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'Annabelle’s Birthday' by Neil Ayres

 

It was late afternoon on Saturday, the fifth of November and the Surrey sky was bleak as a miscarried pregnancy. A couple of miles out from Brockham village, Tom Foster found an abandoned bird’s nest. He knew there had been a cuckoo living in it during the spring, and as he stepped forward to peer over the rim of twigs, leaves and animal hair, he imagined he was trampling the bones of the nest-builders’ usurped offspring.

Tom removed the nest from its cradle of branches. As he walked he hummed. Sighting home his humming turned to song, but he stopped in sombre remembrance as he passed the memorial rose that bordered the path to the cottage. He smiled wanly at Marie, his wife, as he crossed the threshold.

“Hey, hon,” Marie said. “What you got there?”
“A cuckolded nest. I thought it would make a fitting final addition.”
“Take it out to the garden. Dinner’s nearly ready.”
“Fabulous. I’m famished as a Lab that’s missed breakfast.”

Tom followed his wife’s instructions. In the back garden a quantity of wood was piled up into a small bonfire. Tom placed the second-hand nest at its apex. Then he went back into the cottage and sat at a table of his own construction, supported by a chair he had likewise handcrafted.
 
Marie placed two bowls of homemade pumpkin soup on the table and sat opposite him, in front of the Welsh Dresser that was crammed with an assortment of knick-knacks she had collected over the years, as well as a single photograph. “I thought I might as well make use of what was left of that grinning over-sized candle. I put dried seeds in one of the birdfeeders, but I think the squirrels have had most of them already.” she said. “Randall stopped by on his way home from the village while you were in the woods. He dropped off some books Audrey promised me. He wanted to be sure Annabelle’s rocking horse would be ready in time for Monday.” Marie blew on the soup she had ladled up in her spoon. “I told him that should be fine, seeing as it’s nearly finished and the mahogany’s in. It’s just the head you’ve got left to do now isn’t it?”

“Uh huh. I’ll take it to the farm tomorrow afternoon. Soup’s nice.”

There was the sound of fireworks in the distance. “Must be Bob Willis’ boys starting early,” Tom said, looking at his watch. “Light’s faded fast. What say I get the bonfire going and we eat the chicken on the patio?”

Husband and wife sat wrapped up against the cold in silence in their back garden, eating fried chicken and thick-cut potato wedges, watching the flames of their bonfire lick higher and higher into the star-barren sky. At just past eight o’clock they walked to the rear of the garden to watch the distant firework display. Light from the flames of Brockham’s much larger bonfire could be seen, as if it was a protective halo over the village.

It was close to midnight by the time the fire began to recede, Marie was asleep. She hadn’t eaten much. Her appetite had reduced a good deal over the last couple of years. Tom had risen from his chair to clear away the food and drape his wife’s crocheted shawl across her shoulders, to protect her from the night air, when he saw the child. It was a young girl, perhaps four or five years old. He crouched down to the girl’s level but remained by his wife’s side.

“Hello, little lady,” he whispered. “What brings a young cricket like you to our little cottage in the dead of night?”

The girl’s voice was high and wavering. “I saw a light,” she said. “The fire… I’m hungry. Your food smells nice.”

Tom smiled and held out Marie’s unfinished plate. “Here,” he said. “It tastes even better.”

The girl took the plate and sat down in his chair with it on her lap. Tom gently roused his wife.

“We appear to have a visitor.”

Marie looked down at the girl. “Where are your Mummy and Daddy, sweetheart?” she said.

“Sorry. I don’t know… Sorry,” the girl said, and returned her attention to the chicken.

Tom and Marie exchanged glances.

“It’s cold out here. How about we get inside. It’s surely past your bedtime. We’ll try and find out where your parents are. You can lie down on our sofa if you’re tired. Let me get you a glass of water to wash away the taste of that chicken.”

Tom stayed by the bonfire while his wife and the girl went inside. He filled the watering can using the outdoor tap and doused the fire’s embers with water. By the time he went back inside, the girl was asleep on the sofa, blanketed by Marie’s shawl. The girl’s shoes were set neatly beside Marie’s, in front of the doorstep. Tom took off his boots and placed them slightly apart from the other footwear.

“She says her name is Jess,” Marie whispered.

“We should call the police,” Tom insisted. “Her parents must be frantic.”

Marie was stooping down, sifting through the magazine rack. “She probably got separated from her family at the Brockham display. I think there’s an emergency number for the wardens in the local paper.”

