I wake to find him beside me, head on my pillow, one arm flung across my breasts in a gesture of casual possession. I don’t remember him coming in; I must have been deep asleep; but now in the still dawn light I watch him dream. I wonder what occupies his sleeping mind, what fears or fantasies, scenes from TV or echoes of the everyday. His lashes curl against his cheek; he’s so close I feel the soft touch of his breath. He is mine and I am his.
Then, quite suddenly, he’s awake. Now he’ll want me to go downstairs with him. I’d like to drift slowly into the day but I know from experience that doesn’t work; he won’t get up without me, but he’ll become more and more lively and loud, starting with inept knock knock jokes and progressing to somersaulting onto my stomach. This is not a recipe for family harmony. So I get out of bed and take his little hand, and we go downstairs together.
He’s called Toby. He’s four years old.
Today I am off work and there is no scramble to get to the creche. I make porridge in a pan on the stove while my husband irons his shirt, and then I stand Toby’s full bowl in cold water to cool. Toby is playing with his toy dinosaurs and he wants my full attention. He has a spinosaurus, two T-rexes, a diplodocus, a stegosaurus, a parasaurolophus, a triceratops and a velociraptor. He knows all of these names, though he doesn’t know our address. The dinosaurs are going on an adventure to find monsters in the forest. Also, they are all girls. Toby has become strangely interested in girls and calls all the dinosaurs after the girls in his creche: Lucy, Ella, Chloe, Ella, Maya, Jessica, Xena and Ella. There is only one girl called Ella in the creche but Toby likes her. I promise I will not move any of Toby’s dinosaurs a single millimetre while he eats his porridge. Toby asks for honey on his porridge. Then he decides there is too much honey and I have to scrape some of it off again.
When my husband leaves for the day, Toby holds on to his legs so he has to drag his way to the door as though he’s wading; Toby wants him to promise to be back soon, early, earlier than normal, bringing a toy, but my husband just gives him a hug and unpeels him. When the door closes Toby rushes to the window and kisses the glass as his daddy passes. After this he comes back to the kitchen and makes his dinosaurs jump all around the breakfast things as I’m clearing them up. He’s spilled a great clump of porridge onto the table. “Look mummy, Ella and Xena are fighting in the porridge swamp!” The noise level of the girl-dinosaurs is noticeably increasing. Porridgy splodges spread rapidly over the cloth.
“Can we go to the park today?”
That sounds like a good idea. It’s hard to contain his energy inside the house, and fortunately it’s not raining.
“Yes, let’s. First we need to get dressed and Mummy needs a shower. Can you play quietly while I have my shower?”
He can’t play quietly while I have a shower. I remove him from the laundry basket and, admitting defeat, turn the television on. When I’m showered and dressed I bring him his clothes. He stands on his head on the chair with his feet on the wall.
“Stand the right way up and put your pants on,” I say in a calm and reasonable way. He stands on his head again. “No, the right way up.” This goes on for a while. He thinks it’s very funny.
Toby has stopped wanting to go to the park. The park is horrible and stinky and has monsters in it, giant monsters behind the trees that eat boys. Toby only wants to watch television and make his dinosaurs fight each other. In my opinion it is more important than ever that we go to the park. I pack his water bottle and an apple into my bag and try to persuade him to put on his trousers, which he has removed again “because I want to look sporty”. I remember all the good advice. I offer him a choice where both the choices suit me: “Would you like to put the trousers on yourself, or shall I do them?” “No!” says Toby. I mention his smiley face chart and ask if he wants to get a smiley face today. “I have a smiley face,” says Toby, smiling brilliantly and throwing his trousers across the room. “Put your trousers back on or no more telly today.” The nuclear option. Toby bursts into tears and hides in the hall cupboard.
Toby can be a really delightful little boy: he is sweet, loving and endearingly geeky about the Cretaceous period. He likes to tell stories, usually with explosion noises. He is delighted by the swimming pool and by cats. I remind myself of all this.
I drive to the park because I don’t want to have to tug Toby down the road. He doesn’t want to get out of the car; then as we walk down the path he keeps on slipping my hand and turning back, or hiding behind trees. I become cross: “Can’t you just walk along sensibly like a big boy!”
“You don’t love me,” says Toby.
