Poem: The hand that feeds

At the moment you were born
I was there
When you came home from hospital
I was there
When your nappy needed changing
I was there
When you spoke your first word
I was there
When you took your first steps
I was there
When you climbed the shelves to heaven
I was there
When you set off for your playgroup
I was there
When you saw the elephants too
I was there
When you ran in your first sports day
I was there
When you were lost in the cornfield
I was there
When you started out at school
I was there
When you hosed down the meter
I was there
When you stumbled with your words
I was there
When you caught your first ball
I was there
When you ventured first to Scotland
I was there
When every holiday came
I was there
When you caught your first fish
I was there
When you boarded your first ship
I was there
When you ate your first mussels
I was there
When you won your first ribbons
I was there
When the bullies set about you
I was there
When you bought your tartan trews
I was there
When college problems blocked you
I was there
When you needed your first car
I was there
When your fiancée hurt you hard
I was there
When you met your long lost sister
I was there
When you set off for Australia
I was there
When you returned tanned from Brisbane
I was there
When the cops caught you drinking
I was there
When you stood up in the courtroom
I was there
When you moved house yet again
I was there
When you stood as my best man
I was there
When you wanted a place to stay
I was there
When you needed food and clothes
I was there
When we lay your granddad to rest
I was there
When you called out my name
I was there
When you married your sweetheart Claire
You didn’t care


THIS is the third instalment of my Back From the Edge quartet and is entitled: Denial.

A Fight for Justice
“We can and do frequently fall out of love with our partners. It is a pain that is impossible to explain when we feel betrayed by someone we once loved, and entirely natural that we feel the desire for revenge. Children, however, only fall out with their best friends but never Mummy, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa.”
“I cry silently for these children who, through no fault of their own, are forced to grieve unnecessarily.”