Tom took the cordless handset of the telephone into the bedroom. There was no reply from the emergency number, so he fished out his address book from the dresser. Marie followed him into the room. “There’s no answer. Maybe they’re all out looking for her. I’m going to try Bob Willis.”

After protracted ringing, someone answered the telephone.

“Bob,” Tom hissed, in the hushed tone he and his wife had adopted since the girl had fallen asleep. “It’s Tom Foster. Sorry to trouble you at such an hour. It’s an emergency. We’ve a young girl just turned up in our garden. I think she might have strayed up from Brockham. We tried the number for the wardens but there was no answer.”

“I’ll get onto the station right away; ask them to send someone down to the head warden’s house. I’ll call you back as soon as I hear, Tom. It’ll probably be at least twenty minutes.”

Tom hung up and relayed the conversation to Marie. “I’m going to have a shower.”

“All right, hon. I’ll wait by the phone.”

Tom’s showering was as quick and quiet as he could make it. When he came back into the bedroom, Marie was asleep, still fully clothed. He pulled the covers over her and sat with the telephone ready in his hand. After some time, it began to ring. He answered before the first ring had finished, managing to stop it from waking either Marie or the girl. “Hello,” he whispered. “Bob?”

“Tom, listen. No one has heard anything about a girl going missing. I’ve given the duty warden and the station your number in case anyone gets in touch. I’m on earlies. I have to be in work in a few of hours. If we don’t hear anything, I’ll get in touch with Social Services first thing. Would you mind if I popped over around nine?”

“No, of course not,” Tom said, sensing the fatigued acceptance in Bob Willis’ voice of a very late night followed by a very early morning.

Bob Willis took the girl’s unheralded appearance seriously, having already made calls to all the local stations and the borough’s Social Services office by the time he got to Tom’s cottage. But there had been no reports of a missing child. “We’re going to try an appeal on Southern Counties radio. It’s a job to get sense from anyone this early on a Sunday though. Can I come in and ask her a few questions?”

Tom stepped aside from the doorway and gestured for Bob to enter.

Marie and the girl were playing Cat’s Cradle.

“Morning, Marie,” Bob said. “And this must be Jess. Good morning, Jess.”
The girl let go of the cord twined through her fingers and looked down at her little feet.

“Don’t be shy, sweetheart,” Marie said. “Inspector Willis is here to help find your Mummy and Daddy.”

“My full name is Robert Henry Willis,” Bob said. “Can you tell me your full name, Jess?”

“My name is Jessica,” the girl said, then she turned away. “Can I go to play outside now?” she asked Marie.

“Could you just answer a couple more questions for the inspector, cricket,” Tom urged, stooping and taking the girl’s hands in his own. “Then we can go out to the workshop and I can show you the rocking horse I’ve been making.”

Bob tried again. “What’s your mother’s name, Jess?”

“Mummy,” the girl said. She looked close to tears. She went on to tell them that she wasn’t from the local area, but offered no further information.

Tom led Bob out to the drive. “I’ll put in a few more calls, Tom, see if I can dig up anything else. If it’s nothing doing, we’ll have to hand her over to Social Services. Are you okay to look after her until tomorrow morning?”

After Bob Willis left, Tom took the girl with him to his workshop, whilst Marie set to making a cake to go with lunch. Tom showed the girl the almost-completed rocking horse he had been making for Annabelle Randall’s birthday. When the girl saw the horse, her eyes seemed to sparkle in the workshop’s dingy light.

Tom walked up to his workbench and began to work on the horse’s face. He demonstrated to Jess how to flay the skin from the wood using a chisel first, and then a hand-plane to run it smooth. He gave the girl the chisel and some scrap wood to try it for herself.

“You’re really good at that, cricket,” he said. “Maybe you should think about becoming a cabinet-maker when you’re grown up.”

“Will you teach me how to make something?” she asked. “Can I make something for Marie?”

“First of all, you need the right wood. What is it you would like to make?”

“Food’s ready?” Marie called from the cottage. “Come and get it while it’s hot.”

The three of them ate warm sweetcorn and tuna salad in a peaceable quiet, talking in soft voices, with Tom and Marie stealing unfinished looks from one another, both wondering how long Jess would be with them.

“Who’s that?” Jess asked pointing to the photograph Marie kept on the Dresser, as Marie served them each a slice of the fruitcake she had made.

“That’s Rosie,” Tom said. “I guess I should finish off the head and get that horse over to Randall’s.” Tom wiped the last bit of icing sugar off his plate with his index finger, then stood and headed back out to the workshop.

