe described the holes in the boy’s shorts, the blood on his legs.
“I think someone stabbed him,” Matthew offered.
“Stabbed him?” Duncan said. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder how the boy came to be lying there, but Matthew must be right. Someone had made the blood spill down his legs.
“Did anyone phone the police?” Their father was looking at each of them in turn as if, collectively, they might be to blame.
Duncan said he hadn’t mentioned the police to the woman in the car. “Was I meant to?”
Still holding the dish towel, their father said he thought he’d give the station in Oxford a call, and stepped over to the phone.
AT SUPPER, THE FIVE OF them sitting around their round table, their mother, Betsy, made them tell the story again. “Thank goodness you found him,” she said. “Who knows what might have happened.”
“He’d have died,” said Zoe severely. “We have five or six quarts of blood in our bodies. If we lose five or six pints, we die.” She glared at her plate, the meek fish pie and green beans. Then, turning to her brothers, she said, “Do you think the person who attacked him was still there? Do you think he saw us?”
Separately and together, each of them considered: Had someone been lurking behind one of the bales? Peering down through the leaves of the oak tree?
“Someone could have hidden behind a bale,” Duncan said, “but I don’t think they did.” The field had felt the way their house did after Arthur, the dachshund, died: empty.
“And didn’t you say he’d been there for a while?” said their mother. She was a solicitor, who dealt mostly with family law, and an ardent advocate for children’s rights.
It was true, Matthew thought, the boy looked as if he’d been lying there for hours, but none of them had actually said so. Their mother, like the witnesses she so often complained about, was making assumptions. “But why would someone want to hurt him?” he demanded.
Their parents exchanged glances.
“Maybe he got in an argument,” their mother suggested. “Maybe he stole something?” Her eyebrows rose toward her reddish-brown hair; people often thought she dyed it.
Duncan put down his fork. No one with such shell-like ears could be a thief. “Or maybe”—their father too was imagining the scene—“ it was about sex.” He was the parent they could count on not to worry that they were too young to hear certain things. The x of “sex” tinkled against the salt and pepper shakers.
At the school Christmas party last year Matthew had kissed Rachel in the cloakroom for forty-five minutes. He had had other girlfriends—three of them—but they had in no way prepared him for the astonishing discovery that bodies, his own, another person’s, could be the source of such endless pleasure.
“What your father means,” their mother said, “is that there are people who are wired differently, who get a thrill out of doing bad things, but they’re very few, and far between.” She was still wearing the suit she often wore in court. Duncan claimed it was the color of old potatoes.
“We’re not children.” Zoe speared a green bean. “We know about perverts. Some person, some man, dragged the boy into a field, or got him to follow him, and then he stabbed him. That person could be living in our street. He could be walking past our house right now.”
On the word “now,” the doorbell rang. Each of them startled. Their father half rose, looked around the table, counting—one, two, three, four—and went to answer. Few people passing Hal in the street would have guessed his strength; he was five foot eleven, square-shouldered and tightly muscled, but Matthew had seen him lift a car out of a ditch, bend an iron bar into shape.
“Don’t—” their mother started to say, and stopped. They were not going to become a family who didn’t answer their door. On the doorstep stood a man whose pale shirt, dark jacket, and dark trousers were as much a uniform as that worn by the policewoman standing behind him. He introduced himself as Detective Hugh Price and apologized for the timing of his visit.
“I understand, Mr. Lang, that your children found a young man, wounded, in a field.”
Hal showed them into the room they jokingly called the parlor. He and Betsy had furnished it as a dining room and then ended up, even when they had guests, eating in the kitchen. A stack of boxes stood in one corner, and the table was piled with bills. Next to the computer, taking up almost as much space, was a model of the set Zoe had made last spring when she was the stage manager for Antony and Cleopatra. Against one wall stood the upright piano on which only Duncan still took lessons; from the top Matthew’s fencing mask blindly observed the room. Hal moved the bills and pulled out two chairs. Back in the kitchen, he dispatched Matthew to answer the detective’s questions.
