Peter Kesterton

I was born in Manchester to Irish parents, I went to Bristol University and then Oxford where I studied physics and astronomy. I then worked at the BBC, firstly on the technical side as a studio manager and sound engineer, and then later as a journalist and producer in news and documentaries.

Deciding my heart lay in make-believe, I went into theatre, and eventually had plays produced at the Bristol Old Vic, Hampstead Theatre, Tobacco Factory Bristol and elsewhere. My play Painting Snails was a winner of the 2011 Croydon Warehouse International Playwriting Competition. I have also written for BBC Radio and had several plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

My children having grown up and left home, I went to Bath Spa University as a mature student in 2019, undertaking an MA in creative prose. I graduated with distinction. Toys in the Tree was partially written on the course.

I am currently writing full-time and am now working on a new project, The Wingman’s Wife, a psychological thriller

Award Category
Screenplay Award Category
Caitlin was only eleven when she killed Darren’s young daughter, Riley. Ten years on and he’s searching for her. If he finds her, what will he do?
Toys in the Tree
My Submission

ONE: Boggart Hill, Bristol

Darren stopped to gaze at the lone tree at the top of the grassy slope. Hanging among its slender yellowing leaves were the strange fruit he’d placed there ten years ago.

Toy Dinosaurs.

Time had weathered and washed the plastic so they were now pastel echoes of the original primary reds, greens and blues. They were aged, but still there.

Boggart hill was a lonely spot and his sense of isolation all the more acute because this patch of land was only a mile or so from the city centre. A forgotten corner caught between the railway and the grimy inner-city streets. Back down the hill was the metal chain-link fence he’d pushed through a few moments ago. Beyond the fence, a row of squat Victorian terraced houses, but from up here he could see over the roofs to the high-rise buildings near the city centre. A siren echoed off the office blocks that loomed like tombstones in the haze.

He felt for the letter in his jacket pocket. It had arrived that morning after Kerry went to work. His plan was to keep it unopened until this evening so that good or bad, he and Kerry could face whatever it said together. But filled with an irrational fear that it might get lost, he tucked it inside his jacket pocket and headed off to work.

He was working on a new accommodation block in Chippenham, installing the cabling. It was a half hour drive from Swindon where he and Kerry had lived since severing ties with Bristol. But on the journey he felt the weight of that letter. Dying to know what it said, yet dreading it as well. Told himself, he didn’t care if they released the bitch or not. But his stomach lurched just the same.

He didn’t take the turn-off to Chippenham. Didn’t want to have to be nice to people today, particularly the project manager, who was a jerk. So drove on until he reached Bristol and Boggart Hill.

He pulled the letter out and stared at the logo.

National Probation Service.

As long as Grady was in prison, his murderous thoughts about her remained locked away as well. The move to Swindon was a new start. And he tried to live like a normal human being: Go to work. Eat three meals a day. Sleep eight hours. Get teeth checked every six months. He and Kerry had even managed a couple of holidays. Camping in Wales. A boat on the Norfolk Broads. But without his daughter, what was the point of a holiday? What was the point of anything?

A gust of wind caught the dinosaurs making them jump and twirl, as if the spirit of his Riley was here, playing with them.

One day, shortly before the horror, he padded into her bedroom and watched her in her secret child’s world. She was talking to the dinos, telling them off, like they were naughty kids.

‘I’m not talking to you Daddy, I’m talking to Tall Boy and Big Tail,’ she said without looking around.

Ten years ago, there were flowers at the base of the tree - hundreds of them. Kerry appreciated the outpouring of respect and emotion from the community. But he wanted something more, something that wouldn’t wither and die. That would stay the passage of his grief. So he lugged the big aluminium step ladders up here and placed Riley’s dinosaurs high up in the tree, securing them with cable ties and wire.

Her body was buried in a woodland cemetery north of Bristol and he and Kerry visited twice a year. But this was where Riley had died. Where her spirit was. Except she didn’t just die. She was killed by a monster. An older child: Caitlin Grady.

"Traumatic brain injury and asphyxiation."

He hadn’t wanted to look at the photos displayed as evidence at the trial. But made himself face them. Riley’s small ruined body, propped up against this tree. Like a discarded broken plaything.

When the lawyer for the prosecution called Grady a monster against nature, she grinned. Actually grinned. Not once did she show any remorse. No emotion at all about what she’d done. In harsher times they’d have drowned her as a child of the devil.

They didn’t drown her, they simply locked her up. Not in an actual prison. No, she was in some cushy children’s home, allowed to watch TV and play video games and goodness knows what else. Oh, he knew it was all about therapy and rehabilitation. He could dimly see they meant well. But evil is evil. You can’t sit down and have a cup of tea with it. And what about Riley? She couldn’t be rehabilitated, could she? No video games or TV for her.

He took a deep breath, as if he was about to dive into deep cold water, then ripped the envelope open.

"Dear Mrs and Mrs Burgess…

The words swam before his eyes, he blinked and shook his head.

"For your information we enclose a summary of the parole hearing for Caitlin Grady: Having considered the evidence presented regarding her participation in interventions to address her offending behaviour."

