One summer afternoon in the long school holidays five children wandered off to have adventures in the countryside. They were all nine-year-olds who lived in the semi-rural outer suburbs where the city dissolved into rolling farmland, narrow lanes, high hedgerows and ancient woods. Three of them, Steven Cotton, Robert Morris and Andrew Bird, lived in a quiet, leafy road of large detached and semi-detached middle-class houses, while Bethan Huws lived on a nearby farm and Mervyn Jones in a small cottage in the old village that had been swallowed by the suburb. In the humid, broiling heat they gravitated towards the cool shade of their favourite wood, the perfect place to play hide and seek.
“…88…89…90…91…92…93…94…95…96…97…98…99…Hundred! Ready or not I’m coming!”
Robert opened his eyes and scanned the thickly wooded ravine through which the Nant Afanc brook tumbled as it approached its entry into the wide, fast-moving River Grymus. Unable to spot anyone immediately, he wandered off stealthily to look in all the usual places. But none of his four playmates were lurking behind the thick trunks of oak and chestnut trees, or crouching in dens beneath tangled undergrowth, or camouflaged within thick clumps of alder and willow. They must be lying low against the muddy banks of the brook, presumed Robert, so he headed down one of the worn, slippery paths towards the bottom of the gully. As he descended, a wild bramble’s thorny tentacle sharply scraped down the back of one of his legs, causing him to stop and bend over slightly to check the damage. Reassured it wasn’t bleeding too much, Robert looked up again. And there, a few feet away, staring at him, was the looming dark shape of a tall, hooded figure, massive and menacing to the skinny little boy nicknamed ‘shrimp’ at school. Robert opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
To out-fox Robert, Andrew and Mervyn had doubled back on the high-level main path, left the wood and hid in the hedge on the access lane. After about 15 minutes they started getting bored and hot waiting to be found and considered enough time had passed for them to have won this particular game. They re-entered the wood, dawdling along the way to swing from branches, have mock jousts with sticks and collect acorns and pine cones. Steven likewise was growing tired of squatting awkwardly between a rambling holly bush and the wild wood’s crumbling boundary wall. When he heard Andrew and Mervyn coming past on the path he pounced out to startle them. The boys indulged in a bout of horseplay for a while, their shouts and laughter ricocheting through the trees.
Soon they began to wonder where Robert and Bethan were. “Bet they’re kissing down by the stream,” giggled Steven. The three of them slithered down the steep gradient, then picked their way along the banks of the brook until reaching its swirling confluence with the river. Neither Robert nor Bethan were to be seen. Time passed as they mucked about in the shallows looking for eels, keeping a safe distance away from the dangerous drag of the river’s churning currents. Before long, heavy droplets of rain were bouncing through the overhead canopy of trees as ominous thunder clouds gathered over the hills to the north. “Race you to the gate!” yelled Steven, and the three boys scampered and scrambled back up to the top of the valley and out of the woods. A torrential downpour drenched them as they sprinted up the lane to Andrew’s home, the nearest shelter.
“Look at the state of you,” said Mrs Bird as she opened the front door, “you’ll catch double pneumonia!”
After they had been efficiently dried with towels, Vivienne Bird said “Well, it’s gone half past four, you boys must be hungry, I’ll make some sandwiches. Did Bethan and Robert go before the rain?”
“They disappeared mum,” chuckled Andrew, “they love each other.”
“Andy, honestly!” scolded his mother. “You can have peanut butter or meat paste,” she called as she went to the kitchen. Before she could get there the doorbell rang. She opened the front door to be faced by a bedraggled, mud-splattered and shivering Bethan. “Oh Mrs Bird! Mrs Bird! A monster has taken Robert!” screamed the girl.