I AM many things, have many flaws and made many mistakes in my life. I have paid for them all. I have not always been the best partner and have at times been wayward – for which I am truly sorry – but I have always been a good father.
As a human being I am sometimes quirky and find it hard to tolerate fools, but above all, I am gentle, kind, caring and honest… qualities which those who know me well can confirm.
So what follows has taken many years to get my head around and many months of stalling to begin its telling.
I guess it all began when my second life partner – and the mother of my two middle girls – and I separated in the summer of 1999. We had been together for eight years and despite an at times tempestuous relationship we raised our two daughters with mutual care and love. We also parted amicably.
At the time of the break-up, I was working away in Aberdeen in the North East of Scotland. My ex-partner stayed living with our girls in our family home near Edinburgh. She found another man – a road engineer – very quickly, but that did not play on our emotions too much. We parted on an understanding that I would always have free and equal access to my daughters, Rhia and Shannon. Indeed, my ex said openly: “Don’t worry you will always be able to see the girls. You are their daddy.”
Within a few months she relocated with our girls to a farmstead in the North West of Scotland. A few months later, I heard she had ditched her road engineer in favour of a wealthy computer tech, who also shared her passion for horses. Her new relationship did not appear to unduly change the joint parenting of our daughters.
Despite a great distance between our two homes (a return trip by car of almost eight hours), I maintained good contact with my daughters and, with a couple of exceptions, had them to stay for every school holiday and half term – logistically quite difficult when I was only able to take 25 days holiday a year from work. These visits were supplemented by additional trips to her locale, where I visited the girls in situ and took them out, plus a Christmas Day drive to deliver presents and spend two valuable hours in their company.
My daughters were always delighted to see me and and enjoyed a loving and caring time with me and my new wife. I never lost my temper with them and never smacked them or hurt them in any way. I was, after all, their daddy and I loved them to bits.
But in the summer of 2002 my ex married her new partner and everything started to change.
He was a self-proclaimed millionaire and showered her with gifts: a new sports car with personalized number plates, a huge bronze bust of a horse for her stable yard and everything else money could buy… a sharp contrast to the frugal life she had had with me.
Her new husband – who I will call X for the sake of this piece – is all things to all people. His personal CV would make even Superman’s eyes water: a successful entrepreneur, a professor and doctor in computer science, a self-professed psychologist, a horse whisperer, a top photographer and an acclaimed web-site designer.
He was everything I wasn’t and I guess my ex had found her man!
But within a couple of months of their marriage, I had word from my eldest son Ben and some mutual friends that they had concerns about changes in the way my daughters were being parented and a new party lifestyle. The concerns were so serious that I drove to North West Scotland and spent two days talking to acquaintances to set my mind at rest.
The following May I remarried and my daughters were bridesmaids at our wedding.
That summer my new wife and I bought a family home in South Tyneside and, due to complications with the conveyancing, I had to delay my daughters’ two week summer stay by nine days. At this juncture I could tell things were decidedly cool with my ex. Her annoyance was obvious, despite my apologies.
But that did not prepare me for what lay ahead.
As explained in my earlier blog posting entitled Regret, in September 2003 I was reunited after 18 years with my eldest daughter T. I naturally informed my ex of my delight at the reunification and told her I looked forward to our daughters meeting their step-sister.
A family gathering was planned for the October half term where T would meet her grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and most importantly her older step-brother and two step-sisters. This was going to be the weekend I had dreamed of for almost 19 years… my family all together for the first time. I wrote to Rhia and Shannon to prepare them and enclosed new photographs of their stepsister.
Then came the hammer blow.
In a short telephone call, my ex told me that the girls could not attend the family party as they had ‘other arrangements’. She added a justification that the girls would be ‘emotionally damaged by suddenly meeting a mysterious sister that has materialized out of nowhere”.
Yet my daughters had grown up with pictures of T in the house and always knew of her as their estranged sister. I even received letters from the girls thanking me for the new pictures of T, with Shannon adding: “I hope I can see T when I come up”.
I was crippled by my ex’s attitude and could tell immediately that someone else was orchestrating this move.
But there was more to come.
I challenged her assertion that T was a “mysterious sister”.
She retorted: “If you are really so honest, have you told them where she came from and who her mother was and how old she was?”
This was coming from a woman who had known of my conviction since we first met in 1991 and had often teased me with the words: “Don’t worry, it was just your willy being silly”.
Now she was using my conviction as some first assault weapon.
The next exchange was almost a month later.
On Wednesday 19 November, my wife telephoned my ex to chat about arrangements for the girls to stay at Christmas – a happy routine we had continued for four years. She was given short shrift and was told she was reviewing the Christmas arrangements.
I telephoned the next day to be greeted with a verbal assault over how our daughters were emotionally damaged “every time they stay with you”, adding that “after the last visit I caught Rhia bullying Shannon” and she placed the blame on me.
I told her that in turn Rhia was very unhappy at being being forced to go goose shooting with her husband and then being told to pick up the dead geese.
Soon hackles were raised and the phone call descended to a row, with my ex stating that I was an “unsuitable parent”.
In anger, I retorted that she was “an arrogant piece of dirt”.
I am not proud of my words or my anger, but I guess that is what happens sometimes when former partners disagree.
She slammed the phone down on me.
I redialed and the call was answered by X who bluntly told me not to call again, before hanging up.
I redialed again. This time I asked to speak with my daughters, as was normal. He responded with words that have haunted me ever since: “You will never speak with your daughters again”.
There followed the farce of me redialing again and again with my anger and frustration rising each time to be greeted with a similar response. On the ninth redial, X stated that he would report me to the police for harassment if I called again.
My wife was sat next to me and had witnessed the whole bizarre 20 minutes.
With tears flooding and anger rising, I sat and wondered what to do next.
What I did next was ill-conceived and something I regret.
I exacerbated matters and wrote a powerful personal letter to my ex raising a number of concerns I had over her morality and the welfare of my daughters in her household. It contained issues I had left bubbling since my trip to North West Scotland some 16 months earlier. It was spiteful and aimed to hurt.
