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A few days later she was hanging about outside the shop again when a policeman came down the street from the Clock Tower. He smiled at her, and went inside. He didn’t shut the door properly so Fay, with her big ears, slunk into the porch and listened as the policeman talked to Uncle Gwynne. He was Sergeant Thomas of the Dyfed-Powys Police (Fay was thrilled to hear this) and was looking for a boy who had gone missing in Hay (that was less thrilling), and was questioning all the shop owners who may have encountered him.

“Eleven-years-old,” Thomas said, pulling out a photograph to show Uncle, “blond hair and glasses, and last seen wearing a blue hoodie and orange trainers.”

Fay thought that sounded like one of the boys that had chased her and Ivan from the Butter Market. She hoped that Ivan hadn’t done anything stupid. He had a hot head full of lava, her Mam always said.

“Local?” she heard Uncle ask.

Thomas cleared his throat. “No, on holiday from the South with his father. Been staying over in Builth Wells.”

Uncle shook his head. “Not seen him.” The two men talked for a minute or so more and then the Sergeant squeezed out of the door past Fay.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” Fay said quietly. “We hadn’t got it and he wasn’t too happy about it.”

“Excuse me?” Sergeant Thomas turned back to look at her.

“He came in with his Dad,” Fay said. “He was looking for Agatha Christie but Uncle was a little bit rude. He probably didn’t notice that he had a boy with him.” She gave him a wry look. “Uncle doesn’t really notice children.”

“When was this, Miss….” asked Thomas, getting out his notebook.

“I’m Fay. Fay Tasker. Uncle is my Uncle Gwynne and there’s Auntie Jean too. We’re staying here for the summer holidays because my Mam’s in hospital. Me and Ivan that is. It was last week, on Thursday. About three-ish, I think,” Fay replied. “I remember cause that was when Baz finished painting the sign.” She looked upwards and Sergeant Thomas followed her gaze.

“Baz the Brush, is it?” he said. “That’s helpful, Miss. Did you see where they went when they left the shop?”

Fay shook her head. “I went upstairs,” she whispered. And remembering what had happened there, she shot past the policeman and round the corner. No more talking to strange men Fey Fay, she told herself, even if he is in uniform.

That night Auntie Jean made sausages and chips. Ivan smothered his in tomato sauce till it looked like it needed an ambulance. Fay liked that all sat together to eat; her Uncle was friendlier when there was food in front of him, and it felt almost like family.

“Funny thing,” he was saying, and Fay’s big ears pricked up. “I checked the cameras to see if that missing boy had come in the shop.”

Fay’s mouthful of sausage was going nowhere.

“He was in last week, with his Dad,” Uncle Gwynne continued. “But he came in again later, by himself. He looked at transport, mythology and the children’s stuff in the attic.”

Fay tried to chew but found she couldn’t. “In fact, not long after Little Miss Fifi had been up there, playing with the dolls,” he continued. Fay’s eyes went wide.

“And after being banned and all,” he said. “Naughty child!”

Ivan snorted and tomato sauce sprayed out across the table. That earned him a disapproving “Boy!” from Auntie Jean.

“Guess I’d better tell Sergeant Thomas,” continued Uncle, ignoring the tomato splatter. “He can give her a telling off.”

Fay was horrified and felt her eyes brimming with tears. But Uncle Gwynne was only feigning being cross. He winked at her as he stuffed three chips in his mouth at once. Fay could have sworn he swallowed them whole, without chewing.

“Seriously,” he continued, “he was there all right, then the picture went all fuzzy, like static, and when it cleared he were gone.”

Fay felt cold. She remembered the whisper.

As I was walking up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.

Just like the boy. Not there.

*

Fay’s big ears went on operation overdrive over the next few days. From Baz the Brush she learnt that the boy was still missing, and the last sighting of him had been in Hay. She noticed that there were several police cars out and about, and she heard from the lady in the fossil shop that they were going to search the riverbanks, for any sign that he’d fallen  in the water. “Father’s beside himself, poor thing,” she confided, “but you would be, wouldn’t you?”

Fay was only nine but she knew about that. Mam had been beside herself when Dad vanished. But he’d turned up living in Abergavenny with a woman with dyed black hair, so Mam had rolled her sleeves up after finding out and got on with things. It was Auntie Jean that Fay was watching, carefully, a worry ball building in her stomach. Auntie Jean whose boy had gone missing, ten years ago.

Uncle Gwynne seemed not to see any comparison. “Ran off, more like,” he’s said in the kitchen the night before, while Fay’s big ears listened from the hallway. “City lad, thinks he’s hard, row with his father and just takes off. Gets hisself lost on the mountains. He’ll turn up.”