After Bethan had been dried and given a cup of hot chocolate she calmed down enough to explain how, while hiding high up in one of the great oaks they loved to climb, she had caught a glimpse of Robert in the distance. She knew it was him by his red T-shirt. He disappeared from sight behind foliage as he descended towards the stream before she spotted him again in a clearing visible from her perch. Then, according to Bethan, some sort of giant presence jumped out from behind a tree and just carried him away. Vivienne dismissed Bethan’s account as typical of the sparky, creative girl’s over-active imagination and went out to the kitchen to make the sandwiches. It was still bucketing with rain. Over half an hour passed as the boys interrogated Bethan for more detail and she entertained them with ever-more vivid descriptions of the ‘monster’ as they ate their sandwiches. It was half past five. Vivienne had fed Susan, Andrew’s baby sister, and was beginning to think she should put an end to the nonsense and phone Elizabeth Morris, Robert’s mother, to confirm that Robert had gone home to escape the thunderstorm, when her phone rang in the hallway. It was Barbara Cotton asking whether Steven was with her.
“Yes, he’s here, fed and watered,” reassured Vivienne. “The whole gang are here, except Robert. Have you seen him at all?” she asked casually – the Cottons being the Morris’s next door neighbours further up the hill. “No, but I haven’t been looking Viv,” said Barbara, “It’s so dark I’ve got the lights on. In August! This rain! Send him home as soon as it stops. And if it doesn’t stop in half an hour I’m coming down with the brolly to fetch him. We’ve got a dinner dance in town tonight – Cyril’s firm’s annual do – and I want Steven and the twins ready for bed before the babysitter comes at 7.30.”
Barbara rang off, but ten minutes later phoned Vivienne again. “Elizabeth Morris just knocked the door wondering where Robert was. I told her I didn’t know but he wasn’t with the others at your house and she got very upset and rushed away screaming that Norman was late back from work. Luckily Norman’s car turned into their drive at that very moment. I suppose it will be alright won’t it Viv?”
“Of course dear, Robert’s such a clever little thing. Knowing him, he would have found a waterproof shelter somewhere. Look, the rain’s easing now.” Vivienne, everyone’s pillar of strength and optimism, felt an unfamiliar shiver of doubt and low dread even as she spoke. While she tried to analyse what had suddenly made her uneasy, the doorbell went.
It was Haydn Huws, Bethan’s big brother from Plaslwyd Farm. “I presume she’s here,” the lean, handsome 25-year-old grinned, “Mam’s got tea ready”.
“Mrs Bird gave me hot chocolate and Robert’s been kidnapped by a monster!”, effused Bethan gleefully as she jumped into Haydn’s battered old van.
Ten minutes later Cyril Cotton arrived in his flashy car to collect Steven. Even though the rain had now stopped and Cyril only lived a five minute walk away, the owner of a luxury car dealership in the city didn’t walk anywhere.
“Do me a favour Cyril and drop Mervyn off at the village” said Vivienne at the door. “You know what his father’s like.”
“Of course darling,” replied Cyril, always pleased to show off his latest car and well aware of the callous neglect and brutal beatings alcoholic widower Billy Jones inflicted on his only child. “Come on Steve and Merv,” called Cyril, “It’s time to go, Mrs Bird’s put up with you for long enough.” Mervyn was thrilled to get in the Jag. “Thank you very much for the sandwiches Mrs Bird,” he said politely as they departed.
Vivienne had her house back at last. “Go upstairs, check on Susan, have a bath and change your clothes before your father comes home,” she told Andrew, “I’ll start making dinner.”
Vivienne poured herself a glass of wine. She wasn’t in the mood to cook. It was half past six, Brian would be back from a demanding day at the hospital at any moment. He will just have to make do with a snack, she thought, as her troubled thoughts returned to Robert. He’ll be home by now, she reassured herself, gulping back her wine and pouring another. But she was wrong.
Elizabeth Morris rushed out of her house when she saw Cyril Cotton returning next door with Steven after dropping Mervyn off in the village. Norman, who was well accustomed to counteracting and dismissing his wife’s melancholia and pessimism by adopting the air of unflappable, bumptious authority that had made him such a successful estate agent and property developer, had been trying his best to placate Elizabeth, fixing her a large gin and tonic and assuring her Robert would be sheltering from the rain somewhere. Cyril, who had listened to Steven and Mervyn relating Bethan’s ‘monster’ tale in the car, had no intention of agitating Elizabeth further. He made a few emollient noises across the driveway before adding, while making a show of looking at his watch, “Got to dash, big work shindig in town tonight.”
