“Just follow me,” George said, “and you’ll know everything about Glastonbury, because I know everything about it. They all call me the king, everyone does, even mum.”
Abbie knew better than to argue with him. It had been six days since she joined the school and George had followed her around for five. He found her at the water fountain in the morning, decided they were in love by breaktime, and by home-time he had taken her aside and snuck her through some bushes and under someone’s garden fence. Abbie caught a glimpse of the back of her mum’s head from the other side of the playground, standing on her tiptoes to pick her daughter out of the crowd, before George dragged her away.
The King had marched her up the high street, pointing out some passing people who were terrified of him and the five or six shops he’d wet himself in.
“I know everyone here, even the old people. Mum said she can’t breathe sometimes because everyone knows everyone, but she’s lying because if you can’t breathe you’re dead. It’s true, I asked Amber.”
“Who’s Amber?” Abbie asked, chewing on the end of one of her plaits.
“There’s nan’s house down that road.”
“Does she have biscuits?”
“Nope. But she’s got Ribena.”
They had passed the top of town, walking away from shops and towards houses. Abbie didn’t know how long they’d spent walking but she knew that her feet hurt. She decided she should let George know. He’d let go of her hand to pick up an angry black cat with a cone around its neck.
“This is Maureen’s cat, but he can be ours now.”
“I have a headache in my feet,” Abbie replied.
George ignored her completely, announcing they were all, cat included, going to walk up a big hill and back down the other side. So the pair followed a narrow lane, leapt over a cattlegrid and began their ascent of A Big Hill.
Abbie remembered her mum in the playground and thought maybe she should go back. But George and Maureen’s cat were finding sticks they could turn into wands like Harry Potter, and he promised that from half up the hill, the streetlights and fields and places they’d walked would squish together and look like a huge flat Christmas tree.
Down at the bottom of town, near Knight’s fish and chips, and just past the half-assed Christmas tree with beer cans on its branches, Lacey Williams had long-since become delirious. Standing in the window of her third-floor flat, she divided her attention between the three-year-old in her arms who couldn’t get to sleep without being rocked and the couple outside trying to break into their own car. They lived on the floor below and sometimes helped her carry in the shopping. As she watched them twist a coat hanger and shove it into the key slot on the door, she hummed to her silent toddler.
The lady at nursery told her it was completely normal, some babies take longer than others to speak. But the flat was so quiet all the time and those other babies weren’t her baby. The other parents had full-blown conversations with their kids. That one mum who had a ‘LiveLaughLove’ neck tattoo and smoked more weed than Snoop Dogg—even her kid talked.
“Come on, baby. I’ll give you Hobnobs when you wake up if you say mummy.”
But Ava’s little baby brain was not in the business of taking bribes. Her eyes were rolling back in her head. She’d be fully gone in a few minutes.
Lacey’s back was halfway to breaking under the weight of her ten-pound toddler, and her ten-pound toddler was halfway to sleeping, and the downstairs neighbours were halfway to smashing the window of their own car door, when a mix of noises were set in motion. The car alarm broke the late-night winter street silence. Lacey’s phone vibrating on the counter broke the late-night empty flat silence. All of these sounds combined set off the baby. They also woke a sleeping cat, which darted out from under the car and ran down the street, dragging the cone around its neck across the floor.
Lacey ran to the counter, shushing her daughter, to grab the phone.
“Matt? Shit, sorry. You just woke Ava up, but it’s fine. You alright?”
“Have you seen Abbie?”
“No, not since I had her last Friday. Why?”
“Shit. She’s missing, we can’t find her anywhere. Rachel went to pick her up at school and she never turned up.”
“Fuck… where’ve you looked?”
“Park, down town, the car park behind the church… how far could she get in two hours?”
“I don’t know…”
“She didn’t say anything to you? About wanting to run away or anything?”
“No, she didn’t say anything.”
“Okay… If she comes by yours will you call me?”
“Course I will, yeah. Keep me posted?”
“Will do. Bye.”
Lacey went back to rocking her baby and thought about Abbie, her only niece, out in the cold somewhere. And Matt, the only brother she liked, looking through car parks and supermarkets all night.
Mandy scanned six cucumbers in a row, chancing a glance up at the lady purchasing them, wondering why near Christmas people will buy bloody anything, wondering what on earth kind of a meal is she making which requires six cucumbers?
“Thank you love. Take care, now.”
Mandy watched the cucumber lady go as a man in a posh blue suit loaded the conveyor belt with four mugs, a pack of Malteasers and a pair of Christmas socks with frilly cuffs.
Those socks caught her eye. She’d just bought the red and white ones for Ben, the ones with santas on them.
“Hello, love. Need a bag?”
The man shook his head, holding up two canvas Asdas and one-handed typing on his phone. He didn’t look at her for the duration of the transaction, which was just as well. Mandy never knew what to say to the posh ones.