“Of course I love you. But hold my hand and walk nicely so we can go to the playground.” I know when we get to the playground he’ll be fine.
Suddenly his tactics change and he’s running ahead, off round the corner and out of sight. I break into a trot to follow him, calling “Toby, wait!”, but my bag has slipped down from my shoulder and it falls, spilling possessions across the path – purse, wipes, keys, water, apple, the lot. Hurriedly I scrabble them all together again before running after Toby. But, when I round the corner, he’s gone.
Just – gone. I can’t see him. Unfortunately there are a couple of different side-paths here and we’re between trees, so I have neither a clear view nor a single obvious direction of pursuit.
“Toby, come back!”
This is bad. As one often does in such situations, I feel surprisingly calm. My child has vanished from view and I’m not sure where to start looking, but he can’t be very far away. Where would he want to go? Well, the playground, but that’s the path that lies ahead and I can’t see him on it. Maybe he just put on a spectacular burst of speed? I go to the playground, which is only a few hundred more yards. But no, no Toby.
Back to where I lost him – I recognise the place by a sliced-off tree-stump. There’s a path that goes left and downhill and one that goes right and sharply up. I choose right, because Toby often has a strange enthusiasm for running up hill.
The path climbs, but it also narrows, and we’re in high summer so the undergrowth is lavish. There are brambles and, pushing rudely through them at a four-year-old’s eye height, fierce hairy nettles. I don’t think Toby would have gone any further this way.
Back to the downwards path. This one stays broad, or broad enough, and descends with seductive ease, and only the odd trip-line of tree-root, slantwise along the bank of a little valley. I emerge at the point where the valley opens out and the stream enclosed in it spreads into an ornamental pond. There’s a mouldering pergola on its bank, scribbled with graffiti. I still can’t see Toby.
Now I feel the chill clutch of fear. Did he run down here and fall in? Surely he’s old enough now not to topple idiotically into water? But going fast, maybe skidding on the earth of the path… the ripples of a splash would be long gone by now. He loves swimming but can’t exactly swim. The water is murky.
I pace round the edge of the pool. I should be able to see skid marks or footprints or something, but it’s all just smudges and leaves to my eyes. There’s no one around to ask, not even a dog-walker. I get out my phone and start to scroll for a number – husband first or police? What’s that by edge? Oh God, it’s his hat.
Yes, it’s his hat. I go to pick it up, as though that would help in some way, as though I could sniff it and follow his scent. But it’s not just lying there. It’s weighted down with a large, smooth stone.
The hat is near to a place where another path turns from the edge of the pool into the woods. At the mouth of that path, there are three twigs, two shortish and one longer. They are rather straggly and bent, but they’ve clearly been arranged in the shape of an arrow, pointing down the path.
I get a different kind of chill. I follow.
This is a route we’ve taken only once or twice; it leads in a somewhat tangled and muddy way to the foundations of a long-demolished building, a summer house or storage shed in the grounds of the mansion that once stood at the centre of this park. Last time I came here with Toby he slipped from a slick patch on one of the low walls, landed in the dirt, and cried all the way back to the car. As I pick my way along the path and emerge through the overgrown yew-hedge into the clearing where the building stood, I look again for footprints, and for shreds of clothes caught on branches – isn’t that the sort of thing the detectives find, in the stories? I see nothing, of course. I wonder if I’m following anything at all, whether the arrow was some sort of horrible decoy, then I tell myself off for being hysterical. Toby can’t be far away, the only question is where. I call out again but my voice falls uselessly and is swallowed in the greenery.
Do I search the clearing for clues or do I just keep going? The onward path is obvious and it’s straight ahead, through another gap in the hedge. As a compromise I decide to walk around the razed building rather than across it. I think about how Toby likes to climb on the foundations and walk along them. He always starts by going left. Pacing left, I notice how the stub of wall slightly rises and falls, up a course of bricks for a metre or two, down again, then a part where it’s been broken away almost to the level of the ground – here Toby would have to jump down. At this point, where the wall descends, I find there is after all another gap in the hedge, a narrow one. Carefully placed on the litter of yew-needles on the ground in the middle of the gap is a line of four stones.
