Knotted Rope by Judy Darley
Our Short Story of the Month is ‘Knotted Rope’ by Judy Darley.
A nursery assistant dips into memories of her grandfather as she joins in the search for a child who’s gone missing in her care.
Judy Darley is a British fiction writer, poet and journalist. Her work appears in magazines and anthologies and in her short story collection Remember Me To The Bees. Judy's second collection Sky Light Rain will be out from Valley Press in Autumn 2019. Judy has shared her stories on BBC radio, as well as in cafés, caves, an artist’s studio and a disused church. Judy blogs about art and other things at http://www.skylightrain.com, and tweets @JudyDarley.
Rita and I and our two volunteers count with care on the nursery steps. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen... That’s the lot, isn’t it? A whole flock of little ones. Every child wears a fluorescent tabard and clasps tight to the length of blue rope, tiny hands wrapped around knots tied like memories.
We get the kids to sing as we walk, high voices lilting into the chilly air. The sound sends shivers racing up and down my spine – reminds me of being that size myself with the world a big clear bubble around me. I look at the houses we pass, wondering whether anyone comes to the windows to witness our twice-daily parade. I would if I was one of them. Wouldn’t be able to resist. A few curtains twitch, but no one shows themselves.
The gates to the old cemetery are large and heavy, propped open like it’s the entrance to a forbidden place. Some of the parents find it odd that we bring the children here. They think it morbid, but I disagree. It’s got far more life than death in it – the gravestones tipped and tripped about by ivy, trees heaving with squirrels and birds. I’ve even heard people tell of roe deer wandering between the tombs.
Sometimes I think I glimpse other creatures in the foliage, eyes and teeth glinting, but I keep that to myself.
Dogs are meant to be on leads here, but more often than not they run loose, pausing to stare at us as we approach all together, like a noisy people-cloud. I wonder if the children are aware enough to envy the canines’ freedom. The dogs certainly seem bemused by our small people on strings.
We march the pre-schoolers along leafy paths, avoiding the worst of the mud and pointing out things like buds on branches, robins and magpies. Occasionally one will forget themselves and skitter off, drunk on the possibilities. But they’re tiny enough that we’re able to speed over and scoop them up. For most the threat of exclusion from storytime keeps them gripping onto their knot. Remembering to behave.
A new one started last week. Andrew. Just moved to the area with his jagged-edged mum. He’s walked with us each morning, clutching onto the blue rope with all the others. He doesn’t join in with the songs. In the cemetery I watch as he gawks at the woodland. There’s a light in his eyes that makes me wary. He’s meek, or rather, quiet. Easy to confuse those two. Does as he’s told, silent mouth pursed, but I can see that his mind is swooping away. Reminds me of my gramps somehow – when he was old, confused, mind jumbled like fallen twigs and leaves – plotting to flit from the nursing home any chance he got.
I admired that in my gramps, that adventurous spirit. A hunger for independence when he’d already lost his appetite for food.
An animal runs in amongst us, black and silky – a hairy Scots terrier. The children crouch with their free hands outstretched as Rita flusters at them to be careful, saying it might bite. She fusses too much, that one. The dog grins at us with interest, nose snuffling around ankles and knees, making some squeal with a skim of joy.
The sky is clouding over. “Better head to the nursery, Meg,” says Rita. “Shall we sing a cheerful song?” Rita is large and rosy and forthright. Her bluster bothers me at times, but there’s a kindness beneath that lets me know she holds every child under our care secure in her heart.
We pause outside the cemetery gates, counting fast. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. That’s the lot, isn’t it? Rita starts the children singing about sparrows shouting from eaves, and we stride along the narrow street as quick as the shortest legs will allow. We’ll be at the nursery in time for a story and a drink of juice for each child.
It’s almost half eleven. I’m supposed to be supervising tidying up while Rita stacks the dishwasher, but a worry won’t stop nagging at me. I’ve checked every corner, every space I can think of, and I’m certain he’s not here.
I go and stand in the kitchen doorway, still grasping onto the knotted rope like I’m scared to let go.
Rita raises her head at last. “Whatever is it, Meg?”
I open and close my mouth a few times, gulping air. “Rita, one of the…” I begin, but the words disappear and I break off, blinking madly.
“One of the what?” she prompts, impatient.
“Children. One of the children is missing,” I gasp, and feel my lungs tighten in my chest.
She gapes at me, and then recovers herself. “Oh, I don’t think so, Meg,” she says sternly. “One must be hiding – playing a game with us.”
I push down the panic that’s busily boiling its way upwards from my toes. “We left one behind,” I whisper, “in the cemetery.”
“We went with eighteen, returned with eighteen. Didn’t we?”
I shake my head. “We made a mistake. The new boy, Andrew. We… We forgot him.”
Rita’s cheeks are patched with crimson. “Let’s have a look,” she says, as though I wouldn’t have already done that.
