By Joshua Turner
The first thing I remember from the day we lost our children is a sense of joy.
I wake to the feel of mid morning sun brushing over my face, shining through a crack in the curtain. No loud clatter of small feet in the hallway or tapping of little hands on my door that usually rouses me to dreary grey half light. I peer at the clock by my bed, the digital red balance that weighs out my existence — 09:00 — unheard of for a Saturday. I smile a lazy smile that blends into a yawn, loud and wide and good, the kind of yawn that oozes contentment with a grunt and ends with a roar. I stretch my arms over my head and pause to enjoy the rare pleasure of not being harried from my bed. A moment's quiet contemplation before I realise someone has to be the villain. I start to tickle my wife's ear.
'Mummy needs a minute darling.'
I continue until Kate flicks a hand through her blonde hair in exasperation. She groans as she turns over to face me with that look of equal measure patience and resignation, a parental skill I'd never quite mastered. Patience fades to suspicion as she takes in the scene.
Nothing more needs to be said. A long lie to wake well rested is a luxury these days; the night so often spent lying in the dark staring at the ceiling and trying to drift to sleep while dwelling on the painful arithmetic of bills and wages that don't add up. We lie there in morning's silence as golden light bathes the room, recline amidst the absence of repetitive alarm either electronic or organic which operate on a five day/two day schedule in perpetual demand for our waking.
I bend down and kiss her good morning as I take in the peace, the quiet, the splendid lack of a child's trill requests.
'I best go look for the monsters,' I say, moving the duvet to one side as I slip out of bed. I slide in to my striped red and blue slippers marked with a small yellow anchor, society's badge of middle age. My toe peeks out from a hole at the end of the right slipper. I adjust my pyjamas, weekend armour that accompanies the badges of life's median I wear on my feet, then open the door and walk out to search for the absent noise.
A sharp pain in my foot elicits a curse of 'bastard!' before I catch myself. A look around on the landing assures me I've avoided providing further ammunition to the on-going battle against 'but Dad says it.' I glance down to find a robot grinning up at me, his bright red body at rest on the floor with an arm extended and a hand pointing accusingly at the offending foot.
'Stupid thing,' I mutter, bending down to pick it up. 'Last chance, ok?'
'John!' I yell through the house. 'What did I tell you about wandering robots?' No response.
Considering the possibility of having the house to ourselves, I look around furtively before saluting my inanimate assailant. 'Don't you dare tell Johnny about this,' I warn him and then, quietly mouthing 'Geronimo,' I throw him over the landing to the sofa in the living room below, lever one leg over the bannister, and slide down the stairs; a mental whoop as I descend which I'm too wary to vocalise in fear of discovery. I always enjoy when the kids are out and I can do all the fun things I'm supposed to tell them off for.
The computer stands on in the corner of the living room showing signs of children and their pressing need for status updates. A discarded pair of shoes that haven't made Marjory's cut for the day's fashion lie by the door, which stands slightly ajar. I make a mental note to reprimand her for this later. As a parent of 12 years I'm established enough as a child tracker to read the signs and know they've fled for the day. Bliss.
Responsibility overrides my pleasure, the tickling guilt that if they are gone I should probably ascertain to where and for how long, even given their unpredictable propensity to run off on sunny mornings. I don't blame them. I feel like running off into the summer light and leaving my own troubles at home, resting by the door, or on the landing outside my bedroom where they would be found and dealt with by an authority figure other than myself. I sigh as I pick up my mobile from the coffee table, and ring Marjory.
One ring, two, and I can hear the faint sound of a familiar tune coming through the front door. I move over with a disappointed lurch at the realisation they're close at hand, a vague sense of relief that I've solved the mystery of the absent noise. I step out and into the warmth of a summer morning. A collection of mostly finished semi-detached houses surrounds me, the development we'd moved to just last year. A painful decision given the surge in interest rates since. A commuter haven built near a city that no longer had jobs, a town that had lost its purpose, sitting half empty and waiting.
The area we just call 'The Square' is officially Wells Court. Nothing to do with the writer — that would be far too interesting — just a bad attempt by real estate marketing to imply a quaint middle class image best highlighted by the twee replica well which centres the grass between the houses. On bonfire night the few families already moved in had gathered around the well and dropped tea lights down between the grate to the sand pit a few feet below, watching the lights flicker in the darkness beneath as the rockets we had clubbed together to purchase fizzled away like our deposits, bright and brief above our heads. Explosions of happiness amidst what were otherwise difficult times, a worthy strengthening to our fledgling sense of community. The kids had loved the well ever since and often used it as a starting point for their games, bestowing meaning on a decorative flourish that would otherwise have gone ignored. It's no great surprise then that the theme tune to end my dream of a quiet morning plays with tinny persistence from the centre of the square.