Marie was knitting as she watched television and Jess had fallen asleep on the sofa when Tom came back in through the front door. “Funny,” he said to Marie. “I could swear I left that chisel on the workbench, but I can’t find it anywhere. I’d better not mess about looking for it all afternoon though. The head’s not half bad and I’m sure Randall or Annabelle won’t notice the eyes being a bit odd. I’ll see you in a bit, darling.”

“Okay, hon,” Marie nodded, keeping her gaze fixed on the television.

Tom loaded his flatbed truck with the partially unfinished rocking horse and headed off for Randall’s Farm.

Marie was deadheading the memorial rose in the front garden when he returned. Jess was at the edge of the woods, chasing an unseasonably late Cabbage White butterfly. Tom pulled the truck up onto the drive.

“Hey, hon, you weren’t long.” Marie noticed the rocking horse was still in the back of the truck. “What happened?” Her husband’s brow was creased with concern.

“Annabelle hasn’t been seen since this morning,” he said. “Randall and the Willis boys are still searching in the woods. Poor Audrey is going out of her mind. I told her I’d start looking from this end.” He said this as he headed into the house. “No idea how long I’ll be out. Better be prepared,” He took a torch from the kitchen cupboard under the sink.

Marie followed him into the bedroom, where he collected his hat and gloves. He put on the hat and stuffed the gloves into one of his coat pockets.

“Maybe I should go over to Audrey. Keep her company.”
“Good idea. I’ll make sweeps heading towards the main party. Take the truck and I’ll meet you at the farm. Hopefully after we’ve found Annabelle.”

Marie followed him back outside. Tom threw his wife the keys to the truck and headed into the woods. She looked over to Jess, who had stopped chasing the butterfly and was watching her intently.

“It’s all right, sweetheart,” Marie said. “Tom’s just gone to look for something in the woods. Let’s go and visit a friend of mine.”

Marie helped Jess up onto the passenger seat and then took her place beside her. She was about to turn the ignition key when she heard an almost inhuman scream from the direction of where Tom had headed into the woods. She sat in the truck a moment, unsure how to act. “Wait here a minute, sweetheart,” she eventually said to Jess. “I’m just going to make sure Tom’s all right.”

She almost ran into her husband at the edge of the woods. He was pale and shaking, no longer wearing his hat. He desperately embraced his wife and began to sob. His voice was so shaken it took Marie some time to decipher what it was he was telling her. “I found Annabelle’s…. Oh Marie, I found her… I found Annabelle.”

Unsure how much time had elapsed holding Tom in her arms, Marie could hear the telephone ringing. Her instinct was to stay and comfort her husband, but the call could be from Bob Willis, or someone from the farm.

“Hello?”

“Ah, Marie. I wondered if you had gone out to search with Tom. I’m calling to say it’s all right. Randall and the boys found Annabelle. She got herself stuck up a tree, climbing to reach a bird’s nest. The silly girl had shouted herself hoarse so she couldn’t answer anyone’s calls. Tell Tom thanks for his help and concern.”

Marie choked back confusion. “Audrey, what a relief. We’ll stop by with her present after dinner.”

“Don’t worry about it today. Bring it over for tomorrow lunchtime. You can stay for jelly and ice cream.”

Remembering her charge, Marie hung up the telephone and went out to the truck, but Jess wasn’t there. Marie called her name but there was no answer. She walked back to the cottage, past the memorial rose to where Tom stood at the doorway of his workshop. On his workbench, next to his chisel, was a wooden carving of a bird.

The next morning Tom showered and Marie prepared a light breakfast, but for once Tom too had lost his appetite, so instead of eating he went out to his workshop to complete the rocking horse. He washed the chisel thoroughly in white spirit, rinsing it in water from the outdoor tap. Then he drove Marie and the horse to Randall’s Farm.

When they arrived, Annabelle was waiting at the front door. She was wearing a badge on her party dress. It bore the declaration It’s My Birthday.
When the rocking horse was taken down from the back of the truck to be presented to her, the girl’s eyes lit up as if they were reflecting light from a bonfire.

Neil Ayres is an author and digital producer. He has had more than 30 pieces of fiction published, including stories in two award-winning anthologies for Elastic Press and an audiobook read by Christopher Eccleston for Tate Modern. He shares - and even occasionally contributes to - a blog with sometime collaborator Aliya Whiteley, who's a far more successful novelist than him: http://veggiebox.blogspot.com

Neil's enhanced ebook app, The New Goodbye, featuring the novel of the same name, plus a music video, illustration and photography, can be downloaded from iTunes for free:
http://bitly.com/newgoodbye
 

Read the Run Riot Interview with Neil Ayres, where he talks Science Fiction, Social Media and eBooks.