SIX FATAL FLAWS
When you have a baby, it’s not all about the cherishing and nurturing. Don’t be mistaken, there’s plenty of love. It’s just that nobody warns you about the other stuff, the flood of angst filling your soul, the weight of responsibility to do the very best you can for this tiny fragile person you’ve been entrusted with. The most qualified psychologists can’t always work out the mental complexities of birth trauma or post-natal anxiety. And it’s even more daunting if you’re the mother and the psychologist.
Parenting is more challenging than I was expecting six months ago. The part-time project I’ve taken on gives me free time from Benny’s colicky crying, and makes me feel worthwhile outside the realms of feeding, soothing, cleaning and sleep deprivation. But I feel guilty every time I experience the relief of being away from it all, knowing my role as a mother should come first.
Things are improving, though. Benny seems to be settling, I’m getting more sleep, and the balance feels better. Last night Harry and I made love for the first time without my demons present.
This morning, Harry brings me a cup of tea in bed before leaving. It’s Saturday and he’s been asked to visit the site of a new gallery to sign off some architectural plans. He’s been working long hours on this and is proud of the building design. I suspect it’ll win some prize. He plans to go straight to the tennis club later for his regular Saturday game.
‘Are you sure you’re all right with this?’ he asks.
‘Benny and I will be fine, Harry. It’s probably the first time I’m telling you that in all honesty. You Greenwood boys can have your time together tomorrow.’
‘I can’t avoid the work, but I could always cancel the tennis. Just let me know by lunchtime if you change your mind.’
‘It’ll be fine,’ I say.
He smiles and kisses me before leaving. I give him a flirtatious look. We made each other feel good last night. It will be all right.
Benny is still sleeping. For the first time ever, I have an urge to go and wake him from his slumber. Instead I lie in bed a little longer. I eventually get up, open the curtains and gaze across the garden to the field beyond. It’s a bright summer’s morning, not too hot, with fluffy clouds scudding across the cornflower blue sky. The wheat has been harvested, the stubble shining golden in the sun. When Benny finally wakes, I prepare him a bottle and feed him propped up with pillows in our bed.
When he’s finished, I take him downstairs to the kitchen and put him in the baby bouncer while I make myself a cup of tea. I pull my notes towards me and flick through them, knowing I should go to the office at some stage and write reports for each member of my self-help group. But not today. Today I’m going to enjoy Benny.
I run a load of laundry, tidy the kitchen and empty the dishwasher. Benny has slept in this morning, so it’ll be late when he goes down for his nap. He begins to grizzle around midday, so I put him in the stroller to take him for a walk, hoping the movement will send him to sleep.
We wander down the lane past the farm. He’s making the familiar hiccupping noise that usually precedes a full on screaming fit. Two horses trot over to the fence near the river and the old grey mare nickers in recognition. I stop and lift Benny out of the stroller. His eyes widen, he stops crying and his tiny fingers reach out to the soft whiskery muzzle. I know the horse won’t nip, but place my hand between its quivering upper lip and Benny’s fingers as a precaution.
I put Benny back in the stroller and walk up through the Bowes-Lyon estate. Three huge chestnut trees dominate the middle of the field, their gnarled old trunks twisted with tales of my youth, one thick bough bent down to the ground. I sit on the branch, remembering days of scrambling up into the canopy with my sister. I tip the seat of the stroller back and leave the hood open as Benny becomes fascinated by the light penetrating the foliage, his eyes squinting when the shadows of leaves move to let sparkles of sunlight shine across his face.
On the homeward stretch, he finally falls asleep. When we arrive, I wheel him into the garden, put a net over the hood and fetch the laundry to hang on the line. A sheet billows and snaps with the breeze, but Benny doesn’t wake. I half-heartedly do a little gardening, weeding around the spinach and the radishes, listening to the bees buzzing, the birds singing. I top some long dead tulips, cut back some of the finished harebells, and recklessly eat all the tiny wild strawberries Harry and I transplanted from a nearby forest last spring.
While Benny is still sleeping, I decide to lie down on the grass under the trees next to the stroller. The gentle swaying of the branches casting a dappled light over my face sends me off into a hypnotic sleep.
When I awake, it’s because the sun has moved across the sky and is shining directly on my face. I hear a tractor in the distance. The sweet fermented smell drifting over the hedge with spindles of dust winking in the sun tells me the farmer is cutting the hay in the field on the other side of the farm.
I stretch and wonder how long I’ve been asleep. I haven’t slept that deeply for a long time. I glance at my wrist but I’m not wearing my watch. My stomach rumbles. I think I’ll plan something delicious for dinner. Perhaps my special grilled salmon with pistachio and black olive crust. I wonder whether we should invite Angela and Gary over next week. We owe them a dinner.
My gaze drifts up to the stroller where a breeze has lifted the net. I scramble to my feet, worried that a bee or a fly might find its way in.
