There are the facts, and then there is the truth.
These are the facts.
It is the summer solstice, June 1991.
You're only nine years old. You're short for your age. The school nurse has recommended that you lose weight. You struggle to make friends and often feel lonely. You have been bullied. Teachers and your parents frequently encourage you to participate more in group activities, but you prefer the company of your imaginary friend.
We know you spend time that night in Stoke Woods because when you get home, leaves and pine needles are found on your clothing and in your hair, there is dirt beneath your fingernails, and you reek of bonfire smoke.
Home is number 7 Charlotte Close, a modest house identical to all the others on a short cul-de-sac built in the 1960s on a strip of land sold for development by a dairy farmer. It is situated adjacent to Stoke Woods, a couple of miles from the famous Suspension Bridge that links this semirural area directly to the city of Bristol.
We know you arrive home at 1:37 a.m., three hours and six minutes before dawn.
As for the rest of what happened, you describe it many times in the days that follow, and you paint, of course, an exceptionally vivid picture, because even at that age you have a facility with words.
You tell it this way:
The stitch in your side feels like a blade, but you daren't stop or slow as you race through the woods toward home. Trees are gathered as far as you can see with the still menace of a waiting army. Moonlight winks through the canopy and its milky fragments dot and daub the understory. The shifting light shrinks shadows, then elongates them. Perspective tilts.
You drive forward into thicker undergrowth where normally you tread carefully but not tonight. Nettles rake your shins and heaps of leaf mold feel as treacherous as quicksand when your shoes sink beneath their crisped surface. The depths below are damp and grabby.
It's a little easier when you reach the path, though its surface is uneven and small pebbles scatter beneath your soles. Your nostrils still prickle from the smell of the bonfire.
It's easy to unlatch the gate to the woods car park, as you've done it many times before, and from there it's only a short distance to home.
Each step you take slaps down hard on the pavement and by the time you reach Charlotte Close, everything hurts. Your chest is heaving. You're gasping for breath. You stop dead at the end of your driveway. All the lights are on in your house.
Your parents are usually neat in silhouette. They are tidy, modest folk.
A bonus fact: including you and your little brother, the four of you represent, on paper, the component parts of a very ordinary family.
But when the front door opens, your mother explodes through it, and the light from the hall renders her nightgown translucent so you have the mortifying impression that it's her naked body you're watching barrel up the path toward you, and there's nothing normal about that. There's nothing normal about anything on this night.
Your mum envelops you in her arms. It feels as if she's squeezing the last of your breath from you. Into the tangled mess of your hair she says, "Thank God," and you let yourself sink into her. It feels like falling.
Limp in her tight embrace, you think, 'please can this moment last forever, can time stop', but of course it can't, in fact the moment lasts barely a second or two, because as any good mother would, yours raises her head and looks over your shoulder, down the path behind you, into the darkness, where the street lighting is inadequate, where the moonlight has disappeared behind a torn scrap of cloud, where the only other light is rimming the edges of the
garage door of number 4, and every other home is dark, and she says the words you've been dreading.
"But where's Teddy?"
You can't tell them about your den. You just can't.
Eliza would be furious.
Your mum is clutching you by your upper arms so tightly it hurts. You have the feeling she might shake you. It takes every last ounce of your energy to meet her gaze, to widen your eyes, empty them somehow of anything bad she might read in them, and say, "Isn't he here?"