He never did.
Joseph’s tree was located in one corner of the schoolyard, pressed right up against the fence. The fence was a mere formality – Joseph what not a tall boy, but the fence barely reached his chest – separating school grounds from the ownerless bushland beyond. From where he sat, back resting against the thick, sturdy trunk of the tree, Joseph could swivel his head and look out through the trees. The bush was thick here, and he could only see maybe ten metres before they closed in. What lay beyond was hidden from sight. The children were expressly warned not to venture beyond the fence – anyone caught doing so was immediately suspended. Naturally, this meant that a favourite lunchtime game among the older children was to climb over the fence and see how far they could go before either being caught by a teacher or losing their nerve.
Teachers tried to keep an eye on this back fence, of course, but the school was severely understaffed, and distractions abounded during recess and lunch.
Across the yard from Joseph, a couple of kids had a cricket bat and tennis ball, and were taking turns throwing the ball up in the air and trying to hit it with the bat. Joseph watched them. They were laughing, jostling each other playfully. Joseph barely knew one of the boys – his name could have been Stanley, or Stephen – but he knew the other boy quite well. His name was Gavin Parker, a bright young boy who often knew the answers in class and was one of the few children who wouldn’t ask to be moved if he was assigned to work with Joseph. Joseph liked Gavin. Secretly – and Joseph would never let anyone know this, not even his father – he liked Gavin quite a lot. Gavin had bright blue eyes, always wore a blue bucket hat during recess and was very kind.
Which was why Joseph’s stomach knotted into a ball when he saw Ellis walk over to Gavin and snatch the bat out of his hand. He couldn’t hear their conversation from where he was sitting, but he saw Ellis snatch the tennis ball from the other boy – Stephen, Joseph remembered now – and throw it up in the air. Ellis gripped the bat with two hands and wound up, bat hoisted behind his head, emulating a batsman in baseball, rather than cricket, and slugged the ball up high and over the fence. Joseph turned and watched as it sailed through the trees, disappearing in the bush.
Stephen rushed at Ellis, snatching at the bat, and Ellis pushed the smaller child hard in the chest. Stephen fell to the ground hard. Ms. Jennings, who was on yard duty, spotted Stephen on the ground and came rushing over to separate him and Ellis.
Gavin, meanwhile, had sprinted away, following the ball. He reached the fence, climbed over it almost without breaking his stride, and ran into the bush. Joseph looked over at Ms. Jennings. She was still scolding Ellis and comforting Stephen, and hadn’t noticed. As Joseph watched, she led the two boys away.
He looked back out at the woods, peering through the trees, looking for any sign of movement. A minute passed. Five minutes. The bell to end recess sounded, and still there was no sign of Gavin. Joseph looked around the schoolyard. Everyone was heading inside. No one but him seemed to have noticed Gavin’s sprint into the bush. Joseph reached a decision.
He walked over to the fence, climbed over, and set off into the bush after Gavin.
It was two hours later.
Ms. Jennings sat in Principal Corcoran’s office, her eyes red-rimmed and filled with tears. Principal Corcoran sat at his desk facing Mr and Mrs. Parker. Mrs. Parker had one arm around he husband, and both looked absolutely distraught. Principal Corcoran was all of a sudden feeling every single one of his sixty-seven years. He eyed his phone nervously. Still no return call from the Kingsley boy’s father.
Mr. Parker was speaking to him. He blinked, and tuned in to hear the last few words.
“… them so long to get here?”
Ah, the police.
The nearest police station was over half an hour away by car, and frequently understaffed. He feared that even when police help did finally arrive, there would be woefully few officers, and almost certainly none experienced in this type of lost child scenario.
And it would still at least half an hour until they arrived, because Principal Corcoran had called them mere minutes before he had called Parker’s parents – as well as poor Joseph’s father.
When Ms. Jennings had come into his office, and told him two children were missing, his first thoughts were of the children’s safety, of course. He had immediately gathered a group of teachers and staff to search the school grounds. They hadn’t turned up anything. But he had still hesitated to call the police, even after an hour of fruitless searching by staff. He was hoping against hope the boys might be found hiding on the school grounds somewhere, or perhaps would turn up at home, having ducked out of school and played hooky – as Principal Corcoran had done on multiple occasions himself as a boy, he told Ms. Jennings.
