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The Phoenix Burns Brightest

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The Dursleys insisted that they were both good, respectable people. They did not deserve, they complained, to be interrogated by a whole horde of police officers and social workers. What had happened to their nephew was not their fault.

‘It’s all just a big misunderstanding,’ Mr Dursley blustered. ‘We thought he was here, in the house. We didn’t even realise he was gone.’

Mrs Dursley was quiet and fidgety, unwilling to comment, but she nodded along with her husband supportively.

‘We should have checked on him sooner, of course,’ Mr Dursley admitted, throwing up his hands. ‘It was a mistake, I know, but we never expected he would run away. He’s never done that before.’

The detective, who was heading the interview, nodded sympathetically.

‘I can see that it was quite a shock for both of you,’ she said tactfully, ‘and I’m sorry to be taking up so much of your time but it’s important that we get all the facts. I’m sure you understand that whenever a child this young goes missing, for any length of time, the police take the matter very seriously.’

‘But we’ve already told you everything!’ Mr Dursley exclaimed exasperatedly. ‘We’ve gone over and over this with the other officers and that awful woman from Child Protection Services, answering the same questions again and again. Don’t you people share notes?’

‘Yes,’ the detective replied delicately, ‘but it’s very important we make absolutely sure we know exactly what happened. I’m sure you understand, Mr Dursley.’

‘No, I don’t understand,’ Mr Dursley responded hotly. ‘We’ve had people traipsing in and out of the house for the last few days, practically tearing the place apart. God knows what the neighbours think.’

‘Mr Dursley,’ the detective leant in slowly and looked man straight in the eyes. ‘This is a very serious matter. Your nephew went missing for over twenty-four hours. Anything could have happened to him.’

‘Yes, but it didn’t!’ Mr Dursley protested. ‘He came back home, safe and sound, didn’t he? Thank God.’

This last part was added hastily, as if he realised that he was coming off too rough or defensive. His face flushed bright red and his hands twisted into fists.

‘We’re all very relieved that Harry got back home safely,’ the detective said quietly, ‘but we both know that the situation could have been much, much worse. Small children alone on the streets are very vulnerable. He could have been involved in an accident, seriously injured or even killed. He could easily have been assaulted or kidnapped.’

The room fell silent for a moment while everyone considered these bleak possibilities. Mrs Dursley moved a little closer to her husband and he placed one meaty hand on her shoulder.

Mr Dursley cleared his throat. ‘Don’t you think you’re blowing the matter a little out of proportion,’ he asked. ‘I mean, children run away all the time, don’t they?’

‘Actually it’s quite rare for a child this young to run away,’ the detective said calmly. ‘It usually suggests that there’s something wrong at home.’

There was another uncomfortable silence. Mr Dursley’s face went from bright red to snow white in the space of a few seconds.

‘Why don’t we start again, from the beginning,’ the detective suggested. ‘What time did you realise that your nephew was missing.’

Mr Dursley took a moment to clear his throat.

‘It was around eight in the morning on Saturday. We went to fetch him for breakfast and found out he wasn’t there.’

The detective nodded encouragingly. ‘And when did you call the police.’

‘Around ten.’

The detective nodded again. ‘And why did it take you so long to you call the police? Almost two hours?’

‘We searched the house first,’ Mrs Dursley said shrilly. ‘Then we called all our friends and neighbours, asking if anyone had seen him.’

‘We didn’t think he could have gotten far,’ Mr Dursley added defensively. ‘We thought he must have wandered down the road or into someone else’s garden. Dudley’s done that a few times, the little tyke.’

‘But he was found quite far away, wasn’t he?’ The detective said, her lips twisting to a strained little smile. ‘Wembley. Any idea how your four-year-old nephew managed to travel over thirty miles away in the space of a few hours?’

‘Maybe he hitch-hiked?’ Mr Dursley suggested. He let out a false little laugh, too high and strained to be natural.

The rest of the room remained deadly silent. The police officers all exchanged disbelieving glances, their eyebrows raised high.

‘Really,’ Mr Dursley said, clearing his throat. ‘I have no idea how he travelled so far.’

‘Obviously we’re still worried that someone may have taken him,’ the detective said slowly. ‘Is it possible that anyone could have come into the house during the night and taken him away?’

‘Absolutely not!’ Mr Dursley replied fiercely. ‘We’ve got the latest burglar alarm system. There’s censors all around the house. If so much as a cat walks by it sets them off.’

‘When did you last see your nephew, before he disappeared?’ The detective pressed. ‘Did you look in on him before you went to bed?’

‘No,’ Mr Dursley said gruffly. ‘We’d sent him to bed early for misbehaving.’

‘And what time was that?’

Mr Dursley exchanged a quick look with his wife. They suddenly looked very tense and nervous.

‘I suppose around four or five,’ Mr Dursley said slowly.

The detective frowned deeply, little wrinkles creasing her brow.

‘And you didn’t check in on him after that?’ She asked. ‘What about for dinner? Had he already eaten?’

At this, the Dursleys became even more tense and uncomfortable. Mrs Dursley’s mouth withdrew into a line so tight that it might have been drawn on with a biro.

‘He wasn’t getting any dinner,’ Mr Dursley said quietly. ‘We’d sent him to bed early, without any dinner. It was part of his punishment.’

‘He’d eaten earlier that day,’ Mrs Dursley said quickly. ‘He’d had a big lunch and a snack so it wasn’t as if he was really going hungry.’

Once again, her voice was very shrill.

