Excerpts for Subtle Knife
Will tugged at his mother's hand and said, "Come on, come
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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
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
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
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
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,
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
"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
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
As for Will's father, he had vanished long before Will was able to
remember him. Will was passionately curious about his father,
"Was he a rich man?"
"Where did he go?"
"Why did he go?"
"Is he dead?"
"Will he come back?"
"What was he like?"
The last question was the only one she could help him with. John Parry had
been a handsome man, a brave and clever officer in the Royal Marines, who
had left the army to become an explorer and lead expeditions to remote
parts of the world. Will thrilled to hear about this. No father could be
more exciting than an explorer. From then on, in all his games he had an
invisible companion: he and his father were together hacking through the
jungle, shading their eyes to gaze out across stormy seas from the deck of
their schooner, holding up a torch to decipher mysterious inscriptions in
a bat-infested cave. ...They were the best of friends, they saved each
other's life countless times, they laughed and talked together over
campfires long into the night.
But the older he got, the more Will began to wonder. Why were there no
pictures of his father in this part of the world or that, riding with
frost-bearded men on Arctic sledges or examining creeper-covered ruins in
the jungle? Had nothing survived of the trophies and curiosities he must
have brought home? Was nothing written about him in a book?
His mother didn't know. But one thing she had said stuck in his mind.
She said, "One day, you'll follow in your father's footsteps. You're going
to be a great man too. You'll take up his mantle."
And though Will didn't know what that meant, he understood the sense of
it, and felt uplifted with pride and purpose. All his games were going to
come true. His father was alive, lost somewhere in the wild, and he was
going to rescue him and take up his mantle. ...It was worth living a
difficult life, if you had a great aim like that.
So he kept his mother's trouble secret. There were times when she was
calmer and clearer than others, and he took care to learn from her then
how to shop and cook and keep the house clean, so that he could do it when
she was confused and frightened. And he learned how to conceal himself,
too, how to remain unnoticed at school, how not to attract attention from
the neighbors, even when his mother was in such a state of fear and
madness that she could barely speak. What Will himself feared more than
anything was that the authorities would find out about her, and take her
away, and put him in a home among strangers. Any difficulty was better
than that. Because there came times when the darkness cleared from her
mind, and she was happy again, and she laughed at her fears and blessed
him for looking after her so well; and she was so full of love and
sweetness then that he could think of no better companion, and wanted
nothing more than to live with her alone forever.
But then the men came.
They weren't police, and they weren't social services, and they weren't
criminals--at least as far as Will could judge. They wouldn't tell him
what they wanted, in spite of his efforts to keep them away; they'd speak
only to his mother. And her state was fragile just then.
But he listened outside the door, and heard them ask about his father, and
felt his breath come more quickly.
The men wanted to know where John Parry had gone, and whether he'd sent
anything back to her, and when she'd last heard from him, and whether he'd
had contact with any foreign embassies. Will heard his mother getting more
and more distressed, and finally he ran into the room and told them to go.
He looked so fierce that neither of the men laughed, though he was so
young. They could easily have knocked him down, or held him off the floor
with one hand, but he was fearless, and his anger was hot and deadly.
So they left. Naturally, this episode strengthened Will's conviction: his
father was in trouble somewhere, and only he could help. His games weren't
childish anymore, and he didn't play so openly. It was coming true, and he
had to be worthy of it.
And not long afterward the men came back, insisting that Will's mother had
something to tell them. They came when Will was at school, and one of them
kept her talking downstairs while the other searched the bedrooms. She
didn't realize what they were doing. But Will came home early and found
them, and once again he blazed at them, and once again they left.
They seemed to know that he wouldn't go to the police, for fear of losing
his mother to the authorities, and they got more and more persistent.
Finally they broke into the house when Will had gone to fetch his mother
home from the park. It was getting worse for her now, and she believed
that she had to touch every separate slat in every separate bench beside
the pond. Will would help her, to get it done quicker. When they got home
that day they saw the back of the men's car disappearing out of the close,
and he got inside to find that they'd been through the house and searched
most of the drawers and cupboards.
He knew what they were after. The green leather case was his mother's most
precious possession; he would never dream of looking through it, and he
didn't even know where she kept it. But he knew it contained letters, and
he knew she read them sometimes, and cried, and it was then that she
talked about his father. So Will supposed that this was what the men were
after, and knew he had to do something about it.
