Authors: Sanjida Kay
t wasn't until the train went past that she saw the small body lying in the long grass by the side of the wood.
She couldn't tell how long she'd been searching for her daughter. It was dusk, but it had seemed darker as she ran through the wood, tripping on hooked tree roots, her feet crunching through crisp, curled ash leaves. Around a tight bend, she stopped. Blocking the path was a dog. It was looking directly at her, as if it had been waiting for her. The dog was built like a wolf, but white with uncanny blue eyes. In the twilight, its ghostly fur seemed to glow. A woman, all in black, with dreadlocks bound by silver coils, jerked its lead; the dog's pink tongue lolled over its sharp teeth. She hauled the animal ungraciously out of Laura's way.
At the edge of the wood, Laura paused, trying to catch her breath, wondering which way to go, where to look next. This part had once been an orchard and was now overrun by sycamore saplings with diseased leaves, but there were a couple of crooked apples left with a few remaining fruit on the uppermost branches, small and hard and a poisonous green. Out of the shelter of the trees she felt the rain, light and cold, sweep across her face; the wind rustled through the leaves. Somewhere overhead, a crow cawed.
She ran blindly across the meadow, through puddles of freezing mud. There were ranks of rosebay willowherb, the last seeds clinging to the desiccated stems, and clumps of hemlock, architectural against the clouded night sky. The white underbelly of wheeling seagulls reflected what little light was left.
She kept catching the image as if out of the corner of her eye: a small girl with a tan satchel and a red coat, running, running through the grass. Autumn had been missing since school had finished. No one had seen her nine-year-old daughter after she'd left the classroom.
At the meadow's edge, she followed a concrete path that led across a bridge suspended over a railway. There were bars all the way around to prevent people falling onto the track. She was more exposed to the elements now: the wind and rain howled through the metal cage enclosing her. It seemed impossible that someone could fall or be shoved from the bridge. She forced herself to look down. She had to prepare for the worst.
There was no sign of her daughter, no sign of a small body crumpled by the railway. She pushed her damp hair out of her eyes and turned back towards the darkening expanse of grass, the skyline dominated by bare-knuckled branches, stark against the orange glow of the city. In her haste, she hadn't thought to bring a torch. She turned her mobile on and used the frail light from the screen to comb the ground. After a few moments, the phone chirped. She hoped against hope that it was a text from Mrs Sibson to say that she'd found her, that Autumn was safe. There was an image of a red flashing battery. She turned her phone off. If she didn't find her daughter soon, she would need enough charge to ring the police.
She ran up to the peak of Narroways' one sharp hill. The tiny, urban nature reserve, bisected by three railway lines, spread below her, an unfolding of black shapes: choppy grass, thorny shrubs, spear-tipped metal fences, the dark bulk of the wood and, straight ahead of her, a chasm through the stone cliffs to the train tracks below.
The lines began to sing, a shrill, electric song, and then the cacophony of the train roared out of the darkness. The carriages were almost empty and painfully bright as they hurtled along the tracks to the heart of the city. In the fleeting light she saw the meadow, dotted with stunted hawthorns, their twisted limbs dense with red berries, and then a shape: achingly familiar, child-sized, shockingly still.
She ran down the hill. In the blackness of the night and in the rain and the wind, it felt as if she were falling, falling towards her daughter. She found the satchel first, in a thick clump of clover. And then there was Autumn, abandoned below a tangled briar. She was wearing the red coat her grandmother had bought her a week ago. Laura knelt next to her and cupped the child's cold face in her hands and felt her hair, wet against her wrists.
She switched on her phone and, in the last few seconds before it died and the screen went blank, in that one moment lit by the eerie electronic light, she saw that she was kneeling in a circle of grass where every blade was coated with red. Autumn's hair was sticky with it; her face and neck were bright red. Only one small, pale spot on her cheek was visible where her skin, free of blood, gleamed, as polished as bone.
Friday 26 October
t sounded as if someone was trying to open the front door.
