WRITTEN BY MELICENT MORRIS
“Lolly! Lolly gone.” Beth could hear Jess chuntering away to herself in her pushchair as she pushed her through the crowded shopping centre.
“I’ll buy you a lolly later,” she said, not really listening but willing to say anything to keep her younger daughter quiet while she tried to remember the three very important things she needed to do that day. Jess had kept her awake most of the night crying, so she was exhausted and not thinking straight.
When had life got so difficult anyway? she wondered. It felt as if there was just one problem after another needing her attention and she was never going to dig herself out of the mire.
The overwhelming heat and noise of the busy parade of shops wasn’t helping either, and the headache she’d had all day had just cranked up another notch.
A display of watches in a jeweller’s window caught her eye. That was one of the things, she remembered. She had Patrick’s watch in her bag and she needed to take it in and get a new battery fitted. He was never going to get a chance to do it himself with the hours he was working in his new job.
Just for a moment, Beth was distracted as an elderly woman in front of her slipped and nearly fell.
She caught her breath, frozen with indecision for a moment. Then she let go of the pushchair and stepped forward, catching the woman’s arm just in time to right her.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“Oh, thank you, dear,” the woman fluttered. “I don’t know what came over me. I’m all right now.”
Disaster averted, Beth grabbed the pushchair and turned to tell her older daughter Laura that they were going in to the jeweller’s.
“Laura. Laura? Where are you?”
And in that split second she realised that Laura was gone.
“Lolly… where Lolly?” Jess said, and with a sick feeling in her stomach Beth realised that her younger daughter hadn’t been asking for sweets. She’d been trying to say that she couldn’t see her sister walking behind them any more.
Jess had only just started talking, and still couldn’t form her sister’s name properly. In fact, Lolly was closer than she’d ever got before.Beth cursed herself. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t picked up on Jess’s words – and now precious time had been lost.
It had been only minutes ago that she’d last seen Laura, though, and she’d only let go of her hand for a minute so that she could undo her coat because she was too hot in the crowded shopping centre. Beth had been distracted by the old lady nearly falling over for a few moments, but surely a four-year-old couldn’t have gone far in that short time.
“Laura! Laura!” Beth called, trying to keep her voice even and not to panic.
There was no answer. She stood up on tiptoes and scanned the crowds looking for any sign of Laura’s distinctive green coat.
She could feel her heart beating faster as time ticked past and she still couldn’t see her daughter.
“Lolly. Lolly,” Jess repeated and began to cry with loud stuttering wails.
As Beth leaned down to comfort the distressed toddler she tried to think clearly about where Laura could be. She genuinely had only taken her eyes off her for a couple of minutes and nothing really bad could have happened in that time, she told herself. The most likely thing was that Laura’s attention had been caught by a display in a shop window and she’d stopped to look.
What shop was that likely to be, she wondered as she made soothing noises to Jess and turned the pushchair round to retrace her steps. Maybe it was the bookshop, with its tempting picture books in the window, or the toy shop, where Laura always liked to go and spend her pocket money.
“Come on Jess, we’re just going back to find Laura,” Beth said, trying to keep her voice steady and upbeat.
She struggled to control her panic as her eyes scanned the crowds again, looking back the way they’d come and trying to pick out the places that Laura might have stopped and been so entranced she’d forgotten to move on.
The toy shop was only a few yards away so she headed for that first.
Then something caught her eye. Up above her at the top of the escalator, she caught a flash of the same green as Laura’s coat.
Hardly daring to believe it, she looked upwards and tried to pick out the figure. Yes, it was Laura. Beth felt momentary relief. Laura was all right and she could actually see her – now all she had to do was get to her.
But her relief was short-lived. What was Laura doing up there? She was scared of escalators, so there was no way she would have just decided to go on one alone.
Beth strained her eyes, and her panic returned. Laura wasn’t alone.
As she walked away from the top of the escalator, Beth could see that she was with someone. A non-descript looking woman with an anonymous dark coat was holding Laura’s hand and Laura was following her.
“Laura! Laura!” Beth shouted with all her might. But it was no good – she was too far away.
“Laura!” she screamed so loudly that people around her stopped and looked, and this time there was a flicker of response as her daughter half-turned. But then the woman with Laura bent down and said something in her ear and Laura trotted off after her.
Beth could feel her heart pounding and cold sweat trickling down her back. She tried to think logically. She could call the police and tell them someone was trying to abduct her daughter, but that would take time and who knew how long it would be before they came?
She couldn’t see any of the shopping centre’s security guards anywhere, so telling one of them wasn’t an option either. And there didn’t seem any point in asking any of her fellow shoppers for help. They didn’t know Laura, and how could she be sure who she could trust?
The only thing she could do was to follow Laura and not let her out of her sight, she decided. She’d let Laura go, so it was her responsibility to get her back. There wasn’t any time to waste – already Laura and the woman were moving quickly along the upper corridor of the shopping centre so Beth knew she needed to get after them fast.
With the pushchair impeding her progress, Beth dashed to the escalator as quickly as she could. Normally she wouldn’t attempt to take the pushchair on an escalator, but this time there was no choice. Twisting herself round so that she could still see Laura’s
retreating back, and struggling to balance the pushchair, she prayed for the escalator to get her to the upper floor as quickly as humanly possible.
As soon as she got to the top she started to run, pushing Jess’s buggy in front of her like a chariot and shouting to people to get out of the way.
All that mattered to her now was catching up with Laura, and the woman who was trying to take her, before they disappeared from sight.
