THE FORGOTTEN BOY
You can tell when your parents dislike you—when they are horrified by the way you eat, at your bodily fluids, at the noises you make and the way you play. You know when you perpetually give them a headache or make them vanish into another room and leave you with the housekeeper or each other or the dog, whatever is handy.
Another way you can tell is when it is the last day of prep school, and they forget to come and get you and go on holiday to Barbados instead.
This is how Stephen Dene finally figured it out. He had suspected it for years, but it was just a vague, uneasy feeling. This was proof—hard, solid proof. If he had been in a courtroomdrama, this was the kind of thing the Crown could have produced at the end with a major flourish.
“And do you deny, that on Friday, the 15th of May, you left your thirteen-year-old son, Stephen Dene, sitting on the front steps of Chatwick House at St. George’s School, looking like a total tit? Do you deny not answering your phones because you were at the hotel spa the entire day being wrapped in seaweed or ginger or some other pore-opening swill while your son was left to rot?”
And his parents would be sitting in the witness box looking tanned and shamed. The jury would scowl at them. The judge would look down from the bench and bore holes into the tops of their well-groomed heads.
Stephen watched a lot of crime shows and police dramas, so this is where his mind went in times of stress. He often fantasized about becoming a police officer. He liked the idea of chasing down criminals and helping people who were hurt. It was a practical job, one that made sense. He asked his father about it once.
“Don’t be stupid,” his father replied. “We’re not sending you to these kinds of schools to become a plod.”
No. Apparently, they sent him to schools like this so he could sit alone on his trunk in the mid-May sunshine, smelling the first bloom of the summer, watching car after car after car leave the school. And as the numbers grew smaller, the questioning
looks he got from those leaving became more questioning. What was wrong with Dene? Where was his family? The numbers dwindled. It was just him and Anderson and Dex. Dex never even looked up from the video game he was playing when he got into his parents’ car. Anderson tried to talk to him about football, and then they both got bored and anxious and stared down the drive, waiting to see which car would turn the green and shady corner first. When it was Anderson’s, and when Anderson’s parents emerged frantically talking about car trouble and apologizing and hugging him—that’s when Stephen felt something in him go into freefall. His parents did not have car trouble. Of that, he was reasonably certain. He reached into his pocket to retrieve his phone to text his sister.
They forgot to get me.
The replies came quickly, one on top of the other.
You’re still there???
I’ll kill them.
Then she sent a picture of herself making a rageful face.
When everyone else was gone, and the school grounds were creepily quiet except for the sound of birds screaming away in the trees, the headmaster’s wife took Stephen inside to their private residence. She gave him a plate of cold chicken and packaged Waitrose coleslaw on a tray. Then the headmaster and his wife went into the kitchen and spoke behind a closed door, but he could hear more or less every word.
“Their housekeeper is coming,” he heard the headmaster say.
“There’s always one,” his wife said. She was trying, and failing, to keep her voice low. “It’s always so sad. I wonder why these people have children? And such a shame it’s Dene. He’s a lovely boy. So smart. Going to Eton. And . . .”
They must have gone further from the door, or realized they were speaking too loudly, because all Stephen heard from this point on was a mumble.
He pulled out his phone again.
Paulina is coming to get me, he texted. Don’t worry.
His sister’s reply came within seconds.
Vengeance!!!! I love you.
Two hours later, Paulina, their housekeeper, pulled up in her car. Her job was to clean the house twice a week, not to drive all the way to the outskirts of Cheltenham to pick up forgotten children. Paulina’s English was poor, and she had little to say to Stephen or the people at the school. She was always kind, though, and greeted him with a Twix bar and a sympathetic manner. Stephen tried to make some conversation on the drive back. He didn’t really speak Polish, but had taken the first two levels of an online, self-teaching course in order to try to communicate with her. She always appreciated his efforts and smiled, though it was a wincing smile that suggested he was destroying her language with the dull edge of his tongue.
So it was a long, quiet trip.
When they arrived at the house a few hours later, there was already music playing from an upstairs room. Only one person in the Dene household played music out loud, and it was the only person Stephen wanted to see. It was also the only person who shouldn’t have been there. That person came running down the stairs in bare feet, wearing a short blue dress and silver bangles halfway up her arms.
Regina ran directly to him, wrapping her arms around him tightly. Though his sister was three years older, she was also seven inches shorter. Stephen had grown fast—at thirteen he was closing in on six feet. Gina had remained a tiny terror with a whip of dark brown hair.
“Why are you here?” Stephen asked, when she let him go.
“Hello to you too.”
“I mean . . . don’t you have a few days left of term?”
“There was no way I was going to let you be all alone. I left.”
“Left? What about your exams?”
“What’s more important, exams or you?”
“Your exams?” Stephen said.
“No.” Gina sat primly on the stairs. “You are more important.”
The fact that she had skipped her exams meant that Gina would very likely be expelled from her third school. Stephen turned this news around in his mind for a moment, then deliberately tried to let it go and not worry. This attempt failed.
This was the arrangement in the Dene household: Gina was the troubled one, and Stephen was the good one. These were the roles assigned at birth. Stephen was the one who could easily have sailed through school without making much of an effort, but he was the kind of person who couldn’t really help but make an effort and so was regarded as exceptional and ‘a good boy’ more or less everywhere he went. That he had been accepted to Eton only cemented this status. Which still wasn’t enough for his parents to remember he existed.
And Gina, the bad one, was the one who did all the good things, like made sure Stephen had someone to come home to. She had absolutely no fear—not of their parents, of authority, of the future, of heights, spiders, the dark . . . When she came into a room, that room was illuminated and doubts dismissed.
She had to know she was about to be expelled, and yet here she was on the stairs, looking bright-eyed and playing with her bangles.
Why it had turned out this way, he never knew. This would be like asking why the stars had adopted their particular positions in the sky.
“They called, by the way,” Regina said. “They said they can’t get back until Monday. Can’t get back. I suppose they’ve been taken prisoner. So it’s you and me for a few days! What do you want to do? Want to go to Spain?”
“Sure. We could be there tonight, if you want.”
“Didn’t they take your credit card?” Stephen asked.
“They put a limit on it, but I just sorted that out.”
“I texted them and told them to up my limit or I’d call child services for neglect. We couldn’t make a case for it, but a social worker would have to come around and ask questions. I told
them ten thousand would do it. How about Paris? Let’s have a proper weekend, you and me.”
To be honest, Stephen was a little scared of Gina’s idea of a proper weekend—but once again, there was something in his sister’s delivery that made it all right.
“I don’t know . . . London?” he said. “We could stay at Dad’s flat?”
“Don’t you want to do something bigger than that?”
London was hardly a journey. They lived in Kent, only forty minutes on the train. But Stephen rarely got to go there.
“All right.” Regina nodded. She looked maybe a little disappointed that they wouldn’t be going further afield, but was prepared to accept it. “London it is. Go change and pack. We leave in an hour.”