The Stranger on the Train
Sunday, September 17th
At the top of the stairs, a group of teenage boys slumped against the walls with their feet out, taking up most of the passageway. They wore black puffy jackets and had the same expressions on their faces: blank, hard, bored. Emma heard their voices from around the corner, echoing off the tiles. As soon as they saw her, their conversation stopped.
“Excuse me,” Emma said politely.
Very slowly, they moved their feet back. There was just enough room for her to pass. She had to walk straight through the middle of the group, feeling their eyes on her. They watched in silence as she struggled down the steps with the buggy and Ritchie and all the bags.
She was glad when she got to the bottom of the steps and around the corner. The tube platform was deserted and starkly lit. Emma checked behind her. The boys had not followed.
“All right, Rich?” Relieved, she crouched down beside the buggy. She was not normally a nervous person, but with Ritchie there she found herself hoping the train would come soon.
Ritchie, a solid, chubby thirteen-month-old, had begun to grizzle, sticking his tummy out and rubbing his eyes with his fist.
“Tired, eh?” Emma jiggled the buggy. “Soon be home.”
She was tired herself. It had been a long day: a trip all the way across London to the East End. She’d been desperate to get out of the flat and couldn’t face yet another walk to Hammersmith Broadway or the North End Road. They’d made a day of it; wandered around the stalls in Spitalfields Market, bought some trousers and vests for Ritchie, and gone to a busy little café for scones and coffee, and a jar of Banana Surprise. Then they’d got a bus to Mile End and gone for a walk by Regent’s Canal, watching the swans and the long boats with their painted flowerpots. But when it turned chilly it was time to go home. In the dusk, the canal had a layer of green scum and a rusting shopping trolley poking out of the water. It took quite a while to find a tube station, and the shopping bags doubled in weight, knocking against Emma’s legs as she walked. She was relieved to finally spot the familiar blue and red London Underground circle ahead of her on the pavement.
“Muh.” Ritchie leaned out of his buggy to thrust his orange lollipop at her. Sticky liquid trickled down his sleeve.
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Emma felt a headache starting. “Why did you ask for it, then?”
Roughly, she took the lolly from him and wiped his face and hands. She looked around for a bin. None anywhere, of course. It was a quarter to eight on Sunday evening. Everyone seemed to have finished their traveling for the day and gone home. There wasn’t a soul about. She could just chuck the lolly on the tracks. In the end, however, she wrapped it in a tissue and stuffed it into her bag. On the wall of the platform opposite, an ad for bottled water showed a picture of the countryside. Trees, and water, and peace.
Ritchie whined again, straining at the straps.
“Come on, then.” What harm could there be in letting him out?
As she knelt to undo the straps, a faint scratching noise sounded from deep in the tunnel.
There was something sinister, Emma had always thought, about the sound of a train approaching through a tunnel. The way you could hear but not see it; only the rattle of the tracks ahead of whatever monstrous thing was about to loom from the darkness. Quickly, she lifted Ritchie onto the platform. He’d heard the noise as well and turned to stare, a breeze lifting the blond down on his head. Emma held on to his harness, stooping to fold the buggy with her free hand. The noise grew louder. Ritchie pressed himself against her leg, gripping her jeans in his fist. Distracted though she was, she remembered afterwards the way he had looked. Round little face, eyes wide, mouth in an O as he gaped at the tunnel and waited for the monster to come.
“Der,” he said, thrilled, as the headlights lit up the tunnel. He let go of Emma’s jeans to point. The grimy red, white and blue carriages roared into the station. Squeals and screeches filled the platform; the train slowed, then stopped. The roar of the engine died abruptly, like a turned-off fan.
A second later, the doors whoomped open.
“On you go,” Emma said.
Ritchie didn’t need to be told twice. Emma steered him to an empty carriage, keeping his harness taut, lifting it a little to help him climb on board. He struggled in on his hands and knees, the top of his nappy sticking out from his cargo pants. Then he stood up again in the doorway, delighted with himself.
“Muh,” he said, turning to wave her aboard with a fat hand.
That was how she saw him, mostly, in the weeks that followed. Standing there in the doorway with his toothy little grin, his crooked fringe, his blue fleece with the smiley elephant on the front. There was nothing different about him, nothing she hadn’t seen a thousand times before. No whisper in her head warning her to snatch him back from the carriage and never let him go. He was still waving as she loaded the buggy on beside him and turned to pick up the bags. Reaching down, Emma thought she felt something with her other hand: a slight, sideways jerk on the harness she was gripping. Just a small thing, but looking back there must have been something odd about it, because she remembered frowning to herself. Even before she had a chance to straighten, to look, she knew that something was wrong.
She spun around. For a second, she found it hard to take in what she was seeing. Her thoughts zigzagged. What is missing from this picture? She still held Ritchie’s harness in her hand, but the door of the carriage was closed.
Closed in her face, and Ritchie was on the other side.
Dropping the bags, Emma sprang at the door and tried to get her fingers around the edges. Through the window, she saw the top of Ritchie’s head.
