On an evening in May she sat on the steps of St Martin’s, where her mother had left her to look out for her father. The day before it had threatened to rain, but this evening was a strange mixture of balminess and sudden, chill gusts of wind. She sat on the steps of the church and waited for him, her hands in her lap. The steps were hard and cold; she tried to keep her hands away from the dirty stone. Now and then she shivered, but the wind quickly died and she felt warm again in her white dress, or not white but dirty cream, cotton with a pleated skirt and frills at the cuffs.

She was a sharp-featured girl of nine years. There was something lucky about her, and she felt this and reacted to it sanely, full of love for herself or for her life, which had not yet begun. Someone or something would come down and pluck her from where she was now—not today, but at some time in the future, at the moment when she stopped being a girl. It was not one of her dreams that this would happen, but a certainty; her dreams were of a different flavour, highly coloured and obviously fantastical. Shifting her hands from her lap, she pressed them against her ribs, which ached because of all the running and jumping she had done that morning. Her heavy-lidded eyes looked straight ahead.

Her name was Pauline—but she called herself Crystal, Paulette, sometimes Annie. In the church whose tall doors stood open at her back, her mother was at evening mass, listening and responding and distracting the baby, who liked to climb into the aisle. But by now perhaps he had fallen asleep; the incense sometimes put him to sleep at this time of day, in the grainy dim light between the stations of the cross.

The wind blew up in gusts again, suddenly quite cold. Pauline would have liked to move from the steps and into the square, but she did not dare to do so. She must follow her instructions. Her mother believed that her errant father would cross the square this evening. When he did she was to bring him into the church, or hold him up somehow and call until her mother came out. The plan seemed unlikely to work, since she could hardly imagine dragging her father into the church, and she was sure that her mother would never hear her call over the priest or the chanting of the communicants. What words might she use to persuade her father? Now and then she sensed that she had a power over him, but she had never used it because she did not know how.

Again the wind died down and the evening became warm, even sultry. Her eyes closed on an image that the dusk evoked, of a black stallion galloping towards a mountain with no one on his back through tall grass with thick blades. The horse neared the sheer walls of granite, craggier on his approach; lightning came down in forks, covering the grassy plain in brilliant light. Blinded for an instant, he reared and shook his head to rid his eyes of the forks of white light. The girl shook her own head and opened her eyes, clasping her hands between her knees. But she saw nothing of the square or the people who crossed it; she was aware only of the sudden chilly gusts and then the almost stifling heat, the musty scent that fell heavily from the doors of the church and the chanting in her ears.

She pulled absently at the tangles in her hair, glancing around her. From the western corner of the square, a man entered and crossed to the fountain. He was tanned from long exposure to the sun, and limped along in his faded jeans and sandals. Everything in the square was built from the same kind of stone, a whitish marble streaked with grey, apart from a house of red brick that took up the west side, now turned into offices. This evening, a Sunday, the blinds were down. In the centre of the square, the fountain supported a grimy stone effigy of Neptune, holding aloft a trident whose prongs bled water feebly into the basin. The water fell from the basin into the fountain’s pool, from which the man now picked out a penny. He bent and took the coin without wetting his sleeve, then stood up straight and looked around. Seeing the girl on the steps, he began to cross over to her; but then he thought better of it and turned away and left by the way he had come.

She stood and walked along the top step, looking down at her sequined slippers. Perhaps her errant father was only on an errand. He often went on errands, after all. Once he had taken her with him, one day last summer when she was off school and considered too young to be left by herself. They had gone in a train along the coast for an hour until they reached a dark little town built from slate and granite. It was where her father had grown up, he told her. Then he told her that she was lucky not to grow up there herself, and laughed and drummed his fingers on the little table between them while the slow train shook through sandy coves, hot beaches where no one swam, where the tide had come and gone. The errand led them to a small house at the end of a cul de sac, where he knocked on the door and waited. An old lady in a white cap opened the door and turned back into the house, not saying a word. Pauline made to follow her father into the house, but he stopped her on the threshold. Alone in the cobbled street, she skipped until she lost count and her ankles hurt. When at last he emerged he was unburdened somehow, although she could not remember what he had been carrying on the way, whether he had a small white box or a brown paper package tied with string. They caught the next train and went home.

