(A man sits at a table and begins to tell his story).
NARRATOR: The driving rain was like stair-rods and hitting the windscreen so hard the blades made no difference. I pulled in at the services and sat it out, watching my breath fog the glass. It wasn’t going to let up, so I dashed across the car park, skipping over puddles, a crumpled newspaper over my head. I got a table by a radiator and was draping out my drenched jacket across some chairs when this fella came over and hovered, the way bosses do when you’re typing. (A man enters wearing chinos, deck shoes and a rugby shirt.) I ignored him, hoping he’d go away.
MAN: Cats and dogs eh? Mind if I take a pew?
NARRATOR: Yeah, help yourself.
MAN: Fetch you a cuppa, squire? (He rubs his hands together) Biblical, isn’t it? Lot of work on? (narrator nods) I used to be a sales rep, but I saw the light. Sorry, no offence. I set up my own business. Wanted to be my own boss, you know.
NARRATOR: (stares up at TV screen) I don’t know how that poor lad’s family have the strength to go on. He’s got to be how old now?
MAN: He’ll be 23, next July the third.
NARRATOR: Do you know them, the Allmans?
MAN: No, just what I read in the papers.
NARRATOR: (stares up at screen) Christ, look at her. Poor woman sitting wringing that handkerchief. That’s his sister, Eileen. God, she could be his mother. That’s what grief does. And not having answers. They never found out, did they? Can I pay you for this coffee?
MAN: (sets down coffees) You got to travel far?
NARRATOR: I was nearly home, but you’ve seen the state of it out there.
MAN: I got lucky and missed the worst of it.
NARRATOR: You’re dry as a bone. (He turns the volume up on the TV. A woman speaks)
EILEEN: I’d helped mum cook his favourite tea: crispy pancakes, chips and alphabet spaghetti. (sobs) But he didn’t come home. Someone knows what happened to Sid……
NARRATOR: That’s his toy car. That photo must’ve been used thousands of times. It was left in a puddle. He was the same age as our Danny. You OK, mate?
MAN: It’s just so sad.
NARRATOR: They were part of some church sect his family. Sidney wasn’t a common name for a young boy, not even then. Bit old-fashioned and they were, truth be told, you know, dressing in dowdy clothes and bearing their pain with stooped shoulders and handkerchiefs pressed to their faces. But it made us more determined to help them, to protect them you know, to defend against the wicked whispers and gossip. You know folk said his Dad did it. That killed his mother. I’m sure of it. Clutching a bible was no defence against that. (his mobile phone rings) Sorry about this. (he takes it out of earshot, looks anxious, cuts connection, returns to table).
MAN: (staring at table, tear dripping from nose) Thing is, I know where he is.
NARRATOR: Where who is?
MAN: Sidney. I know where little Sidney is. Will you help me? (he grips the narrator’s hand in his) I know where he is, the little missing lad. Poor little Sidney. I can see him now.
NARRATOR: (pulls hand away, chair screeches as he gets up) I’ve got to take a call.
MAN: Don’t, please. Help me. Nobody helps me. Help Sidney. He ran out. I had no chance.
(The narrator exits and shortly after the man leaves too, resignedly. The narrator returns, sees the man has left and finds a business card on the table. He reads aloud)
NARRATOR: Martin Tams. Who has a business card these days? (he flips the card over, reads) Cornflower Lane. I had no chance. I’m sorry.
(to audience) I dialled the number on that card. It went straight to answerphone, and there was a short message. It was his voice. The man who’d cried and begged me to help him. I pulled back onto the motorway as the rain finally stopped. Cornflower Lane? I couldn’t place it. I drove home, thinking I should tell someone, maybe the police? I went to bed, dog-tired and thought nothing more of it.