Barbara, already dolled up in her glad rags and looking forward to a night out, was waiting for Cyril and Steven. “The twins have eaten and I’ve put them to bed. Your tea’s ready Steve – chips and beans. Go and get ready Cyril, it’s 7 o’clock. Any news of Robert yet?”
“I would be out looking if it was my lad,” said Cyril heading upstairs, “but that cold fish Norman has done bugger all.” Although next-door neighbours for over a decade, Cyril and Norman had never really got on. It was a mutual dislike: to Cyril, Norman was a stuffy snob; to Norman, Cyril was a vulgar upstart.
Babysitter Yvonne, a teenager from the village, duly arrived on time. Then the Cotton’s taxi turned up and Barbara and Cyril left for their night out. As the taxi proceeded up the road a police car passed in the opposite direction. “Oh God Cyril,” muttered Barbara, clutching his hand, “They must have reported him missing. I do hope nothing’s happened”.
Two police constables and Norman went down to the wood in the patrol car and parked at the gate. Brian Bird, kept abreast of events by Vivienne, joined them on foot. Dusk was gathering, the ground was sodden, the wood, gloomy even in broad daylight, was almost pitch black and it was treacherously muddy underfoot. The four men’s cries of “Robert! Robert!” rang out as the powerful police torches criss-crossed shafts of searchlight through the darkness for over an hour. Chubby Norman, still in his businessman’s suit and tie, couldn’t manage the steep descent to the brook, but the other three did. The brook was now a raging tumble of water joining the high, surging river in a treacherous maelstrom. Strong adults would have no chance against such forces, let alone a frail, lightweight child. Witnessing the sheer power of the river in full flood, Brian and the two policemen feared the worst. Poor Robert had somehow fallen in and would already have been swept out to sea five miles downstream where the Grymus entered the ocean.
“There’s nothing we can do now,” said PC Griffiths, “we’ll have to get proper search teams and divers here by daylight.”
“This will destroy Elizabeth,” said Brian, knowing that her only child was the centre of her universe, “What do we say to Norman?”
“Leave that to us, sir. Let’s not jump to conclusions. Nothing is definite yet. We will know more in the morning.”
Norman was waiting at the police car, staring vacantly into the gathering night. Brian utilised his best bedside manner to try to be positive, but Norman didn’t seem to be hearing him. He had switched to automatic pilot and had no words in him.
The police car took Norman home, but the constables didn’t go in. They had work to do back at the station, initiating a missing child investigation for detectives to tackle in the morning. Elizabeth’s anguished wails and howls rent the humid night air as they drove off.
The following day East Cambria Police put all their well-oiled procedures in motion, under the leadership of Detective Inspector Jeremy Worrall. Urgency was essential, since missing children of Robert’s age who weren’t found within 48 hours were almost invariably not found alive. While specialist teams searched the wood, the surrounding countryside, the river, the riverbanks and the coastline, and door-to-door enquiries were made across the neighbourhood, Worrall and his trusty sidekick Detective Constable Alun Reed concentrated on interviewing the four other children with their families present. Jeremy Worrall, a hardened, sharp operator who had seen humanity at its worst in over 30 years service, knew that there were two main possibilities: abduction or accident. Abduction was only considered a possibility because of what Bethan Huws had said, so it was to Plaslwyd Farm that Worrall and Reed went first.
At Plaslwyd, where the Huws family had been arable farming for more than 200 years, Bethan was interviewed in the comfortably untidy living room of the ramshackled old Welsh longhouse in the presence of her widowed mother Eluned Huws. Confident, voluble Bethan needed little encouragement to repeat the story that had not changed from the previous day: Robert had been seized by a monster. Gently pressed to describe this monster, Bethan painted an increasingly far-fetched description of an immense, diabolical, fanged beast. The policemen dutifully noted everything Bethan said, while not for one moment taking it seriously. Enquiries at the school had already informed them that she was an attention-seeking show-off, perhaps overcompensating for the sudden death of her father Tryfan Huws from a heart attack five years previously. After Bethan went out to help Haydn bag potatoes, Eluned Hughes was able to talk frankly about her irrepressible, tomboy daughter, with her fierce love of nature and her voracious appetite for reading, especially science fiction and fantasy stories. Worrall and Reed left the farm impressed by Eluned’s serenely sensible manner, maternal pride and practical intelligence.