I had marked the letter private and personal. In hindsight, it was clear that her husband had read the letter and I had stupidly upped the ante.
My ex wasted no time in cancelling my daughters’ Christmas visit. On 20 December I received a letter from her solicitor stating that if I attempted to contact her or my daughters directly again, they would seek a Court Interdict (Injunction) against me. The cost of contesting an interdict usually runs to at least £4,000. Breach of any interdict is a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment.
I was left in no-man’s land… I could not afford to contest the threatened interdict.
So the New Year of 2004 dawned and a six month legal battle began.
I instructed a solicitor to act for me, primarily to address the threat of an interdict, but also to establish legal access to my daughters.
A ream of solicitors’ letters still sit in a file and bare testimony to what was to come.
My lawyer offered mediation and even supervised visiting as a way forward. In the early replies from her solicitors, she said there would be no problem with resuming access on certain conditions.
But my ex then moved the goal posts over my rights again and again until it became obvious that she had no intention of allowing me any contact or access.
Initially she maintained that I was mentally ill and had “anger-management problems”… based primarily on the telephone exchange of the previous November.
In one letter her solicitor held out a twisted olive branch in which he said his client would ‘consider’ supervised contact, if I “acknowledged” I had mental health issues to address and a letter from my GP that these were “being addressed”.
In the letter she based this demand on the fact she was “increasingly concerned by the tone and content of emails, letters and telephone calls” from me!
Even 10 years later I still have no idea how this could have impacted on my parenting of my daughters.
The accusations are wholly ironic. For while I suffered short-term clinical depression on a couple of occasions in my life, my ex had a long history of mental illness and irrational outbursts. These included two suicide attempts and her jumping out of a moving car while she was seven months pregnant, with my parents sitting aghast in the back, and even her lying down behind my car while I was reversing it out of a driveway.
She then claimed that my contact with my daughters had only been “sporadic”. This was made despite a 600 mile round trip each time I had seen my girls in the previous four years.
Yet I jumped through all of her legal hoops – even paying for a full medical report which confirmed that I was NOT mentally ill nor had any anger management issues. But she brushed this report aside and demanded a ‘second opinion’. Even 16 letters in my support from friends and family did not sway her resolve to deny me any access to my daughters.
By early March, my solicitor warned me that legal costs in pursuing the case could be prohibitive as he would have to do battle in her local sheriff court some 200 miles from his office.
On 26 April, my solicitor wrote to her solicitor highlighting my ex’s position of “a lack of good faith” in ignoring the earlier offer of mediation and being obstructive and to ask her to make my daughters aware of “the strenuous efforts that their father is making to re-establish contact with them”.
My solicitor told me that in his experience of dealing with family law matters, “she has probably poisoned your daughters against you by now… this usually happens in cases like this”.
A reply letter from her solicitor of 5 May 2004 simply reiterated earlier letters regarding my alleged mental illness and that she had been at the “receiving end of abusive and threatening text and telephone contact” from me.
It went on to say that “another party indicated that similar emails and messages resulted in the Police having to caution Mr Outterside in February 2004.”
To this date I have no idea who the “other party” is. But one thing is sure: I have NEVER received a Police caution in my life!
My solicitor told me that this letter was probably “designed to offend”.
The legal quagmire with its associated crippling costs eventually ceased in June 2004, when without the necessary funding to fight the battle in court, my solicitor advised me: “I have no confidence that Mrs X has any intention of co-operating, and is simply spinning out the process in the hope that her influence over the children will eventually resolve the problem for her”.
So, with the legal battle lost, I began my own campaign for access and contact with my daughters.
In August 2004 – the first anniversary of the last time I had seen the girls – I asked friends and family if they would help me lobby my ex to think again.
I was overcome by the response.
My mother led the crusade with a heartfelt letter in which she wrote: “I am struggling to come to terms with the fact that I may never see the girls again. As you know Rhiannon and Shannon were close to us and as their grandparents we really miss seeing them.” She added that my father’s (the granddad) health was deteriorating rapidly suffering from cancer, a stroke and Parkinson’s Disease.
Other people, including my sisters (the girls’ aunts), two doctors, a police officer, two solicitors and friends who had been denied access rights themselves joined the campaign with a host of letters.
But the missives fell on deaf ears and there was no reply.
A second Christmas with no contact with my darling daughters was upon me and I dutifully posted presents and cards for them both.
My parents received surprise Christmas cards from the girls and brave Shannon managed to smuggle a card to me inside one to her grandparents!
Unsure where to turn to next, in the Spring of 2005 I joined a local branch of The Real Fathers for Justice.
It was eye-opening, liberating and the most useful thing I had done in years.
Not only was I able to share my problems with other parents (both men and women) who had lost contact with their children, but among them were legal experts who helped immensely.
One lawyer told me I was entitled under English and Scots Law to receive school reports and school photos and to attend parents’ evenings (albeit the school was 300 miles away!). She also told me I was entitled to write letters to my daughters, though these may have to be channeled through a solicitor. And finally she advised me to record every letter and photograph every present I sent them, as in many cases mothers ensured children never received parcels from absent parents. This was done to make children believe the absent parent had ‘deserted them’.
Within a week I had written to the girls’ primary school headteacher requesting reports and photographs.
She replied immediately and a month later I received my first school reports and an offer of a telephone chat with their form teacher.
They were excelling at school, and I was both relieved and delighted.
Next I wrote to my ex underlining my legal right to write letters to the girls. She reluctantly agreed, but insisted the letters were sent via her solicitor. I in turn agreed and began writing a newsy letter to each of my daughters once a fortnight.
The letters were full of updates on how I and their young brother were doing and included recent photos. Not once did I mention the ongoing battle for access and kept the letters innocent and happy.
In one letter, I enclosed two £10 postal orders as a well-done for their excellent school reports.
