Read The Subtle Knife Online

Authors: Philip Pullman

Tags: #Fantasy:General

The Subtle Knife

ONE

THE CAT AND THE HORNBEAM TREES

Will tugged at his mother’s hand and said, “Come
on,
come
on
 . . . ”

But his mother hung back. She was still afraid. Will looked up and down the narrow street in the evening light, along the little terrace of houses, each behind its tiny garden and its box hedge, with the sun glaring off the windows of one side and leaving the other in shadow. There wasn’t much time. People would be having their meal about now, and soon there would be other children around, to stare and comment and notice. It was dangerous to wait, but all he could do was persuade her, as usual.

“Mum, let’s go in and see Mrs. Cooper,” he said. “Look, we’re nearly there.”

“Mrs. Cooper?” she said doubtfully.

But he was already ringing the bell. He had to put down the bag to do it, because his other hand still held his mother’s. It might have bothered him at twelve years of age to be seen holding his mother’s hand, but he knew what would happen to her if he didn’t.

The door opened, and there was the stooped elderly figure of the piano teacher, with the scent of lavender water about her as he remembered.

“Who’s that? Is that William?” the old lady said. “I haven’t seen you for over a year. What do you want, dear?”

“I want to come in, please, and bring my mother,” he said firmly.

Mrs. Cooper looked at the woman with the untidy hair and the distracted half-smile, and at the boy with the fierce, unhappy glare in his eyes, the tight-set lips, the jutting jaw. And then she saw that Mrs. Parry, Will’s mother, had put makeup on one eye but not on the other. And she hadn’t noticed. And neither had Will. Something was wrong.

“Well . . . ” she said, and stepped aside to make room in the narrow hall.

Will looked up and down the road before closing the door, and Mrs. Cooper saw how tightly Mrs. Parry was clinging to her son’s hand, and how tenderly he guided her into the sitting room where the piano was (of course, that was the only room he knew); and she noticed that Mrs. Parry’s clothes smelled slightly musty, as if they’d been too long in the washing machine before drying; and how similar the two of them looked as they sat on the sofa with the evening sun full on their faces, their broad cheekbones, their wide eyes, their straight black brows.

“What is it, William?” the old lady said. “What’s the matter?”

“My mother needs somewhere to stay for a few days,” he said. “It’s too difficult to look after her at home just now. I don’t mean she’s ill. She’s just kind of confused and muddled, and she gets a bit worried. She won’t be hard to look after. She just needs someone to be kind to her, and I think you could do that quite easily, probably.”

The woman was looking at her son without seeming to understand, and Mrs. Cooper saw a bruise on her cheek. Will hadn’t taken his eyes off Mrs. Cooper, and his expression was desperate.

“She won’t be expensive,” he went on. “I’ve brought some packets of food, enough to last, I should think. You could have some of it too. She won’t mind sharing.”

“But . . . I don’t know if I should . . . Doesn’t she need a doctor?”

“No! She’s not ill.”

“But there must be someone who can . . . I mean, isn’t there a neighbor or someone in the family—”

“We haven’t got any family. Only us. And the neighbors are too busy.”

“What about the social services? I don’t mean to put you off, dear, but—”

“No! No. She just needs a bit of help. I can’t do it myself for a little while, but I won’t be long. I’m going to . . . I’ve got things to do. But I’ll be back soon, and I’ll take her home again, I promise. You won’t have to do it for long.”

The mother was looking at her son with such trust, and he turned and smiled at her with such love and reassurance, that Mrs. Cooper couldn’t say no.

“Well,” she said, turning to Mrs. Parry, “I’m sure it won’t matter for a day or so. You can have my daughter’s room, dear. She’s in Australia. She won’t be needing it again.”

“Thank you,” said Will, and stood up as if he were in a hurry to leave.

“But where are you going to be?” said Mrs. Cooper.

“I’m going to be staying with a friend,” he said. “I’ll phone up as often as I can. I’ve got your number. It’ll be all right.”

His mother was looking at him, bewildered. He bent over and kissed her clumsily.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Mrs. Cooper will look after you better than me, honest. And I’ll phone up and talk to you tomorrow.”

