Ask me why I have never told this story before and I will tell you quite straightforwardly. I’ve always believed one must strive to put painful episodes behind one with the minimum of fuss and bother. In an age obsessed by introspection I may be out of step, but it’s nonetheless a strategy that has served me perfectly well.
Until this morning, when the letter came—one glimpse of that distinctive handwriting enough to conjure her out of the darkness again, tentatively smiling that pearly smile of hers.
More in apprehension than hope, I tore the envelope open. Inside, a birthday card! After all these years of silence, she has sent me a birthday card … I suppose the vagaries of the overseas post must have sabotaged its punctual arrival. On the front of the card was a painting by Constable, while inside she had added nothing but her name. It was only as I was about to throw the envelope away that the newspaper cutting fluttered free. Overcome by foreboding, I hastily secreted it in my pocket, where it has remained ever since. I will read it presently. Of course I will. But for the time being, the possibility that our private misfortune could have excited further publicity is more than I can bear.
Once work is over, I drive to the coast in the hope that the sea will soothe me. But the attic door stands ajar now—forbidden memories clamoring and agitating as if in deliberate defiance of my authority. At the time I considered myself a man more sinned against than sinning. Why then does the view backward suggest a rather more sinister interpretation?
© 2010 Rebecca Frayn
It happened on a dazzling spring day in April. One that had in every other way been quite unremarkable. Monday mornings were always a hurried affair, the alarm at seven summoning each of us from our beds to make our preparations for the coming day.
In the year since I had moved in with Annie, my attempts to introduce some order into the household had made little impression. As usual, the sink was still stacked with dirty plates from our supper the night before. We had barely embarked on breakfast before the milk ran out, and as we ate there was once again no indication that Dan, Annie’s twelve-year-old son, was even yet awake. Several times, with mounting impatience, Annie went to the foot of the stairs and called his name, before hastening back to the kitchen to throw together a packed lunch for his younger sister Rachel and gather coursework for her classes that day. As often happened, certain key papers had been mislaid, prompting a new flurry of panic. Then there were the usual squawks of protest when Rachel’s hair had to be brushed and another bout of frantic searching when her school shoes could not be found. I, for my part, sat quietly at work on my BlackBerry while all of this went on, for I had learned by now to allow the daily dramas of the household to flow over me.
And Dan? What of Dan? Afterwards I could at best recall a wraithlike presence who sloped down the stairs at the eleventh hour to stand for some while adjusting his tie and preening his hair in the hall mirror. Annie remembered his cramming schoolbooks into his bag and a last bite of toast into his mouth. She had hovered briefly at the front door to watch as he set off at a half run, mounting his father’s old bicycle as he went. Later she was to bitterly regret how distracted she had been. Perhaps she might have borne it all a little better, she said, if she had only thought to bestow a farewell kiss, or an affectionate last word. Instead, she had rather mechanically called after him to take care on the road—to which he’d responded with a brief roll of the eyes, before turning the corner and vanishing from our lives.
Once college finished at five, as yet oblivious that anything might be amiss, Annie had collected Rachel from the child-minder before stopping off to pick up some food for supper. She had chosen chicken Kiev as a special treat, because she knew it was Dan’s favorite dish. It had been a tiring day, and she was fortified by the thought of the large glass of white wine she had promised herself once she got home.
She and Rachel arrived home shortly after six to find the place in darkness. Though Dan usually got back at four, he had recently taken to meeting up with schoolfriends from the sprawling council estate just down the road, and Annie had agreed to these occasional excursions on the strict understanding that he was back no later than six thirty. Assuming his return could only be imminent, a myriad of domestic duties soon distracted her. She put the oven on, poured herself the long-anticipated glass of wine, and sat down to peel potatoes while overseeing Rachel’s homework. Once that was done she returned a phone call to her sister Emma she had been meaning to make for days, and as she chatted with the phone balanced between shoulder and ear, she simultaneously put in a load of washing.
The moment the conversation ended, noting with a start that six thirty had come and gone, she rang Dan’s mobile, more irritated than anxious to find herself being put through to his voice mail. Annie had given in to Dan’s pleas for a mobile phone only once he started secondary school and it became apparent it would be the best way to keep tabs on him. But it had proved a far more fallible system than she had anticipated, since he was obliged to switch the phone off while at school and more often than not simply forgot to switch it on again once he left. And so it was, as she later explained to the police, that each little misgiving was readily rationalized and set aside.