Now she ran back along the step, chasing a pigeon from the base of a column. It left behind a silver feather, perfect in every strand. When she looked up again, she saw a girl of about her age come from the far corner of the square, from the richer quarter by the river. The girl went quickly over to the fountain; she looked down into the pool for a while then sat on the rim, dipping her fingers through the scummy surface of the water in which floated cigarette butts, empty cartons, tram tickets and scraps of paper. Pauline would have liked to go over, but she could not bring herself to move from the steps. Instead, she climbed down to the bottom step, where she stopped and looked back at the open doors of the church. The priest’s voice boomed, amplified and echoey, his words like large clouds of sound. The girl at the fountain was joined by a dog, a dun-coloured mongrel with a collar but no lead, which put its paws on the rim and drank from the bowl while the girl stroked its skinny back. The dog made Pauline think of her home, six streets to the east. There were no animals, no dog or cat, only stillness and a silence she had to fill for herself. There were not even mice or spiders or crane flies, because her mother cleaned every day, dusting each corner twice. There were only whispers, wisps of something that she knew came from herself alone. She was making it up.

And this was where her luck lay, in being able to see more than was there. If there had not been a girl and a dog at the fountain, she would have pasted them like pieces into a collage—not as real as the real thing, but still bright, with clear edges, standing out in the evening gloom. The real thing now shifted abruptly as the girl, exclaiming, pushed the dog away and brushed its paw marks from her lemon skirt. She peeled away from the fountain’s edge; in the fresh breeze, she clasped the folds of her cardigan and began to spin on her heel, spinning around and around on the spot without getting dizzy or falling over. When Pauline climbed again to the top of the steps, the girl stopped spinning all at once; her face changed and she seemed on the point of smiling, waving. In the end she did neither but only began to spin again on her heel.

Pauline took her eyes from the girl and glanced around the square. She was meant to look out for her father. A week ago, after a night of unease, he had gone from the house and not come back. Pauline could see why he might want to go; there was something cool and white and empty about their house that made her long to be out in the street. She shared her room with the baby; on the wall was an old map of Europe that no one else had wanted. With her finger she traced the wavy lines of the Tiber, Seine, and Thames. Their waviness entranced her, the way they disappeared into the tears between folds in the map. She was familiar with the courses of the Arno, the Rhône and the Rhine. But when she dreamed of a river, it was a wide river like the Euphrates. Objects drifted down it: the door of a house, and on the door a cat that mewed at a bird, a roc or a phoenix. A tree followed at a distance, roots and all. Suddenly, the horse plunged in and swam for the other bank, but he had not reckoned on the strength of the current and was carried downstream in the wake of the tree and the door.

Pauline opened her eyes. The girl stood before her on the steps, asking her a question. ‘Can you hear me?’

‘Yes, of course. I like your dog.’

‘He’s not my dog. I don’t know where he came from.’ The girl stood over her, looking down. Her hair was almost white and her face so pale as to be nearly transparent. ‘There are two thousand stray dogs in this town. Did you know that?’ The dog stood back, watching them from a distance, his nose in the air.

‘But he has a collar.’

‘That doesn’t mean he’s not a stray.’ The girl frowned and pulled at one of her plaits. ‘Why are you sitting out here?’

‘I’m waiting for my father. He comes this way sometimes.’

‘Oh.’ And then the girl said something that sounded like, ‘But not today,’ and she turned and went suddenly, not only from the steps but from the square, running on light feet, her words swept after her by the wind. Pauline sat alone again on the top step. The mass was long, she thought.

The sky darkened all at once. The sun, already swathed in cloud, sank behind the office block. It was warm and cold at the same time. Should she stand and walk about a little, glance in at the door of the church to catch a glimpse of her mother? Or should she stay where she was, on the hard step? A haze in the air around her made her blink; in the gloaming she saw men and women come and go, some of them with children, from all corners of the square, crossing by the fountain, sometimes stopping to throw in a coin. All about her in this darkening haze she heard the muttering of quiet Sunday voices, in which she could not make out a single word.

