Gary was six and the rest of us were only five. He was a big boy, the sort you heard “did it and ran away.” He was taller, older and louder than us. He scared us when he was in a bad mood, but he was a good guy to have on your side because all of the other kids were scared of him too. At least he liked us, even if it was only sometimes.
After school we would all head to the park if the weather was nice. Our parents didn’t have the same worries as today’s do about whether we would be safe. The park was safe because then they knew where you were. You were playing in the park.
Our favourite game was hide and seek in the bushes. They haven’t changed much in twenty years and still look much the same as they did back then. We thought they were so tall and dark and scary but now I can see they were not much over six feet high. That’s tall though when you are only five years old and no taller than your mother’s waistband.
They were laurel bushes and had an odd smell, like a sticky sap smell. I remember seeing something like golden syrup oozing from a branch once. I wanted to touch it but I Gary got to it first. He stuck him finger in it just as I got close, and flattened the globule against the bark. He laughed at me when I started to cry.
He was never the seeker when we hid. Usually it was me or one of the smaller boys, anyone he could scare into agreeing. I wondered years later whether it was because he couldn’t count as well as I could and didn’t want us to laugh at him. That day it was one of the boys, Carl possibly, or maybe Robin.
We all ran off into the laurel bushes, like always. I was one of the last to be found because I could see feet searching at the edge of the path and moved along keeping just ahead of them. That was fine until I got to the wall and there was nowhere else to go. I was too little to hitch over the wall onto the steps, so I got caught. Then it was Debbie, who was trying to make it back to base but didn’t run fast enough. That just left Gary.
Gary was often last to get caught out and sometimes we had to go in and find him. That day we called to him, then shouted at him, and searched for him and threatened him. Eventually we thought he’d gone home without us so followed him and when we found out he wasn’t there we ran back to search again.
After an hour of looking we found his mother and told her we’d lost him. Even then we still thought he must be somewhere watching us and laughing. That maybe even she was in on the joke and knew where he was. But she didn’t, not even after she went through every bit of that laurel herself calling out and yelling what she’d do if he didn’t come out right then.
There was never any trace of him, not in the park or the town or the river or anywhere. Whenever I pass the park I still half expect to see him coming out of the bushes, although by now his head would probably poke through the tops of the bushes.