From the gap in the hedge I follow down, up, winding; I should know this park well, but I’m beginning to become disorientated. Surely the wooded area isn’t that big, but I seem to have been wandering back and forth in it for the last half an hour. I find myself at the stream again, sliding down the bank to the path that runs alongside it. Against the low arch that crosses the stream a folded paper boat is caught, held up in a tangle of sticks, fragile but not sunken. I hope it’s a good omen as I cross and walk upstream. I can see another paper boat in the middle of the path ahead of me. Faintly, for a moment, I think I can hear singing.
The path climbs slightly alongside the stream and I’m looking for clues, needing a sign. Could this be one? It’s a kind of rosette of brightly coloured wrappers, just by the low arch that leads into a murky grotto. The grotto is another left-over feature of the great house’s pleasure grounds; it’s partially roofed and much beloved of late-night drinkers. Ducking inside, I’m greeted by the damp smell of the place and my shoes slip on the muddy floor, but I know this is somewhere Toby always wants to explore. He always has to go into every little nook and hiding place, and this one appeals particularly because the entrance is so low, as though built for a child. There’s a stone bench that, amazingly, doesn’t seem especially dirty, and I sit on it.
This is no good. There’s only the one door, Toby isn’t inside the grotto, and I’m not finding him this way. But somehow, having sat down, I find it hard to move. I look around the inside of the grotto, noting the oddly knobbly texture of the walls. Was Toby in here earlier, running his fingers curiously over these bumps and roughnesses? But no, at four-year-old height there’s a smoother band and on this people have scribbled graffiti, “Magsie 4 Deco”, “Bekka does it sideways,” that sort of thing. To Toby, who can’t read, it’s a strange calligraphy, scribbly decoration. How much of his life ever makes sense to him? Is all his awkwardness a protest at the way he finds himself slotted into adult schemes that we can’t seem to explain to his satisfaction? I remember how, as a small child, I was convinced that my teachers lived in their classrooms, and at one point I’m certain I thought they sold all the pictures they made me do. I could certainly never see the point of them otherwise. Toby doesn’t know what his questions are, but he knows we aren’t answering them. Suddenly I feel a huge ache of love and longing for him, a feeling so powerful I think it must broadcast from this stoney hole where I’m sitting and embrace him from a distance, wherever he is, frightened or lonely or distracted or just thinking he’s having a brilliant adventure, the little wretch. I get out my phone to call the police, because it’s been too long now since I lost him; it turns out I have no reception.
Decisive now, I decide to go back up the path until I have a good signal; I’m pretty sure that will be when I emerge from the cleft with the stream in it back on to the main path that I started on. After that I’ll return to the pool to search systematically all the different routes that lead away from it. But now my clue comes. Tucked into the slats of a bench by the main path is a piece of paper, not wet or grubby, clearly left recently. Not for a moment doubting that it’s for me, I pick it out and unfold it, and find myself holding a beautiful sketch of my son. It’s an outline drawing, economically done, but it’s him to the life – whoever drew this had talent, for Toby’s so young he hardly has a face, he’s all brightness and youth, and yet here he is, exactly his expression. As my eyes well with tears I see blurrily that at the bottom of the paper there’s also a little picture of a slide and a swing.
So I go back to the playground, our destination from the start; and there, sitting by himself on a wooden sheep, I find Toby. Of course I grab him to me and hug him till he squirms – of course I do. Of course I tell him off for running ahead like that.
“What were you thinking? Mummy was so frightened. What happened? Tell me what happened. Were you scared too?”
“I was a little bit scared,” says Toby, frowning thoughtfully. “But then the man came and he singed.”
“What was the man like? Was he a nice man? What happened?”
Toby can’t work out how to tell me. “I can’t remember,” he says. “Look, I did you a drawing.”
He holds out to me another sheet of paper. This one is dirty and crumpled – he’s been alternately clutching it and sitting on it – but I recognise it’s good quality art paper of the same shade and weight as the portrait and, I think, also the paper boats. The man – whoever he was – must have lent him a pencil and something to lean on. The drawing has a boxy shape in the middle, a rough circle on a stalk at one side, a long oblong that must be a tail, pointy protrusions upwards and four stick legs.
“It’s Ella the dinosaur,” says Toby. “She had an adventure in the forest. Is it good, mummy? Is it good?”