“He’s eleven,” Auntie Jean protested. “Just a child.”

“Aye, but there’s no suggestion that he was taken. Not taken.”

Taken. That word chilled Fay. She’d heard it before – when she was smaller, and Mam and Auntie Jean had been talking. Auntie Jean had been crying over Artie. She never knew Artie – this happened way before she was born – but taken didn’t sound nice. Who would take Artie, and why? And if someone could take Artie, would they take her too? Or Ivan? She looked up to her big brother – surely he could stop anyone from taking him or her?

That night, it took Fay ages to get to sleep. When she finally dropped off she dreamt about the house. At first it was little doors, appearing in odd places – beside the stove, behind the sofa. She crawled through one that appeared in the bathroom, and found herself, as if by magic, in the attic room.

The dolls were there. The posh dolls with their smug expressions, the soft dolls and their raggy smiles. The soldier boy, and her beloved policeman. Thomas, she called him, remembering in her dream the name of the Sergeant who had visited the shop. And another. A boy doll, with yellow wool for hair and a blue jumper. A pair of tiny wire glasses had fallen from his face and become attached to his clothing.

His face was sad.

Fay was confused. “I don’t think you’re supposed to be here,” she said sternly. “They’re looking for you. Sergeant Thomas – the real Sergeant Thomas that is – he’s looking for you.”

And the doll named Sergeant Thomas stood up in the pram, balanced on the china face of one of the posh dolls, and Fay dropped the boy doll and screamed.

*

Auntie Jean was quite kind in the morning, making Fay some hot chocolate for breakfast, although she’s been quite grumpy to be woken up at four in the morning by screaming from her niece’s bedroom. Ivan hadn’t stopped teasing her; she’d explained about the dream, but he was twelve, and thought she was childish.

“Dolls,” he sneered. “You’re such a baby, Fifi!”

“I am not!” she said, cross because she felt it was true. “It was such a horrible dream.”

Auntie Jean tutted at her. “I told you they’s not for kids,” she said, but not roughly. “They’re collectors items. You’ve got your own dolls, Fay.”

Fay had brought her best Barbie doll and several teddies to Hay, but didn’t play with them much. She knew that eventually toys were not for playing with, but for keeping only, but she just wasn’t quite sure when she should make the switch.

Ivan wouldn’t let go though, and dug at Fay by using the pet name she hated. “I’ll show you Fifi,” he taunted. “I’ll go and see the dolls. Prove to you they’re just plastic and tat.”

“Oi,” Auntie Jean admonished. She sent them out to amuse themselves – “You’re not to go upstairs again!” – and they wandered off to look at the market. There were some lovely multicoloured baskets on one stall and Fay wanted one, but didn’t have enough pocket money. Ivan was bored after five minutes, and when he saw some of the local boys, went off to taunt them. Fay let him go; she didn’t want any trouble.

She returned for lunch – Auntie Jean made her a cheese and tomato sandwich and gave a glass of cold milk – then sat by the castle with her writing book. Miss Jessop had set them some homework for the holidays, to write a fairy tale, but she was struggling. It should have a castle and a king, she thought, and a princess too; but she couldn’t think of how to start. She thought that Uncle might help her as he wrote stories, but when she remembered his mouldy book, A Child’s Book of Nightmares, she thought that perhaps it wouldn’t be the kind of fairy tale Miss Jessop would like. Besides, she’d not be brave enough to ask him.

But when she returned for tea at four o’clock, Auntie Jean was cross.

“Ivan’s not back,” she said, “and I told him to not bother the local lads. He’s bound to be in trouble somewhere.”

Fay thought this was probably true, but didn’t like to add that she was sure Mam hadn’t sent them to Hay for the summer to wander the streets. At home there were stricter rules, but more affection.

At six Ivan still hadn’t appeared, and the macaroni cheese was congealing on the table and in Fay’s stomach, turning into a giant worry ball. There was a boy gone missing, and they were searching the riverbank, and what if something had happened to Ivan too?

As the evening drew on, and Auntie and Uncle and Fay waited for Ivan to come home, the house started to morph around Fay. As her worry ball got bigger and bigger, she imagined she was climbing endless stairs that twisted round into ever smaller rooms, so that eventually, like Alice, she was too big to fit through the doors. She tried going downstairs, wanting to escape the house altogether, but she kept returning to the same place. The black beams started to feel oppressive – like the bones of a ribcage squeezing her heart and the feeling of dread got tighter and tighter. By eight o’clock, Auntie Jean’s anxiety had risen to a pitch, and Uncle Gwynne cracked.

He phoned Sergeant Thomas.

To be continued….

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