And from June 2005 I also ensured that everything I sent, from CDs and books to an electric guitar and stethoscope were photographed as evidence of my continue campaign for access.
Very soon it was August 2005 and the second anniversary of the last contact with my daughters.
I decided to repeat the letter writing campaign from the previous year, hoping that time had healed the ire of my ex and that she may think again.
This time friends from The Real Father’s For Justice volunteered to write their own letters, explaining from first-hand experience the emotional damage to a child that comes from denial of the society of both parents.
I specified to all the letter writers that they “must not attack my ex or her husband in any way” but simply to appeal to their better natures.
Again all was silent.
Then suddenly on Saturday 22 October the postman delivered a brown paper parcel to my door.
I recognised the postmark and opened the package quickly.
My heart stopped. Inside was every letter I had written to my daughters since July… all unopened. In the package was also a letter from my ex. It was less a letter than a bullying and vitriolic rant. The venom, lies and anger it contained rocked me back.
What had I done to deserve this?
The letter kicked off with: “Rhia and Shannon are doing extremely well since the termination of your unwelcome involvement in their lives, and I believe correspondence of any kind with you is not in their best interests.”
Then turning to the anniversary campaign she added: “I remember you asking me to sign a letter you wrote to Ben’s mum complaining about access and then I receive the same letter from Ruth (my wife at the time), the same old harassment tactic.”
This was a complete fantasy as I had enjoyed more than 10 years unhindered access and contact with my son Ben from my first marriage and NEVER had reason to write to my former wife!
She went on to state: “I would have returned these letters sooner but I like the other downtrodden and abused women on the other side of your F4J crap, have to work all the hours to feed and clothe my children because their father cares more about hurting me than caring for them.”
This part of her letter had me reeling.
But it became even more venomous: “If you only had put the same energy into your visits and child payments as you have into abusing me, abandoning your children and cheating on all of your life partners to date.
“Don’t write to the children again until you have paid all the arrears in full and are prepared to apologise for your threatening behaviour to date. It should be clear, even to a self centred bully that I am not going to be harassed into submission by the F4J letter campaign, nor will I ever back down although still very scared of you. I am no longer your victim or patsy.”
The allegations and insinuations in this final part of her letter took my breath away.
Was she really suggesting that I had abused her?
Abandoned my children?
Cheated on all my life partners to date?
I cheated once in my first marriage, seven years before I met her, and that has been well documented!
What threats had I made?
And why suddenly, after two years, did she raise the spectre of unpaid maintenance for my daughters? Was she moving the goalposts yet again as she had never mentioned maintenance before, after I ceased paying it when she denied me access to my children.
More was to become clear over the next six months.
In January 2006 I sadly began divorce proceedings with my wife Ruth after she had found another man. Although acrimonious at first, we soon adopted a civil and adult approach for the sake of our son, Nathan.
In March 2006, Ruth and I agreed that following a trial weekend stay, Nathan should live with me. We arranged for him to begin living with me 24/7 in the early summer.
Ruth then asked whether I minded if she approached my ex as Nathan had often asked after his sisters.
So in April she telephoned her and explained that we were divorcing each other and could she drive Nathan to Scotland to visit his sisters.
Apparently my ex seemed flummoxed by the unexpected phone call before blurting out: “If Nic had apologised to me he could have seen the girls!”
Were the years of denial of access all to do with her hurt pride?
She asked for some time to think about Ruth’s request.
But she never phoned back.
Another year passed as I settled in my new home in North Wales.
Then in August 2007 I received a surprise letter from the deputy head of my daughter’s new high school.
His letter politely informed me that my ex had lobbied him for me to stop sending cards and gifts to my daughters via the school – something which had been common practice for two years until that point.
He added: “Mrs X has informed me that a procedure has been agreed that gifts and cards should be sent through a solicitor. I would ask that you act through the appointed solicitor in future.”
He was, of course, unaware that my ex had already put a stop to this in October 2005!
The school’s letter was followed up by another dose of hatred from my ex at Christmastime.
Without boring readers with most of its raging content, it reiterated that: “My solicitor wrote to you a number of years back explaining that all correspondence and gifts were to be routed to their office.”
She added: “I have also asked the solicitors to write in the New Year to the school to rebut your ridiculous claims, which I believe are born out of your extreme jealousy, ongoing mental health problems and uncontrollable paranoia… I did find it mildly amusing with your UNSPENT criminal record that you are spouting your fatherly rights chapter and verse.”
Was she really unaware that my conviction was fully spent in 1991? And why raise it at all unless out of spite?
This time I ignored my ex’s hyperbole and venom and wrote immediately to her solicitors, with accompanying presents for my daughters, offering to pay maintenance arrears in return for contact/access with the girls.
I was taken aback when I received a reply from the firm explaining that my ex’s solicitor had left them almost a year earlier and that they “no longer undertake civil work”.
I wrote to my ex to explain this, but never received a reply.
In fact, 2007 was a year of no replies.
In early 2008 my father’s health was failing fast. He was confined to a nursing home and bed bound.
My mother again wrote to my ex asking if she would consider letting the girls visit their grandfather one last time. She stated clearly that I would not be anywhere near the nursing home
Mum’s earlier letters had been politely returned by the former solicitor stating that his “client refused to give him instructions”.
She hoped a direct approach might this time have some effect.
My ex did not even have to courtesy or humanity to reply.
When my dad finally died on 30 October 2008, my eldest son Ben telephoned my ex’s house to tell the sad news. The phone was answered by her husband, who simply said: “Ah, he’s gone at last, I will pass the news on.”
When my son told me of the response my grief battled hard with anger that someone could be so heartless.
So there followed another two years of Christmas and birthday cards and following the girl’s progress through school reports and occasional phone calls from mutual friends who lived nearby.
Seven years had passed since I had last seen my daughters and both were now mature teenagers.
Then in May 2010 I was informed that something had happened which meant I would not see them again.
Now almost four years later I still cry tears for the daughters that were denied me.


