Do you ever see something when driving that you just can’t quite explain? A strange coloured box lying at the side of the tarmac. Mysterious concrete doorways set into the side of the hill, nothing to explain them except big yellow warning signs. Distant lights in the dark that move in a way seeming completely unnatural.
Of course, as we get older, these things are explained so easily. The box is just a bit of lazy fly-tipping, the concrete doorways are electrical equipment, and the lights in the dark are just aircraft approaching busy airports. Still, there are some things seen in childhood that stick with you, that are morphed deep into the impressionable plasticity of a child’s brain.
Back when I was perhaps seven or eight, my dad took me out some day the week after Christmas. The third child of four, it was a rare treat for me to sit up front with him, and I remember loving to gaze out at the panoramic view I was so un-used to, given that I was normally stuck up in the back, where the car didn’t have much visibility. The air-con vents formed goofy faces in my mind, and as I sat there I enjoyed the comforting warmth of my brand new red wool coat. It was slightly scratchy, but in a homely way.
The heating had to be on full. A deep frost was covering the details of the land, an obliterating whiteness that, while out in the fields at least, blanketed everything. At the time, I lived in a little hamlet set in the farmland off the side of the rolling chalk hills of Buckinghamshire, England. The road we took to the particular woodland path my father and I were visiting started a slow snake up through fields of crops towards the ridge. Gradually, thin leafless trees began to rise out of the grounds around us, and where it was marginally warmer under the canopies the road shifted from pale grey to black as the ice melted (this being before the council’s campaign of blitzing rock salt all over the county’s roads).
Crispy frozen leaf-litter carpeted the woodland floor, dissolving into a sludge at the roadside. In the brief instances that my wide brown eyes weren’t trying to absorb every detail about the woodland vistas, I saw my dad visibly relax as we got onto wetter, firmer road, the prospect of a Christmas tragedy getting slightly less likely as we passed onto the less-frozen ground. Still, he was very much alert to the journey, and it was probably this attentiveness that made him miss the child.
Even to me, he seemed young. Probably four or five, he was standing alone in a thick, cultivated section of pine woodland. He was barefoot, and I felt a little pang of sympathy given how painful I always found fir-tree needles when they wormed their way into my socks having dropped from the Christmas tree. A crop of short, untidy black hair topped an emaciated face that was drawn into a frown that seemed far too set in its ways, and red rimmed eyes. He was far too thin, and his skin was a sort of pale coffee colour.
Most unsettling to me was his clothing. A parody of my own little red coat, he was wearing red pyjamas, far too thin for the weather. As I looked closer, I picked out a white trimming that almost made me giggle with its bizarre, uneasy comedy- he was wearing a little Father Christmas outfit. I could even see now that in one hand he held the hat that went with it. A moment later, and we had flickered out of sight of him, his form disappearing into the flickering pine trees.
“Daddy! Daddy!” I yelped, after a second. I made him jump. I wasn’t exactly an awkward child, but in one on one conversation I never really flourished, and I preferred to sit in an easy silence that my dad was accustomed to by now.
“What?” he said, jerking the wheels back into line.
“There was a kid over there! In the Christmas trees!”
“The Christmas… oh, the plantation. There wouldn’t have been anything over there, Flick, that’s private property. It was probably your imagination. You know, I’m sure it was just a deer you saw.”
“But dad! He was dressed all in red!”
“Those muntjac we get around here can look pretty red.”
I pursed my lips and didn’t pursue it any further. I remember being dissatisfied with that explanation from the outset, because whenever I thought upon it, the idea didn’t really make any sense- there was so much detail in what I’d seen, so many little things that gave me little niggling nuggets of discomfort. Still, I sat there in silence, and went on the walk, and never questioned it. As I said, I was a little shy.
I guess you’re wondering about why I’m telling you now- there have been twenty-odd years since then where there was no progress, not even a slight advancement to let me know what I saw. Now, though, there’s been just a little bit of proof that I did see something important all those years ago.
A couple of weeks back, some middle-class mother was walking her dogs up in the woods when she let her basset off the leash. The dog made a beeline across the road and ducked under a barbed wire fence and into that little copse of pine trees, the plantation, with the woman leaping off after him. Eventually, she caught up and she thought the dog was smelling at a little, perfectly round mushroom that was bursting out of the ground despite the seasonal cold.
What was at the puppy’s feet was a small fragment of human bone. The occipital bone of the skull, in particular. Eventually, the local forensics decided it was a child’s- not the child I had seen though, this was a girl, Middle Eastern in origin. There were no more bones found after an extensive sweep, and no missing children reports in the area matched the girl. The police were carrying out a DNA test, but without any more information, such as relatives to compare the DNA to, it didn’t sound hopeful.
There isn’t really anything more to this story. Two children- a mockery of Father Christmas, and a mysterious Middle Eastern kid, both too young to have met their fates. I still wonder if there are any other children who met their ends in the plantation.