During the long summers when he was becoming a teenager, Matthew had read scores of detective novels. Along with many TV programs, they had given him an image of this tribe of men who drank too much, shaved too little, were oddly erudite, seldom happily married, and in general behaved more like the villains they were trying to catch than the citizens they were trying to protect. Often they had some arcane hobby: growing roses, listening to opera. At first sight Hugh Price contradicted most of these notions. He wore a wedding ring, and even at eight in the evening his fair skin was smoothly shaved. His triangular face—like a Siamese cat’s, Duncan said later—balanced on a long, elegant neck. He offered Matthew his hand, and introduced himself and PC Hannah Jones. Beneath her hat, her hair was wavy, and her eyebrows swooped like dark wings. She was, Matthew judged, only a few years older than him.
As he gave his full name and age, he felt his palms grow slippery. I’m not guilty, he thought indignantly, but his body had its own ideas. “How is he?” he said.
The detective said the boy had recovered consciousness. “The doctors expect him to make a full recovery. Can you tell me, in your own words, what happened this afternoon?”
Briefly Matthew pictured other people’s words hanging in the air: laundry on a washing line. He could borrow one person’s pajamas, another’s T-shirt. He explained about their father not showing up at the school, how they had started to walk home.
The detective paused in his rearranging of the miniature columns in Zoe’s set. “You don’t usually walk?”
“No. It’s nearly five miles. We take the bus. Sometimes we cycle.”
“Did you see anything lying by the side of the road? Pass any cars? Or cyclists? Other people walking?”
A number of cars had passed, one cyclist that he recalled, a man in sleek shorts, pedaling hard, but no other pedestrians. They had been discussing what to give their mother for her birthday. Zoe wanted to get her a necklace; Duncan had seen a print he liked in an antique shop. The afternoon had been entirely ordinary until Zoe spotted something through the hedge, and he and Duncan followed her into the field.
“Was the gate open? Were there any marks on it? Anything unusual?”
Matthew yearned to be helpful, but all he remembered was the surprising newness of the gate. He shook his head, no.
“And did you recognize the boy?”
“Duncan, my brother, thought he’d seen him before but he couldn’t remember where. Do you know who he is?”
“His name is Karel Lustig. He works nights at the Cottage Hospital.” The detective let the name occupy the room before he asked his next question. “When you saw him, did anything strike you?”
“He looked very peaceful. We thought he was asleep.”
They had, but only for a few seconds. The boy had lain so still. The detective remarked his hesitation and he admitted that what the boy really reminded him of was a statue at Dorchester Abbey: John de Stonor, lying on his tomb, his marble clothing neatly arranged for eternity. Sitting next to the detective, the constable made a note. Had Matthew finally said something of interest, or had she just remembered that she needed to buy eggs?
“Did you touch him?”
Matthew shook his head again; he had wanted to. “Zoe did.”
“And did he speak?”
“Once. He said ‘Coward.’ ”
Through the open window a sudden breeze caught the overhead light; their three shadows swayed back and forth across the piano. Matthew imagined their house, all the houses in the street, in the town, empty of people, like the ruined mansion they had come across in Wales last summer, the rooms decorated with flowery wallpaper, ivy creeping through the windows.
When their shadows quieted, the detective said, “So, were there any signs, besides his injuries, that another person had been there? That there’d been a fight?”
He recalled the boy’s hands lying on the grass, empty. He himself often went out with only the contents of his pockets, but when he was going to school, or to his job at the Co-op, he always had a backpack. “He didn’t have anything with him,” he said. “Maybe that was a sign of another person?”
The detective was nodding. According to a nurse at the Cottage Hospital, Karel had been carrying a backpack when he left work and discovered that his bicycle had a flat tire. “Whoever picked him up was probably the same person who attacked him and took his bag. We’ll know more when he’s conscious.”
Matthew heard the “probably.” “Are you saying someone found him before us, stole his bag, and left him there?” In books and films, the villain nearly always turned out to be not the obvious person.
“No, but it’s important not to take anything for granted. Do you fence?” The detective nodded at the mask on top of the piano.
“I’m taking lessons.”
“Épée or foil?”
“Foil, so far.”
“If you remember anything else, no matter how small, please get in touch. Don’t worry about bothering me, or seeming stupid.” He held out a business card, the first Matthew had ever been offered. Then, tilting his triangular face, the detective said, “You did a good thing today. You saved a boy’s life.”
