The screams were loud and piercing, rising well above the generally noisy background. The screams were those of children. They were the kind of noises that cause natural animal instincts to raise the hairs on the back of the neck. In this case however, the screams were those of excitement and happiness.
The Christmas Party was going well. All those on the invitation list had turned up bringing presents, balloons; and appetites. The formalities over, best wishes offered and presents exchanged, the children had tucked in to the copious quantities of sandwiches and cakes. Mainly cakes. They were running round the extensive grounds which were blessed with plenty of places for little people to play hide and seek. That was the game of choice, running, hiding; running, screaming, depositing partly digested cake in the bushes; and running again. The only thing missing was the beautiful white dusting of snow, that had not been seen for many a year.
The grown up contingent were passing conversation and trying to tidy away the devastated remnants of the buffet. Only occasionally did each of them glance at the melee to make sure that their offspring were still in attendance and apparently in one piece. It was parent heaven. .
Monica was the first to notice that the head count was not as is should be. The pitch of Tommy’s voice was very distinctive, even in the present circumstance. His voice was now notable because of its absence. Her son could just be hiding in some distant part of the huge garden, the trees at the far end were a hundred feet away but it was not his usual habit to hide for long. He preferred the ‘hands in front of his face’ method of hiding, then running away to find another place to stand and do the same thing again. She had learned the technique of displaying huge surprise when he revealed himself. This was different. She knew it.
She started to walk round the garden looking for him, not calling his name, initially, so as to avoid showing concern and so create a minor panic. It soon became clear to the others, however, that there was a problem. Monica was beginning to pace erratically from bush to bush, flower bed to flower bed, looking behind low walls and other garden ornaments and decorations. She called his name. The other children reacted quickly and the noise reduced to a low hum. The children were gathered together to make sure they were all accounted for, and then taken to the marquee. Only Tommy was missing. The other parents questioned their offspring about when they had last seen Tommy but no clues were offered and so they joined Monica in the search.
It was Jerry’s garden and he took control of the group. Understanding the need for a speedy start, he quickly briefed everyone on the possible hazards and best hiding places. The big house stood at one end of the grounds. The garden was enclosed on two sides by a high wall which extended to the copse of trees. The parents spread out and covered the grounds from the house to the tree line at the end of the garden. There was no sign of the boy. Jerry’s wife reassured Monica that all would be well, while the group called Tommy’s name but with no response. Jerry asked for silence as they continued the search, in case Tommy was calling out.
The trees marked the end of the garden but there was only a low fence to prevent access to the open countryside beyond. On the other side of the fence was a footpath that led one way to the church and the other to a car park by the river. Monica and Tommy had been there only two weeks before today’s gathering.
The adults were now in a line to search the trees and they commented that the snow would have made it so much easier to follow a stray child or perhaps other, more sinister footprints. The copse was only thirty feet deep but the trees were interspersed with bushes and so the line moved slowly to check each hiding place with great care. Monica was beginning to dread what she might find. She had been calling his name for several minutes now but there no response.
The thin line of the fence which marked the end of the property was now only a few feet away. While the rest of the house and garden were in beautiful condition, the fence was clearly not on the list of priorities for the groundsman and it sagged on loose and broken posts. Monica began to fear that it would have been easy for Tommy to have crossed the fence or worse when suddenly; the man on her left held up his hand. The line of searchers stopped. He pointed to a shoe which protruded from behind a tarpaulin that was stretched over a pile of winter logs, recently cut from the trees. Only the toecap was visible but Monica recognised it immediately. Drawing a deep breath and not hesitating to allow the fear time to rise in her breast, she reached forward and pulled back the sheet.
“BOOO”, shouted Tommy as he leapt forward to greet his mother. “I found a new way of hiding”.
The first flakes of white glistening snow began to descend through the trees as Monica gathered Tommy up in her arms. Her head filled with all the “bad” words she knew, to describe the worry and anguish she has experienced in the past few minutes. She desperately wanted to tell him what she thought of his stupidity and the pain he had caused, but as she looked into his wide, exited eyes and then held him tightly to her breast, out of her mouth only three words came: “Mummy loves you”.
Written in “old money” (feet and inches) for a mature readership.