* * *
By seven she experienced the first real pang of unease. The sky was rapidly darkening, and his supper now ready. It was cold outside. She couldn’t imagine what might be detaining him. She tried his phone again and then, in growing alarm, sought out the class contact list. She rang a few names at random. John wasn’t home. Rajesh said they’d spoken at final register. She left a message for Obi, who rang back to say that he had last seen Dan setting off from the school gates at three thirty on his bicycle. He’d definitely been heading home. At least he had presumed he was. Dan certainly hadn’t mentioned having plans of any kind. He’d probably just bumped into some friends on the way and lost track of the time. Obi sounded so unperturbed that when Annie put the phone down, she found her apprehension had somewhat subsided again. She even remembered congratulating herself on having resisted the impulse to call me. It was always a matter of pride to Annie not to fuss unnecessarily.
Mentally preparing a sharp lecture for Dan when he stepped through the door, she gave Rachel a bath, read her a story, and put her to bed.
So it wasn’t until eight that evening that my phone finally rang at work, and a tremulous-sounding Annie asked if I thought she should call the police. I’m ashamed to recall that I didn’t give the question serious consideration, distracted as I was by a document I was preparing. So with my mind only half engaged I offered her the reassurance I presumed she required of me. On the cusp of becoming a teenager, Dan’s unreliability was becoming something of a strained joke between us.
“You know what he’s like, Annie. Any minute now, he’ll swing through that door, the center of his own universe, utterly clueless that his poor mother might be climbing the walls.”
“That’s just what I thought you’d say,” she said, sounding rueful.
At nine exactly, Annie finally called the police. As the minute hand clicked into alignment with the twelve she pressed the first digit of their number, as if an imperceptible displacement of air had triggered her index finger. I arrived home just as a police car was drawing up outside. It was only then that I experienced the first real twinge of foreboding, for its presence struck such a discordant note in that spick-and-span close, with the curtains of the houses drawn and the golden glow of warmth and light within. I waited while they parked, and after brief introductions we walked together down the garden path. I had no sooner unlocked the door and invited them in than Annie flew out of the kitchen, her face falling when she saw it was just the three of us.
Once the officers had taken her statement, more police arrived to search the house and garden in the hope that Dan might be found hiding somewhere nearby. Further reinforcements came to comb the area with tracker dogs, and as the clock drew towards midnight, I set off to walk the meadows and towpath in their wake, standing for some while with deepening apprehension beside the river, before losing heart and turning back. Though I dimly noted the brilliance of the moon overhead and the sweet scent of the flowering horse-chestnut trees that drifted on the night breeze, everything now appeared subtly tainted with menace.
Annie and I took it in turns to walk about the house, to switch the television on then off, frequently glancing towards the clock as it marked the interminable small hours.
“He’s been taken,” Annie would periodically weep. “Someone has taken my son.”
When Rachel rose for school, she found us in the living room with two new police officers bent diligently over their notebooks. She stood in her nightdress at the door, surveying the scene in some bewilderment. Though Annie attempted to offer an explanation, her lips only moved wordlessly, and after a moment, Rachel came instead to me and climbed on my lap. I explained as best I could that Dan hadn’t come home from school and that the police were here to help us find him, to which she only nodded, asking nothing more as I prepared her breakfast and got her ready for school.
From the sitting room I could hear the low rumble of questions. They were asking if Dan had any enemies, or past episodes of running away. Whether he had appeared anxious or depressed. And to all of these inquiries Annie replied emphatically in the negative. When I took Rachel in to say good-bye, Annie turned to us with unseeing eyes. For a moment I feared she might try to prevent her daughter from leaving, and hastened to reassure her it was for the best—that I would both take and collect her myself. Annie appeared to give this dazed consideration before gesturing her consent.
“It’s going to be fine,” she said, as much to herself as to Rachel, who was scrutinizing her mother with wide, solemn eyes. Though she was only eight, from the outset the child seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation in a manner that belied her tender years.
By the time I returned, the officers had set off for Fishers Comprehensive to talk to Dan’s teachers and classmates and to search the building and grounds, before scouring his route home. Yet no one they spoke to could account for Dan’s movements after Obi’s last sighting of him at the school gates. Annie became newly distraught at this news when they reported back to us.
“Children don’t just disappear into thin air,” she protested. “How can no one have seen anything? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well, when you think about it, a thousand odd schoolkids flooding out of the gates at the same time …” The officer shrugged. “All of them dressed in the same uniform. Perhaps it’s not that surprising.”