Next they spoke to Mervyn Jones. In the filthy, dilapidated cottage Mervyn cut a sorry figure in grubby shorts and vest, his bruised and cut legs spindly and bent with rickets, his tangled hair matted in dirt, his nostrils blocked with snot, his teeth broken and black. The police knew all about Billy Jones, who had a long record of petty offences that were invariably the result of his chronic alcoholism. Slumped in a smelly armchair, Billy was a sullen, sickly presence. He showed no interest, sumping from a bottle and muttering the occasional contemptuous grunt, as Worrall asked Mervyn for his account of events. As Mervyn explained carefully how he was with Andrew all the time during the hide and seek game and how it was nothing unusual for Robert and Bethan to wander off so he wasn’t worried when they didn’t turn up, the DI was touched by the scrawny boy’s pleasant and helpful demeanour and his genuine concern for Robert.
“Make a note to get in touch with social services about Billy Jones,” Jeremy said to Alun as they drove to the Cotton’s house a mile away, “That man shouldn’t be allowed to keep a dog, much less a child.”
Steven, a robust, mischievous lad, was questioned in the Cotton’s chintzy and garish living room with Cyril and Barbara present as well as their hyperactive three-year-old twins, Karen and Kyle. Barbara Cotton soon took the noisy twins out to their play room, allowing Steven to quietly and tearfully recount his version of events. Essentially, he knew nothing; the last he heard of Robert was the distant sound of the hide and seek count reaching “40” as he ran to his hiding place at the far boundary of the wood. As the detectives were leaving, Cyril Cotton, clearly agitated and hungover from the night before, and never one to mince his words, poured out his thoughts to Worrall and Reed.
“Nobody would hurt Robert, he’s a shy, harmless little thing, a real mummy’s boy, very brainy, always got his nose in a book, a charming kid when he comes out of himself, great sense of humour, so good for Steven. No, no, some accident must have happened. I do hope you are searching every square inch officers, he could be lying somewhere injured, he could…”
“Rest assured Mr Cotton, we have hundreds of people systematically searching every possible location right now,” interrupted Worrall. “If Robert is alive we will find him.”
“If anything bad has happened, I will blame his bloody father,” added Cyril, “he’s useless, remote and selfish, leaves it all to poor Elizabeth, a boy needs a father…”
At the Bird’s house down the road, Andrew’s statement was duly taken. The likeable, good natured boy’s story tallied exactly with what Mervyn and Steven had said. Dr Bird was at work, while Vivienne Bird, with baby Susan on her lap, was able to add precise times to the sequence of events. When Andrew left the room Vivienne spoke of Robert’s introverted and sweet nature and how close he and Andrew were.
“He didn’t show it to you, but Andy’s been so upset today. Since their first day at school he has looked after Robert like a big brother,” she said. “This morning at breakfast he said Robert couldn’t swim and he knows he must have drowned in the river. Then he started crying uncontrollably. Oh, Inspector Worrall, this is a nightmare! I knew there was something wrong! Please find Robert! What must Elizabeth be going through?” Her eyes filled and she broke down into soft, shuddering sobs.
By the time Worrall and Reed arrived at the Morris’s house Robert had not been seen for over 24 hours. Forensic teams had taken items of his clothing to help sniffer dogs in the ongoing search and now two female family liaison specialists were sitting around the big kitchen table with Norman Morris while Elizabeth Morris, heavily sedated, slept in an upstairs bedroom. Jeremy Worrall was becoming more and more certain that foul play wasn’t involved, but as long as doubt remained he could not rule out anything. Knowing all too well that the vast majority of child murders are committed by one or both of the parents, he and Alun Reed used all their interpersonal skills with Norman to get a measure of the man. Under the pretext of finding out about Robert’s habits and interests, they gently probed him for a couple of hours. It emerged that he had been in his 40s when he married Elizabeth, a secretary in his office 20 years younger than him, and after trying for years they had almost given up on having children before Robert was born by artificial insemination. Norman came across as rather severe and autocratic, buttoned-up and unsympathetic, his main emotion being one of thinly concealed rage at Robert himself.
