In the far recesses of my mind was a childhood memory I had never been able to reach. It would nag me, sometimes incessantly and for hours on end and at other times it would be triggered by something from around me, stay for a while and then when I was distracted, recede back into the past.
But no matter how hard I tried, I could not remember it. Not a single strand of that vital memory had revealed itself to me in over twenty years of life. All I knew was that it associated me with unpleasant sensations; a lurking fear, a half-hidden truth.
I lived with my aunt in an ordinary flat and I ran a children’s book store which had originally been run by my mum and later my aunt. And oh yeah, my parents were dead.
Life was good; I loved everything to do with little children and stories but then, that was all about to change.
One fateful winter twilight, I was nearing closing time and was in a hurry to get home. It was cold and there had been a draught in the store all day. Something was wrong with the heating. I made a mental note to get the thermostat checked as I shivered a little, drawing my scarf closer around me. I stared at the street beyond the glass doors of my store. Because it was so cold, there was almost nobody around outside. It had been a slow day and I longed to be back in the warmth of the flat I shared with my aunt.
Suddenly the bell above the door dinged. I turned to see a little boy, no more than three years old, entering the shop all on his own. On this cold winter evening, he was dressed in summer shorts and a t-shirt. He had brown hair and dark eyes. He was very fair and he looked around the shop with wonder, seeming lost like little children sometimes do.
‘Hello little boy’ I called out to him cheerfully, ‘Where is your mum? Are you lost?’
When he heard my voice, he turned his head and looked at me. He tilted his head a little to one side and raised his eyebrows with a childish curiosity that I found adorable. And yet…there was something vaguely familiar about him. Maybe he had been here before.
‘What’s your name?’ I said, stepping out from behind the counter. I peeped outside, probably expecting to see a harried parent calling out for him but the street beyond was as deserted as before.
The kid didn’t move and he didn’t respond. So I tried again.
‘Hey you, are you lost? What’s your name?’
“Hey-we’ he said suddenly, straightening his head.
‘Harry? Is that your name? Where’s your mum Harry? Did she bring you here?’
I took a step forward.
Harry did not answer any of my questions, instead he turned and capered, he pushed against the door with both hands and was outside before I could react . He looked in both directions and then scurried off to the left.
‘Hey!’ I shouted, concerned. I ran to the door and stepped out into the chill but the boy had probably turned around the next corner and disappeared. I shrugged and went back inside.
But I felt miserable now and decided to call it a night. I gathered my stuff, put on my jacket and locked up the store.
Despite the welcome thickness of my scarf and jacket, I shivered involuntarily. The streets were more or less empty, though orange streetlights flooded the sidewalk. I drew my hands closer, as if to protect myself from the nip, and continued walking.
And that was when something happened.
I had walked less than a block from my store, when a shudder passed over me. And then I saw something…a man on the other side of the street. He had on a large brown trench coat and a hat and yet, underneath his hat I could see his eyes open in amazement. Then he turned a little and his eyes fixed on me. He tried to call out when he saw me but something was wrong, he was falling.
I called out to him and broke into a run but by the time I reached him, he had collapsed head-first on the pavement.
‘Oh my god’ I exclaimed as I kneeled down besides him. A little reluctantly, I turned him over with both hands, saw and smelt blood and collapsed.
When I came to, there was a swarm of policemen everywhere on the street. I was wrapped in a blanket and propped on some steps nearby. A policeman was watching me with concern.
‘Ma’am’ he said.
I focused on him. I felt dizzy and nauseated but suddenly, it all came back to me and I sat up at once.
‘That man! Is he…?’
‘Yes ma’am. He is dead. And that is why I need to know. Did you see or hear anything at all?’
He was leaning forward eagerly. A little too eagerly. A thought crept into my head. Did he…suspect me, I wondered.
‘No, no I…uh…I just saw him fall. I collapsed because of the blood…it was all so much’. I realised I was shaking.
‘Its okay ma’am. You are okay.’ The policeman said, trying to be comforting. ‘I just need you to answer a few questions…’
They interrogated me for two hours before realising I knew absolutely nothing. One of the policemen dropped me home.
I entered the flat. My aunt had been waiting up for me.
She looked at me and sensed something was wrong. ‘What happened?’ she asked softly.
An hour later, I had assured her I was okay and put her into bed. I tried to eat but could not.
No I was definitely not okay.
Far from it. Something was wrong. Very wrong. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t just the strange murder, it was more than that. Deep inside me, the uncomfortable sense of my irrecoverable memory was growing again. And I did not know why.
I got up and brought out a box of old photographs, meaning to soothe myself down with them.
I sifted through albums, going down memory lane. I saw photographs from my childhood, pictures of me with my parents, their wedding photos.
Sifting further down, I reached the black-and-white era.
That was when I saw it.
A black-and-white photo of a child in shorts and a t-shirt. It was the child who had been in my store today.
I looked closer. Yes it was him. The exact same face. I turned it over
‘Peter Dawson’ It said, ’15 January 1962.’
My dad’s photo. From exactly 50 years ago.
I leaned back. And then it hit me.
My dad or the look-alike kid. He hadn’t said ‘Harry’ in reply to my question of who he was. That was what I had interpreted.
He had said ‘hey-we’.
Or, in children vernacular, ‘help me’.
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