Copyright © 2007 Sam Hayes
The right of Sam Hayes to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.
First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2010
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
eISBN : 978 0 7553 7660 5
This Ebook produced by Jouve Digitalisation des Informations
HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP
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Table of Contents
Sam Hayes grew up in the Midlands, and has lived in Australia and America. She lives in a three-hundred-year-old farmhouse in a Leicestershire village with her husband and three children.
For Terry, Ben, Polly and Lucy, with love.
Keep on holding hands.
When I started writing this book it was just me. Now lots of other people are involved, directly and indirectly, and I’d like to thank them most sincerely for making my book a book.
Chris d’Lacey, superstar children’s author, King of Dragons, wonderful friend and best email writer ever – thank you for introductions, for kicking the ball off, for sticking your neck out, for showing me Leicester cafés and inspiring my daughters with your books. Merel Reinink, my cool, calm and totally awesome agent. Thank you for believing in me, for taking risks, for dealing with everything so superbly, for friendship. Without you I’d be spinning in circles. Sherise Hobbs, my editor at Headline, heartfelt thanks for making me feel so welcome, for enlightened editing and more passion and belief in my work than I could ever have hoped for. I truly count myself lucky to be working with you and your dedicated team. And special thanks also to talented and insightful designer Richard Green, who has created the perfect cover for this book. And I’d like to thank everyone at Headline from copyeditors to editorial assistants and beyond. I am stunned by your slickness.
I’d also like to say a special thank you to Emma Dean, beautiful singer and songwriter from Brisbane (www.emmadean.com
), who doesn’t even know that her special music has saved me many times and inspired me to keep writing – oh, and she happens to be my niece. Thanks, Em. You deserve massive success.
Grateful thanks to Angela Witcher, Jennifer Clugston and Dan Leigh for prompt and helpful technical advice on DNA and genetics issues.
Thanks and love in abundance to my own blood ties – my husband Terry and my three children, Ben, Polly and Lucy, for loving the chaos and never letting me give up; my parents, Avril and Graham, for always having faith; Joe and Heidi for inspirational chats outside the back door; and Edward and Emily for their fun.
I’d also like to thank Neil Ayres, a very talented writer, for his e-friendship; Benny Rossi, a truly wonderful woman who is always there when I turn; Stephen Gallagher, who gets more charming each year; and Sandra, for helping dreams come true.
My milk started leaking about thirty seconds after I realised my baby was stolen. Stupidly, I remember worrying that my blouse would be stained with crisp white circles for the afternoon’s duty visit to the in-laws. I’d only stopped at the supermarket to pick up a cake, the kind that looks homemade, in the hope I might con Sheila into thinking it had recently slid steaming from my oven. I’d even got a plate and a doily to put it on. But when I got back to the car – I’d left it for two minutes,
, because the drive had finally put my screaming Natasha to sleep – the car seat in the back was empty. Just a warm indentation where she’d been and an oval of clotted baby sick on the padded cover.
I dropped the cake on the frosted ground and searched the car. Stupid things occurred to me. Had I taken her into the supermarket and left her behind in a trolley? Or perhaps a kind old lady had taken a shine to her rosy cheeks and pouting top lip. Was my baby so precocious that when I found her everyone would marvel at how an eight-week-old infant had got up and walked? Was it possible that Andy had come looking for me, seen my car parked and woken her up for a cuddle? He was allowed. He was her father.
I’m sure I locked the car.
I bumped my head on the roof as I got out, finally acknowledging that Natasha wasn’t in there. Precious seconds. Then my milk started leaking; that burning breast-orgasm when you just have to feed your baby. Except I’d lost mine.
The winter dazzle of a low sun bothered my view as I searched for Natasha’s face bobbing over Andy’s shoulder. I wanted that waterfall of relief as I realised my baby was safe. I wanted to know that what I thought had happened to her hadn’t, that my skewed reality wasn’t real at all. Surprisingly, there weren’t many people around, only an old couple fumbling groceries into their car.
‘Andy,’ I shouted, but it came out as if I had bronchitis. My throat was all stuck together with thick spit and it burned as I panted in the freezing air. I forced myself to focus on every corner of the car park but my eyesight flared and my ears whooshed every time I turned my head. That’s when I turned into an animal.
’ This time my scream came out. A wilderness growl. My feet were apart, fists clenched, shoulders hunched. My neck stiffened and my head lurched forward as I began to run between the cars, screaming my baby’s name. I hurtled up to the old couple, who raised their hands in defence, terrified, I now realise, that I was going to mug them.
