The first thing that DB noticed as William Blake opened the door was that he’d cut his hair. At school on Friday, William had sported a fringe as neat and perfect as the teeth of a brown comb, but now the hair had been cut back across the top, short and ominous, a chicken pox scar revealed in the hairline above his left eye. A horn pipped in the street, and DB turned to offer a half wave to his father as the white car pulled away from the kerb.
‘You’re late.’ William held the door open. ‘I said eleven.’
‘The car wouldn’t start.’
William let out a little snort, and if his eyes didn’t make a comparative glance towards the sleek, chocolate-coloured Saab parked in the driveway, then DB felt they really should have done.
‘I thought you might have got lost,’ William said. ‘Darren Sanders came around for my birthday last year, and his mum missed the turning.’
‘The car wouldn’t start,’ DB repeated. ‘Dad can’t wait to get rid of it. He says, when we get to Cyprus, the company will give us a car.’
They passed the door to the sitting room, through which DB saw William’s sister, Abigail, lying on her side on a pale settee decorated with a tangle of pink roses. Whenever he saw Abigail Blake around the school, he would assume a level of familiarity, but the fact that he was a year older, and probably her brother’s best friend seemed to count for nothing. She shifted on her shoulder, and regarded him for a second or two with a steady look of her rich brown eyes. She had her thumb against her mouth, staring, DB assumed, at the television out of view, although he later realised that he had heard no sound.
William had paused, by on the edge of a short flight of stairs which led down another level. He stroked the stubble of his hair, goading DB to say something.
‘It’s really short,’ DB said.
‘Mum sent me out to get it done this morning. And I thought, why not get rid of it all?’
‘But it’s really short.’
‘I hated that other haircut. It was stupid.’
They walked into a wide, high kitchen where William’s father sat at a table of yellow pine, in front of an open accounts ledger, while Mrs Blake stood washing green gauges in the sink. A synthetic fragrance of peaches filled the air, and the cleanliness and order of the room contrasted with the kitchen in DB’s home, with its mess of packing and cardboard boxes, and the chickens which would sometimes invade through the back door. Mr and Mrs Blake had been talking- DB had heard Abigail’s name— but broke off when the boys entered the room.
‘Hello there,’ she said, looking past William to see DB standing at the doorway. She had neat black hair and fine pale features. A tall and slender woman, in a dark summer dress decorated with small white polka-dots.
‘Hello.’ After a brief pause, he continued as he’d been instructed by his mother. ‘Thank you for letting me come over.’
Her eyes seemed to brighten perceptibly at this remark, all her features sharpening into a luminous smile of delight. ‘You’re very welcome.’
Mr Blake closed the account ledger and moved it into the centre of the table, as though placing it upon a pencil outline. He glanced DB’s way and smiled, but the smile was secretive, forbidding. William had bent down towards the cupboard nearest the back door, and had begun searching inside it.
‘Have you made the lunch?’ he asked, without removing his head.
‘Yes, William I’ve made the lunch.’ Mrs Blake smiled at DB and rolled her eyes. ‘There’s tea in the Thermos. Although I think it’s going to be quite warm today. I can give you some squash if you’d like.’
‘Tea’s fine,’ William said.
Mr Blake cleared his throat. When he spoke, his voice had a scratchy, high-pitched quality. ‘So what are you two doing today?’
The news came as a surprise to DB. Mr Blake sat back and folded his arms. His nostrils twitched slightly, as though provoked by some rich familiar scent.
‘Is that right?’ He spoke slowly, with an elaborate patience. ‘Where are you going?’
‘The river? The river is actually quite long isn’t it, William?’
‘So where are you going, specifically.’ Mr Blake strummed the even edge of the account book with a movement of his thumb.
‘By the pump house.’ William didn’t look up from the cupboard. He removed a large margarine tub containing a pair of marigold gloves and a scrubbing brush and placed it upon the floor behind him.
‘What are you looking for?’ Mrs Blake asked.
‘I want a container. For bait.’
‘There’s a Tupperware box at the back there. You’ll find it.’ As William turned back towards the cupboard, Mrs Blake scrutinised him steadily. ‘I can’t believe what you’ve done to your hair.’ She turned to DB. ‘Now, if your mother sent you out to get a haircut, would come back looking like that?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You wouldn’t. I know you wouldn’t. Only William would do something like that. That lovely fringe…’
‘I’m not five years old anymore,’ William said, his voice echoing around the interior of the cupboard.
‘Oh and don’t I know it.’
Mr Blake cleared his throat. ‘I’m not sure we actually finished talking about the fishing expedition.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Mrs Blake almost sang the apology. When she smiled again, her expression was thin and unusual, and DB felt that by noticing it he had uncovered something which he couldn’t quite understand.
Mr Blake had leaned back in his chair, and was turning awkwardly to glance at William’s back. ‘I wanted to say that I expect you to be responsible for your guest.’
‘I will be.’
William sighed. ‘Not going in the water. Not messing about with the knife. Not leaving behind any tackle…’
The list was interrupted by William banging his head on the inside of the cupboard, followed, swiftly, by a muffled yelp. Mr Blake snorted- his wide nostrils almost trembling with disdain— and he patted a hand impatiently two, three times upon the account book, as though this was the only reliable constant in his life.
‘Just be careful,’ he said, absently. ‘Both of you, please, be careful.’
William removed his head from the cupboard, and looked up at his mother. ‘Can I have some bread and cheese?’