He didn't answer at once - he was staring past his father at his reflection. There it was, watching him from one of the panels of painted glass that ran down the length of the airy room. His mother's love of colour showed itself best in here, in swirls of translucent butterflies, blown blossom-like across the windows, and flights of glorious, impossible birds that fanned their tails and spread their wings to reveal vermillion throats and varicoloured feathers.
Ambrose looked back at himself, a ghost-figure stained in red and gold, and wished for a moment that he could change places. He loved his parents, and it was a hard thing to have that stern gaze directed towards him.
"I'm talking to you, Ambrose. It's no good staring into space - I know you can hear me. You've been getting into trouble again. The school wrote a letter..."
Ohh... that didn't sound good. Ambrose watched his father owlishly as he took a folded sheet of paper from his waistcoat pocket, trying not to get caught up in the fascinating way that the sunslight ran along the edge of the pocket watch dangling from its button.
"...got to stop Ambrose, you mind me, now..."
That tone couldn't be ignored, and Ambrose met his father's eyes, at once chastened and defiant.
"They say you don't pay attention at all, you spend half your time staring out of the window, and the other half defacing your books. Scribbling in them, I m-"
"I know what 'defacing' means, Pop," Ambrose broke in. "You don't have to talk to me like I'm a little kid."
"You're seven. You are a little kid, and you're whip-smart when it comes to tinkering with things. If you're not in my workshop you're in your Uncle Oscar's. So why won't you take to a little simple schooling?" Ambrose started to frame a reply, but his father clearly hadn't finished. He thrust a page at his openmouthed son, who took it and gazed at it miserably - any excuse to drop his eyes from Ira's disappointed face. "This was what you handed in last week. It's just simple sums. Baby stuff. Are you telling me you can't do it?"
"I did d-"
"No you didn't. You drew pictures of trees, and apples and flowers and... I don't know what all that's supposed to be, and that's all you did. Where are the numbers?" His father was red-faced, now, leaning close so he could take hold of Ambrose's wrist and force the paper up to his face. "Where are the numbers?"
"They're right here..." Ambrose could feel colour rising in his own cheeks, frustration choking his voice. "...as many numbers as you want. I-"
"Ira! You leave off him right now, you old buzzard. Can't you see you're flustering the boy?" Constance Goldstraw marched across the room, a mass of dark curls bouncing around angrily on her shoulders, swept back from her elfin face by a brightly patterned headscarf. She planted herself squarely in front of her husband, prising his fingers away from Ambrose's wrist with a strength that belied her tiny frame.
"Mom, it's okay! I-I-I just want to show-"
She took him by the shoulders, turning him to face her, and peered into his eyes, ignoring her husband's exasperated huff.
"Look at you - you haven't been sleeping, have you? Did you have another one of your headaches?"
He shook his head vaguely, figuring that it didn't count as a lie if he didn't deny it aloud, and when Ira muttered a subdued curse and Constance turned on him, Ambrose took the opportunity to duck away, the garden door providing the easiest escape route. Outside, he paused, indecision miring his footsteps - should he stay and listen? No - there was going to be an argument. And then - he made a face - there'd be making up, and that was almost as bad. He mooched across the yard, pausing to examine the flowers on the strawberry plants and idly petting a fat bumblebee that was nestled in one of the white blossoms.
"Adesh-a," he murmured, distracted. It was one of his mother's words, a word for small mysteries and miracles. "Adesh-a, how do you fly?" The bee crawled along his finger, then thrummed its veined celluloid wings at him as if to say 'very well, thank you', and lifted itself into the air. Ambrose watched it raptly, then his little smile faded as he heard a raised voice from the house and he retreated towards the orchard fence, tugging aside a panel and losing himself in the cool closeness of the apple trees.
"You think you're helping, yelling at him like that?" Connie grabbed her husband's waistcoat and tugged on it as he started to rise. "Oh, no - down here where you can look me in the eyes. Such a big man you are, shouting and waving around your pieces of paper."
"Shall I read it to you? He might as well not go to school at all. He can make his letters and that's it. He just scribbles pictures and talks to himself. We ought to take him up to that city doctor Mrs Hesk told us about. He's not right, Con."
"Don't you say that!" She glowered, knocking aside the letter. "He's just - just a slow learner. And he'd do a deal better if you weren't getting on at him every five minutes. Doesn't he help you in the workshop? Doesn't Oscar say he has a way with-" she hesitated as Ira's expression darkened.
"I don't want to talk about Oscar right now," he told her, with flat finality. "Do you know what it's like, Con? Going into the pub and hearing them whisper? They shut up fast enough when I go over - no-one wants to travel ten miles out of Winterside to get a new blade on their scythe or track down the knocking in their old silage-wagon - but I hear them. It's my own fault - that's what they say. That's what comes of having married a Mu-" The slap wasn't all that hard, but the sound was loud as a gunshot. Silence filled the room, floating on the air like dust motes.
They glared at one another for a moment, then Connie threw her arms around Ira's neck just as her husband dropped the letter so that he could take her in his arms.
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean-"
"I shouldn't have said-"
"If you really think-
"-only want what's best f-"
"-a doctor would-"
"-talk to him this evening."
Another silence fell, this one briefer and warm rather than scalding. And then, as Ambrose had predicted, there was making up.
Outside, happily oblivious, Ambrose examined the page his father had given him. All right, so maybe what he'd written didn't look like the set of simple maths problems that the teacher had chalked up, but he'd got bored with those months ago. What was the point in going over the same old sums again and again? Once you shown that three times nine made twenty-seven, why would you need to go back and check? It wasn't suddenly going to be twenty-eight, was it? Out of politeness, he'd incorporated the numbers into his design, albeit using symbols of his own devising. The little squiggles of ink just didn't seem enough when you wanted to describe them completely - the shape and the colour, and the texture that they had when you ran them through your mind. Then he'd got distracted, because he'd seen a way to string together numbers so that they made a spiral that looked just like a snail's shell, and that was far more interesting than confirming for the seventeenth time that seven sixes were still forty-two.
After a minute he decided that it was too nice a day to worry about it right now, and set about folding the sheet into an aeroplane with short, stumpy wings, wondering vaguely if painting stripes on it would make it more aerodynamic. He'd make his parents understand eventually.
They were just slow learners.