Every few hours, a question. I allow myself that much. ‘What did you do all that time, by yourself?’ He has to start talking again soon. His return from kindergarten used to come with a breathless monologue of minutiae from the past three hours: he’d drawn a picture of a lorry in purple felt tip and Mrs Fryer had pinned it on the bulletin board; Gareth had to stand in the hall because he called John a liar; Laura cried when Sunshine the goldfish died.
You have to be patient. Keep things as normal as possible.
But I want to make up for all the kisses I missed giving him over the past three days, celebrate his return with his favourite brownies, a trip to Legoland, the little electric motorbike we’d been saving for Christmas. Anything he pointed to at the supermarket. Whatever television programme received his nod of approval.
Looks like Paulie’s ruling the roost.
It’s hard for Ken too – the whole thing was his fault, after all, though I’m not sure he sees it that way. We’ll come back for him in five minutes, he’d said, as I shouted and tried to open the door of the moving car. I pulled his arm so hard, we nearly swerved off the road. When he turned around and returned to the clearing, Paulie was gone. If my heart hadn’t been beating its way out of my chest, I might have felt a small satisfaction at Ken’s shift from smug self-assurance to wan panic.
No two cases are the same. We can’t make any promises, or predict which way the committee will rule.
If one positive thing has come of this, it’s that I’ve regained the upper hand over my own household. I’d let Ken take the lead when I was feeling low after Paulie was born. Strict sleep training, out of diapers aged one, reading by three. For every problem a child posed, Ken had a solution. But children aren’t like computers he spends his days programming. I cup a palm over Paulie’s perfect crown, yearning to know what thoughts and images churn inside.
We’d gone to pick wild strawberries in the forest. We turned around and he was gone. Just wandered off – you know what kids are like.
My phone in the pocket of my dressing gown, a knot in my stomach, tremor in my limbs as I waited for news, good or bad, from the police. I washed fresh sheets and pyjamas for Paulie every day. Ran a damp cloth over every shelf, each toy in his room, pushing away the image of an older version of myself doing the same thing day after day, refusing to accept the truth.
Would you like to tell me the story of the day you got lost? … I understand you spent three whole days and nights by yourself! That must have been scary.
Paulie nods, intent on the glossy new Transformer clutched in his hand.
Remember Sergeant Ryan, the army man who found you? He was so impressed with your survival skills. He said you could become a special forces soldier one day, didn’t he?
Paulie’s head snaps up, eyes now alight.
I scared away bears, and wolves, and tigers!, he shouts into the caseworker’s face.
How did you do that?
He jumps to his feet and mimes throwing stones, shouting and raising his hands above his head.
You threw things at them? And made yourself big to scare them away? That’s a very good plan. And what did you eat all that time you were by yourself? Did you find berries in the forest?
There weren’t any, stupid! It was only just springtime.
I’m sure I can read the caseworker’s thoughts on her face. Strict parents who put their child in danger then lie about it. Good candidate for foster care.
And where did you find something to drink?
Clever boy! And the hide where the soldier found you: is that where you slept?
It’s my cabin, I’m going to go back and show it to Mummy and Daddy.
It’s not your cabin, it’s where hunters sit patiently waiting for an animal to shoot.
IT’S MY CABIN!
Ken, let him pretend it’s his. Paulie, when the weather gets warmer, you and me and Daddy will go to your cabin together. We’ll have a picnic and you can show us what you did when you were there.
I’m sorry, but this is all a bit much. Paulie misbehaved, so we punished him. It was a miscalculated punishment, I accept that. But he wandered off! After all we taught him about staying in one place if he ever gets lost. What kind of message are we sending now, showering him with praise and rewards?
The caseworker must think I’m absurdly indulgent, Ken impossibly strict. What kind of couple are we to raise a child?
Ken, did you say anything to Paulie before you drove away? Do you remember what you said?
If you don’t follow this family’s rules, you’re not part of the family anymore, Paulie jumps in, clear and matter-of-fact, before Ken can say anything.
No, no Paulie. That’s not right. You’ll always be a part of this family, no matter what!
Good, Ken. Could you repeat that please? Look Paulie in the eye. Make sure he hears you.
Paulie, Daddy said something he shouldn’t have. He lied and said that you weren’t a part of the family if you didn’t follow the rules. That’s not true. Not at all. You’ll be a member of our family forever, whatever you do.
Ken slides Paulie off his knee and goes to blow his nose in the kitchen. The caseworker stands up, with what I interpret as a grim kind of satisfaction on her face.
You’ll hear from us in the next few days.
Originally from Toronto, Alison Frank lives in London. Her previous publications include ‘Stop Staring’ in The Bohemyth, ‘Meet Me at Cafe Bambi’ in Confingo, and ‘A Present to Herself’ in So to Speak. She is also the author of the non-fiction book ‘Reframing Reality: The Aesthetics of the Surrealist Object in French and Czech Cinema’. You can follow her on Twitter @alisonfrank
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