"Don't tell me. You lost her."
Derry put a hand to his head. Pain still seared around his old injury when he was stressed - and he had turned his back on his four-year-old daughter for half a minute to tie his shoes, and she had vanished. Pain was not the word to describe the sensation lancing through his temples now.
His wife, though, looked singularly unruffled. "Have you tried the shrubbery? You know she loves crawling around in the mud. Making dens and such."
"No - no, I haven't..."
A sigh shot out of him, the balloon of panic pricked by the high four year old voice. The pain in his head ebbed away and left him feeling a little sick. "You, madam, are in an awful lot of trouble." He reflected ruefully that this might have sounded more threatening if his voice hadn’t wobbled.
"Yes, Daddy. How tall do people grow?"
"How - how tall...?"
"All different sizes, love." Anna stepped in, clearly sensing that the panic and relief in such swift succession had undermined his ability to deal with four-year-old logic. "Mostly about as tall as your Dad and I."
"But always bigger than me?"
"Well...sometimes people are born with something not quite right in their bodies. Then they might not grow much taller than you."
"Oh. But I don't think he had anything wrong with him."
"He? A man?" A sharp note nipped through Anna’s voice. "What man?"
"In there." Isabel pointed at the bushes she had crawled out of. "He was very, very little."
Derry swallowed the panic and anger that rose in him at the thought that someone had been near his little girl. "Isabel - what did the man do?"
"Nothing. He asked if I was lost, and did I want a cup of tea. I said no because I don't like tea, and then -"
"But he didn't touch you?"
"A beggar?" Anna wondered, picking up her daughter and balancing her on her hip.
Derry shrugged. "Could be. You don't normally see them in the park in winter though. Too cold, too exposed." And they don't normally offer cups of tea.
"He wasn't a beggar," said Isabel. "He didn't smell. He was very clean. But he wasn't wearing shoes."
"Probably was a beggar, then. No one would go out barefoot in this weather if they could help it." Derry hesitated, part of him wanting to go and berate this person who had dared to come near his daughter while he wasn’t there to supervise; another part of him wanted to see if there was any way to help the poor individual. "Anna, do you think...maybe we should give him a pair of socks, or..."
"I don't carry spare socks in my handbag!"
"He doesn't need them anyway. I asked him." Isabel wriggled herself into a more comfortable position. "His feet were really hairy, and the bottom of them was all dry and thick - he showed me. He said that the hair kept him warm enough."
"Mad." The wind freed a strand of Anna's ponytail, and she blew it out of her mouth. "Come on, let's get home before we all freeze."
"But I want to say 'bye to Mister Proudfoot!"
Derry's heart skipped up to his throat. For a moment the name hung in the air, taunting him - then he placed it, and in a rush he remembered an imagined scene at a party, an indignant insistence that the plural was "Proudfeet", a year's puzzling over dreams and dredged-up memories, and a hot summer's day when he was sixteen, sitting in his old form room with a man who was and was not a Maths teacher, who had moved away long ago and told them to keep their eyes open, for there was no telling what they might find...
He glanced at Anna, who appeared to have the same thoughts. Slowly, carefully, she put her daughter down. "Alright. Go and say your goodbyes."
Isabel skipped forwards into the clump of evergreen bushes that shielded her from her parents' view, where she liked to den in the summer and hide from the wind in winter.
"Go with her. Just in case."
Derry nodded. Just in case it really was a tramp. Or just in case it really was... "Don't you want to see?"
"No. I'd be - I'd hate it if it wasn't...if it isn't what we want it to be."
He nodded and ducked into the bushes, careful not to lose sight of his daughter's bright red coat. She trotted in a little way, then dropped onto her belly in front of a bare hedge and called through it. He couldn't hear what she said, nor could he see or hear whether anyone replied to her, but in a few minutes she wiggled back out with a smile on her face. He squashed his disappointment at not having seen anything, and smiled back at her.
"Did you find him, sweetheart?"
"Yes. He said to say hello to you."
Did he, indeed. "Well, if you see him again you can tell him I say hello back."
"Am I still in trouble?"
"Yes. Lots and lots."
They emerged from the bushes together, and he swung her up onto his shoulders. Anna was already halfway down the path back to the car park.
"Mister Proudfoot said I had a look of the Old World. What did he mean?"
"I'll tell you when you're older."
"That means you don't know."
For a moment he thought about explaining everything - the tragic early death of the young woman she was named for, the gunshot wound, the year of dreams and guesswork. But no. She would have to be older. Hell, it might have to be never - for who would believe that their parents had lived through something like that?
"Will I see him again?"
"I don't know." The breeze picked up and bit coldly at his cheeks, and the bare trees hissed and seemed to laugh at him. He repeated the advice Mr. Proust had given him all those years ago. "I suppose you’ll just have to keep your eyes open."
"Like when I'm crossing the road?"
"Something like that, yes." Derry smiled. "But more dangerous. And much, much more wonderful."
Just a little something to get myself back into the fanfic groove after a long absence. Hope you enjoy.
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