They hugged tightly, and then Will kissed her again and gently unfastened her arms from his neck before going to the front door. Mrs. Cooper could see he was upset, because his eyes were glistening, but he turned, remembering his manners, and held out his hand.

“Good-bye,” he said, “and thank you very much.”

“William,” she said, “I wish you’d tell me what the matter is—”

“It’s a bit complicated,” he said, “but she won’t be any trouble, honestly.”

That wasn’t what she meant, and both of them knew it; but somehow Will was in charge of this business, whatever it was. The old lady thought she’d never seen a child so implacable.

He turned away, already thinking about the empty house.

The close where Will and his mother lived was a loop of road in a modern estate with a dozen identical houses, of which theirs was by far the shabbiest. The front garden was just a patch of weedy grass; his mother had planted some shrubs earlier in the year, but they’d shriveled and died for lack of watering. As Will came around the corner, his cat, Moxie, rose up from her favorite spot under the still-living hydrangea and stretched before greeting him with a soft meow and butting her head against his leg.

He picked her up and whispered, “Have they come back, Moxie? Have you seen them?”

The house was silent. In the last of the evening light the man across the road was washing his car, but he took no notice of Will, and Will didn’t look at him. The less notice people took, the better.

Holding Moxie against his chest, he unlocked the door and went in quickly. Then he listened very carefully before putting her down. There was nothing to hear; the house was empty.

He opened a tin for Moxie and left her to eat in the kitchen. How long before the men came back? There was no way of telling, so he’d better move quickly. He went upstairs and began to search.

He was looking for a battered green leather writing case. There are a surprising number of places to hide something that size even in any ordinary modern house; you don’t need secret panels and extensive cellars in order to make something hard to find. Will searched his mother’s bedroom first, ashamed to be looking through the drawers where she kept her underclothes, and then he worked systematically through the rest of the rooms upstairs, even his own. Moxie came to see what he was doing and sat and cleaned herself nearby, for company.

But he didn’t find it.

By that time it was dark, and he was hungry. He made himself baked beans on toast and sat at the kitchen table wondering about the best order to look through the downstairs rooms.

As he was finishing his meal, the phone rang.

He sat absolutely still, his heart thumping. He counted: twenty-six rings, and then it stopped. He put his plate in the sink and started to search again.

Four hours later he still hadn’t found the green leather case. It was half past one, and he was exhausted. He lay on his bed fully clothed and fell asleep at once, his dreams tense and crowded, his mother’s unhappy, frightened face always there just out of reach.

And almost at once, it seemed (though he’d been asleep for nearly three hours), he woke up knowing two things simultaneously.

First, he knew where the case was. And second, he knew that the men were downstairs, opening the kitchen door.

He lifted Moxie out of the way and softly hushed her sleepy protest. Then he swung his legs over the side of the bed and put on his shoes, straining every nerve to hear the sounds from downstairs. They were very quiet sounds: a chair being lifted and replaced, a short whisper, the creak of a floorboard.

Moving more silently than the men were, he left his bedroom and tiptoed to the spare room at the top of the stairs. It wasn’t quite pitch-dark, and in the ghostly gray predawn light he could see the old treadle sewing machine. He’d been through the room thoroughly only hours before, but he’d forgotten the compartment at the side of the sewing machine, where all the patterns and bobbins were kept.

He felt for it delicately, listening all the while. The men were moving about downstairs, and Will could see a dim flicker of light that might have been a flashlight at the edge of the door.

Then he found the catch of the compartment and clicked it open, and there, just as he’d known it would be, was the leather writing case.

And now what could he do? He crouched in the dimness, heart pounding, listening hard.

The two men were in the hall downstairs. He heard one of them say quietly, “Come on. I can hear the milkman down the road.”

“It’s not here, though,” said the other voice. “We’ll have to look upstairs.”

“Go on, then. Don’t hang about.”

Will braced himself as he heard the quiet creak of the top step. The man was making no noise at all, but he couldn’t help the creak if he wasn’t expecting it. Then there was a pause. A very thin beam of flashlight swept along the floor outside. Will saw it through the crack.