Luckily, Jess now seemed to think it was a game and was chuckling to herself as she was pushed at ever increasing speeds through the shopping crowds.
Beth’s heart was stretched to the limit with a combination of panic and exertion and she had to stifle a scream as Laura disappeared out of sight around a corner. She redoubled her efforts. She had to get to the corner and see where Laura was being taken before she disappeared completely.
Watching the corner in the distance, and not what was immediately ahead of her, was her downfall. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a cleaner with a trolley of buckets, mops and other equipment was in front of her blocking the whole aisle. Beth skidded the pushchair to a halt just in time to stop herself from pitching Jess into the obstruction.
Right on cue the little girl started to wail again, whether from fear at the near collision or disappointment that her fun ride had come to an unscheduled stop, Beth wasn’t sure. But as despair washed over her, Beth started to cry herself. Laura had disappeared from sight now and there was no way she could catch her up. What was she going to do?
“Now then, what’s all this crying for?” the motherly-looking woman in a cleaner’s uniform said as she stepped out from behind her cleaning trolley. “There’s no harm done, is there?”
Beth choked on a sob.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “Jess is fine. We’re both fine, but someone’s taken my other daughter.”
Through her tears she managed to recount the story of what had happened to the older woman, whose name badge declared her to be called Hazel.
“The police. I’ve got to call the police,” Beth said. Why hadn’t she done that in the first place? she thought, in despair. How stupid to think she could sort this out on her own.
“I tell you what,” said Hazel, leaping into efficient action. “Let me take you to the security office. It’s just over here. They can contact the police for you immediately and check all the security cameras at the same time.”
Beth was sick with misery and relieved to let someone else take over. She’d tried her best, but she’d failed. So she meekly followed the woman, all the time cursing herself over and over again for what had happened and terrified about what was going to happen next.
The security office was just around the corner that Beth had been desperately trying to reach in her attempt not to lose sight of Laura and as they approached it, her heart sank. In this stretch of the shopping centre there was another escalator, dozens more shops… and an exit to the car park. Laura and the woman who had snatched her could be anywhere by now.
“Come on in,” said Hazel, holding the door open for Beth to manoeuvre the pushchair through.
Jess’s wailing had calmed down to a disgruntled snuffling and Beth was struck by how quiet it was inside the security office compared to the bustle of the shopping centre. That just magnified the feeling of unreality that engulfed her every time she thought about what had happened. How could things have gone so disastrously wrong in such a short space of time?
“Hello,” Hazel called out to the empty office and a man in a security guard’s uniform emerged from behind a door at the other end of the room.
“How can I help?” he asked.
“Lady here’s little girl has gone missing, Norman,” Hazel said. Beth started to weep again as she heard the words.
The security guard turned out to be every bit as efficient as Hazel and swung into action, following the shopping centre’s missing child procedure and jotting down Beth’s description of Laura and the woman she had seen with her.
“I need to make some phone calls,” he said, “but once I’ve done that, you’re welcome to use our phone to call anyone you need to.”
“I need to ring my husband,” Beth croaked, her heart sinking even further at the thought.
She sat down where Norman had indicated and rocked Jess gently in her pushchair, as she tried to brace herself to ring Patrick and tell him what had happened.
How could she possibly say the words that would make him as sick with worry as she was? Surely he was going to blame her for their daughter going missing as much as she blamed herself.
Then, just as she was about to take up Norman’s offer to use his phone, two things happened. The security guard put the phone down and walked over with a smile on his face. And Jess started jiggling in her pushchair and shouting “Lolly” again as the door to the security office opened behind them.
Hardly daring to turn round, Beth looked and saw Laura standing in the doorway. She sprang from her chair and enveloped her daughter in her arms.
“Oh Laura, you’re safe,” she said over and over, holding her daughter to her as though she’d never let go.
“Mummy – I couldn’t find you, and I didn’t know what to do,” Laura said and started to cry.
It was some minutes before Beth looked up and saw the woman who’d come in with her daughter. The woman was tall with grey hair and wearing a dark suit that, now Beth could see it properly, marked her out as a member of shopping centre staff.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman was saying. “I would normally have brought her straight here, but she was desperate to go to the toilet.”
Beth was too relieved to say anything, but the woman carried on talking while Hazel interjected with the occasional “Well now” and “Thank the Lord”.
“I was on the information desk and I saw the little girl wandering around downstairs on her own,” the woman said.
“She was crying, and when I asked her where her mummy was, she said she didn’t know.
“I decided to bring her straight up here, and it wasn’t until we got to just outside the toilets that she said she wanted to go and started crying again.
“So I took her into the ladies, and it was just as we were coming out that Norman here rang me on my mobile to see if we’d spotted a child wandering around alone downstairs.”
“And now here we are all safe and sound,” Norman said, folding his arms with a smile of satisfaction.
Beth closed her eyes and, taking Jess out of her pushchair, she held both her daughters to her heart. She realised she’d been lucky this time. Laura hadn’t wandered far and she’d been found by someone who only had her best interests at heart.
Still, she shuddered to think how different it could have been. Laura could have been led away by anyone. Or she could have ended up on the busy road outside the shopping centre.
She could hardly bear to think that she might have put the girls at risk because she was distracted by other things.
She looked down at them both, her heart overflowing with love.
All she wanted to do now was to get themsafely home and do something fun to erase the trauma of the morning.
Maybe they could make cookies for when Patrick got home from work. Yes; that was what she was going to do. Everything else could wait.