Time after Time

Tuesday 4th June 1996

“What have we here?” Bob said as the needle on his detector swung hard to the right. The sound in his headphones quickly went from a low hum to a rapid beep and then a high-pitched squeal. He noted the area and switched off his equipment. Bob glanced over one shoulder and then the other between the trees behind him to ensure he wasn’t being watched, and then he unfastened his backpack and dropped it beside his metal detector. He pulled on his gloves.

Bob used broad white tape and small wooden stakes to create a limited area to dig. His tools were a compact gardener’s fork and a trowel, so keeping damage to a minimum, irrespective of the site. As usual, he used the point of the trowel to dig into the grassy surface. When he had three sides of a square sliced into the ground he looked around again, and then rolled back the fifty centimetre square of turf. A few worms and other tiny creatures scurried away.

He lifted his home-made probe—a folded wire coat hanger—stuck one end into the centre of the square space and gently pushed down. It wasn’t scientific or even the accepted method, but Bob had found many small items and had never caused undue damage, simply by being patient and careful. He had the wire probe marked with red tape at each twenty-five-centimetre length. When a little more than half had been submerged there was resistance. Bob withdrew the wire probe and performed the same routine three more times.

“This is not a bunch of coins,” he whispered as he dropped the probe beside his pack and started using the gardener’s mini-fork. As usual, he didn’t dig but teased at the earth to loosen sections. Bob scooped soil and piled it neatly to one side working methodically, more like an archaeologist than the amateur collector that he was.

“Yes,” he murmured when his fingers touched something flat and firm. He gently brushed the loose earth away to uncover what looked and felt like a small metal box wrapped in cloth. Bob grinned as he used his fingertips to gently tease away the dirt from around the edges of the container. He was glad he’d kept his gloves on. A damaged metal surface could cause a painful, if small injury, and there were plenty of infectious ingredients available in the ground.

Bob continued to dig down and around the sides of the wrapped box until he was able to squeeze his fingers underneath. The container appeared to be only a little bigger than a paperback book. Bob lifted it free from its hiding place with the same reverence someone might have for an ancient artefact.

“Eat your heart out, Indiana Jones,” Bob whispered and laughed as he brushed the loose earth from the protective material around his find. Most of the week he was an assistant in a large bookstore, but on a quiet weekday in the middle of the woods, he fantasised about being an archaeologist with a history of daring exploits and the discovery of exciting treasures. He could tell by the weight that the box had something inside but opted to keep his gloves on as he unwrapped the container. It was a black metal box with neat gold lettering on top. Bob nodded as he read the words and then eased the edge of the lid upwards with his thumbs.

“Oh my god … a ten-year diary. I’ve heard of a five-year, but never a ten-year.” Bob glanced over both shoulders and before anybody could see what he had, his find was secured in his backpack, wrapped in one of the old towels kept for such a purpose. He used his trowel to refill the small square hole and then rolled the turf back into position. When done, he grabbed a few broken twigs and lay them over the general area.

The detector was unfastened at the hinge, folded, and then joined everything else in the backpack. Bob removed his gloves and stuffed them in a side pocket before he double-checked the location on his map and headed out of the woods. As he left the area he was tripping over roots and small craters he hadn’t noticed previously.


At home, armed with a coffee and wearing less clumsy latex gloves, Bob unwrapped his prize and placed it on a wooden tray. Using a large artist brush he gently cleaned all the exterior surfaces of the metal box. The gold lettering on top was not embossed into the metal but painted with an acrylic or a lacquer paint and had been reasonably protected by the rag used to wrap the box.

‘My Secrets’ were the words seeing daylight for only the second time in many years. 

Bob shook his head slowly as he stared at and admired the beautifully hand-crafted work and the designs in each corner of the box. “This has to be the work of the owner.” He eased the lid open with his thumbs as he’d done before and lifted out the diary. On closer inspection, he realised that there was more than ‘Ten Year Diary’ written on the front. Low down in duller gold colour, again probably written by the owner was a name.

‘Shelly Anne Dawson’

As soon as Bob opened the front cover he felt like he was intruding into somebody’s life, touching an item that was so private it should never be tampered with, let alone closely inspected. “I’m opening your diary with the best of intentions, Shelly. I need to know why it was buried in the woods miles from anywhere.”

He stared at the personal details within and confirmed that the exterior handwriting in gold paint had been done by the owner. Inside he gazed at the immaculately crafted details under each heading. All the handwriting was in the same copperplate script, but written in black ink.

Name: Shelly Anne Dawson

Address: Myrtle Wood, Delby

D.O.B.: 4th June 1970

Commencement Date: 1st January 1986

“Oh my good lord, Shelly, we were born on the same day in the same year.” Bob turned to the first page and found a neat but brief and disturbing entry.

