Today's Reading

Hattie carefully suppressed her own instinct for perfection, remembering that it was a different kind of perfection she was aiming for—the perfection of a happy, confident girl, who would one day grow up to be an accomplished woman. No, she must smile and nod and utter approving sounds and even whole words of encouragement, without going so far as to lie, of course. She must let Daphne know how pleased she was with her for making the attempt.

'That's very good!' And actually, it wasn't too bad, though by no means the perfect alignment of edges that was necessary for the next stage in the construction of a Chinese lantern.

'No, it's not,' said John, with a brief, contemptuous glance down at his sister's handiwork. He effected all the hauteur of the senior sibling, although it was only two years that separated them. 'It's no good. When you cut the slits, they will be all skew-whiff.'

A more fragile personality than Daphne might have been reduced to tears by such forthright criticism. But the fact was she could see nothing wrong with the loosely folded paper in her hand. As far as she was concerned, she had achieved exactly what she had set out to achieve. Which was, quite simply, to sit next to Hattie Greene and play with paper.

'Don't be unkind, John. Daphne's doing very well.'

John sat up and appraised Daphne's work again, this time with deeper consideration, indicated by a conscious furrowing of his brow. At length, he stuck out his lips and gave a deliberate shrug, followed by a heavy sigh: John was bored and he wanted them to know it. He had long finished making his lantern, which was, of course, a perfect example of such artefacts. It stood on the table in front of him as an advertisement of his superior skill.

Hattie could read the signs, and if she wasn't careful, John's boredom would turn into something nastier. He would continue goading his sister until he provoked a quarrel.

If they could get to jam sandwiches and cocoa without tears, it would be a miracle. The trick with John was to distract him. 'I say, John, dear, why don't you find a book to read while Daphne finishes her lantern.'

'Will you read to us?' said John, brightening, and Daphne also smiled to herself at the prospect.

'Perhaps I will, if you find something that everyone will like.'

John jumped up from his seat and crossed to the bookshelves. He cast Hattie Greene a sly, sidelong glance. He knew exactly which book to pick.

Hattie gave a little smile too, for she was fairly sure which one he had in mind.

And, sure enough, he came back clutching to his chest the splendid illustrated edition of The Wind in the Willows, which he had been given as a present the previous Christmas.

It was wonderful and strange, the spell the book held over his young imagination. He was particularly fascinated by the illustrations, which, in truth, Hattie found rather disturbing. John's favourite was a colour plate depicting Mr Toad in a garishly lit corner of Toad Hall, his shadow cast sharply against the wall. Indeed, he had opened the book to that page now.

In Hattie's view, the illustration had a slightly nightmarish quality, quite unlike a picture in a children's book. For one thing, the animal was shown naked, as a real toad in the wild would be, of course, but this toad was standing upright, in a most un-toadlike way, gesticulating with his webbed fingers. The characters in the story behaved in an all too recognizably human way, but by emphasizing their animal natures in his paintings, the illustrator seemed to be hinting at something feral within the human heart. This was not a story about animals who behaved like humans, but humans who were revealed to be animals.

Miss Greene preferred the clothed and homely creatures who populated Beatrix Potter's books.

John ran his finger along the line of the toad's mouth, as if he was willing it to open and speak to him.

Hattie smiled indulgently. 'Now, where did we get to?' she said, moving her seat so that she could look over John's shoulder at the book.

Just then, the wind hurled a ragged volley of winter against the panes. It was a vast, weary sound. A gasp of frustration and despair. Although she was not in fact cold, Hattie gave a momentary shudder.

'Just a moment.' She sprang up from her tiny perch with the lithe decisiveness of a cat (though the tabby on the hearthrug showed no sign of stirring) and crossed to the window.

This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves.
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