It’s nearly eight thirty, and the sun’s gone down in a blaze of orange and purple. In the east, a cloak of darkness is rising from the horizon. I’m standing at the gate, watching the road down to the village through a haze of girating midges.
‘Where the hell can he be?’
Worry sharpens my mood, and I try to stifle my mounting irritation, so that he won’t see it when he eventually returns.
If he returns.
That sharp stab of anxiety again. You read about these things, always happening in other people’s families. You think it won’t happen in yours. I expect they thought that too.
He could be anywhere by now. He might have got on a bus, even made it to the station and taken the first train through to the city. I think of him out there, heading into unknown territory, someplace where I can’t control his environment, can’t be there to head off the dangers before they befall him. He’s so vulnerable.
Another thought surfaces. What if someone stopped to pick him up, offered to give him a lift, now taking him further away from me, somewhere he won’t be familiar with. Someone hell bent on evil.
I begin to tremble.
Maybe he had an accident, stepped off the pavement without looking and went under the wheels of a car. How will they find me to tell me? I catch the sob as it rises in my throat, and with shaking hands, punch in yet another number on the phone, making one more seemingly casual enquiry about his whereabouts.
“No, no, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, he’s certain to be back anytime soon,” I reassure people. “I just thought he might be with you.”
How long before I call the police? Another half hour? It will be quite dark by then. Too dark for anyone to find him until the morning. Maybe I should call them now, but somehow making that call will make everything real; it will give substance to the nightmare lurking at the edge of my consciousness and push it into the realms of something I can’t control any more. Yet how will I explain the reason why I waited this long?
My throat constricts with emotion and I know even if I did call I would be unable to get through the conversation without breaking down and becoming hopelessly unintelligible. I must get a grip on myself. I need a drink. And then I’ll call the police.
Just as I turn to go back into the house, I think I can see a tiny figure in the distance, walking slowly this way, head down. The twilight deepens as I watch, holding my breath. The birds, that had been twittering half-heartedly in the elm trees behind the house, fall suddenly silent.
Minutes tick by as the figure comes closer, and I realise, as my legs suddenly weaken beneath me, that it is him.
My heart slows, and my breathing becomes more even. I mustn’t let him see how worried I was. I mustn’t take it out on him just because I’ve been practically beside myself with worry for hours now.
He finally stops before me at the gate and I see that tears are coursing down his face as he recognises me. His lips are trembling, and I take hold of his hand to guide him through the gate and back into the safety of our home.
“I couldn’t remember my way home,” he blubbers, “I didn’t know where you were. I thought… I was worried that I might never see you again.”
“Don’t cry, Dad,” I whisper, wiping the tears from his rough cheeks with my apron.
“You’re home now, everything’s all right.”
Published by Pygmy Giant, February 2011