‘Wednesday 1st January 1986

The beast who calls himself my father has allowed me this diary as my social life. He is standing across the room smirking as I write. My hands are shaking, but I will endeavour to make this legible in case it is ever read by anyone other than me. You might wonder why he’s standing not far away. He is ensuring I don’t damage myself with the pen I’m using. I have my old metal box on which I painted ‘My Secrets’ I’ve been allowed to keep it to save all my dreams. That box has often been my saviour.’

“Oh, Jesus, this cannot be real.” Bob read page after page, unable to stop. Tears welled in the corners of his eyes. The second entry explained that Shelly’s father had timed her first entry and asked for a word count. When he found out it was one hundred words, he decreed that Shelly would be allowed that length of time every day to scribble her ‘worthless thoughts’.

Over the next few entries, Bob found himself counting the words after reading. Each day, the girl had concentrated hard to use her allowance. The passages throughout the first two weeks of January were a detailed description of Shelly’s living conditions. After the first entry there were details of how she’d been allowed paint and a small brush to decorate her ‘dream box’ and then until she’d been given the diary, she was allowed to open the box once a day to make a wish.

When the entries reached February, Shelly wrote a passage each day describing what had happened to one of her friends. It seemed there were four cabins in the woods and in each was a girl of Shelly’s age, and a man, who in each case was supposedly the appropriate girl’s father.

By the time Bob had read as far as March 31st, he was disgusted and filled with pity. Shelly had used that month to explain that she didn’t believe any of the four men living in the cabins were related in any way to the girls. It was beyond her comprehension that a man could do the things they did to their daughters or anybody else’s daughter in front of the father. It was only at this point that Bob realised the man who oversaw Shelly’s writing wasn’t her natural father.

April saw the brief, but graphic descriptions of what each of Shelly’s three neighbourhood friends had to endure at the hands of one or more of the four men. Sometimes the men would deal with the victim in front of the other three, which is how Shelly discovered that there were four cabins.

May was a month for severe beatings because one of the girls managed to chew through her rope bindings. The escapee was chained and beaten in front of the others to let them see what would happen if anybody else attempted to leave the secluded handful of remote buildings. A sound thrashing for every girl at least once every week became the new norm because it would be a constant reminder of the price of trying to escape.

The entries for the first three days of June were horrific, but none more than the 4th of the month. Shelly used her final entry to describe how the four men helped to celebrate her sixteenth birthday in front of the other girls.

Bob felt hatred for the men and heartbreak for the girls as he read the brief account. The final words from that entry ten years before were, ‘should you find my diary, please leave me a message in the Notes. Thank you.’

The twenty-six-year-old man read the final few words again with a heavy heart, and turned to the back of the book. In the Notes section, he wrote, ‘Shelly, I feel as if I have let you down by not knowing of your pain. I will never forget you, Bob.’

It was early in the evening when Bob arrived back at the spot in the middle of the woods. He looked around quickly to ensure he was alone before he cleared the site from where he’d unearthed the metal box and the diary. He carefully buried everything as it was, covered it and went home.


Wednesday 5th June 1996

Bob finished work and as he drove home from the bookstore, the anxiety he’d felt all day was building to a crescendo. His head hurt and simple things like reading the road ahead and watching out for hazards was becoming a nightmare. The local history section was where he’d spent most of his lunch break.

In 1985, four young girls had been abducted within a short time of each other. In one case a witness was able to say a van with a sliding door had pulled up at the kerbside and two men grabbed a girl and pulled her inside. The van was white but the number plate was dirty and unreadable. That was all the police had to go on.

As Bob read the reports he could see that the usual lines of enquiry had been followed by the authorities and the families but to no avail. Theories abounded which didn’t offer the girls’ families any comfort. Woodland and rivers were searched in due course but nothing came to light and the four abductions became an unsolved mystery. The local police said it was not a cold case and remained open, but why had it been years since the girls’ photographs had been on TV screens in the news?

Bob pulled into his driveway, parked, and was back out at the car within fifteen minutes, changed into the overalls and boots he wore for digging. He had his backpack with him but he only had the small hand tools and his gloves inside.

“What kind of idiot writes a message in a book like that and reburies it … Jeez, Bob.” He berated himself constantly on the fifteen-minute drive to the large area of woodland. As he parked up in the small parking area outside the conservation area he looked at the information sign.

“Myrtle Wood. The greatest clue of all and I overlooked it.” He lifted his backpack from the car and stood in front of the map on the board. “Where the hell are there cabins in Myrtle Wood?” He studied the large map for five minutes, having until now prided himself on being capable with such things. There were no cabins anywhere and the woodland was massive.

“I’ll grab the diary, remove my message and put the damn thing back.” Bob’s intention was to use a blade to slice out the page he’d written on.