THIS is part two of my Back from the Edge quartet and is entitled: Lost.
It is a letter to my children written in October 2005 during the break-up of my last marriage. It is a testament of my love for my kids and admission of my failures. I publish it now for them to read.

Every Grain of Sand
In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere,
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.
Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake,
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break.
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

WHEN I was a small child, I would gaze up into the night sky and marvel at the moon and the stars. And like many others, I would ask the question… why am I here? It is the unfathomable and timeless question that has haunted mankind for thousands of years. Yet it is a question that has stayed with me as I fast approach my 50th birthday.
Now as my marriage lies in ruins and my life seems at its lowest ebb, I have asked that question again and again. I must be frank with you; there have been times in the past 10 days when I have wanted to end it all – a quick painless suicide. But that is something I can never do for many, many reasons. God gave me back my life – first in 1987 and then again in 1988 – and He must have had a reason. Only God can take my life away. So I move on and try to make the rest of my life more meaningful and create peace where I tread.
My hero Bob Dylan once wrote:
“I wish I’d have been a doctor,
Maybe I’d have saved some life that had been lost,
Maybe I’d have done some good in the world
‘Stead of burning every bridge I crossed.”
…. and maybe that’s my starting point.
But where did it all go wrong and why am I a father to so many fatherless children and a failed husband again and again?
Ben – my first born, strong and my rock – but does he ever realise how much I love him and how proud of him I am?
My marriage to Ben’s mother was, in hindsight, a mistake. We were both too young and for the two of us it just seemed the right thing to do as our friends and peers all seemed to fall into line and tie the marital knot. Ann and I were opposites – she was a home girl married to her career and above all materialistic. I was none of those things and our partnership was one of unease and inconvenience. The only remarkable thing is we stayed married so long, even throughout my affair with W – prolonged in a weird way with my diagnosis of cancer. Our eventual divorce was a blessing for us both and we maintained a civil relationship for the next 10 years until Ben left school. Only lately has it become clear how emotionally churned up Ben became during the latter years of our marriage and how that damage has perpetuated into his adult life. I am so sorry for that.
T – so much like me it hurts – she was an absent love for more than 18 years and now I struggle to know how best to love her.
Social circumstances and the situation of the moment meant that T’s mother and I were never to be. We all make decisions in life, but sometimes like Hobson there is no choice left. But all these years later my greatest regret is that I could not have been there for T as she grew up. And it is a massive testament to her mother and her mother’s partner that she went through her childhood and adolescence undamaged, blossomed and is a beacon to us all as a wonderful young woman. Only by our reunion has she been exposed to emotional turmoil … and once more that is my doing. I am sorry.
Rhia – the gentle and beautiful emotional giant of my children – steady, bright and simply gorgeous.
Shannon – the spark in my life, effervescent and a mirror to my soul and in many ways my life.