He decided first to find somewhere safe for his mother to stay. He thought
and thought, but he had no friends to ask, and the neighbors were already
suspicious, and the only person he thought he could trust was Mrs. Cooper.
Once his mother was safely there, he was going to find the green leather
case and look at what was in it, and then he was going to go to Oxford,
where he'd find the answer to some of his questions. But the men came too
And now he'd killed one of them.
So the police would be after him too.
Well, he was good at not being noticed. He'd have to not be noticed
harder than he'd ever done in his life before, and keep it up as
long as he could, till either he found his father or they found him. And
if they found him first, he didn't care how many more of them he killed.
Later that day, toward midnight in fact, Will was walking out of the city
of Oxford, forty miles away. He was tired to his very bones. He had
hitchhiked, and ridden on two buses, and walked, and reached Oxford at six
in the evening, too late to do what he needed to do. He'd eaten at a
Burger King and gone to a cinema to hide (though what the film was, he
forgot even as he was watching it), and now he was walking along an
endless road through the suburbs, heading north.
No one had noticed him so far. But he was aware that he'd better find
somewhere to sleep before long, because the later it got, the more
noticeable he'd be. The trouble was that there was nowhere to hide in the
gardens of the comfortable houses along this road, and there was still no
sign of open country.
He came to a large traffic circle where the road going north crossed the
Oxford ring road going east and west. At this time of night there was very
little traffic, and the road where he stood was quiet, with comfortable
houses set back behind a wide expanse of grass on either side. Planted
along the grass at the road's edge were two lines of hornbeam trees,
odd-looking things with perfectly symmetrical close-leafed crowns, more
like children's drawings than like real trees. The streetlights made the
scene look artificial, like a stage set. Will was stupefied with
exhaustion, and he might have gone on to the north, or he might have laid
his head on the grass under one of those trees and slept; but as he stood
trying to clear his head, he saw a cat.
She was a tabby, like Moxie. She padded out of a garden on the Oxford side
of the road, where Will was standing. Will put down his tote bag and held
out his hand, and the cat came up to rub her head against his knuckles,
just as Moxie did. Of course, every cat behaved like that, but all the
same Will felt such a longing for home that tears scalded his eyes.
Eventually the cat turned away. This was night, and there was a territory
to patrol, there were mice to hunt. She padded across the road and toward
the bushes just beyond the hornbeam trees, and there she stopped.
Will, still watching, saw the cat behave curiously.
She reached out a paw to pat something in the air in front of her,
something quite invisible to Will. Then she leaped backward, back arched
and fur on end, tail held out stiffly. Will knew cat behavior. He watched
more alertly as the cat approached the spot again, just an empty patch of
grass between the hornbeams and the bushes of a garden hedge, and patted
the air once more.
Again she leaped back, but less far and with less alarm this time. After
another few seconds of sniffing, touching, and whisker twitching,
curiosity overcame wariness.
The cat stepped forward and vanished.
Will blinked. Then he stood still, close to the trunk of the nearest tree,
as a truck came around the circle and swept its lights over him. When it
had gone past, he crossed the road, keeping his eyes on the spot where the
cat had been investigating. It wasn't easy, because there was nothing to
fix on, but when he came to the place and cast about to look closely, he
At least, he saw it from some angles. It looked as if someone had cut a
patch out of the air, about two yards from the edge of the road, a patch
roughly square in shape and less than a yard across. If you were level
with the patch so that it was edge-on, it was nearly invisible, and it was
completely invisible from behind. You could see it only from the side
nearest the road, and you couldn't see it easily even from there, because
all you could see through it was exactly the same kind of thing that lay
in front of it on this side: a patch of grass lit by a streetlight.
But Will knew without the slightest doubt that that patch of grass on the
other side was in a different world.
He couldn't possibly have said why. He knew it at once, as strongly as he
knew that fire burned and kindness was good. He was looking at something
And for that reason alone, it enticed him to stoop and look further. What
he saw made his head swim and his heart thump harder, but he didn't
hesitate: he pushed his tote bag through, and then scrambled through
himself, through the hole in the fabric of this world and into another.
