Little Girl Lost

If I stand at the landing window, pull the curtain back as far as it will go, and crane my neck slightly to the left, I can still see the line of men working their way slowly towards the horizon. By now, they are so far away that it is impossible to differentiate the police from the volunteers, and I have absolutely no idea which one is Robert. They look like a strange crawling formation of black beetles from here, through the drizzle and the late afternoon gloom.

            They went up on the moor about ten o’clock this morning. I was in the scullery scraping suet crust off yesterday’s pudding basin when Robert burst in through the back door. I followed him through the kitchen into the hall.

            ‘They’ve found some photographs in his house,’ he panted, as he looked under the stairs for his boots. ‘The Police. They’re asking for help up around Hawclough Knoll. I’ve closed the workshop, and told the lads to get up there.’

            ‘Do you want something to eat before you go?’

            ‘No thanks, love. No time.’

            His mouth was straight and set firm. He’s good in a crisis, is Robert. Never lets emotion get the better of him. After he’d kissed the top of my head and left, I ran upstairs and looked out over the moor, waiting for the searchers to appear.

            I haven’t been up on the moors for months. I haven’t left the house for months. After my operation, and Mrs Harrison finding me collapsed by the telephone box down in the village, Robert had a telephone put in the house. He brings the groceries when he comes in from work. I clean the house every day. Dust all those empty bedrooms. I scrub Robert’s overalls and polish his shoes. And I cook for him – cakes, pies, crumbles, biscuits. I have the wireless for company, and I’m always busy, so why would I need to go out?

            I heard the dogs first, then the men came into view. Stood shoulder to shoulder in line, shuffling slowly forward one step at a time, poking long canes down into the ground. Then they were raising them up to their faces. When I realised they were smelling them my legs went weak, and I had to sit on the top step and lean my cheek against the cold wall until my head stopped spinning.

            We used to go up to Hawclough Knoll when we were courting. All year round. In the summer it was heavenly, and we’d lie in the bracken and share our daydreams. I know how cold it must be up there today – in November the sudden gusts of wind bit our cheeks and we’d have to walk briskly, holding hands and springing over the soggy heather, taking care not to slip on the slick jagged rocks. We were always careful in other ways too – if I’d known then how hard it is to make babies I would’ve been more reckless.

            I’ve been watching them on and off for a few hours now. The fact that they are still going means they haven’t found anything. I’ve been wondering what Robert meant about photographs. I don’t suppose he knows the details anyway. His brother John is Station Sergeant, but won’t tell him much. Of course it was round the village in a flash when they arrested David Parsons. Everyone was so shocked. Mrs Harrison came up to the house to tell me as soon as she heard.

            ‘I still can’t rightly believe it,’ she said, shaking her head and pursing her lips. ‘You know he’s a good friend of the Browns, even helped search the village when Molly first went missing. Of course, they say it’s always the ones you least expect.’ She paused to sip her tea. ‘Mind you, he does have a funny look about him, and I never liked his mother. Go on then, Mary love. I will have another tiny slice of that seed cake. You should try a bit yourself – get any thinner, you’ll disappear.’

            As I stare at the hazy black line merging into the misty hilltop I think about what Mrs Brown might be doing right now. She’s got four others besides Molly, so I suppose she just has to keep going on as normal. I can’t imagine how she must feel. I never will know. My ghosts are merely disappointments and what-might-have-beens.

            They’ll have to turn back now it’s getting dark. Robert will be chilled through, so I’d better go and hang some dry clothes to warm in front of the fire.

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