If my marriage to Ann was a mistake, my union with the girls’ mother was a bigger blunder. She was from a different world to the one I inhabited. Even two years before the birth of our first child close, family told me to walk away from her. But I was caught in a web of emotions. Ironically, as the years passed and our children became our focus, our relationship became easier to deal with. And its eventual demise was a two-way avenue. I neglected her and my daughters in a relentless pursuit of career goals, while she found solace with another man. Our parting was a relief…. but that relief has been replaced by a living nightmare of alienation between my daughters and me … I dread to contemplate the long term emotional damage that could ensue.
Nathan – he will always be my wee one, even when he grows taller than me. Now and always my delight.
And so in my mid 40s I married Ruth and became a father once more. Spoken and unspoken family and friends asked whether the difference between us was fathomable. But we had something between us that I had not felt before. But the years between us eventually took its toll. Even a separation didn’t warn us to avoid the marriage contract. The relationship remained close and with the reunification with T, a family was at last born. I still struggle to accept that the marriage is over and fail to see anything else I could have done to save it. I guess that when a woman needs to “find herself”, it is a message that her husband is the wrong man.
So I stand at the crossroads in my life.
I can look back on achievement and mistakes, look around me at my children and my loving parents and stare again at the stars and ask the question. We only pass this way once and my reason for creation is evident in five faces and five lives.
It is the future that I must now work towards and for you my children this is part of a document of my love and life for you all.
17 October 2005

Who’s Kidnapped Father Christmas?