It took twenty minutes walking at a steady pace on the main track before he glanced over his shoulder and turned off in among the trees and undergrowth. It was another fifteen minutes before he arrived at the spot. Bob swallowed hard, looked around and then dropped to his knees to uncover the macabre treasure.

Once again, the man eased the small section of turf up and rolled it back. He carefully dug out the soil and piled it near the turf and then lifted the wrapped metal box to place it on the ground in front of his knees. Bob unwrapped the box and then changed from his heavy-duty gloves to his latex gloves. He would need the dexterity to turn the pages for cutting one page out.

“I’m sorry, Shelly, but I can’t afford to get involved in this. Too many people have been taken for questioning and nothing has come to light.” He eased the lid open. “Oh fuck … that can’t be right.” The diary was facing downwards as he unwrapped it. “I put it back in the way it had been before.”

Bob glanced over his shoulders before he gently lifted the book out and started flicking through the pages. As he reached June, he had an overwhelming desire to read the unfortunate girl’s final words once again. As he turned the pages he missed Thursday 4th June 1986.

“Thursday 4th June 1987 … how can this be possible?” Bob stared in disbelief at the entry, a year later than the previous entries.

‘Mary Philips and Joan Carson are both dead. I know they’ve been killed and buried out in the woods somewhere. I heard the conversation and grunting when the evil men were carrying the girls away. It wasn’t long before they arrived back at the cabins, laughing. I can’t tell you how I know but my friends are somewhere out there, not far away, and their suffering is over. I doubt if I’ll manage my one hundred-word allowance today because I can’t focus. Someday, somebody must find the bodies, and the men responsible. We did nothing wrong.’

Bob was confused by the entries he’d missed but turned to the Notes at the back ready to slice out his page. He turned back and looked at the entry from nine years before. No, it definitely wasn’t there the day before. His head hurt with the thoughts of what had happened mingling with his own indecision. Bob turned to the back and wrote a personal response again.

‘I really want to help, Shelly, but I’m one person who lives alone and nobody would believe me. I expect I would be questioned if your diary was found. Please forgive me, I must think about this.’

Bob went back to the middle of the book and checked that the final entry was 1987. He wasn’t missing anything in the other pages before he buried the book again.


Thursday 6th June 1996

Bob Clifford was unbearable at work all day. He was usually a person who could be depended upon in the bookstore, but he realised that he was losing his mind. At one point one of his colleagues asked how Bob’s new hobby, metal detecting was going, and the casual query sounded like an accusation.

“I just find nails and bits of metal, nothing important. Why the sudden interest?”

The man who’d asked as a friendly gesture held his hands up in defence and walked away shaking his head. He didn’t need negativity and wasn’t about to accept it from a colleague who was having a bad day.

“I’m sorry, Karl,” Bob called after him. “I’ve got a lot on my mind right now.”

Karl turned, half-smiled and nodded before he put more space between himself and Bob.

After work, Bob was compelled to return to the woods. He went through the same routine as the evening before, and as he unwrapped the diary to find it facing downwards again he broke out in a cold sweat. He went to the final entry written in copperplate by the young woman.

“Not again … I’m going bloody mad.”

‘Saturday 4th June 1988

Andrea and Carol, two girls whom I didn’t get to know disappeared in the past year. They were followed by Hannah and Jane who I knew at school. I was sure they were younger than me ….’

Bob felt frustrated and useless as he forced himself to read what the girls had been compelled to do and he cursed his own inability to do something. He no longer counted the words but now registered that at least four young girls had been murdered, possibly more. He turned to the back page and wrote a message again.

‘Shelly as this week unfolds I can see that your entries each year are on your birthday. I’m weak with worry, but please, believe me, I will live up to my original promise. I will help.’

The diary was wrapped, facing upwards, placed in the metal box and buried once again.


Friday 7th June 1996

Bob made the short journey to the woodland and walked cautiously to the regularly exhumed diary. He went through his now regular sequence before finding as expected, a later entry.

‘Sunday 4th June 1989

I wondered what was helping me to maintain my sanity and today I worked out that it was Kathryn. She’s nineteen now, like me and we make eye contact while one of us is being tortured by the actions of our captors. We will survive this and see justice done. It’s our only hope ….’

After reading Shelly’s birthday message for that year which this time contained hope but also the names of unfortunate young victims once again, Bob wrote a brief message at the back with his others. He convinced himself that there was a good purpose in what he was doing, although he was now becoming confused as this strange aspect of his life continued.

The working days continued to be followed in the evenings by visits to the woods. Once there, the diary was uncovered, read, written in, reburied and abandoned.


Saturday 8th June 1996

Bob was sitting on his balcony staring out at the woodland many miles away. It was far from where he lived in relative comfort and safety, but he now did so in the knowledge that he had clues about the abduction and murder of a number of young girls. Did he, or had he imagined everything and now he was going slowly mad?

