A small, cold hand pushed into his. He tried to pull away, but, small though it was, it gripped him tightly. Looking down he saw, indistinct in the darkness, the face of a boy looking up at him.
‘Was it you crying?’ he asked. ‘How did you get in here?’
He glanced around the garden, at the shadows of the high wall, the dense prickly hedge and the locked gate, then back down at the boy. He tried to pull his hand away again, but the child was not letting go.
‘I’m lost,’ said the boy in a high, distressed voice.
‘But how did you get in here?’
‘You’re lost too.’
‘No I’m not. This is my house, my garden. Where do you live?’
‘I live here.’
‘No, I live here. If you lived here, you wouldn’t be lost.’
‘You lost me.’
‘Me? I don’t even know you,’ though the boy did look familiar, he couldn’t think why.
‘You’d better come inside,’ he said. ‘I’ll phone the police and they’ll find out where you live.’
But the boy was gone.
Tom could still hear him crying. It sounded a long way off down a dark tunnel. There were no tunnels. He went to find his phone and shone the torchlight into the garden, almost expecting to see something strange out there, but it was just his garden, leaves shivering in a light breeze, the lawn empty. No boy at all. The gate still locked.
He wondered if he should phone the police anyway. He did not, because what would he say to them, and would they even be interested in a boy who was not there?
The crying faded away, but he could still feel the pressure of those small fingers on his hand.
‘You’re lost too.’
Tom felt tears in his eyes. He shook his head, took a deep breath, shut the patio door and pulled down the blinds.
The following evening he pulled down the blinds early and made sure the windows were closed. Still he heard the thin wail of a child. Couldn’t the neighbours hear that? Why didn’t they do something? Tom went back to the cost/benefit analysis he was compiling for a client and ignored the noise until it stopped, when he felt no relief, only emptiness.
On the third evening, he played music loud enough to cover any noise, yet still he heard the child’s wailing. He turned off the music in anger and pulled up the blinds. In the middle of the lawn stood the boy’s pale figure, illuminated by moonlight. Opening the patio door, Tom stepped out.
“What are you doing here?’ he asked. ‘How are you getting into my garden?’
‘I’m in the hole you dug,’ said the boy, snuffling.
‘What? I don’t dig. I pay a gardener. Go away.’
He moved towards the boy in what he hoped was a threatening manner. There had to be an end to this. Now.
‘Why are you coming here?’
The boy stood there, silently sobbing, and Tom started to feel like a brute.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Is someone making you do this?’
‘You,’ whispered the boy. He held something up to his face, hiding behind it.
Tom reached out and took the toy, a ragged grey rabbit, its fur worn thin, one ear flopping down.
‘Where did you get this? I threw it away years ago.’
He recalled a faded photo of a tiny boy alone in a garden, holding a brand new and already beloved toy rabbit. Then he knew why the boy looked so familiar.
He was alone in the dark garden, a grown man and a little boy all in one, sobbing, and holding a toy rabbit to his face as if it could soak up all the tears and bring back all the lost dreams.