What happens to you when you read?
What happens to you when you read?

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6 Exploring the story world

In literature, authors build fictional environments, or story worlds, in which their stories are set. Depending on the genre they may be set in a different historical period or country, they might be fantastical settings inhabited with magical creatures, or they may be everyday domestic settings that you can recognise as being very similar to the setting of your own life. Philip Pullman (2020) has written about how he combines the two, by setting his stories in our world, but in another time. This is probably because he wants to write about serious conditions and problems that many readers would recognise, like depression, but put them in a context which is not quite like the everyday so he can have freer rein to explore them.

This extract comes from the same book, The Subtle Knife. In fact, it is the very opening section of the book. It introduces Will and his mother and finds them in unusual circumstances.

Extract 2 The Subtle Knife: His Dark Materials Book 2 by Phillip Pullman

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 Mrs Parry, Will’s mother, had put make-up on one eye but not 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 smelt 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 neighbour or someone in the family –”

“We haven’t got any family. Only us. And the neighbours 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 any more 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 say no.

“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 alright.”

His mother was looking at him, bewildered. He bent over and kissed her clumsily.

“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.

“Goodbye,” 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, honestly.”

That wasn’t what she meant, and they both 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.

Now complete Activity 7 as soon as you can after reading Extract 2.

Activity 7 Reading an extract from The Subtle Knife

Timing: Allow approximately 25 minutes for this activity.

The following statements consider how you felt when reading the extract from the book. You should answer them as soon as you can after doing the reading by clicking on the number which best represents your feelings, where 1 represents ‘not at all’ and 7 represents ‘very much’

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