A new, more meticulous search of the house and surrounding area was made. Annie refused to leave the house, but I went to watch the police as they moved in lines across the meadows, methodically combing the land. Their search had all the logic of a dream in which the incongruous and the inevitable have somehow become one, and I stood looking on, while the hedgerows blazed with their bright new shoots, and the breeze stirred the fallen petals of the cherry trees so festively about their feet.
Then I set off for Fishers Comprehensive to retrace Dan’s daily route home for myself. I walked slowly, looking about me carefully, along the leafy street that housed his school and across the busy junction beside the Fishers Estate, before the short stretch of terraced houses that bordered the playing fields and meadows brought me to the modest West London close in which we lived.
The morning passed with the police continually coming and going. Annie sat crouched and mute at the table as if in a state of continual readiness to rush to the door. Occasionally, the sensation of being trapped in a waking nightmare might abate—only for the apprehension to return with a jolt, so vividly renewed it was impossible to know how we could continue to endure it. Yet all the while, ordinary life continued on all about us. Through the window, women in hijabs still passed to and from the estate, pushing buggies, while the high-spirited cries of football games floated now and then from the playing fields beyond. I seem to recall a carpet-cleaning company ringing to offer their services at a cut-price rate and that I only uttered an exclamation of incredulity before replacing the handset without a word. When I switched on the news at lunchtime, it was disconcerting to find that our plight apparently hadn’t warranted a single mention among the day’s significant events.
A trace on Dan’s mobile drew a blank. Further interviews with teachers and classmates failed to throw any new light on matters—no apparent enemies, the police said, no running feuds of any kind. They asked us to cast an eye over a chart in which Dan’s name was inscribed at the center of a wheel whose spokes represented every person they had established as being part of his life, whether casual acquaintance, family member, teacher, or friend. Annie kept it beside her and every now and then would turn it over to study it with blank, uncomprehending eyes. Little by little, as word spread, a stream of neighbors and friends began to arrive to keep vigil with us and milled about the kitchen, making tea and conversing in discreet undertones.
By the end of that first day we had been assigned a senior officer who was to head the investigation. Chief Inspector Stanley, I think he was called. If I have trouble recalling his name, I have even greater trouble recalling his face. Perhaps his suitability for the job lay partly in this very invisibility. A gaunt and rather slight man comes to mind, with a complexion so pallid he was evidently accustomed to working long hours in a sunless office. But though you might easily have overlooked him in a crowd, I soon formed an impression of a flinty and precise mind, and came to see that his avoidance of social courtesies indicated no more than an impatience to get quickly to the nub of the matter.
It must be said that in the face of Annie’s rather hazy recollections, Stanley’s quietly dogged pursuit was frequently taxed to its limits. Annie had a tendency to be imprecise about details, while her response to a direct question could often be puzzingly tangential, and this lifelong tendency was undoubtedly exacerbated by distress. On Stanley’s arrival, she began digging through the overflowing drawers of the dresser in search of a recent photograph of Dan, speaking all the while in a breathless rush.
“I had it, just before you came. But I’ve put it down somewhere and now … now it’s gone again.”
Stanley sat at the kitchen table, his notebook open and the pen poised above the blank white page.
“Julian, you haven’t seen it, have you?”
I shook my head and patted the chair beside me, inviting her to join me, but she only closed the drawer slowly, looking about the room with a distracted air.
“Why does everything in this house vanish?”
Then, realizing what she’d said, she put her hand to her mouth with a small oh, and finally sat down on the seat beside me.
At once, Stanley cleared his throat and went to work.
“Mrs. Wray, as I understand it from the information you have already given my colleagues, Dan has no history of running away. Nor does he have, so far as you are aware, any involvement with drugs or crime.”
“No … or rather yes, that’s true. He’s only just twelve, you see. And still quite young for his age.”
“Well, what we need to do now is build up a character profile of Dan. Is he, for example, the rash and impulsive type—a risk-taker—or is he more the shy and retiring kind?”
Annie was nodding as he spoke, her brow puckered in concentration, and she was just turning to consult me, when Stanley cut across her.
“I’d like to begin—if I might, Mr. Poulter—by talking alone with Mrs. Wray.”
I rose at once, muttering that I would be upstairs if I were needed. However, Annie’s eyes remained downcast on the table, as if she were pondering deeply on his question, and she gave no indication of having heard me.
It wasn’t until some while later, when Stanley called my name, that I was shaken from the stupor into which I had fallen. In the kitchen I saw that Annie had evidently been crying again, and she left the room without even glancing in my direction.
