Authors: Jonathan Gash
To Matthew John Lewis
To Susan, for graft and more
The little boy’s mind floated.
People were talking in faraway voices. Calm, warm. The voices droned.
“The boy’s medication will require balance.” A man.
“Is it safe, Doctor?” A woman.
“I’ve never had a failure.”
“He’s beautiful. How old is he?”
“Six, maybe and a half.” The voice huffled. “The police will confirm it.”
“Broadcasts,” the doctor’s voice reassured. “My clinic staff monitor local and national. They’ll come on air soon. Photographs, details how we abducted him. I’ll change the boy’s identity into something he never was.”
“Trust me. I’m the expert.”
“Before you can take him home? Months, after careful
clinical judgement, but he’ll be your child one hundred per cent.”
“Will he remember anything from…before?”
“Not a thing. I guarantee. Sure, you can touch his hand.”
A woman’s voice. “Hello, honey. I’m Mom.”
Mom, not Mummy.
“And Pop’s here, with Doctor.”
“What shall I say?” A man.
“Tell him his name. He’s Clint, from now on.”
“Hello, Clint.” The voice broke, recovered. “Can the process be shortened?”
“Medicine can’t be hurried, Pop.”
“I don’t want him remembering things and taking off.”
“He’ll only have the memories I put in.”
“You can really do that?”
“My clinic aims to please, Mom.”
“Mom!” the woman sobbed. “I never thought! My very own child!”
The little boy slept. The voices faded.
A quiet whispering began to speak a name over and over: Clint, Clint, Clint.
For just one moment, in the very far distance, vague and blurred, was a figure. It smiled. Davey wanted to smile back because the old man belonged to him. He wore his multi-coloured paint-stained apron and held a piece of carved wood. Davey knew he was going to say
Hello what’s all this
but sleep came as that whispering said Clint, Clint.
The smiling old man finally dwindled and soon was completely gone.
It was the fifteenth day of horror.
Bray Charleston heard the two office girls talking.
He worked on, planing the wood. Loggo, the youngest lad in the workshop, watched in silence. Soon he would explode. Bray knew these youngsters wanted everything done yesterday, with electric bandsaws and computerised auto-routers shredding your eardrums.
“How can he keep coming in to work? I ask you!”
That was the nasal grumbling of Karen. God knows what she was like under her cosmetics. Fingernails constantly filed, mirror at the ready, never answering the phone if she could help it. Bray could hear because the BBC’s music and feeble wisecracks had temporarily failed.
“Maybe work keeps his mind off his grandson.” The other typist, Tracy, was much the quieter, given to coming in with bloated after-party eyes. “It’s terrible.”
Tracy said terr-i-buwww, true South London failing terminals.
What could they know? Bray alone felt the horror. What else could he do but come to the work he loved? News about a missing child could only be bad.
Loggo’s patience finally broke. “Mr Charleston, can I do that?”
Bray straightened, aching, but he was fifty-three, it was to be expected.
“No, ta. I’m fine.”
“I’d have it finished in a sec with the rotary.”
Bray used to call Loggo “son”, but now caught himself. The horror had begun at twenty minutes to three, two Tuesday mornings since. It was death for Bray, learning that his little grandson Davey had been stolen. In America, land of the free. From now on, all eternity would be different.
“It’d save your hands.” Loggo’s kindness was born of exasperation at the senior craftsman’s slowness.
The girls heard the apprentice’s voice, realised that they too were audible, and moved away from the window.
“Electrics don’t please the wood,” Bray told Loggo.
The piece was a dark walnut brown, with an oddish matt shine.
“Eh? It’s only ordinary walnut, innit?”
“This isn’t walnut.” Bray paused to focus. Pages from old glossaries flickered through his tired mind. No, not tired, for he had no right to tiredness, would never now sleep in case news came, in case anything. “Kokko’s only
East Indies walnut. See the untouched surface?”
Loggo squinted, cheek to the workbench. “It’s no different, Mr Charleston.”
“You’ll see better when I’ve done.”
Bray felt knots inside his chest. He should be speaking like this to Davey, in that last precious half-hour before daughter-in-law Shirley whisked the little lad up to bath and bed. He cleared his throat.
“Don’t be misled because kokko’s durable and heavy.