“When he comes home I’ll give him hide and seek, I’ll give him a damn good hiding!” he bellowed at one point, “how could he put us through this!”
Back at police HQ, Worrall and Reed assessed Norman Morris. He was an unappealing man, but no murderer. He was a dull money-grubber who had lived a life of spotless rectitude. He was in his office in town when Robert disappeared. He was overweight and nearly 60 and physically incapable of moving around the steep wooded ravine. And his seemingly cold-blooded reaction to his son’s disappearance was merely a reflection of his stiff-upper-lip repression and inability to bond – as well as being precisely how someone trying to conceal murder wouldn’t react. Worrall went to sleep that night praying that Robert would turn up tomorrow – dead or alive.
But Robert did not turn up the next day. And, despite weeks, months and years of painstaking searches and enquiries, he was never seen again. Over the years the case generated newspaper headlines, books, documentaries and speculative TV dramas while East Cambria Police launched frequent ‘cold case’ attempts to solve it as forensic technology advanced. But with no corpse ever found it gradually diminished in importance and faded from memory. New trunk roads, housing estates and business parks eradicated the entire Nant Afanc valley and ten years after Robert disappeared the coroner agreed to issue his death certificate, citing “death by misadventure” as the cause. By then Norman and Elizabeth Morris had long been divorced, their marriage unable to withstand the grief and blame and emptiness. Elizabeth had remained in the house while wealthy Norman left the area and married again, to a woman 30 years his junior, only to die of a massive heart-attack a few months later. It was universally accepted that there was nothing more to it than this: Robert’s bones were bleaching in the sea-bed muds.
Twenty-five years had passed since Robert’s disappearance when Chief Constable Alun Reed, who had climbed through the ranks in a distinguished career with East Cambria Police, received a letter from the executors of the estate of the recently deceased Jeremy Worrall. His old gaffer had taken early retirement at age 60 to live a life of solitude and intellectual pursuits in a converted chapel in the remote Mynyddoedd Glas highlands of central Cymru. Apart from an annual Christmas card, Reed and Worrall had not stayed in touch. The letter contained a smaller sealed envelope along with a covering note from the solicitors explaining that Worrall’s will had left this message specifically for him. The message, written in Worrall’s familiar meticulous block capitals, simply read: ALUN. ROBERT MORRIS IS ALIVE. SPEAK TO ARTURO PAGANI.
Within a week Alun Reed was sitting in the opulent Paris apartment of celebrated criminologist Arturo Pagani. Tall, dignified and striking-looking, Professor Pagani had studied in Italy and Austria before lecturing across Europe and establishing a reputation as the world’s foremost detective even though he was still only in his thirties. His towering intellect allowed him to approach seemingly insoluble puzzles unencumbered by preconceptions and unconscious bias, cut through the formulaic thought processes and bovine dimness that bedevil police forces everywhere, and use his unstinting rationality and talent for perceptive lateral thinking to solve intractable mysteries and nail serious criminals. After formal introductions were over, the two men settled down and multilingual Arturo, in immaculate English, began:
“About a year ago your old colleague Jeremy persuaded me to look at the Robert Morris case. He was dying of cancer and felt somehow responsible that the case had never been satisfactorily resolved. Certain aspects of the case nagged away at him for years and, in retirement, he had accumulated a massive dossier covering every facet of the disappearance. I went through this dossier, as well as all the official archived files – and also conducted my own research, particularly into those aspects that didn’t sit right with Jeremy.” Arturo paused
“What aspects are those?” asked Alun.
“Misdirection and reaction,” replied Arturo. He could see the bewilderment in Alun’s face. “Ask yourself this, Alun,” he continued, “if you really wanted to hide something or somebody, what is the only way guaranteed to succeed?”