MY younger son Nathan is almost 12-years-old and has already developed a number of real passions in life… rugby, taekwondo and his X-Box are among his favourites.

However, he also reads insatiably and like a lot of kids his age is transfixed by zombie and ghost stories.

In his last year at primary school his teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He answered: “A writer like dad”, before naïvely adding “and I won’t need any exams for that!”

Recently he was asked to enter a story writing competition at his new high school, under the title Who’s Kidnapped Father Christmas?  This is his entry:

THE front door bell chimed.

Cal looked up from his X-Box, walked to his bedroom door and craned his head onto the landing to listen. Downstairs he could hear his dad open the door.

“Good afternoon, Mr Jones is it?” he could hear a voice ask.

“Yes, that’s me,” he heard his father reply.

“I am Police Constable Rogers,” continued the voice. “I am sorry to bother you sir, but we are conducting house to house enquiries about the disappearance of two young children in this neighbourhood. May I ask you to look at these photographs?”

Cal could hear a faint shuffle of paper as the police officer showed his father two pictures. There was a long pause, before his dad answered, “No, I am sorry I can’t say I recognise either of them. But my son Callum may know them.”

There was another pause before Cal heard his dad shout: “Callum, can you come down here for a moment.”

Cal dropped his X-Box controller by his door and gingerly made his way downstairs to join his dad at the front door. In front of him was a tall brown eyed policeman holding two A5 size photographs.

“Good afternoon young man,” said the policeman. “I wonder if you can help us… do you recognise either of these children?”

Cal looked at the photographs of a young boy and a girl and shook his head.

“Sorry they look like Year Five kids to me,” he said, “I am at high school.”

The police officer thanked Cal and his father and made a tick on a list on his clip board. As his dad shut the door, Cal could hear his X-Box messenger ping from his bedroom. He turned and scampered upstairs to see who was sending him a message.

It was from his best friend Ben. The message was simple, “How’s Chris getting on? Can I come over later?”

Cal put on his Turtle Beach headphones and called Ben instantly.

“Not been to see him since breakfast,” he said. “But he seems to be getting stronger by the day. He loves those Werther’s Originals sweets you brought him yesterday.”

“Does anyone suspect anything?” asked Ben.

“No, dad hasn’t been down to the old summer house since August and with the rugby I don’t think he will go back down there till after Christmas,” answered Cal. “But we had a copper at the door earlier. Have you heard about two missing primary school kids?”

“No,” said Ben. “Shall I bring some more bread and Pot Noodles over later?”

“Yeah that will be great,” said Cal, “But make sure you use the back gate.”

“Okay,” said Ben, “See you about five o’clock, should be dark by then.”

The afternoon passed slowly as 12-year-old Cal tried to reach a new level on the video game on his X-Box. He sat on his bed and took a sip of coke and thought about the strange events of the past two weeks. Chris still puzzled him. He seemed to have appeared from nowhere the day that he and Ben discovered him slumped on the park bench near the little kids’ play area. Cal remembered there was blood on his chin as if he had fallen over and bashed it. But other than that Chris was unremarkable. He was old, with a messy white beard and wore a dirty old coat and faded red trousers. And he did smell awful. It was a familiar smell like rotten meat from the back of the butcher’s shop. If Cal had to guess, Chris was at least 80.

So he and Ben had helped the old man to his feet and took him back to the old summer house at the end of Cal’s garden. On the 10 minute walk back the old man said very little except that he was hungry and very grateful.

That was two weeks ago and since then the two boys had found some new clothes from the bag his mum puts charity shop stuff in and had fed Chris on a diet of bread, soup, Pot Noodles and now Werther’s Originals sweets. They did manage to get him into the main house one afternoon while mum and dad were out and let him have a hot bath. Cal had to admit that Chris smelled a bit better after that bath. But the rotten meat smell soon came back.