It’s brittle as chocolate. That’s why it needs such careful seasoning. Modern kiln-drying takes the heart out of wood.”
“Seasoning takes too long, Mr Charleston.”
“It preserves the life within.” Bray went quickly on, sensing a wrong choice of words. Some lives were not preserved. “Gilson Mather’s lucky to have got hold of a properly seasoned piece like this. See how the grain criss-crosses like tangled wool?”
“Yes.” The lad was itching to get some electrical planers whirring, mincing the precious rare wood to shreds.
Loggo wasn’t a real apprentice, of course. No such thing these days. Once, an apprentice worked seven years and learned the soul in the wood. Now? Now they sat at some computer for twelve weeks and called themselves expert. At joinery, at anything, at aviation for God’s sake.
“Treating the surface properly can up the price of a kokko wood cabinet tenfold. The texture is woolly, see? An electric plane would pick up, and you’d lose half the wood. Nigerian kokko is its cousin,
, a shade heavier so it picks up worse.” Picking up was the master cabinet maker’s dread, showing damaging plicks on a finished surface.
“Can’t I give it a go?”
“No. I’m almost there.”
On any normal day, Bray would have added that wood required respect. Not now, not since six-year-old Davey had been stolen in America. Respect, even that ominously fragile term “care”, seemed ghastly anachronisms. He worked on. Loggo could ask and learn more if he wanted. Unfair to feel resentment against the sixteen-year-old whose life remained his own while a little fair-haired boy was…
Bray tapped his hand-plane’s hull to keep the blade settled.
Bray looked up. Loggo had gone. Astonishingly the workshop floor was vacated. How long had he worked on? The firm’s owner Mr Winsarls was standing there. It wasn’t news, Bray knew instantly, merely something to do with time, that newly superfluous commodity.
“Yes, Mr Winsarls?”
“It’s gone five. Just thought I’d say.”
“Thank you, Mr Winsarls.”
Loggo started sweeping the joinery workshop even before Bray had hung his apron and put away his tools. In Bray’s day an apprentice had to clean every common tool in the place, except for the craftsmen’s specials. Bray could tell some tales, all true, about cabinet makers’ implements, if anybody nowadays wanted to listen. And, new to him, if ever he himself wished to bother with anything any more. Hope was a blessing, a reverence for life intimately concerned with the future. It had gone with little Davey, at that holiday centre, in Florida.
“Goodnight, sir,” he called up to Mr Winsarls as usual, his tools carefully racked, his bench ready for the morrow. He hung his leather brat on its hook, smoothed the heavy canvas apron over it and washed his face and hands. He avoided the mirror, in case he saw horror staring back.
The famous theme park’s name once stood for laughter, children’s holiday fun. Not now. Now, it was horror grimmer than any TV news. For it was from that theme park that Davey had been stolen away, an act of unspeakable evil.
The American police had appointed Liaison Officer Jim Stazio, who had spelled out the pointlessness of hope.
Since that night call from Florida, when his son Geoff had told him, voice shaking, that Davey had vanished among the crowds, horror settled into Bray’s brain. The world was now a place that allowed little grandsons to be stolen by forces so malign that the mind had to stop thinking.
And start planning.
Police were powerless (but weren’t police Over There armed and omnipotent?). Officer Stazio phoned, and promised the fullest action. Theme Park Security also promised this “fullest action”. Some smooth Consulate woman with a career voice promised “the fullest inquiry”, a carping shift of terminology there. Diplomacy was death to hope.
That first night, Bray had decided what he must do.
He sat alone in his house until morning, hearing the avenue begin its routine noises – milkman, post girl, school bus, mothers in car pool chitchats. Bray confronted the gathering fright, fright that Davey would be…unable to come home any more. Bray couldn’t face that terrible consequence.
Was there a hope?
He rummaged around his exhausted mind. He was fifty-three, a joiner, restorer of antiques, maker of classical furniture. He knew nothing of crime, had never knowingly met a criminal.
Hours later, conscious on that first morning that people had shoved things through the letterbox, knocked and gone away, he bathed and dressed, letting the mind cope with routine. His spirit though? Might spirit succeed where cleverness failed?