, she thought; he must have forgotten his keys. She frowned. That was something she was likely to do, not him. And then she remembered. It couldn't be Matt, it wasn't his weekend to look after Autumn. She rolled over and looked at her bedside clock. It was 4 a.m. The door shook in its frame again.
She rose, wide awake now, and flung on her dressing gown. Although her room was at the top of the house, she always slept with her bedroom door open so that she could hear if Autumn needed her in the night. Who could it be at this time? The house was old â at least Edwardian â and the floorboards seemed to wince under her weight even though she tried to walk quietly down them so she wouldn't wake Autumn and Vanessa.
She hated how vulnerable she felt, a single woman in her early thirties with a young child and her mother asleep in the house. There was nothing secure about their front door â it opened straight from the hall onto the street; there was no spy hole and no chain on the inside. Like everything else in the house, it needed replacing. Now she'd reached the door, she could feel the draught stealing around the warped edges.
âWho's there?' she said, but quietly, so that she wouldn't disturb her family.
There was no answer. She looked through the narrow hall window but all she could see was her own reflection, sharp and bright, in her white dressing gown. She rested her forehead against the glass and cupped her hands around her eyes but she couldn't make out anyone on the street and her view was obscured by the branches of the fig tree she'd planted in a pot and placed right in front of this sliver of a window. In any case, the angle was wrong to see who it was if he was standing right by the front door. She assumed it was a he. It always was, wasn't it? She moved away, in case he could see her reflection, and stood directly in front of the door, listening for breathing, for the scrape of shoes against the pavement. Nothing.
She turned the key in the lock and opened the door a fraction, and then pulled it wide open. A blast of damp, icy air hit her. There was no one there. She leant out to look further into Wolferton Place. The trees in the small park opposite tossed in the wind, the branches of the old pines creaking, and the rain came in hard gusts. Her hair was instantly whipped into a tangle. The short cul-de-sac they lived on was deserted.
She closed the door softly and locked it. For a moment she stood there. Had she imagined the noise? Or had it been the wind? Their house in London had been modern and she wasn't used to the sounds this one made, the way the wind moaned around the chimney and the odd groans and sighs and hisses as air sifted through the gap in the sash windows. Now that the adrenaline was starting to leave her, she became acutely aware of how cold her feet were. The thought of her bed, still vaguely warm, was appealing. She crept back up the stairs, hoping she hadn't woken Vanessa or Autumn. She assumed Vanessa would go for a run if she was already awake. Her mother had no patience with lying in. Laura, on the other hand, felt drained.
She pushed open the door to Autumn's bedroom and peered inside. After a moment her vision adjusted to the gloom. She was startled to see two large eyes staring at her, gleaming in the dark. Autumn was sitting up in bed, pale and still. She was wearing her white pyjamas, the ones with the rose pattern, the flowers now faded.
âAutumn? Are you awake?'
Laura went over and sat on her bed. She folded her arms around her daughter, feeling the child's thin arms and ribs, the chill of her limbs. She must have woken ages ago.
She'd been worried about Autumn for weeks â almost since the start of term. Her daughter had been miserable and not like her usual sunny, quirky self at all. At first, Laura thought she was missing her dad and finding it difficult to settle into a new school â Autumn had never had to change schools until this summer â but her daughter's mood had only worsened over the past few weeks.
âWhat is it, love? Did I wake you?'
Autumn shook her head.
âIs there something bothering you?'
Her daughter's shoulders shook and she felt hot tears drop onto her collar bone. She stroked her hair and hugged her.
âWhat's happened? You can tell me, sweetheart.' She tried to peel her away â Autumn's face was pressed tightly against her neck â and wiped her tears with a crumpled tissue from her dressing gown pocket.
Autumn sniffed. âIt's a boy. He's been saying mean things to me.' She dissolved into tears.
âA boy in your class?'
Autumn shook her head. âHe's in the year above. He calls me names.'
An older boy in the final year of primary school: it somehow made it worse, a child of that age preying on her daughter at a time when children were still supposed to behave like children.
