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Authors: Neil Bartlett

The Disappearance Boy

BOOK: The Disappearance Boy
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Contents

One: Bishopstone Halt

Two: Wimbledon Broadway

Three: North Road

Four: North Road With Flags

Acknowledgements

A Note on the Author

By the Same Author

Copyright Page

Indocilis privata loqui

One

Bishopstone Halt

Let me try this for an opening.

There’s a boy, standing on a railway track. He’s a little boy – he looks eight or nine years old at the very most – and he’s rather small and slight for his age. He is standing with his hands held straight down by his sides, and his feet are clamped firmly together. Seen from behind, he seems to be staring defiantly straight ahead at something, but we shall see in a moment that his eyes are in fact screwed tightly shut. He has oddly muscular shoulders, clumsily cropped hair, and is almost naked; he’s wearing a pair of worn linen underpants – nothing else – and just the one hastily laced-up leather shoe, on his right foot. He’s as brown as a berry, all over. The railway track stretches away in front of him in a long straight line, and its rails are hazed with the mist of a fine English mid-September morning as they disappear into the distance.

As if it had been ruled across a map, this track more or less exactly bisects the brown and overgrazed field it runs through, and immediately beyond the scrubby blackthorn hedge on this field’s southern side, divided from it only by a half-dry ditch of dead reeds, is a beach, a great slow curve of shingle that looks as though it reaches along the shore for at least a mile in both directions, east towards the yellowing cliffs of Seaford and west (behind the boy) towards the mouth of the river at Newhaven. There seems to be no sand at all on this beach – all you can see are black, grey and dark grey flints, going on for ever, with barely a pale stone among them. Almost exactly halfway along their two-mile curve the stones rise to their highest point, and there on the crest of the shingle is perched a strange and lost-looking collection of white-painted concrete and timber huts, lifted above the stones on squat brick bases. These huts look as if they might be a hospital, or perhaps a school – a sanatorium, even – but it’s hard to say for sure; there are no signs up anywhere, and it looks as if there is no one about to ask on this particular morning. All the windows are shuttered closed, and across the stones beneath them the English Channel stretches away to France as flat and cold as a well-sharpened knife. There are no boats about to give scale to its horizon, and no gulls either. There is hardly any wind, and no waves to speak of. A soft swell lifts and clatters the grey stones right down at the water’s edge – and because the wind is so light, and because there seems to be nobody about, the whole scene is very quiet. Not even the reeds in that half-dried ditch are whispering. It is so quiet, in fact, that you can hear that the little boy is not crying.

His chin is up, his shoulders are pushed back as far as they’ll go and his eyes are as tightly closed as those apparently abandoned windows (you can see that, now). His mouth is clamped shut, too – and now, as if he were getting ready for something, the boy spreads his legs and crosses his fists in the small of his back. Near-naked as he is, he seems to be standing ‘at ease’, sticking his elbows out to the sides and pushing his bony little chest forward as if he were expecting a medal. Or perhaps as if he were trying to meet some dreadful blow halfway – as if his infant breastbone were the breastbone of some defiant and easily smashed little bird, one of those softly feathered species that explode in the air when the shot or hawk hits them … Whatever he’s doing, his feet are now spread slightly too far apart for comfort, and because of the way he’s standing you can now see what you may not have noticed at first, which is that there is something not quite right about this little boy’s legs. The left one is a fair bit shorter than the right, and thin enough to make his foot look several bones too large; the left foot itself is turned markedly inward, as if his ankle had been attached in not exactly the right place. He’s holding this left heel – the naked one – a good two inches clear of the weeping tar of the railway sleeper, as if he’d just trodden on a nail. The foot is shaking slightly. He still isn’t crying. There still isn’t a train.

And now there is.

And now the shouting starts.

A Mr Bridges, who in the calm, sunlit autumn of 1939 was living alone in the cottage which then stood next to the tracks at Bishopstone Halt (an unmanned concrete platform on the Hastings to Lewes branch line which had recently been constructed in case it should ever be necessary to get troops to the beach in a hurry), has spotted the tiny figure through his kitchen window. Fortunately, Mr Bridges has a clock above his sink, and he doesn’t need to waste any time calculating in order to know that the next train is due past his window in less than three minutes; they run so close that they rattle his china, and their noise divides his solitary day into such regular parcels of time that he always knows when the next one is on its way. He also knows that this particular train isn’t scheduled to slow down or stop. First he shouts and bangs on his kitchen window; then he wipes his hands on his dishcloth and runs out of his front door, shouting as he goes.

The little boy doesn’t move. He doesn’t even seem to hear.

As Mr Bridges runs, the oncoming train is still so far away from the two of them that it doesn’t seem to be moving at all – east of Bishopstone Halt, the track runs dead straight towards Seaford for nearly a mile, and the distant blurred dot of the engine is barely visible at the vanishing point of the converging rails. It seems to shake slightly, even to
hover
in the distance, but not to be getting any closer. Mr Bridges knows that this is just an illusion. He knows that pretty soon the rails will begin to sing, the dot to swell, and before you know where you are it will be upon them. That’s why he keeps shouting as he runs, calling out at the top of his voice and cursing his middle-aged legs for not moving as fast as he needs them to in this emergency. The spacing of the tarred sleepers forces him to clip his stride, which makes him swear even more – they are placed just too close together to let him break into a full run, and he knows that if he misses one and hits the clinker then a turned ankle will more than likely bring him down. Best as he can, he half lopes and half hobbles towards the boy, and, of course, straight towards the train. The dot hovers, and shakes, and begins to swell.