‘Did you often send your nephew to bed this early, without food, and leave him alone for the rest of the night?’ The detective asked.

‘No,’ Mrs Dursley hissed. ‘Of course not.’

‘Look, I was sent to bed early dozens of times when I was a child and it never did me any harm!’ Mr Dursley exclaimed. ‘It’s a perfectly normal form of punishment or it used to be, before all these namby-pamby ideas about child-rearing came in. It was far worse in my day, I assure you.’

‘Vernon, please!’ Mrs Dursley hissed, but apparently her husband had worked himself too much to stop now.

‘I’ve done everything I can to care and protect my family and I object to being treated like a criminal and subjected to questioning in my own damn home. Now I made a mistake and I’m man enough to admit that. I should have checked in the boy earlier but you must see that I could never have expected him to get out!’

A silence far heavier and more unpleasant than any that had come before greeted this pronouncement. The detective moved right to the edge of her seat, leaning over towards the couple.

‘Get out?’ she repeated softly.

The words hung in air for a few moments.

‘Mr Dursley, are you saying that you lock your four-year-old nephew in?’

**

When all the police had gone and the boys had both been sent to bed Mr and Mrs Dursley stayed up together to talk.

‘It will be alright,’ Mr Dursley assured his wife. ‘Kids run off all the time. They’re mad, wilful little monsters and that boy’s the worst of them. I’m damned if I know how he got out of that cupboard but they found him alright and brought him home.’

Mrs Dursley shook her head slowly, hands twisted in her lap. Long bony fingers toyed with the buttons on her cardigan, spinning them round and round.

‘He was alone with the social worker for a long time, Vernon.’ She murmured. ‘What do you think he told her?’

‘He wouldn’t have said anything,’ Mr Dursley assure her. ‘He knows better than to go around telling tales. Besides, he’s only four years old. No one’s going to listen to him.’

‘But what if he tells them where he was sleeping,’ Mrs Dursley pressed. ‘You know what they’ll think about that.’

They’d emptied out the cupboard before they called the police, carefully clearing away any traces that a small child had been kept in there, but they were still worried that they had forgotten something.

‘I set him up in the spare room tonight,’ Mr Dursley told her. ‘The bed’s all made up and there’s toys on the shelves. It looks like he’s been in there all along.’

He reached out and wrapped an arm around his wife shoulders.

‘It will be alright,’ he said again.

But Mrs Dursley wasn’t convinced. She gave her husband a desperate, frightened look.

‘What if they say it’s abuse?’ She whispered. ‘What if they say we’re unfit parents and can’t be trusted with children?‘

‘Petunia!’ Mr Dursley exclaimed with a forced little laugh. ‘You’re letting your imagination run away with you! There’s no reason for them to take things any further.‘

He tried to take her hand, to calm her down, but she shrank away from him.

‘They won’t just let it go though, Vernon,’ she hissed. ‘They’ll be back again, asking more questions. Setting all the neighbours whispering. God knows what they’ve been saying about us.’

‘They know what’s being going on, Petunia,’ he said soothingly. ‘They know that Harry went missing. I’m sure they’re just concerned. We can go round tomorrow, if you like, to let them know he’s back. We’ll thank them for all their help and smooth things over nicely.’

Mrs Dursley looked up at him uncertainly. She was chewing at her bottom lip like a small, anxious child. She’d never looked more weak and pathetic.

‘What if they try and take Dudley away?’ She whispered. ‘What if they say he’s not safe here?’

‘No one is taking our boy away,’ Mr Dursley said fiercely. ‘I would never, ever let that happen, petunia. If they came after us we’d just hire the best lawyers in the country. We’d crush them.’

He let out a mad little laugh. ‘Take our little boy away from us? I’d like to see them try!’

Mrs Dursley swallowed. ‘And Harry?’ She said tentatively. ‘What if they tried to take him into care?’

‘I won’t let anyone anywhere near our family,’ Mr Dursley said decisively. ‘You think I’m going to let Social Services make a fool out of me? You think I’m going to let them come in here and treat us like criminals?’

At last, Mrs Dursley was starting to look a little more reassured.

‘I suppose they don’t have any evidence of anything, do they?’ She said, more to herself than to her husband. ‘I mean, the only thing that’s really suspicious is how far away he travelled and that wasn’t anything to do with us. We were doing everything we could to keep him in the house.’

‘That boy,’ Mr Dursley said bracingly. ‘He did that all by himself. He got himself out of that cupboard and miles away before we had any idea. The little devil. We won’t let it happen again though. We’ll keep a much closer eye on him from now on.’

He was relaxing now into one of his more familiar subjects. He spent a few pleasant moments complaining about his nephew and making fresh resolutions to keep him in line.

Mrs Dursley nodded but there was still the slightest flicker of doubt behind her eyes.

‘And I don’t imagine that ... well, that any of ... the other lot would hear about this?’

Mr Dursley stopped short. ‘You mean ... his lot?’

His wife nodded.

‘No,’ he blustered. ‘No, of course not. How could they? It’s not as if they talk to the policemen or social services, is it?’

‘No,’ Mrs Dursley agreed. ‘No, I don’t see how they could. I just wondered ... what would happen if they did hear that he’d gone missing? What if one of them came here to ask questions too?’

This thought was almost too terrible to contemplate. It took Mr Dursley some time to respond to his wife and when he finally did he found that all the confidence had left his voice.

‘No,’ he murmured feebly. ‘No, they wouldn’t come here now. They couldn’t.’

He was wrong, of course.