When neither eventuality materialised, and through his office window he saw the Parker family arrive at the school gate in hysterics, he was finally forced to pick up the phone and call the police. What this was going to do for his career didn’t bear thinking about. He shook himself mentally. Besides, there were missing children to worry about.
So now he was sitting in his office, trying to console two distraught parents, and still trying to contact a third.
He picked up the phone and dialled the listed home number for Mr. Kingsley again. Again, there was no answer. He dialled the work number, and listened as it rang. Once. Twice. Three times. He let it ring another three times, then hung up-
A tinny voice came out of the handset, and he snatched the phone back from the cradle and put it to his ear.
“Hello, this is Principal Corcoran from St. Paul’s Primary School. I’m looking for a Mr. Tobias Kingsley? It’s about his son.”
“Hang on one second.” The voice disappeared, and he heard muffled shouting. He supposed whoever was on the other line was covering their handset. The voice returned.
Silence for a few long seconds, then another voice, low and steely.
“This is Tobias Kingsley.”
“Mr. Kingsley, this is Principal Corcoran, from St. Paul’s, your son’s school. I’m so sorry to inform you that Joseph has gone missing. He disappeared at recess and we haven’t found him, although the police are on their way-“
The voice cut across his own like a knife.
“It is almost one o’clock, Mr. Corcoran. Why is recess so late in the day?”
Principal Corcoran paused, and tried to change mental gears.
“Actually recess is at eleven, but Mr. Kingsley, I’m not sure you understand-“
“I understand quite well, Principal Corcoran. My son is missing. Has been missing for almost two hours. And you are just now calling to tell me?”
Principal Corcoran drummed his fingers restlessly on the table. He began nervously chewing the inside of his cheek, surprising himself – he thought his mother had slapped the habit out of him many years ago.
“We have been trying to reach you for some time, Mr. Kingsley, but we haven’t been able to get through-“
The voice on the other end was roaring now.
“Clearly you’ve been trying about as hard as you’ve been trying to find my son! I’m coming down there, and if my son hasn’t been found by the time I walk through your office door, there will be hell to pay, you fucking toad!”
There was a click, and a dial tone. He carefully placed the phone back in its cradle. The Parkers were staring at him. He tried to look calm and sympathetic.
“Mr. Kingsley is understandably upset. Perhaps when he arrives we’ll see if we can find another room for you to wait in.”
His office door swung open suddenly, and he jumped. The physical education teacher, Keith Summers, stepped in. He was holding a blue bucket hat in one hand. It was covered in dirt. Mrs. Parker went white, and her husband stifled a cry.
“We started looking in the bush right near the fence. Found this a little way into the bush. We think it belongs to one of the boys.”
Mr. Parker stood up and snatched the hat. He turned it over and read the tag, then stifled a cry.
“It’s Gavin’s. It’s Gavin’s hat.”
Corcoran stood up, placed what he hoped was a comforting hand on Mr. Parker’s arm.
“At least this means we know what direction the boys were headed in. It’s a start. We will find your son. We’ll find Gavin.”
He stared at the clock. Over hours since the boys were last seen, by Ms. Jennings. He vaguely recalled seeing something on some current affairs show or another about a window of time to find someone alive after they went missing. As far as he could remember, the chances of finding a missing person alive after forty eight hours dropped to basically zero. That meant they had a little over forty five hours of that window remaining.
He said a quick prayer, under his breath. He thought they had a fairly good chance of finding the boys if they were merely out playing in the bush. But if they had been taken, they could be anywhere.
His heart leapt into his throat.
If they had been taken. God, what if that was it? Someone had come and taken the boys away? If the kidnapper had a vehicle, they might never find them.
He caught Mrs. Parker’s eye, and forced a reassuring smile, trying not to let his worry show.
“We will find them.”
God, he hoped so.