Claire jogged through the shopping centre. The sign for the toilets taunted her in the distance. Since she’d had the baby, time had begun playing tricks on her. So many hours to fill, yet never a free minute to get to the loo. Molly’s pram was slowing her down. It was enormous, the latest thing in baby safety, but it was like manoeuvring a tank.
A note on the family toilet door proclaimed it ‘Out of order’. She kept going towards the ladies’, issuing a stream of apologies as she went. The door to the disabled toilet was no more welcoming. That too presented a sticker barring entry for some undefined fault. Claire tensed her stomach, knowing there was no way the pram would fit into a standard cubicle, equally certain that she didn’t have time to get Molly into the baby harness.
‘Excuse me, the pram won’t fit,’ she told an older lady who was washing her hands. ‘Couldyou watch my baby a moment?’
‘Of course,’ the woman smiled sweetly into the pram. ‘We’ll be fine, won’t we?’ she cooed at Molly. ‘Thank you,’ Claire said, already inside the cubicle, fiddling with an uncooperative bolt. New voices echoed within the tiled enclosure, girls talking a million miles an hour about lipstick. Claire gave silent thanks for having averted one more crisis in a normal day of parenting a three month old, then made her way back out of the cubicle. She peered through the preening girls, reaching for the taps, looking left and right to check on Molly. Standing still, soap dripping off her hands, she double-checked the view. The pram had been just a few doors down. She stepped back, treading on a girl’s toes, saying sorry as the girl responded with a word she hoped Molly wouldn't know at such a young age. ‘Molly?’ she called, feeling stupid instantly. Her daughter was hardly going to recognise her name, let alone answer. ‘Have you seen an old woman with a pram?’ she asked the girls. ‘She was right here two minutes ago.’
The girls stared as if she was mad, shaking their heads and clearing out in a gaggle. There were tears on her cheeks as she caught her face in the mirror. Clutching her stomach, her heart no quieter than a stampede, she saw a yellow note stuck on the counter just below the wash basin where she’d been standing.
‘Your baby is at lost property,’ the paper said. Claire grabbed it, thinking it couldn’t possibly be for her, knowing it couldn’t be for anyone else. Why had she left Molly with a stranger? Surely her own needs could never have outweighed her daughter’s safety. How was she going to explain it to her husband, and why wasn’t she already moving? She grabbed her handbag, breaking into a sprint, fighting the growing nausea inside and grateful beyond belief that she already knew where lost property was located. One floor down on the escalator and Claire was there, glancing over shoulders and heads to catch a glimpse of the pram. ‘Excuse me…’ Claire said. ‘I’m just helping someone else, madam, could you wait please?’ a suited, heavily made-up woman responded without looking at her. ‘I was told my baby was in lost property. Have you seen a baby? A little girl? Three months old.’ The lost property official glared at her as if she was insane. Claire lowered her eyes, aware that she wasn’t getting enough oxygen and that she didn’t have the luxury of sitting down. The note was hanging precariously from the bottom edge of the lost property sign. For a second, Claire wondered if she was hallucinating. Reaching out a shaking hand, she touched the yellow square, the printing upon it blurring as she tried to read. It took three attempts before the words made sense. ‘A baby is not “property”. Go to security.’ ‘Where’s security?’ Claire blurted. ‘I’m sorry, I have asked you to…’ ‘My baby’s missing,’ she yelled, banging a hand on the desk. ‘Just tell me where the security office is and I’ll go away!’ ‘Two floors up, next to the cafe,’ the woman said. ‘And there is a policy about abusive behaviour towards employees, you know.’ She was already gone, dashing for the lifts, mobile in hand, wondering if she should phone her husband straight away. Right now, he was on a train to London. Short of terrifying him, there was absolutely nothing he could do to help. She was alone. By the time she’d exited the lift and scrambled to security, her eye-makeup had formed tree root patterns down her cheeks and the only sounds she could make were sobs. ‘My baby,’ she ranted. ‘Baby’s gone. Molly. From the toilets downstairs. Please help.’ ‘All right, try to calm down a bit love. We handle twenty lost children a day. Haven’t lost one yet for more than half an hour. Give me a description.’ The security officer opened a notebook with infuriating slowness. ‘Molly’s only three months old. She didn’t go anywhere. Someone took her,’ Claire shrieked. ‘Someone walked off with your baby? Which shop were you in at the time?’ he asked. ‘I was in the ladies toilets. I asked this woman to look after her and she seemed nice, so I went into the cubicle and now she’s gone. Can’t you, I don’t know, lock down all the exits or something? You can’t let her leave!’ ‘Well, that’s an unusual scenario, that is. Can you describe the woman you left your baby with?’ Claire tried to recall the details. Her mind was blank. ‘She was older, maybe, I’m not sure, over sixty. Wearing a coat, I think. And a hat. Not sure what colours. I can’t really…’ ‘The baby, then. Can you give me a good description of the baby?’ ‘Um, grey pram, her name’s Molly, some empty shopping bags in the net underneath.’ ‘That’s not hugely helpful if you don’t mind my saying, Miss. We’ll need more than that or we’ll end up stopping every older lady and every pram in the building.’ ‘I didn’t pay attention, all right? I was desperate. I just need you to find her! Please, please do something. This is useless!’ Claire ran from the security office, dashing into shop after shop, racing towards prams, staring at tiny faces, the traitorous minutes both dragging and racing. A hand on her shoulder halted her progress. Molly closed her eyes with relief at the sight of the police uniforms. ‘Oh, thank you, it’s been fifteen minutes and I can’t see her anywhere. Have you found the woman?’ ‘We’re here to talk to you, ma’am,’ the officer said. ‘We’ve had reports that a baby has been abandoned in the ladies’ toilet. Can I ask you to confirm your name?’ ‘I didn’t abandon Molly, she was taken. I looked everywhere. There were these notes…’ Claire saw the folded arms, the unsympathetic looks, and she ran, dashing down escalators, racing through the crowds, holding her breath until she burst into the toilets. There Molly was, giggling happily at a police woman, still tucked cosily into her pram. Fine. Absolutely fine. Claire ripped open the belt clips, clutching Molly against her chest, burying her face in the baby’s hair. ‘You can’t just go off shopping and leave your baby, ma’am. It’s not safe,’ the WPC said. ‘There were notes,’ Claire said. ‘The other toilets were out of use, and this old lady stole her…’ She looked around. The disabled toilet door was open, obviously operational. Back up the corridor, the family toilet was noisy with a group inside. The WPC raised her eyebrows. ‘We won’t take your details on this occasion, but please be aware that we take these matters very seriously. It’s a good job we located you as quickly as we did, or we’d have had to call social services.’ An hour later, Claire collapsed onto her couch at home. Molly was unharmed, that was all that mattered. Perhaps she’d overreacted, perhaps the old lady had simply become confused. Molly wriggled on her lap. With still shaking hands, Claire undid the baby’s coat to remove her babygrow, gasping as the slip of yellow paper fell from Molly’s back. Picking it up with thumb and forefinger, Claire grimaced as if it were poison. ‘That was entertaining,’ the note said. ‘See you again?’