It’s not something I’m doing lightly. I’ve thought of nothing else for months. I’ve tried everything . . .
No, that’s not right. Too much focus on ‘I’.
We love each other, but it’s not enough anymore, is it. We’ve done everything in our power to keep going, keep trying . . .
I pick up an avocado, twisting it in my hand and pressing my thumb against the green, bumpy skin.
Even you have to admit defeat, surely? Sometimes it’s not about staying together, it’s about how to part amicably.
A child’s crying pierces through my mind – interrupting the conversation I’m attempting to plan. Now I’ll have to start over; it’s the fifth false start. How am I going to be able to say this to Jamie’s face?
I place the avocado in my shopping basket and look around to see a little girl, about four years old, her tearstained face red and bloated. She’s wearing a pink coat buttoned up high, with a belt fastened tightly around her middle – the poor thing looks like she’s parcelled up ready to be shipped off somewhere.
‘Hey, sweetie. Can’t you find your mummy?’ I bend down to be on a level with the girl. She cries even harder. ‘It’s okay, shush, shush,’ I say, frantically casting my eyes around the store for a member of staff. The child’s wailing increases, and my heart rate picks up. Should I walk away? I’m clearly distressing her further and, in a minute, everyone will be staring at me and assuming I’m the one causing the girl’s distress. They might think I’m trying to harm her, or worse, abduct her.
But I can’t leave her like this, she needs me. A griping pain in my stomach steals my breath; I gasp, struggling to regain my composure. How can a simple act of kindness, concern for a child’s welfare, be misconstrued?
Don’t be so silly, Erica – just do something.
‘I’ll help you find your mummy,’ I say, softly, and hold out my hand for her to take. I’ll head straight to the customer services desk, and they’ll put out an announcement. It’ll be fine. The child and mother will be reunited within minutes.
Other shoppers stare at me as I pull the girl through them, half-dragging her up the aisle, her cries rising in pitch. I feel my face burn and I mumble, ‘She’s lost’ as we pass by, just to make sure they know I’m helping.
‘This little girl’s become separated from her mother,’ I say when I reach the counter, beads of sweat prickling my forehead. I leave the crying girl with the customer service assistant and immediately my stomach unknots, relief flooding my body. I wipe my damp hands down the legs of my skinny white jeans. I’m so pleased to have handed her to a member of staff. Now I can get on with my shopping in peace and finish the conversation I was having in my head. My mind, though, drifts instead to what I’m
going to post on my Instagram page later. It’s been two days since I updated my grid and my followers will be eager to learn what I’ve been up to. Engaging with my audience is a key attribute for a successful account, and sharing my IVF journey with them, the struggles, the highs and lows, is what keeps them interested and helps them and me to navigate this sometimes traumatic procedure.
My basket is still where I abandoned it, the avocado the lone occupant. I pick up the shopping where I left off, but the conversation with Jamie is, for now, lost. The desire to get back home and immerse myself in my Instagram life is enough to propel me around the store, popping the dinner items in my basket with speed. Just when I think I’ll be done and home within the next half-hour, I clock the queues. Shuffling through the tightly lined-up customers, garnering tuts along the way, I head to the self-checkout only to be faced with a line snaking around towards the exit. I give an exasperated sigh and scan the tills for any potential gaps. I’ve only got one basket; it’s overflowing, but I should be able to get away with the aisle for ten items or less. No one will care. With confidence, I join the line and position my basket so it’s not so obvious I have at least twenty things.
As I move forward, my gaze wanders to the customer service desk. I hope the little girl was safely reunited with her mum. Heat flushes my cheeks; it’s really warm in here. Christ, do they have some form of heating on? It’s only autumn, not winter. I lay my basket on the conveyor, then shrug my jacket off, hanging it over the crook of my arm as I begin unpacking my basket. The woman behind the till lends me a sideways glance, glares at my growing line of groceries and gives a condemning shake of the head.
Her lips press together, forming a thin line, and her nostrils flare, so I flash a wide smile in return. You have to be confident if you’re going to knowingly break the rules.
When the person in front of me has paid, the stern-looking till woman – Karen, her badge states below the Bateman’s logo – snatches the ‘next customer’ bar and rams it up against the others to the edge of the conveyor, the loud clacking sound making me flinch.
‘Morning,’ I say brightly when it’s my turn.
Karen’s thick, black pencilled-on eyebrows rise but I avoid eye contact as she begins swiping my items through with exaggerated arm movements and a speed which makes my head spin. I struggle to keep up, practically throwing my things in the large ‘bag for life’. I briefly wonder about the honesty of that statement. Whose life are they referring to? Because this bag won’t last for the entirety of mine. It’ll break at some point, then if I bring it back, they’ll replace it for free. However, that will be a different bag. Karen barks the total at me before sitting back, arms crossed as she waits. I’ve gone through the ten items or less with more than that, but it’s not as though I’ve committed a crime. Now, if I were to have walked out with said items without paying, that’s a different matter. I’m about to point this out, when a tap on my shoulder startles me, and I turn sharply. I half expect it to be someone I know who’s spotted me and is just saying hi. But it’s no one I recognise. Distress is etched on the woman’s face; her eyes are wide and imploring.
