By Euan MacInnes
Jamie took another deep breath and rang the doorbell again.
Hoping against hope that nobody would answer. He pushed with a
strength that would seem enough to anyone watching that he was
trying but with the greatest hope that it wouldn't be enough to
fire off the mechanism. Jamie didn't want to be here. Here in a
small town that he knew the name of but nothing else. Nothing apart
from the reason he was now here. Here repeatedly pressing a
doorbell. Here not wanting to speak to the residents that
definitely didn't want to speak to him.
Jamie McAllen had been working for this paper for two weeks. He was a junior reporter and he knew it. Most of his days were spent rewriting press releases and filling out the 'information boxes' that would go alongside the main stories. He still had his job because he was cheap and could write. The company that owned the paper owed him nothing and as soon as he could demand a reasonable wage he knew his contract wouldn't be renewed. Jamie only knew this because the old hands had told him so every time the double-edged sword of voluntary redundancy came along. Double-edged only if you already wanted to go, more of a scythe if you had nowhere else to be.
The other task this entry-level employee had was getting quotes for the main story. Often his details were changed by overworked sub-editors who were under-pressure to sex-up the articles. Jamie knew this would happen again. That his face would be the one that the family remembered when they opened up the paper and saw how the story had been twisted again.
It would be different at his old job. When he knew all the villages. Knew half the people, or at least knew someone who knew someone who knew the person. At the local paper it was different. His stories were his. Jamie was part of the event, he felt the joy of the kids at the local primary school when their charity fund-raiser meant they got their picture in the paper. Back then Jamie McAllen could start to dream that he'd live like his hero. He was on the road to being Hunter S Thompson. He'd write the stories he'd want in his own style and with his angle being what made the story interesting. The dream never took over from reality; he'd gone into journalism with his eyes open. His parents, university tutors, girlfriends, colleagues in the student union bar, everyone, they all told him that it was a dying industry. Jamie knew all that, but he wanted to write and this was a way of doing that.
Jamie didn't want to write about this. He's 25 but he's no idea what being an adult is like. Being a parent. How is he supposed to empathise with two 40 year olds who've lost their children. He cried for a week when his girlfriend left him at 22. He'd blamed all that on himself even though deep down he knew that she couldn't turn down the opportunity to move to America. Jamie pushed his friends away and shouted at his mum when they tried to understand his pain. He stayed in bed for a day and missed a shift at work. He felt so sorry for himself. That was just a girl. A girl who was still alive, that still liked him, that still sent him emails and facebook messages about how happy she was in Texas but how she missed him and how welcome he'd be in Austin.
What if it was a child? Or two children. His children. What does it feel like to have a child? Like part of you? Dad had said that having kids had transformed his life, not all for better, not all for worse, not all something you can explain to anyone else, just completely. These words rang out through Jamie's ears.
'My life wasn't about me any more, it was about you and your
Oh god his sister. It was a boy and a girl that had gone. It was like Jamie and Sarah. What if he and his sister had gone into the woods and hadn't come back? His town was similar to this one. Not quite a village but still far enough away from the city that it felt like a different world. There were woods down by the donkey-fields. They weren't really allowed in them but they still went there. Mostly Jamie had gone there with his friends to play war. Throw conkers as if they were grenades, use sticks like guns, wear camo-paint and imagine the Predator was out to get them. When he went off there he'd never told his parents that's where they were. It was always the skatepark.They never checked, they trusted him. He was a good kid, never really in trouble. Jamie would often come back late though. Mum came to find him and she'd gone mental when she'd found him in the woods past 9.15. 9.15! That was over an hour after he was supposed to have come home. How far could he have gone in an hour? They'd been playing since he'd wolfed down his tea and run out the door. That was nearer three. Three hours.
All these feelings were running through Jamie as he pressed the button for a 5th and in his mind, a final time, his younger sister, his girlfriend, his mother's anger, his dad's words.
'PLEASE DON'T OPEN ... PLEASE!!!'
Nothing. Oh thank God. Jamie ambled off to the nearest café to email and phone his boss. Not that he needed an answer. They'd say the same. Stay there. Watch, report any movement. Ask any passers by. Get something. ANYTHING.
He sat down again. The pretty but stuck-up waitress ignored him as she played on her phone. Jamie didn't care. He only had enough for a bus back anyway. The ill-fitting suit jacket removed. The tie loosened. The arms kept clamped to his sides so 'Jenny' didn't notice the giant sweat patches under his arms.