And now, right on cue, the rails begin their dreadful song; that strange, silvered, high-pitched music that can seem sinister at the best of times, and which now makes Mr Bridges want to vomit as he hears it change key and grow louder. He sees that the little boy – still thirty sleepers away, and with his legs still locked and spread – can also apparently hear or sense this change of key, because as the train approaches the child stretches his puny arms up and out to make himself into its target, and his fists seem to clench themselves into even tighter balls. The pain is starting to tear at Mr Bridges’s sides now. His breath is drowned out by the rails. And now comes the whistle –

Cut.

And now the boy is in his arms – under him, in fact; pinned down under him in the wet and stinking grass by the side of the track, because some instinct has made this middle-aged man cover the boy’s body with his own as the train flashes by in a thunder of light and dark less than four feet from his head, wheel after wheel, rim on rail, metal on metal, less than four feet away from his wet, astonished, staring face (tears of relief, are they, or is that just sweat?) with his ragged breath still tearing at his chest and the pain in his side so sharp that he thinks he must have broken a rib. Did he really scoop up and then throw down this intransigent bundle of flesh so hard? And then, when the train has passed, and the rails have spun out their song into its final dying whisper and the dot is getting smaller now and going away in the other direction, around a bend and away into the September haze as it heads for Southease and Beddingham and Lewes and eventually Brighton, Mr Bridges gasps his breath back into his aching chest, and gathers himself. He gets up, and looks down at the bare-skinned creature lying half crushed in the broken grass between his feet, and he yanks the child upright with one big strong hand. He’s furious. He starts to slap the child, first on the back of the boy’s knees and then right across his sunburnt face, making a furious attempt to get him to open his eyes, or to speak – or something. Anything. And also to relieve his own feelings, I shouldn’t wonder – yes, that’s it; it is a mixture of shock and anger that is making Mr Bridges treat this little boy who he doesn’t even know so badly, making him shout at the boy – making him bend right down so that their two very different faces are almost nose to nose, the big, red, wet, angry one and the little, screwed-shut, frightened and frightening one, making Mr Bridges roar right in the little boy’s face between his great rib-tearing breaths, shout at him what the bloody, fucking, what the bloody fucking
hell
, and what if I hadn’t been in my kitchen, eh? Eh? You little fucking. Well you can speak, can’t you? Fuck.

No waves. No people. No boats.

Empty water.

Shuttered windows. Screwed-shut eyes in a burnt brown face.

No wind.

And still no tears. None.

Not yet.

Two

Wimbledon Broadway

1

The next time we see this dry-eyed little would-be suicide he will be hurling himself – as if risking or welcoming collisions was somehow a constant in his life – down the wet, windy and about-to-get-crowded eastern pavement of Wimbledon Broadway, just before dinner time on a showery Thursday in late March.

There are several important pieces of information I should probably pass on about him before we continue – that he’s now grown up, for instance, but that you wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at him; that the polio he had as a child has marked him out as different from other young men, but not so different that
everybody
stares; that, courtesy of a broken-down number 47 bus, he’s rather late for work. There’s much more I could say about him of course, but what I want you to concentrate on just now, as I introduce you to young Reggie, in this, the twenty-third year of his life – sorry, I should have said that earlier, that’s his name; Reggie, Reggie (please don’t laugh) Rainbow – as I introduce you to Reggie and encourage you to watch him closely as he makes his not-untroubled way down this particular strip of south London pavement, what I want you to notice most of all is how Reggie carries himself. It tells you a lot. I don’t mean just his limp and his disproportionately strong shoulders or the built-up sole on his left boot – all of those are pretty obvious – but rather the whole impression Reggie makes as he levers himself through the thickening dinner-time traffic. He makes it look as if that slight and oddly proportioned body of his is some kind of badly wrapped parcel, and one which he seems fiercely determined to deliver on time – and without troubling anyone else for directions, thank you very much. Clearly, carrying it around is some kind of an effort, because even when he hits his stride on a clear patch of pavement he keeps his eyes down and his forehead furrowed; at times, the parcel seems to be about to slip clumsily from his grasp, and he’ll pause for a moment, take stock, and reposition the two-sizes-too-large Harris tweed jacket he’s wearing, wrapping the front of it protectively around his chest like a sheet of brown paper before continuing on his way.

Perhaps it’s just the threat of a returning shower that makes him do that, but there is something about the way Reggie clutches and tugs at this unbuttoned jacket of his that has a very particular effect. It makes him look as if he’s determined to protect whatever he’s wrapping up so carefully from something more than just the chill March air. Of course, he
could
be doing this just because of the cold, as I say – that white shirt under the jacket looks thin, and worn – but the vehemency of the gesture combines with his short stature (Reggie is five foot three if he’s an inch) to make him look oddly vulnerable. In fact, if you weren’t able to catch the occasional flash of that downturned face – sharp-featured, bright-eyed and strikingly dark-skinned (weathered, I think would be the exact word) – then you might well be hard put to tell from your first impression if Reggie was an adult or still a child.

BOOK: The Disappearance Boy
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