Read The Gift Online

Authors: Peter Dickinson

The Gift

BOOK: The Gift





The Gift

Peter Dickinson


1 Granny

2 Dadda

3 Wolf

4 Ian

5 Mr. Black Hat

6 Monkey

7 Penny

8 Mr. Venn

9 Dad

10 Davy

11 Dick

A Biography of Peter Dickinson



Davy Price had first learned about his gift long ago—oh, he must have been seven or eight, a skinny dark boy wearing brown corduroy trousers with green patches on the knees. No, he couldn't have been quite eight because he still came out of school earlier than the other two, and he remembered that because it had been the first time Mum had got really fed up with Dad—everybody did, in the end—fed up enough to see the kids off to school, and ask the Mum next door to look after Davy until Ian and Penny got home, and …

Davy couldn't remember that neighbor's name—they'd moved house so often and had so many neighbors. But he could still see in his mind's eye how her square, cheerful face went blank when Ian had come into her kitchen and said in gossipy tones, “I've come to fetch Davy. Thank you for having him. Mum's run away. She left a note on the mantelpiece for Dad, but I read it.”

That neighbor's face had closed the gates of friendliness and become a wall, shutting them out. She wanted no dealings with families whose Mums ran off because their Dads were hopeless.

(Later, after the next few times, Davy had learned that families with runaway Mums and hopeless Dads wanted few dealings with neighbors. Some might be kind, and some cold, but the kindness was worse than the coldness—eager, inquisitive, excited. Nothing like love. But he hadn't realized that, first time.)

In fact, being not quite eight, he hadn't realized anything much except that he was getting off school for three weeks in the middle of term, and going away on a long, long car journey.

Davy often thought about how they had all changed since then—except Dad, of course. Now it seemed to him that three quite different children had been driven all the way to Llangollen in that smelly old car. (Dad usually managed to change his car at least twice a year, but though they rattled differently, they always smelled the same.) Penny had sat in the back, singing to her one-eyed doll. Ian had sat in front talking football with Dad and laughing with triumph when he caught Dad out pretending to have seen some match or player he'd never really seen. Davy had sat in the back with Penny and had slept quite a bit because of the early start but, when he was awake, had been caught up in the high spirits of the whole jaunt and perfectly happy.

For Dad possessed a gift, too—not quite as mysterious as Davy's but just as treacherous to its owner. Dad always managed to feel that everything was going to be all right, and somehow made anybody he was with feel just the same. All his schemes would make money, all his smelly old cars were a real bargain, every flitting from house to house was the beginning of a new, rich, carefree life. And he worked his gift hardest when things were at their worst: just after he'd been sacked from his latest job; or when the finance company men had come to repossess the fridge. He'd been like that on the road to Llangollen—probably, Davy now realized, because he hadn't been as sure as he pretended that Mum was going to come back at all, ever.

Only as the long hills of Wales began to swell and swell on the horizon had Dad's high spirits flagged. He fell silent. The late afternoon sun was well to the west, and all the hither slopes were streaked with shadows; Davy became sleepy again, but even as he closed his eyes and longed for the journey to end, he saw one of his pictures, a house with a blue slate roof. The wall of the house was low and built of mottled, flattish stones. The windows were small. A woman in a blue dress with a black apron was pumping water into a bucket by the door. It was a picture full of grief, of longing, and with that longing in his mind Davy fell asleep.

“Wake up, kid. We're there!”

(Ian's voice, cheerful and teasing. As it used to be.)

Davy had woken from a nonsense dream about rabbits to the dry-throated discomfort of having slept sitting. He eased his tingling legs to new positions and peered out. Tall hedges screened the sides, and ahead rose an incredibly steep and narrow lane up which Dad's car, smellier than ever, was growling in bottom gear. The engine didn't sound at all happy, and the exhaust behind them swirled dark as a thundercloud. And then the road leveled, the growling stopped, and Dad let the car drift to stillness in a place where the lane widened. On Davy's side of the car was a steep field of cropped grass with gorse bushes dotted about it; on the other side were farm buildings and a house with a low stone wall, small windows, and a blue slate roof. Not really blue, not as blue as it had been in the picture; dark gray, really, with bluish and purplish tints in different slates. And the woman who stood at the door was wearing a pink dress with a yellow apron and there was no pump.