“Hang on,” she called. “I’m coming.”
Oh God, how did you open the door? Everything was a blur. Then she found the “Open” button and pressed it. Nothing happened. She jabbed again, harder this time. Still nothing. She began to bang on the door with her fists.
“Help!” She looked wildly around the platform. “My baby’s stuck.”
Her voice rose thinly and trickled away. The platform was deserted. Just dark slabs of concrete, metal benches along the walls, the silent tunnels at each end.
“Shit.” Emma’s heart was pounding. She felt very quick, alert. She looked around again and this time spotted a red box on the wall with a glass panel on the front. The fire alarm. Instinctively she jerked towards it. Then she stopped. To reach the alarm, she would have to let go of Ritchie’s harness. She dithered, unable to make herself relinquish, even for one second, her contact with her son.
“Help!” she yelled again, louder this time. “Somebody.”
Surely someone must hear. This was a public place, for God’s sake. She was right in the middle of London.
Something occurred to her then. The train hadn’t moved. The doors seemed to have been closed for an age but the train was still just standing there.
“They know we’re here.” She sagged with relief. Of course. The train couldn’t go while the harness was caught in the door. The driver could see her in a mirror or camera or something. Someone would be along in a minute to help. She stood there, waiting, not knowing what else to do. “It’s all right,” she told herself. “It’s all right.”
She looked in again to check on Ritchie. Then she jumped. What was that? That movement, way down at the end of the carriage?
Someone was in there. Someone was in there with Ritchie.
Emma felt a jolt of unease. Surely the carriage had been empty before? She searched sharply for whoever it was, just blocked from view by the handrail. Then the person moved again, coming closer to the window, and she saw that it was a woman.
The woman was leaning forward in the aisle, bending cautiously to peer through the glass. She looked older than Emma, closer to her mum’s age maybe, blond and well-groomed. She looked sensible. She looked concerned.
She looked . . . normal.
Emma breathed again.
“My baby,” she called, trying to smile. She pointed at Ritchie. “My baby’s stuck.”
The woman pressed her hand to her mouth, a horrified expression on her face. The expression said: What should I do?
“Open the door.” Emma pointed her free hand. “Find the alarm and press it.”
The woman nodded. She took a step back and began to look up and around the door.
Christ. What a day. Feeling weak, Emma rested her forehead against the window and looked down at Ritchie. He was sitting on the floor, facing away from her, pulling at the zip on his fleece. All she could see was the top of his head. This was such a stupid situation to have ended up in. It was so exhausting, being a mother. You couldn’t relax, you couldn’t look away, not even for one second. Probably she and the blond woman would laugh about it when the doors were open and Emma had got on and had Ritchie safely back on her knee.
“Bit of a close one,” the woman would say, maybe thinking how careless Emma was but being nice about it.
“I know. You’d want eyes in the back of your head.” And Emma would smile, then pull Ritchie to her and turn away. Back to it just being the two of them. The way it always was.
She could feel Ritchie on her knee already; his blocky weight, the apple scent of shampoo from his hair. In her head, everything was normal again. So it was a couple of seconds before she realized that the doors of the carriage still hadn’t opened.
She frowned, looking up.
At the same moment, the train gave a loud hiss.
Emma’s self-control vanished.
“Help!” Wildly, she hammered on the glass. “Please. The train’s about to go.”
The woman was back at the window, mouthing something. Her lips moved: “Ex. Op. Ex. Op.”
The woman gestured vigorously, pointing at Emma, then ahead of her, down the tunnel.
“What?” Emma stared in confusion. Violently, she shook her head to let the woman know she didn’t understand.
The train gave a second hiss.
And then a lurch.
“No!” Emma gripped Ritchie’s harness and screamed, a high scream of terror. “Please. Stop!”
The train pulled ahead of her. Emma began to follow it. She was trotting before she knew it.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!”
A second later, she was running. It was that fast. One second the train was not moving at all, the next it was hurtling straight for the tunnel. Emma was sprinting flat out to keep up with the harness. Her ears were filled with noise. Ahead of her, the barriers bristled with signs saying: Danger! Stop! The signs were rushing towards her but she couldn’t stop. She didn’t know if her hand was tangled in the harness or if she was just holding tight, but she knew she would not let go. The barriers were in front of her. Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus.
Something grabbed at her arm, jerking her to a stop so suddenly that she flew right around in a circle. There was a burning sensation as the harness dragged across her hand, a vicious twist of her finger as the strap caught on it, then was gone. She stumbled, spun further, landed hard on her knees. The noise increased as the train filled the tunnel, a hollow roar surging back at her, an animal howl of pain and anguish and rage.
And then it was gone.
• • •
Ritchie, Emma thought, through a haze of horror. She was on her hands and knees at the end of the platform, her head almost touching the tangle of signs and barriers. Ritchie is gone. I don’t have him. He’s gone.
She felt sick. She was going to pass out. Numbness prickled around her mouth and in her hands.
What had that woman said?