‘Have you seen my baby?’ I don’t think they understood my puffing animal-English; didn’t answer if they did. I moved on, instinctively aware that every second counted. I screamed Natasha’s name until my voice caved in. I pinballed off cars until I slipped on the ice and fell down onto the ground.
Then a hand rested on my shoulder, and just as I looked up, just as I focused on the luminous plastic jacket above me, I heard a baby wail.
I leapt to my feet and stood on tiptoe, straining my ears. There was a dog yapping, perhaps left too long in a car, the hum and whine of a forklift as it scooped up palettes of groceries from the back of a delivery truck, the rattle of shopping trolleys as a teenage boy collected them in an out-of-control train from around the frozen car park. My senses were on fire.
Then the baby cry again
Beneath the layers of clatter, I heard a baby wailing, screaming, shrieking for its mother. A baby just like Natasha. It was a circle of pure sound that ripped the inside of my already sore head to shreds. The cry, the wailing, the incessant howling of my baby. I didn’t know which way to turn.
I stepped on a bumper and up onto the bonnet of a blue Ford estate, quite a new model, and I was worried that it would dent. It’s all so clear. I even remember the gloves on the dashboard, the Christmas tree air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror. Then I climbed onto the roof and saw the whole car park and beyond from the top of that car. The slippery metal gave a little under my weight.
‘Miss,’ said the man in the yellow jacket. ‘Calm down, miss.’ His eyes were black and wide and I knew he thought I was a madwoman.
‘Be quiet,’ I begged, desperate to hear the cry again. It had come from the high street end of the car park. I squinted against the shield of sun and after what seemed like ages but was only really a second or two, I saw a figure running.
I saw someone running through the supermarket car park carrying a baby
‘Natasha!’ I yelled again, stupidly, as if she would be able to answer. I jumped directly off the car roof, my left ankle crumbling beneath me, and ran towards the high street. I’m quite tall, but not as tall as being on the top of a car, so following the running person over the heads of all the Saturday shoppers proved nearly impossible. But I was a monster-mother with distilled panic in my eyes and I battled towards the road to get a clear view up and down the street.
I stood, breathless, my leaky breasts heaving up and down beneath my winter coat, sweat prickling the skin on my back. I scanned up and down the high street, and the shops that I’d visited nearly every week of my life suddenly dissolved into discoloured, alien places. The whole town, from that moment on, became completely foreign. I was a lost tourist who didn’t speak the language.
The sight of the same running figure, scarved and hattedup against January, disappearing down Holt’s Alley – a gloved hand cradling the tiny head of a screaming baby – sent me darting between honking cars and down the narrow passage. Looking back, I was about fifteen or twenty seconds behind. Looking back, I didn’t know what I was doing.
Holt’s Alley always smelled of hot chips, beer and piss. There was usually a cluster of teenagers lurking at the far end and 4 January 1992 was no exception. Once or twice, when the gluttonous hunger pangs of pregnancy had got the better of me on a shopping excursion, I furtively ducked down the alley and slid into Al’s Chippy. The resident group of teenagers always had a smart heckle or two, usually about getting fat or didn’t I know that eating too many deep-fried sausages got you up the duff. I would smile politely, not wanting to rile the pack, and go into Al’s to gorge myself, feeling as guilty as a pregnant mother caught smoking. It was only chips. But as I’d done everything right for that baby,
everything, I figured that hot chips and the smell of piss as I passed by wouldn’t hurt.
I barged into the group of lolling adolescents, knocking a can of Pepsi from one of them.
‘Have any of you seen a baby? Someone running?’ I spat as I spoke, panting, not caring. ‘Just now. Someone running down here?’ I leaned forward, hands on the knees of my elastic-waisted black velveteen trousers, the only half-smart thing I could fit into for my afternoon with Sheila.
. My baby’s been taken.’
They were all spots and bravado. I don’t blame them. One of them at least made a statement a couple of weeks later, after seeing the police posters. I ran on. Street after street.
The running figure had disappeared. Natasha, too.
On the walk back to the car park, I convinced myself Natasha would be safely strapped in her car seat. I’d obviously missed her in a new-mother panic. Baby blindness, a syndrome I’d not heard of before. Then I found a white baby bootee lying in the middle of the road. It looked hand-knitted. I picked it up.
‘It could be Tash’s bootee,’ I said to myself, thinking of all the knitting Sheila had done for my baby. I took it as a good omen that I had found an item of baby clothing. Someone had sent me a sign, except I was too stupid to realise exactly what the sign meant.
Happy birthday, sweetheart. My little Tash is a teenager . . .
I can’t write that to her. It sounds as if she’s still a baby. I screw up the letter and begin again. To me, she still is a baby.