He found himself standing under a row of trees. But not hornbeam trees:
were tall palms, and they were growing, like the trees in Oxford, in a row
the grass. But this was the center of a broad boulevard, and at the side
the boulevard was a line of cafés and small shops, all brightly
lit, all open, and all utterly silent and empty beneath a sky thick with
stars. The hot night was laden with the scent of flowers and with the salt
smell of the sea.
Will looked around carefully. Behind him the full moon shone down over a
distant prospect of great green hills, and on the slopes at the foot of
the hills there were houses with rich gardens, and an open parkland with
groves of trees and the white gleam of a classical temple.
Just beside him was that bare patch in the air, as hard to see from this
side as from the other, but definitely there. He bent to look through and
saw the road in Oxford, his own world. He turned away with a shudder:
whatever this new world was, it had to be better than what he'd just left.
With a dawning lightheadedness, the feeling that he was dreaming but awake
at the same time, he stood up and looked around for the cat, his guide.
She was nowhere in sight. No doubt she was already exploring those narrow
streets and gardens beyond the cafés whose lights were so inviting.
Will lifted up his tattered tote bag and walked slowly across the road
toward them, moving very carefully in case it all disappeared.
The air of the place had something Mediterranean or maybe Caribbean about
it. Will had never been out of England, so he couldn't compare it with
anywhere he knew, but it was the kind of place where people came out late
at night to eat and drink, to dance and enjoy music. Except that there was
no one here, and the silence was immense.
On the first corner he reached there stood a café, with little green
tables on the pavement and a zinc-topped bar and an espresso machine. On
some of the tables glasses stood half-empty; in one ashtray a cigarette
had burned down to the butt; a plate of risotto stood next to a basket of
stale rolls as hard as cardboard.
He took a bottle of lemonade from the cooler behind the bar and then
thought for a moment before dropping a pound coin in the till. As soon as
he'd shut the till, he opened it again, realizing that the money in there
might say what this place was called. The currency was called the corona,
but he couldn't tell any more than that.
He put the money back and opened the bottle on the opener fixed to the
counter before leaving the café and wandering down the street going
away from the boulevard. Little grocery shops and bakeries stood between
jewelers and florists and bead-curtained doors opening into private
houses, where wrought-iron balconies thick with flowers overhung the
narrow pavement, and where the silence, being enclosed, was even more
The streets were leading downward, and before very long they opened out
onto a broad avenue where more palm trees reached high into the air, the
underside of their leaves glowing in the streetlights.
On the other side of the avenue was the sea.
Will found himself facing a harbor enclosed from the left by a stone
breakwater and from the right by a headland on which a large building with
stone columns and wide steps and ornate balconies stood floodlit among
flowering trees and bushes. In the harbor one or two rowboats lay still at
anchor, and beyond the breakwater the starlight glittered on a calm sea.
By now Will's exhaustion had been wiped out. He was wide awake and
possessed by wonder. From time to time, on his way through the narrow
streets, he'd put out a hand to touch a wall or a doorway or the flowers
in a window box, and found them solid and convincing. Now he wanted to
touch the whole landscape in front of him, because it was too wide to take
in through his eyes alone. He stood still, breathing deeply, almost afraid.
He discovered that he was still holding the bottle he'd taken from the
café. He drank from it, and it tasted like what it was, ice-cold
lemonade; and welcome, too, because the night air was hot.
He wandered along to the right, past hotels with awnings over brightly lit
entrances and bougainvillea flowering beside them, until he came to the
gardens on the little headland. The building in the trees with its ornate
facade lit by floodlights might have been an opera house. There were paths
leading here and there among the lamp-hung oleander trees, but not a sound
of life could be heard: no night birds singing, no insects, nothing but
Will's own footsteps.
The only sound he could hear came from the regular, quiet breaking of
delicate waves from the beach beyond the palm trees at the edge of the
garden. Will made his way there. The tide was halfway in, or halfway out,
and a row of pedal boats was drawn up on the soft white sand above the
high-water line. Every few seconds a tiny wave folded itself over at the
sea's edge before sliding back neatly under the next. Fifty yards or so
out on the calm water was a diving platform.
Will sat on the side of one of the pedal boa
From the Paperback edition.