Emma struggled to her feet, ignoring the pain in her hand and knees. Strangely, there was a man on the ground behind her. Emma didn’t stop to wonder about him. She ran down the platform, frantically searching for the board that showed you how long before the next train came.
Next thing, the man was on his feet beside her, jogging backwards to face her.
“Hey!” he shouted. “What did you think you were you playing at? Why didn’t you let go?”
Emma ignored him. The board. Oh God, where was the board?
“Didn’t you hear me?” The man got deliberately in front of her, forcing her to stop.
“Please—” Emma tried to duck around him.
“You could have been killed.” The man was leaning into her, taller than she was, blocking her path. His face was a blur. All she registered was that he was dark-haired and wearing something blue. “If it wasn’t for me you’d have gone under the train. All over a fucking . . . what was it? Designer handbag?”
“It wasn’t a handbag,” Emma yelled at him. “It was my baby.”
“My baby!” She screamed it into his face. “Mybaby, mybabymybabymybaby.” Her voice cracked. She put her hands to her mouth.
“Fucking hell.” The man’s face went white.
Emma gave a long, keening sob, pushed past him and headed for the sign. Through spots in her vision, she saw the board. Next train: one minute. Her breath wheezed in her ears. One minute. One minute.
“Fucking hell.” It was the man, beside her again. “I’m going to press the alarm.”
“No!” She spun to face him. “Don’t!”
“I have to get to the next station.” Emma struggled to speak clearly, to make him understand. “There was a woman on the train. She’s going to take Ritchie off there.”
“A woman? Are you sure?”
Emma felt the tension around her eyes. She pictured the woman’s lips, moving around the words: Ex Op. Next. Stop. That was what she had meant. Wasn’t it?
Rattling on the tracks. A breeze blew her hair across her face. She swung back towards the tunnel.
“Why didn’t she pull the alarm?” the man asked.
Emma bit her lip. Oh God, train, come on. Please. Please. Come on.
The man said: “Look, I really think—”
“No, you look.” Emma turned on him, almost snarling. “I know you’re trying to help, but please, don’t press any alarms. You’ll stop the trains, and I just want to get Ritchie at the next station, so please, just go away, and leave me alone!”
The train had arrived by this time. Emma was on it as soon as the doors were open. She kept moving, power walking down the aisle to the end of the carriage, as if by doing so she could bring herself closer to Ritchie.
A final shout from the man.
“Hey!” He was waving something. “Is this your—”
And then the doors closed.
In the train, Emma stood swaying by the window, almost touching it with her nose. The tunnel turned the window into a mirror. She saw her own pale face, like a blob, elongated and distorted in the glass. There were other people in the carriage but she never saw who they were.
“Come on, come on,” she whispered. The agony of just having to stand there and wait. She had a physical ache to have Ritchie back with her, a panicky feeling as if she wasn’t getting enough oxygen until she could breathe him in. She pictured herself at the next station, grabbing him into her arms, pressing her face into the velvety curve of his neck.
That man’s voice.
Why didn’t she pull the alarm?
Something sucked at Emma’s lungs. She tried to breathe, and nothing came in.
Suppose she got to the next station, and Ritchie wasn’t there?
No. No. Don’t think it. Of course he would be there. The woman had looked nice. What else would she do but take him off? It was the logical thing. She had said: Next. Stop. She had said it. Emma went back to picturing herself with Ritchie, his stubby, warm little body, his smell. Her eyes prickled. She had been such a crap mother to him. Not just today but every day; ever since he’d been born. He deserved better than her. She put her hand over her mouth, quietening her pain, swallowing back the tears, the guilt. She would make it up to him. She would. In another minute. Less than a minute. How long could the train take? When would the tunnel end? How long before she stopped seeing her own face in the window and saw the platform and Ritchie instead?
But what if he wasn’t there?
The tunnel vanished. Emma’s face was replaced by the outdoors: navy blue sky, brick walls, tracks converging on each other. Then they were in the station; lights and platforms and posters. Clunkety-clunk. The train slowed; she whipped her head from side to side, searching the platform, her lungs heavy, struggling to fill with the weight. There was a woman on a seat with a baby and . . . It was her baby, it was Ritchie, it was her woman. Oh God, oh God, oh God. She was going to fall. She managed to hold herself up until the train stopped and the doors opened, then she ran out and flew to the bench. Ritchie was sitting, quite unconcerned, on the woman’s knee, chewing his sleeve, and the woman was looking at her and smiling. As Emma reached them, the woman rose to her feet, holding Ritchie up before her like a gift. Emma grabbed him and kissed all over his cheeks and forehead and ears, pulling his feathery head tight into her neck. She squeezed him to her until neither of them could breathe, and wept his name over and over again into the side of his silky little face.
The Stranger on the Train
Ritchie wailed, arching his back and pushing Emma away with his fists. She was squashing him. His breath smelled of rusk, and orange lollipop. Emma’s arms were too weak to hold him. She needed to sit down. The sides of her vision were going dark.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked. Her voice echoed from a long way away. “Shall I take him for you?”