Despite all his years as a detective, Alun struggled to come up with any sort of answer. Arturo topped up their coffee cups and answered his own question. “It’s obvious really. You make sure nobody ever seeks what’s hidden. And you do that by discrediting the very notion that anything is hidden. And you do that by ensuring the only advocate of the theory that something is being hidden is so completely unreliable that by default they prove that nothing is hidden.”
“You mean Bethan? Bethan Huws the farm girl?”
“That’s right. Because her story was so explicitly infantile and silly it was discounted within 24 hours of Robert’s disappearance. From then on the investigation allowed for only two possibilities: accidental drowning or murder by some deranged stranger. This meant the truth was hidden in plain sight.”
“What truth? That he was seized by a monster?”
“In a way, yes. I will come to that, but first we must look at the various reactions of all the main characters. From the outset you and Jeremy noted that the father, Norman Morris, could not be involved simply because his reaction to the loss of his son was so cold and unsympathetic. And you were right. Few people are any good at lying, especially when being interviewed by the police. It is one of the many ridiculous tropes of detective fiction that all the suspects are superb actors and criminal geniuses with a plausible answer to everything. In reality, people give themselves away in countless ways, either blatantly because they cannot conceal their feelings, or more subtly, with everything from body language to facial tics. Listening to the recordings and reading the many interview transcripts every one of the protagonists spontaneously or inadvertently disclosed key details that, when sifted and aggregated, solve the mystery. All three of the other boys, Andrew Bird, Steven Cotton and Mervyn Jones, stated in their own way and as a matter of fact that Bethan and Robert loved each other. Should we not believe them simply because they are nine-year-olds? And all three, again in their own way, were openly upset by Robert’s disappearance. Yet Bethan was not. She delivered a pretty good performance with the monster story, but she was no Greta Garbo and could only act so far. She just could not suppress actual ebullience and excitement. That never squared with Jeremy.” Arturo paused to sip his coffee and Alun did the same.
“Then look at the adults. Vivienne and Brian Bird and Barbara and Cyril Cotton were all racked with varying degrees of anguish and worry and anger that could not be faked. Likewise, the disengaged indifference of Billy Jones was all too authentic. But what about the remaining two adults?”
Alun processed the names running through his mind. “Well that must be, um, Eluned Huws? And..and who else?”
“Elizabeth Morris, Robert’s mother,” said Arturo flatly, slightly enjoying the jaw-dropping effect of his words on Alun.
“Everything about Elizabeth’s reactions was brazenly contrived,” explained Arturo. “She mistimed her initial reaction by getting too upset too soon, before anyone else thought Robert was even missing. This forced her to up the ante when his disappearance was confirmed, indulging in over-the-top hysteria that was completely out of character for a woman described by all as withdrawn and reserved – but, tellingly, was also the easiest type of shouty, scenery-chewing, stage-managed performance to pull off. Vivienne, you may recall, sensed something was not quite right from the outset, but couldn’t put her finger on what precisely. Perhaps if she hadn’t been so busy, she would have realised it was Elizabeth’s discordant behaviour. Next, Elizabeth virtually disappeared, sedated in her bed for weeks and thus ruled out of any type of questioning and playing no part in the investigation. How very convenient, when the alternative would be the extremely difficult task of pretending her beloved son was dead when she knew full well he was very much alive.” Arturo got up to stretch his legs and look out of the large picture window at the elegant Haussmann-planned cityscape.
He returned to his seat and continued. “As for Eluned Huws, her reaction was also patently jarring and out of character for a woman of sensitivity and warmth: no distress, no concern for her daughter’s well-being. Instead, she just concentrated on emphasising Bethan’s fertile imagination and thus ensuring the abduction story was never on the police’s agenda. Again, how very convenient.”
“But what possible motive could there be for all this? And what did happen to Robert? Where the hell is he, Arturo?” Alun almost shouted in desperation to hear more.
