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The invisible child

It begins with you.

Every month you receive a letter from an unknown source. The handwriting is vaguely familiar, the shape of the envelope is always the same, and it is always sent second class - so that you are never quite sure which day it will arrive. You only know this: the envelope is a sign of failure as well as hope. Sometimes you open it straightaway, sometimes you leave it for a day or two, but in the end you always open it. Inside there are two sheets of paper, both neatly folded, both inscribed with the same vaguely familiar hand. One confirms your failure, the other renews your hope, though there are only four words on each.

The first says: You have no child.

The second says: You have a child.

You tear the first message up, but its words have already gathered in a corner of your mind like dust, waiting for the wind to blow. The second message must be carried everywhere with you, for fear that its magic will dissipate should you deviate from devotion to its words. You know what these words imply because you have received the same letter month after month: you have a child, but you must find it first; and when you find it, you will not be allowed to play with it, hold it, feed it, or even touch it.

Outside, in the street of bright sunshine, all the other parents are playing with, holding, feeding and touching their children; and you ask each of them individually if they have seen your child. But they shake their heads one after the other and say, I'm sorry. Some even tell you to go away.

You look up. At the end of the street, in the shadow of a great, black cloud, an infant is standing, waving at you. You know it is yours, and you cry out with pleasure and run towards it with arms wide, silently thanking your magic slip of paper for delivering its promise. But at the end of the street, the wind is blowing, the cloud is darker, the air is colder, the infant is gone. In despair you search for a glimpse of it, and notice (with immense relief) that it is only a few yards ahead, at the corner of the next street. You also realise for the first time that it looks the way you always wanted your child to look, and is dressed in the clothes you always wanted your child to wear - and it is still waving, beckoning you forward. You run towards it again, but when you reach the corner it has disappeared once more.

This is the pattern of the first fortnight. To prove your devotion, you must chase the child, but when you approach it, it disappears. Some days you feel you can almost reach out and touch it; on others, it waves at you from so far away that you hardly recognise it. And all the while the cloud grows darker, the air colder, the wind stronger - until, at the end of two weeks, the sky breaks, releasing a hard, black rain.

For the next fortnight, you gradually lose hope. You do not see the infant again, but you follow its footprints in the mud, and you know that you will find it soon (perhaps around the next corner). Sometimes you even believe that you can hear its voice crying out for you (but it may be the wind or the rain, or just your imagination). Eventually, you wonder if the letter you received was a joke, if it was delivered to the wrong address, if you really understood what it said after all. You consider yourself useless, and unworthy of such a message. You bitterly resent the unknown source.

A month after receiving the envelope, you reach the end of the last street, worn out with worry. You see the child ahead of you, but it is lying face-down in the mud. You think, briefly, that you can see it breathing, and you are afraid to touch it in case you disturb its fragile existence. But you must touch it - and touching it, you discover that it is dead. You weep, and weep, and weep; and when the weeping is done, you open your eyes and the infant is gone. Only its small outline in the mud remains, and as you kneel there, tracing its shape, you know that even this faint trace will be washed away with the rain.

Though you can hardly move at first, you find the strength to rise and the momentum to return home. When you arrive at your front door, a letter is waiting on the step.

It is a sign of failure. It is a sign of hope.

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