Tanya pauses at the end of her street. She’s seven years old and she’s never been this far on her own before. To the left a wide road stretches up a hill. She can see a big, low building at the top, it could be her school. This is not a school day. She turns the other way, to the right. This way the road is flat. There is a long line of trees on either side, tall and narrow, and their leaves are making a rustling sound. There is a bend in the road, so that very soon Tanya is out of sight of anyone standing at the end of her street, as her mother is now, shouting Tanya’s name. The girl doesn’t hear, she’s gone too far already.
Tanya is wearing her favourite socks. They are bright yellow. Her shoes are black and shiny. They have round toes, a pattern of punched holes and a strap. Tanya stops and bends down to pull up her socks. A shadow falls over her as he does so.
“Where’s your Mummy?” says the man. He is quite short and has protruding teeth which make his words sound funny. Tanya knows that she should not talk to strange men, but she also knows that good girls are polite.
“At home,” she says, because she does not know that her mother is out looking for her, by now frantic with worry.
“Shall I walk back with you then?” asks the man, holding out a hand. “So that no harm comes to you,” he says.
Tanya nods. She is not going to say anything else but she takes the man’s hand because he looks lonely. She is lonely too.
They walk together, the man and the girl, away from the street in which she lives, on past where the lines of trees end to where the road crosses a river. Tanya cannot see the river but she can hear it. The man leads her off the road and down a grassy path towards the sound of the water. Tanya keeps her eyes on the ground. There are flowers in the grass which are the same colour as her socks. She bends down to pick some. The man does not try to stop her, though he keeps hold of her hand. With his other hand he picks one of the flowers himself.
“Let’s see if you like butter,” he says, lifting one of the buttercups towards Tanya’s chin, which reflects the flower’s golden glow.
“There’s lovely,” he says.
His face, close to the girl’s, reminds her suddenly of a clown at the circus. Tanya does not like clowns. She pulls her hand from the man’s and sets off running away from him. As she comes to the road she sees two women walking towards her from over the bridge. She stops, afraid that they will speak to her, but they don’t, they don’t see the man and to them there is nothing strange about a seven-year-old girl being out of her own. Their own daughters are younger and they are out playing on their street every day.
When the women reach the corner of the road where Tanya lives they meet her mother, who is crying. They tell her not to worry, they just passed a little girl and yes, she was wearing yellow socks, it must be her girl. Just back there, they say, pointing beyond the trees, she was coming from the river. She’d been picking buttercups, they said, she was holding them in her hand. And no, they hadn’t seen anyone else. And they hadn’t, the man had been out of sight, biding his time.
It takes Tanya’s mother five minutes, at most, to run past the line of trees with rustling leaves. But she misses the grassy path down to the river. She gets to the bridge and stops to get her breath, turning around and shouting. There’s no sign of her daughter. There’s no sign of anyone. Tanya’s mother looks down at the river and sees the buttercups scattered on the water. It’s then that she starts to scream.