Later, on that first evening, he had phoned Gilson Mather and gave excuses. Bray thought and believed Davey still lived, would live for ever as long as they didn’t bring the very worst news of all.
Day Two of the horror, he called his boss Mr Winsarls. Newspapers were full of it. The phone rang incessantly but Bray never answered. He went to a neighbour’s house and asked Shirley’s friend Christine and her husband Hal to deflect the phone calls and look after Buster, Davey’s golden retriever. They were pale and silent. It had been a terrible visit. Hal’s solution was that Bray’s son Geoff would ring four dialling tones then wait five precise minutes before calling again. That would be the signal for Bray to pick up the receiver, sure it would be Geoff and not some ghoulish newshound. Carloads of paparazzi and cameramen lurked in the avenue, rang neighbours’
doorbells wanting to use their toilets, any pretext to get in, begging teas and coffees, asking housewives to heat up fast foods for them. Hal got the police to remove photographers who climbed Bray’s fence.
Christine started taking Buster over Avery Fields. She fed the dog, released Buster into Geoff’s garden. Bray supposed he had still made Buster his pints of milky tea, but couldn’t remember when.
Horror Day Three, the newspaper folk left the avenue never to return. Some pop star had committed a lewd act in Beverley Hills, USA. The singer’s parents lived near Romford, were newsworthy, and exploited easier. Bray blanked the TV.
Three more days he waited, weighing circumstances, hearing Geoff out when he rang each night from America. Then he moved. Sluggish, feeling blindly about for purpose, he tried a dusk walk out with Buster as far as the Victorian herbarium in Avery Hill Fields beyond the rugby ground. No lurking photographers. Buster was reluctant to let Bray out of his sight, sensing woe. The golden retriever lay across the doormat in Bray’s shed occasionally rousing to stare at Bray at the workbench.
Bray spent hours in his shed, doing no carving. He did not even paint the figurines he and Davey had already finished. He went over every memory of Davey’s inexpert hands as the shapes on the ledges and sills had evolved and become real. Real to Bray and Davey, of course. To no one else.
The important word seemed to be
. It became strangely dense. Was this how words seemed to a child?
Bray remembered with sudden clarity how Davey had laughed, quite helplessly, on first hearing the word
“umbrella”. Tragic that adults lost that childhood imagery. Do we lose them altogether, Bray wondered, or did they possibly still live in some vestigial mental Limbo of the mind?
Horror Day Seven, Bray arrived in Gilson Mather’s workshop, with loudmouthed Karen noising off about how unfeeling old Charleston must be to come to work. Quiet Tracy tried to shut her up. Mr Winsarls and the others all went silent whenever Bray cleared his throat and spoke his gentle stuttery guidance to the younger joiners.
Bray’s soul took on a new fluidity. As a cunning beast wakens, Bray made his soul start to think about the malice of the evil child thieves. They thought they’d got away with it, scotage free, taking little Davey.
On Day Eight, Bray realised they had miscalculated. They’d forgotten one person, and one other vital factor. That one person was Bray Charleston, master joiner, daydreamer, carver of wooden hobby figures. He was Davey’s grampa.
And the other vital factor? Okay, Bray thought, as he stood alone in the timber yard judging a consignment of Ugandan nsambya wood. Okay, the factor didn’t exist in any practical sense. It was ephemeral. Mythical, in fact.
Yet might it persist when police efforts dwindled to zero, when consuls moved on in career climbs? And even when officialdom had long since shelved the troublesome file about a little stolen boy?
The vital factor was memory.
Fairy tales had endured for centuries, hadn’t they? Word for word. Didn’t children’s schoolyard chants live on, even as civilisations were blown away?
On the way home that same day Bray bought five notebooks, held them on his lap for the entire journey.
Heart brimming, he stared out at the darkening fields and thought, others can give in, forget or despair.
He called at the Lumleys’, collected Buster, and walked him over Avery Fields as far as the brook. Christine had fed the dog, but Bray gave him a biscuit and a pint of milky tea as usual before settling him down in his flock pit on the back porch.
Midnight in his garden he stood gazing up at the night sky, and said with a burning conviction,
I’m coming to find you, Davey. Soon, you’ll look up and say, I knew you’d come, Grampa.
Slowly he went back inside, took up the first notebook, and labelled it KV.