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.