A mysterious figure is seen on the dark streets of a small English town in the opening of Susan Hill's THE SOUL OF DISCRETION, a Simon Serrailer detective novel.
Lafferton, and a night in early spring. After a week of frosts, the wind had swung to the west, bringing milder air. Snowdrops and crocuses were over, daffodils were flowering. Quiet, empty streets. No footsteps.
Jeff Barclay and Robbie Freeman sat on a low wall near the bus stop in the square, finishing off a shared kebab. They only had enough money for one, and a tea. Robbie screwed up the greasy paper and lifted his arm to throw it into a nearby bin. But his arm froze in mid-air.
‘What?’ Jeff shoved him so that he almost fell off the wall. Robbie did not protest or shove back, he just stared at the entrance to the Lanes, the cobbled pedestrian-only street to their left.
‘Shit, did you see that?’
‘Didn’t see anything. What was it – a ghost?’ Jeff snorted.
‘No.’ Robbie said quietly, getting off the wall and walking towards the Lanes. ‘I saw a kid.’
‘What sort of kid?’
‘A little kid. It . . . it had no clothes on.’
‘You’re taking the piss. I never saw any naked kid.’
Jeff levelled with him as they reached the top of the Lanes.
There were old-fashioned lamps at either end and a couple of shops had lighted front windows. The whole street was empty.
‘No. I saw it. There was a little kid, it sort of – just ran and then it vanished.’
‘Yeah, right. Come on, let’s see if there’s anyone outside the Magpie.’
But Robbie was walking slowly away from him, looking closely to right and left. In the end, Jeff followed.
‘How could there be a kid?’
'I know what I saw.’
‘What are you on, Rob? You start seeing things, you got a problem.’
There was a passageway between the deli and a smart clothes shop, and as Robbie looked into it, he saw a quick movement – something pale. He ran down, but he had to push past two wheelie bins, and by the time he had got through, if there had been anyone, they’d gone.
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake! I’m off home.’
It was another five minutes before Robbie followed him. They walked slowly along the kerb, thumbs out every time a vehicle went by. Not many did.
‘Wanker.’ Jeff gave two fingers to a speeding car. Robbie said nothing. His head was full of what he knew he had seen – not imagined, not hallucinated, seen. A child, maybe three or four years old, naked, slithering out of sight into the shadows, dodging down the alley and passageway. He couldn’t get it out of his mind.
A patrol car took the call at twenty to three.
PC Bev Willet sighed. ‘Wind-up,’ she said.
‘Sounds like it. But just in case – hold onto your hat.’
It had been a quiet night. Even a wind-up was better than trying to keep awake with more plastic coffee. The car raced up the bypass.
‘How old did he say?’
‘Little kid, three or so. Couldn’t say if it was a boy or girl.’
‘They piss me off, these hoaxers. I’d have them dunked in the canal on a freezing night.’ Bev snorted as she pulled up at the entrance to the Lanes. One taxi was in the rank, the driver asleep with a copy of the Sun over his face. He didn’t stir at the sound of the patrol car.
‘Talk to him in a mo. Come on.’
Ten minutes later they had scoured the area, including every alley and passageway, every wheelie bin and recycling area.
‘Diddly squat,’ Bev said.
‘Pisses me off, this sort of thing.’
‘Only why would he invent a naked child, for heaven’s sake?’
‘Guaranteed to make us move fast.’
‘Right. Just someone’s idea of a good laugh then. Better go and wake up our cabby.’
But their cabby had been out on jobs all evening and then fallen asleep. He was going home now. He’d keep an eye out.
‘His face said it all.’
Jess Honeywell’s baby woke for a feed at four. She picked him up out of his crib and moved the curtain aside briefly to look out at the night. Starry, with a big moon. A front-bedroom light was on a few doors down. Another wakeful baby. She and Katie Green sometimes chanced to look out at the same time and then they’d wave, sharing the small hours of new babies. They had propped one another up through pregnancy and the first weeks and went on doing so now, meeting almost every day, walking their buggies together, swapping notes. It had made all the difference. St Luke’s Road was in the grid of small Victorian terraced houses known as the Apostles, friendly, neighbourly, and near to the shops, coffee bars and restaurants of Lafferton’s centre. They were lucky, Jess thought as she dropped the curtain, even if the houses were small. She hated the idea of being stuck out in the sticks, even with bigger rooms and a garden, but no life nearby and needing a car to get you anywhere. They couldn’t afford a car. Matt walked to work.
The Green bedroom was in darkness, the moon shining on quiet pavements, but as she turned, Jess thought she saw something move. Turned back and lifted the curtain again. No. Trick of the light. Nothing. And then her hand went to her mouth. Noah was grizzling himself back to sleep but she barely noticed.
Matt was hard to wake and when he did, he stumbled out of bed assuming he had to pick up the baby and was almost able to do so in his sleep.
He came awake fully as Jess shook his arm.
‘What? You’ve been dreaming –’
'NO. Matt, go down, go out there . . . I was not dreaming. You’ve got to go.’ Noah cried again as her voice rose. She picked him up and sat on the edge of the bed, putting him to the breast and gesturing to Matt to hurry.
It was not that he refused to believe her, just that he was still not fully awake, and he felt foolish, standing half dressed and in slippers, looking up and down St Luke’s Road and seeing nothing, Nothing at all. But she had been wide awake and he knew that she thought she had seen . . .
And then he saw.
The child was squatting down behind the gate of a house opposite.
‘It’s OK,’ Matt said. ‘It’s all right, it’s all right.’
He went through the gate and stopped. Later, he said that he would never forget the child’s face until his dying day. Later, he could not sleep because the face was in front of him. Later, he was haunted during his waking hours by sudden flashbacks to the child’s face as it looked up at him.
‘It’s all right. Dear God. Listen, I won’t hurt you. I’m going to look after you, OK?’ But even as he spoke, gently, quietly, the child tried to shrink into a hedge, as if it might find a safe place among the rough bare twigs and earth.
Very slowly, Matt inched his way, his hand out, talking softly in what he desperately hoped was a voice of reassurance. The child continued to shrink from him and now it turned its face away from him out of fear.
It was a girl. She was perhaps four years old. She was filthy, she had smears of blood on her arms and legs. Her long, fine, fair hair was matted to her scalp. She was completely naked.
There was silence and stillness and fear for long minutes before the child lurched forward, the hedge catching at her again as she moved and drawing fresh pinpoints of blood, and then she was clinging to Matt, climbing up him like a terrified small animal and pressing her little body to him. He put his arm round her carefully and edged backwards down the path. She did not move, only clung fast to him. Matt hurried across the road, back into the house, calling to Jess. But she had already seen him through the window and only seconds later, blue lights turning, the police car stopped outside.