No point in staying – just the sight of him seemed to wind her up these days, and it wasn't as if that took a lot anyway. He couldn't help it if he looked like Dad, could he? He wished she'd stayed in bed a bit longer, to be honest. He'd been more in the mood for reading today than walking, and he'd just got to a good bit in his book. Oh well – it would keep...
It was misty outside, but was the sort of mist that would lift later and give way to bright sunshine. Dan sighed. With any luck it would stay dull and hazy until he'd walked off his annoyance with Mum. And then, with even more luck she'd have taken herself – and her bottle - back to bed.
He cut through the alley at the end of the road, down the embankment, to the railway. He started walking, head down, looking at the tracks, deep in thought, and misery.
He was worried about Mum, of course he was. Who wouldn't be? She'd changed from the smart, witty, cheerful woman she'd been, into a tired, faded, bad-tempered shadow, who, most days, slopped around in jeans and t-shirts. If she even bothered to get dressed at all, that is. But he was more annoyed than worried lately. There wasn't even anyone he could talk to about it. Only her, and she was hardly likely to listen. He'd learned that over the last few weeks. If he dared to even look disapprovingly at her she just turned on him and started a huge rant about ''your father''. As if he were responsible for him, as if she hadn't been the one who'd known him longer. It's not my fault he left. Maybe it's not your fault either Mum, but it's certainly not mine.
He couldn't even mention it to Dad, on the odd occasions he rang. That would be disloyal, and anyway, he was pretty sure it would rebound on him – he'd use it as a stick to beat Mum with, and that was the last thing she – or he - needed. Oh, there was no danger that Dad would ask him to come and live with him, and Dan didn't even want to. Besides, if he went to live with Dad, he was pretty sure he'd have to change schools. He didn't have that many close friends, but he got on pretty well with most people in his year, and the thought of getting to know a whole load of new people, not to mention teachers, didn't make him feel great. He picked up a handful of stones and threw them in a sweeping movement, into the bushes at the side of the tracks.
He heard a sound, a gasp, and looked up, for the first time in about ten minutes.
A girl was crouched by the bushes, facing the embankment, looking round at him and frowning from behind a cloud of curly, fair hair. She was rubbing her arm.
''Thanks.'' she said. ''That was just what I needed.''
He looked down at her feet. She wasn't wearing any shoes. He looked up again, into a pair of greeny-blue eyes.
''Sorry.'' he said, looking at the red mark on her arm. ''Was that me?''
''Don't worry about it.'' she said. ''I'm looking for my cat. I think he came down here and I can't find him. She straightened up. ''I don't suppose you seen a white cat, have you?''
''Sorry.'' he said again. ''You sure he came down here?''
''I don't know. We've been keeping him inside all week. We've just moved in, but I couldn't find him this morning and I've been looking everywhere.'' She waved her hand vaguely in the direction of the houses at the opposite end of the row to where his own house was. ''We live up there.''
She was about his age. He hadn't seen her before, and he knew most of the girls in the village, by sight, anyway.
''What's his name?'' asked Dan.
''Well, he's called Bobby, but if you're thinking of calling him, that won't really help.'' she said, looking away, her eyes glinting. She looked near to tears. ''That's why I'm so worried. He's deaf. He's really an indoors cat, because it's not safe for him to be out. He can't hear traffic.''
Dan looked down at her feet again.
''If you're going to be walking around down here, I think you'd be better putting shoes on. It's a bit stony. And sometimes there's broken glass, too.''
She shrugged. ''I hardly ever wear shoes. Don't like them.'' She looked at him with defiance in her face, as if she expected an argument. ''First thing I ever do when I go somewhere is take my shoes off. My mum says I've been like that since I was a toddler.'' She smiled for the first time since he'd set eyes on her and it showed a couple of cute dimples, and lit up her face. He couldn't help smiling back.
''Maybe your Bobby's still in your house somewhere. I would have thought you'd have found him by now if he's down here, especially if he's not used to being out. What's your name anyway?''
''Cassie.'' she said, looking away shyly. She didn't ask his name, and he was disappointed, but not too surprised. Girls never seemed that interested in him.
''Well,'' he said, ''We could make our way back to your house, if you like, and look for Bobby on the way?''
She looked at him warily. ''No, I'm fine, looking by myself.'' she muttered. Then, without any warning, or even a goodbye, she scrambled up the bank and disappeared.