“Let’s get some of the basics down, shall we?” Stanley turned over a new page in his notebook, smoothing it flat in readiness. “You are an art consultant?”
“Yes. I authenticate paintings.”
“And how long is it that you and Mrs. Wray have known one another?”
I made a rapid calculation, somewhat surprised at the answer. “Well, we’ve lived together for a year now. And we were seeing each other for at least a year before that.”
He watched me thoughtfully for a moment. “And how would you describe your relationship with Dan during that period?”
“In the early days of our relationship, things were cordial enough,” I said carefully.
“And since moving in?”
“I think it would be fair to say that once Dan realized I was going to become a permanent fixture in his mother’s life, our relationship became rather more … strained. But while there have undoubtedly been some teething problems, I have always been confident that things would settle down in time.”
Stanley nodded. “Mrs. Wray told me you had recently informed him of your wedding plans.”
“Yes, that’s right. Only last weekend, in fact.”
“I would be interested to hear your account of how Dan received this news.”
“Not much to say, really. After Annie accepted my proposal, we agreed I should be the one to tell him. She felt it would be better coming from me. Saturday was a beautiful day, so we decided to go for a walk in the park. Dan wasn’t keen, but after some resistance he eventually agreed. Then in the café, while Annie and Rachel went off to choose some treats, I … I seized the opportunity.”
“Well. He didn’t say very much. But then he never does. He’s not a boy of many words.”
* * *
The truth was, when Annie had nodded meaningfully at me, before drawing Rachel to the queue for refreshments, I had experienced a momentary touch of … what? Pique, I suppose. Surely it used to be the father-in-law whom a prospective suitor was traditionally required to consult? I couldn’t but feel a little wrong-footed by this mission now the moment had arrived, unsure of whether I was asking or telling him. Should I assure him of the depth of my love, and the promising nature of my prospects in life? We took the only table still unoccupied, and Dan sat down sideways on the chair so that his face remained averted.
“I have some good news for you,” I began. But instead of turning to listen, he bent forward to fiddle with the bindings of his trainers.
“What would you say if I told you that your mother and I had decided to get married?” I pressed on, addressing his left ear. At first he appeared not to have heard me.
“What?” He threw his head briefly in my direction, speaking with the weary exasperation of one who begrudges even the small expenditure of air.
Not wishing to give him the satisfaction of knowing he had succeeded in goading me, I could only repeat the question in as cheery a manner as I could contrive, though he was once again immersed in the minute adjustment of his laces.
* * *
I looked at Stanley, who was watching me with a stony expression, his pen poised over his notebook, and raised my hands in wry exasperation, as if to share with him the frustration of a man caught in such a situation.
“You know what kids are like at that age.”
“Well, he may not have said much, but perhaps you could tell me what it was he did say?” Stanley asked, after a pause.
“I think he said that it was a free world—that as far as he was concerned, we could ‘do what we liked.’”
Stanley nodded. I see.
I had still been weighing my response to Dan when Annie rejoined us holding a tray piled high with an assortment of food and drinks. “So! How are we getting on?” she had asked, her anxious smile pivoting between us.
“Dan and I have just been having a nice little tête-à-tête and—”
But the boy had leaped to his feet with an explosive sigh, and though Annie called his name as he pushed past her, the glass doors were already closing behind him. We watched in dismay as he mounted his bicycle and began to hurtle up and down the flagged terrace outside, making skid stops at either end.
“Oh well,” she said with a shrug, her mouth retaining its strained approximation of a smile as she glanced first at me, then Rachel, before beginning to unload the tray. “Lucky us. We get to eat everything.”
* * *
Aware of Stanley’s attentive eyes upon me, I felt the faintest shadow of apprehension touch me. Quite naturally he was trying to discern whether anything in the apparently inoffensive fabric of our lives might yield some hitherto hidden insight. I understood that well enough. Yet something about the intent fashion with which he now inclined his head made me wonder if the incident might be in danger of sounding rather more significant than it warranted.
“Dan has a tendency to be a little unpredictable in his moods,” I said. “It was hardly a one-off. Sometimes you only have to say good morning too cheerfully to rub him up the wrong way. Annie puts it all down to hormones.”
Stanley nodded several times, appearing to ponder something, before returning to his notes, and I sat in silence while he covered at least two more sides in a careful cramped shorthand. At last he dotted the final full stop with the same gesture one might use to stamp a document, before snapping the cover shut with an elastic band and securing his thoughts discreetly in his breast pocket.