This kind of blathering preamble gave him a bad feeling. They were trying to sweeten the pill.

"The decision."

Swallowed hard, but the saliva seemed to choke his throat as he read.

"The panel is satisfied that Ms Grady is suitable for release. The release is subject to several licence conditions…"

The bastards! He scrunched up the letter and threw it at the tree. Suddenly short of breath, he gasped to get some air. Could hear the blood pumping in his ears.

How could they do this to him? Bloody weak-minded do-gooders.

His chest felt tight and constricted. Heart pounded. Couldn’t get enough air into his lungs and began to feel dizzy.

He staggered towards the top of the steep embankment where the main line to London cut its way through Boggart Hill.

Told himself he wasn’t having a heart attack.

Deep breaths Darren. Take deep slow breaths.

The first time this happened he thought his heart really was failing. That his grief had killed him.

The panic attacks started when Riley disappeared. Got worse when they found her body. The doctor gave him Beta blockers, but he avoided taking them. What was the point in treating the symptoms when there was no pill for his disease? Besides, he didn’t want to cover up his feelings for Riley with drugs. He wanted the pain. Might even have preferred an actual heart attack.

He watched a long-distance train rumble past on the tracks below. Imagined the passengers settling into their seats with laptops and lattes. Why the hell should they be allowed to go about their business when his world had just collapsed for the second time? Fuck them and their cotton wool lives.

‘Looking for business, Mister?’

He swung around to see a young woman, hardly more than a teenager. Bare legs, short skirt, nose piercing. Thin. Far too thin to be healthy. Dark eyes flicking around nervously.

For a horrid second, he thought it was Grady, come back to visit the scene.

‘Only twenty for a blowy.’

‘What!? No! I don’t want any bloody business,’ he snapped, disgusted. Of all the places to suggest such a thing.

‘Alright keep your hair on, I’m only asking.’

‘Look, I came here to be on my own, alright?’ Of course this girl wasn’t Grady. Ten years might have passed but he’d recognise that nonchalant look and vacant blue eyes anywhere. Besides there was bound to be a delay between the parole hearing and the actual release. It wasn’t her, but he carried on gazing at the girl. Part of him couldn’t help but wonder if being let out of prison was his chance to finally get his hands on her.

‘If you don’t want business, what are you looking at?’

‘Nothing.’ He turned away and wandered back to the tree. The scrunched-up letter was still there on the ground. It was like part of Grady herself was here. He couldn’t leave the letter to desecrate this place and so picked it up. He’d burn it - later. But for now stuffed it in his pocket. Kerry would be as outraged as he was by the release. They could both watch it burn.

The girl called over, ‘Saw you park your van. Had that look about you, like you was after something.’

Did he really look like the type of loser looking to pay for sex? Truth is, sex had all but dried up since Riley died. For a long time, it had just felt wrong somehow. And now, things with Kerry… He sighed inwardly. He still loved her but the marriage needed rewiring somehow. Only he didn’t have a clue how to even begin.

‘I recognised you that’s why. So there’s no need to be shy,’ she said in a sing song voice that made him squirm.

‘You don’t know me!’ We’ve never met.’ How could he have met her? She’d have been a child the last time he set foot in Bristol.

‘You quite sure our paths have never crossed my love?’

‘I don’t live in Bristol.’

‘You’re not on the telly are you?’ she said coming closer.

‘No! I’m not on the telly and our lives have never crossed.’ Getting irritated with her persistence, he retrieved his wallet from his jeans pocket and got out a tenner.

‘What d’you think you’re gonna get for that?’

‘It’s for you to take your business somewhere else.’

‘Alright then. If that’s what you really want.’

He glared at her. She tilted her head, gave a weak smile, turned and sloped off down the hill to the fence.

Darren was lying about the telly. He’d been on the telly plenty. But that girl was too young to have remembered him from the TV. Unless she had a special reason not to forget.

His phone vibrated. A text from Ben, the project manager. He should get to work. Being a contractor meant his hours were his own business, but there’d be questions if he didn’t show up at all. He headed down the hill taking the path past a row of small back gardens that backed onto Boggart Hill. Each tiny parcel of land a snapshot of a private life. Neat flower beds in one, scruffy uncut grass in another. Several had evidence of children: abandoned toys and bikes, a swing, a plastic Little Tykes activity gym, like the one they’d got for Riley on her last ever birthday.

Happy families hurt.

Passing through a dank underpass running beneath the railway line, he quickened his pace and emerged into Pennywell industrial estate where his van was parked. It was a miserable area of drab breeze block and corrugated steel units. Their unseeing mean windows obscured by closed blinds. White vans, like his own on the forecourts. He still wondered why no one had stopped Grady as she dragged Riley along these streets, having snatched her from Pennywell City Farm half a mile away. He felt drawn to retrace their path and go back to the place he’d lost Riley. But he needed to get to the job in Chippenham. Besides what good would it do to churn things up even more.

The phone rang. Thinking it was Ben on his case, he was tempted to ignore it. But it wasn’t Ben, it was Kerry.