“The answer lies in records that East Cambria Police never thought to examine. The comprehensive sperm donor records of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. There is no record at all of Elizabeth Morris ever receiving artificial insemination. That is just what she told her husband and he never thought to look into it. Elizabeth didn’t need artificial insemination. Her pregnancy with Robert was entirely natural. And the father was…” Arturo paused for dramatic effect, “…Haydn Huws!”
“What! But, Haydn was too young, surely?” spluttered Alun.
“Not at all, he was 15 when he had sex with Elizabeth, the age when a male’s sperm count is at its peak. She was only 25 herself. It was just a fling between a horny lad and a bored housewife, but it was illegal as Haydn was under the age of consent. Moreover Elizabeth wanted children and knew that Norman was not merely unwilling and undesirable but also had a very low sperm count anyway. Good-looking, healthy Haydn was perfect breeding stock. She let Norman believe she was impregnated by an anonymous donor at the fertility clinic, and with typical complacency and aloofness he fell for it. It suited him, the baby would keep her busy at home while he could carry on sexually harassing young women at work. She kept the secret to herself, telling neither Haydn nor Robert. But as Robert grew up the sheer awfulness and inadequacy of Norman as a father became an increasing problem to Elizabeth. Norman was a bigot, a bully, a philistine and an ignoramus, exactly the role model Elizabeth didn’t want for her boy. What’s more she became increasingly worried that Norman or other people might notice how very different elfin Robert looked from his supposed father. She had no other family, having grown up in children’s homes and foster care, she had no resources of her own and she knew that if Norman found out the truth she would be out on the street and penniless, not to mention probably arrested. She was desperate, and it was wise, principled Eluned she turned to for help. She told Eluned everything: that Haydn was Robert’s father, that Robert was Eluned’s grandson, that Bethan was Robert’s aunt. Like everyone else, Eluned despised Norman – in her case because he was an arrogant, imperialistic English Tory openly hostile to the Welsh identity she cherished – and she resolved to help. She was recently widowed, Haydn was increasingly running the farm, she was ready to tackle something important and save her grandson from Norman’s odious influence. She watched Robert and Bethan become close friends at school and saw all that they had in common: their love of folk tales and fairy stories, their passionate affinity with the natural world, their instinctive intelligence and non-conformity. She hatched a plan”.
“First, accompanied by Elizabeth, she told Haydn everything. Her easy-going, intelligent son was delighted and proud to be the father of a boy he had adored since Bethan started bringing him to the farm to play. Haydn understood Elizabeth’s plight and never blamed her for not telling him earlier – when he would have been too young to cope with fatherhood anyhow. Moreover, being deeply connected to his homeland and having studied sustainable agriculture and environmental science at university, he loathed everything that a greedy property speculator like Norman represented. The three of them collaborated closely to put Eluned’s plan into action.” Arturo paused a moment then asked “What do you know of Welsh customs and folklore, Alun?”
Alun felt dumb and confused again. “Very little, in all honesty. Why do you ask?”
“Eluned knew only too well of that general ignorance about Wales within Wales. She was a talented Welsh language poet and teacher as well as a farmer, and she could not resist using that ignorance to her advantage. Nobody in East Cambria Police thought to consider the significance of where the disappearance had occurred: by the banks of the Nant Afanc – the Beaver Brook. Afanc in modern Welsh means ‘beaver’ but in ancient Welsh it also meant a mythological, terrifying beast inhabiting lakes and rivers. To give you an idea, here’s one of many fantasy interpretations of how the Afanc looked.” Arturo handed Alun a print-out.