âOh, sweetheart, I'm so sorry. How long has this been going on for?'
âA bit after I started school.'
âYou mean, in September?'
Autumn nodded and blew her nose loudly.
âBut that's ages ago, Autumn. Why didn't you say anything?'
âI didn't want you to worry. I thought he'd stop.'
She squeezed Autumn's shoulders. âAnd has he done anything else to you? Apart from calling you names?'
Autumn dropped her head. She hiccupped as she tried to speak. âSlugs,' she wailed and started to cry again.
It was hard to tell what she was saying, but Laura finally got it out of her. Autumn had opened her drawer in class and it had been full of the creatures, packed on top of a layer of rotten apples. Laura thought of those writhing, slimy bodies, the malice it would have taken to collect them all and press them onto her child's books.
âTry and get a little bit of sleep before we have to leave for school.'
Autumn reluctantly lay down and closed her eyes.
âI'm going to talk to your teacher this morning,' Laura said. Her feet were now really cold and she felt tired. She shunted Autumn over and slid into her narrow single bed alongside her. âIt's not acceptable, what that boy is doing. What's his name again? Lenny?'
âLevi,' muttered Autumn, as if the word left a bad taste in her mouth.
Autumn rolled onto her side, curling up and snuggling into the duvet. The child's face relaxed and her breathing slowed. Laura's feet started to tingle. The heating clicked and rumbled into life, the radiators gurgling as the water within them slowly warmed. It was still cold though. Laura knew she should get up but it was so rare to be able to watch her daughter fall asleep.
It felt as if hardly any time had passed since Autumn had been a baby and yet here she was, looking down at a nine year old whose long, thick, light-brown hair was spread across her pillow. When Autumn was born, it was as if she recognized her, as if she'd always known that it would be her, this little person who had come to live with her and reside permanently in her heart. It was a love unlike any other: fierce and powerful. It was a shock to Laura, who had never felt anything so all-consuming in her life.
She couldn't bear the idea that Autumn was being teased.
âThere is nothing I would not do for you,' she whispered to her daughter in the darkness as she stroked her hair one last time.
They'd moved from London to Bristol late that summer, once the divorce had been finalized and their house sold. Laura had chosen to live in Montpelier because the school was so good: Ashley Grove Junior had excellent Ofsted grades, the teachers seemed nice and they could walk there. Compared to Autumn's school in Hammersmith, it was calmer and quieter â there were only two classes in each year.
When Autumn had first started at Ashley Grove in September, Laura had been as nervous as her daughter. She'd been worried about Autumn â if she'd make new friends, if she'd fit in â as well as for herself â would the other mothers like her? It had felt, as she'd walked to school that morning, her mouth dry and her stomach churning, as if it were her first day too. Autumn had gone to one school all her life and Laura â probably because of her peripatetic childhood, being shuttled between Namibia and London when her parents were working overseas â hated change.
School started at 9 a.m., but the pupils were expected to arrive five minutes early, so there were normally a lot of children and their parents milling around in the playground beforehand. For the first couple of days, a few of the other mothers openly stared at her and Autumn but no one spoke to them. It wasn't until the third day that, to Laura's eternal gratitude, Rebecca came across to talk to her. It didn't take long for Rebecca's friends â Amy, Lily and Rani â to follow. Rebecca was an alpha mother and being accepted by her had made Laura's life a lot easier. It didn't stop Laura feeling lonely and isolated though. Her own friends were in London but so far none of them â not even her best friend, Lucy â had had time to visit. She couldn't remember a period in her life when she hadn't been surrounded by a network of people: she'd stayed in touch with all the mothers and their children from her NCT group, and then there were the odd assortment of gardeners, whom she'd seen once a week at her allotment and often in the pub later, as well as the friends she'd made on her horticultural course. Still, she thought, it was just a matter of time. They hadn't been here for long and it was absolutely the right decision to move to Bristol and make a fresh start.