‘Is everything alright love?’ she asked, sounding concerned.

‘Yeah course.’

‘Well, where are you?’ There was an accusation in her voice he didn’t like. Besides he better not say where he was.

‘Where do you think I am – Butlins?’

‘You’re not at work.’

‘Aren’t I?’ he mumbled, feeling foolish.

‘So where are you?’

‘Checking up on me?

‘No, Darren I am not checking up on you. I was worried about you.’ She said evenly, like he was being a dim wit. ‘Got back home after my shift and there’s a ton of messages on the land line. “Are you coming in today? First fix had better be done by Friday”’

‘Bloody Ben. Cut a guy some slack for fucksake.’

‘So, where are you?’

He sighed heavily not knowing what to say. After Riley’s death, he got a bit obsessed with going up Boggart Hill and staring at the tree for hours. He’d been almost suicidal then and had to promise to stop going up there for the sake of his mental health.

‘Took the morning off that’s all. I’m with mum and dad.’ It was the only thing he could think of.

‘Why did you go there?’

He mumbled some vague reason to do with not having seen them for ages. Kerry didn’t sound convinced. She knew how he avoided any encounter with his dad or brother if possible. His half-baked explanations were drowned by a train roaring over the underpass only a few metres away.

‘Is that a train?’


‘Sound’s like a train.’


‘What the fuck is going on?’

‘I’m in Penywell if you must know.’

‘Oh Darren. You been up Boggart Hill?’ she said in a voice saturated with disappointment.

‘Maybe. Maybe I have. So what!’

‘There’s no need to lie about it is there?’ Kerry hated lies, and he should apologise, but why shouldn’t he go to Riley’s tree if he wanted to. It’s not like suicide was on his mind anymore. If anything, it was the opposite. Murder was closer to his heart.

‘I’m leaving now anyway,’ he said as though the duration of his visit would lessen the lie.

‘Fine. Whatever you say.’ Her voice was ice cold and she hung up, leaving him with a sour gut.

TWO: Studio Flat, Westcliffe.

She lay on the bed staring at a brown stain on the swirling Artex ceiling. Was something unpleasant oozing though from the flat above. Blood? Standing on the mattress she could reach the ceiling easily and traced the outline of the stain with her finger. It was dry to the touch. Probably from a leaking pipe ages ago. All the same, she didn’t like the idea of living with that ugly blemish above her head.

When George told her that her accommodation was to be a studio flat, she pictured a cool loft apartment where celebrity DJs and beautiful people hung out. All high ceilings and exposed brickwork. A film star life in New York or Paris.

Well, she was a celebrity of sorts. The sort you didn’t celebrate. Her so-called studio was a room barely large enough for the double bed and the grotty kitchenette in a small alcove. Through a door there was a toilet and shower - that was a plus at least - first time she had private facilities in her life.

She’d been desperate to get parole and totally on her best behaviour. But now she was out, she wasn’t sure she was ready. Been locked up in one way or another since she was eleven years old. Institutionalised, they called it didn’t they? Alright, so she may have been incarcerated, but there was constant noise and activity. Thornhill open prison was a primitive place: full of gossip, arguments, and fights sometimes. But she could handle that. And there was friendship, affection and love there too. An older woman, Donna had taken her under her wing and they’d got close. It became physical after a while, but then they moved Donna to another wing, so that was that. Happened all the time. Friendships formed and broken. Ships in the night, but at least there were ships. Out here, she was alone. The flat was deathly quiet. It’s bare magnolia walls mocked her somehow, reminding her of the void that lay ahead. Inside prison she’d felt many challenging emotions: anger, fear, resentment and despair. But never loneliness. The door to the studio flat wasn’t locked. She could come and go as she pleased. But go where?

THREE: Appletree Avenue, Swindon.

Darren had stayed on at the building site after hours to appease the project manager, so it was starting to get dark when he finally pulled into Appletree Avenue and swung the van into his own short drive.

Appletree Avenue didn’t have any apple trees, merely disappointing bushes placed at intervals on the manicured verge. Set back from the verge were neat houses of buff coloured brick with white uPVC doors and window frames. Scaled down versions of an Edwardian style, so they looked like doll’s houses to Darren. Some had four bedrooms and double garages, others were red brick or pebble dashed, which might provide the illusion of variety to some people but to Darren, they were soulless places that all looked the same. It is true that the estate was a “good area”. Safe for families, hardly any break-ins and you could walk around the quiet streets at night with no fear. But there was no scruffy green tiled local where he was in the darts team. No decent football team either – he hadn’t seen his team play since before Riley died. This doll’s house street had never and would never feel like his home. He was existing here, not living.

He sat for a moment unable to get out of the van, ambushed by a pang of nostalgia and an overwhelming desire to put the clock back. Going to the footie, sitting on the red seats and shouting at the referee. Drinking with his mates in the pub afterwards. How many mates did he have in those days? Hundreds. What a laugh his life was. When did he last have a real laugh? Laughing so much you spit out your beer, or can’t get your breath.

He banged his fist on his forehead to try and make his brain stop thinking and forced himself to get out of the van to walk the few paces to the front door.