I lift the netting away and push back the hood.
My heart plummets.
Benny isn’t there.
I stare at the stroller, momentarily confused. Has Benny miraculously climbed out and crawled off into the lavender or the cosmos? I look around, bewildered.
And then panic rises like an erupting volcano. I run inside, thinking Harry has come back early and taken Benny with him to let me sleep. I dash through the house, calling their names. But there’s no answer. Running. Running. Breath getting shorter. Three times around the outside of the house, up and down the path leading from back to front, into the road, all the way to the humped-backed bridge over the village stream. I slide down the silty bank, searching the watercress swaying in the clear flow under the brick-lined arch of the bridge.
Running into the farmyard, I bang on the door of the farmhouse, but there’s no answer. The tractor passed us earlier on the lane, and the Land Rover isn’t parked in its usual place. The only warm bodies in the barn are the bobby calves in their pens.
I swallow the bitter taste of fear. My heart hammers. Our house and the farm are the only buildings at this end of the lane. Sometimes walkers park on the side of the road, but its empty now.
I finally phone Harry, who’s still playing tennis.
‘Hi Trude. I’m glad you rang. My mobile fell out of my racquet bag. I would have left it under the seat if you hadn’t –’
‘Did you come home? Did you take Benny with you?’
‘Do you have Benny?’ My voice cracks.
‘What are you talking about? You’re joking, right?’
I burst into tears.
‘Benny’s gone! He’s… disappeared.’
‘What the…? Have you called your mum? Checked the farm? Maybe someone stopped by.’
‘No… I. We were in the garden. He was right here.’ My voice shudders, ending with a sob.
‘I’ll be there as fast as I can, Trude.’
I hear him shouting to his tennis partner, the sound of the canvas zip on his bag, before the phone beeps and then silence. I call 999.
‘Police! Police!’ I shout when asked which service.
‘My baby’s disappeared. Benny’s disappeared! Someone’s taken my baby!’
The woman on the other end talks to me with exaggerated calm, asking me to repeat my address and then repeating it back to me. When I hiccup, sourness rises in my throat, and the woman tells her to calm down.
‘My baby’s gone!’ I yell. ‘Don’t tell me to calm down!’
‘The police are on their way, Mrs Greenwood. What you should do in the meantime is recall your exact movements over the past hour or so.’
I ignore this stupid comment. I was right here in my garden. With Benny. Or so I thought until I woke up. I don’t say anything because I don’t want the woman at the 999 Call Centre to add an accusatory tone to her already patronising one. I’m riddled with enough guilt as it is.
‘Don’t move from where you are now,’ continues the woman. ‘I’ll stay on the line with you until the police get there.’
‘But someone should be out there looking!’
‘The police will be with you soon.’
I want to throw the phone down to stop this woman’s voice, but I clutch it harder, the burn of tears causing my throat to close. I look at the head-height garden gate leading down the path to the front of the house, which I have just navigated several times. It was closed, but not bolted. We never bolt it. Someone must have come in while I was sleeping. I think I’m going to be sick. I swallow several times.
‘How far away are they?’ I ask.
‘They’ve come from Hitchin. Just through St Paul’s Walden now,’ replies the woman.
I gaze over the hedge at the back of the garden to the freshly harvested field. Try to remember what crop they planted this year. Was it barley or wheat? Why am I thinking this? Did someone force their way through the hedgerow? Surely not, it’s blackthorn, and there are nettles. Benny would have woken up. Why didn’t he wake up anyway? Why didn’t I wake up? Where is he?
‘Are you still there, Mrs Greenwood?’
I groan in reply.
‘The police have entered the village from the Hitchin end.’
‘It’ll take them ten minutes to get through the High Street,’ I say.
The ruddy traffic parked on the side of the road is terrible at the weekend. Nowhere to pass.
‘Are you all right, Mrs Greenwood?’
I inevitably choke at the question. Never show compassion to someone who’s already on the brink. This might break me. Where is Benny?
Harry shouts my name as he enters the house. And finally, a siren in the distance. I imagine the frantic actions of oncoming drivers, pulling into any space they can along the row of tightly parked cars in the High Street.
My mind sways between panic and incredulity and I wonder inanely if I should get a siren and a blue light to navigate my way out of the village on work days. Get a grip! Benny has gone. My baby has gone. Why isn’t this computing properly?
‘I’m out here, Harry, in the garden,’ I shout. ‘They told me not to move.’
I stare at the stroller. That first little stomach flip when I saw the breeze had blown back the netting, a mild fear that I’d exposed Benny to some insect, perhaps something that could sting or bite. That was nothing compared to the cascade of terror that sluices through me now.
As Harry marches into the garden, his tennis bag still over his shoulder, I run to him.
‘What the hell happened?’ he asks. ‘How did Benny just disappear? My God, Trudy!’