I follow her into the main room; watch her try to see it all at once and fail. She turns slowly, bit by bit, staring at it in sections – lips moving as she silently names each child in turn. I echo the names in my head: Olivia, Amelia, Harvey, Toby, Henry, Muhammad, Eva, Aisha… They’re clumped throughout the space, two here, three there, one curled up under the windowsill.
I watch her repeat the process, and do it too, fighting to keep my breaths from flapping around in my ribcage.
He’s definitely not here.
I sneak a peek at Rita. Her jowls are quivering. “Have you checked the lavs, Meg?”
I nod. “We miscounted, Rita. Thought we were only wanting eighteen, but we wanted nineteen.”
She makes a peculiar face, as though she’s attempting to suck in her lips through clenched teeth, but doesn’t speak.
“Do you want me to call the police?” I ask, thinking of my gramps. “Andrew’s mum’ll be here soon.”
Still she hesitates.
The nursery door swings open and a woman walks in.
It isn’t Andrew’s mum.
“Not a word,” Rita hisses as the woman greets her child with a hug and gives us a wave. “Check the lavs again, will you? And get the volunteers to run back to the cemetery. Just in case.”
I frown, but do as she says.
When I return, Rita is standing motionless in the main room, staring at the parents who arrive, collect their children and leave. She’s fixed on a beam for anyone who happens to glance her way. No one but me seems to spot how rigid it is.
Andrew’s mother turns up when most others have been and gone. She’s harassed, tired, possibly undernourished. It’s a look I know well – usually means a relationship on the rocks or already in shreds. I make an effort to pay extra attention to the children with parents like that.
Andrew’s been no trouble – not acting up like some in his circumstances.
Whatever they might be.
I watch his mother scan the room blankly, and I step forward.
Rita rests her gaze on me like I’m some kind of lifeline, and I shake my head to let her know I’ve not found the boy.
Resignation slumps her posture. She’s gone mottled red and white – strawberries and curdled cream. “Mrs…” She starts, and then falls silent. Reckon she can’t remember the woman’s name, or even whether she’s married. Andrew’s mum glances at her distractedly.
Rita touches her arm. “Will you come with me for a moment?’
“What’s happened?” Andrew’s mum asks, her high-pitched voice puzzled. She sounds like a child herself. “Has he done something wrong?”
Rita tilts her head at me as though to indicate I ought to remain with the remaining kids. I pretend not to notice and follow as she steers Andrew’s mother through the door that leads to the dingy cramped room she calls the office.
“Mrs…” Her name must bubble up from some dark recess and Rita spits it at her. “Mrs Woodrow, we’ve had a minor mishap.”
The mum glares at Rita, seeming less concerned than exasperated. “Oh, what now?”
Rita’s throat moves as though she’s swallowing something awkward. “I’m sure he’s fine, but... we’re just not completely certain where he is.”
I watch the mother’s expression shift, become unreadable, and then I blurt it out: “We probably need to phone the police.”
I expect an explosion: anger maybe, and definitely tears, but she only scowls.
“Might have known it,” she mutters.
“Mrs Woodrow?” Rita manages, blinking owlishly.
“It’s not the first time,” the woman tells her. “He does this. Runs off, waits somewhere till I’m out of my mind with dread, then pops out and drinks up the attention.”
Rita doesn’t seem to be listening. “I’ll telephone the police now, Mrs Woodrow.” She presses a hand against the woman’s shoulder.
I watch her shrug it off. “No need!” Her lips have thinned into lines. “Look, if you call the police I’ll have to let his dad know. I’d really rather not…”
“But…” I move forward so she can’t ignore me. “But your son!”
“Where were you, when you lost him?” She’s addressing me now – it’s clear she’s decided I’m to blame. I see distaste running through her when she looks at me. “Because I’ve got stuff to do and the sooner we find him, the sooner I can get on.”
I can’t help but flinch. Rita and I exchange glances, and Rita says, all narrow-mouthed, “We were on a ramble, weren’t we, Meg? Such a pretty day. The children love it, don’t they?”
“Outside?” the mum asks, like an idiot. I can see her thinking, well, that changes things.
“You said he’s gone missing before,” I say gently.
She nods. “At the shopping centre on the outskirts of Bristol, he had the whole place sealed up, police and security scouring every corner before he uncurled in John Lewis’ haberdashers. Almost gave a sales assistant a heart attack.”
I can see her thinking, outside is even worse…
“The primroses are flowering,” I tell her, meaning to be reassuring. “It’s beautiful in that cemetery.”
Rita makes a soft noise of concern, or rebuke, and I know in an instant that I’ve said the wrong thing.
Andrew’s mum stares at me. The words seep from her like red rising after a slap. “You’ve lost my son in a graveyard?”
She lets us phone the police then, one hand pressed tight to the place where her throat meets the top of her collarbone. Rita tells her we’ve already sent two volunteers “just to be on the safe side.”
When the officers arrive they ask the woman if she has a picture of him. She shows them one on her phone and I wonder why she doesn’t have a proper one – an actual printed photo. Maybe no one does now. Maybe that doesn’t matter. If we’re hunting for a lost child in the cemetery, all we need to know is that he’s a three-year-old boy, possibly still wearing the fluorescent tabard we give to each child when we leave the nursery confines.