Then the door began to move. Will waited till the man was framed in the open doorway, and then exploded up out of the dark and crashed into the intruder’s belly.

But neither of them saw the cat.

As the man had reached the top step, Moxie had come silently out of the bedroom and stood with raised tail just behind the man’s legs, ready to rub herself against them. The man, who was trained and fit and hard, could have dealt with Will, but the cat was in the way, and as the man tried to move back, he tripped over her. With a sharp gasp he fell backward down the stairs and crashed his head brutally against the hall table.

Will heard a hideous crack, and didn’t stop to wonder about it. Clutching the writing case, he swung himself down the banister, leaping over the man’s body that lay twitching and crumpled at the foot of the flight, seized the tattered tote bag from the table, and was out of the front door and away before the other man could do more than come out of the living room and stare.

Even in his fear and haste Will wondered why the other man didn’t shout after him, or chase him. They’d be after him soon, though, with their cars and their cell phones. The only thing to do was run.

He saw the milkman turning into the close, the lights of his electric cart pallid in the dawn glimmer that was already filling the sky. Will jumped over the fence into the next-door garden, down the passage beside the house, over the next garden wall, across a dew-wet lawn, through the hedge, and into the tangle of shrubs and trees between the housing estate and the main road. There he crawled under a bush and lay panting and trembling. It was too early to be out on the road: wait till later, when the rush hour started.

He couldn’t get out of his mind the crack as the man’s head struck the table, and the way his neck was bent so far and in such a wrong way, and the dreadful twitching of his limbs. The man was dead. He’d killed him.

He couldn’t get it out of his mind, but he had to. There was quite enough to think about. His mother: would she really be safe where she was? Mrs. Cooper wouldn’t tell, would she? Even if Will didn’t turn up as he’d said he would? Because he couldn’t, now that he’d killed someone.

And Moxie. Who’d feed Moxie? Would Moxie worry about where they were? Would she try to follow them?

It was getting lighter by the minute. It was light enough already to check through the things in the tote bag: his mother’s purse, the latest letter from the lawyer, the road map of southern England, chocolate bars, toothpaste, spare socks and pants. And the green leather writing case.

Everything was there. Everything was going according to plan, really.

Except that he’d killed someone.

Will had first realized his mother was different from other people, and that he had to look after her, when he was seven. They were in a supermarket, and they were playing a game: they were allowed to put an item in the cart only when no one was looking. It was Will’s job to look all around and whisper “Now,” and she would snatch a tin or a packet from the shelf and put it silently into the cart. When things were in there they were safe, because they became invisible.

It was a good game, and it went on for a long time, because this was a Saturday morning and the shop was full, but they were good at it and worked well together. They trusted each other. Will loved his mother very much and often told her so, and she told him the same.

So when they reached the checkout Will was excited and happy because they’d nearly won. And when his mother couldn’t find her purse, that was part of the game too, even when she said the enemies must have stolen it; but Will was getting tired by this time, and hungry too, and Mummy wasn’t so happy anymore. She was really frightened, and they went around and around putting things back on the shelves, but this time they had to be extra careful because the enemies were tracking them down by means of her credit card numbers, which they knew because they had her purse . . . . 

And Will got more and more frightened himself. He realized how clever his mother had been to make this real danger into a game so that he wouldn’t be alarmed, and how, now that he knew the truth, he had to pretend not to be frightened, so as to reassure her.

So the little boy pretended it was a game still, so she didn’t have to worry that he was frightened, and they went home without any shopping, but safe from the enemies; and then Will found the purse on the hall table anyway. On Monday they went to the bank and closed her account, and opened another somewhere else, just to be sure. Thus the danger passed.

But sometime during the next few months, Will realized slowly and unwillingly that those enemies of his mother’s were not in the world out there, but in her mind. That made them no less real, no less frightening and dangerous; it just meant he had to protect her even more carefully. And from the moment in the supermarket when he had realized he must pretend in order not to worry his mother, part of Will’s mind was always alert to her anxieties. He loved her so much he would have died to protect her.

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