A little past three o’clock I woke, soaked in sweat, legs knotted in the covers, the alarm clock blinking. Odd how dreams seem to exist briefly and in fragments unless you catch them and write them down they’re gone. But I knew I’d walked the fields again. I felt the brush of the wheat against my legs. We’d searched the fields from the motorway as far as the reservoir, shouting to each other above the drone of lorries. Specialist search teams had scoured the deep water but found nothing. Every time a diver’s head bobbed up we feared the worst. I couldn’t sleep, so I made coffee and checked maps on my phone. Cornflower Lane was a mile or so to the west of where we’d walked. Typing in Martin Tams and the villages nearest I found an odd story on a local forum. No one had visited the site, or at least commented on it, for three or four years.
VOICE 1: I’d run out of fuel when this bloke came up smiling, with a petrol can. It was bitter out and I was worrying if I’d be able to get a taxi. He wouldn’t take money for the fuel, saying it was just to get me home. I pestered him and he scribbled his name and address on a note, probably reckoning he’d never see me again. I didn’t phone. I decided to visit like, finding him in an old phone book. A woman came to the door and when I handed her the envelope with his name written on it she started blarting. A neighbour came and said Martin Tams had died, years back. She wouldn’t take the money, but as I left the neighbour whispered I wasn’t the first as she led me out. Does anyone know anything about this?
VOICE 2: Fella bought me a full English. Don’t know if it was him? He wouldn’t give a name.
VOICE 3: I went to school with Mart. He was always a bit sensitive, liked being on his own. Poor Mart. What an awful way to go. They closed the motorway for seven hours. How desperate does someone have to be to do something like that?
NARRATOR: I found an article that had been archived. There was a grainy photo, not good enough for comparison. Martin Tams was a successful inventor and entrepreneur, it said. He’d taken his life, jumping from a bridge onto the M6. I wondered what had driven him to this: Marital problems, debts, gambling addiction?
I began to collect the good Samaritan stories about Martin since his death. I found sixteen in all, but I was sure there were more, spread across the twenty years since he’d taken his own life. He’d changed tyres, lent money, dug a family out of a snow drift, intervened to stop a brawl and got stabbed. He’d even put out a fire at a nearby barn, seemingly appearing from nowhere. Most times his name wasn’t given, but the descriptions of a sandy-haired, thickset man tallied with Tams.
I couldn’t get the police interested. How do you explain a ghost is trying to tell you something? I did more research and learned Cornflower Lane was an unadopted road. It had been ripped up as the builders began preparations for a new housing estate. The old lane had been gated off where it climbed up to the treeline on the ridge. The wood was fenced off with barbed wire, but I was able to clamber in where it had rusted and perished. An old rutted track ran down to some gorse. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Somehow people had taken the trouble to get rusting washing machines and busted mattresses up here, when it would’ve been far easier to use the tip. I was sipping tea from my flask when my phone rang.
POLICE: I’m calling about that the sightings of Martin Tams. You had information about the disappearance of that lad…
NARRATOR: Yes, that’s right. Sidney Allman. Look, I know it sounds crazy but..
POLICE: It isn’t Martin Tams you’ve seen, sir. He died in an incident years ago.
NARRATOR: I know the idea of a ghost seems ridiculous
POLICE: You didn’t see a ghost, sir. You saw Damian Tibbs. He’s one of our regulars. He has mental health issues.
NARRATOR: (pause) He was very convincing.
POLICE: Yes, and very much flesh and blood. You’re not the first he’s tried this on with. I’m afraid he’s got fixated with this case.
NARRATOR: I’d like to say I saw a cairn of rocks in a clearing in the gorse. A cross made from two planks nailed together anchored in the stones. And an end to the mystery buried beneath them. But I only found a burnt tyre, crumpled lager cans and busted packing crates. There were no records of a collision reported in Cornflower Lane the time Sidney went missing, but there wouldn’t be, would there? I know cos the police did a check. They felt sorry for the fool who listened to a ghost. I don’t know if Martin Tams ran Sidney down and panicked. I don’t know what Tibbs had found out or if he’d made it all up. Perhaps, no one ever will.