I think about my life in two distinct segments.
The days before Charlie went missing, and the days after he went missing.
I remember it well. Too well. Freddie tells me it’s not good for me to keep on revisiting it all in the detail I do. Even my therapist used to say to me I’m somewhat obsessive about the details.
But how can’t I be obsessive about the details?
My six-year-old son went missing in the middle of the day. In my care.
Nobody saw him disappear.
Nobody saw a thing.
How could I not be obsessive?
I remember how warm it was, for a start. The middle of summer. July 17th, in fact. There was an event on at Charlie’s school, Ashworth’s in Broughton. The summer fete. Always happened every year. Barbecues, bouncy castles, organised water fights, and a big local band on in the afternoon to round off the day, a moment the kids always went wild for. It had everything. The whole lot.
I used to walk past there on those warm summer days before Charlie was even born. I’d stand at the gates of the school, and I’d smile. Smile as I listened to the children’s laughter. Smile as I felt the warm sun beating down against my skin. Smile as I pictured myself pushing a pram with Charlie inside it, or walking through the fete with him, his hand in mine, the stickiness of melted ice cream between his fingers against my palm.
Or watching him play football from the side of the field. Dribbling like Messi. Charging forward, scoring a goal. All his friends lifting him up and cheering, a smile on his face. And pride inside me.
The thought of a life I hadn’t even lived yet. And yet it felt true to me, even then. The anticipation of having a child alone was like living it and experiencing it for real.
I’d always wanted a child. A son in particular. Not sure why. I’d always got on better with boys, and obviously, you hear all the rumours about girls being more difficult. And I suppose from my parents’ perspective, I wasn’t exactly the easiest of kids either. Not exactly the most… well. Cooperative, let’s say.
So something always drew me to have a little boy. A feeling that it was just the way it was meant to be. A feeling that it was just… right.
I think about the first time I ever saw Charlie, and I feel a lump swelling in my throat.
His little crying eyes staring up at me in that summer warmth.
The maize fields.
The beaming sun.
But back to the day now. July 17th. The day he went missing. The day my life changed, forever.
Walking through the school fete with him.
Hearing the laughter of the children all around us.
The sound of joyous music from the carnival games.
The smiles on everybody’s faces.
The smell of meat cooking somewhere behind the school. The meat from a barbecue.
But the thing I remember more than anything as I walked through that playground was how hot it was.
And how off Charlie seemed.
“You okay, young man?”
He had his head down, but his beauty always filled me with warmth. His short dark hair. His tanned, olive skin. His yellow Brazil football T-shirt and his white shorts, which were still mucky from football with Gregg, his dad.
And I’ll never forget the way he didn’t look up at me this time, with those brown eyes. With his usual smile. He was going to be a heartthrob when he was older, that was for sure. Destined to break a few hearts along the way.
“Hey,” I said. “Speaking to you, buddy. You okay?”
He glanced up at me then. Looked at me, just for a second. And then he nodded. But it was pretty much the least convincing nod I’d ever seen.
“You sure? You don’t look like you’re so happy. Something bothering you?”
He rubbed the back of his head. Moved his fingers through that short dark hair. “It’s just…”
He sighed. Shook his head. “It’s nothing.”
“You can talk to me, you know? If something’s bothering you. Is there something wrong with your friends? Alan being mean to you again?”
“It’s not Alan. Alan’s fine.”
“It’s nothing, okay?”
I never saw Charlie angry. Never saw him mad.
So seeing him staring up at me like that… that’s the first sign I had that something wasn’t right.
Something wasn’t right at all.
I stood there. Looked at him, the warmth of the sun covering us. The sound of laughing children all around us. A tombola raffle machine rattling just up ahead. A kid holding on to a set of kitchen scales she’d won, clearly just some a teacher found surplus to requirements.
And yet still, the kid looked happy. Bemused but happy.
Such a beautiful day.
A beautiful happy day.
I often think back to that moment. The moment where Charlie told me he was okay. Told me it was nothing. Snapped at me.
I often wonder if I’d asked him, pushed him a little more, if maybe something would’ve worked out differently.
If it had anything to do with anything at all.
Freddie says it didn’t. Gregg, my now ex-husband, said it didn’t. Everyone says it didn’t.
But in my mind, there was something in Charlie’s voice that day.
There was something in his eyes.
There was a question he wanted me to ask him. Like a missing piece of a puzzle, he wanted me to find.
And I didn’t even bother to look.
I remember it so well.
The way I looked into his beautiful brown eyes. Smiled. “Come on, little man. Fancy a burger?”
He opened his mouth. Looked like he was going to say something.
And then he closed it, and my little smiley prince was back.
“Sure,” he said.
We walked together, hand in hand, towards the burger stand.
The maize fields in the background standing tall.
And a feeling inside me that it was going to be a good day.
I remember walking to get the burger right before we headed over to the stage to watch the band.
The worst part of the whole memory.
The part of the memory that fills me with fear. With dread.
Because the memory of the stage, the memory of the band, is the memory of the last time I ever held my little prince’s hand.
The memory of letting go.
The memory of losing Charlie.
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