As she scanned, she heard fast-squeaking shoes on the tiles from behind, turning to see a lady in a big parka with a fluffy hood running from aisle to aisle, red-faced. She scoured each one, stopping to take a second look at every child in the shop. Mandy went back to scanning, lingering a moment on the socks. Should she send Liz the Christmas pyjamas this year? She could hardly give Ben the socks and nothing for Liz. But she wouldn’t wear them in front of the in-laws, that was the trouble. Liz said they were uptight. Too much money, that’s why.
She checked her watch. 7.15. Not long now, then home to reheat that lasagne and watch Miss Marple.
By the time the suit man and two more customers had been through, the running lady had been down every aisle three times. Mandy didn’t get the chance to lean over and ask if she needed anything; the lady sprinted up to her till.
“Have you seen a little girl with red hair? Like kind of dark red, and curly as well?”
“I can’t say I have, sweetheart. Well, I might have but I can’t think…”
“She would be wearing a blue coat? And white fluffy mittens?”
“I’ll keep an eye out for her, but I don’t think she’s been through here.”
The lady scanned the shop again, as if the girl might suddenly appear beside the bread rolls.
“Everything alright, love?” Mandy asked.
“It’s my little girl. I’ve looked everywhere, I don’t know…”
“Should I call the police for you, sweetheart?”
“They’re out looking already.”
The lady didn’t say goodbye, just took off towards the exit when she saw the dark red back of a child’s head. A gent who must have been Granddad came out from an aisle and grabbed the girl, warning her not to run off again. The lady just stood in the doorway then, zipping up her parka with a sad and confused look, like she was wondering how she got to where she was.
Mandy turned back to the till. Of course she’d send Liz the bloody pyjamas. Can never have too many pyjamas, anyway.
She watched through the big windows as the lady ran to her car, almost tripping over Maureen’s cat on the pavement. It was leaning over the metal bowl they put out for tied-up dogs, breaking its long drink every so often to rub up against the bike racks and try to squeeze out of its cone.
Sitting in the big chair by the TV, Colin watched video tapes of the Tour de France in 1990, catching snippets of a phone call from Joan’s end. Fancy phoning at bloody nine thirty…
“Sorry, Amber, Georgie hasn’t been in since last week…yes, we must have last seen him when you both came over for a lesson…you’ve looked in the park? He does love those swings…”
Colin was alert then, thinking about when he last saw George and Amber, which reminded him that he needed to move the piano from the lounge to the conservatory. He wasn’t sure why Joan had got it in her head he distracted the kids, he was barely in there when she had a lesson on.
Colin thought it was a terrible thing, little Georgie going missing. Hard time for him lately with the dad in prison and the mother half bloody barmy. No, Joan said he mustn’t say things like that anymore. Now people say mentally challenged, Joan says. The mother’s mentally challenged, heating casseroles in the washing machine like.
The mother. That was a thought. Wonder if anyone’s checked for the little tyke up the Tor. He was always on about when him and his mum used to walk up there, always asking for Joan to take him up after his lessons if he played his scales. Colin decided not to go into the other room, the sofa being so warm and the hallway being so cold. He’d mention it to Joan when she was off the phone.
Colin’s comfy retirement quiet was broken by Maureen’s cat scratching at the front door. He’d told Joan not to feed it. Her fault it always came back. At the door every week wanting food, bastard thing. It was a nuisance to everyone but Maureen it seemed, banging about trying to rip off that bloody cone so it could chew its own balls. The cat turned up during Georgie’s lessons sometimes. The tyke would jump up and down begging Joan to let him feed it, crying when she said no and grinning like you wouldn’t believe when she said yes.
Ejecting the Tour de France, Colin turned over to I’m A Celebrity on plus one, thinking what a shame about that Ant’s alcohol problem, a shame but actually not the worst, no, nothing worse than losing a child.
At that same moment, half-down the other side of the Tor, George and Abbie were pinning all the brown leaves on to the pokey-out bits of a barbed wire fence.
“How long will we be up here?” Abbie asked.
“Dunno. Probably weeks.”
Maureen’s cat crawled out from under the fence, getting its cone stuck for a minute between the wire and the grass. It tried to sprint but George grabbed it by the tail. He unhooked the catches on its cone, releasing it from its plastic prison. Using the spikes in the fence he carved some strange symbols in the plastic, then hooked it back together and put it on top of his head.
“Now I’m really the king!” George yelled.
Abbie giggled because a little boy can’t really be king.
While he spread out his arms and shouted so loud his voice covered the fields and cows and cars for miles, George imagined showing his mum the crown later. She’d tell him she loved it so much, and her head voices wouldn’t tell her to lock herself in the shed all night tonight, they’d tell her he was the best at crowns.
Banner Image: Glastonbury Tor – Pixabay.com