She stood unsmiling on the white doorstep and watched them climbing out of the car. Davy could smell hot metal, a sharp tang in the fresh hill air.

“You've boiled her dry, Dad,” said Ian. “I told you so.”

“It's a long way up,” said Dad. “Hello, Mam. What've you done with the pump?”

“We have pipes now,” she said.

“You got the telegram?” said Dad.

She nodded, and looked in turn at the three children. Davy stared back. Her face was closed. She looked as though she had never smiled, nor ever would. It was a flattish face, wide at the top and pointy at the chin. Her eyes were dark and wide-set, her nose and mouth small. Her hair was gray and held into tight curls with a lot of different-colored hairpins, some brown, some black. She was no taller than Ian.

“We'll have them,” she said. “I hope your wife is not sick.”

“Rita?” said Dad. “Oh … no she suddenly decided that she had to have a holiday. She's had a lot of bother, you know.”

It was the first time Davy had heard Dad tell a lie so awkwardly—and it was hardly even a lie.

“Ian,” said the woman. “And Penelope …”

“Penny,” muttered Penny without looking up from her doll.

“Penny it is,” said the woman. “And David.”

“Davy,” said Davy. In those days he had usually preferred to be called David, because it made him sound less babyish. But at that moment he'd copied Penny in asserting his own individuality.

“Who chose it that way?” said the woman, smiling less than ever.

“This is your Granny, kids,” said Dad quickly. “My Mam. You're going to stay with her for a bit, till Mum comes back from her holiday, and if you don't treat her right, I'll do you.”

It was his usual threat, a family joke. There, in the hill lane, in the May evening, it sounded feeble.

“You're our other Granny?” said Penny, looking up with sudden interest from her doll. “Real Granny? Dad's Mum?”

“I am real enough,” she said. “You can call me Nain if you want to tell me apart from your other Granny. That's the Welsh way.”

“We'll call you Granny,” said Penny.

“We call the other one Granny when she's there and Grumble when she isn't,” explained Ian perkily. (That had begun as Dad's way of teasing Mum, but the children had taken it up and now Granny in Watford was more Grumble than Granny.)

“Not respectful, that is,” said this new Granny sharply. Her lips stayed straight as ever, but there was something odd about the glance she flashed at Dad.

“Where's Dadda?” he asked.

“Milking,” she said. “You come in, children. Tea's been waiting for you two hours.”

She turned into the dark doorway. Davy waited for a moment, breathing the hill air that was faintly sweetened with cow odors, and watching Dad pick a path in town shoes through a miry gateway beside the house. Then he found his way to the kitchen by the smell of new-baked bread.

Dad didn't come in to what this new Granny called tea, but which included boiled beef and apple pie as well as cocoa and doughnuts. They hadn't finished eating when he called from the hall, “I'm off now,” and they rushed out into the dusk to say good-bye to him. He rumpled their hair and said to Penny, “Smile, sweetheart, and I'll bring you a new doll when I come back. With two eyes.”

“Dolls don't need two eyes,” said Penny. You learned to answer Dad's promises like that; it gave him an excuse when he didn't keep them and saved you the ache of disappointment. He got into the car and started the engine.

“Lights!” yelled Ian.

They blinked on and moved away. Two seconds later they were gone, screened by the tall hedges.

When the children got back to finish their tea, they found their new grandfather sitting at the table, a dark little wrinkled man who smiled at them and said nothing. They were told to call him Dadda.

Five days later Davy had twisted his ankle, badly, climbing in the huge old slate quarry where they weren't supposed to go alone. A few yards down from the farm, on the other side of the road, was a gateway which led into the steep field with the gorse bushes in it. You climbed up there, panting before you reached the ridge, and suddenly you came to this marvelous place. The grass stopped at a low, ragged wall of stone; beyond that were heather and bent and blueberry scrub covering a broad, molded spur of the main mountain, Moel Mawr, which hummocked up away to the left. You stood on the spur, gulping the mountain air and looking west across the brown, infolded hills. And at your feet was the quarry.

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