Between the Acts by Megan Findlay

The pageant was at an interval and hands were already reaching out to brush the flies from the cake tray when a ripple of alarm passed through the barn—one might see from the rafters, with the swallows, an urgent pushing, Mrs. Swithin’s elbow knocked where she stood by the tea; the group by the cake table staggering apart; Colonel Mayhew losing sight of Mrs. Mayhew for a moment when a brown head rushed between them.

This pushing for the door was the nurse, and everyone knew in the same moment: George was missing.

The guests took up the search from where they each stood in the barn, their words nosing through the air, sniffing, watching and whispering loudly as the nurse spun about in alarm: “A day-dreamer…Did you know she came from London only last week?  And already charged with the boy… Belongs in the kitchen… He’s queer, that boy… Never got on with my William, though only ten months the junior…Likely asleep under a tree, they don’t feed those children properly, always wanting sleep…”

Giles stood in the center of the room, caressing his teacup.  There was, he guessed, a problem, and in his mind he saw the dimpled surface of the lily pond, and below it the pink face of a boy, his hair waving gently in the imprecise murk—Giles stopped when Bartholomew’s hand landed suddenly, jarringly on his shoulder. “Your boy,” said his father, “Is a cry-baby.  They’ll hear him from his crying.”

Isa appeared before them, her face flushed, her hands tearing a program into tiny pieces that spiraled to the floor with the dust and the voices.

“Our son is missing,” she said.  Then, her eyes traveling downwards: “There’s blood on your shoe.”

The little boy, as it happened, was not missing at all.  He knew exactly where he was: in the bushes, beside the stage, pausing on his hands and knees and holding his breath to better hear the strange, rasping voice that invited him forward, as though the trees themselves were whispering: chuff-chuff-chuff

George had temporarily forgotten his nurse.  He had forgotten his grandfather, and the Afghan hound, and the blob of foam on the hound’s nostril: he had, in truth, suddenly forgotten everything that had been occupying his mind until that very moment.  He remembered only the sound when there was no sound, and he saw the bushes in front of him, and the movement behind them, and he smiled without realizing it and crawled forward on his knees.

And suddenly, just as he was reaching out to part the beckoning leaves, George was seized round the middle by two rough hands and the ground was gone from under his legs and the bushes swung away from him.  He was transported through the air.  The empty seats streamed past him, his legs dangling, his feet knocking against the chairs. 

George opened his mouth to the wind and howled.

From the barn came all the bodies, all the arms held out stiff in front, all the fingers wagging, and from Albert the Idiot’s grip traveled George, catapulting, somersaulting, until the arms closed around him and he heard his Grandfather’s voice, and his mother’s, and a thousand other voices:  “There he is!  Crying again… Oh, he is found…Albert, Albert, thank you, have some tea… Have some cake… Oh, the poor darling…”  

Then the music played.  The crowd pressed forward.  George was found; the audience took their seats.  “Such excitement,” they whispered.  “Such drama.  We will never be done by midnight!”