WHILE MATTHEW TALKED TO THE detective, his father, back at the kitchen table, helped himself to more fish pie—it had turned out well—and described his latest commission, a wrought-iron garden gate. He had persuaded the customer to let him use William Morris’s willow pattern.
“Nice,” said Duncan. “Lots of little leaves.”
Shut up, shut up, Zoe thought. Why was the detective taking so long? What could Matthew possibly have to say? Her impatience shredded the air. She pulled the elastic band off her ponytail, shook out her hair. When Duncan stood to clear the plates, she stayed in her chair. She could do nothing but wait.
At last Matthew returned. As she stepped into the parlor, she felt her shoulders relax, her heartbeat slow. This man would explain what had happened; he would make sense of the boy’s scarlet legs. He introduced himself and asked her full name and age. While the policewoman wrote down her answers, he absentmindedly plucked Cleopatra’s barge from the blue ribbon of the Nile that ran across the back of the set, behind the Forum.
“Could you tell me about this afternoon?” he said.
She gave her account, trying to be as precise as possible, and asked if the boy was going to be all right. The detective said he would be fine in a few weeks. Without prompting, he told her the boy’s name—pleasingly distinct—and occupation.
“But why would anyone hurt him?” she said. “Are there really people who drive around at seven a.m., waiting to stab hospital orderlies?”
He cradled Cleopatra’s barge; in his long fingers, it looked like a large canoe. “Perhaps they had an argument? Your brother said you touched him.”
Was he accusing her? She couldn’t tell. “I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone. I didn’t hurt him.”
“I’m sure he appreciated that. Did he say anything while you were with him?” “He said ‘Cowrie.’ Like the little shells the Vikings used as money.” On her desk she had an eggcup half full of the ones she’d collected on the beach in Wales.
“ ‘Cowrie,’ you’re sure?”
Zoe said she was—maybe he was dreaming? Both the detective and the police constable wrote in their notebooks. “Please phone,” he said, “if you remember anything else.”
She slipped his card into her pocket. “Do you mind putting my barge back?”
THAT NIGHT DUNCAN TURNED OFF the lights in his room and stood at the window, staring down into the shadowy garden. Their house was in the middle of a terrace, the garden separated from those of their neighbors by brick walls. Beyond the lawn and the picnic table was a pergola covered with roses and honeysuckle, and beyond that a bed of rhododendrons, azaleas, smoke bushes, and two laburnum trees. The breeze that had sprung up earlier had grown stronger, and the trees and shrubs were swaying. The boy’s one word—“ Cowslip”—had made him think of the little mermaid and her sisters, tending their gardens beneath the turquoise sea. When he was younger, eight or nine, he had read the story over and over, picturing the garden filled with cornflowers and cowslips, willing the prince to recognize the little mermaid. Now, as he stood watching, a person stepped forward beneath the laburnum trees.
My first mother, he thought. She’s come for me.
For years he had seldom spoken of his birth mother, rarely thought of her, but not for a second did he doubt his vision. She was summoning him, warning him. Even as he pressed his face to the glass, the dark form faded, thinned, became another shadow among shadows. Everyone else was in bed. Walking as quietly as possible, he went downstairs and made his way from room to room. He had always liked windows—the eyes of a house, giving and receiving light—but as he checked each lock, they seemed stupidly fragile. One stone, and anyone could climb in. Once again he missed Arthur, who had announced each visitor with a single low bark.
Back in his room, he wedged a chair under the doorknob like people did in films. Still he did not turn on the light, which would betray his presence, or the radio. Lying in bed, he felt guilt creeping up his arms. He was leaving his parents and siblings undefended. Worse than that. He was hoping that any intruder would be waylaid by more tempting choices. When the guilt reached his shoulders, he got out of bed and moved the chair back to his desk.
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HIS FIRST WAKING thought was that yesterday he had encountered something extraordinary: a crime like the ones he read about in books, with a victim and a villain. Gazing at his bedroom window, the curtains fringed with light, he was filled with elation. But as he got up, washed, and dressed in the predictable school uniform, the feeling ebbed. Today, he could already tell, was going to be what he and Benjamin called the SOS: same old shit. Downstairs he found Duncan at the table, yawning over his cornflakes, and their mother at the counter, making her lunch.
Zoe was hovering beside the toaster. “Please can we have the day off?” she begged. “You could say we were in an accident.”