Emma felt Ritchie being lifted from her arms; she felt the seat behind her with her knees and sank into it. A tide sound rushed at her ears. She closed her eyes and leaned forward.
After a minute, the rushing noise receded. The platform returned to normal around her.
Emma sat up.
“Thank you,” she said, and burst into tears.
She didn’t know how long she cried. Probably no more than a few seconds, but when she looked up, Ritchie, sitting on the woman’s knee, was staring at her, open-mouthed. A long thread of drool hung from his lower lip, inches from the woman’s expensive-looking sleeve. It was that which made Emma get herself under control.
“I’m sorry.” She pressed the bases of her hands to her eyes. “There’s only the two of us, my little boy and me. It’s so hard sometimes . . . I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “You don’t want to hear this. You must think I’m a terrible mother.”
“Nonsense,” the woman murmured. “You’ve had a dreadful shock.”
She was right. Emma longed to cuddle Ritchie, but her hands were trembling and her face was soaked with tears and mucus. There was blood on her lip as well. She must have bitten it. She looked around for something to wipe it with. This station was much busier than the last one. Where were they? She looked at the sign above the seats. Whitechapel. Another train was pulling into the platform. Two girls stood up to meet it.
“Tissue?” The woman balanced Ritchie with one arm and rummaged in her bag. She did look the sort who would have a clean tissue with her at all times. Sensible, organized, like the headmistress of a school. She looked to be in her early forties, with blond hair cut in layers to just below her ears. Tweedy trousers. A short, fawn-colored jacket, with fur at the cuffs and collar.
“Here we are,” the woman said.
“Thank you.” Emma took the tissue and wiped her eyes and face. The woman watched her in a sympathetic sort of way. Close up, she had tiny, spidery veins on her cheeks. It was an outdoor face, despite the pearl earrings and coiffed hair. A horse rider’s or gardener’s face. Emma had seen plenty of women like her during her childhood in Bath. They were everywhere at Christmas, lunching in cozy tea shops with their daughters, surrounded by shopping bags. Emma had waited on them during her school holidays.
“Let me take him.” Emma finished drying her eyes and reached for Ritchie. Immediately he shook his head, leaned back into the woman’s elbow and stuck his fist in his mouth.
“What’s wrong?” Emma was upset. “Why won’t you come to me?”
The woman gave a little laugh. “I think he must have got a fright when you squeezed him.”
“I probably hurt him,” Emma worried. It wasn’t like Ritchie to be so manipulative. Normally he wouldn’t go to anyone except her.
“It was the shock. And of course he doesn’t know he nearly went missing, do you, little manikin?” The woman jiggled Ritchie and leaned sideways to look at him. He gazed up at her, chewing his fist. “You had your mummy all worried, didn’t you, you naughty little man?” She looked back at Emma. “He’s adorable, isn’t he? Such blond hair. And you’re so dark. What’s his name?”
“Ritchie. How sweet. Is that after his daddy?”
“No.” Emma looked away.
The woman didn’t push it. “Would you like another tissue?” she asked. She pronounced it tiss-yoo. “No, give that old one back to me. There aren’t any bins down here.”
She took the sodden tissue from Emma and tucked it into her bag.
“By the way.” She held out her hand. “I’m Antonia.”
“Emma. Emma Turner.” Emma shook Antonia’s hand.
“Where do you live, Emma? Are you near home?”
“No,” Emma said. “I live in Fulham. Hammersmith, really, I suppose.”
“Well, you are a long way from home. Shall I come some of the way with you on the train? You shouldn’t travel alone in this state.”
“I’ll be fine. Honestly.” It was almost true. She was still shaky, but she was starting to recover. She just wanted to be alone now, to get her bearings and get herself and Ritchie back to the flat. And then she remembered. “Oh. My bag. I left it at the other station.”
“My goodness,” Antonia said. “You have got yourself in a mess.”
“I’ll be all right.” Emma stood up. She’d sort something out. What was a lost bag? A few minutes ago, she thought she’d lost her son. “Ritchie and I will go back there and ask. See if anyone’s handed it in.”
“Well,” said Antonia, “I think the chances of you finding that bag at this stage are really very small. Perhaps I should wait to see if you need some money to get home?”
“Oh, no.” Emma was horrified. She hadn’t meant to sound like she was asking for money.
“I insist. I’m going to make sure you get home safely. You’ve had a very nasty shock.” Antonia put a hand on Emma’s arm. “Won’t you come for a cup of coffee? My treat.”
“I couldn’t ask you to do that. You’ve done enough.” Emma felt her barriers going up. She knew she must look awful, streaky with tears, her hair all over the place. The sleeve of her jacket was ripped from where she’d fallen on the platform, and the front of one of her trainers was lifting off its sole. Antonia seemed kind, but Emma just wanted to be left in peace. Just to get back to herself again, have another little cry, even, if she wanted to. She found it hard enough to talk to people these days, never mind someone like Antonia who was being very tactful but must be wondering how anyone could be so stupid as to leave their baby on a train.
