This week’s writephoto prompt is
‘Girl, nine, missing. Police ask for anyone who saw Vera Ponds last night, about tea time to come forward’ The Ballastier Echo, 12th December 1962.
‘No one knows what happen to Vera. She was on her way home from rehearsing the school nativity when she went missing. She was last seen by Rodney Poots, Sylvia Millieton and Hannah Poots by the crossroads about hundred yards from her front door. It was dark and frozen and the one street light in Ballastier was a mile distant. But she had walked the road to her parents’ workman’s cottage hundreds of times. The woods on the far side of the pond were well out of her way and the pond was frozen on what was to turn out to be the coldest winter for many years.’ The speaker stopped and looked around the room. He had the rapt attention of everyone. ‘When spring finally arrived in late April 1963 a diver went into the pond but of Vera there was no sign. The trees that surrounded the far side of the pond were cut and the land sold to a developer who built the Hambled Estate of fifty houses. The pond, of course is still there and is probably the only feature that the residents of Ballastier at that time would recognise today.’ He paused and sipped some water. To his right, his fellow speaker, a grey-haired sparse woman with thick green rimmed glasses and startling pink lipstick nodded him on. ‘It made the National papers in the following week but as there was no sign of Vera and Mr Ponds wasn’t well liked locally the story faded from view.’ He turned to the woman who stood and replaced him.
‘Thanks Rod. Vera was known to be headstrong and something of a wild child. She had tried to run away before and it was assumed she had decided to do the same again. I…’ she hesitated, ‘I wish, looking back we had walked her to her front door, but our parents had recently acquired a television and…’ she hesitated a second time, ‘… well, we didn’t.’ She swallowed.
Her brother leant in close. ‘It’s okay sis, take a moment.’
She shook her head and refocused on the faces looking up. ‘But you all know that. It’s town lore, isn’t it? So why, you might ask, are we bringing this story to you nearly sixty years on, given there isn’t anything new about where Vera is to report? Last February, as everyone also knows the weather was vicious hereabouts and for the first time since 1962 the pond froze. Some children were warned off skating on it, very different from when we were children.’
Rod nodded, a thin smiled briefly creasing his face.
‘Ballastier, today is very different to the isolated town back then. The Hambled estate is now some two hundred dwellings and where the workmen’s cottages once stood, the new secondary school serves the community. On the day the pond froze last year, Oz Arkwright and his sister Pearl left school after rehearsing for a school play and headed home. Halfway there Pearl realised she’d left her bag in her locker so went back while Oz carried on home. He never arrived.’
The audience shuffled. They knew this but to be reminded still caused a stir. It was only recently the intrusively media had begun to disappear.
‘These days a missing child is given greater priority by the police and authorities than back then. But even with modern forensics, some CCTV, thermal imaging and so on, no sign of Oz has been found. And unlike Vera, at least by reputation, Oz is said to be a cautious loving child who has shown no inclination to run off. It is truly a modern mystery and one the press has covered thoroughly. And given how the press dig and dig, it is no surprise that our inadvertent role in being the last people to see Vera has had an unwelcome spotlight shone on it. But…’ she checked with her brother, ‘… finally what we have been trying to say for two decades is being heard.’ This time it was no hesitation on her part, but a deliberate pause. ‘Oz is the fourteenth… at least the fourteenth child to have gone missing in Ballastier over the last two hundred years.’
That caused many heads to turn to their neighbour. Some know of the Poots’ theorising, a few thought it had some merit but still most dismissed it. For the moment
‘Both Rod and I accept that we cannot be sure but from the records we have uncovered it is clear that, coincident with a freeze hitting Ballastier and the town pond freezing over, one child disappears. Not every freeze. It seems to us that the child needs to be alone just after the pond has frozen which doesn’t always happen. But when it does…’
A red faced, walrus moustachioed man in the front row, who had folded his arms across his stomach as soon as he sat down, harrumphed. ‘You’re guessing.’
Rod stood, holding a folder and ignoring the interruption, ‘You, each of you, received the handout when you arrived. We list the children, from Amelia Commons in 1794 to Oz. Some are more of a guess than others because records of child disappearances aren’t always clear, any more than the weather records. What is clear is that it appears to be more than a coincidence.’
The hairy faced interlocutor stood. ‘And on the basis of this you want to drain the pond and if necessary dig into the basin? Even though countless divers have investigated it and every modern imaging and analysis including satellite has been undertaken? You want our permission but what exactly do you expect to find?’
‘We don’t know, beyond hopefully some answers and at worst proving the pond has nothing to do with the disappearances.’
The man sniffed and turned to the audience. ‘I suggest we take this request to the chamber and debate it there. I’m sure there will be a range of views.’
‘We’d be happy to sit in, to answer any questions…?’ Hannah Poots stood next to her brother, slipping her hand into his and giving it a squeeze.
The man looked back at her. ‘I really don’t think that will be necessary, thank you.’ He led the way to the back of the hall and through the door into the Council’s private chambers. The other members of the Council followed. Rod and Hannah glanced at each other and began collecting up their papers.
Had they checked, they might have noticed a disturbance in the shadows by the large green curtains, as if several people were moving past them, causing them to rustle a little. And had they happened to take a photo of the self same curtains at that moment, they would have been astonished to have seen the ghostly outlines of Oz and Vera and Amelia and a dozen or so others following the Council members into the Chamber. Normally the Ballastier Arrivers as they called themselves stayed hidden in the shadows and crevices, in the shallows and pools of the pond. But this threat to their station was such that they had to do what they tried to avoid: influence humans. That was the only time they ever interacted; well, apart from those frozen nights when they could harvest newly grown subjects. One day, maybe soon, they wouldn’t have to do that any more. They would have enough to leave their station, as other Arrivers would and begin the process of repopulation.