Today Laura looked around for Rebecca's black Range Rover and her two blonde, beautifully dressed little girls, Poppy and Tilly â Tilly was in Autumn's class â but there was no sign of them. They were still a couple of minutes early, though.
As they were crossing the yard, Autumn moved closer to Laura so that she was pressed against her side.
âHe's there,' she said in a small voice. âLook.'
She pointed to a group of boys who were lounging around the climbing frame. A couple of them were hanging from the bars.
âWhich one?' asked Laura.
âBy the swing,' Autumn said, and half turned towards her mother so that she could no longer see the gang.
Laura didn't know what she'd expected: a small podgy boy with mean eyes, if she'd been pushed to describe the image in her mind; a kid on free school meals and benefits with a tattooed father and his shirt tails hanging out. But not this boy.
âHe's in the year above you?' She couldn't stop herself from saying it.
âDon't stare!' said Autumn, her cheeks colouring.
She started walking again and Autumn continued leaning against her, keeping time with her steps, her face resolutely turned away.
So that was Levi. She could hardly believe it. The most obvious thing about him was that he was beautiful. Stunningly good-looking, in fact. He was tall, at least as tall as Laura. He appeared older than ten, although she guessed he could be eleven already. And then there was the fact that he was black. Not dark or blue-black though, but a warm, golden-brown. His hair was in corn rows, ending just below his collar and his large, dark eyes were fringed with thick eyelashes. He had an aquiline nose and bow-shaped lips. He looked neat in his white shirt, blazer and black trousers. The uniform was quite relaxed at Ashley Grove but he'd chosen to wear the most formal clothes he could and they were spotless. Propped casually against the metal post of the swing, coolly regarding the antics of the other boys, he seemed older, wiser, superior. Laura found it hard to believe he'd even noticed Autumn. Levi looked like a teenager; you could see in his face the young man he would become. In comparison, Autumn looked like a child with her round cheeks and bony knees, her gap-toothed smile and her plaits.
âWhere are his parents?' asked Laura, looking around the yard.
âI don't know. I've only seen him walking to school by himself,' mumbled Autumn, stepping away from her.
Laura felt the sudden chill where Autumn's warm body had been. Unable to help herself, she glanced over at Levi again. To her surprise he was staring directly at her, as if he were calmly appraising her. She ducked her head and hurried after Autumn.
She took a deep breath, walked into the school and knocked on the open door of the Year 4 classroom. Autumn trailed unhappily behind her.
Autumn's class teacher, Mrs Ellen Sibson, was tall, in her late fifties, with an angry rash across her chin and severely parted hair streaked with grey and dotted with a few flakes of dandruff. She wore an ankle-length pale-blue cord skirt and a long-sleeved top and cardigan in a matching colour. A necklace made of round green plastic beads hung across her bosom and rested on her stomach. Laura thought she was intimidating, not like the jovial George Wu, who'd taken Autumn's class last year in London.
Laura found any kind of confrontation difficult and had been rehearsing what to say to Mrs Sibson all the way to school, so that their walk had been in near silence. She realized, with a fretful pang, that she hadn't even tried to reassure Autumn.
âCould I just have a quick word?' she asked Mrs Sibson, who frowned and then attempted a smile.
Laura immediately felt at a disadvantage. Mrs Sibson was readying herself for her class and would hardly want to have an extended chat right now. But it was for Autumn's sake; she had to do it. She pushed the door shut and clenched her fists, her nails digging into her palms.
âWhat can I do for you?' Mrs Sibson asked.
âIt's about Autumn. I'm not sure she's settling in that well.' She gave Mrs Sibson a small smile, trying to look friendly.
âI think she's doing remarkably well, considering how difficult it must have been for her, moving here and transferring to a new school.'
âWell, it's more than that. More than simply starting at a new school.'
âShe is quiet,' said Mrs Sibson, glancing at Autumn, âbut she's been working hard, and she's very gifted artistically. Our PE teacher is particularly impressed with her gymnastic ability.'