“Just one coffee.” Antonia was watching her. “Look, I have an idea. I’ve been visiting a friend of mine, and I was supposed to meet my husband in town, but why don’t I call him and ask him to collect me here instead? He has a car. Let us take you home.”
Emma wanted to say no. She really did, but she felt beaten, weary, unexpectedly overwhelmed at the idea of someone being kind to her. Her shoulders were heavy, as though someone had put a blanket over them.
“Okay,” she said. Her eyes prickled. “Thank you.”
While she was blowing her nose again, Antonia stood up with Ritchie in her arms.
“I’ll get this young man settled,” she said.
“He won’t let—” Emma began, but Antonia was already loading Ritchie into his pushchair. He didn’t protest at all. His head nodded, his eyelids drooped. Antonia fastened him in with the straps. She seemed to know exactly what she was doing.
“There.” She patted Ritchie’s head. “You need a sleep, don’t you? Poor little man.”
Emma went to take the buggy, but Antonia had the handles in her grasp. She took off at a brisk pace, steering Ritchie towards the stairs. Emma had nothing to do but follow them, empty-handed. The platform was open at both ends; a chill breeze blew over their heads. Emma’s knees stung beneath her jeans. It felt strange to have nothing to carry, no Ritchie, no bag. She felt out of control. Vulnerable. She would have preferred to carry Rich, to take him out of the buggy and hold him; but Antonia had been so kind, it would be rude to wake him up. She settled for watching him as they walked. My God, my God.
She helped Antonia to lift the buggy up the stairs. At the turnstile, Antonia turned to her and said: “You’ve lost your ticket, haven’t you? You’ll need to report your missing bag to the guard. Ask him to let you through.”
“Go on.” Antonia gave her an encouraging smile. “Don’t worry about Ritchie and me. We’ll wait for you at the entrance.”
Wanting to hurry, Emma didn’t mention anything to the cheerful orange-jacketed guard about Ritchie getting caught on the train. She just said that she’d lost her bag at the previous station, Stepney Green, and asked if anyone had handed it in. The guard went into a room at the side to use the phone. Emma glanced through the turnstiles, towards the entrance to the station. It was dark now outside. Raining, it looked like. The pavements were shiny with light. A couple of people stood inside the doors, sheltering from the rain, or queuing for the little newspaper and sweet kiosk at the side. More people pushed through the barriers: a man wearing a woolen hat, a woman in a hijab holding the hand of a little girl. Then they were gone, and there were just their footsteps on the wet floor. Emma looked again at the entrance. Then she froze. She took a jerky half step towards the barrier.
Where had Antonia gone?
She saw her then, just beside the kiosk. She was kneeling by Ritchie’s buggy, adjusting the zip of his fleece; that must be why she’d missed her at first. Emma let out a shaky breath. It just went to show how jumpy she was. Ritchie was asleep. She watched him hungrily. His head was on his chest, making him look as if he had three chins. His wispy hair was brushed straight down on his forehead. The smiley blue elephant on his front moved up and down as he breathed. Antonia looked up just then and saw Emma watching. She gave a little wave.
The guard came back.
“No bag, I’m afraid,” he said. “There’s a number for Lost Property if you—”
“It’s okay.” Emma was anxious to be back with Ritchie. She gestured to the barrier. “Is it all right if I go on through? My ticket was in my bag.”
The guard was in a good mood. He tipped his hand to his forehead and released the turnstile for her. Once through it, Emma headed straight for Ritchie. She reached for the handles of the pushchair and instead found Antonia pressing a twenty-pound note into her hand.
“You must take it,” Antonia insisted as Emma began to protest. “There’s a café open down that way, look.” She pointed down a side street to where a sign on a lighted window read: “Mr. Bap’s.”
“We’ll go there to wait for my husband,” Antonia said. “You can buy the coffees. You might want to get something for Ritchie too, and I wouldn’t know what to buy.”
“I . . . oh, okay.” Emma gave in. Antonia had a point. Ritchie would be hungry soon. She’d buy something for him to eat, but as soon as she was at the table she’d wake him up and take him onto her knee and have him back to herself again.
Mr. Bap’s turned out to be more of a fast-food restaurant than a café. Inside, the damp air of the street gave way to a strong smell of vinegar and chips. Rows of brown plastic tables and benches took up the front half of the restaurant. Most of the tables were in need of a wipe. At the back of the shop was the counter, lined with giant bottles of brown sauce and mustard. The only other customer, an elderly bearded man with a beige jacket zipped up to his neck, sat at a table by the wall, staring into a cup in his hand.
“Not very nice, is it?” Antonia wrinkled her nose. “Still, it’s warm. And we won’t be here for very long.”
She wheeled the buggy to a table by the window. Ritchie was still asleep. Emma went to order the drinks.
“Two coffees, please,” she said quickly to the gray-haired, stubble-faced man behind the counter. “And one of those chocolate buns. And a carton of milk.”
“Large or small coffees?”