He was about to object—he had spent hours preparing for the debate in history, and he needed to see Rachel—but their mother was already saying she didn’t think half an hour in a field justified their absence. “Don’t forget your running shoes,” she added.
He waited to see how Zoe would respond. Often his sister treated argument as a sport, persisting long after the outcome was settled. Now he watched her watch their mother, as she deftly wrapped her sandwich, and decide not to press her case.
On the bus they each usually sat with friends. Today he slid into the seat beside Zoe; Duncan took the seat in front. Opening his history book, he tried to focus on Archduke Ferdinand and the numerous and confusing causes of World War I. Duncan and Zoe got out their own books. Last night, before he left, the detective had asked them not to talk about the boy in the field. “You walked home from school and did your homework,” he had said. “End of story.” As the bus neared the school, Zoe reminded them of their promise.
“Who would I talk to?” Duncan said.
It was not, Matthew knew, a rhetorical question. His brother was genuinely curious: Who, among his friends, did Zoe consider a suitable confidant?
“Just don’t,” she said. Although she was the one who would find it hard not to chatter to Moira and Frances and Gita.
Inside the school they had no choice but to separate. As he got out his French textbook, the girl at the next desk asked if he’d heard. A boy had been attacked in a field and nearly died. “Didn’t you walk home yesterday?” she said.
He was simultaneously nodding and shaking his head when Mademoiselle Fournier came to the rescue. “Bonjour, mes élèves. Comment ça va?”
As he went from class to class, he heard different versions of the story: a boy had been assaulted, murdered, robbed at gunpoint, sometimes two boys. By the time he saw Rachel at lunchtime, he was able to feign ordinary curiosity. She repeated the gun story, and he said he had heard that too. Only Benjamin didn’t mention the boy; he had had an idea for their next event. For the last year the two of them had been staging odd happenings: an anarchic egg-and-spoon race at sports day; a stall outside the gym selling artisanal paper clips; an imaginary country inserted on the map in the geography classroom. Six weeks had passed before anyone noticed Wallenia, complete with mountains, lakes, and a capital city, overlapping Bulgaria and Romania.
Now Benjamin suggested a millennium display. “We could have all kinds of machines failing,” he said. “Pencil sharpeners, lawn mowers, eggbeaters, alarm clocks.”
“Toasters,” Matthew volunteered, “hair dryers, staplers.”
Was a stall at school the best idea? Or maybe in town, outside the Co-op? It was a relief, as they traded ideas, not to think about the boy for ten minutes. That afternoon Duncan had a piano lesson, and Zoe was at cross-country; he sat alone near the front of the bus. The temperature had fallen, and the sky tumbled with the gray clouds that his father called cumulonimbus capillatus. Soon the swallows would gather on the telegraph wires, getting ready for their long flight south. When he’d told Zoe about Wallenia, she had said, “But what’s the point, if no one notices?” That, he had tried to explain, was exactly the point.
He got off at the stop beside the Co-op. Through the plate glass window, he could see Eileen and Bob on the tills, ringing up customers. He waved, and Bob waved back. At the first corner he turned not toward home but in the direction of his father’s forge, a few streets away. The double doors facing onto the forecourt were closed, which meant no more customers were expected that day. He let himself in by the side door. The forge had been in the family for over a hundred years, and no one, not even his father, knew the exact contents of the building. There were horseshoes from when Queen Victoria was on the throne, account books kept in elegant copperplate, tools that should have been in a museum, lists of jobs and debts, faded calendars, single gloves, coils of wire, cigar boxes full of nails, old bellows, hammers, and vises of many sizes. This afternoon the fire was almost out, his father’s apprentice had gone home, and his father was standing at the workbench, sorting nails into a row of boxes. Matthew watched his hands moving back and forth. When he was younger, he had found his parents’ ability to concentrate bewildering. What did it mean that he disappeared so entirely from their brains? Now he envied them.
“Matthew. I didn’t hear you come in. You’d make a good burglar.”
“Have they caught the man?”
“The man?” His father reached for a handful of nails. “Oh, you mean whoever attacked that boy. How would I know? I’ve been here all day, working on my willow gate.” He dropped three nails into three different compartments—each landed with a different clink—and glanced over at Matthew. “Don’t worry,” he said. “He won’t attack anyone else.”