It’s not like there are so many miniature fugitives out there that we could come home with the wrong one.
We hurry en-masse to the cemetery and the woman blanches as she takes in the scale of it, how huge it is, how wild and overgrown. The volunteers trot over to us – anxious, empty-handed.
Andrew’s mum turns slowly; I can hear her panting quietly. “He could be anywhere.”
She wavers slightly, like she might be about to topple. I take her shoulder and steer her to sit on the nearest thing, which happens to be some old tomb. Her fingers grip the edges of it, nails digging into lichen. Dread rises up like a kind of glow inside her – the type of fear that leaches blood from the skin and turns eyes into caves.
I overhear one police officer mutter to another: “Shame it’s not a girl.”
“Excuse me?” My voice rattles through the air. “What difference would that make?”
“Oh, none, nothing. Just, little girls tend to carry things, hair slides…” He flounders, pointing to a broken clip on the side of the path. The pink paint is peeling away; it’s spotted with rust. “They’re more likely to leave a trail.”
I glare at him. “If you’re any good at your job you won’t need a trail, will you?”
The policewoman squats beside us, gluing on a soothing smile. “What kind of places does Andy like to hide, Mrs Woodrow?”
“It’s Andrew, not Andy,” she snaps. I wince as she grips one of my knees as though for support. “Don’t know. Anywhere. Everywhere…” She gestures to the trees, bushes. It’s only early afternoon, but the place is thick with shadows. “I really am going to have to tell his dad, aren’t I?” she murmurs. “Would a text would do it? No, I’m better than that. Better than he was to me.”
“Maybe we can get one of the police officers to phone your ex,” I suggest, and she glowers at me.
“Think they’ve got something more important to do, don’t you?” She’s on her feet now so I stand too; glad to move away from the anger rolling off her.
Reinforcements arrive and we fan out, beginning to search in earnest. We’re covering the whole area. All I can hear, all around me, is the ruckus of strangers shouting out Andrew’s name. If he’s still here, he must be able to hear us, surely.
If he’s still here.
I think of my gramps and suddenly it’s as though the sky is whirling about me. I have to stop, lean on a tree for a moment; head low. I pretend to myself that I’m the boy, trying to get into his head. Blinking, I see the blue brown green blue brown green of the cemetery’s woodland. Feel the coldness of the air – he’s been out here for hours. I picture him huddled somewhere, with the drag of thirst in his throat, pins and needles in his feet from hunkering down for so long. A bird screeches, and the noise fills my head.
I think he might be scared, like my gramps was whenever we found him, wet through from pissing himself, or worse. I think that hiding is sometimes all the boy wants – that moment of freedom away from all the grown ups pulling him in different directions. I think the urge to take off comes over him, big and thumping in his stomach, telling him to creep, run fast, stop, crouch in the shadows. But then, I bet, the impulse goes and all he wants in the world is to be found.
I remember my gramps, when he used to break out of the home, and think of how he’d react to hearing us lot hording towards him. He’d disappear even deeper into wherever he was hiding, I know it. Afraid of being caught and scolded. Being in trouble yet again.
I think of storytime at the nursery and how it draws the children in, makes them attentive and quiet – even the wildest among them.
I hang back a bit until I’m alone and the squirrels have gone back to their jumping in the trees about me, and I begin to tell a story, out loud. It’s one I know well, about the blue rope and its knots, an incentive to hang on. “Each knot acts as a magic force-field,” I say slowly, “keeping whoever holds it safe.”
And I think of Andrew and that caged expression he wears sometimes, how trapped he often seems to feel. I begin again, and this time the knot is an egg, “a dragon’s egg, and only the heat of a child’s hands wrapped around it can help it begin to hatch.”
I swear I can feel his gaze on me.
I pull the sensation towards me, and keep talking, low and soft. I kneel down like I’m hoping to attract a roe deer to feed from my hand.
And there he is, behind me – so close that I can feel his breath on my neck. Relief spins through me like a breeze through fallen leaves.
“Is it true?” I hear him ask.
“Maybe,” I say, because I don’t like to outright lie, especially not to children.
Andrew’s feet shuffle through leaf litter until he’s right beside me. I turn my head slightly so I can look at him. No injuries, as far as I can tell, though he has smudges of earth on his chin and cheeks. I ask if he’ll take my hand so I can stand up without overbalancing, and he does. His fingers are sodden from being sucked. He’s still wearing his fluorescent tabard.
He’s a good boy, Andrew. Not meek, but good.
We walk together to where the grown ups are gathered, and he’s swept back to his mum. She picks him up and hugs him tight, turning away from me, so I can watch his face over her shoulder.
I see his eyes. That gleam in them, it’s the same that shone out of my gramps’ whenever we returned him to the nursing home. Looking at Andrew, with the grime of the cemetery still on his face, I reckon it’s only a matter of time before the boy flits off again.