The only children that I can see are Hansel and Gretel from Number 30. Normally the square is bustling with boisterous youth on the weekend. Hansel stands with a worried look on his face beside the white pebble dash wall of his house, chipping pebbles in to his hands then placing them in his pocket as his sister looks on.
'Marjory? John?' I call out as I approach the well. I await the burst from hiding behind the pale sandstone and prepare for the feigned shock that's expected of my role in this drama. My tension builds. The ringing stops and an answerphone message begins. I hang up. I draw nearer and it seems the game has run on, the usual timer for such action has expired and I'm impatient for the continuation of the ritual, eager to get back indoors and away from the potential for the mutually unpleasant experience of a neighbour catching me in my pyjamas.
Distrusting what my eyes are telling me I circle the well once. I look at my phone as if it's complicit in this conspiracy against me. Puzzled I ring Marjory again. A buzzing sound half a second before the ring tone emerges. I look down and see there between the grate a light flashing on and off at the bottom of the well: Marjory's phone. As I stare on confused and with the stirring of worry in the pit of my stomach another light flickers. Another tinny song overlays the sound of Marjory's ring tone. A door opens, Tom from Number 13 appears, a phone to his ear. Another door and another door opens and song after song emerges as one in a cacophony of noise that erupts from the shadowed depths at the bottom of the well. The square is filling with confused parents while below me in the grate lights blink in the darkness like loud and lonely candles crying out for embrace.
In the space of two phone calls my joy has turned to shame and fear. I feel physically sick when I think of how happy I was just moments before. Pain twists my insides. Now it seems they were not so much absent as actually and horribly missing I'm disgusted with myself for that sense of joy on waking. The square is full in the bright sun light but all I can focus on is the image of flashing lights in the shadows. The last phone goes black and falls back to waiting.
I look to the other parents. As they see the expression on my face their own curiosity blends to fear. They crowd round clasping mobiles, questions of 'Where? What's going on?' Tom is the first to arrive at the well.
'What is it Fred?'
But, silenced by my own fear, I simply point between the grate. Hesitantly he makes another call and glances down. In the illumination from his son's phone you can just make out the outlines of the other victims of this strange abandonment.
'Is it some sort of game?' he asks, but I know it's not. I know because of how Marjory had cried when we told her we would have to send her phone back, that we couldn't afford the payments. She'd screamed at us, said that in taking her phone we might as well have taken her life away. Even if she had run off with the other children they would have been armed with smart phones and smarter plans than this. And I know I wouldn't even tell them off for the robot outside my bedroom or the front door left half open if they would only let me know where they were.
The bubble of voices surrounds the well, similar questions from different mouths and with different names but the same demands: 'Where's my Conrad, Ash, Jacob, Else?' But the phones don't answer us, they just sit quiet in the darkness in the middle of the square.
We stand ashen faced above the well, my nausea passing through the others like an infection. 'Somebody call the police!' a voice cries out, punctuated by sobs. Still others try to ring again as if somehow the phones would leap up and lead the way, flying to their children's hands. All the parents are here now, all apart from Hansel and Gretel's father and his new wife, nine adults stumbling for a solution to the burning question while the discarded mobiles ring persistently between us. Where had our kids gone? Were they safe? Who had taken them?
It occurs to me as the initial shock passes that perhaps the other children might know. Could this really be some cruel game? I look around to where I'd seen Hansel and Gretel but the side of their house stands empty. Above, perched on a chimney top, a solitary pigeon looks on to the distance. I follow the gaze and see a line of the white pebbles that I'd earlier noticed Hansel chipping from the wall. The trail winds between the houses and up a pavement that leads out of the court. My eyes follow the imagined line that fades to obscurity in the distance, and there, standing on each side of a taller figure, holding its hand, I can just make out the blonde hair of Hansel and Gretel as they disappear beneath the shadowed edge of the woodland that surrounds the town.
© Joshua Turner, unless we state otherwise
In January 2013, this story was shortlisted for the Hansel and Gretel adult creative writing competition organised by the National Library of Scotland and Scottish Ballet.