It was some while after Stanley departed that the well-wishers drifted home too. Food had been kindly pressed upon us, then cleared away untouched. Annie’s sister, Emma, was the last to go. She had put Rachel to bed and tidied up the kitchen before sliding a little foil blister of sleeping tablets into my hand. She would have to hurry home to relieve the babysitter, she said, but we were to call her the moment we had any news.
I saw her out before rejoining Annie, who was sitting in a trance of exhaustion at the kitchen table. It was the first time that we had been alone together all day.
“It’s late,” I said eventually. “We should get some rest.”
Annie nodded, yet neither of us moved. It was a while before she roused herself. “He asked me if I thought it was possible Dan had run away.” Her voice was stiff with indignation. “I told him there and then that Dan wasn’t the kind of boy who would ever do anything like that. I said that if that was the line of investigation they were intending to pursue, they would be wasting their time.”
“And what did he say to that?”
“That they had to explore every possibility. That they were keeping an open mind.” She returned to her thoughts, her hands twisting in her lap, and despite the fact that I had begun to say something, she continued to talk over me as if engaged in a conversation primarily with herself. “Only someone who’s never met Dan, who knows nothing about how close we are as a family, would suggest he might have gone of his own free will. Why on earth would Dan have run away? It’s ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense.” Her voice rose in a querulous tone. “I mean, I know it’s the job of the police to ask questions. Of course it is. But I got the impression he just took it for granted that something, somewhere, must be amiss. Every family has its issues—I won’t deny that. But there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary about us, is there? We’re just a perfectly average happy family, aren’t we?”
Dan’s things lay all about us—an ink-stained exercise book beside my elbow, the skateboard I was forever putting outside in the garden, a pair of muddy football boots by the door.
“Aren’t we?” she repeated, with an inflexion of rising tears.
“You can only trust your instincts,” I answered, not knowing what else to offer. “After all, no one knows Dan better than you.”
She nodded emphatically, several times.
“That’s right,” she said. “A mother knows her son.” Once again she was silently weeping and a renewed wave of weariness swept over me. I thought of the bed that awaited us upstairs, wondering how we might ever muster the strength to reach it.
“But the thing is, Julian, if Dan hasn’t run away …” Her voice quavered and broke. “I just can’t bear to think that someone could have … might have …” Here she faltered, both of us leaning back, as if from the horror of the unfinished thought. I rose abruptly to close the curtains, and when I sat down again was relieved to find she was pouring herself another glass of wine, her vacant expression reassuring me that she had managed to force the thought into abeyance.
“I only wish,” she went on, restlessly moving off in yet a new direction, “that I had thought to collect him yesterday afternoon. I finished early, you see. That’s the thing I can’t forgive myself for. I keep going over and over it in my mind. If only I had brought those test papers home, instead of staying to mark them in the staff room, I would have been able to …” Once again she was staring into space.
I saw that each way she turned, a new reproach reared up, each in turn prompting a hasty retreat. She had no sooner turned her mind from the tormenting possibility that she might have prevented this, than a terror that Dan was even now being held against his will had taken hold of her. And as she tried to close her mind again, up sprang the darkest fear of all, the one that could not under any circumstances be voiced: that he might no longer even be alive. We were both complicit, the two of us on the run together.
“I keep praying and praying,” she said in a hoarse whisper, “that the doorbell will ring and there he’ll be—just standing there.” Her eyes glittered and blinked.
“Bedtime now.” I drew her to her feet. “You must be shattered.”
She followed obediently as I led her up the stairs. Then I undressed her while she sat shivering on the edge of the bed.
“I’ll never sleep,” she wept.
I pressed one of the tablets her sister had given me into her hand, and closed her fingers over it before passing her a glass of water.
“But if he comes back in the middle of the night, I might not—”
“If he comes back, I’ll be here. Don’t worry.”
She took the tablet submissively, gulping it down with a swig of water. I slid her nightdress over her head, then she curled sideways on the bed, burrowing into the cleft of the pillow, and the comfort of the rustling cover as I drew it over her shoulders soothed us both.
“You promise that you’ll wake me if …”
“I promise,” I said, switching off the light. In the darkness I was startled to feel her reach out and draw me to her. The touch of her hands in my hair, the glancing damp of fresh tears on her cheek, and then the sudden saltiness of her tear-swamped mouth. Once the sleeping pill had taken effect, I lay wide awake as Annie slept beside me, waiting for the sound of Dan at the front door. Yet nothing in the quiet night stirred.
© 2010 Rebecca Frayn