He was a boarder at a choir school when he ran away. He had given no indication to his fellow pupils that he was unhappy. He wasn’t subject to any bullying from the boys or staff, as far as anyone would admit. I didn’t think they were lying. The choristers seemed confused, the teachers panicky. The housemaster had gone into the dorm on the morning of March 3rd, drawn the heavy curtains, and found his bed empty. “Where’s Alex?” he had asked, prompting yawns that were also shrugs from the seven other lads. Perhaps he’d gone out for a run, they suggested. He liked to jog around the Great Pond before breakfast, sometimes, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the great carp, eight feet long some of them, which swam there. His trainers and athletics strip were still in the locker at the end of his bed. By ten o’ clock the whole school was looking for him. In uniform, they swept in a line across the Commons and out into the woods calling his name. “Alexei!”
They were returning when I arrived. They had not found him. I eased the car up the drive past blazered boys, many of them now armed with sticks. The spire of the cathedral projected above and behind the school and seemed to get taller the closer I got. The Headmaster was waiting on the steps. “Is there just one of you?” he asked. “We’re very worried. Will you have to drag the pond?”
I told him I didn’t think that was necessary yet. “Have his parents been informed?” The Headmaster shook his head. “We can’t get hold of them,” he explained. “It appears they may be out of the country.”
I interviewed the boys from his dorm. These eleven-year-olds were still at that precious, prelapsarian age where all they cared about was food and football. They were astonished at the suggestion that young Alex might have been anything other than ecstatic to live and sleep among them.
“Can you think of any reason why Alex might have run away?”
“No. Uh, none. We have a great laugh.”
I alerted the station that we had a possible Missing Person. The school secretary found his file and scanned his photo for me. “It’s from last year,” she said. “His hair’s longer now, but he doesn’t look anymore grown-up.” I sent the photo back to the station and went to interview his masters. It was two o’ clock by then, academic lessons had been abandoned for the day, and the boys had gone off to choir practice.
His housemaster, Turner, was a hare-eyed fellow who worked in this closed-off world, I assumed, because he had failed to make it outside. He was astonishingly nervous. Had he noticed anything unusual about Alexei recently?
“No. Yes. I mean no, he was very much himself. He’s a quiet, polite boy. Rather shy. Always keen to help. Charming, really.”
“You’re close to the boys, are you? A confidante?”
“Not exactly,” Turner said. “You can’t be their friend and their master, it doesn’t work. But I think if any of them had a problem I’ve made it, um, clear enough that they can come to me.”
The rest of them were as unhelpful as they were co-operative. How strange, I thought, to live amongst these young men and to form no deeper impression of them than would serve to fill out a school report. I thought of the men and women I worked with. I could tell a story about most of them that would illustrate some personally unique pattern of behaviour. The teachers seemed to regard a classroom of boys rather as a postman might consider a sack of letters. Their job was simply to make the boys someone else’s responsibility. I left the school just after five. Some lads were out on the Commons, punting a rugby ball around. They paused their game to watch me pass. I was angry, disproportionately so. As I reached the station my phone rang.
They found him in the Lady Chapel, shivering, still in his pyjamas. He didn’t know how he had got there and remembered nothing about what had happened during the day. They rushed him back to the school, fed him, and put him to bed in the matron’s room. He ran a fever for two days and never moved. The housemaster wanted to take him to the local hospital but was persuaded by the matron and headmaster that this was unnecessary.
I visited him a week after his disappearance. He was as described; quiet, courteous, shy. But no-one had mentioned his eyes to me, which was strange, as they were remarkable. He had the darkest eyes, as if his pupils and irises were a single shade. Black almost.