“For me, each entry only takes a day, but for that poor girl, it’s been a year … a year in which she had undergone horrendous treatment, seen things she should never have seen and witnessed the murder of other young girls.”

Bob had no wish to keep the diary or keep any information about it at his home because it would be a link to the tragic unsolved disappearances. The one thing which puzzled him, even beyond the mysterious continuation of entries, was how these men could have perpetrated such deplorable acts and disappeared without a trace, like their victims. To locate a connection Bob spent time each day reading about the city and the area of the massive woodland. He recalled that in the address section of the diary Shelly had written Myrtle Wood, but there were no houses or cabins in the wood.

He gave up on the information he’d found and went home. His gaze was drawn to the woodland in the distance, the older deciduous trees in their massive clumps and the regimented lines of the evergreens, old and new … but how new were those new trees?

“Oh my god.”


Thursday 13th June 1996

At lunchtime, Bob went to the library and pulled out information about Myrtle Wood which only related to the regrowth of the area. There was a single brief mention of cabins in the wood and he’d overlooked it. The four structures had been in ruin and were demolished in 1986.

In the evening, Bob went through his now routine task of locating and uncovering the diary.

‘Tuesday 4th June 1990

This is my last chance to get through to you and every one of us is counting on you. I’ve given you the names of twelve missing girls. You and I were born in the same year on the fourth of June, which is why you were the person I have chosen. Today will probably be my final opportunity to reach out. After this, I will be forgotten, just like all the other girls in Myrtle Wood.

I know you’ve probably accepted that I lived on while all the other girls died, but I was closer to them than you might think. I was chained away back in 1986, and after six months of brutality, I kept a promise to myself that I’d escape or die trying.

I’ve tried to remove the handcuffs but my left thumb is badly bruised and swollen. It’s preventing my hand coming free. I know if I pull hard enough I’ll get free but I’ll tear a lot of skin and lose blood. I won’t be able to write more because of the pain, but I must do this. My next actions will be simple enough. Get out of the cabin with my box and bury it for somebody special to find. I’ve known for a long time I’d never make it out of the woods alive, but I’m sure I can bury the ‘My Secrets’ box before I’m caught and punished.’

When he finished reading, Bob trembled as he lay the wrapped box in the hole. He couldn’t comprehend communicating with a girl who’d been dead for ten years. After a nervous look around he used his gloved hands to drag the dirt in to cover the secret account of so much horror. He rolled the small piece of turf back into place, tamped it down before covering it with loose bracken and a few leaves. He knelt there and gazed down at the area.

“Shelly, I promise you that while there is a breath in my body I will work to find those men and have them brought to justice. You and your friends will not go unavenged.”

“Thank you, Bob.”

The man looked up wide-eyed with his parted lips trembling. Standing not ten paces away was a beautiful dark-haired girl who was perhaps late-teens or twenty. The lips formed a faint smile, but the blue eyes were sad. Her complexion was pale and her expression difficult to fathom. She wore a white dress which hung in tatters, and though her face was pretty, her young body was bruised and battered and her feet were bare. Down the left side of the dress was a long red stain and her left thumb was badly damaged.

Bob rubbed his eyes in disbelief and after blinking several times he watched the image fade and all that remained was the view between the trees and undergrowth.


Sunday 16th June 1996

Bob sat in his living room watching the evening news and his jaw dropped when the newsreader introduced a live link to Detective Inspector Gordon Framley, a local police officer.

‘Three days ago we received an anonymous tip-off about a secret diary hidden in woodland. The diary was recovered by our forensics team who have worked tirelessly after seeing the contents. At this time, I am not at liberty to say what was written in the book, but I can report that the final entry was made on the fourth day of June 1970. Apart from the entries up to that point and the details of the diary’s owner, there is nothing else written in the book. A single, fresh sheet of paper with names written in a different hand was tucked into the diary, and it contains the names of missing teenage girls. For the foreseeable future, Myrtle Wood is out of bounds to anybody except forestry advisors and the police.’

 Questions were called out by members of the press but the detective waited for quiet.

‘On behalf of the victim named in the diary, I would like to thank the person responsible for bringing the whereabouts of this important book to our attention. Following a rapid investigation, we arrested four men in the early hours of this morning. They are all facing charges which include abduction, illegal imprisonment, abuse, and murder.’

The faces of four teenage girls appeared on the screen as the detective continued.

‘It has been confirmed from our records that these girls all went missing within one week in 1985 and were never seen alive again. We have reason to believe that there are many more missing girls who may be located in their final resting places.’

A tear trickled down Bob’s cheek as he gazed at the girl with the dark hair in the top left photograph. He was sure she gave an imperceptible nod.


 A story selected from Time after Time: and other stories.

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