Now the old man was getting stronger and although it was December and cold outside Cal knew they would soon have to ask him to leave.

At 4.45pm Cal heard his dad leave for rugby training.

Ten minutes later he crept downstairs and walked down the garden to the old summer house behind the beech hedge. He knocked on the door and told the not-so-bedraggled man that he would be back in a moment. Cal heard the back gate open and turned to see Ben appear with a Sainsbury’s bag full of Pot Noodles.

“Where the heck did you get the cash to buy that much,” asked Cal.

Ben winked and said: “Better not to know. Chris needs food and it’s not like it’s stolen or we have kidnapped Chris or anything.”

The two boys entered the summer house and handed the bag to Chris. The old man peered inside. At that moment Ben noticed that Chris had some blood on his hands and a cut to his wrist. He nudged Cal and pointed to the blood. Cal grabbed some tissue from his pocket and began to dab Chris’s wrist.

“How did that happen?” he asked.

“Dunno,” replied Chris gruffly.

Ben then noticed a large green sack in the corner of the summer house.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at the sack.

“Just some of my stuff that I left in the park,” answered Chris. “Can you boys leave me be now, I need to go out for a bit.”

He seemed ungrateful but the boys left the summer house and disappeared to the main house to play on Cal’s X-Box. But as they began to climb the stairs they heard Cal’s mum gasp loudly from the living room.

“What is it mum?” Cal called.

“Come here,” his mum replied quickly.

The boys hurried into the living room where Cal’s mum watching the news channel on TV.

“Have you seen this,” said mum, “Another child has gone missing in our town. That’s three in less than two weeks,” she gasped. “You boys stay in tonight, something’s not quite right.”

“Okay, mum,” said Cal. “Is it okay if we stay in the garden and can dad give Ben a lift home when he gets back from rugby?”

“Sure, sure,” answered mum who was still transfixed to the TV. “It is saying here that at the site where each child was last seen, the police have found a small opened Christmas present. It is weird, weird, weird,” she added.

On the screen a policeman was showing the green and silver wrapping of an opened Christmas present.

Ben whispered to Cal: “Hey, do you think we had better go and tell old Chris to be careful out there, cos he was going out and who knows how dangerous it might be for an old man.”

“Yeah, good idea. Let’s go and tell him now,” answered Cal.

The boys hurried down the garden and knocked at the summer house door. There was no reply, so they knocked a bit louder. Still no answer. So Ben gently opened the wooden door and turned on the light. There was no sign of Chris.

Cal looked at the green sack that they had seen earlier.

“Hey, I wonder what is in here?” he asked.

Ben tugged at the sack and out tumbled a couple of small boxes wrapped in green and silver Christmas wrapping paper.

“Whaaaat!” exclaimed Cal, “That’s just like to ones the copper was showing on TV just now!”

“There are loads of them in this sack,” said Ben.

Cal pointed out another black sack hidden behind the green one.

“And what do you think might be in here?” he said.

“Oh man!” gasped Ben. “It is full of the Pot Noodles, stale bread and Cuppa Soups we have been giving Chris the past two weeks.”

“In that case,” said Cal, “What’s he been eating and how is he surviving. He’s just an old man, isn’t he!”

The boys were about to find out. Behind them the summer house door creaked open.

“Aha, so you thought you would do some busybody nosing around then,” said a gruff and quite menacing voice.

Cal and Ben turned to see Chris standing in the doorway wearing a dirty looking Santa Claus coat and trousers and muddy black boots. But what worried the boys was the black sack he was carrying which seemed to be moving about as if something was inside.

Chris saw the boys looking at his sack. He paused for a moment and said: “Just a little snack I picked up while I was out.”

“But you two boys are much bigger. Think I might save you both for my Christmas dinner. Although I usually eat well on Christmas Eve with all those kiddies I have to visit.

Cal and Ben tried to scream but Chris was too quick for them.

As they passed out both boys had a distinct feeling of being stuffed inside a very dark sack.