“Any one. It doesn’t matter.”
Emma fidgeted, gazing around her as the man poked through a tall steel fridge. The wall beside the counter was smeared with something red, darkened and crusted into the paint. Ketchup, Emma hoped. She shuddered. What a dreary place to work on a Sunday evening. Over by the window, Antonia had her mobile phone to her ear. She was talking in a low voice, probably so as not to wake Ritchie. Her hand covered her mouth as she spoke.
“Anything else?” the man behind the counter asked.
“Oh.” Emma looked back at the tray. “No, thank you. Just what’s there.”
The man couldn’t seem to work the cash register. The drawer kept springing open at the wrong time. Every time it did, the man tutted and slammed it shut again. Emma wished he’d just hand over the change. Ritchie had moved in his sleep. Now his head was tipped back, his mouth open, his two white top teeth showing. Antonia was still on the phone. She had her back to Emma, but her head was turned to the side and her hand had moved away from her mouth. Emma could see the movements of her lips as she spoke.
Bird rack, Antonia seemed to be saying. Or at least that was what her lips made it look like.
For no reason at all, a vivid image popped into Emma’s head. Her mum, sitting, watching the telly in their terraced house in Bath. Emma was at the corner table, doing her homework. The curtains were drawn; the flames of the gas fire flickered. Emma could see her mum, sitting as usual in her brown-and-red flowery armchair by the fire. The half-drunk mug of tea beside her on the coffee table. The fixed, rather sad expression on her face as she concentrated on her program.
Emma frowned. How many times had she seen her mum watching the telly like that when she was young? What had made her suddenly think of it now? She looked again at Ritchie and shook her head.
Finally the man managed to get the drawer to work, and handed Emma her change. Emma took the coffees and bun over to the window. Antonia was still talking into her mobile phone. Emma slid the tray onto the table.
“Sorry for the delay,” she began.
Antonia jumped and spun around. Then she lifted her finger and smiled.
“I have to go now,” she said into the phone. “I’ll see you soon.”
She helped Emma to unload the tray.
“That was my husband,” she said. “He’s on his way.”
Emma sat down thankfully and pulled Ritchie’s buggy towards her.
“That young man’s out for the count,” Antonia said.
“He’ll wake up soon.” Emma peeled the wrapper off the chocolate bun. “He’s due his dinner.”
“I don’t think he looks like he’s interested in eating anything, do you?”
“He will soon,” Emma said, more sharply than she’d intended.
Antonia didn’t reply. She drew her cup of coffee towards her, picked up the tiny stainless-steel milk jug from the table and began to pour. Immediately, Emma regretted her tone. What on earth was wrong with her? Antonia was only trying to be nice.
In a politer voice, she asked: “Do you have children?”
The steel jug stopped pouring. Antonia held it in the air for a moment before she answered.
“Yes, we do,” she said. “We have a little boy.”
She tipped the jug again and went on pouring. Emma was surprised. For some reason, she’d have thought that if Antonia had children they’d be grown by now. Teenagers at least. Antonia looked much too groomed to be the mother of a young child. Maybe she had a nanny. Before she could ask her where the child was, Antonia put down the jug and nodded at Ritchie’s pushchair.
She said: “I gather from what you mentioned about it just being the two of you that this little chap’s father isn’t around?”
“No,” Emma said. “We split up before he was born.”
“But your family helps out?”
“I don’t have any family. My parents are dead.”
“I see,” said Antonia. “Alone in the world.”
Emma stirred her coffee.
“Money must be tight, I imagine,” Antonia said, eyeing Emma’s bobbly woolen jumper and faded jeans. “How on earth do you cope?”
“But it isn’t an ideal environment for a child, is it? No money, no family support. Hardly fair on him, I would have thought.”
Emma felt uncomfortable. She really didn’t want to discuss this any more. She went to undo the straps of Ritchie’s pushchair. He stiffened at once and scrunched up his face. Emma knew she was forcing him out of sleep and he’d be cross, but she wanted to wake him, to have him back to herself.
“Shh,” she soothed him, tugging on the straps. He pushed against them, tightening the buckle.
“Still tired,” Antonia remarked. “Perhaps you should leave him.”
“Rich, look.” Abruptly, Emma turned to the table. “Do you want some bun?” She steadied her hands by breaking a piece off the muffin on her plate.
When she turned back, Antonia had Ritchie out of the pushchair and on her knee.
Emma didn’t know what to say.
“You shouldn’t let him eat sweets,” Antonia said. Ritchie sat on her knee, rubbing his eyes. “Should she, little man?”
Emma’s heart was hammering. She was thinking: I won’t take the lift. We’ll just go.
“Oh, look,” Antonia said. “Your lip’s started bleeding again.”
Emma put her hand up to her mouth. Wetness on her lower lip. She took away her fingers and saw that the tips were red.
“Oh dear.” Antonia’s face creased with concern. “And I’m afraid I don’t have any tissues left.”
