I was in the head’s office. Someone had put a jacket around my shoulder but I was still shaking. The teaching assistant sat on another chair looking pale and upset. I didn’t have any room to feel sympathy for her. I didn’t have any room for anything except fear and panic. My arms were aching for the feel of my little girl held close to my body.
My first instinct had been to run out of the school. I had turned and started towards the door and then the girl had shouted, “Wait, wait. Where are you going?”
I didn’t have an answer for her. I couldn’t go home, not without my daughter. I couldn’t run to where John White lived it was too far and I couldn’t just run into the streets and run and run screaming her name. That is what I wanted to do. That is what I still wanted to do but they had brought me here and made me wait and someone had held my hand and someone else told me it was all going to be alright. It was just a misunderstanding. They were sure that my friend would come back when he found I wasn’t at home.
They told me to ring him. I rang him. Of course, there was no answer. I rang him again and again. There was no answer. I could tell that they didn’t really understand. The teaching assistant was upset because she had broken the rules. I suppose she was worried about her job. The others though did not have any idea why I was so panicked. The headmistress insisted on calling John ‘my mother’s friend’. I couldn’t blame her because it was what everyone thought. I couldn’t explain it because my thoughts wouldn’t settle long enough for me to have the conversation. I pulled the card from my jean’s pocket and rang the detective, Lily. I got her answering service. All I could manage was, “Ring me, please. It’s urgent.”
And then she was there. Her arms were around me and she was stroking my hair away from my face and rocking me back and forth as if I was her baby.
“Hush now, girl,” Frances said. “Hush now. It’s all going to be fine. Everything is fine.”
I shook my head and sobbed out a sort of story to her and because she knew something of what I was talking about she saw and understood.
“Okay. Have the police been called?” She asked, her voice urgent but calm.
I nodded. “I’ve got this number. It’s complicated; it’s the detective. But she’s not answering.”
“Well, we’ll just call them again.” And she did. She called the local station and they reacted immediately. The headmistress had tried to interfere and stop Frances from ‘causing a fuss’. She didn’t want police cars in the playground and officers in the street. “It’s not as if the child is missing,” she said. “You know who she is with.”
“Mrs Belfast,” Frances said, “Just keep out of this. Excuse me, but in this case, you really don’t know what’s happening.”
If it hadn’t been such a terrible situation I think the round-eyed, shock on the face of the prissy woman might have been funny. As it was she just gasped and tutted and shepherded people away, all the time barking instructions about keeping things calm, just carrying on, and not causing alarm. I was only vaguely aware of it all swirling around me. I clung to Frances. She was my anchor and the only steady thing in a world of shifting dread and fear.
The school was quiet now. Most of the children had gone home. There was an after-school club in the dining hall but all we could hear was a subdued hum and the occasional burst of laughter. The police arrived and I was able to give them a rundown of the situation. It was difficult to fit it all in and they kept making me stop and go back and repeat things. I didn’t blame them; it was all so very complicated. Finally, after what seemed hours Detectives Palmer and Griffiths were in the room. They ushered everyone else out but I wouldn’t let them send Frances away.
“Right. What we’ve done,” Lily started. “We’ve requested CCTV for all the roads around the school. We’ve initiated a Child Alert. Do you know what that is?”
I shook my head.
“It’s like the Amber Alert system in America. Your little girl’s name is everywhere and people all over the place will be watching out for her. We’ve been able to do this because of the history. But, that’s not all we’ve done. There are dozens of police officers are looking for her and we’ll find her. We will.”
I was overwhelmed. Everything was unreal. I could not believe that this had happened. This happened to other people. I wanted my mum and I wanted my child.