‘Yes?’ I ask.
‘Have you seen her?’ The single sentence sends a sliver of ice trickling down my back. I look down to her hand, where she grasps a photo. She pushes it in front of my face,
too close for me to focus on it, but I can tell it’s an image of a young girl.
‘Er . . . have you lost your little girl?’ My mind flounders for a moment, before settling on the assumption this woman must be the mother of the child I took to customer services. ‘I found her and took—’
‘You found her. Where? Where did you find her? Take me to her!’ The woman grabs my arm, shaking it wildly. I take a step back, pulling away from her panicked grip.
I anxiously point across the supermarket. ‘I . . . I took her to the customer—’
‘Hang on!’ Karen booms from behind the till. She extricates herself from her seat and shuffles towards us. ‘Come on, love,’ Karen says. ‘Not again, okay?’ She tries to guide her away from me and the till.
‘Don’t touch me.’ The woman shirks her arm away and comes at me again with her outstretched hand. With my attention fully on her, I note her face is drawn, her skin dull, the crow’s-feet spanning from her eyes look more like spiders’ legs and her irises are so dark, it’s as if the light’s gone out in them. Her hair is wispy – I can see a patch where a clump of it has either fallen out or been torn from the follicles. It’s pitiful, and something deep inside me breaks. ‘You’ve seen her, haven’t you?’ she demands. ‘You know where she is.’
My heart squeezes in my chest as she thrusts the photo into my hand. This poor woman, she must be distraught. For a long time I’ve been desperately trying to have a baby; I can visualise holding the tiny bundle in my arms, imagine the overwhelming love that will rush from me like a burst dam, but I don’t ever want to think about the sheer hell of losing a child. As Karen talks to her, asking her to leave
the customers alone, I’m able to take in the details in the image. It’s a head and shoulders shot of a girl in a stripey top, around the age of three. Her round blue eyes are edged with long pale lashes; she has bow-shaped lips that are slightly parted as though she’s about to speak and her pretty freckled face is framed by strawberry-blonde curls. She’s been captured while her attention is only half on the person snapping the photo, like she’s in a world of her own. I smile.
But it’s not the girl I found wandering the store earlier.
I push between Karen and the woman to hand back her photo. It must be precious to her. ‘Where did you last see your daughter?’ I ask.
‘Here, at this supermarket,’ the woman says, her breaths coming short and fast.
Karen puts her hands up in defeat. ‘Look, I’m going to have to get security. You can’t keep harassing the customers.’
I take a step back, shocked by Karen’s attitude.
‘This woman has lost her child. Are you listening?’ My cheeks burn. ‘Why aren’t you helping her?’ Karen lets out a long, deep sigh. She’s not even looking at me, she’s waving a security guard over.
‘I’m sorry she’s bothered you.’ Karen returns her gaze to me, our eyes meeting in a hard glare. ‘And there you were trying to be quick to get out of here. Bundling all your twenty items on the conveyor hoping no one would notice.’
I fluster, but then anger rises inside me. How dare she treat me, but more importantly this woman, with such disrespect? ‘Well, I don’t think something as critical as finding a missing child is a bother. Why aren’t you doing something?’
A burly security man, young and brimming with
attitude, strides up to us but I instinctively stand in front of the woman, like somehow that’ll protect her. He hesitates, shooting Karen a look that makes me think he doesn’t much care for her attitude either.
‘Yes, yes – I’m aware how it looks,’ Karen says to the onlookers as she shimmies back around the till to take her seat. ‘This isn’t the first time. It won’t be the last.’ She rolls her eyes at the security guard. ‘Can you do the honours again?’ she says.
My expression must still be one of incredulity, as she gives a little shake of her head, some long silver-grey strands of hair escaping the band she’s had it scraped up in. The queue has reached epic proportions and there’s an air of restlessness as those who’ve been waiting patiently now huff and complain.
‘This happens every bloody Friday,’ Karen says in a hushed whisper. Like now she’s being discreet. ‘Poor thing. She’s deluded . . .’ I’m curious to learn more, but my attention is taken with the security guard attempting to remove the woman. I catch some of what’s being said though – the customers in the queue suddenly keen to pipe in with their own opinions.
‘Really? Has anyone even checked?’
‘Trust me, the first time she came in here crying and distraught, it was taken very seriously. Full search of the supermarket, police called, CCTV checked and all. But nothing.’
‘So, she didn’t lose her child here?’
‘I don’t think there even was a child. Let alone a lost one,’ she says.
‘Why would she keep coming here to ask if anyone has seen her then? And who is the girl in the photo?’
Karen shrugs and begins swiping items through the checkout, the bleeping getting quicker as she speeds up. I’m gently nudged out of the way. As I leave the store with my two bags of shopping and head to where my car is parked, I scan the area.
But the woman is nowhere to be seen.
You can pre-order The Girl in the Photo by Sam Carrington here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Photo-utterly-gripping-thriller-ebook/dp/B09VRYM1L5/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1688558619&sr=8-1