They found the child in the woods; starving, dirty and scared. A group of workmen out felling trees came across her, shivering in a clearing. When we arrived she was dressed in a high-vis jacket, drinking hot coffee from a Thermos cup.
The workmen were sat around her, in awe but protective; fairytale woodsmen gathered round a princess. We tried talking to her, but she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak. The most expressive thing she did was give one of the workmen a long, unblinking stare when she handed back his coffee cup.
I got handed the case. I was first on the scene and I had previous on this line of investigation: disappeared kids, pram snatches from shopping centres, quiet, bashful men with awful things buried under their back gardens. I knew enough to know where to start with the girl.
Her name was Bethany. She didn’t tell us it herself; a female officer spotted it printed on fabric tape stitched inside the collar of the girl’s dress. That was all we had to go on at first. Bethany was silent, wrapped up so deep inside herself that even the best of our child case workers couldn’t get a thing out of her.
In the end, sniffer dogs tracked her scent through the woods, five miles back to a dilapidated farmhouse.
I don’t know if there’s some kind of ugly black manual for this kind of case, but like all of them, the main action took place in the basement. You accessed it through a half-covered hatch in the farmhouse kitchen, rotten wood stairs spiralling down in to the gloom. It smelt of death down there; thick, brown and cloying. I got chills like I got when I was a child watching night-time shadows jump on my bedroom wall.
What was down there was beyond explanation, beyond reason. The most you could do was try and feel your way into the kind of mind that could lock a ten year old girl up amongst all that horror.
The farmer and his wife had strung themselves up in their bedroom, side by side, swinging like lead dolls from the rafters. There was no note, only the creak of rope against wood.
Back in the town, people told of us of a couple who barely talked, had no friends and only set foot there to buy groceries and pay electricity bills. Classic behaviour. The black manual again.
My first interview with Bethany: in a brightly painted room on the sunlit side of the police station. Bethany was sipping juice and playing with the frayed red sleeves of here borrowed jumper. I’d hit a dead end trying to get any background on her: no birth certificate, and no medical records.
There was barely more information on the couple that had held her captive. The Smiths: Arthur and Jocelyn. Friendly, nondescript names for two seemingly depraved people.
The interview was odd, not that any kind of contact with someone that’s spent the first ten years of their life locked inside a nightmare can ever be normal. Bethany’s silence remained, but it was a self-possessed silence, almost a confidence, that I began to pick up on. You’re supposed to put your cynicism aside when you deal with child victims, but all the time it nagged at me: something here is not right.
She displayed none of the signs of trauma you come to expect from working on this kind of case. In the hour I spent with Bethany I saw nothing to suggest that she had just escaped from a deep and distressing period of abuse and neglect. It felt cold to come away with that feeling, but there it was.
I began to look for conclusions outside of the obvious ones. I began to look harder at Bethany.
10am, the following day. I got a call to go back to the farmhouse. Forensics had found something. A bomb shelter, built deep under the yard. Inside they’d found bodies: ten, twenty, possibly more. It was hard to tell.
Most were decomposed, all were dismembered; body parts seemingly churned up and scattered at random. It was impossible to determine the age of the corpses, but some of the skeletal remains had contained fragments of clothing that were decades, even centuries, old.
The little sense I’d been able to make of the case evaporated in the time it takes to blink All I was left with was silence and the feeling that I’d stepped into a the jaws of a nightmare, something depraved and elemental dragging me down into darkness.
Returning to the interview room, the horror of what I’d just seen stuck to me like a stench. I could smell the death of that place on me as I spent another silent hour with Bethany. I asked questions. She just played with the sleeves of her jumper, pulling the threads loose one by one. She sat there, surrounded by the ghosts of a thousand horrors and she gave me nothing.
I felt my temper rising. The bad feeling that I got around Bethany grew and grew as my questions hit her like a brick wall. I thought less about exposing the Smiths as murderers and more about how this girl could sleepwalk through something that should have destroyed her.
The nurses watching over her in the secure children’s unit told me she slept ten hours a night. She ate well. All the pictures she drew were of sunsets.
No child I’d ever met who’d experienced a tenth of what she had had ever shown anything like the calm that Bethany exuded. It was almost an arrogance.
I lost it.
As my thousandth question dropped into the yawning chasm where Bethany’s words should have been, I hurled my notebook across the room and shouted:
‘You know something don’t you? You know something.’
Bethany looked to her counsellor.
‘Please take that man away. I’m scared.’
Her first words.
The observing officer flicked a switch on the interview room door and two plainclothes men came to take me out. Bethany was crying as I left the room. I looked back and saw her smiling at me over the counsellor’s shoulder. Her cries dropped away and I swear I heard her humming a tune, soft and low, as I stepped into the corridor.
It sounded like some forgotten nursery rhyme. A lullaby, to put us all to sleep.