I’m waiting in the reception area at Happy Bunnies day care. In one corner of the room child-sized sun hats hang on low pegs, and dusty sandals poke out from underneath a wooden bench strewn with empty lunch boxes. On the wall opposite there’s a notice board plastered with photos of young children riding tricycles, petting farm animals and building towers out of wooden blocks. The air smells of baby soap, sunscreen and play dough. Through the open window I can hear the shouts of children playing outside, and an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Heads and shoulders’ is coming from the toddlers’ room next door. I listen for Adam’s voice, but I can’t make it out.
A bitter taste fills my mouth. I’m biting my nails. I really ought to have kicked the habit by now, especially with the wedding coming up in a couple of months. But I guess the events of the past few weeks have made me more anxious than usual.
The door to the toddlers’ room opens and Mrs Johnson, the manager of the day care centre, bursts through. She’s a middle-aged woman with greying hair and a face brimming with good humour. When she sees me she smiles.
‘Hello Ms Harris,’ she says, ‘Thanks for coming in.’
‘Please, call me Natalie,’ I say, standing up and offering my hand to shake, but she holds her palms out towards me. They’re covered in glitter.
‘Occupational hazard, I’m afraid,’ she says, with a laugh. She pushes open the door of her office with an elbow, and ushers me in.
There’s a trio of matching chairs in different sizes in front of Mrs Johnson’s desk. I feel like Goldilocks. I sit down on the medium-sized chair.
‘Is there a problem?’ I ask.
Mrs Johnson opens a large container of baby wipes on her desk, pulls out a couple of sheets, and begins wiping her hands.
‘Well, Natalie,’ she says, ‘we’re worried about Adam.’
‘Me too,’ I say. ‘He’s so clingy in the mornings when I drop him off. It’s been nearly two weeks; I thought he’d be getting used to it by now.’
‘Don’t worry about that,’ says Mrs Johnson. ‘Adam’s been at home up until now, hasn’t he? It’s bound to take him a while to settle in at day care.’
‘There’s another problem?’ My hands are itching to find my mouth. I shove them under my thighs instead.
Mrs Johnson leans forward in her seat. ‘Adam’s behaviour is giving us cause for concern,’ she says quietly.
‘In what way?’
‘Every day, after lunch, he collects all the plastic dolls and pulls their heads off. Then he puts the heads in a pushchair and walks around with it. If anyone touches the pushchair he has a screaming fit.’
‘Oh,’ I say, swallowing hard. My eyes start welling up with tears, but I manage to fight them back. I feel like I ought to say something else, but I have no idea what. Thankfully, Mrs Johnson breaks the silence.
‘Have there been any changes at home lately?’
‘Yes. Our live-in nanny, Sophie, left us a few weeks ago. That’s why I enrolled Adam at Happy Bunnies.’
‘Was Adam fond of Sophie?’
‘Very,’ I say. ‘Sophie came to live with us when Adam was six weeks old. She was like a second mother to him.’
‘Does Adam have any other important adults in his life?’
‘Well, there’s my fiancé, Bob. He moved in about six months ago, just after Adam’s second birthday.’
‘And how do Bob and Adam get on?’
‘Oh, well enough,’ I say. ‘They don’t see each other that often. Bob’s a surgeon and he works long hours. When Bob’s at home, Adam’s usually asleep. And I hate to wake him up once he’s got off to sleep, because he’s such a poor sleeper.’
‘Did he start having problems sleeping after Sophie left, or before?’ asks Mrs Johnson.
‘Definitely before. But there are other things that started after she left. He’s afraid of the dark now, when he never used to be. And he always used to be such a confident and outgoing little boy. Now he clings to me all the time and he never wants to let me out of his sight. I’m really worried about him.’
The tears come again, and this time I can’t stop them. Mrs Johnson offers me a tissue. It smells of glue sticks.
As I’m opening the front door the phone starts ringing. I chivvy Adam inside. The old Adam would have run off to play in the garden. The new Adam sits at the bottom of the stairs. Keeping an eye on me. I take the business card Mrs Johnson gave me out of my pocket and put it on the hall table, next to the phone. It reads, ‘Raj Prasad, child psychologist’.
I pick up the phone. It’s Sophie’s dad.
‘I’m sorry to bother you, Natalie,’ he says, ‘only we can’t reach Sophie on her mobile.’
‘Sophie’s not with us any more,’ I say. ‘Didn’t she tell you?’
‘No. What happened?’
‘I don’t really know. She just went. She left us a letter, saying she had some personal problems and was going back home. I assumed she was with you.’
‘We’ve not seen or heard from her in weeks.’
For the second time today I have no idea what to say.
‘Hello, Natalie? Are you still there?’
I need to feel like I’m doing something useful, so I give Sophie’s dad the name of the boy Sophie was seeing while she was with us. I ask him to call me again in the morning, but I know I’ll end up calling him first. I hang up.
I put on my best breezy smile for Adam.
‘Would you like an ice lolly?’ I ask.
‘Come on then,’ I say, holding out my hand. ‘Let’s go and choose one.’
Adam puts his hand in mine, and follows me down the hall, but as soon as I open the door to the basement, he pulls his hand out of mine, and wraps his arms around my legs.
‘No, Mummy, no!’
I extricate myself from his grasp, and get down to his eye level. ‘It’s okay,’ I say. ‘You don’t have to go. I’ll get the lolly.’
I make my way down the stairs to the basement, humming a cheery tune.
Half way down the stairs I turn round and check on Adam. He’s watching me intently, his bottom lip quivering.
The chest freezer is right at the bottom of the stairs.
‘You like raspberry ones, don’t you?’ I call up to him.
The ice lolly box is not where I expect it to be. I’m rummaging around, trying to find it, when my hand touches something unfamiliar. It’s heavy and irregularly shaped, and it feels like it’s wrapped in cling film. I pull it out to take a look.
It’s Sophie’s head. Beneath the hazy glaze of the cling film her pale skin is tinged blue and frosted with ice crystals. Her green eyes are open and staring, and her mouth is horribly contorted. Her blonde hair is streaked with blood. Her neck is cut off neatly and precisely, in a perfectly horizontal line, like the line where a doll’s head joins her body.
There’s a thump. I look down to see Sophie’s head rolling along the basement floor, towards the bottom of the stairs.
It’s only when Adam lets out an ear-splitting scream that I remember he’s there. I jump over the still-rolling head and run up the stairs. By the time I reach Adam his scream has become a wail. I kneel down and hold him tightly, rocking gently back and forth, whispering into his ear, ‘It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right.’ Eventually his wailing gives way to sobbing, and I pull away from him, holding his shoulder with one hand and gently smoothing his hair with the other. ‘What did you see, Adam?’ I ask. ‘What did you see?’
Between sobs, Adam repeats a single syllable: ‘Bob.’
© Helen Lewis, 2010