Read the first chapter of my previous novel,64 Clarke, here

64 Clarke

Ben Snape was separated from his father on the platform of Finsbury Park tube station on the afternoon of Saturday, 22 February. That was the day Little Ben disappeared.

Ben, six years old; Patrick, his father, thirty-six. They were on a day trip to London, where they visited the Arsenal club shop adjacent to Finsbury Park tube, and were then planning to attend the match at Highbury. The Gunners were due to play Spurs in what was set to be a hotly contested local derby – always is. They still played the game, even though Ben was missing. Arsenal won 3–2. Ben was wearing blue jeans, a navy blue Puffa-style anorak and a newly purchased red woollen hat bearing the logo of Arsenal Football Club. He wore black woollen gloves and was carrying a Panini-type football sticker album.

His last known movements were captured by CCTV cameras in jumpy footage that has since burned itself into the public memory, the way stop-start images do – because the moment, the truth, stutters.

Ben and his father were first recorded by a CCTV camera on the main concourse at Finsbury Park station, the ticket-machine area. One of six covering the concourse, two of which were inoperative on the day, the camera picked up Ben and Patrick at two second intervals as they entered the station, pausing at a ticket machine then making their way to the main tunnel. With their backs to the camera they walked hand in hand, appearing relaxed and happy, looking forward to the game. As it was close to kick-off, the concourse was busy with Arsenal fans, all reds and whites, all stop-starting their way towards the tunnel.

Ben and Patrick were next seen by one of the two cameras in the main tunnel, walking towards, and then beneath it. As before they seemed happy and at ease. Ben – Little Ben – appeared to be showing his father something in that Panini-type football sticker album.

His father glanced at his watch. He was fretting a bit about the time now, factoring in a pit-stop for Ben to go to the toilet, as well as a burger for the two of them, perhaps share one, no point in spoiling his appetite. The burger might have to wait until half-time if they didn’t get a move on, he thought, watch-glancing again, and in that case definitely half each or Ben wouldn’t want his tea.

A second camera, facing in the opposite direction to the first, showed their backs as they walked the final length of the tunnel, in more of a hurry here, turning to descend the steps to the Piccadilly line for the one-stop journey to Arsenal tube station, formerly known as Gillespie Road.

Now cut to the first camera again, the one on the main concourse. This showed a group of ten youths entering the station. They had recently left the Twelve Pins pub across the road, having been drinking since midday, and were in high spirits. They stop-started their way quickly into the tunnel. Also mindful of the kick-off time, they were hurrying, factoring in their own pit-stop: toilet – they’d be bursting by the time they reached the ground – plus a final round of beers before the game began. (You can buy them in the stadium, but beer may not be taken to the seats and is only available before the game, not during or afterwards.) The ten youths, dressed mainly in Arsenal replica football shirts and baseball caps, swiftly made their way past the tunnel cameras. Several had their arms held out like aeroplane wings; their mouths were all wide open, chanting something that resonated in the tunnel, as if there were hundreds of them, not just ten.

Cut to the platform. Here there were numerous cameras, but only two with the relevant field of vision, one of which was inoperative. The other picked up Ben and Patrick as they made their way on to the platform, which was already half full, and particularly congested around the entrance area. 

Ben was maybe more nervous here, the crowds thicker. Bustled by the legs of unmindful, eager supporters he squeezed his father’s hand. Patrick felt the little gloved hand tighten in his and squeezed it back. Not to worry, said his squeeze, just stay with me, we’ll be okay.

Still holding hands they could be seen making their way to a less crowded part of the platform. Patrick glanced at his watch, wanting to get Ben free of the pillocks who stood in the entrance like zombies. It took some doing, a bit of strategic shoving here and there, but at last they stopped at a point that was marginally less congested, with room enough to breathe at least. Here they were closer to the camera, and appeared slightly to the left at the bottom of the picture. ‘Train Approaching,’ said the platform indicator, and Patrick edged them forward, ready to board the oncoming train.