All day thoughts about the boy and his assailant had been sliding in and out of Matthew’s brain, but that the man might seek another victim had not been among them. Now his father saying he wouldn’t at once raised the specter that he would. He imagined the man lying in wait in some doorway, or behind a tree. His father was still talking. Zoe was the one he worried about. She was impulsive, overly confident. And she could easily pass for older. “You’ve got to keep an eye on her,” he urged, “especially when she doesn’t want you to.”
Two summers ago, when they were camping in Normandy, Zoe had failed to return from buying baguettes. They had searched the campsite, the town. Just as their mother was about to call the police, she had reappeared. The guide from the local museum, whom they’d befriended the day before, had been at the boulangerie; he had taken her to see a World War II bunker. “It had these tiny windows for guns,” she said. “And a hole in the ceiling for a periscope.”
“Promise you won’t go off with a stranger again,” their mother had said. “Anything could have happened.”
Zoe had promised but, watching her face, Matthew could tell she didn’t understand the force of “anything.” Only in the last few months, as he and Rachel spent more and more time beneath her duvet, had he sensed that his sister too, with the help of first Luke, then Ant, was learning this new language.
“Dad, she never listens to me. Besides, you said he wouldn’t attack anyone else.”
“Well, do your best,” said his father. “I’ll be home soon. Betsy’s at her class until eight.”
His mother’s class in ancient Greek was a new addition to the family timetable. In August she had announced that she’d always wanted to read The Odyssey in the original. Now twice a week she came home late, and at weekends she did homework at the kitchen table, frowning over the unfamiliar alphabet.
The lattice of streets between the forge and their house was so familiar that often Matthew walked the entire distance noticing nothing. Today he silently interrogated the houses and privet hedges, the cars and cats and rowan trees. Do you know Karel? Do you know who hurt him? And then, as he passed the plaque marking the site of the old glove makers’ factory, he was thinking not about Karel but about Claire. She had joined his class halfway through primary six, and their teacher had asked him to show her round. She was older than him, almost eleven, and wanted to go to Iceland where there were volcanoes and wild ponies.
One day she had invited him home for tea. They had played Monopoly with her little sisters, who were too young to follow the rules but liked shaking the dice. Claire was negotiating for Pall Mall when a car pulled up in the street. The next thing he knew, she was folding the Monopoly board into the box, telling her sisters to be quiet and Matthew to do his homework. “What’s all the fuss?” he had said. Then her father came into the room.
All he could think was: I have to get out of here.
“But did he do something?” his mother asked when he tried to explain.
“He said good evening and looked at me like I was a worm.”
Next day, when Claire raised her hand in class, he had glimpsed a bracelet of bruises. “If I were you,” he had said at break, “I’d run away.”
“Where to?” she said bitterly. “Iceland? Besides I can’t leave my sisters behind.”
His mother said she would speak to the head teacher, but unless the father did something drastic, they couldn’t intervene. “You mean,” Matthew said, “he has to hurt Claire before we can stop him hurting her?” He had begun walking her home every afternoon, hoping to be invited in. If only her father would hit him, they could go to the police. But she always said goodbye at the end of the street. Then one Monday her desk was empty. The teacher announced that Claire’s family had moved to Bristol.
He was almost at the house. There was the pillar box, and the cherry tree his mother watered in summer. Surely by now, he thought, Claire had taken his advice and fled. Inside the empty hall, he turned on the light, took out the detective’s card, and went over to the phone. A woman answered on the second ring, and then Hugh Price was saying, “Matthew. Did you remember something?”
“No,” he said sheepishly. Of course the detective would think he’d called with information. “I was wondering if you’d caught whoever did it?”
“Not yet. But we have a good description.”
“So he’s out there, walking around?” He tried, and failed, to conceal his indignation.
There was a ticking sound, as if the workings of the detective’s brain were suddenly audible. When he spoke again, he sounded tired. “He may have bolted, or gone to ground, but yes, chances are, he’s just going about his business.”
After he replaced the receiver, Matthew studied the phone with its ten numbers, which could be combined into thousands, millions, of permutations. If the man had a phone, then one of those permutations would ring in his living room, or hall. He pictured himself dialing, and dialing, and dialing.