Emma jumped up to get a paper towel from the counter. But she couldn’t see any. The man behind the counter had disappeared, presumably through a doorway beside the fridge hung with colored plastic strips.
“Hello?” Emma called to the plastic strips. “Hello?”
Antonia’s voice: “You might find something down there.”
Emma turned. Antonia was pointing at a gap between the counter and the wall. Through the gap, a narrow passage led to a brown door marked: “Toilets.”
Without speaking, Emma marched to the gap and down the passage. She was going to get some tissues, wipe off the blood, take Ritchie and go. Just as she reached the brown door, she looked back. She could see all the way to the front of the shop, where Ritchie was sitting on Antonia’s knee, still rubbing his eyes. Then he saw Emma and his face lit up. He gave a heartbreaking smile and held up his arms.
“Muh,” he said.
She almost turned back to take him. Her weight went to one foot, then the other. But her face and hands were all bloody, and if the toilets were anything like the rest of the café, she could imagine only too well what condition they’d be in. She didn’t want to take Ritchie in there if she could help it. There was something funny about Antonia—something about her superior attitude that Emma didn’t like—but she’d done a good job minding Ritchie on her own already, those few minutes when she’d taken him off the train. Ritchie would be okay with her. Just for a few seconds more.
Emma smiled at him.
“I won’t be a minute,” she said.
Then she opened the door and went in.
As soon as she smelled the air, she was glad she’d left Ritchie outside. The toilet was just one room, with a tiny sink covered with gray cracks and no window. A ventilation fan in the wall above the sink was clogged on the inside with lumps of blackish material. This really was a horrible place. Emma would be just as glad to get Ritchie out of here as soon as possible, even if it meant him having to wait till much later to get anything to eat. She looked at herself in the mirror over the sink. The glass was rippled and bendy; her face looked wider than normal, but it was enough for her to see the swollen area on her lip, oozing from the tip. Blood streaked her cheek and chin. She looked a right mess.
On the cistern at the back of the toilet was an industrial-sized roll of toilet paper. Emma reached for it, avoiding looking into the toilet bowl. She unrolled some of the sheets and tore them off. They were probably filthy but she didn’t care. She wet the tissue under the tiny trickle from the tap and scrubbed at her face. There. That was the worst of it sorted. She threw the tissue into a bin under the sink and tore off a second piece. This she held to her lip, pressing it on the cut for a few seconds to stop the bleeding. But when she took the tissue away, it stuck to the cut and pulled the scab off, making the bleeding start all over again. Emma sighed with impatience. It took two more pieces of tissue before the cut finally stayed sealed. A final quick scrub at her chin, and a rinse of her fingers, and she was done. She didn’t bother looking for anything to dry her hands with.
When she came out of the toilet, she was too busy at first breathing in the fresher air to fully take in what she was seeing. She was looking down the passage towards the front of the restaurant; she had a good view of most of the tables from here. She could see the window with its flaking red lettering: “Mr. Bap’s” spelled back to front. But just inside that, where she would have expected to see Ritchie with his flushed, sleepy face, and Antonia with her flicky blond hair, there was a gap. Ritchie’s pushchair was gone. The table by the window was empty.
Emma didn’t start to worry straightaway. They were here somewhere. She just wasn’t seeing them. She came out into the main part of the café and looked around. The tabletops were sticky and yellow in the fluorescent light. The bearded old man sat with his eyes closed. The man behind the counter was still nowhere to be seen.
Uncertain, Emma stood in the middle of the room. What was happening here? What was going on that she didn’t understand? Then she got it. They’d gone outside! Antonia’s husband had arrived. They’d got Ritchie ready and put him back in his buggy. They were all out there, waiting for her in the street.
She went to the door and yanked it open. She looked up the street and then down. Cars and buses on the main road. Some shops still open, their lights glistening on the pavement. Music thumping from one of them, an unfamiliar Eastern beat. Groups of bearded men, some wearing round, colored hats. No sign of a woman in a furry jacket pushing a buggy.
A few feet along, the street turned onto another side road. Emma went to it and looked down. Railings along the pavement, three buses in a row. Blocks of flats, a pub.
No woman with a buggy.
Trying hard not to panic, Emma hurried back to the café. This was ridiculous. They must be here! Antonia must have taken Ritchie to some other table, some section of the restaurant Emma hadn’t noticed before. She really should have told her first, though. This was definitely the last straw. When she found Ritchie now, she really was just going to take him and go.
But even as she quickly examined every wall of the restaurant, and all around the counter, she knew what she’d known when she’d first walked into the place: that it was just one square room, with the window and door to the street at the front. There were no stairs, and no corner. No tables she hadn’t seen. No other section to the café at all.
Emma hurtled down the passage to the toilet. She flung open the door, just in case there was a second toilet in there and she’d missed it. But there was just the one stinking room.
Hands shaking, she ran to the front of the counter.
“Excuse me,” she called, her voice high-pitched. “Excuse me.”
The colored plastic strips moved. The man with the stubbly beard poked his head through.
“Did you see them?” Emma asked.