Hamish and Grace had disappeared a week ago. Jamie had been off when the story broke. It wasn't the sort of thing he cared about. He dreamed of bigger things. Politics and the world not human-interest. At university he'd pontificated about the vulgar media's obsession with gawping at the vulnerable and unfortunate. Over cans of value lager and unrecognisable blended whiskies Jamie would tell anyone who'd listen about how his political science course taught him things about how the world works that they'd never understand. Thinking back now made him wince. He was a dick back then. Hang on. He's a dick now.
Now he's feeding that machine. That machine he hated. Any words he gets now will soon not be his. They'll be taken by the paper. The TV. American news. It was a local story now. Only in Scotland did they know that the kids had gone walking in the woods and hadn't come back. But that was 3 days ago. Once it gets to a week it'll be a major story. The pictures had been so photogenic. The parents had been just what the tabloids liked. Middle-class, middle-income, two cars in the driveway and professional careers. There was a difference this time though. This time they were saying nothing. It was all through the police. Strathclyde's constabulary were handling the press.
The Stewarts had seen what the media circuses had done to other families of missing kids. They weren't going to let that happen to them. Jamie reckoned they were not appealing to the media, not using it as a tool, not making that Faustian pact because in their minds it wasn't necessary. If they keep things normal then they are normal. They've just stayed with some other friends. Just got a bit lost and soon the police will connect the lost kids in one town with the missing ones in another. The minute you're giving a heartfelt interview on BBC News 24 you're admitting things aren't normal. That they might not come back. That something has happened.
Jamie understood. That's what he'd have done. Or is it? How can he know? He can barely understand what they felt like the first moment something was wrong, let alone how he'd deal with that overwhelming emotion.
The call came. He had to go back. The photographer was here and had noticed movement behind the curtains. At least it was Jenny who called him. He liked Jenny. A bit younger than the others and a lot more understanding than every other colleague. She told him what to say. The clever language that said 'I understand your pain and silence' but meant 'it would be better if you told us'. This made it easier in one aspect. He could go back with nothing having done what he was told. This aspect though was the smallest and least significant aspect. This was Jamie protecting himself and for the first time in as long as he could remember Jamie really didn't care about his feelings. He knew how his words would sound. They would sound hollow. They would sound false. They would sound like another dagger stabbing at the thin veil of emotional control the family had created.
Eyes focused on the pavement, Jamie trudged once again to the Stewart house. Along the road of small, but detached houses that the suburb was famous for.The houses his own paper happily advertised as 'perfect for a young family needing a starter home'. It was a newish estate. Redbrick to make it look warm and modern and inviting. Front gardens. Poignantly filled with a child's toy. Scooter, bike, trampoline, whatever, he couldn't shut it out for a second. This was supposed to be a safe neighbourhood. Like the one Jamie grew up in. Like the one all kids should grow up in. Safe but dull. Something to make you want to leave home when you're 15, but somewhere that you look back on with fondness. How will Hamish and Grace look back on number 23? Will they get the chance?
The door was painted red. It stood out on the street. They'd personalised it. Made it their own. You could picture the family on the phone to their friends inviting them to a house-warming dinner party.
'You'll see it easily, it's the one with the bright red door.
Oh, and no doubt the kids' toys will be all over the garden because
Jim will have forgotten to tidy them up before you arrive.'
Deep breaths again. Tie checked again. Suit pulled down. Photographer could be heard leaning over the wall, technically on public property but clearly intruding on the family's grief. The way Jamie was. The way irrevocably he was about to do again.
He rang. He spoke. He knocked. He rang. He cried. Why is he here? He moved out of his parents' house seven years ago and all he wants now is to be back in that house. That house like this one. With his sister playing god-awful music. With his dad arguing about politics and with his mum refusing to take sides. Jamie didn't want to be here.
Pausing to wipe that one solitary tear from his eye, Jamie realised that the photographer was behind him. His masculine socialisation made him pretend to be a man again. He was pretending to be a man but was lost and afraid. Like two children in a wood. Like two parents whose perfect normality had come crashing down.
The door opened a crack. A breaking voice said. You can come in, son, but we don't want anything in the paper. The voice was warm and inviting even though the words sounded forced. Jamie was trapped. He didn't know what to do. He wanted to run but he knew he was expected to go in.
© Euan MacIness, 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.