“Robert and Bethan were saturated in all the old Afanc tales, including Afanc legends specific to the River Grymus locality, and Eluned built on this interest while intensively tutoring them in her values of freedom, truth and resisting oppression. In time, about a year before the disappearance, the children were ready to be told everything. While Norman was ‘working late at the office’, Eluned, Elizabeth, Haydn and Bethan formed a brand new family unit, bonded by resolve to be together and to facilitate the escape of Elizabeth and Robert from Norman’s clutches. Eventually, Eluned, Elizabeth and Haydn considered the children mature, motivated and intelligent enough to play their parts in an elaborate charade. It was Bethan who initiated the hide and seek game and Robert who volunteered to go first. They knew the usual places Andrew, Steven and Mervyn would hide – never down by the brook because it was too obvious and took too long. Haydn was waiting by the brook for Robert. He quickly piggy-backed him upstream and out of the woods where his van was waiting on an old farm track. From there they took the back lanes to Plaslwyd Farm where Eluned was waiting. Of course, nobody in East Cambria Police knew anything about venerable Welsh longhouses, or else someone might have thought to search in the secret cavities and cellars of the building where Robert, when necessary, would be hidden for the next couple of years while Eluned and Haydn and the countryside itself gave him a superb education. As he entered puberty, things got easier. Robert grew quickly, his torso strengthened and filled out, his fair complexion darkened, he became unrecognisable. Meanwhile Elizabeth made sure her marriage broke down irretrievably by becoming a parody of the nagging wife to the point where Norman initiated the divorce. His death soon afterwards was sheer luck. Haydn and Elizabeth were able to explore their relationship again and become genuine friends and co-parents as Elizabeth spent more and more time at Plaslwyd – incidentally developing previously untapped horticulture skills in the process. The plan was going well, but Eluned still needed to provide Robert with an entirely new identity and the necessary documentation. She went on a ‘holiday’ to Greece, where a network of organised crime operations expertly produce falsified ID documents, and paid well for the first building blocks of a new identity for Robert: a birth certificate, giving Bosnia as his country of birth, and an asylum seeker registration card. As Robert turned 15 he was fluent enough in rough Bosnian to begin to present himself openly around the farm as a seasonal worker, and by 16 he had registered as an asylum-seeking Roma fleeing persecution, sponsored by Eluned Huws. From that base he was able to obtain a passport and disappear to continental Europe to continue his education under his new name while the investigation went cold and Elizabeth obtained Robert’s death certificate. After that, well, the world was his oyster. Tell you what Alun, I’ll make more coffee.”
Alun was lost for words. Arturo had overwhelmed him with his torrent of explanatory detail. He got up and went to the window to absorb what he had been told. As he gazed out at the classic Parisian boulevard, Arturo returned with another delicious-smelling pot of coffee.
“Do you mind if I smoke Arturo?” asked Alun, “If ever I needed one it’s now!”
“Go ahead Alun – as they say in Cymru, dim problem o gwbl!”
Alun inhaled deeply as Arturo filled their cups. After stubbing the cigarette out and sitting down again, he said “I’ve realised, Arturo, that, apart from some fairly minor offences involving deception, if Robert is alive and well no significant crime has been committed at all – certainly nothing that would justify prosecution all this time later.”
“I’m glad you’ve said that Alun.”
“But now you must tell me where he is today, and what happened to Eluned, Bethan, Haydn and Elizabeth.”
“Yes, I agree. Eluned, Bethan and Haydn are still at Plaslwyd, a model of sustainable agriculture in a healthy biosphere teeming with wildlife. Eluned, in her 70s now, still writes and teaches and comes up with ideas. Bethan’s partner Andrew Bird also lives there with their two children. Bethan’s in charge of the organic vegetables and he’s an expert arboriculturist, helping to spread the Coed Cymru – Welsh National Forest – along the Grymus valley. Haydn, as ever, directs operations with vision and idealism. His partner is Yvonne Rees – remember her, the Cotton’s babysitter? They’ve got two children too. Yvonne is as practical and determined as Haydn by all accounts. Mervyn Jones, you may be interested to know, works at Plaslwyd too. Elizabeth is happy in her own house in her own company, but still very much involved with Plaslwyd alongside her career as a fine ornamental gardener.” Arturo stopped to pour coffee.
“And Robert? Robert! What about Robert?” pleaded Alun.
“Ah, Robert…yes, Robert…let me show you something, Alun” said Arturo in a half whisper. Alun leaned forward in surprise as Arturo began to roll up one of his trouser legs. There on the back of his calf was a faint but noticeable ridged scar.
“That’s where the Afanc scratched me. Tad washed it in the stream and Mamgu stitched it up back at the farm.”