“My son.” Emma looked past him, through the colored strips. “Are they in there? Did they go into your kitchen?”
The man began to lift his hands in incomprehension. Emma opened the flap on the counter. She ran to the doorway and shoved her way through the strips. Behind them was a steel kitchen, cluttered with pots and piles of plates and smelling of rotting food. No Ritchie. No Antonia.
“What are you doing?” The man was behind her.
Emma turned on him.
“There was a woman.” She struggled to stay calm. “By the window, with my son. Did she take him? Where did they go?”
“Did she leave him on his own?” Emma was shouting now. “Did she take him, or did someone else? You must have seen something, are you blind?”
The man backed away, looking alarmed.
“I didn’t see nobody,” he said. “I don’t know where they go.”
Emma pushed past him, back to the shop. The old man by the wall was peering up at her. His eyes had a bluish film on the front.
“Did you see them?” Emma begged.
The man just gripped his cup. He was more elderly than she’d thought, shaky and vague. She couldn’t tell if he even understood what she was saying.
“Call the police!” she shouted to the man at the counter. “Someone’s taken my child.”
The two men stared at her.
“Call the police!” Emma screamed at them, and ran out into the street.
There was still no sign. She couldn’t even run—she didn’t know which way to go. The street blurred; she was dizzy and sick.
“Ritchie,” she called. “Ritchie.”
Her throat was clicky with fright. She looked up and down again, standing on tiptoe. People everywhere, in coats and scarves and hats, but no one with a baby. Ritchie seemed to have completely vanished. Emma wanted to vomit. She tried to cross the road to the island in the middle, to get a better view of the street on both sides of the café, but there were railings everywhere, blocking her way.
“Ritchie!” she yelled. And then: “Oh God. Please. Somebody help me. My baby’s been kidnapped.”
A man in a baseball cap and jacket was striding towards her on the path.
“Please.” Emma tried to stop him. “Please. I need help.”
The man veered past her and kept going.
“Someone. Please.” Emma was breathless with terror. She had to force herself to stay standing. Her legs were like water. She couldn’t think straight. What should she do? Someone had to help her; she couldn’t, she couldn’t think about anything.
A large middle-aged lady, laden with plastic shopping bags, slowed down to have a look.
“What’s going on here?” the lady asked.
Emma almost threw herself at her.
“Please. Oh, please. Someone’s taken my baby.”
“Who’s taken your baby?”
“The woman, she . . . Did you see them? A woman and a little boy? Did you pass them on your way up here?”
“I don’t . . .” The woman hesitated. Around her, more people were stopping. People were talking, mostly in foreign languages, she couldn’t understand what they were saying. One or two English phrases came through:
“Who’s taken a baby?”
“That thin girl with the torn coat.”
“Is that blood on her face?”
“My child has been kidnapped.” Emma couldn’t believe it. Why were they all just standing there? She grabbed the middle-aged woman by the front of her jumper.
“Call the police!” she yelled at her. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
The woman recoiled, her mouth a rectangle: What have I got myself into? Someone else said in a sharp voice to Emma: “Hey, hey, no need for that.”
Emma let go of the woman. She sprinted down the street in the opposite direction from which the woman had come, trusting her that if she’d seen Ritchie on her way up she’d have said. Her breath sounded thin and whistly. Only a tiny amount of air was coming in each time. Oh God, don’t black out. Oh, please, let her not black out now, there wasn’t time, she had to find him before he got too far away. She was trying to look everywhere at once, at the lighted windows, the darker corners and side roads, straining to see Ritchie’s tufty little head and blue fleece in all the colors and the gloom. Had Antonia’s husband come? Had the two of them bundled Ritchie off together? Did Antonia even have a husband? Or a child? Or was she just some nutter who . . . Oh Jesus.
Maybe Ritchie wasn’t with Antonia at all. Maybe Antonia had got bored, and walked out of the café and left him, and someone else, some person Emma couldn’t even begin to imagine, had seen him there on his own and come in and taken him.
The street disappeared. The road came and went in flashes, like the strobes at a nightclub. Then she was pushing past people, shoving them violently out of her way. She was flying down the street, spinning down side roads at random, then sprinting back up them again. She didn’t know which way she was going, whether she was searching the same places over again or different ones, they all looked the same, the same people and roads and buildings. Had she missed him, gone right past him? Was she flying around in circles, not making any progress at all, while all the time he was getting further and further away?
The flashes were coming faster. She screamed his name all around her, again and again and again.
“Ritchie! Ritchie! Ritchie!”
Then she knelt in the road and shrieked, no words coming out, just sounds. Car horns blared. Through the flashing lights came voices:
“Look at her. She’s not well.”
“Is it drugs?”
Emma’s head was full of noise. There was too much color and movement. She couldn’t cope; everything was coming too fast. She couldn’t think. Too many things to think about. Too urgent. Too much. She fell forward onto her hands. The road rushed at her face.
“Are you all right?” a woman asked.
“Someone call an ambulance.”
They swirled, blurred, and were gone.