She heard a similar hazy murmur at times from the attic above her bedroom. There were no animals in the house, but the attic was full of creatures. If she stood on her bed and reached up with a broom, she could pull down the stepladder and climb through the door in her ceiling. The loft was rich with dust, with a broken window through which the rain leaked. She did not think of it as part of the house; it was a world to itself, with its own rules. She would have liked to live up there along with the pigeons and the cats that crawled in through the broken window and left traces of themselves. Lying in bed at night, Pauline thought she heard the animals cavort, as if in a dance, but when she went up there in the daytime all was still. She searched through the boxes stored by her parents when they moved in, revelling in the apparently endless task. They contained everything that had existed before she was born.

Once she found some photographs in an envelope and took them down to her bedroom to look at them in the light. They showed the walls and carpets of an empty room. Someone must have taken the photograph, but there was no hint of him in the picture, no shadow or reflection in the window by the bed, in the mirror by the door. She asked her father about the pictures when he came home that night and he told her that it was where he lived before she was born, a hotel room. ‘Your mother used to visit me there,’ he said. When he laughed, he showed teeth that were uneven and stained. ‘Ten years ago now,’ he said in mock wonder, shaking his head, as if he could not really imagine any of it—the hotel room, the visits—even though it had really happened and here was the photograph to prove it.

She wanted to go now, leave the safety of the square and find him, put him on the back of her horse and ride him home. But finding him would take some doing in the city streets that returned on themselves, vanished into muddy alleyways and rusty quays, blew up into vast boulevards milling with crowds. If she went to find him, she might get lost herself.

It was not unusual for her father to disappear for a week. She was used to his coming and going; he was a travelling salesman and spent half his life in strange hotels away from home. But the way he set off that morning a week ago was different from previous departures, although he carried what he always carried, his samples in a bag. He was always carrying something; goods hung off him like wares from a tinker. However tidily her mother kept house, what he brought back from his trips lay strewn about, took up space in corners and piled up on sides, objects without value that could not be sold or exchanged for anything of worth. On the night before he left, he had argued with her mother and slept in the glasshouse, in the garden. A pane was broken after the night he spent there alone. In the morning he came into the kitchen and drank a glass of water while her mother stood at the sink with her back turned. ‘Goodbye, wife of my youth,’ he had said as he picked up his black leather case that bulged with samples. He wore his dark grey jacket, a yellow shirt and a green tie; his shoes were specked with mud.

Pauline ran after him to ask where he was going. It was a ritual between them; he would never say goodbye to her but let her run behind him down the pavement. Then he would turn and wait for her to catch up. ‘I’m going from door to door,’ he said that morning, touching her forehead with his finger. It was what he always said, each time he left, and in her dreams she saw him go endlessly up a tree-lined avenue, ringing on every bell. That morning he looked not fully awake, dazed and crumpled like an old banknote or a sheet before laundry—not unhappy, but then he never looked unhappy, exactly. She stood back from him and they faced each other for a moment. Then he walked on and she went back to her mother, who stood looking after him as he left down the sunny street, carrying his bag. ‘Be gone,’ she said. ‘Be gone.’

The sun must have reached the horizon because the square was suddenly quite cold, colder than when she came. Pauline went down the steps and crossed to the fountain. There were fewer people now and a large shuffling noise came from the open door of the church, as a hundred worshippers stood and scraped through the pews to the aisles. She looked down into the water, murky and coated with some substance like oil mixed with dust; for two weeks there had been no rain, only clouds that sat heavily over the city, moved off for a while and came back. In the dusk, she bent down to look at herself in the water but saw only a dark shape that was her face, dust coating her features like fur and coins for eyes. She was about to bend and pick a coin out of the fountain when she heard a voice behind her call her name, and she turned to see her mother come towards her down the steps of the church.