Beside them was a group of four girls, aged between fifteen and seventeen. Little Ben stared up at them; they were all in hysterics at something one of them had said. What it was, she’d got NASA confused with Ikea, and it had cracked them all up. She was always getting things wrong – thought they put real dogs in hot dogs; thought Cary Grant was a woman. That kind of thing.

Ben stared and they saw and made a fuss of him for a moment or so. Them doing that made Ben feel nice in a way he didn’t quite understand. Them doing that made Patrick feel nice in a way he understood perfectly – whoever had decreed pride was a sin had never felt like Patrick in that moment.

Now the same camera showed the ten high-spirited youths entering the platform at the top of the picture, arriving at a speed that seemed to startle those gathered at the entrance. The youths began jostling their way further down the platform, towards where Ben and Patrick stood, the train now pulling into the station. Patrick appeared to be bending down, speaking to Ben.

‘We’ll have to push our way on to this one I think,’ he said, ‘so as soon as the doors open, be quick, but don’t let go of my hand.’

Now the high-spirited youths were close to the pair, their progress arrested by the sight of the four girls, with whom they began a little good-natured banter (‘Tits. Out,’ that kind of thing), simultaneously pushing forward to reach the doors of the train as it arrived. The train pulled in and the waiting fans – perhaps four deep from the platform’s edge – shifted in the direction of the doors, the crowd seeming to tighten, as if tensing. The doors opened, each with a closing fist of supporters around it, jostling and straining forward. From inside, passengers wanting to disembark shouldered their way out as fans began pouring on to the train. ‘Please move right down the carriages,’ said the station announcer. ‘Make use of all available space.’

Now it can be seen that a minor altercation appears to have occurred between Patrick Snape and one of the youths. Angry at being shoved, and seeing Ben’s little body disappear momentarily into a forest of legs, Patrick turned to admonish a youth. A fit man, a member of a Sunday football team and a regular visitor to the gym, he was not to be intimidated by youths in baseball caps. ‘Hey. Watch it,’ is what he commanded.

‘Oh, fack off,’ was the reply.

And maybe the person who decreed the old sin-pride thing had been right after all, because Patrick failed to register his son tugging on his arm, his son not mindful of the kick-off and toilet breaks, but of the open doors and his father saying, ‘We’ll have to push our way on to this one. Be quick,’ and of that only. Patrick, outraged at having been told to fack off by a youth half his age (not quite, of course, the youth was nineteen), was not to be left wanting the last word.

‘Just stop pushing and mind your language,’ he warned, and used what crowded physicality he could to turn slightly and straighten, seeming to rise above the supporters flowing thickly into the train. No sign of Ben in the picture, obscured by bodies pressing towards the doors.

‘All right, all right,’ conceded the youth, his arms up the way players do when disowning a foul. He turned to shuffle off behind his mates at another door, elbowing himself aboard, the doors closing, then opening again, the last people squeezing on, the doors closing again, and Patrick frowning because they’d have to wait for the next one now, and Patrick slowly becoming aware that he was no longer holding his son’s hand.

Because the CCTV footage had shown – just – Ben move away from his father: a tiny blur. A movement that, when it was magnified, was little more than one newsprint-coloured cloud passing another. But it was Ben, and when the movement was ringed for television transmission you could just see him stepping on to the train. And experts scrutinised the tape for any sign of coercion, wanting and not wanting to see the blurred white of an indistinct hand on his navy Puffa-style anorak, but there was none. It appeared that Ben, excited Little Ben, had let go of his father’s hand and boarded the train of his own volition, turning, ‘Dad. Quick!’ watching through the bodies as Dad ended his remonstrations with the youth and looked about, searching for his son but not seeing him; the train doors closing on Ben even as his father’s head swung one way then the other, the stop-start camera catching not the points in between but the hard left and right of his head, his expression barely visible but somehow horrifyingly clear: where is Ben?

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Written for the
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