‘I was dozing,’ I say between sobs. ‘We were together. There on the lawn. Benny in the stroller.’
I point to the empty stroller in the same place I’d left it next to the rug I was lying on. Whitwell is a friendly village in the middle of the Hertfordshire countryside. The threat and danger of child abduction here seems preposterous. But someone has come into our garden and stolen our child. While I was sleeping. Right there underneath the hazelnut tree. Christ!
‘How could someone sneak in here so silently and take a baby?’ asks Harry. ‘He would surely have made a noise. What the hell?’
I feel my face crumple.
‘It’s okay, Trude. I’m not blaming you. I’m just trying to understand.’
The thighs of the burley DS who could be a front-row rugby player, look like they’re about to burst from his trousers. I don’t understand why Suzy couldn’t be here, the policewoman who is my liaison for my cases at the clinic. I don’t want to talk to this big policeman who, despite his bouncer-like proportions, doesn’t instil me with a sense of security.
‘Given you and DS Dawson have a professional and social history, it’s against protocol to put her on your case,’ he says.
‘But I haven’t done anything wrong!’ I sob.
I suspect the two uniformed police officers who showed up first didn’t believe me. I followed them round the house, through all the rooms, thinking they might magically uncover Benny in a corner. Until they told me to wait downstairs. It felt like an intrusion itself, having these strangers riffle through our cupboards, Benny’s room, his cot, his toys, even the dirty laundry I didn’t manage to finish.
The badge on this policeman’s jacket says DS David Flatman. I might not be wrong about his rugby playing history. He has the same tone, bordering on jovial, as the ex-prop-turned-commentator I’ve seen on TV. I’m sitting in my favourite armchair, the DS on the sofa. Harry paces up and down in front of the fireplace. The DS sucks in his bottom lip, which makes his round face almost cherub-like, returning my thoughts to babies. Benny.
‘I know my colleagues have already asked, but is it possible he’s with a family member, a friend or a neighbour?’ asks DS Flatman.
I shake my head.
‘My mum would be the only person, but we checked and she doesn’t have him. And anyway she would never have taken him away.’
Harry sits on the arm of the chair and rubs my shoulders. I couldn’t bear to hear the shock and worry in my mother’s voice, so Harry called her. She’ll undoubtedly be on her way over now.
‘Can you think of anyone at all who might have taken Benny?’ he continues. ‘Maybe stopped by and taken him so you could rest?’
‘I… no. I already told the other policemen. No. Oh, God.’
I’ve almost rubbed the upholstery bare on the other arm of the chair. I continue to pick at a silk thread, pulling and pulling. I can’t take my eyes from Benny’s mat in the corner where his play centre sits on his favourite rug. In my mind I keep lifting that netting from the stroller over and over and seeing it empty.
‘Is there anyone at all who holds any grudges, anyone who might have taken Benny out of spite or thought this might be some kind of joke?’
‘What? No!’ says Harry. ‘That’s crazy. Who would do that?’
I chew repeatedly on my cheek until I know I’ll have an ulcer there in a few days’ time. The policewoman who came with DS Flatman and was told to do a “recce” comes back into the house, talking on her radio. She mentions dogs and roadblocks, and I suck in my breath.
‘Could you also find out how far away the SOCO is?’ DS Flatman asks his colleague. ‘And tell them to get more uniforms out here!’
I put my hand to my chest as the police woman goes out through the front door, radio voices fading down the lane.
‘We’ll need a list of all your contacts. Both yours and Mr Greenwood’s,’ says DS Flatman, looking from me to Harry.
‘Jesus, abduction.’ says Harry. ‘Who would want to take Benny?’
‘You mean a kidnap?’ I ask.
‘Every angle will be considered,’ says DS Flatman.
‘Kidnapping? That’s insane! We don’t have that kind of money,’ says Harry.
I shift to the edge of the armchair, my knee bouncing. I take deep breaths, feel like I’m suffocating. I should be out looking for my baby. I cross my arms over my stomach, lean over and rock back and forth, staring at the stressed oak floorboards in front of my feet.
The radio hisses at the pocket on the policeman’s chest, making me jump.
‘Just outside now, Sarge. I think you should come and look at this.’ It’s the voice of the policewoman.
All three of us stand up at the same time. I rush past Harry to the front door.
‘Please, Mrs Greenwood.’ DS Flatman holds out his arm as his immense body moves through the hallway. ‘Stay here for the moment, please.’
I stand on the step, the breeze blowing from the kitchen out through the front entrance. Somewhere upstairs a door slams. It makes me jump again.
Harry puts his arms around me. We watch DS Flatman talking to his colleague. She’s pointing at the path leading to the back of the house. One arm sweeps back and forth, and I know my own tracks have probably covered those of the abductor.
‘Oh God, Trude. This is horrible! Who do you think could have taken him?’ asks Harry.
I am grabbing wildly at the possibilities in my head.