How three disappearances grew into Hide & Seek

We didn’t have the term ‘stranger danger’ when I was a kid, just strict rules and prohibitions so dumb that their constant repetition baffled me. Never get into a car with a stranger. Why should I? I ran everywhere. Beware of men inviting you to see their puppies. I hated puppies; they nipped.  Never take sweets from a stranger. I didn’t like sweets, only chocolate. Whatever strangers did to children — and that was never explained — it wasn’t going to happen to me.

Then, when I was nine, it happened to a girl of my age on a street just like mine in the town where my Dad went to work. She was playing out. Then she wasn’t. She’d just disappeared.

Her face, though, cheeky and smiling, fringed like mine, was everywhere. On lamp-posts and newspapers, the local TV news. Her photograph, the description. The appeals to her, ‘If you’ve run away, please come back. You’ll not be in trouble.’ Appeals to us: ‘Have you seen this girl?’ It was the first time I’d been asked to help search for anything more valuable than my Dad’s reading glasses. I wanted to help.

If she’d run away she can’t have got far. I knew that because I’d done some running away myself a few years before. Lucky for me, my Mum had persuaded me to take along my big brothers and a suitcase crammed with provisions that slowed us down nicely.

I’d learned that running away was difficult. You had to understand more than a nine year old might about money (it wasn’t enough), about timetabling and trains (there weren’t any), about the location of public toilets (I wet myself), about darkness and the chill that came with it. Most things were more complicated than you thought.

And by the time that girl disappeared I knew that people didn’t always come back. I knew because the year before, when I was eight, my Mum disappeared. I mean, she just died. But it felt like abduction to me. One minute there, reading my stories, pairing my socks. Next minute gone. Scared I’d forget, I worked on ways of remembering. On The High Chaparral I’d seen ranch-hands branding cattle. I closed my eyes tight, concentrated, seared memories onto my brain. In the process, to mix and cool metaphors, my eight-year-old psyche got frozen alive.

So, aged nine, I searched hard for that girl with the shy, cheeky face, hoped I might make things turn out right, create a happy ending for her and her Mum.

Then I grew up and forgot all about her. I went to University, became a journalist, forgot a lot of things. I worked in jobs that consumed my waking thoughts, sometimes my night dreams too. I read no poetry, few novels and great heaps of financial reports, city analysts’ notes, and a treatise on the theory and practise of reinsurance (don’t ask). My imagination withered as my bank balance grew.

One day a deer tic bit my ankle and gave me meningitis. I came-to in a hospital bed with a drip in my arm, an axe blade in my head, and two equally happy thoughts. I wasn’t dead! I might get a whole week off work! Weeks turned into months. I looked about me and saw forty hurtling my way. I stopped journalism and started again learning how to write. I kept a notebook. I read and read. Novels, poetry, plays. My daydreams came back. I went to writing classes, wrote short stories, hoped that sooner or later I’d hit upon something strong enough to bear the weight of a novel.

Around this time I took a coach trip with my karate club. All that long summer’s day people stretched and sparred and performed their katas — the martial artist's scales and arpeggios. Unsupervised kids in white karate jim-jams milled about the training field that lay between a forest and a fast, busy road. Dusk came with a chill and we got back on the coach. There was no register taken, no count. We waited a bit for latecomers, then the coach pulled away.

I slept and woke up to find a kind of excitement buzzing round the coach. Apparently on the trip down we’d had with us an unaccompanied little boy. He wasn’t with us now. Adults paled. Kids came up with rescue plans. I’m ashamed to say that I pulled out my notebook and wrote it all down. That was the start of Hide & Seek.

At least I thought it was when, a few months before publication, people began asking where the idea came from. But the more people asked me the more I felt this wasn’t right. And then I remembered that other missing child, from a long time ago, a child I hadn’t thought about for thirty years.

So, where did the idea start? Hard to say, perhaps ideas don’t start at all. How to describe the process? If it were easy, you could just crank it up each time, churn out another novel. It isn’t easy.

I think those kids’ voices – ‘He was with a lady and a man.’ ‘Maybe he left his bag and went back for it.’ – warmed up, woke up, chimed with my own eight-year-old voice that had been frozen alive. And, to the extent that loss, whatever its cause, can strike like an abduction (it’s there in the language, ‘snatched away’, ‘taken from us’), I knew something of the territory.

So, I dreamed up a narrator, Harry Pickles, aged nine and a bit, the fastest boy runner in the world, quick, sharp, happy, full of himself, and safe, until the day of the coach-trip when a child disappears. Harry takes us through the year that follows, the heartbreak, the madness – and the comedy that has a way of crashing in on life’s darkest moments.

As for that little girl with the shy, cheeky face, I searched for her again, the easy way, I googled her. She remains disappeared. And the little boy lost on the karate trip? His Aunty had picked him up from the field. There’d been a note about it; the note got lost. The boy wasn’t lost. He wasn’t lost at all. He was fine.